Tyranny of the possible

George Weigel looks back on Pope John Paul II’s legacy a decade after his death. I vividly remember those two weeks or so of his death, the conclave, and Pope Benedict XVI’s first days.

Of course I wasn’t alive to experience it, but it feels like a lot of the vitality and enthusiasm that exists for Pope Francis probably also characterized the first decade or two of Pope John Paul II’s papacy:

…what seems most memorable about the man, at least at this historical moment, is that he refused to accommodate to the “tyranny of the possible”: the idea that some things just can’t be put right; that we’re stuck with the way things are, however much we may dislike them.

There was a lot of demoralized resignation in the Church and the world when Karol Wojtyla was elected Bishop of Rome on Oct. 16, 1978. The world from San Francisco to the Ural Mountains seemed permanently divided into two hostile, ideologically opposed, nuclear-armed camps, along a fault line defined at the end of World War II. Thirteen years after the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church seemed permanently divided, too—and perhaps condemned to the fate of mainline liberal Protestantism, which (to borrow from Richard John Neuhaus) had become the oldline on its way to becoming the sideline. Robust and evangelically vibrant Catholic conviction, it seemed, had no more place in the “real world” of late modernity than did the dream of a Europe without the Berlin Wall.

Yet John Paul II, who combined mystical insight with remarkable shrewdness, refused to bow passively to the dictatorship of the inevitable. The Lord had said to the prophet, “Come, now, let us set things right” (Isaiah 1:18): and that’s exactly what the 264th Bishop of Rome proceeded to do.

He refused to believe that Vatican II, the ecumenical council he had experienced as a powerful work of the Holy Spirit, could only lead to permanent incoherence and division in Catholicism; and by providing an authoritative interpretation of the Council, John Paul II’s pontificate energized the living parts of the Church and made Vatican II the launch platform for the new evangelization and for the Church’s rediscovery of itself as a missionary enterprise.

Custom, charisma, and statute

Max Weber’s Politics as a Vocation offers three categories which “grounds for legitimate rule” fall into: custom, grace/charisma, and statutes.

Custom: The authority of “eternal past,” based on habit. Weber defines custom as largely… patrimonial, and traditional in scope.

Gift of grace/charisma: The authority of the “revelations, heroism, or other leadership qualities of an individual”. Associated with “charisma” of prophets, demagogues, and popular vote.

Statutes: Legality based on valid statutes. Based on rational competence and obedience of the “servant of the state”.

I think most of our politics is concerned with statute at this point. If Weber’s concept for politics works, that means the best areas of opportunity are custom and charisma.


Jill Betters has a great piece on Philadelphia’s Fishtown neighborhood and the generation shifts that transform neighborhoods.

The balancing act between old and new residents can be impossible to maintain in some cases. But with a little genuine, demonstrated interest in meeting and forming relationships, it’s something that can be done.

This is what Jill’s writing about, sharing the story of someone who moved into a changing neighborhood, someone who embodied change herself, and who formed relationships and has learned to carry on the underlying spirit of the neighborhood even as it continues to change.

It also provides some examples for why I’m not particularly interested in fretting about gentrification, so long as the spirit of newcomers is receptive to learning and becoming a part of the place, rather than simply replacing it.
At minimum, it’s a good case study for why characterizing different generations as fundamentally different or exceptional isn’t helpful.

Mount Nittany and right of first offer

In writing Conserving Mount Nittany, one of the things that struck me was how little land acquisition has been a part of the Mount Nittany Conservancy’s focus over the past two decades.

In speaking with one of their board members, I came to understand that the perspective was essentially: “Land is expensive.” But that’s always been the case. And I think in the coming decades land acquisition around the lower portions of the Mountain will become important.

As Lemont and the larger Nittany Valley area develops, it’ll become increasingly important to keep Mount Nittany’s skirt as natural as possible.

The first half century of Mount Nittany’s conservation was the story of large scale property acquisitions that define the Mountain in our imaginations. The next century will deal with tell the story of the successes or failures of the conservation of the less distantly visible properties that serve as the gateways to the Mountain and its trailhead. In most cases this will involve purchases of homes or lots, and either repurposing them or returning them to nature.

A recent Mountain hike is what got me thinking about this. And seeing the property above, located just near the Mount Nittany Road trailhead, specifically got me thinking about how to cultivate relationships with private land owners.

I don’t think the approach for Mountain conservation in the future will or should be about large scale fundraising campaigns for new lands. I think the Mount Nittany Conservancy should consider something like the following approach:

1. An annual development campaign that aims to generate a higher and more consistent level of unrestricted gifts which live in an account that’s treated as siloed and sacrosanct for the purpose of new property purchases.

2. In conjunction with professionalizing its development approach, the Mount Nittany Conservancy should actively form relationships with any/all property owners around the Mountain’s lower portions, with the goal of the owners agreeing to give the Mount Nittany Conservancy right of first offer if/when they should choose to sell their homes or lots.

This is a simple approach that involves two things the Mount Nittany Conservancy has historically been good at doing: storytelling and communication.

It simply expands on these strengths through a one page legal agreement with property owners to formally acknowledge that they’ll give the Mount Nittany Conservancy the first chance to buy their land if/when they ever decide to sell it.

And if they do, the Mount Nittany Conservancy would already be positioned at minimum to take out a loan for it and pay off the remaining through its annual campaigns.

Hiking Mount Nittany

I got a text last Thursday night from a good friend, asking if I wanted to join him on a hike of Mount Nittany in the morning. We met the next morning at Irving’s in State College, caught up a bit over coffee, and drove to Lemont.

It’s been a while since I’ve been on Mount Nittany, and the hike was a good one both for connecting with the Mountain and with my friend. We spent about three hours of the morning traveling the Blue trail, the White trail, and periodically enjoying the overlooks.

We also visited the Life Estate square inches, which I probably hadn’t visited since 2010 or so. I hope the Mount Nittany Conservancy spruces up the presentation of this spot a bit, maybe replacing the signpost with a small rock plaque telling this part of the Mountain’s story.

Later at the Mike Lynch Overlook we ran into an entire field trip of young people enjoying a rest after their hike. It was the fullest I’ve ever seen Lynch’s overlook.

Arriving, we were the only ones at the trailhead. Leaving, we were simply one of more than a dozen parked cars. The Mountain is popular.

Small, diverse places

A great anecdote and accompanying insight into community life:

I was speaking the other day to someone here who told me about an unlikely friendship he’d developed with an irascible older man, who has since died. My interlocutor told me that he couldn’t imagine another kind of place where a man like him could have made genuine friends with a man like the older one, given the radical difference, even hostility, between their views on life. What my interlocutor meant, I think, was that living in this small town compelled them both to look at each other and recognize their mutual humanity, despite their great differences, and to work through that. People who live in big cities like to think that it is they who live in a truly diverse context, but that is often only superficially true. You can, if you like, create a community for yourself in a big city in which you only ever have to deal intimately with people who are just like yourself. That’s just not possible in a small town, at least not in the small town where I live. You know everybody, and everybody knows you.

Small towns aren’t always diverse in an obvious sense, but they can be extremely diverse (more diverse than cities, even) in the sense of diversity of thought and experience and relationships between neighbors.

Traits for Catholic cultural nests

Last month I wrote about American Indian “cultural nests” and how a similar idea known as the “Benedict Option” could work for American Catholic communities.

The conviction driving Rod Dreher, most vocal proponent of the idea is that “Churches, families, and religious schools that don’t become ‘nests’ will not be recognizably Christian within this century.”

I tend to agree with this. There’s a great pressure for anything mission-driven to become accommodating to the idea of mission-creep. Sometimes it’s because the leaders think it’s a necessary path toward growth. Sometimes it just happens because there wasn’t a plan.  And sometimes accommodation happens because of cultural pressure.

There’s an enormous cultural pressure today not only for Christians but for any faith communities not to be terribly provocative in their ideas. To be cultural decoration rather than metaphysically or morally remarkable.

Anyway, Dreher recently offered up a sort of “first draft” for the sort of traits that Christian cultural nests would need to have.

Narrow focus

Ross Douthat faults political leaders who propose America be “focused everywhere.”

As the linked piece above points out: “By definition, to focus on certain parts of the world requires that the U.S. pay less attention and devote fewer resources to the rest. If one region is in focus, the others are not going to be. Recognizing that U.S. resources and power are finite, it is necessary to choose how they will be employed.”

Focus requires humility, because it requires an acknowledgement that it’s impossible to do everything, and even more impossible to do everything well.

About two years ago I was in a board meeting for a nonprofit. It was the Annual Meeting, when priorities were being set for the year to come.

The board member leading the session asked everyone to go around the table and list their top 1-2 priorities that they thought should be achieved in the coming year. After going around the table, the list of priorities was something like 15 different things.

“So what are we actually going to prioritize?” the session leader asked.

“These 15 priorities,” responded a board member.

It was a revelation to most of this board’s members that having “15 priorities” was unworkable in scope.

The priorities list was whittled down to three things.

All three were realized within a year, and those achievements have formed the basis for continued growth.

Narrow focus to a few areas for impact.

Prune to grow.

Clean, distributed energy

This piece from early March talks about the growth of the “civic energy” sector. Which can now be understood as “Telsa Powerwall customers:”

… Civic energy could provide half of our electricity by 2050, which could lead to the end of power plants as we know them…

The growth of a civic energy sector would be bad news for the large utilities. The UK’s traditional Big Six energy providers would lose ground in both the generation and supply markets and would need to shift their business models to provide new services. Civic energy would need some early support, but it could soon become the natural preference over what an increasingly outdated utilities sector is offering, having failed to anticipate the potential of local energy and what customers want from their energy providers.

Distributed energy would need both technological and institutional change. It would require lots more small and medium scale renewables – more solar, onshore and offshore wind, biogas heat and power plants, and marine energy such as tidal generation. All of these new technologies would need to connect to much smarter distribution grids than we currently have and would require new ways of moving power from the bottom up as well as the top down.

This excerpt deals with the UK, but the value of distributed energy is universal. I’m a believer that the “liberal” and “conservative” distinctions in America aren’t useful, and each contains in its more contradictions than philosophical consistency.

It’s been surprising to me that conservatives seem generally not to have grasped the value or potential for solar and other renewables to reduce the effects of centralized power (both political and actual) in this country.

If there was ever a practical example for bringing things down to a more local level, and equipping citizens and neighborhoods and communities to function without reliance on higher levels of government and bureaucracy, this is it.

Seeing ideals in a practical light

Josh Kopelman tweeted a link to this in February and it’s been sitting in my Pocket ever since. Robert A. Heinlein’s “This I Believe,” written in 1952 and read posthumously by his wife Virginia when she accepted NASA’s Distinguished Public Service Medal in 1988 on his behalf:

“I am not going to talk about religious beliefs but about matters so obvious that it has gone out of style to mention them. I believe in my neighbors. I know their faults, and I know that their virtues far outweigh their faults. “Take Father Michael down our road a piece. I’m not of his creed, but I know that goodness and charity and lovingkindness shine in his daily actions. I believe in Father Mike. If I’m in trouble, I’ll go to him.” …

“I believe in my townspeople. You can know on any door in our town saying, ‘I’m hungry,’ and you will be fed. Our town is no exception. I’ve found the same ready charity everywhere. But for the one who says, ‘To heck with you – I got mine,’ there are a hundred, a thousand who will say, “Sure, pal, sit down.” …

“I believe in my fellow citizens. Our headlines are splashed with crime yet for every criminal there are 10,000 honest, decent, kindly men. If it were not so, no child would live to grow up. Business could not go on from day to day. Decency is not news. It is buried in the obituaries, but is a force stronger than crime. I believe in the patient gallentry of nurses and the tedious sacrifices of teachers. I believe in the unseen and unending fight against desperate odds that goes on quietly in almost every home in the land. …

“I believe that almost all politicians are honest. . .there are hundreds of politicians, low paid or not paid at all, doing their level best without thanks or glory to make our system work. If this were not true we would never have gotten past the 13 colonies.

I think this is great because it suggests that “idealism” happens when you reach a certain distance from the experience of the everyday sort of virtues Heinlein cites. So maybe criticism of “idealists” or just excessive cynicism is rooted in a lack of experience of everyday virtues.

Cynicism isn’t useful to anyone. I think it’s the earnest and hopeful who have more in common with the realists than the so-called hard-nosed cynics who pretend to know the way of things.