Friday, July 31, 2020

What is truth?

Andrew Sullivan explains "The Roots Of Wokeness":
.... Beginning as a critique of all grand theories of meaning—from Christianity to Marxism—postmodernism is a project to subvert the intellectual foundations of western culture. The entire concept of reason—whether the Enlightenment version or even the ancient Socratic understanding—is a myth designed to serve the interests of those in power, and therefore deserves to be undermined and “problematized’ reason whenever possible. Postmodern theory does so mischievously and irreverently—even as it leaves nothing in reason’s place. The idea of objective truth—even if it is viewed as always somewhat beyond our reach—is abandoned. All we have are narratives, stories, whose meaning is entirely provisional, and can in turn be subverted or problematized.

During the 1980s and 1990s, this somewhat aimless critique of everything hardened into a plan for action. Analyzing how truth was a mere function of power, and then seeing that power used against distinct and oppressed identity groups, led to an understandable desire to do something about it, and to turn this critique into a form of activism. ....

You can see the rationale. After all, the core truth of our condition, this theory argues, is that we live in a system of interlocking oppressions that penalize various identity groups in a society. And all power is zero-sum: you either have power over others or they have power over you. To the extent that men exercise power, for example, women don’t; in so far as straight people wield power, gays don’t; and so on. There is no mutually beneficial, non-zero-sum advancement in this worldview. All power is gained only through some other group’s loss. And so the point became not simply to interpret the world, but to change it, to coin a phrase, an imperative which explains why some critics call this theory a form of neo-Marxism.

The “neo” comes from switching out Marxism’s focus on materialism and class in favor of various oppressed group identities, who are constantly in conflict the way classes were always in conflict. And in this worldview, individuals only exist at all as a place where these group identities intersect. You have no independent existence outside these power dynamics. I am never just me. I’m a point where the intersecting identities of white, gay, male, Catholic, immigrant, HIV-positive, cis, and English all somehow collide. You can hear this echoed in the famous words of Ayanna Pressley: “We don’t need any more brown faces that don’t want to be a brown voice. We don’t need any more black faces that don’t want to be a black voice.” An assertion of individuality is, in fact, an attack upon the group and an enabling of oppression.

Just as this theory denies the individual, it also denies the universal. There are no universal truths, no objective reality, just narratives that are expressed in discourses and language that reflect one group’s power over another. There is no distinction between objective truth and subjective experience, because the former is an illusion created by the latter. So instead of an argument, you merely have an identity showdown, in which the more oppressed always wins, because that subverts the hierarchy. ....

Truth is always and only a function of power. So, for example, science has no claim on objective truth, because science itself is a cultural construct, created out of power differentials, set up by white cis straight males. ....

There is no such thing as persuasion in this paradigm, because persuasion assumes an equal relationship between two people based on reason. And there is no reason and no equality. There is only power. This is the point of telling students, for example, to “check their privilege” before opening their mouths on campus. .... (more, probably behind a subscription wall.)

Thursday, July 30, 2020

Joy was important in his creed

Looked into a book that I have owned for a very long time but had not read, Christ the Tiger (1967), by Thomas Howard. It is a kind of spiritual autobiography by the brother of Elisabeth Elliot. It reads very rapidly, or at least did so for me. One excerpt about a friend he made while teaching in England:
.... He was the architect who assessed the cost of repairs for the diocese. He worried me because he loved God and life at the same time. It had always been one or the other for me. When I had tried to pursue God, I had fled from life. When life began to be dazzling, I had let God slip. I would have called his voluptuous zest for life pagan except that it was not only matched by his appetite for God: it was part of it. He loved heraldry and John Donne and St. Benedict and four-centered arches and beer and the Mass and bodies and Bach with none of the usual timidity brought to these things by religious people. I had felt that there was a point at which joy becomes indecorous and that religious categories asked that one not become too enthusiastic about anything short of God, whom I understood to be a spirit. I was jarred to discover that my friend had no dichotomy in his mind between spiritual things and other things. One was to love the world and experience because God did and because one loved God. How else is one to express joy and worship but in merriment and affirmation? Joy was important in his creed. He was not a bacchant, however. He was not trying to attach a divine validity to mere license. He had a rigorous idea of goodness, but it did not seem to be fragile as mine did. It did not make him go tiptoe through life. He saw no reason to be parsimonious about joy. He was not, on the other hand, merely merry. One of his favorite expressions was “bloody hell.” He would often thrust out his jaw and frown into space in perplexity over existence. All I could get from him at these moments would be “Chaos!” ....

Monday, July 27, 2020

Wait for Him

The LORD waits to be gracious to you, 
And therefore He exalts himself to show mercy to you. 
For the LORD is a God of justice;
Blessed are all those who wait for Him.
(Isaiah 30:18)

Sunday, July 26, 2020


When I was growing up Dad would often take me to the Milton College Library. It was also the Milton Village Library and the village appropriated funds to buy books that would not necessarily otherwise appear in an academic library thus, for example, a children's section. Until the late 1960s the library was located in Whitford Hall on the Milton campus. We moved across the street from the library when I was in 4th grade, c. 1956, and after that I inhabited the place. I read my way though the fiction and history sections. Eventually I was employed to straighten books on the shelves and, in high school, to man the desk in the evenings. I have vivid memories of the place, the stacks, the smell of books, the creaking of the floor, and had a pretty thorough knowledge of its contents. Not long ago I thought to try to find pictures of the interior and Doug Welch of The Milton College Preservation Society came up with this one — well before my time but definitely recognizable.

Friday, July 24, 2020

No permission needed

From R. Albert Mohler Jr. on "Why I Am a Baptist" in First Things:
.... Every great movement probably begins in an argument of some sort, and the Baptists emerged in the context of an argument that was intense, significant, and sometimes deadly. Luther had started it. The Calvinists believed he had not taken it far enough. The English Puritans likewise became convinced that the moderately reforming Church of England was not taking the argument far enough. The Separatists (who would include Congregationalists and Presbyterians) believed that the Puritans who remained in the Church of England were not taking it far enough. The Baptists then separated from the Separatists because they were not taking it far enough. Since then, Baptists have not stopped arguing. They often argue among themselves, but more urgently, they argue for the necessity of conversion, for the believers’ church, for the baptism of believers alone, and for liberty of conscience. ....

In 1646, Baptist churches in London defined saving faith in these terms:
Faith is the gift of God, wrought in the hearts of the elect by the Spirit of God; by which faith they come to know and believe the truth of the Scriptures, and the excellency of them above all other writings, and all things in the world, as they hold forth the glory of God in his attributes, the excellency of Christ in his nature and offices, and of the power and fulness of the Spirit in his workings and operations; and so are enabled to cast their souls upon this truth thus believed.
Such saving faith, the Baptists continued, “is ordinarily begotten by the preaching of the gospel, or word of Christ.” When you find real Baptists, you will find the preaching of the gospel—the declaration of the great good news that salvation and the forgiveness of sins are bestowed upon all who hear the word of Christ and believe, who rest from their labors to make themselves worthy of salvation and by grace through faith receive the mercy of God, by the merits of Christ alone. ....

As others have noted, the Baptists have not been ardent ecumenists. But they have always recognized that there are true Christians in other churches and communions. They have believed that no entity that lacks the preaching of the gospel is any church at all, and that even some churches that preach the gospel are, measured by the New Testament, wrongly ordered. Baptists are not Baptists for nothing.

The rightly ordered church as a gathered and covenanted visible assembly of the saints exercises a comprehensive gospel ministry. The Word of God is preached, the ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper are observed, church discipline is applied, and the congregation advances the gospel through missions and evangelism.

The practice of baptizing only those persons who personally profess faith in Christ became the defining issue for Baptists. Reading the New Testament, they concluded that infant baptism was no real baptism and that baptism, like the Lord’s Supper, was not a sacrament but an ordinance—an act commanded by Christ. The new believer, having given evidence of saving faith and a commitment to follow Christ, is baptized into the fellowship of the church, with the waters of baptism the context for the believer’s profession of faith. Baptism is also the ordinance of entry into the membership and fellowship of the congregation. ....

I believe that Baptists have something important—even crucial—to add to the Christian tradition and to strengthen Christian witness in the world today. Baptists are often a noisy part of the Body of Christ, but I hope we are a needed part as well.

In any event, don’t expect us to ask permission. Put us in jail, take away our earthly goods, do your worst—we will not ask permission from the ­powers that be. Whatever happens in the unfolding of ­history, we will still be preaching the gospel, ­plunging believers under water, telling people about Jesus, and singing the old, old story of Jesus and his love.

As a young man, I heard an old Baptist say, “I was Baptist born and Baptist bred, and when I am old, I’ll be Baptist dead.” At the time, I thought these words trite, tribal, and woefully lacking in theology. Now, in my seventh decade of life, I hear them a bit differently, mixing gratitude to the church with ­defiance of the world. Given the way our world is going, I am ready to stand with that old Baptist, now long gone, and pledge to be faithfully Baptist, faithfully Christian, even unto death. No earthly permission needed. (much more)
"...Baptists then separated from the Separatists because they were not taking it far enough." Seventh Day Baptists would argue that Baptists stopped just a little bit too soon.

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

"Rest and see, see and love, love and praise"

In a post at his blog, Snakes and Ladders, Alan Jacobs excerpted a passage from the final chapter of Augustine's City of God, "Of the Eternal Felicity of the City of God, and of the Perpetual Sabbath." From that chapter, the passage Jacobs quoted:
Suffice it to say that the seventh [age] shall be our Sabbath, which shall be brought to a close, not by an evening, but by the Lord's day, as an eighth and eternal day, consecrated by the resurrection of Christ, and prefiguring the eternal repose not only of the spirit, but also of the body. There we shall rest and see, see and love, love and praise. This is what shall be in the end without end. For what other end do we propose to ourselves than to attain to the kingdom of which there is no end?

Sunday, July 19, 2020

The "loud and troublesome insects of the hour"

Re-posted. An important reminder in these times.

From Farnsworth's Classical English Metaphor: Edmund Burke in 1791.
Because half a dozen grasshoppers under a fern make the field ring with their importunate chink, whilst thousands of great cattle, reposed beneath the shadow of the British oak, chew the cud and are silent, pray do not imagine that those who make the noise are the only inhabitants of the field; that, of course, they are many in number, or that, after all, they are other than the little, shriveled, meager, hopping, though loud and troublesome, insects of the hour.

Saturday, July 18, 2020

Light reading

J.I. Packer died yesterday (1926–2020). Among many other things he was general editor and chairman of the Translation Oversight Committee of the English Standard Version of the Bible. He was a serious influence to the good for evangelicals. But I also appreciated him because he shared my preferences in light reading (and helped me rationalize them). Via Justin Taylor, J.I. Packer explained, in 1985, why he reads mysteries:
.... I started young, ingesting my first Agatha Christies when I was seven. Since then I have read, among others, all the Sherlock Holmeses, Father Browns, and Peter Wimseys; all the Ellery Queens, Agatha Christies, and Carter Dicksons; all the John Dickson Carrs and Dick Francises except one; all the full-length stories of Hammett, Chandler, James, and Crispin; and all the work of new arrivals Amanda Cross, Antonia Fraser, Simon Brett, and Robert Barnard; not to mention most of Margery Allingham, Austin Freeman, Freeman Wills Crofts, Erle Stanley Gardner, Rex Stout, Ruth Rendell, and Julian Symons.

What have I gained?

Fun, to start with. Where else could I have made the acquaintance of characters like Stout’s Nero Wolfe (world’s heaviest genius and largest ego), Dickson’s Sir Henry Merrivale (the Old Man, but no gentleman), Gardner’s Perry Mason (incompetent, irrelevant, and immaterial), Christie’s Miss Marple (mesmeric village knit-wit), and the prewar Poirot, who bounced and burbled like Maurice Chevalier? .....

Ought my fellow senior editors and I repent of time wasted in our light reading? Not necessarily. If overloaded academic and literary people never read for relaxation, their brains will break. And ’tecs, thrillers, and westerns, while not great literature, are among the most moral fiction of our time. Goodies and baddies are distinguished and killers finally get it in the end. Writing that upholds fundamental morality is neither degenerate nor corrupting.

Also, these are stories of a kind that would never have existed without the Christian gospel. Culturally, they are Christian fairy tales, with savior heroes and plots that end in what Tolkien called a eucatastrophe—whereby things come right after seeming to go irrevocably wrong. Villains are foiled, people in jeopardy are freed, justice is done, and the ending is happy. ....

Do I urge everyone to read detective and cowboy and spy stories? No. If they do not relax your mind when overheated, you have no reason to touch them. Light reading is not for killing time (that’s ungodly), but for refitting the mind to tackle life’s heavy tasks (that’s the Protestant work ethic, and it’s true). ....

Friday, July 17, 2020

The whole human family

From The Book of Common Prayer (2019)
O God, you made us in your own image, and you have redeemed us through your Son Jesus Christ: Look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; that, in your good time, all nations and races may serve you in harmony around your heavenly throne; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

O God, who created all peoples in your image: We thank you for the diversity of races and cultures in this world. Show us your presence in those who differ from us, and enrich our lives with their fellowship, until our knowledge of your love is made perfect in our love for all your children; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
The Book of Common Prayer 2019

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Present laughter to utopian bliss

From Michael Oakeshott's essay "On being conservative":
.... The general characteristics of this disposition are not difficult to discern, although they have often been mistaken. They centre upon a propensity to use and to enjoy what is available rather than to wish for or to look for something else; to delight in what is present rather than what was or what may be. Reflection may bring to light an appropriate gratefulness for what is available, and consequently the acknowledgment of a gift or an inheritance from the past; but there is no mere idolizing of what is past and gone. What is esteemed is the present; and it is esteemed not on account of its connections with a remote antiquity, nor because it is recognized to be more admirable than any possible alternative, but on account of its familiarity....

If the present is arid, offering little or nothing to be used or enjoyed, then this inclination will be weak or absent; if the present is remarkably unsettled, it will display itself in a search for a firmer foothold and consequently in a recourse to and an exploration of the past; but it asserts itself characteristically when there is much to be enjoyed, and it will be strongest when this is combined with evident risk of loss. In short, it is a disposition appropriate to a man who is acutely aware of having something to lose which he has learned to care for; a man in some degree rich in opportunities for enjoyment, but not so rich that he can afford to be indifferent to loss. It will appear more naturally in the old than in the young, not because the old are more sensitive to loss but because they are apt to be more fully aware of the resources of their world and therefore less likely to find them inadequate. In some people this disposition is weak merely because they are ignorant of what their world has to offer them: the present appears to them only as a residue of impportunities.

To be conservative, then, is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss. Familiar relationships and loyalties will be preferred to the allure of more profitable attachments; to acquire and to enlarge will be less important than to keep, to cultivate and to enjoy; the grief of loss will be more acute than the excitement of novelty or promise. It is to be equal to one's own fortune, to live at the level of one's own means, to be content with the want of greater perfection which belongs alike to oneself and one's circumstances. With some people this is itself a choice; in others it is a disposition which appears, frequently or less frequently, in their preferences and aversions, and is not itself chosen or specifically cultivated. .... (emphasis added)
Michael Oakeshott, "On being conservative," Rationalism in politics and other essays, 1962.

Monday, July 13, 2020

Senseless destruction

Seen on Twitter today:
 Which brought to mind one of my favorite G.K. Chesterton passages:
In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it."

This paradox rests on the most elementary common sense. The gate or fence did not grow there. It was not set up by somnambulists who built it in their sleep. It is highly improbable that it was put there by escaped lunatics who were for some reason loose in the street. Some person had some reason for thinking it would be a good thing for somebody. And until we know what the reason was, we really cannot judge whether the reason was reasonable. It is extremely probable that we have overlooked some whole aspect of the question, if something set up by human beings like ourselves seems to be entirely meaningless and mysterious. There are reformers who get over this difficulty by assuming that all their fathers were fools; but if that be so, we can only say that folly appears to be a hereditary disease. But the truth is that nobody has any business to destroy a social institution until he has really seen it as an historical institution. If he knows how it arose, and what purposes it was supposed to serve, he may really be able to say that they were bad purposes, that they have since become bad purposes, or that they are purposes which are no longer served. But if he simply stares at the thing as a senseless monstrosity that has somehow sprung up in his path, it is he and not the traditionalist who is suffering from an illusion.
(The Thing, 1929)

Sunday, July 12, 2020

Making a home

.... In this unsettled age, conservatism is the work of recovering and restoring a home in this world—a place of consolation, a sanctified somewhere that connects us to the dead, the unborn, and our neighbors through love, memory, and sacrifice. This work can never be done perfectly, not only because we ourselves are fallible, but because this world is not our final home. We take up the work because we want to provide for our children. And our faults in this work become a burden for them. They in turn must repair and improve on what we did, at first appalled by our faults but, we hope, eventually inspired by our successes too. The sum of this process is a national tradition, falling into disrepair and then renewing itself across generations.

This attempt at making a home—a place where no one is merely useful, and no one is merely familiar—implants in us a longing for the true home that can never be destroyed. We put in our labors to preserve freedom, decency, and our culture, so that our children receive this somewhere as a place prepared for them by their fathers.

He who would valiant be

Of course the last post reminded me of this great hymn also with Bunyan's words:

He who would valiant be ’gainst all disaster,
Let him in constancy follow the Master.
There’s no discouragement shall make him once relent
His first avowed intent to be a pilgrim.

Who so beset him round with dismal stories
Do but themselves confound — his strength the more is.
No foes shall stay his might; though he with giants fight,
He will make good his right to be a pilgrim.

Since, Lord, Thou dost defend us with Thy Spirit,
We know we at the end, shall life inherit.
Then fancies flee away! I’ll fear not what men say,
I’ll labor night and day to be a pilgrim.

And all the trumpets sounded for him

After this it was noised abroad
That Mr Valiant for Truth
Was taken with a summons
And had this for a token that the summons was true  
'That his pitcher was broken at the fountain.'
When he understood it,
He called for his friends, and told them of it.
Then, said he, 'I am going to my Father's,
And though with great difficulty I am got hither,
Yet now I do not repent me of all the trouble
I have been at to arrive where I am.
My sword, I give to him that shall succeed me in my
And my courage and skill, to him that can get it.
My marks and scars I carry with me
to be a witness for me

That I have fought his battles
Who now will be my rewarder.'
When the day that he must go hence, was come
Many accompanied him to the riverside,
Into which, as he went, he said
'Death, where is thy sting?'
And as he went down deeper, he said,
'Grave where is thy victory?'
So he passed over
And all the trumpets
And all the trumpets
Sounded, sounded
Sounded, sounded
Sounded for him
Sounded for him
Sounded for him
All the trumpets sounded for him...
On the other side

After this it was noised abroad that Mr Valiant-for-truth was taken with a Summons by the same Post as the other, and had this for a Token that the Summons was true, That his Pitcher was broken at the Fountain. When he understood it, he called for his Friends, and told them of it. Then said he, I am going to my Father's, and tho' with great difficulty I am got hither, yet now I do not repent me of all the Trouble I have been at to arrive where I am. My Sword I give to him that shall succeed me in my Pilgrimage, and my Courage and Skill to him that can get it. My Marks and Scars I carry with me, to be a witness for me that I have fought his Battles who now will be my Rewarder. When the day that he must go hence was come, many accompanied him to the Riverside, into which as he went he said, Death, where is thy Sting? And as he went down deeper he said, Grave, where is thy Victory? So he passed over, and all the Trumpets sounded for him on the other side. (Pilgrim's Progress, by John Bunyan, [1678], Section X)

Saturday, July 11, 2020

Tranquility, serenity, peace and repose

Rev Herbert E. Saunders on Sabbath rest:
"Six days of labor will feed and clothe the body; Sabbath labor will starve the soul." (AJC Bond) The underlying principle and God-ordained purpose of the Sabbath is rest. Ordained at creation for God's own rest, it remains therefore as a rest day for the people of God. The idea of rest has high Biblical authority, and it means far more than just physical relaxation. Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes : "In the Bible 'rest' really means more than 'having a rest.' It means rest after the work is accomplished, it means completion, it means the perfection and peace of God in which the world rests, it means transformation, it means turning our eyes absolutely upon God's being God and towards worshipping him." And Heschel writes: "'Menuha' which we usually render with 'rest' means here much more than withdrawal from labor and exertion, more than freedom from toil, strain or activity of any kind. 'Menuha' is not a negative concept but something real and intrinsically took a special act of creation to bring it into being, ...the universe would be incomplete without it. What was created on the seventh day? Tranquility, serenity, peace and repose." This idea of the Sabbath is meaningful to modern man. Although leisure time is expanding, and the work-week is gradually diminishing, there is a need for this consecrated idea of rest—this act of putting aside one day for the unique refreshment of one's body and soul. Consecrated rest, thus understood, demands also consecrated work—six days of worldly toil that give one the satisfaction of having completed his assigned task in God's plan. The Sabbath gives time for one to reflect on the accomplishments of his work and to glory in their completion. ....
Herbert E. Saunders, The Sabbath: Symbol of Creation and Re-creation, American Sabbath Tract Society, Plainfield, N.J., 1970.

Friday, July 10, 2020

"For Thy mercy's sake..."

Hide not Thou Thy face from us, O Lord,
And cast not off Thy servants in Thy displeasure;
For we confess our sins unto Thee,
And hide not our unrighteousness.
For Thy mercy's sake,
Deliver us from all our sins.

And give us grace

Lord, for Thy tender mercy's sake,
Lay not our sins to our charge,
But forgive that is past,
And give us grace to amend our sinful lives.
To decline from sin and incline to virtue,
That we may walk in a perfect heart before Thee,
Now and evermore.

Monday, July 6, 2020

Singing together

.... Almost the only people who still sing together are the religious.

The Christian tradition to which I’ve belonged most of my life—the Reformed tradition of Protestantism—is not famous for its contributions to the western musical canon. But it is famous for its hymns and hymn-singing. The Lutherans have Bach; the Catholics have Monteverdi and Mozart and many others; the Reformed have ... Louis Bourgeois. He compiled and composed hundreds of fine hymn tunes in Geneva during the 1540s, including “Old 100th,” to which many Protestant congregations sing the “doxology.”

The great majority of the Anglophone world’s best hymns have emerged from the Reformed tradition—either from Presbyterianism or the evangelical side of Anglicanism. While the rest of 18th-century Europe was awash in ideas of the Enlightenment, the Reformed in Britain, Ireland and North America wrote hymns. The hymns of Isaac Watts and John Newton, John and Charles Wesley, and William Cowper are models of poetic efficiency: fresh ideas, evocative phrasing, natural rhymes. From Watts’s “O God Our Help in Ages Past”: “Time, like an ever-rolling stream, / Bears all its sons away; / They fly, forgotten as a dream / Dies at the opening day.” The 19th century produced many other gifted hymn writers associated with the Reformed wing of Protestantism, foremost among them Reginald Heber, Cecil Frances Alexander and Frances Ridley Havergal. ....

.... There is something mysteriously fortifying about the act of singing together. Oral and chest cavities vibrating in rhythmic unison—which is all corporate singing is—creates a peculiar companionship among people who, apart from their creed, may have little else in common. You might barely know the lady in the pew next to you, but when you sing a common song or hymn together, she may as well be your auntie.
It is one of the great tragedies of modern Western life that people so infrequently sing together. We may sing in the car or the shower, but mostly we listen to soloists gurgle the nonsense lines of pop songs. Somehow, with the rise of radio and recorded songs in the last century, we stopped singing together. .... (more, probably behind a subscription wall)

Be joyful and do good

 Reminded of these good verses this morning:
What gain has the worker from his toil? I have seen the business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God’s gift to man. I perceived that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it. God has done it, so that people fear before him. That which is, already has been; that which is to be, already has been; and God seeks what has been driven away. (Ecclesiastes 3:9-15)

Friday, July 3, 2020

Find a common hate

When I studied American history in high school and college Woodrow Wilson was considered one of the good guys, a great President, a Progressive who advanced needed reforms like TR did. Jonah Goldberg, in "Cancel Woodrow Wilson" explains why, in the midst of a lot of stupid "cancelings," he's pretty much OK with this one:
...[T]here’s a difference between a flawed agent of positive change and an unalloyed champion of turning back the clock.

I don’t want to go down that rabbit hole, save to make this point: Wilson was a reactionary on race and the Confederate cause in his own time. The first Southerner to take the White House since before the Civil War—a war in which he thought the good guys lost. When he came to Washington, one of his first priorities was to undo the racial progress made by the Republicans: He restored segregation in the federal government. Blacks were sent to different bathrooms, cafeterias, etc. in the name of racial hygiene. When a delegation of black leaders visited the White House, he told them, “segregation is not a humiliation but a benefit, and ought to be so regarded by you gentlemen.” When one journalist objected, Wilson snapped, “Your manner offends me,” and he was sent packing.

“I have recently spent several days in Washington,” Booker T. Washington wrote after visiting D.C. during Wilson’s first term, “and I have never seen the colored people so discouraged and bitter as they are at the present time.”

It’s important to note that Wilson’s racism was only partly a function of his Southern heritage. He was a thoroughly modern progressive (as were many Southern politicians). .... More often than not, Wilson justified his racism not in the language of Southern heritage but in the “scientific” language of eugenics. His academic writing is saturated with talk of “inferior races,” “stagnant nationalities” and “Aryan” superiority. Wilson was an unapologetic subscriber to various notions of eugenics (and as governor of New Jersey, he created the Board of Examiners of Feeble-minded, Epileptics, and Other Defectives).

This is an important point because many apologists for Wilson—or progressivism—like to pretend that the original Progressivism and racism were at some fundamental level in conflict. They weren’t. Not all progressives were racists, but a great many racists were progressives, and a great many racist doctrines were central to progressivism.

But it would be a shame to let this crisis for Wilson-lovers go by without seizing the opportunity to point out why he was horrible for reasons beyond his racism.

First of all, he was astoundingly petty. When a British friend asked Col. Edward House—Wilson’s top adviser—for advice on how best to approach Wilson, House told him “Never begin by arguing. Discover a common hate, exploit it, get the President warmed up and then start on your business.” White House physician Dr. Cary T. Grayson said that Wilson was a “man of unusually narrow prejudices,” “intolerant of advice.” “If one urges Wilson to do something contrary to his own conviction, he ceases to have any liking for that person.” Sound familiar? ....

Thursday, July 2, 2020

What makes us one people?

Gordon S. Wood is a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian of the Revolutionary era in American history. The Five Books site regularly asks scholars to recommend the best books in their areas of expertise. Today Wood is interviewed about "The Best Fourth of July Books." I haven't read any of them but was particularly interested in some of his comments. Excerpts:
.... In the decade or so following the Declaration of Independence, the former colonies became much more egalitarian. The declaration made the life, liberty and pursuit of happiness for ordinary people the goal of the new nation. The United States became a much more democratic, much more middle-class society. In that sense, the Revolution was much more radical than earlier analyses acknowledged. ....

Abraham Lincoln made the declaration into the principal document in American history. In his Gettysburg address, he invoked the declaration’s appeal to equality. “All men are created equal” was, for Lincoln, the central point of the document. He used those words to mobilize the North to continue fighting for the Union, despite the heavy casualties. Since then, the declaration’s appeal to equality has been a powerful touchstone. ....

...[T]here was slavery all over the world in 1776. Slavery had existed for thousands and thousands of years without substantial criticism. People in the eighteenth century, all over the world, took slavery and indentured labor for granted. The American Revolution, and its assertion that all men are created equal, created the first anti-slavery movement in the history of the world. The first meeting of anti-slavery advocates was held in Philadelphia in 1775. That’s not coincidental. The Revolution sparked an American anti-slavery movement. ....

It took another 80 years to finally end slavery, with the Civil War. But in 1776, at lot of people thought that slavery would die a natural death. Indications of that in Virginia, for example, led many to the illusion that slavery would be wiped off of the United States map. We know they were wrong, therefore we indict them for not knowing the future; I think that’s the wrong way to write about history. ....

The Declaration of Independence, which is what we celebrate on the Fourth of July, is America’s saving grace because it is what holds us together. We’re a nation of many different people. We have no common ethnicity. We have no common religion. We have no common race. So, we need to keep honoring the one thing we have in common.

President Abraham Lincoln recognized, in an 1858 speech, that belief in the self-evident truths, “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” is what makes us, as the first sentence of the declaration says, “one people.” We’ve got to celebrate that oneness, otherwise we’ll cease to be one nation altogether.

P.D. James

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this appreciation of P.D. James, one of my favorite crime novelists. If you've read her, you will enjoy it too. If you haven't you may be tempted to give her a try.
... For her, the key to her books was always the setting. The single body on the drawing-room floor was more horrifying than a dozen bullet-riddled bodies on noir’s mean streets, because it was shockingly out of place. The contrast between respectability and planned brutality intensified the magnitude of such an appalling act. ....

To read a James novel is to acquire an intimate knowledge of flats, kitchens, offices, gardens, villages, castles, clinics, schools, hospitals, houses great and small—and the lives that are lived there. She was particularly fond of isolated places and closed communities....

And even if the setting wasn’t isolated, it was the closed community, the hothouse atmosphere of people too close to one another, that fascinated her....
From Death of an Expert Witness:
The window was slightly open at the bottom. He pushed it open, wincing at the rasp of the wood, and put out his head. The rich, loamy smell of the fen autumn night washed over his face, strong, yet fresh. The rain had stopped and the sky was a tumult of gray clouds through which the moon, now almost full, reeled like a pale, demented ghost. His mind stretched out over the deserted fields and the desolate dikes to the wide, moon-bleached sands of the Wash and the creeping fringes of the North Sea. He could fancy that he smelled its medicinal tang in the rain-washed air. Somewhere out there in the darkness, surrounded by all the paraphernalia of violent death, was a body.
Her detective:
James’ most important character was, of course, Adam Dalgliesh, one of the most iconic figures in crime fiction. The only child of an elderly couple, the son of a vicar, he lost a wife and baby son early on, and since then has led a very private life. He is also a respected poet, a fact that mystifies many onlookers who can’t quite square one man being both a poet and a policeman. Dalgliesh also worries about it himself sometimes: “People tell me things. It had begun when he was a young detective-sergeant and then it had surprised and intrigued him, feeding his poetry, bringing the half-shameful realization that for a detective it would be a useful gift. The pity was there. He had known from childhood the heartbreak of life and that, too, had fed the poetry. He thought, I have taken peoples’ confidences and used them to fasten gyves round their wrists” (The Murder Room).

James always said that she gave Dalgliesh the qualities she most admired in either men or women—“compassion without sentimentality, generosity, courage, intelligence, and independence” (A Certain Justice)—but some of those qualities can cut both ways. His detachment is both his strength and his weakness: “How long could you stay detached, he wondered, before you lost your own soul” (A Mind to Murder, 1963). His independence and lack of sentimentality make him prone to personal antipathies and occasional sudden anger, and his “cold sarcasm could be more devastating than another officer’s bawled obscenities” (Devices and Desires). ....
Something else:
And one other aspect of her life suffused nearly all of her books. She was a devout Anglican, often asked to read lessons from the pulpit, and her novels are full of churches, abbeys, cathedrals, rectories, and churchyards, some as a source of peace, others as the setting for spectacular murders. The novels are also full of those who believe, disbelieve, revere, damn, or pointedly ignore God. ....

James herself, while devout, had her own problems with the Church of England: “I sometimes find it difficult today to recognize the church into which I was baptized. Much of its former dignity, scholarly tolerance, beauty and order have been not so much lost as wantonly thrown away” (Time to Be in Earnest). And in Death in Holy Orders, a distinguished character agrees: “The Church of England will be defunct in twenty years if the present decline continues. Or it’ll be an eccentric sect concerned with maintaining old superstitions and ancient churches. People might want the illusion of spirituality…but they’ve stopped believing in heaven and they’re not afraid of hell.” ....

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

"An objective presence in the life of a believer"

...[Y]ou don’t just need worship that is “contemporary” or “traditional,” you need the rigor of biblical, historic Christian worship. You need to gather with God’s people, to hear the Word of God proclaimed, to sing and pray its truths yourself, and to receive the Sacrament. Jesus has promised to be present in those things, and that the Spirit will be at work through them, too. The actual work of the Holy Spirit is not authenticated by your experience of it. The Spirit is a gift, and a mysterious one at that, working miracles and creating faith in the lives of believers.

.... There’s nothing wrong with experiencing emotions in worship, but please make sure they are subject to your mind and your will, and ultimately, to what God has spoken in His Word. If you are in a place in which there is pressure of any kind to stop thinking and get swept away by or overcome with God’s supposed presence, you should probably get out. You have stepped into something that is more pagan than Christian, even with all the Jesus talk.

The presence of the Holy Spirit isn’t something that can be phonied up by a creative worship experience, it is an objective presence in the life of a believer. ....

Ordinary soldiers

The Gettysburg battle took place from July 1st to 3rd, 1863. From "A Conversation with Professor Allen Guelzo":
.... One lesson that I dwell on a good deal is rooted in the experience of the second day’s fighting. On July 2nd, 1863, Robert E. Lee launched a gigantic flanking attack on the Army of the Potomac. It was a hammer blow that came within inches of success—a success that would have shattered the Army of the Potomac and compelled its abandonment of Gettysburg. It failed because, in large measure, numerous ordinary soldiers and the officers took matters in their own hands and saved the day. I think of individuals like Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and his 20th Maine Regiment. They are probably the most famous of those who fought on the Union side at Gettysburg. But Chamberlain was one who on his own hook and by his own decisions facing the possibility of being overwhelmed by Confederate attack, ordered a counterattack with bayonets. What did he know about bayonets? He was a rhetoric professor from Bowdoin College who had no experience of military life. Yet he acted on the only impulses he knew, which turned out to be just exactly the right impulses. And the great thing is that Chamberlain, although he is probably the most celebrated that way because of The Killer Angels, was by no means alone.

Also on Little Round Top where Chamberlain and his regiment fought was Strong Vincent, the commander of the brigade to which Chamberlain belonged. There was Paddy O’Rorke and his 140th New York coming to the rescue at just the right moment. It cost O’Rorke his life, but his regiment threw back a Confederate attack that would have overwhelmed the other spur of Little Round Top. I go on from point to point to point, to the First Minnesota taking on an entire Confederate brigade in the center of the battlefield, to Samuel Sprigg Carroll and his three regiments sprinting across Cemetery Hill at just the right moment to repel a Confederate attack that could have overcome the federal position at its other flank. And this kept happening all through the late afternoon and early evening of July 2. Ordinary soldiers, line officers, on their own, without direction from the generals, somehow looking at situations, sizing them up, making the right decision and doing it on their own accord.

I think those are some of the most remarkable stories to emerge out of the Gettysburg battle. It displayed not only the courage of those individuals, but it displayed something about the American temperament itself. The ordinary American rises to the demand of situations, looks around, sums things up, makes the decision, lives with the consequences, and somehow miraculously does it right time and time and time again. That, to me, is one really great lesson to bring out of Gettysburg. (more)