Fear-lined delights

Anthony Esolen writes:

I’m reading, for one of my classes at Thomas More College, Henryk Sienkiewicz’s novel set in the last days of Saints Peter and Paul, Quo Vadis? The Rome of that imperial matricide, mass murderer, poetaster, and buffoon, Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus Nero, was “a nest of evil,” “a seat of power, madness but also order, the capital of the world and also mankind’s most terrible oppressor, bringer of laws and peace, all-powerful, invulnerable, eternal,” so wicked, that Peter cannot fathom why God should lead him to build the Church upon such a foundation. Even the libertine Petronius understands that such a Rome cannot endure. “A society based on brute force and violence,” thinks that arbiter of taste, “on cruelty beyond anything possible among the barbarians, and on such universal viciousness and debauchery, could not survive forever. Rome ruled mankind, but it was also its cesspool and its seeping ulcer. It reeked of death and corpses. Death’s shadow lay over its decomposing life.”

Rome, pagan Rome, was exhausted. She would, in the next few centuries, produce a few fine public buildings, some aqueducts and roads, one near-great poet (Juvenal), a sad philosopher king (Marcus Aurelius), and a brief efflorescence of Platonic mysticism not uninfluenced by Christianity. That was it.

The west, the post-Christian west, is exhausted. She exceeds ancient Rome in population by twenty to one, she enjoys plentiful food and drink, and labor-saving (and labor-eliminating) machines, and the moral heritage of its Christian past, mainly spent down and in many places mortgaged. But she is exhausted. …

Quo Vadis? is a story of the irruption of the Christian faith into that exhausted world. Its protagonist, a young patrician named Marcus Vinicius, learns of a God who makes the Roman pantheon look ridiculous and shabby, and a force, a new thing in the world, Christian love, that the world dreads and yet desperately needs. Greece brought the world beauty, and Rome brought the world power, says his uncle Petronius, but what do these Christians bring? From what Petronius can see, all they bring is gloom; they spoil what few and fleeting pleasures are available to man in this life. But by the end of the novel Petronius admits that it is not so, though he cannot share in this new thing, this adoration of the God of love.

Vinicius will become a baptized follower of Christ. His passionate and violent desire for a young Christian woman—whom he would kidnap and rape rather than not enjoy—will be transformed, through his own defeat and humiliation, and a veritable miracle of Christ that saves her from the bloodthirsty Nero, into a love that he had never known, and that requires him to change his life forever. So he writes to Petronius, pleading with him to become Christian also. “Compare your fear-lined delights,” he says, “your concern for material objects when none of you is sure of tomorrow, your orgies that seem like funeral suppers, and you’ll find the answer. Come to our thyme-smelling mountains, to the shade of our olive groves, and to our ivy-covered coast. Peace waits for you here, the kind of peace you haven’t known in years. And love waits for you here, in hearts that truly love you. You have a good and noble soul, Petronius. You deserve to be happy. Your brilliant mind can recognize the truth, and when you’ve seen it, you will come to love it.”

“Compare your fear-lined delights … and you’ll find the answer.”

Toward things that last

I wrote last year on Adrienne LaFrance’s observation that the internet is, on the whole, a messaging system—not a library. Today, the pseudonymous Paradox Project’s piece “Print Your Blog” caught my eye for its riff on ephemerality and permanence:

I’ve been in the industry of software for about 10 years and I’ve met some wonderful people, discovered some amazing technologies, and watched the hard work, the passion, the blood, sweat, and tears of a new and incredible project evaporate into the air. Billion-dollar technologies have disappeared into the ether, leaving anyone who bought the illusion of digital permanency clutching the past as if they were trying to hold water in their hands.

The truth is that anything digital requires upkeep. Five years ago, Scott Hanselman made a plea to bloggers to own their own content, to host their own words. He wasn’t wrong, but hosting our own words costs money. We can’t just write and expect it to live on the internet forever. We either have to pay for the ability to extend the life of our words or we are at the mercy of some third party. …

The same goes for my old technology writings, my old online communities, everything I’ve built, recorded, written or shared. I have a nightmare that I die in a car accident, my hosting bill goes unpaid and everything I’ve ever done will go offline as I instantly vanish from the earth. …

If it’s something you want for a long time, don’t buy digital. Don’t let someone else control your media or memories. Print your blog. Buy paper books. Find your 50 best pictures from the past year and print them out. Gravitate toward things that last.

I think this is 100 percent correct, and many good examples of ephemerality are included that I didn’t excerpt here. The hundreds of pages of my grandfather’s memoirs that he wrote and assembled from old letters for our family not only give me a window into his life in the 1950s, but also help me concretely remember the man I grew up with but who died nearly twenty years ago.

My attempt to write in public, even when I don’t have much to say other than share a photo or excerpt something interesting I’ve read, is as vulnerable as WordPress is, ultimately. I believe in Matt Mullenweg and his vision for WordPress as a resilient and sustainable platform—but what happens to everything here after Matt and I are gone? If there’s any lasting value in the things I’m writing and sharing, past experience points to a physical version of at least the images and words (if not the video/audio) being as important as whatever survives on the internet. Ideally, everything survives. It would be a joy to me if my grandchildren or great grandchildren would be able to see and hear the same sights and sounds that I’m sharing from time to time here—but worst case, the words are enough to tell at least part of the story. How do we ensure something tangible might last for the future?

“Don’t let someone else control your media or memories. Print your blog. Buy paper books. Find your 50 best pictures from the past year and print them out.” Et cetera.

Secular totalism

A fourth and final excerpt from Michael Novak’s “No One Sees God: The Dark Night of Atheists and Believers.” This time on secular public engagement and the necessity for mutual respect and true pluralism in order to avoid a lame secular mono-culture:

In 2005, in a lecture at the University of Lodz in Poland on “Religion in the Public Sphere,” Habermas posed another question (again I abbreviate): Are secular men and women ready to admit that toleration is always a two-way street? Religious persons must be ready to learn toleration not only for each denomination’s convictions and commitments, but also for those of atheists, agnostics, and other secularists. In a similar way, nonbelieving secularists must learn to appreciate the creeds, reasoning, and convictions of their fellow human beings who are believers. “For all their ongoing dissent on questions of worldviews and religious doctrines,” says Habermas, “citizens are meant to respect one another as free and equal members of their political community.” Those on all sides must be ready to stand in the shoes of the other, in order to see the other’s point of view “from within.”

As Pierre Manent has pointed out, the history of the last six or seven generations seems to show that Christianity has had an easier time identifying with democracy, and done so more successfully, than secular people have done in recognizing the contributions Christians and Jews have made to the intellectual comprehension of rights. The question Habermas poses is succinctly summarized: Is there sufficient moral energy among secular peoples to overcome this failure to take religion seriously?

Civic Duties of Religious Persons

On the side of religious people, Habermas also poses a test. Among themselves, they may explain their convictions in the language of faith, and even of the Bible. But in public life, at least those believers who enter into politics or activism have a special obligation to employ a “neutral” secular language. Perhaps Habermas is thinking more of the situation of France or other secular European nations with high proportions of Muslim citizens, where he wants to put pressure on Muslims to become more open to Western views, not to stay closed within their own. Perhaps he believes that the preponderance of peoples in European nations is secular, so that among them secular speech is most readily accessible to the largest number. Whatever his motives, his warning is that language in the public sphere (specifically, governmental offices) should be solely secular, lest religious language invite social divisiveness. Yet Habermas is far more open than John Rawls on these matters.

In his lecture “Religion in the Public Sphere,” Habermas writes:

“The citizens of a democratic community owe one another good reasons for their public political interventions. Contrary to the restrictive view of [John] Rawls and [Robert] Audi, this civic duty can be specified in such a tolerant way that contributions are permitted in a religious as well as in a secular language. They are not subject to constraints on the mode of expression in the political public sphere, but they rely on joint ventures of translation to have a chance to be taken up in the agendas and negotiations of political bodies. Otherwise they will not “count” in any further political process.”

In “Faith and Knowledge,” Habermas adds, “The liberal state has so far imposed only upon the believers among its citizens the requirement that they split their identity into public and private versions. That is, they must translate their religious convictions into a secular language before their arguments have the prospect of being accepted by a majority” (emphasis added).

For his part, Habermas does not want to put believers at a disadvantage, although he holds that all parties, including believers, must do their best to give reasons understandable to the other parties. So he lays burdens on both believers and unbelievers: “But the search for reasons that aspire to general acceptance need not lead to an unfair exclusion of religion from public life, and secular society, for its part, need not cut itself off from the important resources of spiritual explanations, if only so that the secular side might retain a feeling for the articulative power of religious discourse.”

By contrast, the assumption that Rawls and others make is that the secular mode of speech is actually “neutral.” In the experience of many believers of various faiths, secular speech is anything but neutral. Speech limited to secular categories has its own totalistic tendencies. It penalizes or even quarantines those with religious points of view, whose insights and public arguments are not given due weight by narrowly secular officials. Curiously, in a set of lectures at the University of Virginia in 1928, Walter Lippmann made a parallel observation about the famous Scopes trial three years earlier. In a lecture framed as a conversation, the “Fundamentalist” says to his counterpart the “Modernist”:

“In our public controversies you are fond of arguing that you are open-minded, tolerant and neutral in the face of conflicting opinions. That is not so…Because for me an eternal plan of salvation is at stake. For you there is nothing at stake but a few tentative opinions none of which means anything to your happiness. Your request that I should be tolerant and amiable is, therefore, a suggestion that I submit the foundation of my life to the destructive effects of your skepticism, your indifference, and your good nature. You ask me to smile and to commit suicide.”

The Modernist does not grasp the total surrender he is asking the person of faith to make by submitting one source of knowledge (faith) to another (reason), when the latter seems to him inferior.

The parallel challenge that Habermas throws down for secular people, then, is an even newer one: that they, now, live in a “post-secular” age and must not be content with understanding social realities in a solely secular way. They, too, must enter into the two-way dialogue by stepping into the shoes, horizon, and viewpoint of those who are believers, just as is expected of the believers vis-à-vis the secularist.

If the tender roots of something like universal democracy are ever to survive and spread around the world, these conceptions—these breakthroughs for a universal ethos of public communication, and mutual reaching out to understand others from within—make an indispensable contribution. But these new rules for public discourse also renegotiate the historical preeminence that “the enlightened” assign themselves, and the language of contempt by which they have taken believers less than seriously. These rules call upon secularists, too, to be learners, and to master the new morality of communicative discourse. It is a morality that calls for mutual respect.

“[T]he assumption that Rawls and others make is that the secular mode of speech is actually ‘neutral.’ In the experience of many believers of various faiths, secular speech is anything but neutral. Speech limited to secular categories has its own totalistic tendencies.”

Everything isn’t permitted

A third excerpt from Michael Novak’s “No One Sees God: The Dark Night of Atheists and Believers, this time concerning the strange fact that in human nature we find that “everything isn’t permitted”—not everything is condoned in our heart, and not everything is approved by our conscience:

One of my favorite parts of the Sam Harris book is his attempt to explain away the horrors of the self-declared atheist regimes in modern history: Fascist in Italy, Nazi in Germany, and Communist in the Soviet Union and Asia. Never in history have so many Christians been killed, tortured, driven to their deaths in forced marches, and imprisoned in concentration camps. An even higher proportion of Jews suffered still more horrifically under the same regimes, particularly the Nazi regime, than at any other time in Jewish history. The excuse Harris offers is quite lame. First he directs attention away from the ideological character of the regime, toward the odd personalities of Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin. No, the problem is the ideology, the regime, the millions of believers in atheism. Harris ignores the essential atheism of the ideologies of the regime, “scientific secularism” and “dialectical materialism.” Yet it is these ideologies, not just a few demented leaders, that bred a furious war on God, religion, and clergy. The nature of a regime and its ideology matter more than mad leaders. Yet here is Harris, limping: “While it is true that such men are sometimes enemies of organized religion, they are never especially rational. In fact, their public pronouncements are often delusional…The problem with such tyrants is not that they reject the dogma of religion, but that they embrace other life-destroying myths.” In other words, delusional atheists are not really atheists.

Would Harris accept a claim by Christians that Christian evildoers are not really Christians? The real problem is not that tyrants reject the “dogma” of religion, but that they derive their furors from a dogmatic atheism that brooks no rival. They build a punitive totalitarian regime far more sweeping than their own personal madness.

Enthusiasts such as Harris may dismiss the argument that atheism is associated with relativism. Sometimes it isn’t. Some atheists are rationalists of a most sober, moral kind. Nonetheless, the most common argument against placing trust in atheists is Dostoyevsky’s: “If there is no God, everything is permitted.” There will be no Judge of deeds and consciences; in the end, it is each man for himself. Widespread public atheism may not show its full effects right away, but only after three or four generations. For individual atheists “of a peculiar character,” brought up in habits inculcated by the religious cultures of the past, can go on for two or three generations living in ways hard to distinguish from those of unassuming Christians and Jews. These individuals continue to be honest, compassionate, committed to the equality of all, firm believers in “progress” and “brotherhood,” long after they have repudiated the original religious justification for this particular list of virtues. But sooner or later a generation may come along that takes the metaphysics of atheism with deadly seriousness. This was the fate of a highly cultivated nation in the Europe of our time, Germany, before it voted its way into Nazism.

George Washington considered this risk in his Farewell Address: “Let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.” If morality were left to reason alone, common agreement would never be reached, since philosophers vehemently—and endlessly—disagree, and large majorities would waver without clear moral signals. Adds Alexis de Tocqueville:

“There is almost no human action, however particular one supposes it, that does not arise from a very general idea that men have conceived of God, of his relations with the human race, of the nature of their souls, and of their duties toward those like them. One cannot keep these ideas from being the common source from which all the rest flow.

“Men therefore have an immense interest in making very fixed ideas for themselves about God, their souls, their general duties toward their Creator and those like them; for doubt about these first points would deliver all their actions to chance and condemn them to a sort of disorder and impotence….

“The first object and one of the principal advantages of religions is to furnish a solution for each of these primordial questions that is clear, precise, intelligible to the crowd, and very lasting.”

This extremely practical contribution is one reason Tocqueville saw religion as essential to a free people, and unbelief as tending toward tyranny.

Moreover, in times of stress distinguished intellectuals such as Heidegger and various precursors of postmodernism (including deconstructionist Paul de Man) displayed a shameless adaptation either to Nazi or to Communist imperatives—or to any other anti-Hebraic relativism. Even the elites may lose their moral compass.

Everyone worships. In other words, the question isn’t whether to worship, but who or what ideas or things we will worship. Every culture, similarly, has a viewpoint it seeks to achieve and so can never be neutral in its structure. If we’re interested in pluralism, it’s necessary to guard against creating a monoculture that stifles concrete difference while pursuing abstract universalism.

Nihilism

A second excerpt from Michael Novak’s “No One Sees God: The Dark Night of Atheists and Believers, this time on nihilism and the universal experience of nothingness:

When he was asked, What is nihilism? the answer Nietzsche gave was my neighbor’s: “The aim is lacking; ‘why?’ finds no answer.” Later he approached the definition another way: “Something is to be achieved through the process—and now one realizes that becoming aims at nothing and achieves nothing.”

In our age and in our kind of society—mobile, fast, free—the experience of “nihilism” is common even among fourteen-year-old “valley girls.” Boredom today is the first taste of nothingness. “Waddya want to do tonight, Beth?” Beth, chewing gum: “I dunno, what do you wanna do?” Nowadays, one of them is likely to have a cell phone to her ear. The interest of the other runs to shopping malls, movie theaters, boys in cars….

The experience of nothingness is, therefore, practically universal. Yet some in the two groups mentioned earlier seem blessedly to have been spared it. Trying to understand it, however, I prefer to speak of this experience without the -ism, prior to any ideology about it, as “the experience of nothingness.” How we are to understand that experience, in Nietzsche’s way or in any other, is a different matter.

It is an experience I well know in my own life. Everybody does.

Without being tedious, but to make certain that the point is as clear as examples can make it, let me mention Joan, who married for the first and only time when she was forty-three. Not immediately but some three years later and much to her surprise and joy, Joan conceived a child. Months of happy expectation followed. On the day after the child’s exhilarating birth, however, she learned that the dear little boy was afflicted with a rare disease that meant her son would probably live only until nine or ten, and would for all the years until then need extraordinary care. The question “Why?” arose inside her with much anguish.

A couple I know of had a handsome, athletic, extremely smart, and warmly popular son who excelled in almost everything in high school. It was only at the end of his first year in college that his health faltered, and then slowly it became apparent that he was afflicted with an incapacitating case of schizophrenia and would have to be hospitalized. His adoring parents were crushed. He was an only child. Their world fell apart.

A student I once had in class had been acing all her classes at Stanford, a perky and happy and optimistic young woman determined to get into medical school, in the tradition of her family. She had not a doubt in her mind. Her sailing was exceptionally clear. Until one day. One day it suddenly hit her very hard that she did not really want to become a doctor. Her grandmother had years ago, seeing the child care for a wounded robin, been the first to say that Janette would make a great doctor. Janette’s life dream had been implanted in her imagination from that day on.

Now suddenly, as a sophomore, some inner tunnel collapsed and all her dreams came tumbling down. The irrepressible thought had overpowered her: that she had been thrown into this project, it was not her project, she had never given it any real thought. She was just so darn good at it, and her record had gotten her into the university of her dreams, and everything looked far too rosy to endure. And it didn’t. She began to show the symptoms of the experience of nothingness that many sophomores come down with: She began to sleep a lot.

She could hardly get out of bed. She could no longer see any point to it. With her friends she was, as never before, short and cynical. They knew she wasn’t well. But she wasn’t sick, either, except with the disease of autonomy and inner freedom.

Granted that I am overcome with the experience of nothingness, how should I live? The alternatives come down to two: some form of suicide (drugs, drink, fast living, killing time will do) such as Albert Camus contemplated in the Myth of Sisyphus. Or this: creatio ex nihilo, reaching down into nothingness to create a new being. But by what light? Following which stars?

Woody Allen found his: “The heart wants what it wants.” Even the U.S. Supreme Court has abandoned the Constitution to dabble in its own philosophy of life in Casey: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and the mystery of human life.” This is not the American legal and moral tradition, but contemporary postmodernism. …

Nothingness Inside Out

I went back to reflecting on illusions and realities in later months. Something told me that Nietzsche’s mad nihilism is not the only, nor the best, theory for explaining life-crushing experiences of the sort he adverted to. I noticed that Nietzsche and Sartre, Turgenev and Dostoyevsky, and all those other early writers on nihilism did one remarkable thing at variance with their theories: They wrote books for others to read. In a world that makes no sense, why would they endure the hours and hours of sitting on their backsides, moving old pens across resisting pieces of blank foolscap? If everything is as meaningless as they say, why would they do it?

And since some people seem oblivious to the experience of nothingness, what is it that those who have the experience do, that others don’t do?

I began reflecting on what goes on inside the experience of nothingness, first within myself, and then among others I could talk to about it. Here a brief summary will have to do. The normal way in which Nietzsche, Sartre, and we ourselves come to an awareness of the experience of nothingness is through four activities of our own minds and wills. The one Nietzsche and the others most stress is ruthless honesty, forcing ourselves to see through comforting illusions and to face the emptiness. The second is courage, the habit that gives force and steadiness to our ability to see truly. Without courage, we would avert our eyes, as so often we have done.

Third is the ideal of community exemplified in reaching out to others through books—the good moves outward to diffuse itself. There is a kind of brotherhood and sisterhood among those who recognize the experience of nothingness in one another. There is a sort of honesty and cleanness in it one wants to share. One of the marks of “the good” is that, as the Latin puts it, bonum est diffusivum sui—the good diffuses itself. It wants others to participate in it.

Fourth is practical wisdom, that is, practical reason applied to action, by an adult experienced enough to take virtually everything concrete into account—or at least to avoid most of the common mistakes of the inexperienced. When the experience of nothingness hits, one cannot simply take to one’s bed. Well, sometimes one does, but then one can’t stay there. Moment by moment, in a kind of staccato, action keeps calling to us. Sooner or later, I have to start acting as an agent of my own future again. “Granted that I have the experience of nothingness, what should I do?”

Yes, there are such things as relativity and meaninglessness and pointlessness. Question is, What are we going to do even if that is true? We will not be able to escape practicing honesty, courage, community, and practical wisdom—or else withering into dry leaves for stray winds to blow about. The choice is ours, and unavoidable.

These four virtues do not constitute a complete quiver of all the virtues needed to be a good man or a valiant woman. Still, these four do constitute quite an admirable list. They are a wonderful starting place for an ethic rooted in the experience of nothingness. Here is the point at which Albert Camus began his own ascent out of the problem of suicide (The Myth of Sisyphus), on the road to the heroic and clear-eyed compassion of Dr. Rieux in The Plague. Sartre, locked inside his own solitariness, writing that “hell is other people,” faltered on the idea of community. No, hell is not other people. Hell is total isolation within one’s own puny mind. It is solitary confinement. (To step out of philosophy for a moment and into the terms of Christian faith: Hell is the solitary soul who freely and deliberately rejects friendship with God.) Hell is becoming conscious of what one has irretrievably chosen for oneself. This Hell has been deliberately chosen.

What we do with the experience of nothingness depends on our proven reserves of practical wisdom, community, courage, honesty. By the end of our lives, learning from experience, we ought to be wiser than we were in the beginning.

If you haven’t read Michael Novak’s 1994 Templeton Address, “Awakening from Nihilism,” at Westminster Abbey, do so. All of these themes are more exhaustively and better elaborated upon in that speech.

Faith, reason, and history

I’ll be excerpting four times from Michael Novak’s “No One Sees God: The Dark Night of Atheists and Believers, which I recently finished. The first concerns faith and reason:

Even his good friends, Dawkins writes, ask him why he is driven to be so “hostile” to religious people. Why not, they say, as intelligent as you are, quietly lay out your devastating arguments against believers, in a calm and unruffled manner? Dawkins’s answer to his friends is forthright: “I am hostile to fundamentalist religion because it actively debauches the scientific enterprise…Fundamentalist religion is hell-bent on ruining the scientific education of countless thousands of innocent, well-meaning, eager young minds. Non-fundamentalist, ‘sensible’ religion may not be doing that. But it is making the world safe for fundamentalism by teaching children, from their earliest years, that unquestioning faith is a virtue.” Dawkins refuses to be part of the public “conspiracy” to pay religion respect, when it deserves contempt.

Yet his complaint about “unquestioning” faith seems a bit odd. Some of us have thought that the origin of religion lies in the unlimited drive in human beings to ask questions—which is our primary experience of the infinite. Anything finite that we encounter can be questioned, and seems ultimately unsatisfying. That hunger to question is the experience that keeps driving the mind and soul on and on, and is its first foretaste of that which is beyond time and space. “Our hearts are restless, Lord,” Saint Augustine recorded, “until they rest in Thee.” These words have had clearly echoing resonance in millions upon millions of inquiring minds down through human history ever since. “Unquestioning faith?” The writings of the medieval thinkers record question after question, disputation after disputation, and real results in history hinged upon the resolution of each. Many of the questions arose from skeptical, unbelieving lawyers, philosophers, and others in the medieval universities; still others from the Arab scholars whose works had recently burst upon the Western universities; still others from Maimonides and other Jewish scholars; and a great many from the greatest pagan thinkers of every preceding century. Questions have been the heart and soul of Judaism and Christianity for millennia.

To be sure, Dawkins at least does think there are some religious people who can be converted to atheism by his arguments. He describes them as the “open-minded people whose childhood indoctrination was not too insidious, or for other reasons didn’t ‘take,’ or whose native intelligence is strong enough to overcome it.” Dawkins presents such believers with an ultimatum: Either join him in “breaking free of the vice of religion altogether” or remain among the close-minded types who are unable to overcome “the god delusion.”

On the fifth page of his book, Dawkins describes his hopes: “If this book works as I intend, religious readers who open it will be atheists when they put it down.” It surprised me that Dawkins would turn out to be such a proselytizer. Most of all what surprised me is that, while all three authors write as if science is the be-all and end-all of rational discourse, these three books of theirs are by no means scientific. On the contrary, they are examples of dialectic—arguments from within one point of view, or horizon, addressed to human beings who share a different point of view. Surely, one of the noblest works of reason is to enter into respectful argument with others, whose vision of reality is dramatically different from one’s own, in order that both parties may learn from this exchange, and come to an ever deeper mutual respect. Our authors engage in dialectic, not science, but they can scarcely be said to do so with respect for those they address. Thus, Dawkins: “Of course, dyed-in-the-wool faith-heads are immune to argument, their resistance built up over years of childhood indoctrination…Among the more effective immunological devices is a dire warning to avoid even opening a book like this, which is surely a work of Satan.” Here, of course, Dawkins flatters himself. “Screwtape” would have been far more insidious.

What most surprised me in the Dawkins book, however, is its defensiveness. He describes atheists, particularly in America, as suffering from loneliness, public disrespect, spiritual isolation, and low self-esteem. In one passage he recounts a letter from a young American medical student recently turning from Christianity to atheism. A medical student? Surely at least some of the doctors and scientists working near her are atheists. Nonetheless, the student writes: “I don’t particularly want to share my belief with other people who are close to me because I fear the…reaction of distaste…I only write to you because I hoped you’d sympathize and share in my frustration.” In an appendix, which Dawkins kindly adds for such unsupported souls, he offers lists of organizations in which lonely atheists may find community and solace. He devotes not a few pages to boosting his community’s morale—how large their numbers are, how smart they are, how comparatively disgusting their antagonists are.

Building a Culture of Reason

I have no doubt that Christians have committed many evils, and written some disgraceful pages in human history. Yet on a fair ledger of what Judaism and Christianity added to pagan Greece, Rome, the Arab nations (before Mohammed), the German, Frankish, and Celtic tribes, the Vikings and the Anglo-Saxons, one is puzzled not to find Dawkins giving thanks for many innovations: hospitals, orphanages, cathedral schools in early centuries, universities not much later, some of the most beautiful works of art—in music, architecture, painting, and poetry—in the human patrimony.

And why does he overlook the hard intellectual work on concepts such as “person,” “community,” “civitas,” “consent,” “tyranny,” and “limited government” (“Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s…”) that framed the conceptual background of such great documents as the Magna Carta? His few pages on the founding and nourishing of his own beloved Oxford by its early Catholic patrons are mockingly ungrateful. And if Oxford disappoints him, has he no gratitude for the building of virtually every other old and famous university of Europe (and the Americas)?

Dawkins writes nothing about the great religious communities founded for the express purpose of building schools for the free education of the poor. Nothing about the thousands of monastic lives dedicated to the delicate and exhausting labor of copying by hand the great manuscripts of the past—often with the lavish love manifested in illuminations—during long centuries in which there were no printing presses. Nothing about the founding of the Vatican Library and its importance for the genesis of nearly a dozen modern sciences. Nothing about the learned priests and faithful who have made so many crucial discoveries in science, medicine, and technology. Yet on these matters a word or two of praise from Dawkins might have made his tiresome lists of accusations seem less unfair.

I don’t wish to overdo it. There have been and are toxic elements in religion that always need restraint by the Logos—the inner word, the insight, the light of intelligence—to which Christianity from the very first married the biblical tradition: “In the beginning was the Logos”—the inner word, the light, in Whom, and by Whom, and with Whom all things have been made ( John 1:1 NAB). Still, any fair measuring of the impact of Judaism and Christianity on world history has an awful lot of positives to add to the ledger. Among my favorite texts for many years, in fact, are certain passages of Alfred North Whitehead—in Science and the Modern World and Adventures of Ideas, for instance. In these passages, Whitehead points out that the practices of modern science are inconceivable apart from thousands of years of tutelage under the Jewish and Christian conviction that the Creator of all things understood all things, in their general laws and in their particular, contingent dispositions. This conviction, Whitehead writes, made long, disciplined efforts to apply reason to the sustained Herculean task of understanding all things seem reasonable. …

The path of modern science was made straight, and smoothed, by deep convictions that every stray element in the world of human experience—from the number of hairs on one’s head to the lonely lily in the meadow—is thoroughly known to its Creator and, therefore, lies within a field of intelligibility, mutual connection, and multiple logics. All these odd and angular levels of reality, given arduous, disciplined, and cooperative effort, are in principle penetrable by the human mind. If human beings are made in the image of the Creator, as the first chapters of the book of Genesis insist that they are, surely it is in their capacities to question, gain insight, and advance in understanding of the works of God. In the great image portrayed by Michelangelo on the Sistine ceiling—the touch from finger to finger between the Creator and Adam—the mauve cloud behind the Creator’s head is painted in the shape of the human brain. Imago Dei, yes indeed.

Rathskeller

I was very sad to hear that the All-American Rathskeller in State College is being forced to close its doors. The Skeller is one of those places that feels like it’s been around forever, with a gritty yet lived-in, distinctive, and welcoming feeling with worn cement floors that tell the stories of generations whose paths have met there, and wooden rafters, bars, and booths that have an age and weight and even wetness whose physical aroma conveys the place’s character in a way that few establishments ever allow to develop.

Skeller feels like it’s been around forever because, in a certain sense, it has. Few if any Penn Staters or Nittany Valley people are still alive remember a Happy Valley without the Rathskeller. It’s 84 years old, and Pennsylvania’s oldest continuously operating bar. The Foster Building, which houses the Skeller, is one of the oldest structures in State College. You can see it in this 1924 photo of State College:

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The Foster Building houses the Skeller among other College Avenue businesses, was purchased by new local investors the Herlochers earlier this year:

Duke and Monica Gastinger have owned the two businesses since the 1980s, but the Rathskellar has been around since November 9, 1933, three days after the end of prohibition in the United States.

Chuck and Neil Herlocher — yes, those Herlochers — bought the property, which houses Spat’s Café, The Clothesline, The Apple Tree, Old Main Frame Shop, Rathskeller and Sadie’s, in June. None of the other businesses have yet announced their closing, so the fate of the property is still unclear.

“My father and I are happy to be purchasing this historic area,” Neil Herlocher told the Centre County Gazette in June. “Business there will continue as usual. There are no plans to make drastic changes to the properties, although we will do some renovations and improvements.

Jay Paterno chimed into #SavetheSkeller Twitter conversation to share another angle of the story, which is that the Foster Building was nearly purchased by national investors intent on tearing it down and building something new, as is happening so many other places in State College’s downtown:

Herlochers Save Rathskeller Location From Wrecking Ball

In July 2017 our company Cornelius LLC concluded an investment in downtown State College with a plan to buy the Foster Building. While other investors intended to raze the property, we were steadfast in our commitment to preserve the historic nature and location of this landmark building.

When we took over the property we became aware that the operators of the All American Rathskeller and Spats had been operating without a lease since 2011 and paying well below market rates. Attempts to resolve the issue were unsuccessful. Our offer to purchase the businesses were also turned down.

We understand the concern many Penn Staters and State College natives have expressed. We want to assure you that as State College residents and Penn Staters we fully understand the historic importance of that location and memories made there across decades. We are committed to maintaining the character of the location that was founded in 1933 by Pop Flood as the Rathskeller and Gardens until 1934 when Doggie Alexander named it The All-American Rathskeller.

Our goal in the coming weeks and years is that Penn Staters past and present will walk into this location and find their memories of great times past still living there. The new tenants will be the latest in a long line of owners who have maintained the proud tradition of good times and good friends meeting in this downtown State College landmark.

If it’s true that Duke and Monica Gastinger refused to sell the Rathskeller name/intellectual property after rent negotiations failed, that their out-of-lease rent was way below market etc., that’s a real shame. Not only will Happy Valley lose the oldest-bar-in-Pennsylvania distinction, but it will likely lose the physical place as an historically authentic gathering place.

Ross Lehman, 1942 graduate of Penn State who was later head of the Penn State Alumni Association, once reflected on some of the things that made a Penn State experience what it was in his Centre Daily Times column “Open House:”

If I had felt lonely and isolated in these hills it was not for long. I became part of the heart throb of Penn State, and it was a new, exciting world. I fell in love with this unique place.

The campus was, and is, something rather special. It houses the “Penn State spirit,” which is a difficult thing to define because it is composed of so many things.

Perhaps it can be called a feeling, a feeling that runs through Penn Staters when they’re away from this place and someone mentions “Penn State.” The farther we are away, in time and distance, the stronger the feeling grows.

It is a good feeling, a wanting-to-share feeling. It is full of a vision of Mount Nittany, which displays a personality of its own in all its seasonal colors, from green to gold to brown to white. It is the sound of chimes from Old Main’s clock, so surrounded by leaves that it’s hard to see; it is getting to class not by looking at the clock but by listening to it.

It is the smell of the turf at New Beaver Field after a game, and the memories of Len Krouse, Leon Gajecki, Rosey Grier, Lenny Moore, Mike Reid, Franco Harris, Lydell Mitchell, Todd Blackledge and Curt Warner helping to swell our fame … and the top of Mount Nittany as seen from the grandstands in autumn.

It is the quiet of Pattee Library, facing two rows of silent elms; sunlight falling gently through those elms on a misty morning; a casual chat under a white moon on the mall.

It is talk, too: a great deal of talk, here, there, all around … in fraternity and sorority bull sessions or over a hasty coffee in the Corner Room or Ye Olde College Diner, talk un-recalled except for the feeling of remembrance and the heart-tugging wanting some of youth. …

It is a dance in Rec Hall; a beer in the Rathskeller; a kiss in a secluded campus niche; the romance that bloomed into marriage; the smell of a theater; the laugh of a crowd; the blossoming of spring shrubs and the blend of maple, oak, birch and aspen colors in the fall; the ache of a night without sleep; and the sharing of a thousand other little things and incidents that honed our “Penn State spirit.”

“A beer in the Rathskeller” amidst so many other great and small points of the mystic chords of Penn State identity may seem like a small thing, but that would be to miss the fact that the greatness of Penn State is in its innumerable little greatnesses, of which the Skeller has been a remarkable part for so many generations. It’s also remarkable that, in Ross Lehman’s tribute, every other specific place he recollects remains a living part of campus and town life. It’s a testament to the fact that, as much as changes in so little time in a college town, so many of the great little things stay the same in the towns that earn legendary reputations.

Downtown State College is experiencing a once in a century (or more) “reset” of a lot of its built environment. Over the past century a general agglomeration of mostly local investors purchased downtown properties like old homes, low-slung storefronts, etc., and made little business empires of them. Now, as they die or their families re-assess their holdings, many are selling to national developers who are building what for a downtown like State College are much larger mega-developments of six or eight or twelve story mix-used structures. A great deal of local ownership is vanishing, and that’s a shame to the degree that it makes local businesspeople less accountable to local people, and to the extent that State College becomes aesthetically, architecturally, and culturally more derivative of other college towns due to the “cookie cutter” building mentality of taking what might have worked in College Station or Ann Arbor and plopping it on a piece of land, heedless of the harmony or complementarity of surrounding structures. What conservationists can do is add their voices to the choir singing for as much of the old, time-worn authentic characteristics of past places to be re-incarnated in the new skins of the new buildings to come as is possible.

All things considered, I’m cautiously optimistic that the Herlocher’s local purchase of the Foster Building will achieve some degree of good conservation, although it’s a tragedy for the distinctiveness of State College to lose the Skeller in the process.

I reflected a few years ago on what “nostalgia” really means by asking “Where nostalgia lives” in a practical sense:

When I walk down College Avenue and sit on that stone bench, I’m sitting in a place where my grandfather sat at one point nearly 70 years ago. I’m sitting in a place where my cousin sat nearly 20 years ago. And maybe my children or theirs will sit there at some point.

We’re so socially, economically, and physically mobile today that most of us don’t have fixed, solid places like this to root our experiences. Where is the family farm that’s been with us for generations? Where is the tree in the yard planted decades ago? Where is the room in the house where your great grandmother once softly sang as the leaves of that tree rustled in twilight?

We lack these things. We move. We die. And thousands of experiences and stories are fragmented as a result. It becomes difficult to remember what we’re doing here.

In the context of the reality of this daily life, college towns and the little places they contain like College Avenue’s stone bench tell us what we don’t have. We probably won’t recover most of the beautiful little experiences of yesterday’s America, but at least in our college towns we are often presented with some of the life we’ve lost and reminded we can have it again, even if just for a pleasant visit.

When I had lunch with Onward State’s David Abruzzese in May earlier this year, we sat in what might literally have been the same booth at the Skeller where my grandfather might have sat in 1946 when he arrived as a freshman, or in 1947 when he was struggling to memorize his Greek poetry, or in 1950 when he would have been celebrating commencement:

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Pop looms large in my childhood memories as a source of wisdom and gentle love, and though he’s been dead nearly 17 years now, losing a place like the Skeller rips away one of the last physical places in the world where I can go and spend some time with memory of him, where I feel particularly connected, as if time might evaporate and his younger self might walk through those cellar doors to sit down with me for a bit, one more time.

And it rips away a physical place where I might bring my own son or daughter one day, sharing a similar experience, and looking into the twinkling eyes of uncertain youth to share the reassuring words that the sands of time and veil of death that covers ancestors, friends, and communities seemingly long separated isn’t always so thick in every place—that in certain places the sands of time pass ever more slowly, giving us a chance to savor what might otherwise be a quotidian moment in the most delicious and heartening way with someone we love, and with whom we’ll share a small place in the vast universe to return together in spirit.

To lose the Skeller, for a town to lose that sort of place? It really hurts.