McCartney’s untold stories

Chris Heath’s lengthy, deep conversations with Paul McCartney on the occasion of his latest album, Egypt Station, captured me for a while today. Like Bob Dylan, McCartney is in some ways a living monument to an era whose figures are generally long past. And like Dylan, he’s a balladier who is still as present as ever and deserves to be met on his own terms. McCartney and The Beatles, in brief:

Paul McCartney met John Lennon and George Harrison when they were schoolboys in Liverpool. An early group, the Quarrymen, evolved into the Beatles. They learned their craft principally by playing cover versions in clubs in the red-light district of Hamburg, Germany, and also in an underground Liverpool club, the Cavern. Ringo Starr replaced their previous drummer, Pete Best, in August 1962, and two months later the Beatles’ first single, “Love Me Do,” was released. They were soon the biggest group in the world. After making a series of increasingly innovative records that remain a template for much of what has come since, they split up acrimoniously in 1970. Lennon was shot in New York by a deranged fan in December 1980. Harrison died of cancer in November 2001. Since the Beatles’ split, McCartney has mostly made records as a solo artist but also, between 1971 and 1979, with his group Wings.

Here’s one of the tamer little vignettes; one that resonates for a few reasons:

“I quite like going on public transport,” he points out. “It’s just my character enjoys the sort of thing that I always did. It’s a roots thing. I’ll sometimes go on the Underground in London, which I did the other day.” He and his grandson went to see Ocean’s 8 at the cinema—”quite good”—and afterwards McCartney suggested they take the Underground back. Mostly, it went fine, though McCartney realised that the French guy (as he turned out to be) opposite them was surreptitiously trying to take his photo. McCartney tried to signal that this was unwelcome. … “I’m being me,” McCartney says. “I’m not being the celebrity me. And those moments are quite precious. …”

… McCartney tells me a further such story of a time he took the Hampton Jitney, the slightly upmarket bus service that runs from the Hamptons into Manhattan, because he was deep into Charles Dickens’s Nicholas Nickleby and he wanted to finish it, and how he then took a local bus uptown, and when a woman blurted from across the bus, “Hey! Are you Paul McCartney?” he invited her to sit next to him and chatted all the way uptown. “It’s a way of not worrying about your fame,” he says.

I listened to Egypt Station on drive to Washington earlier this week. “Who Cares” and “Confidante” are favorites.

Rilke on love and relationships

Maria Popova writes on Rainer Maria Rilke and the contrasting pulls “of autonomy and togetherness” that characterize so many healthy relationships. Rilke writes to a young correspondent:

I hold this to be the highest task of a bond between two people: that each should stand guard over the solitude of the other. For, if it lies in the nature of indifference and of the crowd to recognize no solitude, then love and friendship are there for the purpose of continually providing the opportunity for solitude. And only those are the true sharings which rhythmically interrupt periods of deep isolation.

And Rilke writes elsewhere on healthy togetherness and boundaries, where he movingly expands on the idea of our “willing to stand guard over the solitude” of the other, and in so doing balance between the two poles of love, autonomy and forfeiture.

It is a question in marriage, to my feeling, not of creating a quick community of spirit by tearing down and destroying all boundaries, but rather a good marriage is that in which each appoints the other guardian of his solitude, and shows him this confidence, the greatest in his power to bestow. A togetherness between two people is an impossibility, and where it seems, nevertheless, to exist, it is a narrowing, a reciprocal agreement which robs either one party or both of his fullest freedom and development. But, once the realization is accepted that even between the closest human beings infinite distances continue to exist, a wonderful living side by side can grow up, if they succeed in loving the distance between them which makes it possible for each to see the other whole and against a wide sky!

Therefore this too must be the standard for rejection or choice: whether one is willing to stand guard over the solitude of a person and whether one is inclined to set this same person at the gate of one’s own solitude, of which he learns only through that which steps, festively clothed, out of the great darkness.

And on properly giving of oneself, and on having a self to give:

All companionship can consist only in the strengthening of two neighboring solitudes, whereas everything that one is wont to call giving oneself is by nature harmful to companionship: for when a person abandons himself, he is no longer anything, and when two people both give themselves up in order to come close to each other, there is no longer any ground beneath them and their being together is a continual falling… Once there is disunity between them, the confusion grows with every day; neither of the two has anything unbroken, pure, and unspoiled about him any longer… They who wanted to do each other good are now handling one another in an imperious and intolerant manner, and in the struggle somehow to get out of their untenable and unbearable state of confusion, they commit the greatest fault that can happen to human relationships: they become impatient. …

We’re think of ourselves as romantics, but we seem to know little about love.

Mission territory is all around us

In light of the scandal of Theodore McCarrick and the apparent pastoral failures of Pope Francis and others of this particular moment, George Weigel’s recent reflection (before the McCarrick revelations) on the Acts of the Apostles is something I turned to for perspective:

We live at a time when the surrounding culture no longer supports the transmission of the faith. On the contrary, as the contemporary experiences of Ireland, Quebec, and Belgium graphically demonstrate, the prevailing cultural climate can asphyxiate once-robust Catholic instincts—especially when Catholic leadership is weak, defensive, unenthusiastic about the Gospel, and seemingly embarrassed by Catholicism’s countercultural claims. In these post-Christian circumstances, the New Evangelization is going to have to unfold one convert at a time. …

When those conversions take place, they’ll likely do so in the most quotidian circumstances: in random encounters with open hearts in homes, recreational settings, and other everyday venues. U.S. Catholics older than 50 once thought of “mission territory” as places that got glossy full-color photo spreads in National Geographic. Acts alerts us to our true situation: Mission territory is all around us—at our kitchen table, in our offices, in our lives as consumers and citizens.

Christianity is inherently countercultural because Christians are always called to convert the culture. The great vignette of Paul on the Athenian Areopagus in Acts 17 reminds us of one evangelical strategy for cultural conversion: Appeal to a culture’s noblest instincts and try to demonstrate a deeper foundation for those aspirations—the foundation that comes from friendship with Jesus Christ. It’s not the only such strategy (and it didn’t work out all that well for Paul). But it was one of John Paul II’s favorite biblical metaphors for the Church in the twenty-first century, and it’s very much worth pondering in contemporary America. …

Over two millennia, shipwreck has always been a call to a deeper fidelity and a more courageous evangelization. So in 2018, perhaps Acts is calling those with ears to hear to get beyond the food fights of the Catholic blogosphere and engage in some retail evangelization—a challenge, to be sure, but also the bracing vocation into which each of us was baptized.

It appears that the most important sort of retail evangelization that is required at this moment is for faithful pastors, priests, and bishops to put aside their clerical fears and institutional hesitations, and live and celebrate the liturgy in a faithful way. In this moment, orthodoxy and tradition have become the counter-culture.

The love that moves the sun

Archbishop Charles J. Chaput delivered a great lecture at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington earlier this week for the Faith and Reason Institute. The lecture marks the 20th anniversary of John Paul the Great’s Fides et Ratio encyclical letter.

Permanent truths about good and evil, man and his behavior and meaning, do exist.  Faith and reason are the means to find and know those truths.  Each needs the other in its search. John Paul stresses this in the encyclical’s opening words: “Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth; and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth — in a word, to know himself — so that, by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fullness of truth about themselves.”

In a sense, Fides et Ratio, like nearly everything else written by Karol Wojtyla, is simply a working out of the genius in his first encyclical, Redemptor Hominis,“Redeemer of Man.”  The dignity and destiny of every human person as the child of a loving God were central themes of the John Paul II pontificate.  I want to talk today about why Fides et Ratio is so important to those themes.

I’ll do that in three parts.  I’ll talk first about the current state of the Church and her witness.  Then I’ll turn to the realities of our culture.  And finally I want to ask whether the Christian revelation is really true; whether it has anything useful to say to the modern heart; whether the Gospel message of hope and joy is anything more than a sentimental myth.  Sooner or later, all of us as believers struggle with doubt.  We need to decide whether our faith is reasonable; whether we’ve given ourselves to a beautiful but naïve illusion, or not. …

a few words about Christian hope, and whether the Catholic faith can be “reasonable” for women and men in the current age.

About 25 years ago, the British scholar Michael Burleigh wrote a book called Death and Deliverance.  I want you to read it.  I said a moment ago that the Jewish Holocaust was a tragedy without parallel, and that’s true.  But it did have a precedent; a kind of test run.  Starting in the late 1930s, the Third Reich carried out a forced euthanasia program that murdered roughly 300,000 persons with mental and physical disabilities.  Many of the victims were children, ages 6-15.  The excuses given were legion: saving patients from their suffering; cleansing the Aryan gene pool; reducing the financial burden of unproductive citizens on the life of the community.  Many patients were killed by injection.  Some were starved.  Others were gassed as groups in holding rooms or mobile “treatment” vans.  German films and propaganda promoted euthanasia as a gift of mercy.  Many of the institutions that housed the targeted patients were run by Protestant and Catholic organizations or religious orders.  Most buckled under government pressure.  Only a very few religious leaders – men like Munster’s Bishop Clemens August Graf von Galen – spoke out publicly to condemn the program.

Blaming these murders on National Socialist race theory would be easy.  And it would be accurate – but only part of the story.  In reality, the German medical establishment began shifting to a utility-based morality as early as the 1890s.  Doctors, not the Third Reich, first pressed for euthanasia as national policy.  What occurred among medical experts, in the words of one German psychiatrist, was “a change in the concept of humanity,” with its perfectly logical consequences.  Sentimental words about human dignity, unmoored from some authority or purpose higher than ourselves, were just that – words.

I mention Burleigh’s book because several of my friends have children with disabilities.  Watching them parent is a lesson in what the author of the Song of Songs meant when he wrote, “love is strong as death.”  My educator friend, the wife and mother I spoke about earlier, has a son with Down syndrome.  She also has three grandchildren with disabilities ranging from the moderate to the severe.

Her son has an IQ of 43.  His syndrome makes it hard for him to speak.  Sometimes he needs to repeat a sentence three or four times to be understood, even by his family.  He’s more prone to illness.  Simple griefs like getting dumped by a girlfriend lead to inexpressible feelings because he doesn’t have the words to articulate his hurt.  He’s likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease at some point in his life.  Some persons with Down syndrome face it as early as their 30s.  So my friend and her husband live with the knowledge that the son they love may one day be unable to recognize them.

And yet, he has a job.  He has friends.  He’s a distance runner.  He’s a Special Olympian, an opinionated savant of restaurant fare, a master of the mysteries of the rosary, and a sports fanatic.  His life is filled with good things, not sadness.  He’s a daily education in the virtue of patience for his parents, and in what it means to be human for his siblings.  And among his greatest blessings is this:  He will never be alone.  He will always be loved.  None of his family’s behavior is rational in a worldly sense.  Not one of my friends who has a child with disabilities is “rational.”  All of them are unreasonable; all of them are irrational – unless, like Augustine, we believein order to understand.

The genius of Fides et Ratio, the beauty and the glory of the text, is its defense of the capacity of human reason to know the truth; a truth rooted in the deep harmony of creation.  The world has a logic and meaning breathed into it by its Author, who is Love himself.  And reason lit by faith can see that, and find the path to him.

There’s a plaque on the wall of my educator friend’s kitchen, and it overlooks every meal the family shares.  Most of the time, nobody notices.  Life is a busy and complex enterprise.  But when they do notice, it reads, “The Love that moves the sun and the other stars.”  It’s the final line in the greatest of all poems, Dante’s Divine Comedy:

… my wings were not meant for such a flight —
Except that then my mind was struck by lightning
Through which my longing was at last fulfilled.

Here powers failed my high imagination:
But by now my desire and will were turned,
Like a balanced wheel rotated evenly,

By the Love that moves the sun and the other stars.

There are many different types of logic, and depending on the sort of logic a people embrace a whole range of choices become either rational or irrational, prudent or imprudent, foolish or wise.

Bruce Wayne, American Aeneas

Bradley J. Birzer writes what is probably the best review of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy that I’ve come across. I grew up watching hokey 1990s Batman cartoons, but Nolan’s portrayal of Bruce Wayne cuts away all the cruft from the cartoon portrayals of Batman as a character and focuses on drawing out the essential character of Bruce Wayne as archetypal hero:

First, he brought the characters into the realm of realism. They reside in the actual world, not a fantasy world, and events and developments can all be explained rationally. Second, Nolan fashioned his central character not from the pastel pages of a comic book but rather from America’s western legend, the frontier mythos that captured the national consciousness so powerfully in multiple movies of the 1940s and TV shows of the 1950s. This western legend, or myth, was larger than any single person, event, or even culture. And there were no antiheroes in that cultural fare, focused on the daunting challenge of extending the essence of Western civilization to those forbidding and often dangerous lands of the Rocky Mountains and beyond. It took real heroes to do that.

Thus does Nolan’s Batman trilogy stand today as a remarkable cultural achievement. Indeed, his third film in the trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises, was not only the best of the three but is arguably one of the finest movies ever made, a true achievement of the cinematic arts, certainly worthy of an Alfred Hitchcock or a John Ford. It also may be the single most important defense of Western civilization ever to reach a Hollywood screen. That the severe cultural liberals of the West Coast didn’t rip it to shreds indicates they probably didn’t watch it—or perhaps didn’t understand it. …

As Nolan approached the story, he decided two critical things. The first was his insistence on realism. If something happened that could not be explained rationally, he excised even the idea of it. Everything from the Batmobile to the reaction of the police had to be utterly realistic. If the Batman headgear needed two ears, there needed to be an explanation for those two ears. If Batman jumped from building to building, there needed to be a reason why and explanation as to how. The second was his embrace of the myths of the American West. Here Nolan was tapping into something already in the Batman mythos but not explicitly understood by the larger public. Like Natty Bumppo of James Fenimore Cooper’s “Leatherstocking Tales” and Mark Twain’s Huck Finn, Bruce Wayne/Batman stands as a crucial American symbol. If Bumppo and Finn personify the American frontier of the 19th century, so Wayne/Batman is the great mythological figure of 20th and 21st century urban America. Named after the Revolutionary War general, Mad Anthony Wayne, and coming from one of the wealthiest of American families (builders and defenders of Gotham City, a Platonic shadow of New York, populated by 30 million people), Bruce Wayne considers it his aristocratic duty to protect the poor and oppressed from the wealthy and corrupt. He is an Arthurian but also deeply American figure.

Several themes inform each movie. The first movie deals with justice and fear; the second with free will and anarchy; the third with hope and reformation. …

Nolan’s third Batman film was inspired by Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities, though much of the dialogue might have been written by the Anglo-Irish statesman Edmund Burke, considered by many the father of modern conservatism. The movie is in essence a retelling of the events of the French Revolution in Paris. In place of Robespierre is a mercenary, chemically-enhanced villain from either Eastern Europe or the Mideast, known only as Bane. …

In Nolan’s expert hands, Batman becomes what he always meant to be, an American Odysseus, an American Aeneas, an American Arthur, an American Beowulf, and an American Thomas More. Indeed, it would be hard to find another figure in popular and literary culture that more embodies the traditional heroism of the West more than in the figure of Bruce Wayne. He most closely resembles Aeneas, carrying on the culture of charity and sacrifice into the darkest and most savage parts of his world. Like St. Michael, he guards the weak, the poor, and the innocent. Like Socrates, he will die for Athens (Gotham) as it should be rather than as it is. Like Beowulf, he asks nothing for himself, merely the opportunity to wage the never-ending war against evil.

And in the third film, Western civilization survives, but only barely and only with incredible sacrifice at every level. “I see that I hold a sanctuary in their hearts, and in the hearts of their descendants, generations hence,” Dickens had written.

What makes Bruce Wayne and the Batman mythology so compelling is that this is the one super hero whose greatness comes, at the most essential level, from his moral character and virtue rather than from a chemical or otherworldly enhancement. Anyone can strive for the moral excellence of Bruce Wayne.

September 11th, 17 years later

I’m in Washington today, looking at apartments for my move here in a few weeks. Joseph Mussomeli reflects on September 11th, this anniversary of American heroism and terroristic violence:

September 11 is different. Seventeen years on and the sound of those towers crashing down still echoes through our country, and the silence of those dead still haunts those of us still living. This is difficult for Americans. Our collective attention span is notoriously short, and we prefer to flit from issue to issue, from crusade to crusade. For us, seventeen years is a very long time. We have an urgent yearning to be distracted and to move on. …

We never got closure. We never got that cathartic release that comes with victory. We never even got the chance (as was the case with Vietnam) to move on to new crises and new enemies. Instead, our policies and actions over the last two decades have enabled that which we sought to vanquish to metastasize. It is a terrible realization to know that a child born in 2001 is now old enough to die on the endless battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq.

I sometimes still worry that all the publicity centering around 9/11 drowns out the cries of those who died that day. I don’t want that to happen. The dead deserve to be remembered, to be honored, to be missed. And not to be used. The tragedy of their dying was corrupted from the very start by our leaders who failed to understand why they died and who used their dying for their own objectives. …

Mischaracterizing the killers as “hating our freedom” did a great injustice to the dead. September 11 had nothing to do with a threat to freedom; it had everything to do with justice, albeit a distorted sense of justice. The killers were not evil in a Manichean sense: They were not the opposite of good. Rather, they were evil in the classic Judeo-Christian-Islamic sense: They were twisted in their goodness. They wanted justice and in pursuing what they thought to be justice, committed horrific crimes. They are an object lesson for all of us: Being too sure, being too certain that one is absolutely right and everyone else is completely wrong leads to much pain and great sorrows. Nearly every barbarism and almost every crime is committed by those who believe themselves to have been somehow injured.

What is it about this tragedy that makes it different? It is not merely because so many people died a horrible death, because so many die in so many horrible ways every day. Perhaps the answer is that this was a real tragedy, and real tragedy has two indispensable components. The first is avoidability. The inevitable, no matter how horrible, no matter how painful, at least offers the solace that it was beyond our control, beyond our wisdom, beyond what could be expected from us. But 9/11 was not inevitable; it was preventable. Some will be angry with this assertion. Inevitability is so comforting. Inevitability is so reassuring because, inevitably, it absolves us from responsibility. But this horror was not predestined.

The second essential ingredient: futility. That the suffering seemingly was in vain—that no lasting good has yet come from it. …

And there are hard questions we need to keep asking ourselves. We owe it to the dead. What have we learned? How have our priorities changed? Is our vision less myopic? Are our policies sounder? Are we any wiser? Are we any more secure? Can we bet on a future devoid of another September 11?

There has never been a period of history when so many people have lived so freely; never a time of such great and general prosperity. Thousands each day risk their lives fighting those whose religious nihilism threatens us. Thousands more every day work long hours to protect the innocent and to lift up the downtrodden. Yet we still find our lives wanting, our security and safety still out of reach. We live in a broken world; we live in a broken time. We come from broken places. But we should resolve that these dead did not die in vain. The deaths of these three thousand should have meaning. Good can be brought forth from evil. We believe this because it is part of our continuing duty and responsibility to those who died. And there is no better way to honor these dead than to work humbly and honestly for a more just world.

Perhaps it is enough simply to say that I still see them in my mind’s eye, falling from the windows, unable to escape any other way. I see them fall and I lose faith and hope in this world. I have lost faith in everything except faith; I have lost hope in everything except hope.

In thinking on the anniversary of another September 11th, and wondering once again whether we’ve made ourselves a worse or better people in the aftermath of those attacks, I have something of the author’s “lost hope in everything except hope.”

Christianity, virtue, and wholeness

In my reflection piece the other day on Andrew Bacevich’s piece, one of the things I wrote was that Christianity as a “belief system” was more important than Christianity an “organizing principle.”

This was in response to Bacevich writing on another author of Christianity “as project—reference point, narrative, and source of authority—[which] imparted to history a semblance of cohesion and purposefulness.”

What I was trying to get at was that the question, “Is Christ who he said he was?” has always been distinct and incomparably more important than the social impact of Christian institutions, but in thinking this way I probably responding to something that really wasn’t contested. Aside from getting my understanding of “organizing principle” exactly backward, my friend Ben Novak wrote to me in what became a back-and-forth correspondence on the direct of Christian faith generally. There are two questions in particular that I posed and to which he responded, and that we wanted to share:

Question 1: “Can you explain what you believe the early organizing principle(s) Christians defeated was/were?”

All of the ancient religions (except the Greeks) worshipped power. Power was the essence of divinity, especially great wealth and power over people. The ancient gods of the East were gods of power. Whoever had power had a touch of divinity about him that could not be questioned–power was divine. Wealth was the sign of power. Power as evidenced by wealth and command was the first and highest attribute of power. This is why we refer to Eastern “Potentates” (definition: one who has power over others, ruler, sovereign).

Thus the first attribute of God in all semitic religions (Muslim, Jewish, and even Christianity) is “omnipotence,” or “almighty.” (First line of the Apostles’ Creed: “Credo in unum Deum, patrem omnipotentem”–I believe in God the Father Almighty.)

Power was the paradigm of all society and religion, and all of society was designed and organized in terms of the flow of power. The emperor or king had absolute power over other men, and other men had power only insofar as it came from him.

Now, imagine what the simple story of Christ meant to this paradigm. The first element was that when the son of God chose to become a man, but did not choose to have power over men. Absolute reversal. Suddenly, divinity was not found in power or wealth, but in something else—the example of Christ, who was a poor man, born in a stable, raised the son of a carpenter, who had nowhere even to lay his head to sleep, and had no elaborate funeral upon his death, but was crucified among common criminals.

This overturned the entire basis not only of society but of personal life. It meant that one did not have to have or to seek power to reach the divine. Divinity to a poor man could be sought someplace else. It also changed the relation of the individual to those with power–they no longer participated in divinity solely by the power they had, but based on their virtue–and even poor men could have virtue. Only the fact of the son of God being born poor was necessary for this organizing principle to be established. From this fact alone, divinity could no longer be associated solely with power.

The underling for the first time had a basis on which to judge those above him other than their possession of power. Whereas before, divinity was associated only with power, now even the slave could judge his master as lacking in divinity based on the story of the son of God, who in the desert even turned down the devil’s offer of power over all the earth.

This story of Christ changed the organizing principle of both personal and societal life. Men suddenly could organize their lives on a principle other than seeking or worshipping power or wealth. It changed the organizing principles of society because it meant that those in power could be judged as lacking in the attributes of divinity as displayed in Christ.

The simple fact of the story of Christ was simply that power was not divinity. This is why, for example, even today people have a warmer feeling toward Christmas than Easter and we celebrate the former much more. It is because it is the story of the son of God choosing not to be born in a palace of power, but in a manger in a barn. God chose to become a man born not to power but among the poorest of the poor and the most powerless. Even the most abject slave could see that the path to God–and a share of divinity—was as open to him as much as to the Emperor on his throne. Even today, the story of the child in the manger resonates more than Christ’s ascension to power and glory.

The story of the resurrection is also a new organizing principle, for no longer did power and wealth in this world matter, but even the poorest and most miserable could look to happiness in the next, while the power of the most powerful men was no longer absolute and unconditional, but subject to being judged after death.

Now slaves could look in judgment on their masters, and the poor no longer had to envy wealth. What a totally different basis of society and personal life! Now power was subject to judgement that even the poor could see and understand.

The story of the crucifixion is also important here, for at the crucifixion, in crucifying the son of God, power had executed its own divinity—God himself. What those in power did to the son of God meant that power could never be seen in the same way again.

It is in this sense that the story of Christ in its barest bones, as the earliest Christians probably heard it, introduced an entirely new organizing principle into the world and changed the basis of both personal and societal life.

They only had to believe that Jesus was the son of God, and everything else flowed from that. A new organizing principle, by which every man, even the poorest, could re-organize his life and reorient it had come into the world with the story of Christ.

So, to specifically answer your first question (“Can you explain what you believe the early organizing principle/s Christians defeated was/were?”) the answer is: the organizing principle that the story of Christ defeated was that power is the essence of divinity.

Question 2. “What is the organizing principle confronting Christianity today? Is it what animated Communism and other ideologies; slogans like ‘everything is economics,’ ‘the personal is the political,’ etc. Is it something else?”

The issue is that the story of Christ has been co-opted. Socialism and Marxism as well as democracy furnished new and alternative theories to justify the poor judging the rich and powerful. If one believes in any of these, one no longer needs the story of Christ to empower the poor.

The organizing principle that is confronting the Church, however, is that these organizing principles are denuded of divinity. In the story of Christ, divinity was relocated from power to virtue and innocence. But in the modern world, these heresies have re-enthroned power, and merely shifted the argument to where power should be located: in the few or the many?

Thus, in another article by Bacevich (which I can’t find right now), he notes that modernists can march for the poor and against the rich without any need to be personally good; it doesn’t matter if they are adulterers or delinquent dads or druggies or sinners at all. All they need to be socially moral is to hate those with power and wealth and to demand it for themselves. Virtue and innocence mean nothing to them, social justice is everything.

How shall the Church (or the son of God) re-enthrone virtue and innocence—as well as the ability to achieve virtue and innocence again even after sinning, by forgiveness and repentance and mercy? That demands wholeness and integrity.

So, to specifically answer your question, my answer is this:

No, it is not by opposing beliefs with beliefs. Admit that after 1,800 years the social sciences figured out another way to decouple power from divinity. But that does not have to result (as Marx would have it) in destroying all divinity in the world, it only succeeded in one separation—the total identification of God as power. Now the Church must insist that virtue, rather than simply social justice, is still divine. At the same time, it must teach that while power is not the sole essence of the divine, it is also part of the divine, but only with innocence, humility, and all the other virtues. Therefore, the new organizing principle that the Church must offer is wholeness and integrity, rather than parts.

That is why, for example, I once argued at one of the conferences we attended together that truth is the issue, for truth to me means integrity which means wholeness.

Here I am speculating:

I think that the reason God had allowed the horrible scandals in the Church is to teach us that proclaiming virtue and innocence is not enough without humility and forgiveness and mercy for sinners. As a result, the Church has first had to relearn humility.

So, it’s no longer a single issue of decoupling power and divinity, but re-coupling a whole panoply of issues including humility, virtue, innocence, forgiveness, mercy, etc., all at once.

Frankly, I welcome this, for it pits the “whole man” against the partial man—a heck of a challenge in a technological world that favors specialization! Just as finding wisdom in a world drowning in information and knowledge is hard enough, today’s Catholic must argue for wholeness in a world that divides and dissects everything into parts.

We’re not sharing this because we think it’s necessarily right, but because it might be a helpful exchange for anyone trying to think through these issues.

‘An example I thought was admirable’

I wrote a brief reflection on Jimmy Carter last summer and Kevin Sullivan’s and Mary Jordan’s profile gives me another reason to reflect:

Jimmy Carter finishes his Saturday night dinner, salmon and broccoli casserole on a paper plate, flashes his famous toothy grin and calls playfully to his wife of 72 years, Rosalynn: “C’mon, kid.”

She laughs and takes his hand, and they walk carefully through a neighbor’s kitchen filled with 1976 campaign buttons, photos of world leaders and a couple of unopened cans of Billy Beer, then out the back door, where three Secret Service agents wait.

They do this just about every weekend in this tiny town where they were born — he almost 94 years ago, she almost 91. Dinner at their friend Jill Stuckey’s house, with plastic Solo cups of ice water and one glass each of bargain-brand chardonnay, then the half-mile walk home to the ranch house they built in 1961.

On this south Georgia summer evening, still close to 90 degrees, they dab their faces with a little plastic bottle of No Natz to repel the swirling clouds of tiny bugs. Then they catch each other’s hands again and start walking, the former president in jeans and clunky black shoes, the former first lady using a walking stick for the first time.

The 39th president of the United States lives modestly, a sharp contrast to his successors, who have left the White House to embrace power of another kind: wealth.

Even those who didn’t start out rich, including Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, have made tens of millions of dollars on the private-sector opportunities that flow so easily to ex-presidents. …

“I don’t see anything wrong with it; I don’t blame other people for doing it,” Carter says over dinner. “It just never had been my ambition to be rich.”

“I am a great admirer of Harry Truman. He’s my favorite president, and I really try to emulate him,” says Carter, who writes his books in a converted garage in his house. “He set an example I thought was admirable.” …

As Carter spreads a thick layer of butter on a slice of white bread, he is asked whether he thinks, especially with a man who boasts of being a billionaire in the White House, any future ex-president will ever live the way Carter does.

“I hope so,” he says. “But I don’t know.”

There’s so much power in that simple statement of preference: “It just never had been my ambition to be rich.”

Russell Arben Fox reflects on the profile above in a beautiful way:

There is a way of talking about the virtues that Carter brought to the presidency: republican, in the small-r sense. Those kind of virtues aren’t a good fit for the presidency today, and–realistically speaking–hadn’t been a good fit for it since the Civil War, if not before. So it was a singularly odd thing that this pious Christian man, this “good old Southern gentleman,” as one of his many friends in Plains described him, this product of farms and the Depression and the military and a slow, traditional pace of life,  could have made his way to the position of, arguably, the most powerful person in the world’s most powerful military, economic, and cultural empire. His time there didn’t last, but in the exhausting, depressing era of Trump, one is tempted to say that James Earl Carter, Jr., has outlasted the American presidency. Good for him.

It’s a simple and obvious enough thing to defend the pursuit of wealth by pointing out that wealth lets you do a lot, and that it buys not only material things but also immaterial things like time. But it’s as simple (though maybe less obvious) that you can do great things without wealth, too.

Where Carter and Truman were coming from was a much older place in the story of America and our people’s character and values. You can get at part of that story by understanding the role that good sense and frugality has always played in a nation of pioneers and bootstrap-settlers. But you can also get at that story a bit by considering just how unseemly and downright corrosive to the public consciousness it is to see one president after another (and politician after politician, generally) literally cash in the chips of prestige, of knowledge, of trust for personal enrichment after his or her time in office has come to an end. Watching that happen often enough makes the phrase public servant unbelievable.

Will future ex-presidents live the way that Carter does?

We’ll need them too.

Engaging and redeeming

A number of years ago Andrew J. Bacevich wrote an incredible analysis of the challenge of Christian witness in the 21st century. In the wake of the McCarrick scandal I want to revisit it. He starts:

Confronting the twentieth century, Catholicism stood fast. This was its mission: church as bulwark against the disorders afflicting the age. The excitement of Vatican II (I was a teenager when the council convened) derived from the sense that the church possessed a hitherto unsuspected capacity to adapt its witness. Rather than merely standing in lonely opposition, the church intended to engage—and then redeem—modernity.

Catholics in the twenty-first century find it increasingly difficult—perhaps impossible—to sustain any such expectations. The problem is not simply that the institutional church today stands dishonored and discredited, but that it has misconstrued the problem. The ramparts it persists in defending—a moral order based on received, permanent truth—have long since been scaled, breached, and bypassed, and have fallen into ruin.

What Bacevich seems to be suggesting is that Christians have generally lost the hope that living lives of virtue and witness to Christ still works, in terms of cultural renewal. Is this too broad a way to describe the situation?

What else is Bacevich pointing out, in effect? The world has not always been like it is today. Evolution and miracles are phenomenon which coexist within the same reality. Modernity has distinct animating principles and attitudes from other periods, like the late Middle Ages. The Genesis story of humankind’s fall due lusting after a sort of universal knowledge continues as rancor in our hearts, driving our desire for new forms of power. And that through it all, Jesus Christ has always been who he said that he was, and that this truth can continue to engage and redeem in every era.

Not himself conventionally religious (watching his sister suffer an excruciatingly painful death, he had concluded that God might be “a Substance, but He could not be a Person”) [historian Henry] Adams was referring to Christianity not as a belief system but as an organizing principle. Christianity as project—reference point, narrative, and source of authority—imparted to history a semblance of cohesion and purposefulness. So, at least for centuries, Europeans and Americans had believed or at least pretended to believe.

Adam’s “organizing principle” carries less weight than I would like, apparently akin more to a theory or hypothesis rather than an encounter with anything certainly true.

In any event, after a century of global war on different scales, we’re now living through a time of fractured cohesion and purpose. We barely have a clear, shared civic organizing principle any longer, let alone a shared spiritual belief system to guide our civic activity or inform our moral conscience. We’re drifting.

Christianity as a personal ethic or as a medium through which to seek individual salvation might survive, but Christianity as a formula for ordering human affairs had breathed its last.

I suppose “Christendom” might be understood as nations wherein Christianity was the formula for ordering human affairs—not as outright theocracy as in parts of the Muslim world, but as a means to balance raw state power with a coherent moral order capable of holding it to account for the health of the whole people. And because so few Christians now know their history or their scripture, it’s likely impossible to expect any sort of robust belief on a wide scale. You can’t remain faithful to someone you’ve never met.

Scripture no longer provided an adequate explanation of these events—even to consider situating the Holocaust in what Christians called salvation history seemed obscene. Unwilling to own up to their own complicity in all that had gone awry … nominally Christian Americans sought refuge in ideology. …

As successor to the Machine Age, the so-called Information Age promises to empower humanity as never before and therefore to complete our liberation. Taking the form of a wireless handheld device, the dynamo of our time has truly become, as Adams wrote, “a symbol of infinity.” Rather than spewing masses of stone and steam, it offers instant access to the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

In this Information Age, we can access coursework from Harvard or Yale or any number of great institutions for free; it’s closer than whatever’s at the nearby public library. We can also access and participate in soul-corroding hate and destructive behavior from our kitchens, bedrooms, and anywhere, all on a magnitudes unimaginable in past times; the sort of things that local zoning boards might have fought to keep out of their towns in times past can now be present in every private room and public space.

What are Christians supposed to do in response to this? How can Christians engage and redeem a world like this? A struggle takes place now in each and every heart to decide whether Christ was honest and whether virtue is true, in essence, and what sort of life and world we might work to create as a result of our conclusions. These struggles have always taken place, but it’s entirely different when there’s no community or social support for it; when we’re living as autonomous, liberated individuals rather than as members of a particular community with responsibilities and relationships with particular people.

So the frantic pursuit of self-liberation that Adams identified and warned against enters yet another cycle, with little sign of anything having been learned from past failures. If the God of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament exists, then it must be that he wills this. Yet his purposes remain inscrutable.

God’s ways have always been inscrutable. I’m consoled by John Henry Newman’s attitude of our own somewhat unknowable purpose in life as superior to Rick Warren’s notion that each of us can discover and live out our own “purpose driven life.”

I think what we’re challenged to realize is that we cannot engage and redeem if we are not ourselves converted in our heart; if we, in effect, do not love Christ.

Tomorrow you may not die

I ordered a copy of The Collegian Chronicles years ago and was recently flipping through it. It’s a sort of history of Penn State from 1887 to 2006 through the pages of The Daily Collegian, the campus newspaper. Its dedication honors Ross Lehman, Class of 1941:

Ross B. Lehman, executive director emeritus alumni association in Office of Student Affairs, from Feb. 1, 1948, until his retirement April 1, 1983; died Dec. 12, 2003 at the age of 85.

Ross was one of the pillars of the State College/Penn State communities. He and his wife wrote a widely read Centre Daily Times column called “Open House” for decades, and like Joe and Sue Paterno he and his wife embodied some of the best aspects of the Penn State ethos. Skull and Bones at Penn State endowed an award in his honor:

It is given annually to a freshman who exemplifies the ideals of Skull and Bones: unselfish service and leadership to the Penn State University community, and the elimination of false pride, excessive self-esteem and grand ideas of personal glory.

A leadership award honoring virtues opposed to false pride, grand ideas of personal glory, etc. is somewhat distinctive now, isn’t it? Who talks like that any longer?

The Collegian Chronicles is dedicated to Ross Lehman, and this bit stands out:

While in captivity in a German prison hospital, Ross recalled awakening one morning to see “the most beautiful, indescribable patch of blue” sky. It was his moment of revelation. “I said to myself at that moment, ‘Each minute of life is an eternity, and it’s how that minute is lived, how acutely one perceives it and absorbs it within his being, that determines how much a man becomes a sun: he generates or he explodes.”

Ross once advised: “Live nobly while you live. Tomorrow you may not die.”

Tomorrow you may not die. A hard phrase, like a needle in the eye of the “live like each day is your last” sentimentalism that justifies doing basically whatever.

I guess I’ll throw my chips in with the Ross Lehmans of the world, and try to be friends with those who do.