Malcolm Rivers concluded his article in the December issue (“The Protest”) with a reproach to today’s Black Lives Matter supporters to “love the way Jesus loved if we’re ever to find ways to overcome human malice and frailty. . . . Love is the way to win.” While Rivers’s sentiment is admirable, the demand to love more and better feels in some ways inadequate. It is beyond my competence to lecture Rivers about the validity or lack thereof of black rage; but surely there is a place for more than just “love” in successful political action?
Love is an excellent means to heal injustice, but it is not clear that it is adequate to uproot injustice. Christ, after all, did not face the moneychangers in the temple courts with meekness and acceptance; his fury was righteous, and his anger rectified injustice. One might retort that Christ acted there out of love. But for us men, the word “love” cannot be all things in all times. If we are to promote it as a political principle, it must tell us something about our tactics rather than promoting every possible choice as valid.
I am (as are, I imagine, many readers of this journal) an ardent supporter of the pro-life cause. A culture of life cannot be produced without love—without care for children, and for the women who are forced into the positions that cause them to consider abortion in the first place. But at the same time, a culture of life cannot be achieved without some element of righteous anger—at the injustices that create the conditions for abortion, at the abortionists who perpetrate it, and at the organizations which profit from it.
I would challenge Rivers to reconsider his reconsideration, and to ask how a successful politics is produced only from love. We can be angry for bad reasons; we can be angry in an echo chamber, as it sounds like he was; but rectifying societal injustices requires us, sometimes, to use our anger in places where love may not be wholly adequate.
Malcolm Rivers responds:
First of all, I thank Charles Lehman for his response; I appreciate the opportunity to engage, especially with thoughtful critiques.
I agree that love should be supplemented by action, and even righteous anger, to achieve certain goals. However, love is immeasurably more important than the rest and a psychological, strategic, and philosophical force multiplier on an enormous scale. If I love my adversaries, I can better understand them and their motivations and use that knowledge to overcome their hate.
It is all too easy to see anyone who obstructs or attacks us in the simplest terms, and much of the cultural gridlock we see today stems directly from that perception. Love allows us to see more clearly the commonalities, the differences, and the points of pain and anger that we can use to create the common ground from which healthy dialogue can blossom. Because, as hard as it can be to stomach, oppressors are people too: fully human and containing all the complexity and contradiction that we do. In many cases, it is only their blindness to others’ full humanity that facilitates their misdeeds. When those they oppress surprise them by recognizing their full humanity, the hatred becomes much more difficult to maintain. There is a great example of this in the life of former white supremacist Derek Black.
History has repeatedly shown us that love is a strategic imperative in uprooting injustice because it allows us to see adversaries clearly and find their weaknesses. The example of the Southern civil rights movement is instructive. It is only because the boycotters and other activists understood their adversaries that they could overcome tremendous odds so cleverly. Given how badly they were outnumbered and outgunned, anything but love would have served them terribly—as the fates of many elements of the more militant Black Power movement can attest. Love made them able to see their racist adversaries and the people of the nation at large as full human beings—and to reach out and appeal to their humanity.
My point in “The Protest” wasn’t to oversimplify complex issues or to suggest that love alone is the most effectual response to oppression. Our student groups, and Black Lives Matter by extension, were missing the key ingredient of love that made all the righteous anger, action, and other elements useful. I sought to examine how ineffectual any loveless strategy is because, without love, one overcomes the bad guy only to take up his role. Love helps us see that “our struggle is not against flesh and blood . . .” and, therefore, love must be the core of any attempt to change the minds and hearts of others.
In Katherine Kersten’s essay “Transgender Conformity” (December 2016), she asks, “Will transgender ideology’s disconnect from reality render it unsustainable over time?” Her answer indicates there is hope, first, because the very complexity of mainstreaming the transgender project makes it ultimately unsustainable, and, second, because the transgender crusade wil ultimately clash with feminists who have rejected a concept of the feminine that is defined by the traits that transgendered men seem to embrace.
Regarding the first instance, transgenderism will necessarily come to an end, as all lies eventually drown in their own contradictions. Unfortunately, lies embraced by a significant portion of a given culture’s population tend to end catastrophically. By nature, a lie is something absent posing as something present. The transgender movement and its supporters succumb on two levels. In accepting the transgender premise, we replace an authentic, material sexuality with a fantasy of the mind. A real something is truly replaced with nothing.
On another level, the many non-transgendered who support transgenderism consider themselves enlightened in doing so. Their concept of their own goodness hinges on the perpetuation of a fantasy. Ultimately, the absence of the emperor’s clothes becomes apparent, but, contrary to the fable, those vested in the illusion seldom consider the dis-illusion an opportunity to laugh at themselves. Their own lives have become an illusion behind which emptiness hides; the real goodness that would encourage amused self-reflection is long gone, and the moral compass required to return home no longer exists. In such circumstances, hope for a benign ending is probably unrealistic.
The second instance, that radical feminism will reject the “female” of the transgendered male, is the false hope of one who expects an arsonist to extinguish one’s burning house. Lies require no consistency. Both the radical feminist and the transgendered have bought into the same falsehood, that reality is theirs to shape as they see fit. Radical feminism, founded on the rejected humanity of those in the womb, could not attack transgenderism without attacking itself. Arrayed against truth, lies coexist quite comfortably.
The question we must ask is why so many people, in numbers exponentially beyond transgenderism’s actual practitioners, accept as real an obvious fantasy. The answer is in seeing the transgender aberration as a single branch on a larger tree whose other branches are abortion, same-sex marriage, and the many other pathologies of corrupted sexuality. The tree from which these branches grow is rooted in the separation of the unitive and procreative natures of the conjugal act. Sexuality divorced from its natural procreative end destroys the meaning of “male” and “female.” Separated from the biological reality of a child, any definition of male or female is as good as any other. Sex itself becomes a lie. Pope Paul VI knew this when he wrote Humanae Vitae in 1968, as Pope Pius XI knew it when he wrote Casti Connubii in 1930, as all of Christendom knew it before then.
Transgenderism will end. But we must repudiate the falsehood integrated into our lives and from which it grew, or we will go down with it. The enemy is ourselves. Only in recapturing authentic sexuality, in reconnecting the unitive and procreative, can we begin to hope that its corrupted aberrations will end with a sigh rather than the agonized cry of man facing his own abolition.
olean, new york
Katherine Kersten responds:
I thank Pete Jermann for his comments. We agree on many points.
We both believe, for example, that the transgender ideological project will ultimately fail. Jermann suggests, however, that I see reason to hope that it will end benignly. In fact, in my article I conclude that as “we enter the world of fantasy—when reality ceases to matter—it is impossible to predict where our society will crash against nature, as it inevitably will.”
Jermann takes issue with my suggestion that the transgender crusade may provoke a counterattack from feminist theorists. Logically, feminists should disagree with the claim that what defines a female is an interest in stereotypical activities such as playing with dolls or painting nails. In fact, feminist pushback on this front is already taking place, as exemplified by radical feminist Sheila Jeffrey’s 2014 book, Gender Hurts: A Feminist Analysis of the Politics of Transgenderism. Yet Jermann is correct that feminist theorists will not be compelled by logic. “Lies require no consistency,” as he puts it. Sadly, the majority of feminist thinkers and activists may turn a blind eye to the inconsistencies that define the transgender movement.
I agree with Jermann’s statement that the transgender movement is one of many manifestations of our society’s deeply flawed understanding of human sexuality. “Sexuality divorced from its natural procreative end destroys the meaning of ‘male’ and ‘female,’” as he says. Today, America is discovering how far-reaching—and destructive—the consequences of this notion are.
To add an image to Professor Robert P. George’s reflections on the intimate union of the “body-self ” in his typically thought-provoking article “Gnostic Liberalism” (December 2016), I share the Pauline “body of Christ.” This image is applied to the Eucharist (1 Cor. 10:16) and to the Church (Col. 1:18). We the members of the Church are members of Christ’s own body, manifested by the breaking of the one bread. Of course Christ himself identified the Eucharistic bread with his body when he said on the night he was betrayed: “This is my body which is for you” (1 Cor. 11:24). Ephesians 5:21–32 beautifully employs marriage as the very picture of Christ’s intimate union with his Church.
There is also in St. Paul the understanding that Jesus Christ “will change our lowly body to be like his glorious body” (Phil. 3:21). In the resurrection of the dead we will indeed have our bodies, but they will be transformed from the earthly to the heavenly. An analogy may be made with the Eucharist, where the fruit of the earth is transformed into the bread come down from heaven.
An analogy may also be made with the Catholic and Orthodox doctrine of the Assumption (Dormition) of Mary. Her glorified body gives us a glimpse of what will become of all the redeemed, when our earthly bodies are transformed into the heavenly. Various Marian apparitions are privately revealed illustrations of the fact that we really will hold onto our bodies, though glorified, in eternal life. Our Lady of Guadalupe appeared as a very real and very beautiful Native American mother pregnant with new life.
Reverend D. Bruce Nieli, CSP
Charles Colson contributed to a trend among Evangelicals (in How Now Shall We Live?) to use a gambit of tenuous validity. Start with Genesis 1. Argue from creation science to the Resurrection of Jesus. He had it backwards. The Catholic mirror image of this is constructed by Robert P. George. His conclusions are morally and metaphysically laudable; his syllogisms are glib. George seems to assert that consciousness and matter are one substance, which indicates monism. Oxford professor Daniel N. Robinson admits that we don’t know much more about the mind-body problem than did Aristotle. Herman Melville (in Billy Budd) asserted that we have advanced on this problem no more than the Hebrew prophets.
George states that to assign a matter of degree to personhood, rather than a status of one or zero, is absurd. I hope so, but George has not proved this. His assertion that “We are, at every moment of our existence as human beings, bodily selves and personal bodies” is not scriptural. Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you (Jer. 1:5).
If, as George asserts, my body is half of me, the other half being incorporeal, why wouldn’t I legally have more right to mutilate it? Why doesn’t George mention body piercing and tattoos?
Finally, it is facile for philosophers to invoke common sense, a heuristic which informs us that the earth is flat, the sun orbits the earth, and other such now-discredited notions.
I have a bone to pick with a popular narrative of the corruption of the modern mind. I’ve heard it repeated again and again that contemporary Western culture suffers from Gnosticism. This tendency is evidenced, it is said, in our views about sex and technology. According to the neo-Gnostic narrative, our obsession with mastering nature for our own use and with reshaping ourselves sexually betrays a conviction that the physical is evil and must be overcome by the mind. But as someone who was born and bred in the culture we are accusing, I have never found Gnosticism to capture the moods, words, and actions that I encounter daily in my earthly pilgrimage.
In his article in December’s issue, Robert P. George articulated well the eclipse of a hylomorphic view of human nature. The modern mind finds it difficult to grasp how the body and soul could form a kind of unity. This is well evidenced by the obsession with affective and voluntarist models of identity. We do indeed regard the body as an instrument of the creative mind, which is the very locus and proof of existence. This orientation appears not only in the rising tide of transgender ideology, but also in the massive proliferation of contraception.
So my gripe is not with dualism per se, but with the simple equation of Gnosticism and dualism. The so-called “neo-pagan” culture that reared me, with all its dogmas, has never quite seemed to muster the passion to hate the material world or to fanatically pursue the spiritual. While our actions (gender reassignment and contraception) exhibit an antagonism between the human will and nature, our speech often romanticizes the physical. The sexual ethics of my childhood and adolescence repeatedly counseled that I love and accept my body; that I understand that my soul becomes sick when my pleasure is not nourished. The Food Network, and the prevailing culture of urban young adulthood, taught me to treat coffee, ethnic foods, and cocktails as well nigh sacramental. We hardly despise the body. Indeed, transgenderism does not claim that the soul, a prisoner in the body, should seek to rid itself of physicality. Rather, in order for inner peace to be achieved, we must create the body we want.
We should remember that the Gnostics did not all follow an ascetic path. An aristocracy ruled and taught. Those of the lower castes gave themselves up to pleasure with abandon, recognizing that spirits of the lowest estate could not successfully war against the flesh. We may be inclining ever more toward a socially acceptable libertinism, but it is structured and defended by a conviction that pleasure is the means to happiness. Additionally, any aristocratic notions of higher souls are vehemently ruled out. Celibacy is perceived as unnatural, repressive, and a sign of inward darkness. Those who practice it are under suspicion of strange ulterior motives and even accused of a pretentious refusal to inhabit the workaday world like the rest of us.
Examining the state of things, I find the Nietzschean prophecy of the last man far more salient. The last man does not lift up the example of the saint or ascetic. He does not put himself through trials of endurance. He does not actively negate the world by means of his religious genius. Rather, he has created happiness for himself. He craves tranquility, silence, and a benign view of human nature. Moralistic and therapeutic in his outlook, he believes in no hierarchy of perfection.
Forgetfulness is the true affliction of the last man. Though he may live in the shadow of the image of God, he has become a lotus-eater, his mind and will clouded by pleasures and pleasantries. He does not need to hear the prophet’s message, for he has created his own happiness.
Without totally rejecting the accusations of Gnosticism, I must reiterate that on an intuitive level, it has never struck me as cutting to the core of the modern condition. Repellent as Gnostic belief and practice may be, it at least bespeaks the ancient obsession with salvation and purification. I see precious little of that in my world. Instead, I see a confused carnality.
The tragedy is not that we have utterly divorced the mental and the physical, but that we are constantly seeking a renewal of the mind through a neurotic obsession with altering the body. If the drama of the pagan life unfolds between hubris and resignation and the Jew lives in fear and trembling of the living God, the last man exists between terrible anxiety and sublime neutrality. He lives under the imperatives that he must enjoy, and to enjoy he must fix himself. And to my eyes, the man in question does not map nicely onto any ancient or medieval type. Form is exactly what he lacks.
Robert P. George responds:
I am grateful to Fr. D. Bruce Nieli for his thoughtful reflection on the theological significance, from the Catholic and Orthodox Christian points of view, of human embodiment in relation to such doctrines as the resurrection and glorification of the body, the “marriage” of Christ and the Church, Christ’s presence in the Holy Eucharist, and the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
I have read and reread Ryan Amptmeyer’s letter, but can’t follow much of what he’s trying to say. One statement was clear, though. He claims, “George asserts [that] my body is half of me, the other half being incorporeal.” But I asserted no such thing. I don’t even know what it would mean to claim that human beings are “half” bodily and “half” incorporeal. Perhaps the rest of what he is saying is difficult to follow because it is rooted in that misunderstanding of my view. But since he wants to know what I think about piercings and tattoos, I’ll take the opportunity to say I’m against them. I make an exception, though, for pierced ears for ladies—one piercing per ear (or, at a stretch, two). I also make an exception for pirates. They may have one piercing (only) in one ear (only), but must wear a large hoop, never a stud earring or some dangly thing. On tattoos, I make an exception for sailors—and sailors alone. They may have them on their forearms. Acceptable images are anchors and girls in hula skirts. (The girls may be topless, so long as the image includes a lei strategically placed to preserve modesty.)
Patrick Jones makes some excellent points. Social liberal ideology is like Gnosticism in its reliance (which is usually implicit) on one form or another of person-body (or self-body) dualism; but dualism is only one feature of Gnosticism (albeit a very important one). Moreover, some ancient Gnostics, in what Jones rightly describes as their “obsession with salvation and purification,” followed a path that, while erroneous, is unlike—and superior to—the hedonism of many contemporary neo-Gnostic dualists.
Dr. Lydia Dugdale’s essay “Healing the Dying” (December 2016) beautifully defines healing in terms of physical, spiritual, moral, and mental restoration. I could not agree more. As a retired critical care physician, I frequently worked with patients near death. At some point the treatments intended for cure needed to transform into acts of healing based on comfort and compassion. Being a doctor, even in less extreme cases, demands a firm understanding of the spiritual, moral, and mental states of the patient and not merely the physical condition.
Recently, a medical student confided in me that a fellow classmate, feeling lost, wanted help to assess a patient’s spiritual history. This student had no awareness of how the spiritual assessment could be an integral part of the patient’s restoration, not because of a lack of education, but mostly from a lack of a personal spiritual or religious experience. How does one go about instructing students on the importance of spirituality, especially in patients near death, if they have never experienced a spiritual life?
In our secular society, with its decreasing reliance on faith, I fear this inability to connect with patients on one or more of the levels described by Dugdale will prove progressively more troublesome. Perhaps this student’s predicament is an isolated case or related to poor instruction. I suspect it is more likely to betoken a growing deficit among medical professionals, one worthy of a proper diagnosis. Spiritual poverty comes to mind.
Lydia Dugdale responds:
Medical students are professionalized, but they are not formed. What this means is that a specific set of behaviors and beliefs, together with a clearly defined body of knowledge, are held as the profession’s standard. Any student who deviates too widely from this professional standard is reined in. Thus the transformation of a person from first-year medical student to licensed physician is impressed upon him or her. It is from without, not within.
Religion doesn’t work like this. The Christian, for example, grows in faith through the transforming and renewing of the mind. It is through an internal transformation that the Christian comes to discern what is the good, pleasing, and perfect will of God. It is not through the external imposition of Christian standards. Although some might argue that this is what happened during dark parts of Christianity’s history, believers today would easily admit that such coercion fails to be transformative. No one can force love of God and neighbor.
Dr. Peter Rosario asks how to instruct spiritually inexperienced students on the importance of a spiritual life. There are many ways that medical schools are giving this instruction—through cultural competency training, bioethics courses, humanities in medicine lectures, and the creation of programs on medicine and religion. But my sense is that Rosario is asking a deeper question. He wants to know not how to professionalize students with regard to taking a patient’s spiritual history. He wants to know how to form students spiritually—how they might be transformed from within.
The best example, to my knowledge, of the spiritual formation of medical students comes from the Physician’s Vocation Program at Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine. Students self-select to participate in a four-year formation experience coterminous with their medical studies. The program aims to cultivate the sense that medicine is a calling, and it integrates aspects of religious formation—prayer, self-reflection, community, service, and education—into the formation of medical students. Students are introduced to Ignatian spirituality, participate in spiritual direction with a personal director, and discuss topics including vocation, embodiment, suffering, theodicy, time, grace, sin, and resurrection—all within the context of health care. The students also participate in a two-week palliative care elective that is accompanied by pre-reading and daily reflection and journaling. Overall, the program seeks to help students know themselves as broken people loved by God who are being called to serve other broken people loved by God through the practice of medicine.
Rosario asks for the proper diagnosis. But I think he provides it. Diagnosis is always the easy part. Therapy is difficult.
Lydia S. Dugdale
new haven, connecticut
I was happy to see Benjamin Myers consider, albeit briefly, Robert Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays” in his article about the defects of sentimentality (“The Sentimentality Trap,” November 2016). Myers calls the poem “a portrait of an emotionally distant father,” which it most certainly is; but your readers might enjoy a bit more analysis than Myers had time for in his essay, particularly of the details that make the poem a beautiful meditation on the sacrificial and sacramental qualities of fatherhood.
Myers quotes the poem’s abrupt opening lines: “Sundays too my father got up early / and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold.” This start gives the impression that the reader is late to a listing of the father’s habits or routines, as if every day the father was up early to make “banked fires blaze.” So why does Hayden choose Sunday? Because it should be a day of rest, particularly for the hard-working father who has “cracked hands that ached / from labor in the weekday weather.” And the choice of days is important because the father is preparing to bring his family to church, a fact we know only through the subtle detail that the father “polished my good shoes as well.” The son makes clear that these efforts are not exactly appreciated: “No one ever thanked him,” and the son describes himself “speaking indifferently to him.”
Hayden elevates this routine in the poem’s haunting last lines: “What did I know, what did I know / of love’s austere and lonely offices?” Students tend to stumble on that last word. They invariably assume it is a metaphor for the house as a place of work, which is in keeping with the idea that the father never really escapes from duty. There’s some truth to that. There is also the less familiar sense of office as a duty performed for someone—that, too, works in this context. But of course office may also refer to the divine office prayed by the clergy. That understanding turns the father’s sacrifice for his family into something transcendent and holy. He’s not Christ-like, necessarily, but his labor becomes a prayer, a devotion to both his family and, implicitly, to God, as he’s preparing his family to worship. The speaker understands this significance only in retrospect, perhaps when it’s too late to thank his father for the offices, or to apologize for his indifference.
I hope it’s not too utilitarian for the pages of this magazine to say that the poem has helped me understand fatherhood differently, to more deeply appreciate my own parents’ sacrifices, and to have greater patience and faith with my own austere and lonely offices.
Christopher J. Scalia