Difficulties

Winslow Homer, The Gulf Stream, 1899 (Source)
  1. Why does God create so many souls that He has no intention of saving?
    1.a. Take the massa damnata of St. Augustine. What is the point of creating a human soul – ostensibly out of infinite, perfect love – and not saving it?
    1.a.i. The argument that God allows us to be damned to preserve our free will is meaningless in the face of the basic anthropology of the Christian tradition, which holds salvation itself to be an unmerited and supernatural grace. Man cannot save himself, and in the state of sin, rightly deserves damnation. But why bother creating so much life – so many unique and irreplaceable souls – if you intend to preserve the vast majority of these souls in everlasting torment without any reciprocal knowledge or love?
    1.a.i.1. There can be no softening of this point. The very clear implication of the New Testament, and even of the Old Testament, is that the vast majority of mankind is hellbound, or at least cut off from God. This was a fairly normal view until quite recently in Christian history, and is not unique to Catholics, Protestants, or Orthodox.
    1.a.i.2. God could conceivably create souls simply to damn them. After all, as St. Paul says, “Hath not the potter power over the clay, of the same lump, to make one vessel unto honor, and another unto dishonor?” (Romans 9:21). But is this the act of a God who is Love, to fashion a sentient entity for the express purpose of eternal torture – just to manifest His own quality of justice in perpetuity?
    1.a.ii. In the Christian East, there is still not a satisfactory answer here. Even should we accept the theology of St. Maximus the Confessor (and later, Bl. John Duns Scotus) that mankind’s purpose is to become deified, and thus that the Incarnation would have happened for our glorification even without original sin, this position does nothing to explain why the vast majority of the human race should be committed to hellfire. It does nothing to explain why almost everyone who has ever lived (including most so-called Christians) should face an eternity of unimaginable and unmitigated torment at the physical, emotional, and spiritual levels.
    1.a.ii.1. It is a dogma of the faith that at the Last Judgment, all the dead will be raised bodily – some to everlasting life, others to everlasting punishment. Hell’s torments are therefore not merely spiritual, but physical. St. Thomas Aquinas declares that the fires of hell will be corporeal. (ST Suppl. III. Q. 97, Art. 5).
    1.b. Let’s move beyond the human. Why does God bother to create so much life that’s wasted? There are sentient, ensouled beings that serve no human purpose.
    1.b.i. It is not enough to suggest that animals exist to serve man, per Genesis 1-3.
    1.b.i.1. Does a leopard eating a gazelle, hundreds of miles from human settlement, serve mankind? Does a whale locked in the deadly embrace of a squid contribute at all towards man’s dominion or salvation or even his punishment? Multiply this factor by billions – for we must include the insects, as well as most wild animals that have ever lived. Why create this life if it is all a waste?
    1.b.i.1.a. Doesn’t this massive wastage imply that there is no spiritual or even metaphysical point to animal life on its own terms?
    1.b.ii. If we mere humans love our domestic animals in an imperfect way, and yet we still are saddened at the thought that they are lost forever at their death, what would God’s perfect love for His creatures look like? Why should we follow the Thomists and declare their souls extinct upon death?
    1.b.iii. Does this position of extinction not reduce God to an imperfect creator, one who makes far, far more sentient beings than He has any intention of preserving – thus trivializing His love of so many creatures to virtual non-existence?
    1.b.iii.a. It would be possible to object here that animals and humans do not have the same kind of souls – more on this at 4.b.i.-4.b.ii.2.b.
    1.b.iii.b. Put another way – doesn’t this picture of God’s relationship with non-human, sentient creatures make Him appear wasteful to the point of active cruelty? Doesn’t this picture give us an image of a fundamentally frivolous creator cruelly indifferent to, not just the temporal suffering, but the very existence of His living creations?
    1.b.iii.c. Isn’t this implication drawn yet more forcefully in the case of damned humans?
    1.c. Can God – who is infinite, perfect, loving, and Being-in-Itself – have any true and lasting foes?
  2. In 1 Corinthians, we read that “Love is patient, love is kind” (1 Cor. 13:1). If God is Love, then it follows that God is patient. Does Christian soteriology suggest as much?
    2.a. In what sense is God patient? In His terms, or ours?
    2.a.i. Can an eternal, infinite Being be described as “patient” if He condemns a soul to equally eternal torment on the basis of choices made – or even graces which He Himself withholds – in the course of some seven or so decades?
    2.a.i.1. Surely there are some crimes that deserve far greater punishment than we mortals can imagine. But wouldn’t eternal damnation, which afflicts both body and soul, be necessarily disproportionate to any crime committed by any human subject?
    2.a.i.2. Quite apart from such serious crimes – sexual assault, child abuse, genocide, serial killing, war rape, etc. – that could reasonably merit eternal damnation, let’s consider lesser offenses that Western Christianity has historically considered damnable.
    2.a.i.2.a. Should a soul who dies suddenly and impenitently after masturbating be damned?
    2.a.i.2.b. Should a soul who dies without reconciling to the Church, after sincerely losing his faith as the victim of spiritual abuse, be damned?
    2.a.i.2.c. Should a soul who, having heard about Christianity but having rejected it due to the poor example of its ministers, and who dies in another religion, be damned?
    2.a.i.2.d. Should a soul who, beset by serious mental illness or unthinkable distress, commits suicide, be damned?
    2.a.i.2.d.i Traditional Catholic teaching, and even much traditional Protestantism, would answer in the affirmative to all these abstract questions, while refraining from any declaration prejudicial to God’s actual judgment in the case of particular souls.
    2.a.i.2.d.i.1. Is this religion reasonable where it should be reasonable?
    2.a.i.2.d.i.2. Is it humane?
    2.a.i.2.d.i.3. What conclusions must we draw about a religion that needs to ignore, change, or trim its own moral teachings in order to provide human consolation to the grieving?
    2.a.i.2.d.i.3.a. Do our conclusions become more grievous when the religion that does so claims to be a unique revelation safeguarded by the preservative quality of the Divine dwelling in its teaching authority, or in the unchanging deposit of its doctrine, or in the infallibility of its Scriptures?
    2.a.i.2.e. Is a soul in hell glorifying to God in itself? If not, then what is the point of its existence in the first place?
    2.a.i.2.e.i. St. Thomas alleges that the Saints in Heaven will be able to peer down into Hell, without pity, so as to rejoice in the just punishment they witness. (ST Suppl. III. Q. 94. Art. 1-3).
    2.a.i.2.e.i.1. Does this image of the saints preserve into beatitude the cardinal virtue of the Christian life, namely, charity?
    2.a.i.2.e.i.2. What kind of glory does God need or want or gain from the eternal, penal torture of a finite being? Or, indeed, of the eternal torture of many such beings?
  3. Are eternal damnation, eternal salvation, and temporary purgation the only options for the human soul after death?
    3.a. If the philosophical basis for this claim is an anthropology that defines man as the union of a single discreet body and a single discreet soul, as in ST I. Q.75. Art. 4, then what happens to our soteriology if we redefine the human subject?
    3.a.i. For instance, why shouldn’t we accept that, instead of our particular material embodiment – which is manifestly mutable, corruptible, and gross – our true self is an indestructible, immaterial, subtle spirit?
    3.b. Why shouldn’t a soul return to another mortal body after death?
    3.b.i. Wouldn’t reincarnation, which thus extends a soul’s spiritual journey through multiple lifetimes, be more consistent with the patience of an infinite and perfectly loving Being?
  4. How are we to understand the basic relationship of God and creation?
    4.a. Is there a complete distinction between creator and creature? If so, what does this say about God?
    4.a.i. Wouldn’t the fact that God is Being Itself rule out the possibility of a complete distinction between creator and creature?
    4.b. If God is Being Itself, then of necessity, all discreet entities that exist must subsist in Him. He must also subsist in Them, albeit in a radically different fashion.
    4.b.i. What kinds of entities exist, according to the classical Christian system?
    4.b.i.1. God is not an entity among entities, but rather the very Being (ens) in which they “live and move and have [their] being.” (Acts 17:28).
    4.b.i.2. Angels and Demons are intellectual and rational spirits without matter.
    4.b.i.3. Humans are intellectual and rational spirits who are embodied.
    4.b.i.3.a. Is this definition capable of distinction between the genus (Human) and the species (Individual subject)? That is, can we preserve this definition while accounting for the objection raised at 3.a.i?
    4.b.i.3.a.i. If man, being “made in the image and likeness of God” (Gen. 1:27) shares his rational intellect with the Angels, in what sense – if any – is this image and likeness shared with the Angels? Put another way, is it really distinctive of the human race?
    4.b.i.2. Animals have sensitive and embodied souls, but these souls lack intellect and rationality.
    4.b.i.3. Plants have vegetative souls but lack reason or sensitive animation.
    4.b.i.4. The rest of existence consists of inanimate matter without spirit or sentience.
    4.b.ii. Is this system compelling?
    4.b.ii.1. Doesn’t this system take distinctions among creatures as its organizing principle, rather than distinctions within the manifold relationship of creator and creature?
    4.b.ii.2. Wouldn’t a better metaphysical system divide categories of entities by virtue of the way that they relate to the very ground of Being as such?
    4.b.ii.2.a. Isn’t the chief ontological distinction between independent (divine) and dependent (creaturely) being?
    4.b.ii.2.a.i. Doesn’t this division preserve both difference and the essential unity of Being?
    4.b.ii.2.b. Isn’t the second ontological distinction between pure soul (God), ensouled dependent beings, and non-ensouled dependent beings?
    4.b.iii. Sophiology has opened up again in our time the question of a “world soul,” but no Christian denomination has authoritatively taught this as doctrine. The question must be laid aside for now.
    4.b.iv. Following Sinistrari and mindful of the times, we must acknowledge the possibility of other intelligent beings, whether on other planets or in other, subtler dimensions. But barring proof, we must lay aside this question as well.
    4.c. If God, the ground of Being, is in all entities, is He in the souls of the damned?
    4.c.i. If the souls of the damned continue to exist for eternity, is God not there, at least in their preservation?
    4.c.ii. Is it reasonable to think that God would subject Himself to everlasting torture?
    4.c.ii.1. Wouldn’t this portion of damned eternal existence, already seen to be much larger than saved eternal existence in its human aspect, be of necessity less perfect than an eternal existence which is wholly saved, wholly glorified, wholly assumed to the Divine Nature?
  5. Why must there only be one Incarnation?
    5.a. Assuming God is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent, why should He only come personally once into material existence?
    5.a.i. It may be said that any God who had to come in numerous incarnations would thereby demonstrate His insufficiency in accomplishing His mission the first time. For an omnipotent Being can accomplish His ends without failure.
    5.a.i.1. But this objection assumes that God would only come if compelled in some way by creatures; however, we cannot compel God in any way.
    5.a.i.2. Any divine incarnation would thus, of necessity, be completely gratuitous. So couldn’t God conceivably incarnate as many times as He wishes, for His own purposes?
    5.a.ii. It may be said that God incarnates to affirm the essential goodness of matter, as in the refrain of Genesis 1.
    5.a.ii.1. However, this objection only suggests one good reason that God incarnates; it does not prove that there can only be one incarnation.
    5.a.ii.2. Moreover, although this reason occasionally appears in popular discourse, no one really believes that the point of any incarnation was to show the essential goodness of matter, which would, at best, be an auxiliary effect and not the telos thereof.
    5.a.iii. It may be said that God incarnates only once so as to manifest Himself as He is, once and for all.
    5.a.iii.1. This objection fails, however, insofar as it does not consider that God can present Himself in any way He wishes; there is nothing but (ostensibly) our own fallen nature that caused God to become human and not angelic. Why shouldn’t He appear in other material guises, if He wishes?
    5.a.iii.2. Furthermore, the Scriptures are full of theophanies that do not require incarnation. Thus, self-manifestation cannot be an argument for the singularity of the incarnation, as it is not a sufficient reason for it in the first place.
    5.a.iii.3. God, as an infinite Being, may have capacities and attributes not best expressed in human form. So if God really wanted to manifest Himself in incarnation, would it not follow that He may choose to incarnate in forms other than the strictly human? Perhaps, for instance, as an angel, a being subtler and thus nobler than mankind?
    5.a.iv. It may be argued that God can only incarnate once because He has chosen a singular people and one line of covenants by which to save the world and glorify His Name; consequently, the whole body of the elect are one in His single body, which He first had to assume, and that once for all.
    5.a.iv.1. This is the best argument for the singularity of the Incarnation, as is another like it – that it is more fitting to the Divine Majesty to have one mother, and not many.
    5.a.iv.1.a. Though this objection does not account for a possible incarnation that does not emerge from biological processes.
    5.a.iv.2. Moreover, this argument raises again some of the metaphysical and soteriological issues at 4.c-4.c.ii. above. For at the deepest level of reality, both the elect and the damned are one in their ontological position vis-à-vis absolute being.
  6. What is the point of grace if it does not sanctify?
    6.a. If grace is not efficacious enough to actually turn the heart towards God and away from evil, then what good is it?
    6.a.i. Put another way, why is it that a soul who receives the sacraments regularly, believes the creeds and doctrines of the Church, attempts to live in charity, and has a regular prayer life makes no progress in any of his cardinal temptations or sins?
    6.a.i.1. What are we to make of a religion whose priests, receiving the grace of the sacraments (and even God Himself) every day, nevertheless show no signs of growth in holiness?
    6.a.i.2. What are we to make of a religion where even the local proximity of God Himself in the Blessed Sacrament is not enough to banish the most horrific of vices?
    6.a.i.3. What are we to make of a religion whose visible head, allegedly supported by special graces, acquiesces to the cover-up of the most wicked of crimes?
    6.a.i.4. What are we to make of a religion that, taking all of the above, nevertheless claims that God Himself sustains it with supernatural graces, including (especially) the graces of sanctification and of an abiding Real Presence in the Church?
    6.b. Would any of this tension exist in a religion that made no such claims, or at least tempered them?
    6.c. It could be said that Providence removes, restrains, or hides grace as God sees fit. But what is the point of a visible church if not to dispense grace in dependable ways?
  7. In considering God, shouldn’t our rule be to favor what is most fitting to the Divine Majesty?
    7.a. Is Christianity?

On Sexuality, Christianity, and Language

The knight Richard Puller von Hohenburg and his servant, burned before the walls of Zürich for sodomy, 1482. (Source)

The recent controversy in ACNA about the language of homosexuality has been deeply unedifying. It has been aggravated in the last few days by an open, co-signed letter that, while doing the bare minimum, nevertheless was far more affirming than the original pastoral statement to which it replied. In a move I can only describe as scandalous, the principal author’s bishop then stepped in and ordered him to take it down.

I am for the most part uninterested in the internal politics of ACNA. I have friends in that communion, and after all, it is neither my circus nor my monkeys. I am, however, keenly interested in the issue at stake: what kinds of language sexual-minority Christians use, why, and what this says about their broader place within Christianity. Especially as some of these same issues have come up repeatedly in the Catholic context as well. That relevance to my own situation moves me to write, when I might otherwise keep silence.

When the original statement came out last month (no pun intended), a gay Christian friend of mine wrote, “I am starting to think that this tired conversation about sexual identity language is actually *designed* to keep the Church from caring for sexual minorities by addressing its pervasive homophobia.” Much of what follows therefore comes from what I wrote in reply, with a few edits and additions here and there.

It seems to me that this debate about language – the alleged moral valences of words like “homosexual” or “gay,” and whether or not it is appropriate for Christians to self-identify with these words – serves a multipronged function:

(1) It distracts from urgent issues, like sexual minorities being disproportionately subject to homelessness, political oppression, intimidation, healthcare discrimination, targeted murder, and suicide.

(2) It subsequently distracts from the historical and ongoing complicity of heterosexual Christians in these phenomena, and absolves them of any effort to help fix it.

(3) It puts the entire onus of subjectivity-formation on the gay Christian individual and thus places them in a defensive posture which prevents them from making further demands. It does this in three ways:

(4) It deprives them of a language in which to articulate their own subjectivity and needs.

(5) It isolates them by preventing them from using the language by which they can form bonds of solidarity with other sexual minorities.

(6) It further isolates them by cutting them off from the history of other sexual minorities, whatever terms they may have used (sodomites, inverts, homosexuals, fairies, queers, gays, LGBT, etc.).

(7) All of which is to say, the debate mainly functions to control sexual minority Christians by making their own experience more and more illegible to them.

(8) It works very well because it exhausts a lot of emotional energy from LGBTQ+ Christians. This is intrinsic to the debate’s function as a mechanism of control.

(9) It is doubly effective when, as in the ACNA document, it reverts to the most clinical and pathologized language imaginable. “Christians afflicted with” or “who struggle with same-sex attraction” is not only unwieldy, it’s obviously stigmatizing. SSA might as well be leprosy.

(10 This is not to say that gay Christians who feel that the language of “same-sex attraction” or SSA best expresses their experience shouldn’t use it. We should all use the language that best fits our own embodied story. But when straight Christians use it this way, they are robbing them of the freedom to make that decision for themselves.

(11) In the Roman Catholic Church, there is the added rigmarole around vocations. No man with “deep-seated homosexual tendencies” can be ordained…but what does this mean? If you have sex with men (or at least want to) but don’t call yourself gay, do you have these tendencies? What are we to make of the considerable number of gay priests that are already ordained? It hides hypocrisy.

(12) I am reminded, for instance, of what Roy Cohn says in Angels in America.

(13) The most insidious thing about the ACNA statement, though, isn’t even the matter of terminology. It’s the deeper point from which the terminological discussion grew: a claim that homosexuals can become straight again.

(14) If this were coming from an old-school queer theorist or even second-wave feminist who insisted on the radical flexibility of gender and sexuality, I wouldn’t have too much of an issue. But the obvious problem here is the latent moral imperative that moves from is to ought (also the erasure of bisexuals, but that’s a bit of a tangent).

(15) Going from “some people can move between kinds of attraction” to “you must become attracted to the opposite sex,” as this document does implicitly, is an awful lapse into conversion-therapy thinking. And we know how harmful this is, especially to queer youth.

(16) But this pathologization is itself, once again, a mechanism of control. Religions are social bodies that require adherents in order to survive. And like it or not, gays have historically been a major part of the Christian fold – including in Anglicanism!

(17) The reasoning advanced by ACNA is thus, quite precisely, an ideology. It is a logic that helps the oppressed buy into their own oppression. They are hardly unique in this; many in our own Church of Rome offer the same false narrative for the same ends.

(18) I would like to end this thread on a hopeful note, though I have very little hope to speak of. The best I can say is that LGBT Christians need to make their own communities. We need to use the terms that best express our own subjectivity. This is quite apart from the issue of sexual ethics, which does not hinge on what we call ourselves.

(19) Straight Christians, including Catholics, should accept that we are going to use the terms that we choose. It is not up to them. Their time would be better spent helping on the very urgent issues I outlined earlier. And maybe trying to understand what it’s like for (Christian) sexual minorities in the Church and in society at large.

(20) Finally – the best thing to help on the issues of terminology is for sexual-minority Christians, where it is safe to do so, to come out. Even clergy. Articulating your own experience is truly liberating, even as it opens up a new vulnerability. But freedom is worth it. Honesty is worth it. Visibility is worth it. Life is worth it.

On Joy

Le Christ aux outrages, Philippe de Champaigne, 17th c. (Source)

“Jesus Christ will be in agony until the end of the world” – Blaise Pascal

We shall not be blamed for not having worked miracles, or for not having been theologians, or not having been rapt in divine visions. But we shall certainly have to give an account to God of why we have not unceasingly mourned.” – St John Climacus

Recently I have had occasion to consider the role of joy in the Christian life. While I don’t believe that any particular emotions as such are intrinsic to Christianity, I sometimes feel that there is in the Church’s culture a kind of low-level idolatry of affective joy that makes it a good in itself and, more poisonously, demonizes those who do not share in it. This rather shallow (and ultimately false) view of joy as relentless and mandatory happiness has at times eclipsed the demands of the Cross, and has little to offer the suffering, the infirm, the distressed, the depressed, the sorrowful, the anxious, and the temperamentally gloomy. Are they to be excluded from heaven if they cannot force a smile? This soft and implicit Pelagianism of the emotions is a greater discouragement to souls than an honest reckoning with the sorrows of life and the terrible demands of the Cross.[1]

So, I thought I would put down a few very brief meditations on true and false joy. I would not wish to speak in absolute and general terms, but rather, out of the fullness of my heart, and all that I – a mere layman – have gleaned from seven years in the faith, the reading of Scripture, and the study of the Church’s spiritual history.

St. Paul tells us that joy is a fruit of the Spirit; he does not promise us that we shall have all those fruits at all times, or that they grow in us for own profit alone.[2] If I may alter the metaphor a bit for illustrative purposes (without in any way denying the truth St. Paul teaches), I would say that joy is the flower, and not the root or the fruit, of the Christian life as such.[3] It is chiefly given to us by God so that we might advance His Kingdom. Like the pleasant blooms of spring, joy is meant to attract souls who do not yet know the grace of God, and thereby to spread the life of the spirit. As soon as we have it, we must give it away. It is like an ember in our hands – giving light and heat, but liable to burn us if we hold on to it. For who are we to keep it, we who are nothing? And so, we should not be surprised if even this true joy is fleeting, and given to us only in rare occasions as a special grace. For the joy of God is not like the joy of the world. The former is rare as gold, and the latter as common as fool’s gold.

And as fool’s gold will not purchase what true gold can buy, so does a false joy fail in this paramount duty of conversion. We should not force ourselves to seem happier than we really are; a certain virtuous attempt at good cheer in the face of sorrow is always welcome, and we generally should not air our griefs too freely. I believe this virtue, built upon a detachment from our worldly disposition, is what the Apostle refers to when he tells us to “Rejoice always.”[4] But let us not delude ourselves into thinking that this human cheer can ever compare with the supernatural joy that comes only from God, and which many just souls have not been granted. To do so approaches dishonesty, both to ourselves and to our neighbor. Let us not pretend that our faith cheers us more than it really does; let us instead recognize that it promises us suffering, and a yoke that, though light, is nevertheless still a yoke.[5] And under that yoke, someone else will lead us where we do not wish to go.[6]

Joy is only true if it comes from, is ordered to, and brings us back to the Cross. The joy that God gives is always stained with the Precious Blood. But even then, we are not entitled even to this joy in our present life; rather, we are given the Cross as our inheritance. For what is the world if not a land of false joys? They come from nothing, they come to nothing; in their essence, they are nothing. Well and truly does the Sage condemn it all as vanity.[7] Well and truly does the Psalmist speak of it as “the valley of the shadow of death.”[8] Well and truly do we address the Mother of God from “this valley of tears.” We can do no other.

This life of the Cross is a gradual annihilation – what the French call anéantissement – a fearsome but salutary tutelage in humility and in the growing recognition of our own nothingness. To live and die on the Cross is to say every day with St. John the Baptist that “He must increase, I must decrease.”[9] Yet how hard this is! We lose sight of the fact that at the end, when we are nothing again, we can grasp the God who is No-Thing, the One who is beyond the traps, illusions, trinkets, clutter, disappointments, and, indeed, the joys of this world. We efface ourselves now so we may one day face Him. We mourn our sins today so we may rejoice in attaining God on the last day.

That is the true joy of the Cross – that, in mounting it, we can see God. But how rare is such a grace in this life! Most of us are caught up into the business of the world. Most of our lives are a long distraction. Most of us will only achieve the vision of God after the sorrows of this life and the pains of purgatory. And so, let us never forget that to be a Christian is to let Christ suffer and die in us, so that one day, we too may rise with Him.[10]


[1] James 4:4.

[2] Galatians 5:22-23.

[3] The root is faith, and the fruits are redemptive suffering and acts of charity.

[4] 1 Thessalonians 5:16.

[5] Matthew 11:28-30.

[6] John 21:18.

[7] Ecclesiastes 1:2.

[8] Psalm 22 (23): 4.

[9] John 3:30.

[10] Galatians 2:20; 2 Corinthians 4:11; 2 Timothy 2:11; Philippians 1:21

A New Book for a Divided Country

I would like to draw my readers’ attention to a new book that will, I am sure, prove to be one of the more important and provocative publications this year. Dr. James Mumford’s Vexed: Ethics Beyond Political Tribes has just been released today in this country after having been out in the UK for a few months. So far it’s been getting compelling reviews. To quote one reviewer,

Vexed is that kind of book: less interested in hard-and-fast answers than undermining supposedly concrete certainties. That may suggest that Mumford indulges in ethics as a kind of academic sport, but at the heart of what he writes is something much more serious than that. The key argument of his book is that failures of what Mumford calls “moral imagination” do not just sully our political discourse.

John Harris, The Guardian

You can hear Dr. Mumford discuss the book himself here.

For me, this publication means something more. I worked as Dr. Mumford’s research assistant in the early stages of the project, as did my old friend Tatiana Lozano (who has written her own blurb about the book on her website). It was, in fact, my first research job. Coming at the end of my undergraduate career, I look back on that experience as a formative stepping-stone in my own scholarly journey.

I don’t know if I’ll agree with everything in the book, as I haven’t yet read it. But it’s wonderful to see a project to which I contributed – however small that contribution may have been – come to completion. I wish Dr. Mumford all the best, and commend the book to my readers.

Cover of Vexed, by James Mumford. (Source)

Elsewhere: A Review about Magic in Modernity

Portrait of Robert Boyle, Father of Modern Chemistry. A scientist distinguished by his open-minded and empirical attitude towards paranormal, supernatural, and magical phenomena. (Source)

I am pleased and proud to announce that I have a book review up at the Genealogies of Modernity Blog. I examine a compelling recent work by historian of science, Michael Hunter. The Decline of Magic: Britain in the Enlightenment (Yale UP, 2020) is well worth your time. I think it provokes really intriguing questions about the process of disenchantment – a transition that Hunter effectively describes as the methodological eclipse of Francis Bacon and Robert Boyle by Isaac Newton. You’ll understand what I mean when you read the review (and the book), so please head on over and give it a read-through!

Thank you to the GoM Blog for hosting my writing, and especially to Mr. Terence Sweeney for kindly asking me to contribute. It was an honor and a pleasure to write for a platform with such intriguing content.

Pascal and Amoris Laetitia

blaise-pascal

This man understood the Society of Jesus. (Source)

Amidst the various scandals roiling the Church right now, let us not forget that the Pope has still not resolved the controversy over communion for the the divorced and remarried. Amoris Laetitia continues to divide Catholics over sacramental discipline and the deeper theology of marriage it concerns.

I study early modern French Catholicism. Recently in my research, I was reading a passage out of Pascal’s Lettres Provinciales that seemed germane to the current debate.

“O father, how these maxims of yours will draw people to your confessionals!”

“Yes,” [the Jesuit] replied, “you would hardly believe what numbers are in the habit of frequenting them; ‘we are absolutely oppressed and overwhelmed, so to speak, under the crowd of our penitents — penitentium numero obruimur’— as is said in The Image of the First Century.”

“I could suggest a very simple method,” said I, “to escape from this inconvenient pressure. You have only to oblige sinners to avoid the proximate occasions of sin; that single expedient would afford you relief at once.”

“We have no wish for such a relief,” rejoined the [Jesuit] monk; “quite the reverse; for, as is observed in the same book, ‘the great end of our Society is to labor to establish the virtues, to wage war on the vices, and to save a great number of souls.’ Now, as there are very few souls inclined to quit the proximate occasions of sin, we have been obliged to define what a proximate occasion is. ‘That cannot be called a proximate occasion,’ says Escobar, ‘where one sins but rarely, or on a sudden transport — say three or four times a year’; or, as Father Bauny has it, once or twice in a month.’ Again, asks this author, ‘what is to be done in the case of masters and servants, or cousins, who, living under the same roof, are by this occasion tempted to sin?’”

“They ought to be separated,” said I.

“That is what he says, too, ‘if their relapses be very frequent: but if the parties offend rarely, and cannot be separated without trouble and loss, they may, according to Suarez and other authors, be absolved, provided they promise to sin no more, and are truly sorry for what is past.’”

This required no explanation, for he had already informed me with what sort of evidence of contrition the confessor was bound to rest satisfied.

“And Father Bauny,” continued the monk, “permits those who are involved in the proximate occasions of sin, ‘to remain as they are, when they cannot avoid them without becoming the common talk of the world, or subjecting themselves to inconvenience.’ ‘A priest,’ he remarks in another work, ‘may and ought to absolve a woman who is guilty of living with a paramour, if she cannot put him away honourably, or has some reason for keeping him — si non potest honeste ejicere, aut habeat aliquam causam retinendi — provided she promises to act more virtuously for the future.’”

“Well, father,” cried I, “you have certainly succeeded in relaxing the obligation of avoiding the occasions of sin to a very comfortable extent, by dispensing with the duty as soon as it becomes inconvenient; but I should think your fathers will at least allow it be binding when there is no difficulty in the way of its performance?”

“Yes,” said the father, “though even then the rule is not without exceptions. For Father Bauny says, in the same place, ‘that any one may frequent profligate houses, with the view of converting their unfortunate inmates, though the probability should be that he fall into sin, having often experienced before that he has yielded to their fascinations. Some doctors do not approve of this opinion, and hold that no man may voluntarily put his salvation in peril to succour his neighbor; yet I decidedly embrace the opinion which they controvert.’”

“A novel sort of preachers these, father! But where does Father Bauny find any ground for investing them with such a mission?”

“It is upon one of his own principles,” he replied, “which he announces in the same place after Basil Ponce. I mentioned it to you before, and I presume you have not forgotten it. It is, ‘that one may seek an occasion of sin, directly and expressly — primo et per se — to promote the temporal or spiritual good of himself or his neighbour.’”

On hearing these passages, I felt so horrified that I was on the point of breaking out.

(Pascal, Lettres Provinciales, X)

Pascal was writing against morally lax Jesuits. Plus ça change.

There are, of course, those who would chide me for citing an avowed Jansenist in our present moment. But I worry that the advocates of the Church’s traditional teaching on communion for the divorced and remarried, and thus for her traditional teaching on marriage generally, are going the way of the Jansenists. They have a Pope set against them who is playing hardball. And a Jesuit, at that. Amoris Laetitia is reaching Unigenitus-level status with regards to popular outrage among the clergy and faithful. The entire discourse of a “smaller, purified Church” that comes up in conversations with “sound” Catholics all has an eerie ring to it. The Jansenists’ Figurist exegesis often spoke of a minority party of “true Christians” set against a corrupt, false church. If you were to open a copy of the Nouvelles ecclésiastiques from the 1730’s, you’d find populist polemical language similar to what passes on 1Peter5 or What’s Up With Francis-Church? or The Remnant or LifeSite or Rorate Caeli. If it hasn’t happened already, I wouldn’t be surprised to find any of these sites (or those like them) referring to Amoris Laetitia as “the Abomination in the Holy Place.”

UnigenitusAbomination.jpg

Unigenitus, or Amoris Laetitia? (Source)

The political divisions among the episcopate also remind me of that tumultuous time. The opposition to Unigenitus, like the opposition to Amoris, goes across cultural barriers. Jansenism was not just a French or Flemish aberration. It spread across Europe and even infiltrated the college of Cardinals. And popularly, much of the Jansenists’ ire was directed at the Jesuits. Likewise, today.

DestructionofPortRoyal

Destruction of the Abbey of Port-Royal des Champs (Source).

We have our Nuns of Port-Royal in the Franciscans of the Immaculate and the Order of Malta. And what a coincidence that we, like the Jansenists, should valorize four bishops for challenging a Pope!

ApellantBishops

The four “apellant” bishops who opposed Unigenitus by an appeal to an ecumenical council. Much like Cardinal Burke, Bishop Soanen of Senez, their leader, was exiled and left without either a see or responsibilities. (Source)

Of course, the whole axis on which this all turns is “frequent communion.” How like Antoine Arnaud does Cardinal Burke appear! Before he started opposing communion for the divorced and remarried, he opposed communion for politicians who publicly dissent from the Church’s teaching on abortion and same-sex marriage. I don’t offer this comparison as a criticism. Indeed, I agree with the Cardinal’s reading of the Canons and the Scriptures. But it is hard not to see the likeness.

There are differences. In the 18th century, there was no real liturgical fracas like what we’ve witnessed since Vatican II (if anything, our age is much worse on this score). The sex abuse scandal of our own days has no parallel in that era. And the very real political dangers posed by the competing “Catholic” monarchs likewise has no modern correspondent (though with a Pope friendly to the liberal order, who knows?). No civil authority is going to suppress sound Catholics – at least, sound on this precise issue – in the way that Louis XIV persecuted the Jansenists.

But the structural and discursive similarities worry me. They should worry you, too. It’s not enough to say “the Gates of Hell shall not prevail” and all that. That’s only eschatological. And in this context, it’s little more than putting one’s head in the sand. Something has to change at the organizational level. I don’t know what that would look like, or who in particular needs to act to ensure the preservation of the Truth. But I hope that we who accept Christ’s teaching on the indissolubility of marriage don’t end up convulsing in “another – doubtless very different” cemetery of Saint-Médard.

ADDENDUM: I want to be very clear that I am not making a theological comparison, but a structural, Church-political one. I am not suggesting that the defenders of the Church’s teaching on marriage advance Jansenist principles, but that the shape of the controversy up to this point has developed in a concerning way by placing them in a discursive and political position that approximates that of the later Jansenists.

Unfashionable Thoughts on the Proliferation of Bibles

PentecostGradualIllumination

A depiction of Pentecost (and thus Our Lady of the Cenacle) in an illuminated A from a Lombard antiphonal, 1430’s. Attributed to Stefano da Verona and now in the possession of the Getty Museum. Not a Bible, though. (Source)

Erasmus, that mercurial fellow of the Renaissance who did so much damage with such good intentions, hoped that the humanist scholarship then revolutionizing Biblical studies would produce a popular spiritual awakening. He foresaw a time when, the Bible having been translated into vernacular languages, “the farmer would sing parts of the scripture at the plow, the weaver hum them to the movement of his shuttle, the traveller lighten the weariness of his journey with like stories.” What he got was the Reformation.

Those of us Catholics who have the benefit of historical hindsight can perhaps treat Erasmus with a degree of charity. He did not foresee the storm that he was helping to prepare. At best, his image of the Word-infused society is one that we can and ought to strive for. But things have gone rather differently in what used to be Christendom. The plurality of conflicting Biblical interpretations, stemming both from theological divisions and from theologically-motivated translations from the standard scriptural texts of pre-modernity, has eroded the communion of the full body of Christians. Though by no means the only factor in secularization, this loss of even the pretense of unity significantly impaired the Church’s evangelical witness.

But of course, certain divisions along theological lines always existed in pre-modernity as well. Heretics, mystics, and scholars often disagreed with the orthodox establishment over various exegetical points, and sometimes those divisions were backed by political force. So, what made the Reformation different? Perhaps it was the material condition that stands behind Erasmus’s vision – the advent of the printing press. After all, the mass dissemination of information that the printing press spread and entrenched the Reformation (and the Catholic Reformation) as early as Luther’s first moves in 1517.

But I wish to speak less of early modernity and more of our own era. And, standing firmly in our present moment, I must conclude that printing the Bible was a mistake. Or, to be precise, the mass production of Bibles was a mistake.

An Observation

Walk into any sizeable book store – a Barnes and Noble or Books-A-Million, perhaps. Wander the shelves and you will no doubt eventually come upon the Bible section, sometimes rows and rows of it. I recently did, as I have done many times before. On this recent occasion, I came upon more Bibles than I could count. There were dozens of different translations into English, often sold by competing Bible companies.

Leaving aside that variety, I was struck by the sheer overwhelming diversity of the Bibles as physical objects. I found Bibles in boxes, Bibles in plastic, Bibles in hardcover and paperback. There was an art-journalling Bible that seemed to combine the recent coloring fad with the word of God (curiously, there seemed to be no human faces in any of the images, rather reminding one of another religion’s sacred art). There was a “Rainbow Bible,” not a camp copy of the scriptures but a text pre-highlighted in various hues to illustrate thematic points. There’s a C.S. Lewis Bible for those who like to take their Jesus in leonine form. There’s a Lego-illustrated Brick Bible, and, let the reader carefully note, it’s not the same thing as The Brick Bible for Kids. Erasmus would be pleased to see that there are occupational Bibles, such as Bibles oriented to students, doctors, nurses, firefighters, police, and soldiers. There’s even an American Patriot’s Bible.

AmericanPatriot'sBible

This is a real thing. (Source)

But perhaps the greatest division beyond the inevitable Catholic/Protestant scriptural distinction is gender. Many of the Bibles (and Bible accessories such as carrying cases) are very clearly oriented to men or women. For instance, who is the intended buyer for a Bible in pink pleather binding with floral design on the cover? And who is targeted by a camo Bible carrier with the words “Armor of God” on it? One could cite similar examples ad nauseam. Again, go to your local bookstore. While you may be more likely to find a Bible section in the South or Midwest, I’d wager you could locate one in almost any part of the country. You’ll see what I’m talking about.

Some of these phenomena are not limited to Protestant Bibles, though Catholic Bible companies clearly lack the inventiveness and marketing ingenuity displayed by purveyors of Protestant Bibles. They are guilty of another sin. Mostly, Catholic Bibles just look bad. Many of them are just dumpy paperback bricks that no one wants to read, let alone have around the house. When your Bible fails even on a coffee table, you know you’re doing something wrong.

The Problem

These trappings are all deeply insidious for several reasons.

First, they enlist the Word of God in the maintenance of fallible worldly systems such as the nation, the state, the military-industrial complex, and various forms of social authority, thus stripping the Word of its critical power.

Second, they subtly encourage an unhealthy personalization of spiritual life. We are not Christians alone with God, but part of one Body of Christ. Ultimately, we can’t really own the Bible – not by ourselves. It can never be a private document, subsisting in a personalized meaning.

Third, in a perverse inversion of the last point, these trappings turn the Bible into a physical totem of a human subculture with its own recognized social-symbolic markers and status symbols. The Bible does not belong to the world of conspicuous consumption.

Fourth, the gendering of the Bible is a uniquely vicious practice, probably intended for what are innocently if cynically capitalist reasons. These Bibles sell, no doubt. But they also reinforce problematically rigid gender norms which speak to a wider cultural bifurcation of the Word of God into a Gospel for men and a Gospel for women. I have seen this phenomenon with my own eyes in both Evangelical and Catholic contexts. I have known people who have suffered because of it, some even falling away from the Faith entirely. Have we so easily forgotten the words of St. Paul that “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus?” (Gal 3:28 KJV).

Fifth, these trappings commodify and trivialize the Word of God. The Bible is something to be sold. It becomes one item in the marketplace among many others. If you don’t like it in black, you can have it in any color under the sun. You can get a version that says things the way you like. The capitalist system affords the Bible no special treatment as a text; it is a book to be sold like any other book. And how it sells!

The Decay of the Scriptural Aura

There are those who will here object that I am taking too material a view of the Bible. After all, they will say, isn’t it better that the message of the Bible is dispersed far and wide, even if some of the editions are trivial or problematic? Why should it matter if some editions have silly themes or appear as commodities among other commodities? Isn’t it worth it?

I take exception with this attitude for a few reasons. My first is purely sectarian, in that, as a Catholic, I object to the unaided reading of scripture and the erection of private judgment as any kind of rule in its interpretation. The Church is the preeminent exegete, and without her, we are liable to fall prey to our own sinful reasonings. Some Protestants will find this objection unconvincing; Catholics, at least, should find it uncontroversial.

But the issue cuts deeper than that. We should treat the Bible as a sacramental. It is not just any book. The visible scriptures convey grace by summoning the heart to an awareness of what is invisible. And this precisely because we, as human beings, are sacramental. We are body and soul, matter and spirit. Our religious lives are healthier when both are brought together under a common obedience to Christ in a biune ministration of grace. The sacraments are fitted to our nature. So are sacramentals; so are the scriptures. Turning the Bible into a personalized commodity cheapens its quality as one of the paradigmatic sacramentals.

We ought not lose sight of the fact that this deadening process of commodification, however far-rooted it may be in history, has taken off with alarming speed in our own time precisely because of the cultural features of postmodernity. We live in a sign-saturated age. Both words and images fill our view at almost every waking moment, whether they be painted, printed, written, or digital. And signs, like coins, lose their value with over-production. Is it any surprise then that narrativity has become strained as well? Can we be shocked that those explanatory schemes which once held together our culture and our own personal sense of meaning have long since melted into air? Nothing has survived the thoroughly American logic of consumerist capitalism; can anything withstand the acid-bath of “innovation?” These questions have been with us since the 1970’s, when philosophers first began to take note of, as Lyotard called it, “the postmodern condition.” They have yet to be fully resolved.

One other feature of postmodernity with direct bearing on our subject was first examined by Walter Benjamin in his 1936 essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Benjamin notes that, in premodern conditions, art objects were imbued with an “aura,” a sense of absolute singularity and unique presence that belonged to the artifact under the eye of the viewing subject. It was this quality that bound art to its original context in ritual. Indeed, some of you may notice that this idea is latent in Aquinas’s idea of claritas, without which nothing can be beautiful. But in an age where art can be reproduced again and again, an image can proliferate, as can the experience of seeing the image, without any of the unique presence that comes from contact with the original. We have witnessed the “decay of the aura.” And since, in Benjamin’s words, “The uniqueness of a work of art is inseparable from its being embedded in the fabric of tradition,” then the “tremendous shattering of tradition” in postmodernity has thoroughly dispensed with the aura.

Bibles used to have an aura. Before the advent of the printing press, Bibles were expensive, rare, hand-crafted codices, often illuminated with historiated capitals and copious illustrations that drew upon pigments as rare as lapis lazuli and gold itself. So were other prayer-books – and the Bible was indeed meant for prayer. For the monks who labored over their manuscripts in their scriptoria, the Bible was not just a status symbol for the noble or prelate who had ordered it. The Bible was a liturgical book; the monk knew the scriptures precisely because of his immersion in the liturgy of the Church, which at Mass and the eight offices of the Opus Dei presented the Bible to him as the very marrow of prayer. The Bible belongs to the liturgy, for both reveal Christ.

BritishMuseumAngel.jpg

The Bible historiale, Clairefontaine and Paris, 1411. Now in the British Museum. (Source)

The Psalter, which is prayed in full by Benedictine monks each week, was yet another stand-alone portion of the scriptures that was often luxuriously illuminated as sacred art. The Books of Hours were also richly illuminated. These declensions of the Divine Office especially intended for laymen are yet another example of a scriptural prayer-book that was routinely infused with an “aura.” Those of us who have been lucky enough to see illuminated manuscripts of any sort in person can attest that they’ve still got it.

BreslauPsalterB.jpg

The letter B from the Breslau Psalter, Psalm 1. (Source)

At a certain level, the question of the “aura” is a purely natural one. But the “aura” points to a supernatural reality, the underlying sacramental possibility of all creaturely matter. Because the Word has taken flesh in Christ, matter can take on divinity – it can become theophoric, bearing God, and theophanic, manifesting Him.

The aura inspires reverence. And it is meet and right that the very book where we find unfolded before us the Face and Name of God, the Bible, should make us turn towards heavenly things. The Jewish mystical tradition provides insights into the profound holiness of the Bible. We read, “We have learned that the Holy One, blessed be He, is called Torah…And there is no Torah but the Holy One,” (“Zohar” 2:60a, Beshalach). Likewise, St. Augustine would find much to agree with in the words of the Jewish mystic who writes,

It is also true that the upper root of the holy Torah is in the highest level of the worlds that are called the worlds of the Infinite Godhead [Ein Sof]…That is why the Sages say that the Torah preceded the world, that is it preceded all worlds. For they even say that it preceded the Throne of Glory. (“Nefesh Hachaim” 4:10).

The truth at the heart of this mystery is that of the Logos, the Word who is God, manifesting himself in creation, in natural law, in revelation, and then definitively in the person of Jesus Christ. Thus, the holiness of the Bible partakes of Christ’s own divine holiness. Our starting point for any discussion of the scriptures as physical texts must be the sentiment that Louis Bouyer describes,

“No man can see God and live”: this means that the vision of God would bring death to a human being. The idea contained in this saying is a basic idea of the whole of Jewish revelation which we have lost all too completely, for with it we have lost the sense of the sacred, that is, ultimately, the sense of God. If anyone has not understood…that not only for men, but for all other creatures too, God is the Sovereign, the Utterly Other, the Pure, the Inaccessible, then he does not know what God really is. (The Meaning of the Monastic Life 41).

Once the aura has decayed, what are we left with? We are like those benighted souls described by Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch who “carved out of the ponderous old rock-hewn Tablets of the Law ornamental figures so tiny that people gladly found room for them on smart dressing tables, in drawing-rooms and ballrooms.” Was there ever a more apt description of what we have done to the Word of God, materially and spiritually? For when we commodify the Bible, we commodify its message. When we objectify the Bible, we objectify its message. When we trivialize the Bible, we trivialize its message. Is there anything more dangerous in a world grown cold to the Gospel? The same can be said of the liturgy. Banality in the ars celebrandi vitiates the aura embedded in the ritual. We have a responsibility to maintain higher standards.

A Return to the Family Bible

Let me be very clear. My objection here is to both the mass proliferation and the sheer diversity of Bibles on the market. These two phenomena, even more than the underlying condition of their quality as printed material, have destroyed the aura of the Word of God. But I should note in all fairness that many Christians, at least in the English-speaking countries, used to maintain a strong sense of the Bible’s auratic sacramentality. That time-honored institution of the Family Bible, often an enormous and ornamental tome passed down from generation to generation as an heirloom and a testament of enduring faith, once preserved a kind of aura. What undermined this institution and the kind of home liturgies that once sustained it? Was it the Gideons? Was it the travelling Bible salesmen satirized so acerbically by Flannery O’Connor in Good Country People? Or was it the broader cultural force of capitalist individualism exacerbating the collapse of narrativity and traditional community, rendering the search for salvation even more personal – and thus lonelier and more consumerist – then ever before?

FamilyBible

A typical “Family Bible” of the nineteenth century. (Source)

I recognize that I am complicit in this problem. I own several Bibles, not all of which were gifts, and not all of which are very good. But I believe that most of us Christians are bound up with the cultural conditions which have produced so many and such shoddy copies of the scriptures. We can’t start to imagine a better way until we re-assess our relationship with the sacred. While it’s impossible to go back to the scriptoria of Cluny or Clairvaux, we can begin to appropriate their view of the Bible as a liturgically-grounded manifestation of the Divine Word. Perhaps we can start to produce more beautiful Bibles – even auratic ones. More depends on it than we might think. After all, the illumination of the page was always an anticipation of and metaphor for the illumination of the soul.

Elsewhere: Dreher on the Dangers of Design Thinking

design_thinking

“‘Ideate’ is not a word!” – one of my professors in undergrad. (Source)

Or, if not quite that, on the dangers of applying design thinking to religion. Follow this link. It’s pretty appalling. This is what happens when a) we don’t teach basic comparative religion and anthropology in schools, and b) we *do* teach Silicon Valley’s corrosive ideology of innovation instead. We are far too eager to innovate. We have forgotten how to preserve.

When Dreher is right, he’s right.

The connection he doesn’t make is that, in surrendering the traditional Mass, the Church has opened a spiritual vacuum in the West that has never really been healed. People crave ritual as a path to transcendence. The Mass was – and remains – the only true ritual, in that it offers that path perfectly. It unites the transcendent infinite and the immanent finite in a way that surpasses all comprehension even as it opens access to the mystery itself. And from a strictly anthropological point of view, the Solemn High Mass of the Usus Antiquior is a superior form of the rite. It possesses the balance, hierarchy, harmony, grandeur, coherence, and, once again, mystery that the Novus Ordo usually lacks. Perhaps if we had not so recklessly cast it aside in 1969, we would not be witnessing the sort of do-it-yourself secular rituals that Dreher rightly deplores.

Elsewhere: The Prior of Silverstream on Secular Aesthetics

Ernő-Goldfinger-Balfron-Tower-London-1967-via-genericarchitecture

“Balfron Tower, London,” Erno Goldfinger, 1967. Sometimes, Brutalism has something of the quality of a stage set. It can work then. But most of the time, it is extremely depressing, and one rather wishes that most Brutalist structures were torn down. Imagine what a housing flat like the one picture here says about human life. What an insufferable, dehumanizing worldview is enshrined there! No wonder that our greatest dystopias are all cast in concrete. (Source)

One of the things I like about Vultus Christi is that it’s very un-polemical. So much of the Tradisphere gets bogged down in kvetching about the Pope, or internecine carping, or weird and generally unhelpful screeds about the modern world. One does get rather exhausted of reading that, and most of the time, VC avoids it. But when Dom Mark does raise his voice, his criticism is always tempered with a profound wisdom and grace. Such is the case with yesterday’s sermon at Silverstream, “Make His Praise Glorious.”

The sermon is clearly addressed to the abortion referendum looming in Ireland’s imminent future. But Dom Mark sees the bigger picture of what a “Yes” victory will mean for Irish culture. His argument is not a concatenation of the ordinary pro-life slogans about “a culture of life.” Instead, he makes a broader and, paradoxically, a more incisive point. What is at stake is the place of God in society. The referendum is not ultimately about human life, but human salvation.

There is much to like in the sermon. Of course, I’m very glad to see Dom Mark quoting from Fr. Dalgairns of the London Oratory, one of Newman and Fr. Faber’s early companions. Dalgairns is not much read today, though he was well respected in his own life for his spiritual writings and for his prolific pastoral work.

I was very taken with the aesthetic rhetoric Dom Mark employs. He illustrates the divergence between secular and sacred societies with an appeal to their built environment. Early on in the sermon, he explains the moral meaning of architecture.

New cities are always being constructed on the ruins of the old: these are skillfully planned in view of providing their citizens with every facility and technological advancement: schools, green spaces, clinics, libraries, museums, shopping districts, sports fields, industrial parks, and fitness centres. If, however, in these cities, there is no temple raised to the glory of God, no sanctuary, no altar, no tabernacle containing the irradiating Body of Christ, not only are such places not fit for man, created in the image and likeness of God, such places are dehumanising. In every place where the praise of God is silenced, where churches are closed, where the worship of God is forsaken, man becomes less than human.

It is anthropologically uncontroversial that the spaces we create have an effect on us. Our constructed surroundings in turn construct our souls. And when our ideas about the soul and its final end change, so will our buildings. If you seek an artistic exploration of this notion, I would recommend the two stunning documentary films Koyaanisqatsi (1982) and Baraka (1992). Or have a look at Pugin’s Contrasts (1836).

Dom Mark writes of the Christian world:

The builders of cathedrals, churches, and monasteries in former ages of faith had in view only this: to make glorious the praise of God. They understood that by raising edifices for nought but divine worship, and by keeping Sundays and festivals holy unto God, they were, in effect, providing their children, and their children’s children with space to be truly human.

The Christian community makes space (and, indeed, time) for the praise of God. By contrast, the post-Christian culture not only thinks differently, but looks and feels differently as well.

The secular nation descends inexorably into a harsh and dismal unloveliness. Beauty withers in every society that marginalises God and the things of God. Look at the cities constructed by the Godless totalitarian regimes of the last century: monuments of oppression haunted by hopelessness.

The difference between the two can be summed up in that one word: unloveliness. It is a quality that inheres in society as a network of relations between the self and others, between the self and the built environment, and between the whole sum of the people and their built environment. The word succinctly describes an entire process:

1. Spiritual malaise leads to doubt whether the created world can bear eternal meaning.
2. This doubt, often expressed positively as utilitarianism, leads to an unloving and even anti-aesthetic attitude towards the built environment.
3. Subsequently, aesthetic defect characterizes the built environment.
4. The original malaise is aggravated or ossifies.
5. The cycle repeats ad nauseam.

The processional nature of “unloveliness” derives from the threefold connotation of the word it negates, “loveliness.” When we speak of something as “lovely,” we are usually speaking of a moral, spiritual, or aesthetic quality. It is an assessment that lies somewhere between the Good and the Beautiful. The Unlovely is that which expresses, inspires, or provokes something somewhere between the Evil and the Ugly.

As Dom Mark makes clear, we have the duty to choose the Lovely and reject the Unlovely. “The choice of the secular city and its values will lead to barrenness, unloveliness, and emptiness. The choice of the second will lead to the sound of jubilation in the city.” If, as Goethe famously said, architecture is “frozen music,” then we should aim to build towering hymns that lift the soul to God. But the construction of that physical space depends upon the cultural space we make for the sacredincluding human life as such.

corbusier-plan-voisin

“Le Corbusier’s 1925 ‘Plan Voisin’ planned to raze parts of central Paris and replace them with high-rise towers and highways.” Looks like posterity dodged a bullet there. (Source)

Elsewhere: Newman Against the Nazis

Werner und Sophie Scholl

White Rose members Hans and Sophie Scholl. (Source)

A big thanks to Fr. David Abernethy of the Pittsburgh Oratory for bringing to my attention an article in the Catholic Herald about the influence of Cardinal Newman’s thought on die Weiße Rose. Apparently the Doctor of Conscience was an important impetus for their resistance to Nazi oppression. From the article:

The man who brought Newman’s writings to the attention of the Munich students was the philosopher and cultural historian Theodor Haecker. Haecker had become a Catholic after translating Newman’s Grammar of Assent in 1921, and for the rest of his life Newman was his guiding star. He translated seven of Newman’s works, and on several occasions read excerpts from them at the illegal secret meetings Hans Scholl convened for his friends. Strange though it may seem, the insights of the Oxford academic were ideally suited to help these students make sense of the catastrophe they were living through.

Haecker’s influence is evident already in the first three White Rose leaflets, but his becomes the dominant voice in the fourth: this leaflet, written the day after Haecker had read the students some powerful Newman sermons, finishes with the words: “We will not be silent. We are your bad conscience. The White Rose will not leave you in peace! Please read and distribute!”

Read the whole thing. And pray that Bl. John Henry Newman might, by his intercession, assist us in the struggle against every tyranny.