‘Spirit of generosity’

Charles Marohn of Small Towns writes on his recent trip to Washington, DC with his family, and specifically on his experience of Arlington Cemetery in light of the recent mobs for/against statuary. Charles riffs on the idea of a “spirit of generosity,” which I’ve seen others write about using similar words: warm-heartedness, empathy, etc.:

We walked almost the entire cemetery. As we did, it occurred to me how our view of ourselves has changed over time. In the older parts of the cemetery, our “blue blood” heritage was visible in the headstones; the markers of the privileged and affluent were larger and more ornate than the others. As we got closer to modern times, the markers became more standardized and numbingly ordered way we envision in photographs of military cemeteries. Death is an experience shared by all classes of society.

There are exceptions, however. The Kennedy family – President John F. Kennedy, his wife and two of his children along with his brothers Robert and Edward – have a special place of reverence and reflection in Arlington. We could demand historical focus on their many human flaws – from their bootlegging endowment to a Chappaquiddick bridge – or we can, in the way societies have long honored their dead, big and small, have a generous spirit towards their many positive attributes in the hopes that they will inspire us to greatness. I’m happy we have chosen the latter.

One part of Arlington Cemetery has the Confederate Monument surrounded by the graves of many soldiers who fought for the South during the Civil War. It was authorized in 1906 and completed under President Wilson in 1914. As I looked at it, it occurred to me how difficult it must have been for many to accept, but how important if must have been for others to see it built.

Again, it gets back to the regular troops, the ones who make the difference. I’m from Minnesota and served in the Army National Guard. I’ve always had a great deal of pride over the 1st Minnesotan, which turned the tide of the battle, and subsequently the entire war, in a suicidal charge at Gettysburg. I have this pride even though I know none of them. I’ve tasted none of their pain or suffering. Felt none of their fear or relief.

As I stood there, my generous self envisioned thousands of blue and grey troops coming together at Arlington in 1914 to honor those who died in the struggle, people the attendees would have known first hand. I can imagine the stubborn pride on some, the shaky hand extended by others, the shared smile between others. Aren’t we lucky to be here, right now, in this place.

Every president, including President Obama, has sent a wreath to the Confederate Monument on Memorial Day. I choose to interpret that generously as well.

I think any statuary that was erected specifically to proclaim “white supremacy” (as was the case with one of the New Orleans monuments) should have come down years ago. And I don’t think that should not be a controversial attitude. Meanwhile, Robert Mariani offers a counter-intuitive perspective on how other Confederate-era monuments can be understood as acceptable public statuary, and Robert E. Lee’s perspective has resurfaced as it seems to every few years.

A society that can accommodate remembering and living with some of its most difficult history is a strong society. It seems to me that the present debate, allegedly over statues, has underlying it a much more difficult conversation about whether America is still a land of opportunity, and whether life is tolerable for huge numbers of our people.

Human dignity’s roots

Josh Herring writes that the notion of human dignity is a uniquely defining characteristic of Western culture:

I teach in a secular classical school, where we uphold transcendence and human dignity as educational principles, but without the doctrinal apparatus of theology to support our claims. Instead of the direct claims of theology, we follow the winding paths of wisdom derived from the humanities. Grounded in the Western tradition, we study literature, history, and philosophy, with an eye towards building a sound anthropology. By the time they leave Thales Academy, students should hold firm convictions about the value of the human person and live in light of those convictions. The study of history is complex, allowing students to see the different ways humans have lived, believed, and thought, and weigh which patterns lead to flourishing. …

Later studies in Greek thought reveal another vital dialectic that contributed to human freedom. Hesiod’s poetry shows humanity as puny creatures in the Greek cosmos, echoing Homer’s portrayal of the Trojan War as a game for the entertainment of bored gods and goddesses. With the flowering of Greek philosophy in classical Athens came the teaching of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle (alongside their contemporaries), who asserted that man, the “rational animal,” is capable of comprehending the world around him. This rational impulse allowed true sciences to develop through the centuries (although it gave rise to theories like Thales of Miletus’ conviction that all things are composed of water).

Having moved through historical, literary, and philosophical studies in antiquity and the classical era, students recognize the value Christianity bestows on the human person. Within the context of a Roman pursuit of universal justice and law, they study the birth of Christianity. Suddenly, the pieces fit together: this image-bearing yet fallen creature capable of rational thought contains such worth in the eyes his Creator that Christ came to redeem mankind from the rule of sin and death. This perspective makes sense of C.S. Lewis’ claim in The Weight of Glory when he writes:

“It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are in some degree helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations – these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.”…

The West has long celebrated freedom, but that freedom did not develop in a vacuum. The ability of human beings from around the world to act freely in economic, religious, social, and political spheres grows out of key convictions that contribute to the rich tapestry of the Western tradition. It is not enough to celebrate freedoms without understanding how they developed. If we cut off the roots that nourish our concept of freedom, the tree of liberty will collapse under the rot of licentiousness. Cultivating an historical consciousness and a sense of gratitude to those men and women of the past reminds us that we are the heirs of many blessings. It is our responsibility to know our inheritance, act as good stewards of it, and pass it on to the next generation.

Catholicism and the arts

I’ve shared some of Dana Gioia’s poetry before, and I just recently discovered his Napa Institute talk from a few years ago:

He speaks about “the problem of beauty’s absence from modern thought and daily life. He makes the bold assertion that this absence is the biggest issue facing our culture today. A fantastic meditation on the idea of beauty and its importance in our lives, and how to begin to put it back.”

Future belongs to those with children

Archbishop Chaput addressed the Napa Institute. I was present for it, and it has been covered in a number of outlets. The full text of his speech is available here. I’ll highlight a bit of it here:

In a world that can sometimes seem disheartening, Christians have a path to the future in lives of joy and love, Archbishop Charles Chaput told those gathered Thursday at the annual Napa Institute conference.

While Christians need to see the world’s problems as they are, “we can’t let the weight of the world crush the joy that’s our birthright by our rebirth in Jesus Christ through baptism,” he said.

“If we cling to that joy, if we cling to God, then all things are possible,” he added. “The only way to create new life in a culture is to live our lives joyfully and fruitfully, as individuals ruled by convictions greater than ourselves and shared with people we know and love. It’s a path that’s very simple and very hard at the same time. But it’s the only way to make a revolution that matters.”

The Napa Institute, founded in 2010, aims to help Catholic leaders face the challenges of contemporary America.

“When young people ask me how to change the world,” Archbishop Chaput said, “I tell them to love each other, get married, stay faithful to one another, have lots of children, and raise those children to be men and women of Christian character. Faith is a seed. It doesn’t flower overnight. It takes time and love and effort.”

“The future belongs to people with children, not with things. Things rust and break,” the archbishop continued. “But every child is a universe of possibility that reaches into eternity, connecting our memories and our hopes in a sign of God’s love across the generations. That’s what matters. The soul of a child is forever.

In the face of the many challenges of today, he pointed to an idea from St. Augustine: “It’s no use whining about the times because we are the times.

“It’s through us that God acts in society and the Gospel of Jesus Christ is carried forward. So we need to own that mission. And only when we do will anything change for the better,” the archbishop said.

… Archbishop Chaput suggested that the modern world is not much different from the Athens that St. Paul visited. The city was “full of idols,” where everyone “spent their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new.” There, St. Paul disputed with Jews, devout persons, philosophers and other residents. …

The Acts of the Apostles show “the perpetual newness of the Gospel,” the archbishop said.

“They’re also a portrait of courage as St. Paul, Christianity’s greatest missionary, preaches the Gospel in the sophisticated heart of Athens,” he continued. Despite mockery and condemnation, St. Paul persists and “understands that his audience has a fundamental hunger for the Godly that hasn’t been fed, and he refuses to be quiet or afraid.”

“Things rust and break, but every child is a universe of possibility.”

Ethics of sexual relationships

Nathan Smith conveys the classical understanding of sex:

Men are tempted to exploit women for pleasure and prestige, and need to be on their guard against this temptation. Exploitation is worst when the woman is underage or drunk or emotionally unstable, or when the man uses a position of power to intimidate her, tells lies to impress her, promises to marry her, conceals his marriage to someone else, gets her pregnant, or exposes her to a sexually transmitted disease. But the bottom line is that if he serves his own pleasure at the expense of her welfare, that’s exploitation. If he knew, or could have known if he thought about it, that she’d regret it the morning after, that’s exploitation. And if he knew, or could have known, that she’d regret it one year, or five years, or fifteen years later, when she’s wasted some or most or all of her remaining reproductive years on a guy who wouldn’t marry her, that’s exploitation, too. “He used me” is a standard—and just, and accurate—complaint made by women against men they’ve had sex with. … The only ethically safe course is either to marry a woman or else to leave her chastity intact. …

Humans are intensely ambivalent about sex, regarding it by turns as vulgar, gross, and unseemly, or as sublime and beautiful. We place rape among the worst of crimes, while romantic love is one of life’s crowning glories, the theme of half the novels and songs the human race has written. The deceit and damage involved in so much premarital sex—cool dude bangs insecure girl and turns her into a single mom on welfare for life—fully justifies the repugnance that is one side of this ambivalence.

On the other side is the glory of marriage, and while there’s more to that glory than the selfish genes can explain, they shed an important light on it. For when two people marry, “leaving father and mother” as the Bible says and committing to lifelong monogamy, their genetic interests are united, at least approximately, creating a harmony of instincts. Ordinarily, our instincts put us in competition with our fellow human beings. In marriage, instinct is on the side of love.

Children are the large, obvious reason why marriage is good for society and why premarital sex isn’t. Sexual relationships always absorb a lot of people’s energy and attention, so they impoverish society unless they give something back. Marriage makes the next generation, under the most favorable conditions. Premarital sex is usually not intended for procreation, and if it does result in children, they enter life at a disadvantage because they lack stable parental commitments to raising them.

But even compared to childless marriage, premarital sex has an unwholesome character because, by failing to address genetic conflicts of interest through marriage, it allows competition, exploitation, and fear of betrayal to penetrate into the heart of the most intimate human relationships, not stealthily, but openly and as if by right. There is no way to make premarital sex promote the good of society or of the individuals involved. The world would be a better place if it never happened at all.

If this perspective seems outrageous or even just incredibly distant to you, that’s an example of how revolutionary the Sexual Revolution of the 1960s really turned out to be. The ethics of human sexuality can be far richer than our present “consent” culture allows for.

Novus ordo seclorum

In “Strangers in a Strange Land,” Archbishop Charles J. Chaput reflects on where the genius and strength of the American founders came from. In short, in an ability to live both as Christian and Enlightenment thinkers:

Memory matters because the past matters. The past is the soil out of which our lives and institutions grow. We can’t understand the present or plan for the future without knowing the past through the eyes of those who made it. Their beliefs and motives matter. For the American founding, there’s no way to scrub either Christianity or its skeptics out of the nation’s genetic code.

Nearly all the Founders were religious believers. Most called themselves Christians. In practice, John Adams and his colleagues in revolution were men who had minds that were a “miscellany and a museum,” men who could blend the old and the new, Christianity and Enlightenment ideas, without destroying either. Biblical faith and language saturated the founding era. Even Thomas Jefferson, stopped by a skeptical friend on his way to church one Sunday morning, would say that “no nation has ever yet existed or been governed without religion. Nor can [it] be. The Christian religion is the best religion that has ever been given to man and I, as chief magistrate of this nation, am bound to give it the sanction of my example.”

Religion and sin, of course, can share the human heart quite comfortably. The evils of America’s past—brutality to native peoples, slavery, racism, religious prejudice, exploitation of labor, foreign interventions—are bitter. But they’re not unique to America or to religious believers. Nor do they define the nation. Nor do they void the good in the American experiment or its uniqueness in history.

Asked some years ago if he believed in “American exceptionalism,” the French political scholar Pierre Manent said, “It’s difficult not to, because it is the only political experiment that succeeded … the only successful political foundation” made through choice and design. “[I]f you are not able to treat the United States for the great political-civic achievement it is, you miss something huge in the political landscape.”

The good in our history is real. America’s “exceptional” nature, however, doesn’t imply superiority. It doesn’t even suggest excellence. It implies difference. It involves something new in governance and liberty, rooted in the equality of persons, natural rights, and reverence for the law. And it’s sustained—or was intended to be—by national traits of industriousness, religious faith, and volunteerism.

America is exceptional in another way as well: It’s the only society with no real history of its own before the age of progress. The continent, for the Founders, was not just vast and pristine. It was a blank slate for a new kind of political order, unlike anything that had come before. When the Founders stamped the words novus ordo seclorum—“a new order of the ages”—on the national seal, they meant it. And they proved it. A special genius of law, institutional structure, moral imagination, and an idea of the human person animated the American founding and its development.

From the start, religious faith has been the glue and rudder of the American experiment, its moral framework and vocabulary—at least as people have typically experienced it. That rudder and glue no longer seem to apply. We now really do have a new order of the ages. And it has shaped a new kind of human being.

Michael Novak has written on this dexterity of the founders in describing the founder’s marriage of faith and reason as the two wings that give flight to the American experiment.

They’re going to happen

John Roberts, Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, made headlines a few weeks ago for his commencement speech at his son’s New Hampshire boarding school. I’ve shared Antonin Scalia’s commencement remarks in the past, and some of Roberts’s remarks are worth sharing too:

Now the commencement speakers will typically also wish you good luck and extend good wishes to you. I will not do that, and I’ll tell you why. From time to time in the years to come, I hope you will be treated unfairly, so that you will come to know the value of justice. I hope that you will suffer betrayal because that will teach you the importance of loyalty. Sorry to say, but I hope you will be lonely from time to time so that you don’t take friends for granted. I wish you bad luck, again, from time to time so that you will be conscious of the role of chance in life and understand that your success is not completely deserved and that the failure of others is not completely deserved either. And when you lose, as you will from time to time, I hope every now and then, your opponent will gloat over your failure. It is a way for you to understand the importance of sportsmanship. I hope you’ll be ignored so you know the importance of listening to others, and I hope you will have just enough pain to learn compassion. Whether I wish these things or not, they’re going to happen. And whether you benefit from them or not will depend upon your ability to see the message in your misfortunes.