Sunday, 10/19/14

  1. What if few can understand?
  2. Exceeding the low standards of the desperate
  3. Creating growth on the cheap
  4. Help yourself
  5. The Synod’s allure
  6. Thoughts on a vacuous but mellifluous neologism
  7. The living faith of the Ancient Church


By the time this was collection was ready to blog, I was looking at a Sunday release, so I’ll lead with my overall favorite Priest-Blogger, Fr. Stephen Freeman, who recounts his academic encounters with Greek, then Latin. He labored hard, but came to love it – and more:

What I gained from all of that was some cursory knowledge of a few topics – but a much deeper feel and respect for the true labor of scholarship and the actual price of knowledge and mastery.

Parallel to these studies was my beginning work in Holy Scripture. But an obvious conclusion marked that undertaking. Old books are old books. It doesn’t matter what their content may be, they have that much in common. It made no sense to me to treat the Scriptures in a manner that was essentially different than I treated Plato or Thucydides. I did not dismiss the inspiration of the Scriptures, but they remained “old books,” no matter what.

As such, it seemed obvious to me that reading them in their original languages was essential to their understanding. I added Hebrew to my languages while in seminary. Latin and Greek belong to the same great family of languages as English, German, Russian, etc. – the family known as Indo-European. These languages have their own feel and many things that distinguish them, but they share a great deal in common. This is not true of Hebrew. Hebrew is a Semitic language and is nothing like anything in the Indo-European family. It has its own feel – one that cannot be had in translation – and even more impossible if that translation is into a language that belongs to a completely different family.

This same set of learnings applies to the reading of the Fathers. St. Isaac of Syria, for example, belongs to a culture that was Semitic, though influenced by the Hellenistic culture of the Byzantine Greeks. And I could begin here to add layers of complexity. In short order any reasonable person would throw up their hands and say, “Then who can understand?” The honest answer would be, “Few.”

And it is here that our modern world comes crashing to a halt. For there is no more deeply held assumption within our modern mythology than the equality of all. It is the bedrock foundation of the Spirit of Democracy that defines the modern period.

Democracy (and Modernity) can be said to have started with the Protestant Reformation. The principle of Sola Scriptura was essentially a revolution in the concept of spiritual authority. If the Bible is the only authority, and every man can read his Bible, then every man is his own authority. None of the original Reformers intended such a radical revision of the Church, but its internal logic was irrepressible

At the end of all of this it is easy to wonder how anyone can read and interpret anything.

The answer again is truly “very few” can. What makes such a statement so disturbing in our present world is the assumption borne of the modern, democratic spirit that only by reading and interpreting can we be truly saved. This, of course, is necessitated by the spiritual/political faith of modernity.

And it is not true. Most people cannot rightly read and interpret and they have never been able to. They are as much prey to spiritual demagogues as they are to political ones. In today’s world, those demagogues are the masters of consumerism. We “consume” the “message” of Scripture, just as we consume the nostrums of our political leaders. And the spiritual world is today at least as dysfunctional as the political (and for the same reasons).

But our salvation does not depend on our intellect nor on a book rightly read ….

(Emphasis added)

This is deeply countercultural stuff in the West – a truly “unpopular opinion” in a milieu that values little above autonomy and individualism. If the Bible is the only authority, and virtually nobody can read it with proper comprehension, than what’s left of today’s irrepressibly decadent devolution from the Reformation?

Do read the whole thing.


Measured by the low standards of the desperate, the Supreme Court’s 2013–14 term was on the whole a spectacularly good one. The term was, if anything, a relief. In the cases that really mattered, the Court reached the right results and gave support to the rights of dissenters …

The Case of the Term was, of course, Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores. And the Man of the Hour was Justice Samuel Alito, who emerged this year as the most consistent, solid, successful conservative justice on the Court. His opinion for a five-justice majority (Roberts, Scalia, Thomas, and Kennedy) was the most important of the term. Alito did an outstanding job of getting everything right on every critical point while still somehow holding a clean majority together, even the wandering Justice Kennedy. ­Alito’s opinion made slight concessions and hedges, but none that did material damage to principle. Just as ­important, Alito’s opinion was not unduly and ­unhelpfully ­narrow—the flaw of some of the Court’s other major decisions.

(Michael Stokes Paulsen, 2014 Supreme Court Roundup at First Things)

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I’ll note again that Team Obama has an execrable record on religious freedom, and Paulsen nails the point nicely:

What Alito called the government’s “main argument” was even more pernicious: Hobby Lobby was mistaken in thinking that its religious beliefs were actually affected by the government’s policies! The government argued that any destruction of a living embryo ­resulted from an employee’s decision to use the drug in question, not the employer’s health-plan coverage for such drugs. As Alito’s opinion noted, this was essentially an argument that Hobby Lobby had its religious beliefs wrong—an argument so far constitutionally out of bounds as not to be worthy of serious consideration.

The business owners’ beliefs, Alito wrote, ­presented a perennial question of religion and moral philosophy: When is it wrong “to perform an act that is innocent in itself but that has the effect of enabling or facilitating the commission of an immoral act by another”? That moral question is a “difficult and important” one, Alito noted. And it was one that should have been familiar to anyone not thoroughly ignorant of, or insensitive to, religious faith. For the government to simply brush it aside was the height of chutzpah: “Arrogating the authority to provide a binding national answer to this religious and philosophical question, HHS and the principal dissent in effect tell the plaintiffs that their beliefs are flawed.” The religious business owners—not the government—get to decide what their religious beliefs are and what actions would compromise those beliefs.

This is one of the very most important points in the entire Hobby Lobby opinion. It will have ripple effects in dozens of other cases relying on RFRA to challenge the administration’s contraceptive-coverage mandate. Many of those cases involve religious colleges, hospitals, social services, and other ministries. (Churches and other houses of worship are exempted entirely, but not these other religious groups.) The administration had offered fig-leaf “accommodations” to these groups. They need not themselves provide or pay for abortion-drug, contraception, or sterilization coverage for their employees; but they would still need to sign a form directing their insurance providers to do so, ostensibly “separately.”

It is easy enough to see why this Pontius Pilate–like, hand-washing solution might, for many religious persons and groups, be no solution at all. A simple analogy: If I am ordered by government to arrange for the murder of my friend but am then told my religious objection is wholly appeased by my directing a third person that he must arrange the killing instead of me, I should rightly doubt that this solves my moral problem.

The Obama administration, however, feels that its accommodation should satisfy any conceivably justifiable religious objection, or at least any that the administration feels justifiable. Significantly, Hobby Lobby repudiates this view. Just as the government’s “surely-that-does-not-violate-anyone’s-religious-conscience” argument was roundly rejected inHobby Lobby, it should be rejected in parallel instances. Alito’s opinion was, on this point too, a home run for religious liberty.

I remain incredulous that the relatively luminous first amendment religious freedom is being eclipsed by extraconstitutional policy preferences, most notably for sexual autonomy – and in Hobby Lobby, sexual autonomy on your employer’s tab.

There’s a nice baseball metaphor running through Paulsen’s piece for good reason (Justice Alito was a quiet but excellent softball league player back in the day), and the good religious freedom news of the term doesn’t stop with Hobby Lobby.

We’re going to have some real challenges ahead, and one of them will be replacing the next friend of religious liberty who retires with a new justice in the same mold, as the vote is (surprise! surprise!) typically 5-4, conservative friends of religious liberty versus liberal friends of state power with Justice Kennedy in the middle – mostly siding with the conservatives on these issues.


One of many reasons why I identify with the American Conservative magazine is that they’re open to sanity from the likes of Strong Towns’ Chuck Marohn:

America’s suburban experiment is a radical, government-led re-engineering of society, one that artificially inverted millennia of accumulated wisdom and practice in building human habitats. We can excuse modern Americans for not immediately grasping the revolutionary ways in which we restructured this continent over the past three generations–at this point, the auto-dominated pattern of development is all most Americans have ever experienced–but today we live in a country where our neighborhoods are shaped, and distorted, by centralized government policy.

American governments continue to be obsessed with maximizing people’s capacity to travel, even as they ignore minimizing the amount people have to travel. Not only must American families pay the taxes to support this continually-expanding system, but to live in it they are required to purchase, maintain, and store a fleet of vehicles …

The sad reality is that, despite the marketing, the suburbs were never about creating household wealth; they were about creating growth on the cheap …

That we were pawning off the enormous long-term liabilities for serving and maintaining all of these widely dispersed systems onto local taxpayers–after plying municipalities with all the subsidies, pork spending, and ribbon cuttings needed to make it happen–didn’t seem to enter our collective consciousness. When all those miles of frontage roads, sewer and water pipes, and sidewalks fall into disrepair–as they inevitably will in every suburb–very little of it will be fixed. The wealth necessary to do so just isn’t there.

This last point is why I’m irked at an old friend who laments from the left coast that Republicans won’t fix infrastructure. Nobody, and quite soon, will be able to afford fixing infrastructure. And living in a delusion to the contrary is not conservative. It’s not even sanely liberal.


Walk into any Barnes & Noble and it won’t be long before you’re confronted with rows and rows—and rows—of self-help books, all different and yet all the same. They’ll usually have covers with a blown-up torso-up shot of their respective authors, arms crossed, sporting an immensely self-satisfied pearly white grin, or at the very least a knowing, penetrating look. They’ll almost certainly have titles which include colons, such as—and I’m now culling from a random selection of books that have been published within the past few months—“Playing Big: Find Your Voice, Your Mission, Your Message,” “Goals Suck: Why the Obsession with Goal-Setting is a Flawed Approach to Productivity and Life in General” (note that this author is making a valiant effort to be different), “Overworked and Overwhelmed: The Mindfulness Alternative,” and on and on. There are also often numbers involved, because steps are comforting. Joel Osteen is the king of these—“Your Best Life Now Study Guide: 7 Steps to Living at Your Full Potential,” “Become a Better You: 7 Keys to Improving Your Life Every Day,” etc. Even “Religion” and “Theology” sections of bookstores seem to have been encroached upon by this insidious book breed, so much so that I’ve often seen about one hundred titles like, “Sow and Grow: Planting God’s Word and Manifesting a Breakthrough” and only two or three of the spiritual classics a la Thomas a Kempis’s “The Imitation of Christ” or Augustine’s “Confessions”—and those tucked hastily into a corner.

Bianca Czaderna at First Things goes on to encourage us to acquire familiarity with the Christian mystics, who “far surpass and ought to supersede” the self-help twaddle.


I have nothing to say on the substance of the Roman Catholic Synod on the Family today. The Roman Catholics and former Roman Catholics I tend to read are uniformly negative, but the explanations of what’s happening, why it’s happening, and whether Pope Francis meant it to happen this way are pretty varied. The one constant is that Herr Cardinal Kasper’s pants are on fire.

The Synod is a big deal not because I consider the assembled Bishops authoritative, but because they’re a bellewether and because when the mainstream US media aren’t acting as if TV Evangelicalism is true and definitive Christianity, they’re acting as if Roman Catholicism is. That may be in part because there’s a hierarchy that yields photogenic gatherings of ranking officials in a way that Evangelicalism simply cannot.

I thought, by the way, that I had something to agree with on Evangelical Colleges, about which I at least once knew a thing or two, but two professors with Evangelical affiliations clash pretty sharply, and I suspect we may not have heard the last of this debate. I wouldn’t bet against Alan Jacobs, even though I don’t think Evangelicalism is tenable in the end.


Mark Bauerlein has some thoughts on the power of one of the world’s most vacuous neologisms.


Orthodoxy is not some exotic faith for Eastern Europeans or Middle Easterners, but the living faith of the Ancient Church, as relevant in this age as she was in her first century beginnings. Her doors are open to everyone, her protective walls offering shelter and healing to all who seek rest in Christ. She is a ship traveling in troubled waters, on a journey into the Kingdom of God. She is a hospital for the soul, promising wholeness for troubled peoples in an age of darkness.

(Abbott Tryphon)

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“The remarks made in this essay do not represent scholarly research. They are intended as topical stimulations for conversation among intelligent and informed people.” (Gerhart Niemeyer)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.