Nov 10 2016

An East Texas Example of the Benedict Option?

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In Path of a Modern South: Northeast Texas between Reconstruction and the Great Depression (2001), Texas A&M Professor Walter Buenger writes:

Yet the Churches of Christ, unlike the closely related Disciples of Christ, never aligned with the Klan or with prohibition movements….

Changes in church size reflected the pressures and opportunities of the 1920s. During the early part of the decade, the number of black and white Baptists declined slightly. Pentecostal groups such as the Church of the Nazarene, another organization with small rural churches, also declined. Black Methodists, white Methodists, and Presbyterians increased slightly, especially in Bowie and Lamar counties. (The Presbyterians were more traditionally urban than Baptists. Methodists fell somewhere in between.) The highest rate of increase, however, came in the membership of the Churches of Christ and Disciples of Christ (Christian Church). Again, they did best in Bowie and Lamar, the counties with the two largest urban centers in the region. By 1926 the Churches of Christ and the Disciples of Christ both roughly matched the Presbyterians, with each claiming about 5 percent of the region’s church members. Baptists, despite their slight decline, still attracted almost 50 percent of all church members, while Methodists made up just over 30 percent….

Subtle social differences existed between the Disciples and the Churches of Christ. The Disciples, as their greater willingness to cooperate with other denominations demonstrated, integrated more easily into the middle-class life of the towns and villages where they built their churches. The Churches of Christ remained more rural, did not depend upon an educated ministry, and drew from those who wanted to follow their own moral code instead of being bound by prohibition law or other measures that regulated society. While generally regarded as conservative, members of the Churches of Christ as well as some Pentecostal groups were among the most ardent backers of socialism in pre-World War I Texas and Oklahoma. They belonged to the old-time insurgents who resented external efforts that forced conformity to the middle-class rules of town-dwelling Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians. [1]

There is a lot to chew on in this quotation (and from a lot of different angles). But it does seem that the Churches of Christ, in the particular time and place described, offer an example akin to the Benedict Option, as Rod Dreher has defined it:

The “Benedict Option” refers to Christians in the contemporary West who cease to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of American empire, and who therefore are keen to construct local forms of community as loci of Christian resistance against what the empire represents.

Temperance/Prohibition was a moral goal of the Church of Christ and the Disciples of Christ, but the former chose not to make it a political goal, unlike the latter. And neither church “ran to the hills.”

NOTES
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[1] Buenger, Walter L. Path of a Modern South: Northeast Texas between Reconstruction and the Great Depression. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press. 2001. pp. 207, 234–35.

For more on the Benedict Option click here.

 


Oct 31 2016

More Money = More Theology

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Recall some maxims from William James:

Religion basically means something solemn or serious.[i]

Spiritual ideas are based on instincts, not intelligence.[ii]

We adopt creeds only when they make us feel happy.[iii]

Today at The American Conservative, Rod Dreher writes:

At the present moment, the literature professor, Dante scholar, and orthodox Catholic Anthony Esolen is under severe attack at his own institution, Providence College, for having recently written a couple of essays criticizing the present conception of “diversity” on his Catholic campus, and reflecting on the persecutorial phase of our culture (here’s one, and here’s the other)….

But where would he go? I can think of a few colleges that would love to have him on faculty. Ten years from now, will they? Besides, what about the younger orthodox Christian scholars who, unlike Tony Esolen and James Davison Hunter, don’t have tenure?

Do oRTHODOX Christian plumbers, truck-drivers, oil rig workers, insurance salesmen, and bank tellers, feel the same urgency?

Or is this only a worry for Christians affluent enough to attend universities in the first place?

Do the forgotten citizens of New Orleans’ Ninth Ward or Houston’s Fifth Ward really feel the same threat from Social Justice Warriors and Moral Therapeutic Deists as those who live in the Woodlands and send their sons and daughters to private universities like Baylor?

It is an unfair simplification to be sure, but, as an outsider to most things theological, it often seems like in America, the more complex and rigid the theology one believes, the more money one’s got in their wallet.

Let us return to some words from William James:

We despise any one who elects to be poor in order to simplify and save his inner life.[iv]

NOTES

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[i] James, William. The Varieties of Religious Experience, “Lecture II,” 1902. NY: Modern Library Classics. 2002. p. 44.

[ii] James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, “Lecture III,” p. 85.

[iii] James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, “Lectures IV & V,” pp. 90–91.

Following the thought of Gregory Bateson, I abide that explorations are self-validating, and therefore, nearly always successful. Or in Bateson’s words, explanation is “the mapping of description onto tautology,” and this is probably what Thoreau was getting at when he remarked, “whether we travel fast or flow, the track is laid for us.” (Bateson, Mind and Nature 139; Bateson, “Toward a Theory of Schizophrenia.” 82; Thoreau, Walden, “Chapter I: On Economy.”)

[iv] James, Varieties of Religious Experience, “Lectures XIV and XV – The Value of Saintliness” 401.

 


Aug 26 2016

Three Things to Read on Friday

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On the scene in Baton Rouge, The American Conservative’s Rod Dreher explains “Why the Great [Louisiana] Flood is Not Katrina,” August 22, 2016.

 

At the Balkinization law blog, Richard Primus discusses how literally and unliterally one can read the Constitution in “The Greatest Constitutional Protestant of the Twenty-First Century,” August 23, 2016.

 

And at The New York Times Magazine, Sam Anderson discusses the restoration and preservation (or lack thereof) of Michelangelo’s David in “David’s Ankles: How Imperfections Could Bring Down the World’s Most Perfect Statue,” August 17, 2016.

 


Aug 24 2016

On Cake (and Eating It Too)

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Rod Dreher is appalled that an institution (this time public school) has the audacity to institutionalize its participants the way it sees fit:

Parents started wearing bright purple buttons to school every day indicating their support of gender ideology. They were impossible to miss and prompted questions from many of the students.

You can’t have your cake and eat it too. You can’t accept the money/milk of the government cow then complain about how it tastes. The only way to not pay for electricity is to get off the grid. The only way to educate your kids the way you want is to pull them out of public school. If California won’t let you do that, do as Kevin D. Williamson advises: move.


Jul 27 2016

Rereading Ruthie Leming – Part II: Beyond Democracy Lies Caritas’cracy

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(Piazza Navona, Rome)

Theory of Caritas

The will of a community reflects the collective intentionality of its members.[1]

The will of a community is often, but not always, expressed in the language of the community.[2]

Through language, a community treats its members sometimes as individuals, sometimes as objects.[3]

An institution is realized when a community uses language in an organized pattern with precedence (such as an established tradition) to achieve, express, and reflect the will of the community.[4]

When a community, through its language, treats its members as individuals (as with memorializing veterans, first-responders,[5] and athletes, or raising money for a kid with cancer), the community practices an I–You mode of discourse and establishes an institution that treats its members as individuals.

When a community, through its language, treats its members as objects (as with voting lists and tax rolls and redlining), the community practices the I­–It mode of discourse and establishes an institution that treats its members as objects.

A community needs institutions that both treat its members as individuals and treats them as objects.

Practice of Caritas

In The Little Way of Ruthie Leming (2014), Rod Dreher writes about a conversation with his brother-in-law where they discussed the community institution of caritas, the caritas demonstrated by Dreher’s parents:

“Your mom and dad never meet a stranger,” [Mike Leming] said. “Once they get to know you, you become family right off, especially if you help them with something. Whatever’s theirs is yours.”[6]

For the Drehers, the charity received from a stranger grants that stranger automatic entry into the Drehers’ community—so that the stranger becomes no longer a stranger but a familiar. The cost of entry into this community is neither an indulgence to pay for prior debts, nor a bribe to pay for present greed, nor a desert to satisfy modern members of the meritocracy. Perhaps the institution of the Drehers caritas could be called a caritascracy.

This institutional mechanism of caritas’cracy functions in the I–You mode of language. It is achieved when one individual charitably encounters another. It occurs when we speak and listen to each other rather than over or at each other.

No matter the neologism, the institution of the Drehers charity (and their response to the charity of others), confronts one of principle anxieties of C. S. Lewis’s life: the resentment that comes with any in-group/out-group dynamic. As Lewis lectured his students:

When you had climbed up to somewhere near it by the end of your second year, perhaps you discovered that within the Ring there was a Ring yet more inner, which in its turn was the fringe of the great school Ring to which the house Rings were only satellites. It is even possible that the School Ring was almost in touch with a Masters’ Ring. You were beginning, in fact, to pierce through the skins of the onion….

One of the most dominant elements [of Life] is the desire to be inside the local Ring and the terror of being left outside…. This desire is one of the great permanent mainsprings of human action…. [But] As long as you are governed by that desire you will never get what you want. You are trying to peel an onion: if you succeed there will be nothing left….

You were not looking for virtue or kindness or loyalty or humour or learning or wit or any of the things that can be really enjoyed. You merely wanted to be “in”. And that is a pleasure than [sic., that] cannot last. As soon as your new associates have been stalled to you by custom, you will be looking for another Ring. The rainbow’s end will still be ahead of you. The old Ring will now be only the drab background for your endeavour to enter the new one.[7]

When the Dreher’s daughter Ruthie dies, the wonderful life she lived as an individual made her death from terminal illness all the more meaningful to the community:

It was an evening of beer drinking, country dancing, and merrymaking, the likes of which there had been far too little of since that awful day in February. For Ruthie this was an It’s a Wonderful Life moment as the people of the parish took the opportunity to show her and tell her what a difference she had made in their lives. At the end of the evening, over a thousand people had come through the gates, and the people of our little country parish had raised forty-three thousand dollars for Ruthie Leming. “This is how it’s supposed to be,” an old friend said to me that night, looking out over the crowd. “This is what folk are supposed to do for each other.”[8]

This is what Buber was getting at when he realized the common joy of the soul is the foundation of genuine community.[9]

How must a community thrive if it must use institutions to achieve its intentions—when to use institutions means encountering and engaging with the inherent resentment of all in-group/out-group dynamics? As Dreher reminds us, we cannot recreate Eden,[10] but the caritas’cracy of the elder Drehers may point us the way forward.

NOTES

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[1] For philosopher John Searle, meaning is derived intentionality (Freedom and Neurobiology NY: Columbia UP. 2007. p. 8). And: “Intentionality essentially involves the representation of conditions of satisfaction,” (“Language and Social Ontology,” Theory and Society. Vol. 37. No. 5. (October 2008.) 443–59 at 445).

[2] See Peirce:

Finally, as what anything really is, is what it may finally come to be known to be in the ideal state of complete information, so that reality depends on the ultimate decision of the community; so thought is what it is, only by virtue of its addressing a future thought which is in its value as thought identical with it, though more developed. In this way, the existence of thought now depends on what is to be hereafter; so that it has only a potential existence, dependent on the future thought of the community. (“Some Consequences of Four Incapacities.” Journal of Speculative Philosophy. Vol. 2. 1868. 140–157. (http://www.peirce.org/writings/p27.html.))

Compare de Saussure:

The signal, in relation to the idea it represents, may seem to be freely chosen. However, from the point of view of the linguistic community, the signal is imposed rather than freely chosen. Speakers are not consulted about its choice. Once the language has selected a signal, it cannot be freely replaced by any other. There appears to be something rather contradictory about this. It is a kind of linguistic Hobson’s choice. What can be chosen is already determined in advance. No individual is able, even if he wished, to modify in any way a choice already established in the language. Nor can the linguistic community exercise its authority to change even a single word. The community, as much as the individual, is bound in its language. (Course in General Linguistics. edited by Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye with the collaboration of Albert Riedlinger; translated and annotated by Roy Harris. London: G. Duckworth. 1983. p. 71.)

And compare Searle:

A way to come to see this point is to ask oneself, what is the difference between regarding an object as an instance of linguistic communication and not so regarding it? One crucial difference is this. When I take a noise or a mark on a piece of paper to be an instance of linguistic communication, as a message, one of the things I must assume is that the noise or mark as a natural phenomenon like the wind in the trees or a stain on the paper, I exclude it from the class of linguistic communication, even though the noise or mark may be indistinguishable from spoken or written words. Furthermore, not only must I assume the noise or mark to have been produced as a result of intentional behavior, but I must also assume that the intentions are of a very special kind peculiar to speech acts. (Speech Acts: an Essay in the Philosophy of Language. Cambridge UP. 1969§ 1.4, pp. 16–17.)

[3] Based on the work of Martin Buber. Buber’s I–You and I–It modes of linguistic discourse are two examples of collective intentionality. According to Buber, the world itself is not twofold but the human world is twofold for humans. Con artists hook their victims by speaking to the mark as if in I–You mode, when all along they were playing the language game of the I–It mode on the victim (Ich und Du. (I and Thou.) 1923. Translated by Walter Kaufmann. Scribner: NY. 1970. I § 1).

The I–You mode of discourse marks a relation between two humans being; this mode expresses the ratio between two individuals. One human does not divide the other, but the two humans stand in dynamic reciprocity to one another (I and Thou I § 5).

Genuine conversation, and therefore every actual fulfillment of relation between men, means acceptance of otherness (Buber, The Knowledge of Man: a Philosophy of the Interhuman. Translated by Maurice Friedman and Ronald Gregor Smith. Harper & Row: NY. 1966. p. 69). Buber points out how we speak over each other rather than to each other—we must practice directness rather than “speechifying” and placating to “a fictitious court of appeal,” (Knowledge of Man 78–79). Moreover:

Man exists anthropologically not in his isolation, but in the completeness of the relation between man and man; what humanity is can be properly grasped only in vital reciprocity. (Knowledge of Man 84)

A person becomes an I through the You mode of discourse (I and Thou I § 28). Or as Gregory Bateson once put it, “It takes two to know one,” (Nachmanovitch, Stephen. “Gregory Bateson: Old Men Ought to be Explorers.” Leonardo, Vol. 17. No. 2. (1984.) 113–118 at 113).

[4] Compare Searle:

Institutions always consist in constitutive rules (practices, procedures) that have the form X counts as Y in context C… The Y term imposes a new status on the phenomenon named by the X term, and the new status carries with it a function that cannot be performed just by virtue of the intrinsic physical features named by the X term. The function requires the status in order that it be performed, and the status requires collective intentionality, including a continued acceptance of the status with its corresponding function. (The Construction of Social Reality. NY: Simon and Schuster. 1995. p. 114).

Compare Searle critic Philia Mfundo Msimang:

Whereas singular intentionality is generally construed as a unidirectional force from the agent to the world (viz., imposing one’s will on a state of affairs), collective intentionality is a bidirectional force from the point of view of any participating agent because it both guides and restricts each agent’s action while, at the same time, being bolstered and influenced by each respective agent’s own actions. In this context, individual intentionality is derivative of the group or collective intentionality….

All social institutions are founded on a symmetrical agreement (by which I mean mutual recognition), and this entails not only that people have to hold the same intentionality but that they must hold this intentionality fundamentally in relation to one another’s intentionality. What I mean by this is that there is no sense to collective intentionality outside its relation to, and satisfaction by, another individual’s intentionality. Collective intentionality cannot be satisfied by respective individual intentionalities but has its conditions of satisfaction defined by a symmetrical relationship between intentionalities. (“Living in One World: Searle’s Social Ontology and Semiotics.” Signs and Society. Vol. 2. No. 2. (Fall 2014.) 173–202 at 181–82.)

[5] Dreher, Rod. The Little Way of Ruthie Leming: a Small Town, and the Secret of a Good Life. NY: Grand Central Publishing. 2013.p. 45.

[6] Dreher, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming p. 47.

[7] Lewis, C.S. “The Inner Ring – Memorial oration at King’s College, London, 1944.” They Asked for a Paper. London: G. Bles. 1962.” pp. 141–142, 145, 147, and 148.

[8] Dreher, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming p. 135. See also later (200–03) when Ruthie’s piety prevented her funeral from becoming a dreary affair and instead rendered it into a celebration.

[9] Buber, Meetings: Martin Buber. Edited by Maurice Friedman. La Salle, IL: Open Court Publishing Co. 1973. p. 39.

[10] Dreher, How Dante Can Save Your Life: the Life-Changing Wisdom of Historys Greatest Poem. NY: Regan Arts. 2015. p. 265.


Mar 11 2016

Wendell Berry at South by Southwest

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Rod Dreher often refers to the work of Wendell Berry, as in this instance from The Little Way of Ruthie Leming:

When a community loses its memory, its member no longer know one another,” writes the agrarian essayist Wendell Berry. “How can they know one another if they have forgotten or have never learned one another’s stories? If they do not know one another’s stories, how can they now whether or not to trust one another? People who do not trust one another do not help one another, and moreover they fear one another. And this is our predicament now.” [1]

Now, according to Gracy Olmstead at The American Conservative, Austin filmmaker Laura Dunn has made a documentary about Berry that’s to debut at South by Southwest:

The Seer, a new documentary about writer Wendell Berry, set to be released at Austin’s South by Southwest Festival on Saturday. The film is co-produced and directed with her husband, Jef Sewell, and backed by executive producers Terrence Malick and Robert Redford, as well as several co-producers including Nick Offerman (fondly known as Ron Swanson on the TV comedy series “Parks and Rec”).

Berry is a Kentucky-born farmer and philosopher, essayist and poet, environmental activist and localist. He’s written fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, and has been the recipient of a Guggenheim fellowship, the National Humanities Medal, and the Richard C. Holbrooke Distinguished Achievement Award.

Read the whole thing over here.

NOTES

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[1] Dreher, Rod. The Little Way of Ruthie Leming: A Southern Girl, a Small Town, and the Secret of a Good Life. NY: Grand Central Publishing. 2013. p. 208.


Mar 7 2016

SONG OF THE SOUTH: manhood, hunters, and hucksters

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In his book How Dante Can Save Your Life (2015), Rod Dreher talks about a childhood family hunting outing in rural Louisiana gone wrong:

I froze in horror. I had killed many squirrels before, and some were not fully dead when they fell from the tree. I would pick them up by their tails and bash their skulls against a tree to put them out of their misery. It was unpleasant but no big thing…. I looked up from the ground at my father and my sister. Ruthie burst into laughter. Daddy screwed his face up in disgust and growled, “You sissy.” [1]

Upon rereading this passage, it reminded me of an episode in Robert Dalleck’s 2001 biography A Life Unfinished: John F. Kennedy, 19171963 that describes one of LBJ and RFK’s first encounters in rural Central Texas:

The logical choice [for a running mate] seemed to be Lyndon Johnson. At a personal level, the Kennedys were not well-disposed toward him. He had said harsh things about Jack and Joe and antagonized Bobby by rejecting his father’s suggestion of an LBJ-JFK ticket in 1956. In November 1959, when Jack had sent Bobby to see Johnson at his Texas ranch to ask if he was running, Johnson, in some peculiar test of manhood or as a way of one-upping the Kennedys, insisted that he and Bobby hunt deer. When Bobby was knocked to the ground and cut above the eye by the recoil of a shotgun Johnson had lent him, Johnson exclaimed, “Son, you’ve got to learn to handle a gun like a man.” It was an indication of his low regard for the whole Kennedy clan…[2]

Who goes deer hunting with a shotgun?! Nonetheless, compare all of the above to several separate moments in Elmer Gantry (1927) and its rural Midwestern, rather than Southern, take on violence and Christianity:

Though Elmer detested Eddie’s sappiness, though he might have liked to share drinks with the lively young baker-heckler, there was no really good unctuous violence to be had except by turning champion of religion. The packed crowd excited him, and the pressure of rough bodies, the smell of wet overcoats, the rumble of mob voices. It was like a football line-up….[3]

[And Rev. Judson Roberts said to Elmer Gantry:] “You bet, Hell-cat! I’m willing to fight you for the glory of God! God needs you! Can you think of anything finer for a big husky like you than to spend his life bringing poor, weak, sick, scared folks to happiness? Can’t you see how the poor little skinny guys and all the kiddies would follow you and praise you and admire you, you old son of a gun? Am I a sneaking Christian? Can you lick me? Want to fight it out?” …. [4]

“That’s right,” agreed Elmer Gantry. “Say, I had–I was holding a meeting at Grauten, Kansas, last summer, and there was a big boob that kept interrupting, so I just jumped down from the platform and went up to him, and he says, ‘Say, Parson,’ he says, ‘Can you tell us what the Almighty wants us to do about prohibition, considering he told Paul to take some wine for his stomach’s sake?’ ‘I don’t know as I can,’ I says, ‘but you want to remember he also commanded us to cast out devils!’ and I yanked that yahoo out of his seat and threw him out on his ear, and say, the whole crowd–well, there weren’t so awfully many there, but they certainly did give him the ha-ha! You bet. And to be husky makes a hit with the whole congregation, men’s well as women. But there’s more’n one high-toned preacher that got his pulpit because the deacons felt he could lick ’em. Of course praying and all that is all O.K., but you got to be practical! We’re here to do good, but first you have to cinch a job that you can do good in!” [5]

 

NOTES

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[1] Dreher, Rod. How Dante Can Save Your Life: the Life-Changing Wisdom of Historys Greatest Poem. NY: Regan Arts. 2015. p. 11.

[2] Dalleck, Robert. A Life Unfinished: John F. Kennedy, 19171963. NY: Little and Brown. 2001. p. 269.

[3] Lewis, Sinclair. Elmer Gantry. NY: Harcourt, Brace & Co. 1927. “Chapter I,” 17.

[4] Lewis, Elmer Gantry, “Chapter III,” 39–40.

[5] Lewis, Elmer Gantry, “Chapter VI,” 83.

 


Feb 3 2016

American Phones, American Cars

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Over at The American Conservative, Rod Dreher responds to the horrors of Virginia with a discussion of how he hasn’t yet let his children have cell phones–which is fine–I wasn’t allowed to watch R-rated movies till high school. Dreher writes:

I don’t have the time or the skills to monitor everything my kids would get into on their smartphones, if they had them, and access to social media. But you know what? Why should I. They are nine and 12 years old. They have no business with smartphones, Instagram accounts, Facebook, Snapchat, and all the rest. They are not ready for those things. I certainly would not have been at that age. You give your kids a smartphone with access to the Internet and social media, you are handing them grenades.

I am curious what sorts of things Dreher’s parents, and people of my grandparents’ generation, would have or actually did ban/abstain/limit/withhold/censor from their own children? Was it the keys to the car? As geographer Yi-Fu Tuan has recently pointed out in Why Place Matters: Geography, Identity, and Civic Life in Modern America (2014):

The closest thing Americans have to an identity card is their driver’s license—a card that gives them license to drive into the blue yonder and there discover who they are and can be.[1]

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NOTES

[1] Tuan, “Place/Space, Ethnicity/Cosmos: How to be More Fully Human” Why Place Matters. Edited by Wilfred M. McClay and Ted V. McAllister. NY: New Atlantis Books. 2014.  p. 115.

 


Jan 27 2016

GERMANS, JEWS, & SOUTHERNERS: Knowing Your Place & Knowing Your Purpose

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In both The Little Way of Ruthie Leming (2013) and How Dante Can Save Your Life (2015) Rod Dreher writes about experiencing exile from his Louisianan hometown, an exile that had been imposed upon him. Yet, perhaps some of that exile was self-imposed, for Dreher is not a prophet:[1]

For the first time in all my life I was going home and [my sister] Ruthie would not be there. Ruthie, the anchor, the fastness, the tower and the ark that would carry our West Feliciana family into another generation. Long ago I accepted that I would never settle there, and I always felt ever more free to roam the world over, knowing that Ruthie would always be present on the ridge in Starhill…. There has never been a time in my life when I have not acutely felt that I was disappointing my father…. The cold war between my father and me.[2]

These feelings Dreher shares––“the cold war between my father and me”––compare well to an early conversation in Chaim Potok’s novel The Chosen (1967) where two high school boys discuss the relationship one of boys, Daniel, has with his father Reb Saunders, the chief tsaddik (or righteous man) in their Polish-Hasidic-American community:

“My father doesn’t write,” Danny said. “He reads a lot, but he never writes. He says that words distort what a person really feels in his heart. He doesn’t like to talk too much, either. Oh, he talks plenty when we’re studying Talmud together. But otherwise he doesn’t say much. He told me once he wishes everyone could talk in silence.”

“Talk in silence?”

“I don’t understand it, either,” Danny said, shrugging. “But that’s what he said.”

“Your father must be a quiet man.” [3]

Both Potok’s fiction and Dreher’s nonfiction use the conflict between family members—particularly the angst between fathers and sons––to illustrate a  cultural severance experienced between silence and space, a spiritual chasm between purpose and place larger than just their individual experiences. And the notion of speaking in silence reminds me of a dictum from Gershom Scholem: “teaching is transmitted in silence—not by silence”[4] as well as Oscar Wilde’s just observation:

Education is an admirable thing, but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth knowing can be taught.[5]

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This disjunction between an individual’s place to live and that individual’s purpose for living isn’t just a problem that emerged in the middle of the twentieth and early twenty-first century America. The conflict of family and place may not be anthropologically universal, but it can easily be found when kicking over stones and thumbing through books.

It can, for example, be found in late nineteenth-century Northern Germany, as in Thomas Mann’s novel Buddenbrooks: the Decline of a Family (1901) where the character of Toni Buddenbrook and her choice of an unsuitable fiancé––unsuitable in terms of the community and culture of Lübeck and its old family of the Buddenbrooks––leads to a letter containing a tender rebuke from her father the Consul:

We are not born, my dear daughter, to pursue our own small personal happiness, for we are not separate, independent, self-subsisting individuals, but links in a chain; and it is inconceivable that we would be what we are without those who have preceded us and shown us the path that they themselves have scrupulously trod, looking neither to the left nor to the right, but, rather, following a venerable and trustworthy tradition.[6]

The point of view of Consul Buddenbrook is of a successful mercantile capitalist and statesman, and no doubt his particular brand of nineteenth century German conservatism tolerates far less individuality expressed by cheerleaders of American conservatism in the twenty-first century. The Consul expresses a faith in tradition-for-tradition’s sake based on an even deeper faith in the totality of good intentions of his own ancestors, the sound examples of his fellow citizens of Lübeck, as well as the experiences of all of that community’s past ancestors.

While the example from Thomas Mann offers a reply from the father, Franz Kafka, in his Letter to My Father (1919) replies as a son. Kafka uses an image of two ladder-climbers to illustrate the non-relationship shared between his father Hermann (a middleclass merchant businessman of Prague) and himself:

It is as if one person [you my father] had to climb five low steps and another person [myself] only one step, but one that is, at least for him, as high as all the other five put together; the first person will not only manage the five, but hundreds and thousands more as well, he will have led a great and very strenuous life, but none of the steps he has climbed will have been of such importance to him as for the second person that one, firstly high step, that step which it is impossible for him to climb even by exerting all his strength, that step which he cannot get up on and which he naturally cannot get past either.[7]

Both Kafka as the nonfictionalized writing-son and Mann as the fictionalized writing-father (Buddenbrook) act as teachers trying to impart lessons to students where the student-reader plays counterpart to the teacher-writer. Herr Buddenbrook knows his place as Consul of Lübeck. Kafka knows his place in relation to his father––perhaps he also perceives his own position (or imposition) within his immediate Jewish community––and Kafka knows he is confined to a low altitude, stuck looking upward at an unreachable rung on a ladder that progresses ever onward.

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If you don’t know your place, you’re agnostic about your environment. But for some, like Wilfred M. McClay in his introductory essay for Why Place Matters (2015), the knowledge and awareness in the United States of our past problems of conceptualizing and altering Place aren’t relevant to modern times:

Many of us can still remember when the idea of “knowing your place” was used to promote racial segregation and the social and legal subordination of women. But very little of that is relevant anymore, and it would be a grave error to think that the problems of the past are the same as those today.[8]

As demonstrated by Dreher’s cold war, Potok’s talking in silence, Mann’s trustworthy tradition, and Kafka’s unreachable ladder, today’s problems, while certainly not the same, most definitely share a family resemblance to problems of yore.[9] For when it comes to things like the lingering aftereffects of redlining districts by race––particularly in my own community of Austin, Texas[10]––unlike McClay, I don’t see how even old ideas about “knowing your place” cannot be relevant. (And no, “relevant” isn’t a code word meaning “successful” or “worthy” or “meeting my approval.”)

“The past,” said Faulkner, “isn’t the past; it’s not even over.” For the individual today in Texas in 2016 both a knowledge and awareness of the place where one lives emerge as  inescapable tropes that might best be rendered: if we don’t know our place, then we certainly know our placelessness. Yes, Bard Willie, we are all “on the road again,” but this time (as in all times) we don’t know where we’re going:

 

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NOTES

[1] Mark 6:4: “But Jesus said unto them, A prophet is not without honour, but in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house.”

[2] Dreher, Rod; The Little Way of Ruthie Leming: a Southern Girl, a Small Town, and the Secret of a Good Life. NY: Grand Central Publishing. 2013. 176–77; How Dante Can Save Your Life: the LifeChanging Wisdom of Historys Greatest Poem. NY: Regan Arts. 2015. 7, 11.

[3] Potok, Chaim. The Chosen. NY: Simon and Schuster. 1967. Fawcett Crest Book reprint. June 1968. 72.

[4] Weidner, Daniel. “Reading Gershom Scholem.” The Jewish Quarterly Review. Vol. 96. No. 2. (Spring 2006.) 203–31 at 208–09.

[5] Wilde, Oscar. “The Critic as Artist: Parts I.” Intentions. London: Osgood, McIlvaine. 1891.

[6] Mann, Thomas. Buddenbrooks: the Decline of a Family. (Buddenbrooks: Verfall einer Familie.) Berlin: S. Fischer. 1901. Translation by John E. Woods. NY: Knopf. 1993. III, x, 130–31.

[7] Kafka, Franz. Letter to his Father. (Brief An Den Vater.) Translated by Ernst Kaiser and Eithne Wilkins. NY: Schocken. 1971. 99.

[8] McClay, Wilfred M. “Introduction: Why Place Matters.” Why Place Matters. Edited by McClay and Ted V. McAllister. NY: New Atlantis Books. 2014. 6.

[9] Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Philosophical Investigations. Translated by G.E.M. Anscombe. Oxford: Blackwells. 1953. I, 66, 67.

[10] See the recent series from the Austin Chronicle:

 

 

 

 


Jan 19 2016

WINNING THE GAME ISN’T THE SAME AS RECEIVING THE TROPHY

bookbread Canterbury

FIRST THOUGHTS:

Both of Rod Dreher’s books The Little Way of Ruthie Leming (2013) and How Dante Can Save Your Life (2015) deal with, in his words: “my disordered relationship with family and place,” or, as he tells a new friend upon his arrival to their rural Louisiana community:

“Yea, it’s like the family and place thing cast a spell over all of us,” I said. “It’s helpful for me to see them as good people who are just as captive to that false image as I was…. The real religion of our parish is ancestor worship.” [1]

Things like having a family, maintaining sacredness of a local place, even being a secular fan who has a favorite sports team are all means to various ends. Now folks can argue which ends should be prioritized over others like: the Platonic good, self-examined life, or the Christian holy, sanctified life, or the secular American Dream of a house and healthcare insurance, or the quaint life of liberation from illusions. But whatever the end is, it cannot be achieved by substituting the means toward that end for that end. In other words, winning the game isn’t the same as receiving the trophy.

Mistaking means for ends is like mixing up the difference between icons and idols. Whenever means to ends are mistaken for the ends themselves, those means corrupt the progress and corrode access to the particular ends sought. Dreher quotes from Dante translator Andrew Frisardi, who explains the distinction between icons and idols:

[Frisardi writes:] An icon is an image for contemplating a reality that transcends the specific image; the image leads the mind, through the senses, to direct communion with the unintelligibles. An idol is an image to which we are attached for the sake of the image per se. Obviously one and the same object can be an idol or an icon—our approach to it is what makes the difference.

Then Dreher adds:

This insight had clarified earlier to me the nature of my disordered relationship with family and place. Now it expanded my understanding of my basic condition. It wasn’t simply that I saw a family, place, and religion as idols—that is, as ends in themselves—but that my distorted vision prevented me from seeing them as they really were: as icons, damaged, though they may be, through which the light of God shone. They were not ends, but imperfect means to the perfect end: God. [2]

This distinction between idols and icons may sound a bit too abstract to the ears of the non-religious. Another way to think of it is:

The map is not the territory it marks. [3]

Whether secular or religious, mistaking the map for the land it represents is quite common in twenty-first century America. This is why it’s easier to cheer for a football match from afar than to play the game on a field.

 

But the act of mistaking the map for the territory it marks is not limited to contemporary Christian contexts. In his Autobiography the Jewish thinker Salomon Maimon (1753–1800) explained how many Jewish traditions, particularly Kabbalah—originally just a word for “tradition”—were just as susceptible to corruption.

As Maimon puts it:

Originally the Cabbalah was nothing but psychology, physics, morals, politics, and such sciences, represented by means of symbols and hieroglyphs in fables and allegories, the occult meaning of which was disclosed only to those who were competent to understand it. By and by, however, perhaps as the result of many revolutions, this occult meaning was lost, and the signs were taken for the things signified. But as it was easy to perceive that these signs necessarily had meant something, it was left to the imagination to invent an occult meaning which had long been lost. The remotest analogies between signs and things were seized, till at last the Cabbalah degenerated into an art of madness according to method, or a systematic science resting on conceits. [4]

I wonder about the significance of Maimon pointing out that the result of the corruption of Kabballah in eighteenth century rural Poland occurred, in his view, “as the result of many revolutions”—not just a single, drastic change, not an isolated pogrom—implying it takes more than a single catastrophe for a community to forget its sacred stories [5] and thereafter begin mistaking idols for icons and means for ends.

FINAL THOUGHTS

  • An icon is like a map, and idolatry is like mistaking the map for the territory it marks.
  • No doubt folks, whether religious or otherwise, sometimes need maps and icons.
  • Whether one believes they are lost or not, maps offer possibilities—they let us go to new places and become more familiar with places we already know.
  • I know some folks who use maps, some who know the way without a map, some content with being lost, and some content with never knowing they were lost.
  • “Possibility is the deconstruction of contentment.” ––Elizabeth Anscombe [6]
  • Dreher mentions damaged icons—but a damaged treasure map is much more mysterious than one in mint condition.
  • It is a very different experience reading or using a map when one has already visited a territory and reading/using a map when one has never before visited a particular place.
  • A map never contains 100% information.

(To be continued….)

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NOTES

[1] Dreher, Rod. How Dante Can Save Your Life: the Life-Changing Wisdom of Historys Greatest Poem. NY: Regan Arts. 2015. pp. 172, 200.

[2] Ibid, 175–76.

[3] Bateson, Gregory and Mary Catherine Bateson. Angels Fear: Towards an Epistemology of the Sacred. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press Inc. 2005. p.  21; Capra, Fritijof. The Tao of Physics. Boston: Shambhala. Third Edition. 1991. p. 28; Korzybski, Alfred. “A Non-Aristotelian System and its Necessity for Rigour in Mathematics and Physics”, paper presented before the American Mathematical Society at the New Orleans, Louisiana, meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, December 28, 1931. Reprinted in Science and Sanity. 1933. pp. 747–61.

[4] Maimon, Solomon. Autobiography. Translated from the German, with Additions and Notes, by J. Clark Murray. Boston: Cupples & Hurd. 1888. p. 94.

[5] As Dreher puts it:

When a community loses its memory, its member no longer know one another,” writes the agrarian essayist Wendell Berry. “How can they know one another if they have forgotten or have never learned one another’s stories? If they do not know one another’s stories, how can they now whether or not to trust one another? People who do not trust one another do not help one another, and moreover they fear one another. And this is our predicament now.” (The Little Way of Ruthie Leming: a Small Town, and the Secret of a Good Life. NY: Grand Central Publishing. 2013. p. 208)

[6] Anscombe, G.E.M. “You Can have Sex without Children: Christianity and the New Offer.” From Renewal of Religious Structures: Proceedings of the Canadian Centenary Theological Congress. Toronto. 1968. The Collected Philosophical Papers of G. E. M. Anscombe. Vol. III: Ethics, Religion and Politics. Oxford UP. 1982. p. 82.