We’ve started a reading group here in the office, and in early June we sat down to discuss Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Love Alone Is Credible. Published during the Second Vatican Council, this little book serves as a précis for Balthasar’s multi-volume project, The Glory of the Lord, a remarkable combination of systematic theology, metaphysics, and literary meditation. These days, Pope Francis is kicking up a lot of dust, pushing for a “pastoral” outlook that seems to play fast and loose with doctrine, or at least with settled assumptions about core Catholic teaching regarding things like divorce and remarriage. I found it useful to reread Balthasar.
There have been two basic approaches to illuminating the truth of Christ, argues Balthasar. The first held sway in the early Church and for many centuries thereafter. It frames God’s revelation cosmologically, showing how the Word made flesh affirms, corrects, and completes the sparks of divine truth that are latent in creation, often expressed by pagan religions and philosophies in partial ways. “The Christian message could thus be made credible, both because it unified what was fragmented and also because it ransomed what was held captive by converting what was perverted.” This approach was made possible by a comprehensive world picture, one that views reality against a vivid metaphysical horizon. Balthasar calls this approach “the cosmological reduction.”
He subscribes to the broad consensus that the Reformation and Renaissance triggered an intellectual revolution in the West. The cosmological frame of reference lost its grip, and the human person became the focal point. This led to a new approach to Christianity’s truth, one that emphasizes the way in which Christ fulfills inchoate human desires. This has precedent in the Christian tradition. Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in God, Augustine wrote. But the subjective turn becomes more systematic in the modern era; to show the truth of Christ, Christian apologists adopt the rhetoric of inwardness. This approach he terms “the anthropological reduction.”
Balthasar worries that the anthropological reduction can lead to “modernism.” This technical theological term was developed in the early twentieth century to describe the assessment of all theological truths by subjective criteria. “The central proposition of modernism, in a nutshell, is that every objective dogmatic proposition must be measured in terms of its suitability to the religious subject.” But the reality of sin fundamentally distorts our ability to determine what is truly “suitable” for us. More important, God’s offer of friendship with man in Christ is an astonishing possibility, one that transcends anything we can anticipate or expect.
The cosmological reduction evokes Balthasar’s suspicion, as well. It relies on a metaphysical imagination that is no longer vigorous and culturally salient. As a consequence, for most people, the experience of “objective truth” shrivels. The authority of truth becomes increasingly formal. We turn to experts for assurance. Scientific truths are not “seen” by laymen; they are accepted on the authority of specialists. Catholic dogmatic theology too often follows this trend, Balthasar maintains. I think he is correct. Many strands of scholastic theology of the sort Balthasar encountered as a young man show the truth of revelation by demonstrating the reliable authority of the Church’s teaching office. This tends to displace what was once a flexible, multidimensional metaphysical exposition of Christ’s truth.
Balthasar was a brilliant theological impressionist, able to expound fundamental themes in broad and bold strokes. In this instance, he evokes the two reductions—cosmological and anthropological—to set the stage for his own proposal, “the third way of love.” This brings us to see the truth of Christ in a fashion that is at once more objective and more subjective.
Balthasar makes two analogies, one personal and the other artistic. Strictly speaking, love has no reason and purpose beyond itself. Yet love has the power to transfix and enslave. Love is entirely unanticipated and uncontrollable—we can neither expect nor manipulate true love—and at the same time it is precious and inwardly transformative. Balthasar sees a similar pattern at work in great art. As a Mozart symphony moves toward conclusion, we relish the free flow of the music, which moves in unanticipated directions. Yet, once finished, the piece has an arresting completeness.
In these two analogies (the latter of which he develops at length in The Glory of the Lord), we see the conjunction of the necessary and the particular. This seems paradoxical. We usually think of necessity as requiring universality. Something is necessary if and only if it is always the case. But the analogies of love and art are meant to show that things are not so simple. Love drives toward necessity, which we express when we say, “You and I were made for each other.” In the Mozart symphony, every note feels necessary.
The Incarnation, of course, is not an analogy. God’s revelation in Christ has a sheer thatness, a particularity that can never be framed, explained, or reduced to a cosmological or anthropological role or meaning. There is, writes Balthasar, an “abiding shock” in any encounter with God’s love. And yet there is no contingency or arbitrariness in the particularity of Christ. To know him is to enter into the fullness of his truth, which illuminates everything with the light of divine love. This is why the cosmological and anthropological reductions, however inadequate in themselves, ring true.
Balthasar was one of a number of younger theologians who came of age in the mid-century Church and went on to exercise great influence. Joseph Ratzinger was another. They judged the Catholicism they inherited as downplaying the “abiding shock” of the Word made flesh. There’s no doubt that Pope Francis continues in this tradition. He attacks ecclesiastical complacency and spiritual hypocrisy. Many of his actions are meant to manifest the ways of discipleship, which contradict the ways of the world.
But there is an important difference. One of the major strands of the Second Vatican Council is to be found in the theme of ressourcement, or “return to the sources.” Balthasar, Ratzinger, and others encouraged this approach. This did not call for traditionalism, but instead ressourcement sought to re-saturate the Catholic Church with the language, rituals, and reflection that draw us into an encounter with the “abiding shock” of Christ. By this way of thinking, the formalism of modern Catholicism—the emphasis on the authority to teach the truth of revelation rather than revelation itself—had made the Church’s witness thin, insubstantial, and “spiritual” in the bad sense of lacking supernatural density and concreteness. For this reason, one finds massive piles of prose in Balthasar’s work. It is as if he seeks to renew the faith of the Church almost single-handedly, narrating at great length the witness of her theologians, artists, authors, and saints. (Karl Barth, the Swiss Protestant theologian who influenced Balthasar, gives a similar impression.)
The Balthasarian mode of theology should be understood as a pastoral response to present spiritual problems. It waters the desert by giving the faithful more. We see the same thing in Pope John Paul II’s affirmations of moral truth and the universal call to holiness, as well as in Pope Benedict’s efforts to restore depth and dignity to the liturgy. Veritatis Splendor, John Paul II’s encyclical on the objective reality of moral truth, and Benedict’s restoration and promotion of the Latin Mass are among the most important pastoral initiatives in the post–Vatican II era. Like Balthasar’s intellectual projects, these papal initiatives add density, concreteness, and substance.
Pope Francis takes a different approach. He tends toward subtraction rather than addition. His papacy sees the Church as overloaded with rules, and thus immobile and ineffective. We’re to become a temporary field hospital rather than a truth-heavy or tradition-laden institution. His rhetoric suggests that canon law gums up the free movement of the Spirit and that the formalities of liturgical worship tempt us to become fussy aesthetes rather than ardent disciples of Christ. His impulse is to strip away and lighten things so that we can more freely respond to the promptings of the Holy Spirit. Instead of using ressourcement to renew the “abiding shock” of Christ, this papacy has adopted iconoclasm, the Old Testament (and Protestant) pattern of purification.
Stripping away encrustations and accretions can play an important role in renewal. But I’m not optimistic that this will work in 2017. We are living in a liquid age. Globalization dissolves a great deal. Progressive crusaders expand the scope for personal self-definition, to the point of making the difference between men and women ill-defined, even eradicable. Ours is not a time of rigid boundaries and dense institutions. The sounder pastoral response, therefore, is to add, not subtract. Christ is a stone over which man stumbles. As Balthasar writes, “there is no way he can avoid crashing into it in the hardest and most frustrating way, so that, in stumbling, he is forced to see that he is without a foothold.” The more the Church, the body of Christ, is stone-like in an era of flux, the more she fulfills her evangelical mission.
Leaders Without Children
After the French election in May, Mark Steyn made an arresting observation. “With the arrival of President Macron in the charmed circle, the leaders of Europe’s biggest economies and of all the European members of the G7 are childless: Germany’s Angela Merkel, Britain’s Theresa May, Italy’s Paolo Gentiloni, and now France’s Macron.” The Dutch leader Mark Rutte is childless, as is Luxembourg’s Xavier Bettel, which means that only one leader of the six founding countries of the European Union is a parent, Belgium’s Charles Michel (who replaced gay and childless Prime Minister Elio di Rupo). Just last month we added another to the list. Ireland’s outgoing prime minister, Enda Kenny, was succeeded by Leo Varadkar, the country’s first gay leader.
It is unwise to speculate about the larger meaning of any particular instance. There have always been reasons why adults end up without children, some biological, others personal. Nevertheless, it is remarkable that the leaders of so many EU countries are childless. Even Renaissance popes sired children on the side. As a pattern, the absence of children among some of the most visible leaders in the West surely says something about our present circumstances. And so I returned to Hannah Arendt’s 1958 classic, The Human Condition, looking for insight into what childlessness might mean for public life.
For the most part, modern political philosophy presumes that the struggle for survival and the desire to avoid pain and enjoy pleasure drive public life. Thomas Hobbes based the social contract on our fear of death. John Locke took a less dire view, but he too thought society best understood as a security compact designed to stave off threats, in his case, to property. Jeremy Bentham formalized this way of thinking with the principle of utility. Public questions are, at root, about maximizing pleasures and minimizing pains.
Arendt argues against this view. Efforts to avoid pain and find pleasure, however important, are not decisive for public life. Instead, the political sphere is organized around what she called natality. By this evocative term she meant more than giving birth to a child. “The new beginning in birth can make itself felt in the world only because the newcomer possesses the capacity for beginning something anew, that is, of acting.” When men father children and women give birth, they are not using their intelligence to invent or make something. They are not administering their DNA as well-trained bureaucrats in accord with a utility-maximizing plan. Instead, they are venturing an open-ended project, one to which they make a fundamental and necessary contribution but which transcends them. This, Arendt argues, is the essential feature of political action.
One sees this in the Book of Genesis. When God says, “Be fruitful and multiply,” we are enrolled in God’s future-oriented project. Children extend the horizon of life beyond our own mortality; to have a child is to have a future. But this means more than the collective immortality of the “circle of life.” In fact, if we think clearly about procreation, children do not evoke a circle at all. As parents know, we can do a great deal for our kids, but we cannot live their lives for them. We try to educate, guide, and equip them, but we will pass away, and they are free agents who will go their own way. In children, therefore, we experience the forward-pointing arrow of time in a particularly powerful way. The spiritual significance of children comes from the fact that our love for them orients us toward serving their future, which is ours by natality. We begin in them what they will carry forward.
Natality is essential for a living political culture, Arendt argues. We come forward out of private life to speak and act in public life in order to give birth to new possibilities. The very term we use to describe the men who were so instrumental in establishing the United States of America, the Founding Fathers, expresses natality. They corresponded, discussed, and debated. They formed alliances, raised armies, and drafted constitutions. Needless to say, material interests played a role, not least the South’s desire to secure the continuation of slavery. But something more was at work. As Abraham Lincoln put it in his Gettysburg Address, “Our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” The trials of war will, he promised, give rise to “a new birth of freedom.” The Founding Fathers launched something that had its own life, its own future. This, Arendt argues, gives politics its transcendent dignity.
We should not think that childless leaders are unable to give birth to new public realities—“to begin,” as Arendt puts it. History shows otherwise. But the sterility of Western Europe’s political leadership is a fitting, literal sign of a spiritual malaise. In the West—and I include America—we feel the oppression of limited options and constrained choices. American Affairs recently published a translation of a 2012 speech by Pierre Manent, “Populist Demagogy and the Fanaticism of the Center.” Manent sees the transformation of our political culture from one of choices—left or right—to one in which we’re told we have no choice. “We have started to pass from an order built on confrontation between equally legitimate opinions to an order relying on confrontation between legitimate opinions and illegitimate opinions, between political orthodoxy and heresy.” Responsible leaders versus fascists, racists, and bigots. Truth versus fake news.
Manent explains why we’ve come to this dead-end. A globalized liberalism reduces public life to “the individual on the one hand and humanity on the other.” We see this at work in a complex ideology that dissolves public life in two ways. First, there are movements to liberate the individual from inherited ways of life. Feminism and gay rights are two examples. Then there are calls for a genuinely universal justice that requires a comprehensive, global perspective. Human rights and international courts reflect this dimension. Both advocate “a pure democracy, a democracy without the demos, a democracy without the nation, nonnational or postnational.”
The upshot is an anti-politics reinforced by identity politics, which has a communal rhetoric (gay community, black community, and so forth) but dissolves public life. We are required to be placeholders for identities, able only to articulate grievances. It is not coincidental that in the triad of race, class, and gender, the one with classical political meaning, class, always drops out. In both instances—globalism and identity politics—the polis, which is to say a circumscribed public space, disappears. We cannot stand before our fellow citizens as those who “give birth” to something new. There is no particular “public” remaining for men to enter into and in which to debate and act. There are only individuals, the universal, and ersatz “communities” of identity that provide illusions of political activism.
All of this is very abstract, and I apologize for the incompleteness of my thoughts. But I’m convinced that our foreboding about the present political and cultural atmosphere is justified. Technocracy defines public culture. The management of utilities supplants political leadership. We give birth to nothing. The existing state of affairs may admit of refinement, but tomorrow cannot be anything other than today plus one. We rightly sense that this cannot be right. As Arendt observes, “Men, though they must die, are not born in order to die but in order to begin.”
Paul Griffiths, Truth-Teller
It all began with something entirely conventional. Professor Anathea Portier-Young urged her colleagues at Duke Divinity School to participate in “Racial Equity Phase I Training.” Almost all the large institutions in the United States accept the moral authority of the diversity-and-inclusion industry. But her colleague Paul Griffiths does not. So he responded with his own exhortation. Don’t participate, he told his colleagues. “It’ll be, I predict with confidence, intellectually flaccid: there’ll be bromides, clichés, and amen-corner rah-rahs in plenty. When (if) it gets beyond that, its illiberal roots and totalitarian tendencies will show.”
Some colleagues joined the fray, countering Griffiths with expressions of enthusiasm for the opportunity to participate in the racial equity training. Then, as if to vindicate Griffiths’s prediction that racial equity training will quickly turn illiberal and totalitarian, Divinity School Dean Elaine Heath intervened as the voice of institutional authority. In an email to the faculty, she wrote, “It is inappropriate and unprofessional to use mass emails to make disparaging statements—including arguments ad hominem—in order to humiliate or undermine individual colleagues or groups of colleagues with whom we disagree. The use of mass emails to express racism, sexism, and other forms of bigotry is offensive and unacceptable, especially in a Christian institution.”
These were not empty words. Duke initiated two disciplinary proceedings against Griffiths. Portier-Young complained to the Duke University Office for Institutional Equity, saying that his email had created a hostile workplace for her and thus constituted harassment. This kicked into gear the disciplinary machinery of that office, which operates in closed, star-chamber fashion. On her own authority, Dean Heath banned Griffiths from faculty meetings, cut off his research and travel funds, and launched a shadowy process that promised more disciplinary actions.
In the usual course of events, a faculty member in this situation searches for a way to submit, which often means signing something akin to a confession of guilt, or in some other way signaling surrender to the unquestionable moral authority of political correctness. But Portier-Young and Heath misjudged Paul Griffiths. He raised the stakes by writing an open letter that drew national attention to his case. It describes the reality at Duke with exemplary clarity:
These disciplinary proceedings are designed not to engage and rebut the views I hold and have expressed about the matters mentioned, but rather to discipline me for having expressed them. Elaine Heath and Thea Portier-Young, when faced with disagreement, prefer discipline to argument. In doing so, they act illiberally and anti-intellectually; their action shows totalitarian affinities in its preferred method, which is the veiled use of institutional power. They appeal to non- or anti-intellectual categories (‘unprofessional conduct’ in Heath’s case; ‘harassment’ in Portier-Young’s) to short-circuit disagreement. All this is shameful, and I call them out on it.
This is not, moreover, a problem unique to them:
Heath and Portier-Young aren’t alone among us in showing these tendencies. The convictions that some of my colleagues hold about justice for racial, ethnic, and gender minorities have led them to attempt occupation of a place of unassailably luminous moral probity. That’s a utopia, and those who seek it place themselves outside the space of reason. Once you’ve made that move, those who disagree with you inevitably seem corrupt and dangerous, better removed than argued with, while you seem to yourself beyond criticism. What you do then is discipline your opponents. The contributions made to our common life [at Duke Divinity School] by, inter alia, Chuck Campbell, Jay Carter, and Valerie Cooper, exhibit these tendencies. I call them out too. I hope they, together with Heath and Portier-Young, will reconsider, repent, and make public apology to me and our colleagues for damage done, and re-dedicate themselves to the life of the mind which is, because of their institutional location, their primary professional vocation.
These razor-sharp words say exactly what needs to be said, not just about Duke Divinity School, but about the diversity-and-inclusion industry as a whole. It is a disciplinary enterprise meant to herd us toward predetermined goals. Sometimes the methods are relatively gentle, more a matter of carrots than of sticks. But there are cattle prods available, if needed, which hardly encourage free debate. It is shameful, furthermore, that so many university faculty either support the continued growth of these illiberal disciplinary mechanisms or remain silent. Sadly, silence and compliance are present at most institutions.
In late spring, Griffiths resigned and gave up his chair in Catholic Theology at Duke. I was not surprised. As a tenured professor, he could have remained. But Griffiths had launched a direct public attack on what is now the crucial moral justification for wealth and privilege in the United States. (See the analysis by William Deresiewicz I cite in the While We’re At It.) He went so far as to criticize in strong terms the role of particular black professors at Duke (Jay Carter and Valerie Cooper), implying that they contribute to an anti-intellectual atmosphere of intimidation. (As far as I can tell, nobody has criticized as frankly as Griffiths has those black professors who have contributed to today’s poisonous campus climate.) These are unforgiveable sins. Like a leper, he would have been cordoned off from university life. His intellectual energy would have been dissipated by the need to defend himself against ongoing disciplinary procedures.
Griffiths was wise to depart. And he was wise to leave behind whatever he has against Duke. There’s nothing particularly bad about that university or its divinity school. He wrote a beautiful love letter to the university that expresses his profound gratitude for the ways in which the university has allowed him to live the “word-struggle,” which is his way of speaking in concrete terms about what gives life to the life of the mind. This gratitude frames his resignation. “And so, I reluctantly concluded, the word-struggle, the agony of distinction and argument, the search for clarity by dramatizing and exploring difference—these no longer have the place they once had in the university.” Power now supersedes argument.
Paul Griffiths and I have different backgrounds, personality traits, and habits of mind, but I also look back on my time in the halls of academe with gratitude. From the time I was nineteen until I turned fifty, the American university defined my life in one form or another, first educating and then employing me. I was very fortunate in my undergraduate teachers, graduate advisors, and professorial colleagues. But I also share in Paul’s pessimistic judgment about university culture today and, by implication, about its future. The problems stem from more than identity politics. There’s a rampant careerism among university faculty—Deresiewicz calls it the “religion of success.” This makes their complaints about student careerism blatantly hypocritical. The vast sums of money flooding into elite universities deadens them spiritually, a consequence of limitless wealth that the New Testament predicts. And the strange combination of complacency and hysteria stifles conversation and discourages debate.
Some can find ways to sustain the “word-struggle” in today’s university. Paul does not generalize his circumstances. The university was never pure in the past; it is not entirely corrupt today. He knows, moreover, that the relentlessness of his aggressive, parry-and-thrust approach to debate provokes, and that his sin-damaged soul often makes his words unduly sharp. There can be no doubt, however, that the university has become a thoughtless place. A number of recent graduates from elite schools have told me that they learned in college never to say out loud what they really think. One is careful to stay on script. It’s hard to imagine a more damning report.
I don’t know Paul’s plans. Perhaps he doesn’t either. One thing is sure: He will continue the word-struggle, and we will be hearing from him in the future. Another is likely: Soon enough, I’ll feel the sharp cuts of his words as he slices up one of my weak arguments or upbraids me for speaking half-truths, which often amount to untruths. Thanks for telling the truth, Paul.
WHILE WE'RE AT IT
Donald Trump nominated Russell Vought as deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget. At his Senate hearing, Bernie Sanders dredged up something Vought wrote about a theological controversy at his alma mater, Wheaton College. It concerned political science professor Larycia Hawkins, whose statements about Islam were thought to run contrary to Wheaton’s affirmation of Jesus Christ as the Son of God and sole source of salvation. In response, Vought wrote, “Muslims do not simply have a deficient theology. They do not know God because they have rejected Jesus Christ his Son, and they stand condemned.” Sanders decided to make a federal case out of this theological dispute. “In my view, the statement made by Mr. Vought is indefensible, it is hateful, it is Islamophobic, and it is an insult to over a billion Muslims throughout the world.”
I might quibble with the notion that Muslims do not “know” God. Anyone who offers worship to a transcendent power knows God in the limited sense of knowing that we ought to serve that which is highest and most ultimate. In all likelihood, however, Vought means “know” in its richer meaning: a saving knowledge of God. In that case, Vought is simply paraphrasing John 3:16–18, which famously begins, “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life,” and ends, “He who believes in him is not condemned; he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the only Son of God.”
In calling Vought’s straightforward report on a basic Christian belief about nonbelievers “indefensible,” “hateful,” and “Islamophobic,” Sanders implicitly pronounces orthodox Christianity indefensible, hateful, and Islamophobic. To attack Vought on this basis at a Senate confirmation hearing amounts to making Christian faith a disqualification for public office. Which is rather shocking, given that Article Six of the United States Constitution explicitly rules out the application of any religious tests for qualification for public office.
Perhaps I’m not being fair to Sanders. Undoubtedly, he was handed some opposition research on Vought, which included the passage stating that Muslims stand condemned. Unaware of the theological context, he could have taken it as a legal or political statement, something akin to denying that Muslims can be American citizens. If that explains Sanders’s line of attack, it exposes how ignorant secular elites have become of basic theological claims. And it reminds us of a dark paradox of today’s liberalism: pious affirmations of inclusivity to exclude those who happen to disagree.
♦ I was thinking of theological illiteracy when I came across Charles McGrath’s review of Peter Parker’s new book, Housman County: Into the Heart of England. It’s fluidly done, as one expects for a piece in the New Yorker, where it appeared. But one passage brought me up short. It concerns a rather vivid line suggesting suicide—“Put a pistol to your head.” As McGrath reports, Parker “makes the provocative suggestion—which could equally well be applied to other Housman poems, including the strange one that recommends plucking out your eye and cutting off your hand or foot if it offends you—that not every line need be taken at face value and the whole thing might be meant angrily or ironically.” Strange one? McGrath is referring to Poem 45 in A Shropshire Lad. Is he unaware that this brief, two-stanza poem is a straightforward meditation on Jesus’s words in Matthew 5:29–30? If so, that’s remarkable. Charles McGrath served for a decade as editor of the New York Times Book Review. I don’t think we can fully grasp how profoundly adrift from its own cultural inheritance our intellectual class will be when its ignorance of the Bible is complete.
♦ Which brings to mind a talk last month at a small bookshop in Chelsea. The author of a new study of Pascal made a presentation. Clearly, she lacked theological sympathy for Pascal’s rigorously orthodox Christian beliefs, to say nothing of his Jansenism, but she was not biblically illiterate. Nevertheless, during the course of her remarks, she reported that she admired Pascal because of the restlessness of his mind. “He was never bored.” That commendation epitomizes our secular age and its limited ambitions. We cannot hope to rest in the eternal and take repose in a lasting joy. Instead, we must make do with a more modest imperative: Never be bored!
♦ A friend passed along a link to a Canadian Broadcasting Company public service ad. It features a young woman. She’s composing a text message, only to be interrupted by an impetuous, red-headed little girl. The brief spot ends with directions on where to get birth control. The message seems to be: Don’t let yourself get sucked into the dead-end of motherhood.
♦ A few weeks ago, I received a tart response to one of my requests for financial support. The reader insisted that, given current events, I ought to be taking a clear and firm stance against Donald Trump, and that I am cowardly for failing to do so. But he remains a subscriber. In these troubled, bitter times, that’s remarkable. I count myself a lucky man. I sometimes disappoint readers with imperfect, even wrongheaded political judgments. But we remain united in our love of a higher good. That’s a precious thing.
♦ Another reader, Frank Runyeon, wrote to correct an error. Earlier this year, I noted that a Trump administration official, Kellyanne Conway, would participate in the January 27, 2017, March for Life. As it turned out, Vice President Mike Pence also addressed the marchers, echoing the words of Fr. Richard John Neuhaus: We will not weary; we will not rest. I described this participation as the first time an administration has sent an official representative. Not so, it turns out. George H. W. Bush sent Dan Quayle to speak at the March for Life in 1990. Frank should know; he too spoke to the gathered defenders of the sanctity of life and shared the stage with Quayle.
♦ Frank suggested I could take consolation in the fact that many others made the same mistake, including the New York Times. As far as I’m concerned, that’s cold comfort.
♦ It was the girls’ state championship track meet in Connecticut. A Cromwell High School freshman who calls himself Andraya Yearwood and “identifies” as female sped to victory in the 100- and 200-meter races. The 2016 winner, Sarah Hall, now a junior, came in second. She had this to say to reporters after being vanquished by a male runner that the State of Connecticut calls a female runner: “I can’t really say what I want to say, but there’s not much I can do about it.” Her succinct words capture the depth of the perversion that transgender ideology will impose upon us all. We will have to accommodate ourselves to lies, knowing that truthful words will be punished.
♦ I recently received a letter from a reader taking issue with my concerns about national solidarity and the sirens of utopian globalism. He ended his exhortation that I amend my ways with these words: “The future is global and progressive. The future is fact-based.” That seems more statement of faith than fact.
♦ Another reader wrote to reprimand us for using PayPal to process payments and donations. He points out that PayPal is at the forefront of corporations throwing their weight around to promote the latest progressive cultural fads. During the fracas over bathrooms in North Carolina, PayPal self-righteously announced that it was reversing its decision to locate a new office there. His point is well made. A couple of years ago, I stopped buying coffee at Starbucks. My boycott is not complete. The ubiquity of Starbucks and other companies, some of them technology giants such as Apple, makes them difficult to avoid. But I try to minimize my contributions to the profits of companies that make an arrogant show of their public support for progressive crusaders. I can’t promise that we’ll drop PayPal, but we’ll certainly look into other options.
♦ Business elites now mesh with cultural elites to transform society into their own image, as Patrick Deneen observed in his article about the unified corporate assault on Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act (“The Power Elite,” June 2015). “It will be an America where the powerful will govern completely over the powerless, where the rich dictate terms to the poor, where the strong are unleashed from the old restraints of culture and place, where libertarian indifference—whether in respect to economic inequality or morals—is inscribed into the national fabric, and where the unburdened, hedonic human will reign ascendant.”
♦ William Deresiewicz is a literary scholar and card-carrying Man of the Left. He’s also a clear-eyed critic of elite higher education. In an astute essay in the American Scholar, “On Political Correctness,” he has this to say about our flagship universities: “Selective private colleges have become religious schools. The religion in question is not Methodism or Catholicism but an extreme version of the belief system of the liberal elite.” He continues, “To attend those institutions is to be socialized, and not infrequently indoctrinated into that religion.” This religion has two forms: the religion of success and the religion of political correctness. The latter provides moral cover for the former. Far from a threat to the status quo, political correctness supplies the One Percent “with the ideological resources to alibi or erase their privilege. It enables them to tell themselves that they are children of the light—part of the solution to our social ills, not an integral component of the problem. It may speak about dismantling the elite, but its real purpose is to flatter it.” Exactly right, which is why Big Business does not reluctantly conform to political correctness but uses its power to promote it.
We need to get our heads on straight about all this. Political correctness and campus protests are not threats to elite institutions and their promise to the young that they guarantee success. The radical ideologies are part of a choreographed dance. “Unlike the campus protestors of the 1960s, today’s student activists are not expressing countercultural views. They are expressing the exact views of the culture in which they find themselves (a reason that administrators prove so ready to accede to their demands). If you want to find the counterculture on today’s elite college campuses, you need to look for the conservative students.”
♦ Georgetown University is pleased to promulgate a “revised Policy on Consensual Sexual and Romantic Relationships.” It is unexceptional, featuring the usual legalese that prohibits “sexual or romantic relationships” between someone with “Direct Authority” over the other partner and forbids liaisons between faculty and undergraduate students. Due attention is given to the need for a process “so that any potential conflicts or risks can be managed.” All this both makes sense and is madness. Today, our culture refuses to allow any moral limitations to sexual relations other than consent. This is, of course, unworkable, which is why legal-bureaucratic controls seem necessary. But it’s madness to imagine that sex and romance will function within the sterile rigidity of administrative policy. I’m certain my grandchildren will look back and judge our strange combinations of license and legalism to be unworkable, incoherent, and inhumane.
♦ In late May, I traveled to Warsaw to give a talk and seminar, and then on to Kraków for more of the same. There were many conversations, and I was struck by a common theme. The Polish intellectuals I met expressed a thoughtful ambivalence about the American-inspired liberalism (in the broad, European sense of that word) that they adopted after 1989. They are grateful for economic prosperity, civic freedoms, and a political culture in which one can participate without fear. But they regret increased consumerism, the invasion of secular progressive ideologies about sex, marriage, and family, and the triumphalist mentality of the West, which treats its relative achievements as dictates of History. We would do well to learn from the Poles who share our religious and moral orientation. Thoughtful ambivalence seems the right disposition toward the world that we, as Americans, have done so much to encourage since the fall of the Soviet Union.
♦ After my talks—and after a visit to the shrine of St. Faustina—I traveled to the Tatra Mountains on the border between Poland and Slovakia. I was under the care, command, and control of Fr. Kacper Malicki, a Warsaw priest who is an experienced rock climber. We ascended some routes on the Mnich, a prominent rock pinnacle overlooking Lake Morskie Oko. It was a day of radiant sunshine, rock climbing, and theological conversation. Perfect.
♦ I’m grateful to Jonathan Price of the Center for European Renewal for coordinating my trip to Poland. The Center for the Thought of John Paul II in Warsaw provided warm hospitality, as did the Tischner Institute in Kraków.
♦ It was entirely in character for Brian Doyle to tell a local reporter that he had a “big honkin’ brain tumor.” That was back in November. He died in May. I knew Brian only by the written word. He would address me as RRR in his emails, many of which were infused with his zany sanity. On a few occasions, I had to overrule my severe fellow editors who feared Brian had edged too close to schmaltzy emotional manipulation. He was a man of the Church and gave us a series of sacramental stories: baptism, confirmation, ordination, and confession. He wrote one of the best things I’ve read about 9/11 (“100th Street,” August/September 2016), because it wasn’t really about 9/11 but about something fiercely noble in us that quietly asserts itself, even in the face of death—especially in the face of death. In this issue, we publish one of his prose poems, “In the Confessional Booth,” which isn’t about sin at all, but about suffering and the precious balm of fellowship. May he rest in peace.
♦ In mid-June, we bade adieu to assistant editor Alexi Sargeant. He served for two years in the Junior Fellows program, during which time he could always be counted on to come up with clever titles for essays—often too clever for the stodgy editor in chief. It wasn’t more than a day or two after he left us that Alexi was pursuing his passion: Shakespeare. He recently directed and acted in a “seat-of-our-pants production” of Julius Caesar in Havertown, PA.
♦ An alert to First Things readers in Tucson: Rev. Joshua Palmer would like to form a ROFTERs group. Get in touch by email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Kathryn Kearney in Victoria, British Columbia, is forming a ROFTERs group in that lovely city. You can reach her at email@example.com.
If you live in our nation’s capital, you can join a new D.C. ROFTERs group headed up by Liz McPike: firstname.lastname@example.org.
♦ We’ve successfully concluded our spring fundraising campaign, raising $545,749. I’m grateful for the support that so many people provide for our work. First Things is very fortunate to have such devoted and generous readers. Thank you for your donations.