• Brideshead Revisited

    I read Brideshead Revisited over the weekend. What Willa Cather accomplished in painting a portrait of a particular time in Shadows on the Rock or My Ántonia, Evelyn Waugh accomplished with Brideshead Revisited. I’m glad to have finally read this book.

    In December 1945, John K. Hutchens reviewed Brideshead Revisited and called it Waugh’s finest achievement:

    “Brideshead Revisited” has the depth and weight that are found in a writer working in his prime, in the full powers of an eager, good mind and a skilled hand, retaining the best of what he has already learned. It tells an absorbing story in imaginative terms. By indirection it summarizes and comments upon a time and a society. It has an almost romantic sense of wonder, together with the provocative, personal point of view of a writer who sees life realistically. It is, in short, a large, inclusive novel with which the 1946 season begins, a novel more fully realized than any of the year now ending, whatever their other virtues. …

    Unless “Brideshead Revisited” finds you a very new member of the Waugh public, you realized with his first novel (“Decline and Fall,” 1928) that his equipment as a social satirist was just about perfect. In the first place, he obviously knew what he was talking about: this was reporting at first- hand by one who had been in that world if not of it. He wrote with a sharp thrust which smote a victim or merely pinked him, as circumstances dictated. His style was clean and fast. From one sentence to another you read with a virtually sensuous delight in his gift for the exact word, his remarkable use of a detail to summarize a place or a person, his wonderful sense of the ridiculous. …

    In the beginning it is gay enough–an affectionately ironic picture of Oxford in 1923, the sunflower estheticism, plovers eggs and getting drunk at luncheon, the lively, small banter, the happy irresponsibility, “Antic Hay.” It is there that Ryder meets Lord Sebastian Flyte and forms a romantic friendship with him; Sebastian, the brilliant, charming “half-heathen” second son of an old Catholic family that is verging on dissolution which, Mr. Waugh seems to suggest, parallels England’s change from the old order to the new. Then, the story’s arrival at Brideshead and its baroque castle, the tone changes to a somber hue as the themes develop: the love story of Ryder and Sebastian’s sister Julia, of which Ryder’s and Sebastian’s friendship had been a spiritual forerunner; the Church giving haven to the soul-torn, drunken Sebastian and reclaiming Julia and even the Byronic father who comes home at last from Italy to die. …

    There will be, quite certainly, no little discussion and even controversy about the problem he poses, or rather the conclusion he offers. Mr. Waugh, a Catholic, is also, politically, a Tory. As a writer, as a story-teller and an artist, he insists on nothing. Of Catholicism as a factor in the lives of the Marchmains he writes so objectively, seeing it through the eyes of the non-Catholic narrator, that it could actually be construed as the slightly sardonic report of an unbeliever confronted with (and baffled by) “an entirely different outlook on life.” What he is saying in effect is that faith is a saving answer to anyone who has it or had had it; which could scarcely be called propaganda, though he will surely be charged with propaganda. It will be said, too, that his political conservatism is patent in his reluctant acceptance of social change, and this will be true: the end of a Brideshead is to him a matter for regret and misgiving, for he believes in “order” and the continuity of tradition. Above all, he believes in responsibility, the absence of which in his own class he has castigated so fiercely.

  • God’s advent

    God’s advent

    Today is the first Sunday in Advent, and we hear from Matthew: “Therefore, stay awake! For you do not know on which day your Lord will come. Be sure of this: if the master of the house had known the hour of night when the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and not let his house be broken into. So too, you also must be prepared, for at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come.”

    It’s raining this morning in Washington, but a light rain that doesn’t leave you overly chilly. After Mass at Epiphany, I continued reading Romano Guardini, “The Lord,” and specifically his chapter on judgment:

    Men have always known that something was wrong with human existence; that everywhere stupidity, injustice, deception and violence were at work. Consequently there was always the feeling that someday things must be set right and fulfilled. Some expected this clarification to come from human history itself: humanity by its own powers would fight its way through to a kind of divine existence. Let us allow this hope to die a natural death; it is flagrantly contrary not only to Revelation and Christian thinking, but also to the conclusions that must be drawn from a single honest glance at reality. We maintain our conviction that clarity can come only from God, after earthly life is over. But how is such a judgment to be imagined?

    One might say: Throughout existence we find vain appearances and downright deception. A man is seldom rated by his fellow-men for what he really is. Often people of great value are poor, the honorable are unknown, and the questionable or utterly useless are wealthy and esteemed. Seldom does a person’s appearance reveal his true nature. Even towards oneself there is much deceit. The self-appraising eye looks away at sight of the truth; the will hides its true intentions from itself and pretends to much that is non-existent. Thus judgment might well consist of the falling of the masks; the transparent appearance of all things as they really are. . . . We might also say: The inner reality of an individual should harmonize with the outer. The man who is pure should also be healthy; the good beautiful, the magnanimous strong and powerful of frame. Actually, it is quite different. Such unity is so rare, that an encounter with it seems like a fairytale. And it will never be otherwise. Neither physical-education nor spiritual formation will be able to change this radically, for the root of the disturbance goes deeper than human will. The cracks that run through personality will always be there—the stronger the personality, the deeper the cracks. Judgment could mean that disposition and being become one, that every human becomes in reality what he is by intention.

    Or this thought: How rarely are life’s promises kept, tasks completed, do human relations bear their fruit, does potential greatness become actuality. Again and again things break off and remain fragmentary. Life seldom receives the full, intelligent and loving approbation it desires. Even love is insufficient and illusory. Hence judgment could mean fulfillment; that every being might say: Everything in me that could be, has been perfected, has received its “yes” and its “no.”

    These suggestions, like many others, have their grain of truth—also of Christian truth. Many passages in Scripture, particularly in the Old Testament, support them. Still, what Christ says is different. In order that “judgments” such as these take place, things have only to appear before God’s clarity. But what Jesus was referring to in the last days of his earthly existence was something else.

    The judgment he means will not come through the falling away of time’s constraint and the placing of all things in God’s clarifying light, but through God’s advent. Judgment is not the eternal consequences of divine government, but God’s specific historical act—the last. After it, we are told, comes eternity. There is no action in eternity, only purest being and eternal fulfillment. And the God who is to come thus is Jesus Christ, he who is addressing us. …

    When will Judgment come? No one knows, says the Lord—not even the Son. This knowledge is reserved to the Father and his counsel. It is not necessary to pull this word to pieces. It is part of paternal sovereignty “to know the times or dates which the Father has fixed by his own authority” (Acts 1:7). Judgment comes from the freedom of the Father, the Inaccessible One.

    One thing we are told: it will come suddenly. Like the thief in the night, the master from his journey, the bridegroom from the wedding. This “suddenly” is the same kind of adverb as the “soon” of the Apocalypse and Paul’s letters. It does not mean a brief span of time rather than a long one—not ten years instead of a thousand. This is how it was interpreted in the beginning, so that people thought Christ’s return would take place in the next few years. In reality, any time is “soon” because all time is short, i.e., transitory. A thousand years before God are as a day, and all time as nothing, for he is eternity, but time passes. Whenever the end comes, it will be “soon.” And people will say: “Now? Why now? We have scarcely begun to live! We haven’t done any of the things that must be done, if everything is not to be lost! We have neglected the essential.” Always it will be: “We have neglected the essential!” This is how Christ’s “suddenly” is meant. …

    God’s gaze is constantly upon earth, and his coming is a constant threat.

  • Christopher S. Busch reviews The Selected Letters of Willa Cather:

    Hers are letters of deep affection and understanding. Tender, enduring relationships appear again and again. Having lost her father and then, in 1930, standing by as her mother’s condition deteriorated, she writes to commiserate with Dorothy Canfield Fisher, who had just lost hermother: “These vanishings, that come one after another, have such an impoverishing effect upon those of us who are left—our world suddenly becomes so diminished—the landmarks disappear and all the splendid distances behind us close up. These losses, one after another, make one feel as if one were going on in a play after most of the principal characters are dead.”

    Cather took things to heart, both her experience and that of others. During the Dust Bowl she provided coffee, clothing, toys, and boxes of fruit to friends and former neighbors in Nebraska, even going so far as to pay the interest on their farm mortgages: “I got off all my Christmas boxes to my old women on the farms out west. For three of them, thank God, I have been able to save their farms by paying their interest. About nothing ever gave me such pleasure as being able to help them keep their land—the land they’ve worked on since I was ten years old!”

    Writing to Irene Miner Weisz in 1945 (to whom, along with Irene’s sister, Carrie, she had dedicated My Antonia), she describes a visit with her brother Roscoe: “The three summers I spent in Wyoming with him and his wife were among the happiest of my life. Now I don’t care about writing any more books. Now I know that nothing really matters to us but the people we love.” …

    To Read Bain, a sociology professor, she writes: “I do not regard the Roman Church merely as ‘artistic material.’ If the external form and ceremonial of that Church happens to be more beautiful than that of other churches, it certainly corresponds to some beautiful vision within. It is sacred, if for no other reason than that is the faith that has been most loved by human creatures, and loved over the greatest stretch of centuries.”

    During the last decades of her life, Cather began to lament the cultural decline she saw in America and the devastation brought on by World War II. A sense of loss pervades many of the later letters. To Tomáš Masaryk, a founder and president of Czechoslovakia, she complains, “We live in a strange world, at a strange time. . . . We behave as though we could create a new scale of values by the mere act of besmirching the old.”

    At times she seems to want to flee the modern world for a safer place, a more ordered time. How fortunate fellow writer Zoë Akins is, she exclaims, to be able to retreat to her secluded home: “It always brings me peace to think that when the world is full of misery and madness, you can shut yourself up there and forget that the heritage of all the ages is being threatened.” To Viola Roseboro, the fiction editor at McClure’s, she wonders, “Why on earth do we, in all the countless stretch of years, just in our little moment, have to witness everything laid waste?”

    Reading Willa Cather’s “My Antonia” in January has turned out to be one of my favorite activities of the year. It’s an unselfconscious portrait of frontier America that’s both raw and emotionally intense. It stays with you—particularly the portrait of authentic love for Antonia, and the long view of the life she makes and the ways we respond to our God-haunted world.

  • I finished Walker Percy’s “Love in the Ruins” yesterday. An incredible, prescient, and haunting story of a people living in collapse. It’s haunting in the same way that Brave New World is, in the sense that looking too long into its dystopian portraiture leaves one feeling like one’s looking into a mirror:

    Offered as a tongue-in-cheek, pre-holocaust tale, Love in the Ruins is subtitled The Adventures of a Bad Catholic at a Time Near the End of the World. Its protagonist and narrator, Dr. Tom More, is named for the famous sixteenth century saint who authored Utopia (1516). More is a rueful psychologist who has developed an instrument for research which he calls the “lapsometer.” The lapsometer is a device that measures certain psychic forces in the brain and thereby makes it possible to determine the source of irrationality, which for Percy is characterized by one of two extremes.

    In Percy’s view, the two most evident maladies of modern life are angelism, the tendency to abstract oneself from the ordinary circumstances of life and attempt to live above them in aloof intellectualism, and bestialism, the tendency to live as a brute consumer with an unrestrained, animal-like preoccupation with sex without procreation. This protracted indictment of modern culture surfaces frequently in Percy’s later fiction, most prominently in Lancelot and in The Thanatos Syndrome.

    The narrative is bracketed into five main sections, followed by an epilogue that delineates what has happened in the five years subsequent to the July 4 climax. It is an apocalyptic time in which the social institutions that are supposed to provide stability and continuity have broken down or become ridiculous parodies of themselves. The halls of academe, the medical profession, civil government, and a host of venerable religious institutions, particularly the Catholic Church, are all satirized as ineffectual and compromised, each having sold out to the spirit of modernism…

    Percy published this book in 1971, but there’s a passage in here where someone declares a view of the importance of “human values” that sounds like a rough draft for Anthony Kennedy’s infamous 1992 Planned Parenthood v. Casey opinion: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life…

  • I finished Roger Scruton’s The Soul of the World today, and want to share this final excerpt. There’s a lot in this relatively short bit:

    Any reasonable monotheism will understand God not merely as transcendental, but as related to the world in the “space of reasons,” rather than in the continuum of causes. He is the answer to the question “why?” asked of the world as a whole. You may well say, with the atheists, that the question has no answer. But if you say this because you think that there are no cogent “why?” questions other than those that seek for causes, then you are merely turning aside from the argument. The teleological foundation of the world is not perceivable to science, or describable in scientific terms. Hence it can be neither proved nor disproved by scientific method. It can be established only through the web of understanding, by showing, as I have tried to show in this book, that accountability lies in our nature. …

    I pointed out that the science of the human being, which sees the seat of all activity and thought in the brain, will not find, in the organism that it explores, the thing that we address in the space of reasons. The “I” is transcendental, which does not mean that it exists elsewhere, but that it exists in another way, as music exists in another way from sound, and God in another way from the world. The search for God often seems hopeless; but the usual grounds given for thinking this imply that the search for the other person is hopeless too. Why not say, rather, that we stand here on the edge of a mystery? In these concluding thoughts I want to approach as near as I can to that edge.

    The God of the philosophers has been defined in ways that seem to set him entirely outside the sphere in which we exist and where we hope to encounter him. He is the “necessary being,” the “causa sui,” “that than which no greater can be conceived,” the “final cause” of a world “ordered toward” him, and so on. All these expressions define some part of the enormous metaphysical burden that has been placed on God’s shoulders by the philosophical attempts to prove his existence. I don’t say that these attempts are wasted, or that they do not present us with interesting puzzles for which the postulate of God is one among the possible solutions. But the God to whom they point is outside the envelope of causes, while our God-directed thoughts demand an encounter within that envelope, an encounter with the “real presence.” God himself demands this, we believe, since he requires us to enter into a covenant with him. I cannot answer the question how it is possible that one and the same being should be outside space and time, and yet encountered as a subject within space and time. But then I cannot answer the question asked of you and me, how one and the same being can be an organism, and also a free subject who is called to account in the space of reasons. The problem of personal identity suggests that the question may have no answer. Indeed, the unanswerable nature of questions like this is part of what cognitive dualism commits us to. Many monotheistic thinkers, from Tertullian through al-Ghazālī to Kierkegaard and beyond, have suggested that faith flourishes on absurdity, since by embracing absurdity we silence the rational intellect. I say, rather, that faith asks that we learn to live with mysteries, and not to wipe them away—for in wiping them away we may wipe away the face of the world. Christians believe that they can reconcile the transcendent God with the real presence, through the doctrine of the Incarnation. But I regard that doctrine as another story, which does not explain the mystery of God’s presence but merely repeats it.

    The laws of physics are laws of cause and effect, which relate complex conditions to the simpler and earlier conditions from which they flow. Teleological principles can therefore leave no discernible mark in the order of nature, as physics describes it. Nevertheless, it is as though we humans orientate ourselves by such principles, rather as some animals orientate themselves by the earth’s magnetic field. In the order of the covenant we are pointed in a certain direction, guided by reasons whose authority is intrinsic to them. If we look for the foundation of these reasons and meanings, we look always beyond the physical horizon, just as we do when we look into the eyes of another person, and ask him “why?”

  • Ancient Colophon

    I’m reading Roger Scruton’s The Soul of the World. He writes about Colophon, a mythical Greek city presently occupied and desecrated by hostile forces who have obliterated ancient Colophon with “high-rise towers devoted to the inscrutable bureaucracy” of the new forces and this has oppressive spiritual and physical domination has “replaced the free life of the Greek polis.” Archeanassa, a survivor of the ancient Colophon, is asked by a young woman to explain “how the old city of Colophon was built”. Here’s a bit of Archeanassa’s response:

    Now there is much to be learned from gardens, and especially from gardens of the kind that I am describing. In such places the plants, buildings, and furniture have no special use. There is a purpose to the farmer’s fields and the merchant’s storehouse, but not to the lawns and statues in a garden. Each object is there for no purpose but itself. And we too, when we visit the precinct, leave our purposes behind. We wander in the shade, refresh our spirits with the sight of clear water sparkling over amber stones, and listen to the birds as they sing above us. And all for no purpose other than our delight in these things. Moreover, the garden is a social place. People cross each other’s path, fall into conversation, perhaps play games together or sit side by side at peace. And these ways of being in a garden are of peculiar significance, Perictione; for they too are free from purpose. People in a garden are beyond purpose, in a side-by-sideness that is also an alertness to the world …

    There, in our municipal garden, we were at peace with each other and the world. And it is from peace that the city was built. …

    And perhaps this is what I most dislike in this Colophon of yours—that it has no streets. Oh, I grant you, there are thoroughfares and boulevards, carved through the city like swathes through a field of corn. But these thoroughfares are not lined by houses standing side by side and leaning against each other. They are not overseen by dwellings, and their borders are not thresholds between public and private space.Nothing stands along them in a posture of repose, and even the air above them is lashed and torn by wires.

    To my way of thinking a true street is like a garden—not a means but an end. It is a place where you linger and take stock; where you meet and converse; where you stand beside objects that stand beside you. The new thoroughfare is not an end but a means: it is a conduit from one place to another. The buildings that occur along its edges are merely dumped there, offending both earth and sky by their inability to connect to either.

    No sooner did houses arise in ancient Colophon, than streets arose along with them. For those old houses stood side by side, facing in the same direction. And people stood at the gates conversing. Soon, in front of each row of houses, a public space came into being, a space that was every bit as consecrated as the garden beside the temple. The citizens, in order to express their pride in the city, and to mark out the land not as mine or yours or his, but as ours, began to provide this public space with furnishings. They paved it with cobbles, lined it on each side with flagstones of polished slate, and erected little shrines of porphyry or marble, in order that the gods should be at home there, which was the home of everyone. Those streets stitched the town together, and provided arteries through which its life could flow. And so pleased were the Colophonians with their appearance that they discussed in the assembly how best to conserve them, and how to ensure that this public space should remain always ours, and never his or hers. …

    But I have not identified the real difference between ancient and modern Colophon, or the real way in which we shape and are shaped by our buildings. These things cannot be understood, it seems to me, in secular terms. Our architecture derives from the temple, for the reason that the city derives from its god. The stone of the temple is the earthly translation of the god’s immortality, which is in turn the symbol of a community and its will to live. The temple, like the liturgy, is forever, and the community contains not the living only, but also the dead and the unborn. And the dead are protected by the temple, which immortalizes them in stone. This is what you understand instinctively, when you see religious architecture. And it is the sentiment from which cities grow—the tribe’s will to permanence…

    Everything we build can be built with a spirit that is at least friendly toward the sacred and transcendent. In other words, we can build in such a way that human structures are not purely instrumental and utilitarian, but are instead places that allow human beings to encounter one another and build community in unanticipated and organic ways, and even recognize themselves as members of a community in time.

  • Joan Desmond writes on P.D. James’s The Children of Men, which I hadn’t heard of before, about a world where humanity is dying out because it has lost its spirit:

    At the start of this story, Theodore Faron, “Doctor of Philosophy, Fellow of Merton College in the University of Oxford, historian of the Victorian age, divorced, childless, solitary,” contemplates a human race approaching extinction.

    Twenty-five years have passed since a child was born in the world and experts can’t explain the cause of this unprecedented tragedy.

    “[M]any diseases … have been difficult to diagnose and cure,” Theo muses as he begins a new journal on his 50th birthday in the 2020s.

    “Science… our god,” has always provided the key to the puzzle. …

    A childless world poses another set of problems for the last generation of human beings, called the “Omegas.” They are generally self-absorbed and passive, with no particular reason for disciplining themselves for future responsibilities. Some have formed themselves into marauding tribes that can turn violent. “If from infancy you treat children as gods they are apt to act like devils,” says Theo.

    He respects truth and posterity too much to engage in self-deceiving or destructive behavior. And he is brutally honest about his own flaws, including his “terror of taking responsibility for other people’s lives or happiness.”

    But he has one claim to fame: he is the cousin of the “dictator and warden of England” — the egocentric ruler who oversees a nation too fragile and depressed to resist dictatorship.

    Theo’s ties to the warden draw the attention of a small band of anti-government dissidents who seek to reform the warden’s policies, including the practice of euthanasia.

    Among them is a Christian woman named, Julian. She invites Theo to join a thrilling mission that will have consequences for the entire human race. Likewise, their deep, unconditional bond transforms this brittle elitist into a man capable of genuine love and service for the common good.

    The Children of Men is about a world in desperate need of renewal. It is also about one man venturing beyond the fortress of self-sufficiency.

  • I’m sharing the second of two excerpts from Roger Scruton’s The Soul of the World. Each comes from “Believing in God,” his first chapter, and conveys the challenge of belief in light of reason with the conclusion that what both faith and reason share is an interest in knowledge “beyond the horizon” of our world and a pursuit of transcendent experience. Today’s speaks particularly to the human desire for the sacred and the transcendent, and knowledge and experience which are not properly part of observable nature:

    That God is present among us and communicating directly with us is a central claim of the Old Testament. This “real presence” or shekhinah is, however, a mystery. God reveals himself by concealing himself, as he concealed himself from Moses in the burning bush, and as he conceals himself from his worshippers in the Tabernacle (mishkhan) and the Holy of Holies. The nouns shekhinah and mishkhan are both from the verb shakhan, to dwell or settle: sakana in Arabic, from which is derived the noun sakīnah, used here and there in the Koran (e.g., al-Baqara, 2, 248) to describe the peace or comfort that comes from God. Dwelling and settling are the underlying themes of the Torah, which tells the story of the Promised Land, and of the people who finally settle there, to build in Jerusalem the Temple whose design and rituals were given to Moses, and which will be a dwelling place for God. As the narrative makes clear, it is not the chosen people only who are in search of a place to settle: it is God too, who can dwell among them only by being ritually concealed from them. As God says to Moses, no man shall look on my face and live. And the whole tormented story of the relation between God and the chosen people brings home to us the terrible truth, which is that God cannot show himself in this world, except by hiding from those whom he traps into trusting him, as he trapped the Jews. The knowledge of his presence comes with the failure to find him.

    Metaphysically speaking, this is what we must expect. It is not just that the intervention of a transcendent God in the world of space and time would be a miracle—though miracles, for reasons made clear by Spinoza and Hume, are not the simple exceptions that their defenders make them out to be. It is rather that it is difficult to make sense of the idea that this, here, now is a revelation of an eternal and transcendental being. A direct personal encounter with God, when God is understood in the philosophical way of Avicenna or Aquinas, is no more possible than a direct personal encounter with the number 2. Now you see through a glass darkly, wrote Saint Paul, but then face-to-face. However, by “then” he meant “beyond the here and now,” in the transcendental realm where God resides. Saint Paul may seem to be denying the hidden nature of God; in fact he is affirming it.

    And yet the experience of the “real presence” is at the heart of revealed religion, and foundational to the liturgy and ritual both of the synagogue and of the main Christian churches. It is important to grasp this point. Many of those who currently write against religion (and specifically against the Christian religion) seem to think that faith is simply a matter of entertaining beliefs of a cosmological kind, concerning the creation of the world and the hope of eternal life. And these beliefs are imagined to be in some ways rivals to the theories of physics, and exposed to refutation by all that we know of the evolution of the universe. But the real phenomena of faith are nothing like that. They include prayer and the life of prayer; the love of God and the sense of his presence in the life of the faithful; obedience and submission in the face of temptation and the things of this world; the experience of certain times, places, objects, and words as “sacred,” which is to say, in Durkheim’s phrase, as “set aside and forbidden,” reserved for uses that can be understood only on the assumption that these experiences mediate between this world and another that is not otherwise revealed to us. …

    People who are looking for God are not looking for the proof of God’s existence; nor would it help them to be persuaded, say, by Aquinas’s Five Ways, or by Avicenna’s version of the cosmological argument, or by any of those specious arguments that have been doing the rounds in recent years, concerning the improbability that the universe should be just as it is, and there be no God as its creator. They are not looking for arguments but for a subject-to-subject encounter, which occurs in this life, but which also in some way reaches beyond this life. Those who claim to have found God always write or speak in those terms, as having found the intimacy of a personal encounter and a moment of trust. The great witnesses to this—Saint Teresa of Avila, Margery Kempe, Saint John of the Cross, Rumi, Pascal—surely persuade us that one part, at least, of the encounter with God lies in the irruption into consciousness of an intersubjective state of mind, but one that connects with no merely human subject. And included within that state of mind is the sense of reciprocity: the sense of being targeted by the Other, I to I. …

    One thing is clear, which is that the old theories of magic, associated with Sir Edward Burnett Tylor, Frazer, and the nineteenth-century schools of anthropology, do not explain the sacred. There is a prosaic quality about magic, a here-and-now character, and a practicality too, which have little or nothing in common with the awe-inspiring otherworldliness of sacred things. Consider the examples familiar to us: the Eucharist, and the instruments associated with it; the prayers with which we address God; the Cross, the scroll of the Torah, the pages of the Koran. The faithful approach these things with awe, not because of their magic power, but because they seem to be both in our world, and also out of it—a passage between the immediate and the transcendental. They are both present and absent, like the mishkhan and what it hides from us.

    That indeed seems to be a feature of the sacred in all religions. Sacred objects, words, animals, ceremonies, places, all seem to stand at the horizon of our world, looking out to that which is not of this world, because it belongs in the sphere of the divine, and looking also into our world, so as to meet us face-to-face. Through sacred things we can influence and be influenced by the transcendental. If there is to be a real presence of the divine in this world, it must be in the form of some sacred event, moment, place, or encounter: so at least we humans have believed.

    There is truth in Durkheim’s view that sacred things are in some way forbidden. But what is forbidden is to treat a sacred thing as though it belonged in the ordinary frame of nature: as though it had no mediating role. Treating a sacred thing in this day-to-day way is a profanation. One stage beyond profanation is desecration, in which a sacred object is deliberately wrenched from its apartness and trampled on or in some way reduced to its opposite, so as to become mean and disgusting. …

    Is there anything that answers to this search for the sacred? Can the eternal be present among us in the way that rewards our search for it? We must not think of this merely as a theological or metaphysical question. For it is a question that inhabits the religious sentiment itself. It is the source of religious doubt and also the challenge offered to faith. …

    The real question for religion in our time is not how to excise the sacred, but how to rediscover it, so that the moment of pure intersubjectivity, in which nothing concrete appears, but in which everything hangs on the here and now, can exist in pure and God-directed form. Only when we are sure that this moment of the real presence exists in the human being who experiences it, can we then ask the question whether it is or is not a true revelation—a moment not just of faith but of knowledge…

  • I’ve been slowly working through Will and Ariel Durant’s 11-volume Story of Civilization series, and wanted to share a bit about it. As a historian, Will Durant wanted to present a comprehensive view of both West and East, or using the now-archaic language of his time, of both Occidental and Oriental history, in one comprehensive narrative. In this way, the somewhat artificial divisions between east and west could be erased and the human story might be more sensible.

    The Story of Civilization, published over the course of five decades from 1935 to 1975, has been described as the “most comprehensive attempt in our times to embrace the vast panorama of man’s history and culture.” The series comprises roughly 10,000 pages and was the life’s work of Will and Ariel, a husband and wife team. Growing up, the collection was a centerpiece of our family room library. That’s how I first became aware of it. Further perspective:

    The Durants strove throughout The Story of Civilization to create what they called “integral history”. They opposed this to the “specialization” of history, an anticipatory rejection of what some have called the “cult of the expert.” Their goal was to write a “biography” of a civilization, in this case, the West, including not just the usual wars, politics and biography of greatness and villainy, but also the culture, art, philosophy, religion, and the rise of mass communication.

    John Little, director of the Will Durant Foundation:

    “They had no armies. They ruled no people. They received no government subsidies for their efforts. And yet ‘if knowledge is power,’ as the popular adage states, then Will and Ariel Durant were perhaps the two most powerful people to ever walk our planet.”

    H.L. Mencken praised Durant, saying he had “never read any book which left me better contented.” And Clarence Darrow said of another of Durant’s well known works: “I’d rather have written his book on The Story of Philosophy than to have done anything or everything that I ever did.”

  • Seattle to San Francisco this morning, then Napa. We passed Stanford’s campus as we approached San Francisco:

    I finished Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, and wanted to share a final excerpt.

    First, technologies (as mediums for information) are never neutral, in the same way no two landscapes neutrally convey the same visual information, even though they share in the nature or “technology” of being “horizontal earth scenes,” so to speak:

    The technology of television has a bias… It is conceivable to use television as a lamp, a surface for texts, a bookcase, even as radio. But it has not been so used and will not be so used, at least in America. Thus, in answering the question, What is television?, we must understand as a first point that we are not talking about television as a technology but television as a medium. There are many places in the world where television, though the same technology as it is in America, is an entirely different medium from that which we know. I refer to places where the majority of people do not have television sets, and those who do have only one; where only one station is available; where television does not operate around the clock; where most programs have as their purpose the direct furtherance of government ideology and policy; where commercials are unknown, and “talking heads” are the principal image; where television is mostly used as if it were radio. For these reasons and more television will not have the same meaning or power as it does in America, which is to say, it is possible for a technology to be so used that its potentialities are prevented from developing and its social consequences kept to a minimum.

    But in America, this has not been the case. Television has found in liberal democracy and a relatively free market economy a nurturing climate in which its full potentialities as a technology of images could be exploited. One result of this has been that American television programs are in demand all over the world. … American television programs are in demand not because America is loved but because American television is loved.

    We need not be detained too long in figuring out why. In watching American television, one is reminded of George Bernard Shaw’s remark on his first seeing the glittering neon signs of Broadway and 42nd Street at night. It must be beautiful, he said, if you cannot read. American television is, indeed, a beautiful spectacle, a visual delight, pouring forth thousands of images on any given day. The average length of a shot on network television is only 3.5 seconds, so that the eye never rests, always has something new to see. Moreover, television offers viewers a variety of subject matter, requires minimal skills to comprehend it, and is largely aimed at emotional gratification. Even commercials, which some regard as an annoyance, are exquisitely crafted, always pleasing to the eye and accompanied by exciting music. There is no question but that the best photography in the world is presently seen on television commercials. American television in other words, is devoted entirely to supplying its audience with entertainment.

    …what I am claiming here is not that television is entertaining but that it has made entertainment itself the natural format for the representation of all experience. Our television set keeps us in constant communion with the world, but it does so with a face whose smiling countenance is unalterable. The problem is not that television presents us with entertaining subject matter but that all subject matter is presented as entertaining, which is another issue altogether.

    To say it still another way: Entertainment is the supra-ideology of all discourse on television. No matter what is depicted or from what point of view, the overarching presumption is that it is there for our amusement and pleasure. That is why even on news shows which provide us daily with fragments of tragedy and barbarism, we are urged by the newscasters to “join them tomorrow.” What for? One would think that several minutes of murder and mayhem would suffice as material for a month of sleepless nights. We accept the newscasters’ invitation because we know that the “news” is not to be taken seriously, that it is all in fun, so to say. Everything about a news show tells us this—the good looks and amiability of the cast, their pleasant banter, the exciting music that opens and closes the show, the vivid film footage, the attractive commercials—all these and more suggest that what we have just seen is no cause for weeping. A news show, to put it plainly, is a format for entertainment, not for education, reflection or catharsis. And we must not judge too harshly those who have framed it in this way. They are not assembling the news to be read, or broadcasting it to be heard. They are televising the news to be seen. They must follow where their medium leads. There is no conspiracy here, no lack of intelligence, only a straightforward recognition that “good television” has little to do with what is “good” about exposition or other forms of verbal communication but everything to do with what the pictorial images look like.

    It is in the nature of the medium that it must suppress the content of ideas in order to accommodate the requirements of visual interest; that is to say, to accommodate the values of show business.

    Film, records and radio (now that it is an adjunct of the music industry) are, of course, equally devoted to entertaining the culture, and their effects in altering the style of American discourse are not insignificant. But television is different because it encompasses all forms of discourse. No one goes to a movie to find out about government policy or the latest scientific advances. No one buys a record to find out the baseball scores or the weather or the latest murder. No one turns on radio anymore for soap operas or a presidential address (if a television set is at hand). But everyone goes to television for all these things and more, which is why television resonates so powerfully throughout the culture. Television is our culture’s principal mode of knowing about itself.

    Therefore—and this is the critical point—how television stages the world becomes the model for how the world is properly to be staged. It is not merely that on the television screen entertainment is the metaphor for all discourse. It is that off the screen the same metaphor prevails. As typography once dictated the style of conducting politics, religion, business, education, law and other important social matters, television now takes command. In courtrooms, classrooms, operating rooms, board rooms, churches and even airplanes, Americans no longer talk to each other, they entertain each other.

    His point is that television as a medium (rather than as a piece of technology) is the key way to judge its purpose/impact. How it orders our thinking, our expectations about the way (and use) of news and knowing and information, and how we reconcile our ultimate concerns in life with these things.

    A lesson I take from this? New mediums tend to “discredit” older content by their nature and their prioritization of conveying information. An ancient poem recited in its native tongue, when carried across time, translations, and most importantly from the medium of oral recitation to printed word, is not the same poem. The majority of its fundamental bits might be there, but the fullness of that poem is lost when it is removed from its original cultural context and the language it was designed for, and the method of conveyance it was designed for.

    If we read the Iliad today and think to ourselves, “Well, that wasn’t so great,” it’s likelier that we think that not only because new mediums (new methods of knowing, with their own priorities and biases) have discredited older mediums like the printed word and epic poetry, but also because the Iliad came out of an oral tradition and not a print tradition. These are entirely different way of conveying and experiencing knowledge.

    In conserving older content through new mediums, we lose some of their essence in the process, while at the same time building up a sort of bias against them compared to whatever the present mediums for knowing might be.