The Top Fifty Christian Movies
Saturday, June 5, 2010, 12:33 PM

     Over at the blogsite Aggie Catholics, they've run a list of the top fifty Catholic movies, by which they do not necessarily mean movies that are explicitly about Catholics, but rather movies that somehow reflect a Catholic view of the world and man's place in it.  Most of the movies listed are rather recent for my taste – "recent" being anything later than The Godfather.  I was struck by the absence of a single movie directed by John Ford, for my money the greatest English-language director ever, and a man whose imagination was profoundly Christian and Catholic (and, I might add, anti-modernist), and only one movie by Frank Capra, the one to be expected — It's a Wonderful Life.  So I'm asking all you out there, what movies would you include on a list of the top 50 Christian movies of all time?  Again, it doesn't mean that the movie is explicitly religious, but rather that a Christian view of the world informs the whole.  Here is my list, unranked:

1. The Passion of the Christ

2. Jesus of Nazareth

3. Ben-Hur (William Wyler's version)

4. The Ten Commandments

5. Friendly Persuasion

6. How Green Was My Valley

7. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

8. Stagecoach

9. You Can't Take It With You

10. It's a Wonderful Life

11. It Happened One Night

12. On the Waterfront

13. Chariots of Fire

14. The Searchers

15. Mission

16. A Man for All Seasons

17. The Inn of the Sixth Happiness

18. Life with Father

19. I Confess

20. Foreign Correspondent

21. The Man Who Knew Too Much

22. The Bells of Saint Mary's

23. The Apostle

24. Tender Mercies

25. The Trip to Bountiful

26. The Straight Story

27. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (!)

28. To Kill a Mockingbird

29. The Third Man

30. All My Sons

31. The Diary of Anne Frank

32. Teacher

33. Angel and the Badman

34. Judgment at Nuremberg

35. Lilies of the Field

36. Brideshead Revisited

37. The Nun's Story

38. Sergeant York

39. Casablanca

40. The African Queen

41. Witness

42. The Agony and the Ecstasy

43. The Wizard of Oz

44. The Hunchback of Notre Dame

45. A Tale of Two Cities

46. Twelve Angry Men

47. The Grapes of Wrath

48. The Birdman of Alcatraz

49. King Lear

50. All Quiet on the Western Front

You see, my knowledge of foreign films is about nil… Any other suggestions?



Outrage in Canuckistan, Take Two
Saturday, May 29, 2010, 1:11 PM

   A Mere Comments reader has forwarded to me very good news to report about the Catholic Church in Canada, which I'll save for a coming post.  Meanwhile, here is an example of some of the outrage in the Canadian press, over Cardinal Marc Ouellet's quiet-spoken but clear affirmation of the evil of abortion.  The author, one Patrick Lagace, rehashes the same wearisome non-arguments that we hear in the United States.  It is the twenty-first century, not the nineteenth, don't you know!  As if the morality of an action depends upon what time it is; and as if the last ugly century did not put to rest forever the notion that mankind's moral progress is uninterrupted and predictable, rather than being at best fitful, with an advance here marred by degeneracy there.  What the author means, and what he is not honest enough to say, is simply this: "We in Quebec now want to take off our pants when and with whom we please, and to the devil or the dumpster with the unwanted children we may conceive!"  It is no more dignified than that.

     And then, like the click of a cheap timepiece, comes the assertion that Cardinal Ouellet is just like a certain vicious Iranian imam.  Such is the stupidity of the press.  Cardinal Ouellet is, like most prelates in the United States and Canada, a moderately liberal fellow, for better and for worse; he accepts most of the assumptions behind a welfare state; he has made his peace with democracy; he views reason and faith as friendly to one another (as do I, naturally); he believes that one ought to render unto Caesar what is Caesar's, a command that would be incomprehensible to the faithful Muslim, for whom the mosque is the state and the state is the mosque.  But he also believes that Christians have not only the right but the duty to proclaim the moral law, not for themselves alone but for the common good, regardless of what might be popular at the moment.  And this, the journalist Lagace cannot abide.  This is what earns Ouellet the title of "fundamentalist."  Allow me to interpret.  A "fundamentalist" is anyone who believes that people do not have the moral right to fornicate or commit adultery, and who does not believe it is right to dispense with the unwanted child that might result.  It does not matter that Cardinal Ouellet is not a Biblical literalist.  It does not matter whether he is a Thomist, after the Laval school of Charles DeKoninck, or a Platonizing Christian, after the manner of Dietrich von Hildebrand; it does not matter whether he holds a sunny view of democracy and the Church's relationship to it, as did Jacques Maritain, or whether, like such conservatives as Frederick Wilhelmsen, he views democracy as beset with its own intractable problems.  In the ill-educated and ill-tempered world of western journalism, one does not actually have to learn anything about the figures one accuses.  Does the Cardinal believe that public nudity ought to be outlawed?  Fundamentalist!  That people should not have the right to kill their children in the womb?  Fundamentalist!  That divorce is a social evil?  Fundamentalist!

     Who, pray tell, is the fundamentalist here?  Who is performing the equivalent of employing a proof-text?  Who is divorcing moral assertion from reasoned argument?  It is typical of the secular left, and rather predictable.  When one believes that good and evil are not objective realities to be discovered by the practical reason and to be honored in custom and law, and when, moreover, one dispenses with God's revelation, which does not override reason but clarifies matters for us, giving our reason a boost — then nothing remains but to believe that "good" and "evil" are subjective and relative to the evaluator and his society.  I don't mean to say that Monsieur Lagace has thought the matter out so explicitly; indeed it is characteristic of the contemporary journalist not to think at all.  But, absent a law and a Lawgiver to which and to whom we must all, individually and as a people, give homage, the State comes to fill the void, and what is "right" will be determined by those who shout the loudest, or who have the most money, or who fill the positions of greatest prominence and prestige.  Moral argument collapses, and people shout, "It's right because I say so!"  Which is essentially what Lagace, in the matter of abortion, is doing.

     Had he stopped there, it would have been bad enough, but he continued, noting that Cardinal Ouellet had also weighed in on end-of-life issues.  The Cardinal, it seems, does not believe that the State has the right to allow people to kill themselves when they are terribly sick, or, more accurately, to enlist the assistance of physicians in killing themselves.  Such a retrograde, this Cardinal!  He believes what just about everybody believed when I was a child — and Monsieur Lagace may be surprised to learn that I am far from two hundred years old.  Let us be absolutely clear here.  Cardinal Ouellet believes in the inestimable value of every human life, from conception to natural death.  He believes that every being of human origin is to be regarded as holy — because every such being is in fact holy.  It is those who champion assisted suicide who believe that certain lives are worthless, that their suffering has no value.  I am reading an excellent book by the president of Gonzaga University, Robert Spitzer, S.J., called Healing the Culture; in it the author makes the point that sometimes it is only through suffering that we confess that we are vulnerable, and that our hearts go out towards our fellow sufferers in love.  Cardinal Ouellet would understand; Monsieur Lagace does not read such books.

     So Lagace ended his article by wishing that Cardinal Ouellet would die "a slow, painful death," so that he would know what it was like to have only skin on your bones and to be vomiting up your own excrement.  A slow and painful death — like that of Jesus, perhaps?  Or that of John Paul II?  Or Therese of Lisieux?  But what really astonishes me is that any press would print such a thing.  Imagine if Cardinal Ouellet had said, "I hope that Beverly McLachlin," pro-abortion chief justice of the Canadian supreme court, "dies a slow and painful death."  First, no one would publish that statement, and second, there would be calls from Vancouver to Saint John's for the Cardinal to resign.  What kind of person can wish such a thing?  I do not like Beverly McLachlin.  I think she is a foolish and dangerous politician — and I have on this site pasted her for upholding what I called the Judy Jetson Theory of International Jurisprudence: "But Daddy, it's all the rage on Pluto!"  But I do not hope that she dies a slow and painful death.  What a disgusting thing to wish!  I hope she dies a blessed death, in union with her Savior.  I hope the same thing for other politicians whom I believe to be naive or dangerous or treacherous or just plain wrong — for that mixed-up erstwhile Baptist Bill Clinton, for instance.  But that is because, unlike Monsieur Lagace, I believe in God — and therefore the State assumes its legitimate place, somewhat lower on the list of my concerns.  It is not the ultimate reality.  I am not, as Monsieur Lagace is, a secular fundamentalist.  I am not like those people who rejoiced some years ago when it appeared that Dr. James Dobson was dying.  Monsieur Lagace apparently is.

     One last word.  The article by Lagace shows the fatuousness of laws against "hate speech."  His words were, after all, steeped in hate.  But his target was only a Catholic Cardinal, so he needn't worry.  Bishop Fred Henry of Calgary a couple of years ago dared to say that homosexual behavior was objectively disordered — as the Church teaches.  He was accused of "hate speech."  He wasn't prosecuted, but others in Canada who have said as much have been.  The secular left — those fundamentalists among whom I have lived all my professional life — have no way of understanding the moral arguments of such people as Fred Henry and Marc Ouellet, because they have lost their religious faith and have demoted reason to the utilitarian and technological.  Therefore they accuse their opponents of hate.  Hate is one thing they do understand.  There is a good reason for that. 



Spirituality without Spirits
Saturday, May 29, 2010, 10:47 AM

     My friend David Mills, erstwhile editor of Touchstone and now assistant editor of First Things, has posted a really interesting article on the phrase that one often hears (especially, as one commenter notes, from women into Reiki and macrobiotic diets), "I'm not religious, but I'm spiritual."  Check it out.  It reminds me of a conversation I had with an atheist friend last summer.  I mentioned the virtue of reverence, and how it was demanded by our encounters with both the natural world and one another.  He apparently liked that a great deal, and has been thinking about it ever since.  But as for me, I am trying to figure out how to say to him, "Reverence without an objective quality of being worthy of reverence makes no sense, and reverence without One to revere quickly collapses into a nice feeling, utterly unable to withstand the tidal wave of utilitarianism."



Outrage in Canuckistan
Thursday, May 27, 2010, 4:09 PM

     Recently, Canadian cardinal Marc Ouellet has tried, in clear yet temperate language, to reopen in Canada discussion of abortion.  It is heartening to hear any of the Canadian prelates speaking about this or any other moral issue.  That is because Canada (and here I should affirm our love for the people of that country, where my family and I spend every summer) suffers several impediments to discussion that do not apply in the United States.  For one thing, if religious people in America think that the television media and the newspapers and the gray old weeklies like Time are against them, that is nothing compared to the homogeneous secularism of the media in Canada.  Government in Canada keeps strict watch over what sorts of people are granted broadcast licenses, and what sorts of programs will be aired.  The result is that there basically is no such thing as talk radio north of the border; only a few innocuous shows here and there, but that is it.  It took many years for EWTN to win permission by Ottawa to be placed on the docket for cable television.  For a while, the bitter jest was that EWTN was broadcast everywhere in the world but in Red China and Canada.  Religious programming on the major networks is minimal – the ineffectual and oh-so-gingerly feminist 100 Huntley Street comes to mind.  Whatever one may think of the virtues and vices of Fox News, The Washington Times, The Weekly Standard, the Rush Limbaugh show, the Drudge Report, the Heritage Foundation, and Christian radio, the fact is that in Canada such countervailing voices, whether so-called conservative, genuinely conservative, or religious, are not to be heard.

     Canadians also suffer under their relatively new Charter of Rights, and the presumptuous interpretations of said Charter by their supreme court.  Someone should — who knows, perhaps someone already has done it — hold up for Burkean analysis this ill-conceived and amnesiac document for empowering the central government or, worse, unelected courts, ostensibly to protect individual rights, but actually to enshrine a view of the individual as radically independent of culture, the family, the community, and any moral law whatsoever regarding sexuality.  As for the Catholic Church in Canada, it long ago made a devil's bargain with the government, accepting federal money while at the same time capitulating to increasingly intrusive federal regulations and court decisions.  In some parts of Canada — Nova Scotia, for example — there are no Catholic schools at all.  Like the American bishops with their Land O' Lakes hedging and footdragging, Canadian prelates had their own treacherous meeting after Humanae Vitae, at Winnipeg.  The liturgical devastators who spoiled whole dioceses in America seem to have been especially busy north of the border, so that in many places, as I am told by sympathetic priests, it is simply impossible to find a parish where, for instance, genuine hymns are sung, or the feasts of the liturgical year are celebrated with appropriate attention.

     Anyway, Cardinal Ouellet made his temperate remarks about abortion.  The media erupted in outrage.  Then ensued something that was disappointing and entirely predictable.  Other Church officials straightaway tried to explain what the Cardinal meant and did not mean, and fell over themselves to reassure people that they understood the "tragedy" of abortion, the anguish suffered by women who face an unwanted child, and so forth.  They gave the ballgame away — one fellow even implying that, in conscience, women cannot be held accountable for abortion when abortion is the only choice available.

     It is enough to make one tear one's hair out for frustration.  Let us be clear about a couple of things.  Canada is a great welfare state.  All kinds of support, public and private, is available for unwed mothers.  Partly as a result of this generosity, unwed mothers are everywhere.  In Cardinal Ouellet's province of Quebec, more than half of all children are born out of wedlock.  The rate in the rest of Canada is not too far behind.

     What "tragedy" can we be talking about here?  What none of the churchmen mention is that fornication is simply a way of life in Canada.  Why is Tiffany pregnant?  Because Tiffany has been shacking up with her boyfriend for two years.  Why is Ashley pregnant?  Because she went home with a boy after a party once too often.  This is not the stuff of tragedy, but of old-fashioned selfishness, irresponsibility, and lust.  It's not as if a Canadian woman is walking one day down Dominion Street and, ping! she finds herself with child.  Last time I checked, people have to take off their clothes to make a baby.

     Ah, but of course the joker here is contraception.  People are supposed to be protected from the natural consequences of their actions.  And when the pill does not work (and, given enough time, it will eventually fail), then abortion is the backup.  Imagine a device in a car that limits speed to thirty miles an hour.  I wish to get drunk, and to drive home, and so I do the "responsible" thing, which is to turn on the speed-limiting device.  That way, I won't be quite so likely to wrap my car around a tree.  Now who would say, if I total my car anyway, that I was involved in something wholly accidental?  Wouldn't people say to me, "If you did not want to total your car, you should not have been drunk behind the wheel?"  What none of the prelates want to say is yet the most obvious thing of all to say: "If you did not want a child, why were you having sexual intercourse?  Why did you take your clothes off?  That was not accidental, but deliberate."  What then will be the excuse?  "I did it because it felt good."  "I did it because I could never keep my boyfriend" — or girlfriend! — "if I didn't."  "I did it because everybody does it, and it's no big deal."  "I did it because I was in love."  And for these lame reasons, we are to excuse the offense against prudence, against the proper use of one's sex, and against charity toward the child — who will grow up without the married mother and father he deserves.

     And what is supposed to happen — where is the tragedy — if the child is brought to term?  Again, we are talking about a welfare state here, and one in which there is absolutely no social stigma remaining for bearing a child out of wedlock.  "I will have to quit school for a while."  "I will have to quit my job, and my boyfriend will have to work nights."  "I will have to go home and live with my mother, and we don't get along."  We are not talking about matters of life and death, but of preferences and conveniences and delayed or discarded plans.  I am not saying that it is easy to take care of a baby, particularly when one is not married.  All I am saying is that to call such things "tragic" is to stretch the word beyond all usefulness.  The prelates should say to their charges, "If you do not wish to bear a child, you should not be doing what makes women pregnant."  And, "Fornication violates the moral law."  Indeed, according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, it is gravely sinful.  Which means, barring invincible ignorance, and other spiritual conditions known only to God, those who die unrepentant of the evil will take their sweating places alongside those sodomite priests we all pretend to be so scandalized by.  Imagine the outcry if the Cardinal had said that.



Time and Eternity
Thursday, May 20, 2010, 6:17 PM

     My daughter Jessica has graduated from Providence College, cum laude.  She was homeschooled alll the way through, which meant that we did a lot of things that she probably wouldn't have otherwise (meteorology and Latin), and that she hadn't read To Kill a Mockingbird and Catcher in the Rye and other overrated staples of middle school and high school in the last forty years, but she did read The Lord of the Rings, many times over, on her own.  But then her whole career at college was sui generis, with ten courses in German, two in Swedish, two in linguistics, a seminar in Tolkien — aside from the round of courses in philosophy and theology and Western Civilization that we require of all students.  She is a happy young lady, and will be teaching German and literature to homeschooled students in a co-operative next year.  What she's really on the lookout for is someone to marry, someday.  For my part, I can't believe that all this has happened.  My arms still have memories of holding her when she was a baby, or washing her in the tub, or swinging her up in the air. 

     The most important thing my wife and I have given her, more important even than our love and care, has been the Christian faith.  And so she listened appreciatively last Saturday, along with the other honors students, as the class valedictorian — an extraordinarily bright and happy young fellow — gave a speech on T. S. Eliot's Four Quartets.  He said that time was not simply linear, as we unthinkingly suppose, but that time past still lingers in time present, and time future is here too in its seed, because time returns to itself, and is steeped in the time beyond time, eternity.  He placed his and his classmates' four years of education in the mansion of the eternal, reminding them that their memories of school, even such humble moments as enjoying a meal with a friend, are meant also to be redeemed and to take their place as more than memories in the beatific vision, towards which they were called to journey.  His speech fit well with that of another of my students, a friend of Jessica's, who spoke earlier at the Honors breakfast.  She too talked about the Four Quartets, and what Eliot calls "endless humility."  These fine young people were hardly alone in their joy that day; and I mean joy, not pleasure, not relief, not the fierce feeling of accomplishment.  It was that beaming full-hearted childlike joy that only innocence in the faith can give.  I see it nowhere else.

     Then the next day came the actual graduation: twelve hundred students, thousands of their family members and friends, various dignitaries, and the commencement speaker, all in the big downtown arena where the basketball team plays its games.  That speaker, if she only knew the standards to which her talk would be held, might have prepared a little better, or maybe reconsidered every platitude which she dealt out with the regularity of burgers and fries at a franchise fast-food eatery, billions upon billions sold.  It was not, I was told later by one of my students, a graduate with highest honors in philosophy, who will be joining the Dominicans this year, as bad as last year's speech.  Perhaps so, but it was foolish enough.  I tried to figure out how to describe it, and can only say that it was a weird brew: worldliness and self-absorption mingled with humanitarian feeling, like honey to get the poison down.  I shouldn't have expected anything different; after all, she is a television personality, a "journalist," and that career does not make for considered reflection, much less a meditation upon the Four Quartets. 

     She said that the graduates need not worry about the economy, because it will rebound.  They must be ready for it when it does.  She said that when she graduated from journalism school, her first job was as a cocktail waitress.  She was chubby then too, she said.  Her mother, whose accent she imitated with great aplomb, said that she should marry a rich man.  But she didn't pay attention to her mother.  She persisted.  She quoted Winston Churchill, saying, "Never give in, never give in, never give in!"  One must pursue one's dreams, and that is that.  She noted, by the way, that underneath her academic robe she was wearing a "knockout" dress.  If you don't achieve your dream right away, she said, you shouldn't worry.  Many people were "late bloomers," among whom she numbered Charles Darwin and Mother Teresa.  I was left wondering what kind of mind could possibly conceive of Mother Teresa as a "late bloomer" — what such a description could even mean, applied to the Albanian nun who early in her life dedicated herself entirely to Jesus and to serving the poor.  It was, naturally, taken for granted that one's dream would somehow fit nicely with "making a difference" in the world.  She had, for example, traveled all over the world to televise stories — for instance, the horrible treatment of women by the warring sides in East Congo.  She asserted that mankind had made great moral advances — choosing her temporal endpoints and her issues in order to make the point, and ignoring, say, pornography, divorce, abortion, and the general cultural collapse of the west.

     And that was it.  It was the face of secularism, at its nicest: shallow, hedonistic, loosely humanitarian, arrogant, and self-advertising.  It made me think, "All of these students now listening have read Dante, Augustine, Aquinas, and Milton, not to mention Sacred Scripture, and much more.  What are they hearing right now?"  I found out what at least one of my students was hearing.  He accosted me in the hallway afterwards and said, "Doctor E, wasn't that the worst speech you ever heard?"  No, I said, it was not the worst, not by far.  But it came like words from a world of flatness.  My daughter thought it was plain silly, too.  Who says that homeschooling isn't the way to go!



Hermeneutics of Hate
Wednesday, May 5, 2010, 10:52 AM

     Every few years I end up with a student who has been taught to hate.  Not all things in general; only those things that have to do with God, or the Church.  At my school, that means the Roman Catholic Church, and so great expanses of human history also come under the ban: the late classical period, the Middle Ages, and even the Renaissance.  It is a prejudice almost impervious to evidence and reasoning.  My colleagues and I can say all we want that, for example, the university was invented by Christians in the Middle Ages, or that the thirteenth century was a time of vibrant intellectual, artistic, and economic activity; or that perhaps the greatest poem ever written, the Divine Comedy, is impossible to conceive without the theology of Thomas Aquinas and the mystic contemplation of Bonaventure; or that the actual divide between how the rich and the poor in Europe lived would not be so narrow again until the nineteenth century.  Or that Christian bishops in the late Roman Empire took up the civic responsibilities that a long degraded and indifferent senatorial class had abandoned — that if anybody in Milan in the late fourth century was charged with making sure that the poor had grain, it was the bishop, Ambrose; or that, far from using the power of the state to enforce false conversions, Ambrose threatened to excommunicate the emperor for his massacre of Arian heretics in Thessalonika.  Or that the first Crusade was preached by Urban II in response to a plea for help from the Byzantine emperor, whose lands were hard pressed by the new Muslim rulers in the Holy Land, the Seljuk Turks.  Or that the charge that the Crusaders had colonialist motives fails to take into account that many of the leaders were aristocrats — and not landless younger sons, either — who impoverished themselves by the enterprise.

     I could go on, but the reader will get the point.  This year, for instance, I had for one of my students a young man who hated everything I taught, and everything I said about it.  The hate prevented him from seeing how much certain of our authors agreed with his view of the world and not necessarily with mine.  For it is hard to contain hate, once it gets going.  Of the witty and urbane Ludovico Ariosto, a whimsical Christian at best, and also probably the single most determined defender of women that the Renaissance produced, the student said that he was a misogynist.  It was the maximum possible error, like predicting that the Detroit Lions would win the Super Bowl.  When writing about the Epithalamion of Edmund Spenser — a wedding poem of incomparable beauty, delicacy, earthy celebration, and spiritual rejoicing — he called the men who were summoned to attend upon the groom "his slaves," missing the communal character of the joyful day, with young men lighting bonfires and ladies dancing and boys shouting and running up and down the street.  Writing about George Herbert's striking poem "Prayer" — a poem that is a list of analogies and metaphors without a main clause and verb, as the poet struggles to penetrate the mystery of prayer — he claims that the poet adopts a distant and ironic stance, the only one that the writer himself could imagine.

     The problem is not a lack of intelligence.  On the contrary, the haters I have met have always been at least moderately bright.  The problem is the hate.  Hatred causes blindness.  Where the hatred comes from, I can't tell.  One possible source, though, is our educational system itself.  Whenever a teacher encourages a self-satisfied superiority to people who lived and wrought works of art in the past — whenever the teacher rewards the easy contempt wherein we can hold people who happened not to possess democratic institutions, or whose customs regarding marriage were not the same as those in our time of sexual free-for-all, or who did not know that the earth revolves about the sun — whatever may happen to be the "sins" of our forebears — then the student begins to hate, and the possibility for learning begins to fade away. 

     What is true of students is also true of teachers themselves.  It is true of everybody.  I recall an anecdote from a Shakespeare conference some twenty five years ago.  An elderly Shakespearean stood up to decry what had become of recent Shakespearean criticism, when he was suddenly put down by a famous feminist critic, who said of the professor that he was making an elementary mistake; he did not understand that they did not like Shakespeare.  It did not occur to her to ask whether anything of any real use could be written by someone who did not at least try to meet the playwright on his own terms; just as a man traveling in a foreign country will learn nothing if he does not attempt to appreciate the culture he is encountering, but instead judges it from his own position of superiority.  And yet this sort of chauvinism is everywhere to be met in the academy.  It would be downright laughable, this sight of teachers of modest intellectual attainment, presuming to sniff with contempt at an Aeschylus or a Milton, did it not waste so much time and money, and, worse than failing to teach, help to make students ineducable.  How this lesson applies also to our media, I'll leave to my readers to judge.



I See the Dog
Friday, April 30, 2010, 3:14 PM

      I am looking at my puppy dog, Jasper.  He is a Japanese Chin and Chihuahua mix, looking more like a small spaniel than anything else.  He is a dog in training, learning how to live with human beings, reacting in the proper dogly manner when he is asked, "Do you want to go outside?" or "Do you want some food?"  He is, according to a colleague of mine in the biology department, a machine; but that is bad biology, bad linguistics, and bad metaphysics.  A machine is typically an imitation animal, whose parts work according to some concatenated and therefore strictly artificial order.  It is organized, so to speak, but it is not an organism.  A single bacterium possesses a complexity, an integrated unity among its parts, and an ability to interact with its environment, that makes the computer I am typing on seem rather like a rock sitting inert in a field.  The rock has being, but the bacterium is a being, a living thing.  So much the more Jasper, who at the moment is chewing happily upon a piece of rawhide.

     What Jasper is not — and the car is not, and the computer is not, and the rock in the field is not — is a person.  A few weeks ago, the philosopher Alice Von Hildebrand, in a lecture at Providence College, repeated a saying of her husband, Dietrich von Hildebrand, to the effect that after the division between being and nonbeing, the greatest divide in being was not that between living and nonliving being, but between personal and impersonal being.  That is — alas for Jasper — what separates my dog from the rock in the field is not so great as what separates my dog from me.  This appears counterintuitive to us, I think, only because we forget how wondrous a thing man is.  Christians are almost the only humanists left — by which I mean the only people who would understand what moved Michelangelo to paint the Creation of Adam, or what moved the blind Milton to lead up in poetic climax to the single sight he missed the most, the "human face divine."  We see that the dog has eyes and ears and nose and mouth, and we have eyes and ears and nose and mouth; we walk, the dog walks; we eat, the dog eats.  So we draw the conclusion that we are like the dog, and, as far as the likeness goes, we are right; but we forget that at the same time we are like the source and end of personhood, God — and that likeness penetrates to the core of our being.

     For it is a great mystery, this of personhood.  Imagine the universe without a single person to observe it, and to revel in its beauty.  What a gray and futile thing it is!  But with the creation of a person, something enters the universe which in a real sense is greater than the universe.  For the universe cannot understand itself.  It cannot love itself.  It cannot imagine itself as other than it is.  It cannot encounter anything.  It exists, but it cannot say, "I exist," much less "You exist," and, more marvelous still, "How wonderful it is that you exist!"  My dog Jasper likes us, and capers and jumps up and down when I come home from work.  But he does not pause before the mystery of me.  He does not reflect upon me.  He does not ask, "What is it like to be my master?"  He looks into my eyes when I scratch him behind the ears, but he cannot say, "What is good for you will be good for me," or "Because I love you, I give myself wholly to you."  

     There are no ordinary people, said C. S. Lewis.  When you meet a person, you are encountering someone "a little less than the angels," someone capable not only of the cardinal virtues that make for a half-decent city, but, by the grace of God, of faith, hope, and charity.  My dog Jasper is close to God in this sense: he does what a dog ought to do.  But he cannot worship.  He cannot pray.  He cannot respond to God in love.  When I say, "I see the dog," I am affirming the startling existence of someone, myself; and it may be that my affirmation of my own existence, as a person, depends upon my affirmation of the Person who made the world wherein my personhood has come into being.



Internet Detox
Friday, April 16, 2010, 4:54 PM

     That's what I've been on, more or less, for the last few weeks, hardly visiting any websites other than that of my beloved Saint Louis Cardinals.  On Monday, though, I embarked on a several-day fast.  That's because, right after teaching a two-and-a-half-hour class on Dante's Paradise, sitting in the sun with my students outside of the Dominican Priory on campus, I came down with a sudden fever; by the time I got home it was 103.  It's a bad leg I have, which gets infected now and again; so I pump myself with antibiotics and lie on my back with my leg propped up under pillows.  When the fever broke, I spent a couple of days mainly on the floor of our living room, with the leg on the couch.  I played with our new puppy.  I watched old television shows with my wife.  I said some prayers.  What I did not do, for quite a few days, was look at the bleary-making sludge of news and come-ons that is the internet.  I didn't even check my mail.  And I felt like somebody who has been drinking too much, who has cut back, and then gone on the wagon for a little while, drying out, slowly returning to sanity.

     I write this, of course, on an internet site, so my readers should take everything I say with a shaker of salt, since it's clear that I've gone and opened up another internet bottle, and am even contributing some moonshine of my own for others to sample.  Still, I did feel, for those few days, like somebody who has been forced by circumstances to make a judicious retreat, and to learn to be more human for a while.  I have happily missed, for example, the outrageous farce playing in England, where a couple of raving madmen wish to arrest the Pope for crimes against humanity; I won't grace the stupidity of the charges with the courtesy of a rebuttal.  They are miles beyond the absurd, particularly when one considers that England is a perfectly toxic place now to raise a child, and that Benedict XVI is almost the last person remaining in Europe who believes in the holiness of human sexuality.  And he, of all people, has been most energetic in ensuring, as well as is humanly possible, that such crimes will not happen again.

     (By the way, a prediction.  I recall, from the late eighties, that pedophilia had something of the chic about it, from the libertines and illuminati among us.  Camille Paglia, for one, said that she was offended that scoutmasters and others were haled off to prison for doing what the Greeks at the height of their cultural achievement enshrined in art and poetry.  The homosexual hero of The Kiss of the Spider Woman was in prison for molesting a boy; that made him, among moviegoers who trumped up that strange and miserable work, a figure of some humorous sympathy, not a moral monster.  Mary Eberstadt, in a recent issue of First Things, made a similar observation, bringing to bear many a quote from those days.  In any case, there's a disconnect here that will have to be resolved.  We are sex-besotted, as a stroll down the aisles of any drug store will show, not to mention an analysis of how much money we spend on pornography, or a hard look at our out-of-wedlock birthrates, or a cursory viewing of what passes for family fare on the television networks.  And we consistently value the welfare and the desires of adults over the needs of children.  So our outrage over pedophilia will fade, just as we now greet the nude strollers at a gay pride parade with a yawn, and shrug when we hear that someone has four children by three different fathers.  The outrage is simply inconsistent with everything else about sex to which we have committed ourselves, and with our neglect of the welfare of children.)

     In any case, I find, with the pull of the internet, that I end up thinking about the things that everybody else is thinking about, and I'd rather not do that.  I run the danger of lapsing into the unreality of that world.  Yes, I understand that watching an old episode of Gunsmoke with my wife is not exactly to engage reality — though the show was remarkably fine at portraying a rich variety of human goodness.  But we also talked.  And the puppy needed to be seen to.  And the birds have been singing outside the window.  And the rhododendrons and the flowering quince and the forsythia are all in bloom at once.  And God, who is closer to us than we are to ourselves, is good, and works wonders, some of them, as my friend the Dominican microbiologist put it, incredibly obvious, and others quiet and subtle, which only a lover will see.  Going on internet detox for a few days was, alas, a great thing for me; a great thing for reminding me of truths that are as solid as rock.  I am looking forward to the summer, when my family and I go to Canada and live in a house without access to the internet.  I'll read books, and ride bikes with my son, and visit neighbors, and go swimming alone in a woodland lake, and harvest wild berries.  Yes, I'll check my mail at a local library twice a week, drat it, and, more important, see what the Cardinals have been doing.  And I'll try to contribute to this blog, too.



Christ Jesus, Victor
Saturday, April 3, 2010, 6:29 PM

    The greatest conqueror the world has known, and shall ever know, did not wield the sword or swing the battle-axe; did not lead men in marches upon famous cities, reducing them to famine or rubble; did not parry and thrust his way to the leadership of an empire, commanding the men he reduced to wards of the state to call him their benefactor and to pray for his continued success; did not file his wit to become the chief of a school; did not write a word that we know of, except perhaps the sins he traced in the sand, sins of the men who wanted to trap him.

     I meditate upon his terrible beauty, as he hangs upon the cross.  He was mocked, scourged, crowned with thorns, and led away to the death of a criminal, of one who was to sink below the dignity of a human being; the death of a no-one, of the ultimate victim.  He was innocent, and because he was innocent, men could not abide him for long.  They found a way to hate him; hate can always find its reasons.  Yet he gave up his life for his persecutors, praying that they might be forgiven, for they did not know what they were doing.  Nor do we, sinners as we are.

     His body was broken open, but he had always been broken open — his very being was only for the Father, and, therefore, only for us his brothers and sisters.  In his sacrifice we see the mystery of being itself, which is also the mystery of love.  For God who created a world that was good redeems man who falls away from the good.  It is his extravagant love for us that we see emblazoned upon Jesus, on the cross, giving himself away, giving himself forever in the sacraments that flowed from his pierced side.  Here is the secret of greatness that the world had always overlooked; the greatness of Jesus who became as nothing, so that we might become something, even sons and daughters, sons in the Son.

     The world is old, and stupid.  It wears the sniggering leer of the demagogue, the avid glance of the privateer of finance, the smug half-smile of the professor in the know.  It does not want to understand the Cross, and Jesus who suffered upon it, because it is afraid of the new life that springs from Him; because that new life can take you where you do not know you want to go.  But Jesus, who died for us, conquers by dying, conquers by giving of himself utterly.  If we would be conquerors, if we would be as God himself, we must make ourselves one with Jesus, and give utterly.  That cross, we feel, is too heavy for us to bear.  It is too heavy; we cannot carry it.  Then we must confess our nothingness, our weakness, and, as Therese of Lisieux says, let the cross carry us.  We would be soldiers alongside our captain; first let us be as nothing, acknowledging that without Him who emptied Himself for us, we too are empty, like wooden idols, or like the waste and void before God said, "Let there be light."

     I look upon Jesus, crucified, and see that once the Lord has come, there is no choice but either to grasp after the delusions of power, or the sillier delusions of pleasure, or to be carried forth with him on the adventure of being, the adventure of love. 



The Pursuit of Something Other than Happiness
Monday, March 8, 2010, 6:47 PM

     The other day I was speaking on the phone with Dr. Alice von Hildebrand, the fiery Catholic philosopher, widow of the redoubtable Dietrich von Hildebrand, and bete noire to Catholic feminists everywhere.  Dr. Von Hildebrand will be coming to Providence College next week to speak about her new book, Man and Woman: A Divine Invention (on the 18th, 7 PM, in Moore Hall III).  In any case, in the course of our conversation she mentioned that she placed Saint Bonaventure above Saint Thomas Aquinas, because, as she put it, Aquinas attempted to baptize Aristotle, and Aristotle is hard to baptize.  Not impossible, mind you, but hard.  Here I expected her to mention the standard objection to Dante's "master of those who know," that he believed in the co-eternity of the world and of God.  But instead she surprised me by objecting to Aristotle's "eudaemonism," the belief that happiness is that which we seek for its own sake and not instrumentally for the sake of something else.  This "happiness," I replied, could easily be raised to the power of beatitude, so to speak; but I had to acknowledge the force of the objection, when she in turn replied that in Plato it is rather the soul's love for the divine that is primary. 

     And something of that we do find in the Psalms and elsewhere in Scripture.  We do not find recipes for happiness in Scripture, not exactly, for the blessedness whereof Scripture speaks is of a different quality altogether than was Greek "well-being".  When the Psalmist says, "As the deer longs for the running streams, so my soul longs for thee, my God," he is expressing a desire, and a love, that makes the Aristotelian search for happiness, and therefore also the much-diluted Jeffersonian search for happiness, look rather petty by comparison.  I say this as a long-time defender of Aristotle…. Or when the Psalmist says that God's commandments are his meditation in the night, I cannot imagine that such meditation is instrumental to anything; it is a delight in itself, as if it were already a happiness beyond human reach, to be raised by God into that love of God with all one's heart and mind and soul and strength which Jesus says is the greatest of the commandments.  Another way of putting this is that a Saint Bonaventure can comprehend Aristotle, but Aristotle cannot comprehend Saint Bonaventure, because the love of God, the thirst to dwell in his house for length of days, the delight of the just man's meditation, would be a new thing in the Greek world.  I think, perhaps, it is a new thing in this world, too.

     In this regard a line from Herbert's poem "Christmas" strikes me as fitting: Jesus awaits the speaker, expecting "till the grief / Of pleasures brought me to him."  The grief of pleasures; the grief of the pursuit of well-being; the grief of life lived for oneself, even one's Aristotelian self.  I have to admit that the good doctor has a point.


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