Cokie Roberts

Cokie Roberts died today. That’s a bigger deal to me than any of the recent Rock’n’Roll deaths.

NPR did a long feature on it, of course. One bit of it  (her remark on how hugely politics has changed) prompted this thought: maybe today’s news is so stultifying because events themselves, especially in government, keep getting stupider and stupider. Just how does one cover Donald Trump intelligently?

Combined with the theory that we get the government we deserve, that’s a bit depressing, no?

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I sought to understand, but it was too hard for me, until I went into the sanctuary of God; then understood I their end.

(Psalm 72:15-17, Adapted from the Miles Coverdale Translation, from A Psalter for Prayer)

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You can read most of my more impromptu stuff at here. It should work in your RSS aggregator, like Feedly, should you want to make a habit of it.

I highly recommend as a crazy-easy alternative to Twitter (if you’re just looking to get your stuff “out there” and not pick fights).

John Paul Stevens

I write a second time to note the death of Justice John Paul Stevens. I withdrew the first, this morning, because, almost as soon as I published it, details came back to me that I thought I had forgotten.

My first stab at it.

As noted by Prof. Friedman and five scholars whose work he links at Religion Clause, Justice Stevens was a big fan of our fabled church-state separation, so he caught my motivated attention.

What I can add as a particular sort Christian believer is that Stevens’ reasoning in his opinions did not seem remotely to apprehend what it means to be integrally religious — religious in a way that become part of one’s very identity. His lamentable judicial characterizations of religion frequently struck me as tone-deaf and micro-aggressive. It was as if religion were a hobby like bridge or golf, but markedly less intelligent and quite unworthy of the Right People.

What later came to me was a more detailed account of wherein his view of religion went awry.

Justice Stevens seemed to view religion more or less as LARPing: religious people are in a role-playing game in which a putative (if not punitive) god, our gamemaster, has set the rules, some of which are quite arbitrary. They are, however, The Rules, and some people really, really get into the game, and think that they will suffer terribly through eternity if they break those rules (Don’t ask too many questions. Just believe.). For some reason, probably related to how deadly serious some people are about it, our Founders privileged religious LARPing in the First Amendment.

Integral Christianity (I can’t speak for any other religion, and can speak only second-hand of LARP Christianity), in contrast, thinks that the “one God … almighty, creator of … all things visible and invisible,” has created and invited us into a reality, parts of which we cannot see or conclusively prove. Our loving God has not laid down arbitrary rules for slavish observance, but relates to us lovingly in ways variously analogized to marriage, adoption — even “partaking of the divine nature.”

Integrally Christian people, in short, think they are the true “reality-based community.” They realize that not everybody can perceive the reality. They realize that some (like me) have had no visions or ecstasies or direct revelations and are operating, more or less, on faith — having seen just enough to make faith itself reasonable.

In Justice Stephens’ defense, there’s a depressingly large proportion of LARPers among self-identified religious people. I’ve fulminated about it before, under the rubric of Nominalism versus Realism, and Realism is foundational to Natural Law thought as well.

I don’t think I had acquired even a rudimentary vocabulary of Nominalism versus Realism when Justice Stevens was alive and writing, but I knew that how he described religiosity rang false to how I lived it. He’s entitled to his own opinion, but he’s not entitled to his own facts.

I have never, as best I can recall, read or heard anyone else remark on the oddity of Justice Stevens’ characterizations of what it means to be religious, on the Nominalism he assumed, over against Realism. I never even heard, as best I can recall, anyone else remark on his strange compulsion to provide a gratuitous metanarrative of “religion,” a term so diverse that angels fear to define it.

I consider that academic silence a bad omen for religious liberty cases in the future, for Justice Stevens’ metanarrative of religion would surely subordinate it just about any “right” rooted in something deemed essential, not accidental.

I was happy when Justice Stevens retired, but I cannot allow myself to be happy about anyone’s death. That’s less because my faith commands me against it than because the way reality works is that grudges that deep would deface my soul.

I doubt that he’d have understood that distinction.

R.I.P. anyway.


As if it weren’t enough to write this, then pull it down and re-write, I now cite with delight a better description of integral/classical Christianity from Fr. Stephen Freeman, as well as my commentary on it as a supplement to this blog entry.

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You can read most of my more impromptu stuff at here. It should work in your RSS aggregator, like Feedly, should you want to make a habit of it.

I highly recommend as a crazy-easy alternative to Twitter (if you’re just looking to get your stuff “out there” and not pick fights).

Rachel Held Evans, R.I.P.


“When I left church at age 29, full of doubt and disillusionment,” she wrote in that piece, “I wasn’t looking for a better-produced Christianity. I was looking for a truer Christianity, a more authentic Christianity.”

Elizabeth Dias and Sam Roberts, Rachel Held Evans, Voice of the Wandering Evangelical, Dies at 37.

When I paid attention to her, which wasn’t often, I didn’t agree with Rachel Held Evans on much. I was much more a cynic than a fan. But that quote seems to be in the right ballpark (with the caveat that by “church” she meant standard-issue Evangelicalism). Thus,

instead of throwing out God or church, Rachel demonstrated a robust Christian faith outside the bounds of evangelicalism. She showed that that world’s gatekeepers, its voracious “discernment bloggers,” don’t have the final say about one’s standing before Christ.

Katelyn Beaty, Instead of throwing out God or church, Rachel Held Evans demonstrated a robust Christian faith.

She seemed, in her short, controversial life, to illustrate Psalm 139:

7 Where can I go from Your Spirit?
Or where can I flee from Your presence?
8 If I ascend into heaven, You are there;
If I make my bed in hell, behold, You are there.
9 If I take the wings of the morning,
And dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
10 Even there Your hand shall lead me,
And Your right hand shall hold me.
11 If I say, “Surely the darkness shall fall on me,”
Even the night shall be light about me;
12 Indeed, the darkness shall not hide from You,
But the night shines as the day;
The darkness and the light are both alike to You.

Disillusioned by Evangelicalism, which has a lot to be disillusioned about, she did not give up Christ. Perhaps, as Teilhard de Chardin put it (in an aphorism I once had on my college apartment wall, but cannot now find), for her “… it is blessedly impossible to escape from You.”

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You can read most of my more impromptu stuff at here. It should work in your RSS aggregator, like Feedly, should you want to make a habit of it.

I highly recommend as a crazy-easy alternative to Twitter (if you’re just looking to get your stuff “out there” and not pick fights).

Mikhail Kalashnikov and culpability

Mikhail Kalashnikov, Creator of the AK-47, has died at age 94. He had little formal education, describing himself as a tinkerer. But he was an engineer at heart.

How many – millions? tens of millions? – have died, pierced by projectiles from the tens of millions of his creations? How much moral culpability should we assign to engineering sorts for the consequences of their creations?

I suggest that in all but extraordinary cases, we (whose job it isn’t to assign moral culpability anyway) shouldn’t assign much.

The world’s fraught with unintended consequences. Russia had legitimate enemies. His creation arrived a bit too late to to contribute to the defeat of Hitler, the starring role in which defeat arguably was Russia’s, but defending themselves and their citizens is what governments do. And a citizen who creates so fine a work as the AK-47 is reported to be deserves a true patriot’s fame.

Not so someone who compliantly, say, designed a gas chamber cunningly disguised as a mass shower. That’s the extraordinary case I had in mind.

Robert Oppenheimer? Maybe we should go back to Kalashnakov.

Still, I can’t bring myself to a full-throated “Memory Eternal!”

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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.

Idea du jour: the pre-obituary

What a dreary afternoon for a holiday! I needed a pick-me-up, and P.J. O’Rourke provided it.

O’Rourke has a great idea for reviving the newspaper biz, which desparately needs great ideas and revival: the pre-obituary:

What I propose is “Pre-Obituaries”—official notices that certain people aren’t dead yet accompanied by brief summaries of their lives indicating why we wish they were.

The main advantage of the Pre-Obit over the traditional obituary is the knowledge of reader and writer alike that the as-good-as-dead people are still around to have their feelings hurt. It was a travesty of literary justice that we waited until J. D. Salinger finally hit the delete key at 91 before admitting that Catcher in the Rye stinks. The book’s only virtue is that it captures, with annoying accuracy, the maunderings of a twerp. The book’s only pleasure is in slamming the cover shut—simpler than slamming the door shut on a real Holden Caulfield, if less satisfying. The rest of Salinger’s published oeuvre was precious or boring or both. But we felt constrained to delay saying so, perhaps because of an outdated Victorian hope for a death-bed flash of genius.

Let us wait no more. With the Pre-Obituary we can abandon pusillanimous constraint and false hope and say what we think about the lives of public nuisances when their lives are not yet a dead letter. And we won’t be stuck in the treacle of nostalgia and sentiment. We won’t find ourselves saying of some oaf, “His like will not pass this way again.” Or, if we do say it, we can comfortably add, “Thank God!” The precept of Diogenes isn’t “Do not speak ill of the living.”

Think of the opportunities we’ve missed already….

By O’Rourke’s lights, several notables besides Salinger needed pre-obituaries, but we blew the chance:

  • Beatrice Arthur
  • Paul Newman
  • John Kenneth Galbraith
  • Ted Kennedy

But we’re not too late for some others:

  • Jimmy Carter
  • Gore Vidal
  • Noam Chomsky
  • Norman Lear
  • Ed Asner
  • Ben Bradlee
  • Ross Perot
  • Ted Turner
  • Jane Fonda
  • Barney Frank
  • Harry Reid
  • Bernie Sanders
  • Christopher Dodd
  • Bernadine Dohrn
  • Bill Ayers
  • Andrew Lloyd Webber
  • Donald Trump
  • Paul Krugman
  • Ben & Jerry
  • Keith Richards
  • Mick Jagger
  • Janet Jackson

I might quibble with  few on that list, but overall, it’s target-rich.