A New Life Matters Infinitely More Than a New Year

Yeah, yeah—another new year.  Another old year packed in moth balls.  Ring in the new!  Bells and whistles, toasts and firecrackers… idiotic resolutions and mawkish nostalgia.

Actually, 2017 was unique for me.  Bought some land to start a farm and contracted to have a house built.  Got my son successfully out of college—and without debt.  Found that my complex publishing ambitions could be easily accomplished, in large part, through Amazon—and am about to bring out my sixth book as the final day of December wears on.  Acquired a Twitter account, as well as my first faithful follower (everyone tells me it’s a “must” for publicity).

Also extraordinary amounts of misery and hardship.  Still fighting through a severely strained tendon in my knee, and had close run-ins with several afflictions that I was able to treat homeopathically.  Watched my son go through three jobs once he decided to give up baseball—the result, mostly, of being lied to during interviews.  (Some things never change.)  Continue to do battle with various investment firms to get my retirement in order and wrest control of my accounts from stifling bureaucracy—and to think that this is the private sector!

The Center for Literate Values will officially die this evening at midnight.  Amazing how many people want me to keep parts of it up and running on a fixed income—people who aren’t volunteering a dime of their own money.  Some things never change.

A fall semester safely in the books that trespassed on my academic freedom (thanks to electronic technology) more presumptuously than I’ve ever seen, and with every sign of continuing.  But I’ll be gone after one more round of this.  I taught my classes my way as ’17 wound down, and I’ll begin ’18 the same way.  Go ahead and fire me—make my year.

All in all, 2017 was one of the most productive twelve-month cycles I’ve ever lived through—and also one of the most traumatic and draining.  I haven’t described the half of it.  What I really need is for it to go away now.  The Year Eighteen gets me out of my professional prison to think and write freely as long as my time on earth continues.  It will bring me to a place where green vegetables other than cactus grow.  I’ll have a home where my son may come to visit over Christmas and not be counting the days till he can escape the deadest terrain north of Hell.

And maybe I won’t feel that chasmic gap in my life when he leaves—that abyss just after Christmas.  Maybe I won’t have to ask myself all the old questions any more, the ones I’ve pondered since he left home for college five years ago.  “Why does this tear your heart out?  You don’t want him to stay here, do you?  What would he do in Tyler, Texas?  Compete with other realtors for a small share of a small market, trying to make enough loot that the snooty locals deign to notice him—that their daughters deign to go out with him—and probably turning into a drunkard under the shadow of all the Baptist churches?  No, we want him out of here.  That’s what we’ve worked for all these years.  You don’t want him a child again—and you don’t want to be the bigger fool you were yourself twenty years ago, when you were trying to raise him.  Isn’t it your own life as it has come to be, though, that makes you weep as he leaves?  Not so much because he isn’t in it day to day, but because bringing up a child no longer distracts you from what you actually do. Isn’t it that you can no longer avoid seeing what’s right in front of you? Isn’t it the nullity that remains after that fresh gust of youth withdraws—the awareness of having sold out for almost nothing to a profession that itself sells out everything you believe in by double the amount each year?  The bitterness… the nothingness… isn’t that what you can’t face?”

Well, I won’t need to face it any more in a few short months. I will proudly be able to say, to my son or anyone else, “This is my home.  Welcome.  This is my food I grow, the forest I walk daily.  These are my thoughts about the world.  You are welcome to any of it you want.”

A new calendar is just another piece of paper.  But a new life… now that’s something to toast, if only with myself in silence.

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American-Made Claptrap Butchers History and Entertainment at One Blow

Hollywood is right: we inhabit a sick nation. One irrefutable proof of this is the non-stop claptrap churned out by Hollywood.

I don’t write movie reviews—and I did not, in any case, make it halfway through this sixth-grade collision of a camera with a boilerplate script. One does find oneself, however, retreating to the Tube over holidays and other occasions that bring relatives together who’d rather not listen to each other talk any longer than necessary.

Not being a film critic (the last great war movie I saw may have been Breaker Morant), I admittedly have little to fall back on by way of reference and context. I’ll simply content myself with saying this much about American Made: it appears to me to extend upon an incomprehensible style than even I can identify as a template (thanks to earlier holidays and similarly forcible exposure to “what’s hot”). Why would you combine a comedy with an opus claiming to be about history? Or to put it another way, what would cause anyone to view history as a stock of cliché jokes hatched at the expense of clueless two-dimensional cartoon characters? Was The Honeymooners the story of D-Day? Was Barney Fife at Thermopylae?

This idiot flick purports to tell the truth of the Iran-Contra scandal through the eyes of a pilot who graduated from taking reconnaissance photos to smuggling drugs to smuggling arms to… well, as I confessed, I made my excuses and left the room about halfway through. The pilot very annoyingly projects an almost utter incompetency in world geography, basic English diction (I told you a band of sixth-graders produced the script), and “buenos dias” level Spanish… yet, curiously, he’s meant to be cool. I suppose the subtext is that only an imbecile (and all Southerners are imbeciles to Hollywood) would get into bed with the CIA, and that our foreign operations are all run exclusively by such imbeciles. Or not quite exclusively: the recruiter of imbeciles is himself something like a combination of Mafia thug, Machiavellian cynic, and Gestapo fanatic. And lest that description mislead anyone into suspecting depth of characterization… no: I’m trying to portray a train wreck of stereotypes, not a coherent human psyche.

The blonde wife was the one source of relief, being extraordinarily cute—but that remark, of course, is no longer permissible thanks to its noxious degree of “objectifying” (even though her object-value is the “actress’s” sole reason for being in the film, and even though, as noted, all parts are thoroughly stereotypical).

Somehow, in Hollywood, you can project all the moral trespasses you claim most to deplore—bigotry, sexism, greed, corruption, exploitation, hypocrisy, gross abuse of power—onto representatives of the political ideology you most despise… and emerge satisfied that you have recreated history. This is a game that I observed to be played last year during another holiday “bonding” ordeal whose first hour I failed to endure: an infantilized rendition of a gun-running scandal called War Dogs. Still waiting for Hollywood’s take on Operation Fast and Furious, which actually possessed many of the qualities found in the undertakings of Middle School drop-outs.

Is this kind of thing, I wonder, just the utopian-brat class’s cathartic urination on adult events too complex and uncooperative to leave its hallucinogenic worldview unembarrassed? I mean, does the general public really pay money to sit through such pseudo-artistic excrement? Even worse… do young people in the audience, perhaps, really believe that history is a cartoon produced by bungling villains with cliché-filled balloons trailing out of their mouths?

Christmas: Merry If Possible—Better Yet, Meaningful

One more try at free speech.  Is this the lump of coal in your stocking? I hope not! Perhaps that depends on who’s pulling off the wrapper.

Have I said that I consider the honoring of free speech to be a holy obligation, not a mere civil right?  Let me say so now, and attempt a better, fuller explanation.

I wrote earlier that we shouldn’t view keeping open the channels of communication as an extended opportunity to convince the misguided. Are all of us “free speech” advocates, then, taking for granted that we’re right, and that the freedom we seek is the chance to make the whole world admit it? That attitude reeks of the obnoxious conceit inherent in progressive and reactionary ideologues alike—the ones whose clenching argument that you have the wrong opinion is a firing squad or a burning stake.  If re-education camp or a public recanting before the Inquisition doesn’t work, a bullet in the head always gets those jumbled ideas sorted out… and what better way to “open” a new channel?

I also wrote that free exchange forces one to think through one’s own position more meticulously, even if nobody else is persuaded by it.  But the wording there bothers me inasmuch as it implies that we might absolutely nail the truth if we just keep refining our conceptions.  It sounds rather like scientific method, which isn’t what I’m after. Approximating the truth is a worthy goal, to be sure… but also a notion fraught with such potential danger that my intended meaning, ultimately, lies in the opposite direction.

How perverse! In what way would I wish to veer down the path opposite to drawing near the truth? Wouldn’t that require me to draw away from the truth? Obviously, I do not wish to celebrate error. What I mean to say is on the order of this, if I may be allowed to stumble through a mathematical analogy. The arc of a parabola always approaches an axis—but to suppose that it intersects the axis at any eventual point is false.

Or let me return to my earlier terms. I wrote of the “mystery of presence”: there I should have lingered.  Usually when one shuts down exchanges with others, one does so because a “reachable” answer has, in fact, been reached, whether those other parties acknowledge it or not.  Sometimes, too, we turn and walk away because the others “have the answer” (they claim) and aren’t listening to us.  Further exchange is useless.  If the truth is in our court, we arrive at a point where we have no more patience with folly… and we go on about our business.

This is a good thing, and even a necessary thing, in “business” of a practical turn.  A straight line cuts an axis at a given point—and life does indeed have many straight lines. You can’t confer infinitely with others about whether your car needs an oil change or your store needs to move to a less heavily taxed venue.  Even though there may be irreducible vagueness in some such material matters, we must eventually go with the best evidence. We cannot operate two stores at once to find out which does the better business.

The spiritual danger of cutting short our discussions appears when controversy leaves the realm of nuts and bolts and enters that of value judgments.  Once again, I will instantly and vigorously deflect the charge of being a relativist. I am no such thing. I am certain that human sacrifice is wrong; I am so precisely because the practice removes a being like myself permanently from earthly exchanges—from participation in negotiating our shared uncertainty.  I am certain that child abuse is wrong; I am so precisely because traumatizing a being like myself at a stage when he or she may never be able to reason freely, as a result, is an assault on our common humanity.

The certainty I mean—the certainty that dangerously shuts down the exchange—treats issues of value as though they were mechanical questions or budgetary decisions: as though they could be arbitrated by scientific method.  What is good for a human being?  Easy, says the politician: a full belly, full pockets, free trips to the doctor, a thousand stations on the TV’s menu.  But all of these “blessings” can rot the soul if they completely remove anguish, striving, and learning from the human condition.  Their one great asset is their “thingness”—their quiddity.  They allow discussions to end on the same note as our determination about an oil change.  We may not agree with the collective verdict, but time will surely tell if it was correct.  The number of starved bodies lying dead in the streets can be counted.  Cases of influenza can be logged and graphed.  The availability of ESPN2 is a fairly objective determinant for frivolous amusement’s “abundance” threshold.

Is the discussion now truly finished about liberated sexual practices, for instance, just because sex feels good and modern medicine can make its unwanted consequences disappear?  Was it all always just a question of moving merchandise from A to B? I will never endorse gay marriage or homosexuality, because I believe that such practices subordinate higher objectives to lower objectives.  As in hedonistic heterosexual practices, the pattern here drives child-bearing and rearing from center-stage to leave sexual satisfaction the star of the show. Sensual gratification then becomes a dominant element in defining our personhood—a mere appetite, something that defies the rule of reason, wanes with the coming of old age, and can leave us completely with sickness or accident.  Yet I would not have the other side commanded to be silent, under threat of being stoned to death: I merely protest against treating the issue as an algebra problem where X has been definitively found.

For the link between body and spirit must always remain a mystery to me (and, I think, to you): I don’t see how any specific value for X can solve it. I do not and will never fully understand the connection between the spirit’s self-surpassing genius and our egocentric, carnal drives for sex, food, sleep, and the rest.  If the spirit is real, why was it encumbered in this manner? How is one side intended to be integrated with the other—what formula could make so irresistibly volatile an integration seem successful?

Such “discomfort” reminds me that my mind, as it is on this earth, cannot possibly occupy every room of God’s house.

They say that Artificial Intelligence will soon be able to pass for the human variety (the goal of the so-called Turing Test).  This will clearly be so if we continue to define our spiritual side downward, such that every moral quandary has a specific solution.  I am already risking my career to write what few words I have offered here against gay marriage; and were I to detail my views about extramarital adventures, I would face not so much instant expulsion as enduring derision.  We all know how our robot-compatriots will be programmed in those matters.  What coding, I wonder, will they receive with regard to a sunset or a misty valley?  “Good/pleasant”?  Why so?  Because the majority view would have it so?  What’s our theory on why we enjoy such scenes?  Probably something about our simian ancestors knowing that they’re safely on a tree limb or in a cave by day’s end… for the only reason you enjoy something is because you “get” something out of it. Right?

I love singer Giorgia Fumanti’s rendition of Espiritu.  Why?  Why do we love any work of art?  Because it relaxes us—we “get” relaxation out of it? So the right pill, then, would have the same effect?  Is Xanax the “art” drug? Do younger people actually love anything artistic any more?  Where do you see such open-ended discussions taking place?  Certainly not in college English departments, where works of literature are “great” because of the genitals or the pigmentation of their authors.  The same departments are rich in professors who want “offensive” speech banned from campus.

Am I coming any closer to expressing the holy obligation of free speech—to expressing why the end of free speech is asymptotic?  I doubt it; I have failed yet again!  In my mind, I keep orbiting that single word “mystery”.  We must speak to each other so that we may constantly fail to say quite what we mean to say.  We must be forever reminded that the inexpressible is a reality.  A robot doesn’t know that—cannot know that.  We seem to know it less and less ourselves as we concurrently shut down expression and reduce it to transmissible clichés.  And as free speech goes, so goes the fate of our souls.

A meaningful Christmas to you—the birthday of Him we crucify!

Trying to Be Scholarly in the Hypocritical Land of “Scholarly Publication” (Part Two)

Pardon a slight ellipsis.  This is just a little beyond where I left off quoting from the Preface of my new book on Amazon, The Traditional Mind in Greco-Roman Antiquity and Gaelic Ireland.

Readers not fully indoctrinated into the academic brotherhood will not grasp how outrageously anathematic are the comments just written. The first scholarly article I ever succeeded in placing with a “respectable” journal sought to elucidate a cryptic metaphor in the poetry of Sappho by juxtaposing to it the same metaphor—duplicated unwittingly about two millennia later—from the tongue of the Hebridean Gaelic singer Mary MacLeod. Soon after, I saw my little gem cited in the copious footnotes of a legendary scholar writing for Transactions of the American Philological Association. He had singled out my piece as representative of “all that has gone wrong” in contemporary classical studies. His own oracular pronouncement on Sappho’s image, ironically, reached precisely the same conclusion as had my vile comparative method: His Nibs has apparently read no further than my title!

I offer this anecdote as a way of embarking upon my concluding remarks. Yes, the synthesizing of the classical essay with two shorter essays about Irish Gaelic was convenient in that, without that stratagem, I should not have had sufficient volume to fill out a book; and I have already explained that I have no further plans of researching the Greco-Roman proverb, so the inaugural essay was destined to grow no larger. Yet I will also underscore now the high probability that none of these essays would ever have been accepted for publication in any form unless I had spent years rewriting and resubmitting them, one by one, to “respected” scholarly journals. Even the shortest of the three is likely too long for such venues. More to the point, however, one cannot find a home for scholarly writing if one does not come to the door dressed suitably for admission. Classicists, for instance, will have nothing to do with the proposition that Homer uses triadic structuring as a mnemonic device in assembling his great epics; to Celticists, the same proposition has been acknowledged of their traditional texts for decades. Classicists will not entertain the argument that a skeletal myth disguised superficially might be intended to evoke a subliminal response—not unless one can point to scribal marginalia that aver, “Priam’s journey to retrieve Hector’s body is an allegory of the passage to Hades.” Of course, proof of such a nature rarely exists… so the speculation must not be entertained by serious minds.

I know these charges against the scholarly establishment to be justified. I have the letters of rejection to prove them, one of which implied—not very coyly—that I was out of my mind!

In my three decades of teaching at the college level, I have grown invincibly weary of such “insider politics”. The process of peer review has degenerated into a sort of Old Boys’ Club where the referees, “established scholars” all, denigrate submissions mildly contradicting their own magna opera and give the nod only to research confirming the results of their own illustrious monographs (copies of which they will rain—with uncharacteristic generosity—upon any graduate student who strays into originality). No doubt, human nature leaves such disappointing evidence of egotism in all areas of endeavor. One hears ad nauseam from this same scholarly class, for example, about how the auto industry and oil companies have bought up innovative patents just to keep grinding out their unimproved and wasteful products on creaky old assembly lines.

Yet presently we are witnessing more than garden-variety egotism. Ideological warfare is afoot. The very notion of human nature has come under direct attack at least since Darwin, as I have suggested (for one cannot mold the race’s glorious destiny if basic nature stands in the way); but especially during the years that have overlapped my adult participation in the academy, the assault has been stepped up. One may not so much as hint that we humans have any characteristics that culture has not grafted upon us (the sin of “essentialism”), unless these be our most rudimentary biological drives. An implicit moral nihilism has locked its fatal grasp upon college humanities programs, in my humble opinion; for when right and wrong are mere cultural constructs, and since no two cultures are minutely alike, no such thing as absolute goodness or evil can exist. We have, instead, a jungle of lusts, impulses, and defense mechanisms as we await the strongest of apes to declare himself—or herself—“peerless leader”.

This insistent relativism, of course, underlies the great scholar’s sneer at my comparing Sappho with Mary MacLeod. No two cultures must ever be compared without a final and heavy stress of their differences, for to do otherwise would suggest that human beings share meaningful characteristics beneath their cultural conditioning. Such non-empirical, quasi-spiritual suppositions must not be allowed to leak into the discipline—into any discipline that would preserve its claim as such.

Yet if literature may not be studied except through material data and as a material artifact, why do the “humanities” exist; and in what sense might their cultivation credibly be said to make us better, inasmuch as “better” implies a moral judgment, and moral judgments have been ruled off limits by our “humanitarian” elite?

Trying to Be Scholarly in the Hypocritical Land of “Scholarly Publication” (Part One)

I spent most of yesterday writing a preface for my collection of three essays about oral tradition, especially proverbs, in ancient Greece and Rome and in Gaelic Ireland.  The little book should be available through my Amazon Author’s page in a day or two.  I don’t have much fuel left in the tank this morning… but it has occurred to me that I might post excerpts this time and next time from that preface, for there’s some good stuff in it.

To begin at the beginning, I was aware that my cataloguing of proverbs from the classical world was fragmentary, with sources like Plutarch and Diogenes Laertius heavily represented while Pindar, Xenophon, and others were scarcely mentioned. No less clear to me, however, was that I was running out of time. I had long passed the point where such research would be of any material benefit to my career as a professor; and the subsequent career that I hoped to enjoy as a writer, however it might unfold, was not pointing me toward further years of meticulous combing through the classical compendium just to bring to light a few (or a lot) more proverbial nuggets.

I had resolved, then, to offer the fruits of my labors thus far to the general public for whatever good they might do. I think such good indeed exists. The distinction between the oral-traditional worldview or “noosphere” and the literate-progressive one is real, though probably much more flexible in its reality than we appreciate in the ivory tower. I know that we scholars tend to exaggerate it, as we seem to exaggerate all distinctions. (One of my favorite Sanskrit aphorisms runs, “The learned have many names for the One”: I don’t believe a compliment is intended.) Thanks to the insularity of academic life, the scholarly class usually lives in isolation from manual laborers, rural populations, sales representatives, and other demographic groups wherein lively verbal exchanges account for as much daily intellectual activity as the printed word. At best, such groups are viewed as intellectually insignificant and hence beneath worthiness of note; yet the same scholar who embraces this supercilious attitude will hop a flight to go hold a tape recorder in front of a Saharan goatherd or an aboriginal shaman!

Even we academics are more “oral” (in a very broad sense) than we realize. We have a high propensity, I have observed, for Obsessive Compulsive Disorder—which might be parsed as an attraction to superstitious ritual. On the whole, our class disdains Western culture’s reverend bequest of beliefs in metaphysical reality—yet more than a few among us look wistfully at Earth worship or ecstasies induced by hallucinogens as the missing piece of our life’s puzzle. As for verbal formulas, we don’t retreat to them for the same reasons as would a pre-literate raconteur; yet in our zeal to be politically correct at all times, we saturate our professional routine with unexamined mumbo-jumbo, and even view the abrogation of free speech on our campuses as a kind of tribal duty.

So with a deep bow to Ruth Finnegan, I vigorously concede that the oral/literate interface is emphatically not some sound barrier the crossing of whose boundary is loudly announced by a cultural roar. We dance back and forth across the line daily, and perhaps hourly. Nevertheless, the line exists, scuffed up though it surely is. Most of the time, most people reared in an oral-tribal setting do not conceive of reality quite as we do. I lately happened on the phrase o’r blaen in a nineteenth-century Welsh text to refer to events in the past: “in front of us”. The Welsh farmer cum antiquarian Evan Jones imagined the past to lie opened up straight before him! An esteemed classicist once assured me that Homeric Greeks also viewed themselves as facing the past and having their backs to the future (a proposition that I find entirely plausible, though I never located exactly what words of Homer left him with this impression). Nothing could be further from the contemporary Western concept of the future: hence my use of the compound adjective “literate-progressive” above, which I have employed in classes for years. Many of us, indeed, so depend upon our species’ evolving—through deliberate, technologically engineered choices—in generations to come that a kind of Star Trek cult of the visionary has supplanted the religious faith of our immediate ancestors, who lavished devotion on a now-irrelevant (as we see it) past. In French literary circles of about a century ago, this new faith in the “divinity of the human race’s mission” was termed unanisme by figures like Jules Romains. Since Darwin, we literates have gravitated toward it like an Aztec to solar worship.

My studies in the traditional mind, as I think and hope, have helped in a minuscule way to flesh out such cultural and psychological differences. Walter Ong was my intellectual godfather in this endeavor; yet even Fr. Ong, at times, is perhaps excessively rigid in drawing patterns of influence. Our culture is not our jailer—only our interpreter; and culture has always been so, for all people. Indeed, one of the most pressing justifications for studying the oral/literate interface must be the strong potential of such studies to shed light upon homicidal and multiplying conflicts between the industrial, progressive West and the pastoral, atavistic East. Bridge-building is perfectly possible—but not until we identify the contours of the chasm separating us from our adversaries. Were the traditional mindset as distant from us as the thought processes of an alien from another galaxy, reviewing points of disagreement would serve no purpose; but because we can most certainly hearken back to a more cyclical, communal, and deterministic way of assessing human experience (well evidenced by our often doing so in spite of ourselves, as I wrote earlier), we might actually find means of accommodating our culturally less “evolved” brethren (where “evolution” is understood as “immersed in technology”).

The task of initiating such compromise probably must fall to us, as well: a culture that has left behind “orality” to commit itself fully to literacy is much better equipped to contemplate its previous steps than a traditional culture is to imagine steps not yet taken. This is a position I advance, by the way, at the end of the final essay, with the additional suggestion that we might even profit from recovering some of the traditional ethos. Sometimes cultural change sweeps us, through no particular virtue of our own, into morally salutary habits… and then further cultural change sweeps us—through no deep fault of our own—right out of those habits. The relevant proverb has something to do with babies and bath water.

Our Idealistic Brethren of Superior Enlightenment

“What do you mean, I’m obsessed with violence?  I hate violence!  Don’t you know that I give generously to Americans Against Guns?  I guess you didn’t know that I was at the protest marches in St. Louis to protest the slaughter of innocent young black males by police.  And the saber-rattling in Kim Jong Un’s face that only spurs him on—I call my congressperson once a month, at least, about that.  The movies? Yeah, I have friends in the industry. I’ve done some work around its edges. Wish I could do more. But you don’t understand the business.  First, we do that because Middle America loves gunplay.  Unfortunately, movies are business, like I said.  And anyway, if you watched what was happening closely, you’d know that the protagonists in most of your so-called violent Hollywood movies are forced to violence by the depraved society they live in.  These films are really a critique of violence, only you people can’t see their message because you get off on blood and guts. And anyway, only guns kill people. Movies don’t kill people. If there were no guns, then movies wouldn’t have to represent that reality. And as for my tweeting that I’d like to shove a stick of dynamite up Sarah Huckabee Sanders… well, who wouldn’t? That’s freedom of speech! But she and the orange baboon she shills for are the advocates of violence.”

Okay, brother. I think I’ve got it.

“And as for sexual exploitation—again, it’s what the public wants, in movies. And it also… again, you just don’t understand. Maybe some things are overstated on TV and such—but we’re trying to shake up America’s stuffy bourgeois repressive attitude. To demystify sex, you have to have sex everywhere. You have to get people used to seeing what’s only natural, after all. And if you’re talking about my own life, I have women because they want me to have them. We have some fun together, we do what normal, healthy people naturally do, and then we move on to the next time, either with each other or someone else. That’s not exploitation, it’s freedom. Freedom of association. Exploiting is when you make someone feel like she has to do this and that—has to get married, has to have kids, has to stay at home and be a mom. Why don’t you guys on your side stop exploiting women and let them be free human beings? Okay, so… sometimes there are misunderstandings. Bound to be. Sometimes women need to stick up for themselves more. If middle-class America didn’t bring them up to be submissive, maybe they’d have the confidence to tell a guy when to stop so that he gets the message. Right now, it’s all kind of vague, because your side has programmed women to think they shouldn’t ever speak up.”

I think we’re covering old ground.

“And racism! How can you call me a racist? Me? I love hip-hop, and sometimes I date black girls. And, you know, I want to get them back in the game by seeing that some of the injustices are balanced out. Quotas in colleges and in businesses? Why not? If you don’t make white-racist America do the right thing, it won’t get done. And even reparations—yeah, I’m for that. They have it coming. They were put behind by slavery, and now they need a boost to get back in the game. How can you call that racist? It’s just the opposite of racist. You’re the racist! You say you don’t want to notice their skin color at all? That’s just your hypocritical way of leaving them to be destroyed. They won’t make it on their own, you know.”

Actually, I’m pretty sure that they could.

Do you know this person? Have you had this conversation? It has inspired a theory of mine: that a certain weak-willed, self-indulgent, intellectually lubricious kind of showboat will uneasily glimpse particular failings in himself and then, rather than repent of them, project them all upon another. This Other becomes the repository of all that’s bad. The more our infantilized firebrand of the limber tongue fears that some despicable motive or attitude is bleeding into his conduct, the more he thrusts it upon the Other, and the louder he denounces it. We seem to have here a nascent schizophrenic: a denier of self, with ears plugged and eyes closed as he screams, “La-la-la!”—a hater of “haters” whose hatred is so intense and manifold that he must create a monstrosity to carry it clear out of his mirror.

But I’m no psychologist. I only know what I see.

Chasing Truth: The Mystery of Spiritual Presence

In the wake of my last post, I’ve detected a certain nervous unease in one or two Christian readers.  They don’t like the construction, “We can never know the full truth in this life.”  On the contrary, they protest: we compelled by our faith to declare its truth with conviction. Am I joining our time’s relativists in echoing Pontius Pilate at every turn with an anemic, “What is truth?”

Of course I’m not. But part of our faith’s essential truth is precisely the obligation to remain humble in our ineradicable ignorance here on earth.  Take the biblical assertion from which much of this protest emanates: “Nobody comes to the Father except through the Son.”  What does that mean?  That you must be a member of an organized church?  Which church?  Do Catholics qualify?  Do Unitarians?  Mormons?  What if you live a hundred miles southwest of Nowhere, New Mexico, with no church of any denomination within a two hours’ drive?

Is it enough to say the right words on cue? Is faith, then, in a verbal formula? Are you purified if you recite, “I believe that we are saved by the blood of Christ, who died so that our sins might be forgiven”?  Forgiven by whom?  By God?  By the God who made us complicated and fragile?  And is He who created us, then, so shocked and angered by our infidelity that He requires our blood, like a Mayan sun god?  And His own son must volunteer for the chopping block before the blood may stop flowing?

How does God come to have a son in a way analogous to the human cycle of regeneration, anyway?  The Muslims call us polytheists.  How do we explain the Trinity to them?  How do we explain it to ourselves?  If the Father and the Son are ultimately the same, then why does our Johannine/Pauline formula insist upon comparing the Crucifixion to the earthly case of a father sacrificing his only begotten son?

Are these really the propositions in which you claim to see transparent truth, Christians?  To the extent that they are even comprehensible, they seem fearfully sanguinary and—I must say it—grotesquely impious in their identification of God with a vindictive fury, while also—yes—looking darned close to something a bit polytheistic.

But, naturally, I am too reductive.  There is much in these mysteries of faith that we don’t understand, whatever you may say.  That was my very point—that, and the necessity of committing ourselves to attempted explanation of the mysteries, which will likely always fall short but which can bring us a little nearer the truth.

God as Christ, Christ as a blood offering… does that not say, perhaps, that the true God willingly thrusts Himself so deeply into our human misery and confusion that He partakes of our suffering—that He bleeds?  Is He not the very opposite of the cruel, false gods that drink their victims’ life up insatiably: the god who gives us His blood rather than requiring ours?  Yet to identify God inflexibly with the Incarnation would show disrespect to His transcending majesty and inviolable serenity in accomplishing His purposes.  God suffers, but does not suffer.  As with any loving parent (only more so, by an infinite exponent), the anguish incurred by His children in their growing saddens Him, even as He rejoices that they grow.

I think of it this way.  When men serve false gods, they torture themselves in the hope that the totally Other will accept their hatred for what they are as a token allowing brief admission into a higher reality.  When the Living God touches men with His truth, they become more of what they were meant to be in Him.  The departure from bestiality leaves scrapes and bruises, for contact must be made through and in the flesh—but not in a delirium of slaughtering human flesh.  We recognize ourselves better in God: we do not acquire an alien identity that absorbs us into cultic mystery.

The mystery is the absence of mystery, relative to all the Dionysiac hocus-pocus that we humans try to import into our acts of worship.  God is here and now, and we are in Him when we respect the possibility of His operation through others’ lives.  A girl has an abortion?  Damn her, the murderess!  No, praise her for sacrificing at the altar of feminine independence.  No, neither: impress upon her the enormity of denying growth to a new life… but comfort her in her error and point her toward her higher being.

Not clear?  I’ll keep trying—and please keep pressing me and opposing me.  How else shall we make this climb?