Miscellany

From the official U.S. Department of Justice account:

During this sacred week for many Americans, AG Barr is monitoring govt regulation of religious services. While social distancing policies are appropriate during this emergency, they must be applied evenhandedly & not single out religious orgs. Expect action from DOJ next week!

— KerriKupecDOJ (@KerriKupecDOJ) April 12, 2020

Donald Trump has led by example. The example is to announce trivia by Tweet and to put exclamation points at the end.

This is why we can’t have nice things!


Wall Street Journal story headline:

Your Favorite Celebrity Will See You Now

If I cannot think of a “favorite celebrity,” does that make me a bad person?


Cyrus Habib had a good chance of becoming Governor of Washington before age 40, with higher offices likely to come. But he glimpsed his his metastasizing ego and is taking the cure.


Memo to Max Boot:

“President Trump and his loudmouth media enablers” ≠ conservatives.


There has never been an American president as spiritually impoverished as Donald Trump …

Trump is a spiritual black hole. He has no ability to transcend himself by so much as an emotional nanometer. Even narcissists, we are told by psychologists, have the occasional dark night of the soul. They can recognize how they are perceived by others, and they will at least pretend to seek forgiveness and show contrition as a way of gaining the affection they need. They are capable of infrequent moments of reflection, even if only to adjust strategies for survival.

Trump’s spiritual poverty is beyond all this. He represents the ultimate triumph of a materialist mindset. He has no ability to understand anything that is not an immediate tactile or visual experience, no sense of continuity with other human beings, and no imperatives more important than soothing the barrage of signals emanating from his constantly panicked and confused autonomic system.

The humorist Alexandra Petri once likened Trump to a goldfish, a purely reactive animal lost in a “pastless, futureless, contextless void.” This is an apt comparison, with one major flaw: Goldfish are not malevolent …

… With cable news constantly covering the pandemic, he seems to be going through withdrawal. He needs an outlet for his political glossolalia, or his constantly replenishing reservoir of grievance and insecurity will burst its seams.

… Trump begins every one of these disastrous briefings by hypnotically reading high-minded phrases to which he shows no connection. These texts are exercises in futility, but they at least show some sense of what a typical person with friends and a family might want to sound like during a national crisis. Once he finishes stumbling through these robotic recitations, he’s back to his grievances.

… Each of these presidential therapy sessions corrodes us until the moment when the president finally shambles away in a fog of muttered slogans and paranoid sentence fragments.

Daily, Trump’s opponents are enraged by yet another assault on the truth and basic human decency. His followers are delighted by yet more vulgar attacks on the media and the Democrats. And all of us, angry or pleased, become more like Trump, because just like the president, we end up thinking about only Trump, instead of our families, our fellow citizens, our health-care workers, or the future of our country. We are all forced to take sides every day, and those two sides are always “Trump” and “everyone else.”

… As Jennifer Melfi, the psychotherapist for HBO’s fictional mob boss Tony Soprano, realized at the end of the series, when she finally threw him out of her office, counseling someone incapable of reflection or remorse is pointless; it makes the counselor into a worse person for enduring such long exposure to the patient.

Likewise, Trump’s spiritual poverty is making all of us into worse people.

Tom Nichols

And you can repeat such insights only at the cost of still further making it all about Trump.


When I was young, I confess that I didn’t care much about Easter. I mean, I appreciated it. In the semi-abstract way that many young people who’ve been brought up in the church appreciate the resurrection. You believe in it. You don’t really comprehend it. Belief in the resurrection is one of those boxes you check. Virgin birth? Yup. Sinless in life? Sure. Blameless in death? Absolutely. Resurrection? Of course. I’m a Christian, and that’s what Christians believe.

David French

This is exactly where I was when on the cusp of my 20th birthday. How I came out of it is so different than how French came out of it that I can barely relate to his version.

Part of it is intramural: Orthodox Christians versus Reformed Christians (though in musical tastes, French is much more like a mainstream Evangelical than like the Reformed I knew) who used to be Charismatic Christians.On the other hand, my initial “how I came out of it” was into Evangelicalism, and I remember it pretty well. It wasn’t like what French describes.

Part of it is that French seems to have decided to call “resurrection power” any life that changes suddenly and dramatically for the better. Such changes are wonderful, of course, but that’s turning resurrection into something way too metaphoric for my tastes.


75 years ago, FDR died and a nobody became President of the United States. He had no Twitter followers. He’d never even heard of Reality TV. But he was a nobody who understood politics, and took responsibility:

[C]ompare Roosevelt and Truman, hailing, it seems, from different planets. Roosevelt was a New York aristocrat whose forebears owned a chunk of an island called Manhattan, land on which the Empire State Building rose. Reared in mansions, educated at Groton and Harvard, Roosevelt married a favorite niece of a U.S. president, who gave her away at the altar. And here was Truman, a Missouri farm boy, schooled mainly by the stacks of a small-town library. He moved into the White House having never even owned his own home. Mrs. Roosevelt required 20 trucks to vacate the premises; the Truman family just one to move in their belongings.

What the men shared was politics. It’s a dirty word today, as we look for leaders on social media and reality television. Politics isn’t perfect; it smells of swamps and tycoons, elites and establishments, corruption and compromise. Roosevelt and Truman had both inhaled these odors on the way up (for human nature never loses its distinctive scents). They navigated a world dominated by urban political bosses, teaching them that special interests, inside traders, patronage hunters, double-dealers, hypocrites, weaklings and bullies all feature regularly in the public’s business. A leader says no to most but yes to some — enough to make measurable progress for the community.

Politics taught, above all, accountability. Bosses and their candidates made promises before Election Day, then tried to keep enough to be reelected. They sought and embraced responsibility, whether it was Roosevelt saying, during hisfirst inaugural address, that he would shoulder extraordinary risks to confront the Great Depression, or Truman promising that all the world’s buck-passing would end at his desk. Responsibility created a record; a record made for a future.

Not everyone knew it on that stunning April day, but Truman’s leadership had been tested repeatedly during the decades before “the moon, the stars, and all the planets” fell on him, as the new president described his sudden responsibilities. His entry to politics had come thanks to his performance as a captain in World War I; an admiring junior officer was the nephew of the Kansas City boss. Truman’s record of delivering roads on time and below budget boosted him to the Senate. His case to be vice president was helped by his senatorial reputation as the scourge of war profiteers.

Full disclosure: I am a volunteer board member of the foundation that supports Truman’s presidential library. I concur with history’s high opinion of him. But marking this date when his record was yet to be written, I emphasize his pragmatic preparation. Look around: The world is reminding us that politics have consequences and results genuinely matter. A nation run by people without records, who take no responsibility, who claim to be better than politics, is destined to be in a world of trouble.

David Von Drehle


Maritain believed that these challenges needed to be faced with moral clarity and intellectual energy because, at the moment when he was speaking, and on all political sides, education was assuming what he believed to be an unnaturally and inappropriately central role:

As a result of the present disintegration of family life, of a crisis in morality and the break between religion and life, and finally of a crisis in the political state and the civic conscience, and the necessity for democratic states to rebuild themselves according to new patterns, there is a tendency, everywhere, to burden education with remedying all these deficiencies.

In a properly functioning society, those other institutions (family, church, politics broadly conceived) play a role in forming persons for service to the community and for their own inner flourishing. But those institutions had been gravely damaged by those anarchic and despotic forces that he sees as enemies to true personhood. It is surely unfair to expect education to heal such vast and complex afflictions, especially since the very attempt “involves a risk of warping educational work”; moreover, as we have seen, Maritain believed that “the saints and martyrs are the true educators of mankind.” But in these exceptional circumstances “extraneous burdens superadded to the normal task of education must be accepted for the sake of the general welfare.”

It is, however, vital not to accept these “extraneous burdens” on behalf of the state and its interests: “the state would summon education to make up for all that is lacking in the surrounding order in the matter of common political inspiration, stable customs and traditions, common inherited standards, moral unity and unanimity.” But if education is recruited by the state “to compensate for all the deficiencies in civil society,” then “education would become . . . uniquely dependent on the management of the state,” and as a direct consequence “both the essence and the freedom of education would be ruined.” The well-educated person will always and necessarily, in an age afflicted by both anarchic and despotic tendencies, be in tension with the surrounding society: “The freedom enjoyed by education . . . will not be a quiet and easygoing, peacefully expanding freedom, but a tense and fighting one.” There will be, especially in the years following the war, a danger of shaping people not in a “truly human” way, but rather making them merely into “the organ of a technocratic society.” …

The Year of Our Lord 1943: Christian Humanism in an Age of Crisis pp. 129-30


Why am I soooo loving The Year of Our Lord 1943: Christian Humanism in an Age of Crisis?

Partly because I don’t know enough about Maritain, Eliot, Auden and Weil as Christian humanists.

But it surely is partly, as well, because the fundamental issues that we’re dealing with are not all that different, and their insights matter.

Finally, it’s because that era was unlike ours in that there were still Christian Public Intellectuals who were respected. Would that it were still so! (And that, gentle reader, is an appropriate use of an exclamation point.)

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Secularism, I submit, is above all a negation of worship. I stress:—not of God’s existence, not of some kind of transcendence and therefore of some kind of religion. If secularism in theological terms is a heresy, it is primarily a heresy about man. It is the negation of man as a worshiping being, as homo adorans: the one for whom worship is the essential act which both “posits” his humanity and fulfills it.

Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World, Appendix 1

[O]nce you say you are ashamed,
reading the page they hold out to you,
then such light as you have made
in your history will leave you.
They will no longer need to pursue you.
You will pursue them, begging forgiveness,
And they will not forgive you.
There is no power against them.
It is only candor that is aloof from them,
only an inward clarity, unashamed,
that they cannot reach ….

Wendell Berry, Do Not Be Ashamed

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After the wake of a man-boy

More blogging on stuff I’ve been reminded of, again from something I wrote privately almost 5 years ago:

I attended a Wake Thursday, only we don’t call them that any more.

In the coffin was a 32-year-old man-boy. In line as one approached mother and step-father, were scrapbook pictures of his younger versions, beaming with delight at 4th of July sparklers and other such simple pleasures. He “enjoyed listening to music, watching movies, and sharing his contagious joy. He fought the good fight and is awaiting his crown of glory.”

In the coffin was a bearer of the image of God, knees pulled up, wrists permanently bent, teeth crooked, face oddly shaped. Oh, my! I’d forgotten in the years since I last saw him.

He was born on April Fools Day. His syndrome has a dozen sufferers, maybe, world-wide. I don’t know the name. I couldn’t look it up on Google if I did, probably. Who writes about a disease that afflicts only a dozen people or so in the world at a time?

If I want to know about it, we’d better take mom and step-dad to dinner; she’s the world expert. The life expectancy from birth is two years. Did I mention that the man-boy in the coffin was 32?

Step-dad married mom 20 years ago, eyes wide open. She’d have it no other way. Her first husband, her son’s father, headed for divorce court, then “for the hills,” about 31 years, 364 days ago. May God have mercy on him anyway.

Caring for her son was the dominant feature of their lives. Step-dad’s grieving with mom.

Mom’s a teacher. The Middle Schoolers from her school came and sang at the funeral. They returned to school shaken. Some of them had never been to a funeral. Many of them, probably, had never met teacher’s son. If the image of God, twisted and angular, shocked this jaded old curmudgeon, I reckon it was a real eye-opener for them.

Mom and step-dad can’t sleep. The house is too quiet. The life-supporting machinery is off. This respiratory infection, starting like all the others, ended quickly in death despite treatment.

God bless and comfort them. May they have, for their remaining lives and into eternity, all the blessings none of us deserve, but some of us don’t deserve a lot less than others.

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Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

Where I glean stuff.

Tell me about the God you don’t believe in

[W]hat all the atheists, new and old, have in common is a mistaken notion of God, for to a person they construe God as one being among many, an item within the nexus of conditioned things. The roots of this misconception are deep and tangled, stretching back to antiquity, but I would put a good deal of the blame for the present form of the problem on the transition from an analogical to a univocal conception of being, on display in Duns Scotus and especially William of Occam … [I]f, as Scotus and Occam would have it, being is a univocal term, then God and creatures can be considered under the same ontological rubric, and they do indeed belong to an identical genus. This means, in consequence, that God, though he might be described as infinite, is one being among many, an individual alongside other individuals. Occam would state the principle with admirable economy of expression: Praeter illas partes absolutas nulla res est (“Outside of these absolute parts, there is nothing real”).

I realize that this might seem the very definition of medieval hairsplitting, but a great deal hinges on this point. On the analogical reading, all of finite reality participates in the fullness of the actus essendi of God, and hence God and creation cannot be construed as rivals, since they don’t compete for space, as it were, on the same ontological grid. But on the univocal reading, God and creation are competitive, and a zero-sum game does obtain. The Reformers were massively shaped by the nominalist view that came up from Occam, and they therefore inherited this competitive understanding of God’s relationship to the world, which is evident in so much of their speculation concerning justification, grace, and providence. If God is to get all of the glory, the world has to be emptied of glory; if grace is to be fully honored, nature has to be denigrated; if salvation is all God’s work, cooperation with grace has to be denied. When this notion of God became widespread in Europe after the Reformation, it provoked a powerful counter-reaction, which one can see in almost all of the major philosophical figures of early modernity. The threatening God must be explained away (as in Spinoza), fundamentally identified with human consciousness (as in Hegel), internalized as the ground of the will (as in Kant), or shunted off to the sidelines (as in most forms of Deism). In time, the God of late medieval nominalism is ushered off the stage by an impatient atheism that sees him (quite correctly) as a menace to human flourishing. Thus, Feuerbach can say, “Das Nein zu Gott ist das Ja zum Menschen,” and every atheist since has followed him. Jean-Paul Sartre, in the twentieth century, captured the exasperation with the competitive God in a syllogism: “If God exists, I cannot be free; but I am free; therefore, God does not exist.” And Christopher Hitchens has restated the Feuerbach view, observing that believing in God is like accepting permanent citizenship in a cosmic version of North Korea.

I find in my work of evangelization that the competitive God still haunts the imaginations of most people today, especially the young, and this is certainly one reason why the New Atheists have found such a receptive audience. We who would evangelize simply have to become better theologians, that is to say, articulators of the truth about who God is. I would suggest that the best biblical image for God is the burning bush—on fire, but not consumed—which appeared to Moses. The closer the true God comes to a creature, the more radiant and beautiful that creature becomes. It is not destroyed, nor is it obligated to give way; rather, it becomes the very best version of itself. This is not just fine poetry; it is accurate metaphysics. We can find this truth in the narratives concerning David, Saul, and Samuel, wherein God definitively acts, but not interruptively. Rather, he works precisely through the ordinary dynamics of psychology and politics. Nowhere is the God of the burning bush more fully on display than in the Incarnation, that event by which God becomes a creature without ceasing to be God or undermining the integrity of the creature he becomes … “Fully divine and fully human” is intelligible only within a metaphysical framework of non-competition. Feuerbach felt obligated to say no to the Occamist God, but St. Irenaeus, who had the biblical idea of God in his bones, could say, “Gloria Dei homo vivens.”

(Robert Barron, Evangelizing the Nones, emphasis added)

I had to decide what to emphasize, if anything, and this all seemed too rich not to highlight key points.

I finally decided that the most key point was the vehement and colorful push-back against the “competitive god”—the god who, if infinite, makes any shared ontological grid awfully crowded—elicited from atheists who found such a God intolerable … and the contrasting truth about God and humanity.

An apologetics conversation-starter I’ve come to appreciate since becoming Orthodox seems highly relevant: “Tell me about the God you don’t believe in. It’s not unlikely that I don’t believe in him either.”

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Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

Where I glean stuff.