Thursday, June 25, 2015

"If you aren't for us you're against us"

     It may surprise you (or it may not) that I am not quoting a recent president.  Not at all.

     Rather, I am quoting from a man who wrote these words in 1969, when the Johnson Administration was giving way to the Nixon Administration in this great country of ours.  He wrote them at first privately to himself, and later published them in his well-known and well-respected book, A Continuous Harmony.  The man is Wendell Berry.  I will let him speak in his own words:

May 21
If you aren't for us you're against us, somebody is always saying.  That seems to me a sad little pair of options, insofar as to any kind of intelligence the possibilities ought to be numerous, if not infinite.  Intelligence consists in being for and against such things as political movements up to a point, which it is the task of intelligence to define.  In my judgment intelligence never goes whole hog for anything public, especially political movements.  Across the whole range of politics now (and I suppose always) you find people willing to act on the assumption that there is some simple abstraction that will explain and solve the problems of the world, and who go direct from the discovery of the abstraction to the forming of an organization to promote it.  In my opinion those people are all about equally dangerous, and I don't believe anything they say.*

     I really need to stop the quote now, because there is plenty to digest here already; and as anyone knows who has read Mr. Berry, there is an abundance of wisdom on either side of any snippet, even if that snippet is a long one; and that he put those other words there for a reason, and they really shouldn't be left out.  (You'll need to buy the book.)

     But I cannot resist the desire to add the very next sentence that follows ". . . I don't believe anything they say."  Here it is:

     What I hold out for is the possibility that a man can live decently without knowing all the answers, or believing that he does -- can live decently even in the understanding that life is unspeakably complex and unspeakably subtle in its complexity.*

     Thank you, Wendell Berry, for words that help me to take from them, and from you, more of both humility (I hope) and courage.


* Wendell Berry, A Continuous Harmony: Essays Cultural and Agricultural. (Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint. 2012 edition.) p. 49.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

The Spiritual Charity of C. S. Lewis

     I have for a long time watched with pleasure and gratitude as many of my Evangelical Christian brothers and sisters have discovered and embraced some of the writings of C. S. Lewis -- mainly because I know how much he has meant as an imaginative Christian mentor to me since I discovered him in my very early twenties.  Misery is not the only thing that loves company -- so does Pleasure, and especially Spiritual Pleasure.

     I observe, though, that much of the evangelical embracing of Lewis has focused on his (excellent) spiritual fantasies -- the Chronicles of Narnia, which are then compared and contrasted with the (excellent) Lord of the Rings fantasies of his friend and fellow-writer J. R. R. Tolkien, and the desire (also excellent) to draw from them some useful spiritual relevance to our own individual (or cultural) lives.

     But other of Lewis's writings -- his serious studies of words, language, philosophy, and theology have been relatively neglected by evangelical readers; and I suspect that I know a part of the reason for that:  in some ways his serious (non-fantasy) writings raise some implicit challenges, or at least questions, to some evangelical assumptions or predilections.  One of those assumptions, or predilections, is that evangelical understandings are "righter" than the theological or spiritual understandings of others, and by a tempting logic, then, the "others" are "wronger;" and therefore, again by predilection or presumption, the viewpoints or experiences of "others" are seen as increasingly "inferior," or  "contemptible," or even "damnable."  And thus we have the continual stream of invective and outrage that continues to characterize too much of the evangelical sphere-of-conversation.

     I raise, as a kind of counterpoise, a bit of commentary by Lewis that is contained in one of his less-well-known books, Letters to an American Lady, which was compiled by professor Clyde Kilby of Wheaton College back in the mid-60s. (Lewis's letter which I quote here is from the early 50s).

     First, I should give a bit of background.  Mrs. ------- , the "American lady," (whom Lewis never met), has struck up a correspondence with him.  She has some family problems and some financial problems, and is about to leave the Episcopal communion in favor of the Roman Catholic communion.  Lewis is, of course Anglican (Episcopalian) himself.

     Here comes his response, in his own words.  See if you can spot the point at which modern evangelicals might register disturbance:

Magdalen College,
Nov. 10th 1952

Dear Mrs. -------

     It is a little difficult to explain how I feel that tho' you have taken a way which is not for me I nevertheless can congratulate you -- I suppose because your faith and joy are so obviously increased.  Naturally, I do not draw from that the same conclusions as you -- but there is no need for us to start a controversial correspondence!  I believe we are very near to one another, but not because I am at all on the Rome-ward frontier of my own communion.  I believe that, in the present divided state of Christendom, those who are at the heart of each division are all closer to one another than those who are at the fringes.  I would even carry this beyond the borders of Christianity:  how much more one has in common with a real Jew or Muslim than with a wretched liberalising, occidentalised specimen of the same categories.  Let us by all means pray for one another:  it is perhaps the only form of "work for re-union" which never does anything but good.  God bless you.

Yours most sincerely
C. S. Lewis*

     See the spiritual charity?  See the possible point of disturbance?

     I wish to make my own point clear:  I am not at all -- not at all -- concerned that Lewis has "gone too  far,"  has "thrown away the game,"  "doesn't get it," or has "outright apostatized."  He most certainly has not.

     I am concerned that far too many of my evangelical brothers and sisters might think that. And that in so doing, they would prove C. S. Lewis's point.


* C. S. Lewis.  Letters to an American Lady. Edited by Clyde S. Kilby  (Grand Rapids, Michigan:  William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company: 1967) p. 11.


Monday, June 22, 2015

On This Day 1941

     On this day, 22 June 1941, the war machine that was called Nazi Germany intentionally collided with the war machine that was called the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

     It was not the beginning of the Second World War, but a continuation and expansion of it.  That war had begun in September 1939, according to the history books.  Or, if you take the longer view of Dean Acheson, the war was itself a continuation of the European Civil War which had begun in 1914 when the powder-keg was set off for what would be called World War I.  Or you could think back as far as the Napoleonic Wars.  Or you could take an even longer view, and say . . . you get the idea, I think.

     There were bad guys, and there were bad guys, and there were yet other bad guys.  But however bad they were in 1941, they were even worse by 1945, when the war business shuddered to a halt in the summer of 1945, four very long and very destructive years later.

     There were plenty of bad guys who survived the war.  And there were plenty of "good guys" who didn't.  (Really, they were just ordinary guys -- there were not many of them who were extraordinary saints).  I could paint the horrors in romantic terms, speaking of "maelstroms of war," the "vortex of destruction," the "tragedies of the battlefields," and so forth;  but really, the whole business is better (because more factually) described as a mathematical summation of men conscripted and wounded and killed; women conscripted and raped and killed; children scared and abandoned and killed; war equipment manufactured and perfected and destroyed;  arms factories painstakingly constructed, feverishly worked, and eventually destroyed or abandoned; farms and crops and sheep and cattle and horses devoured; villages smashed; whole cities, both ancient and modern, artilleried and firebombed into smoldering ruins; prisoner-of-war camps that would be filled, and liberated, and emptied, not necessarily in that order.

     European civilization was destroying itself, with the ready assistance of some outsiders.  They served their gods -- whether Mars or Mammon or Molech, I do not know: perhaps it was the entire Unholy Trinity -- and their gods served them up to themselves.

     It has been said that even the best of the battle plans do not survive the first five minutes of contact with the enemy.  The promise of martial glory may, to be sure, survive much longer -- Churchill, at least, seems to have been convinced that it did -- but I do not believe that even martial glory survives to the end of a war, at least not in the minds of those who have suffered through it.  The victory parades, the posthumous bravery medals, and the unctuous speeches are for the benefit of the home folks who have not had to see it:  the war widows, the Rosie Riveters, and the managers of the military-industrial complex who must justify their sacrifices, both real and imagined;  and these, the victory speeches and all the rest, are manufactured and distributed by the Establishments, the elites and their faithful servants in sprawling government offices or chaotic newsrooms.  I was going to say that they were all cynical, but that is not necessarily true -- many may have come to sincerely believe their own propaganda.

     However long the martial glory lasts -- even that martial glory that attaches to the venerable old battle flags in the war museums, and lingers long in the sacred stories of surviving veterans told with tears in the eyes that must be wiped away by the stump of an arm -- graveyards last longer, whether they are national cemeteries, or shallow graves hastily dug and left unmarked, or the Atlantic Ocean.

     But I have gotten ahead of myself.  On that bright summer solstice day in 1941,  when Operation Barbarossa began on the Eastern Front, there were millions of men, women, and children who were not yet dead, wounded, or missing.  The Siege of Leningrad had not yet happened, nor Stalingrad; nor Dresden, nor Hiroshima; nor Pearl Harbor, even.  But they would.

     On this Eastern Front Remembrance Day, it might be well to gather the family and friends around for a re-showing of the movie Enemy at the Gates, in which Jude Law, Ed Harris, Joseph Fiennes, and a large supporting cast portray a part of the Battle of Stalingrad.  You might even let the children watch it:  oh, I know it is rated R for "war violence, and some sexuality," but this:

     Plenty of children had to live (or die) through precisely this, and through much worse than this.

     And, after watching this, the next time you are tempted to glorify war, any war, the children will be primed to ask you the questions that you should have asked, and answered correctly, yourself.

     If there is some member of the Unholy Trinity you secretly worship, remember this:  the Lord of All Worlds has said of Himself, that He will make wars to cease to the ends of the earth.

     And before that good day comes, He has also said, "Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the sons of God."  Let us fully intend to fulfill that good and high calling.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Wendell Berry on Necessity, Mystery, and Ignorance

     I have been reading recently in the book, Wendell Berry, which was published in 1991 by Confluence Press as part of its "American Authors Series," edited by Paul Merchant.  It includes an interview with Wendell Berry.  In this book, he is asked the following question:

     "In 'The Specialization of Poetry,' you wrote of the need for writers to return to the real world in their poetry -- a world in which values are not dated by fashion and older writers live on into the present with the values that endure.  As you have done elsewhere, you mention the importance of 'necessity,' which precedes right action in the world.  But what is the 'mystery'?"

He replies:

     "In that passage I'm not using the word in a theological sense.  I mean by it simply everything that we do not know.  It is now more or less routine, I think, to fear that humans won't acquire or understand human knowledge.  But even more fearful, to me, is the human failure to understand human ignorance.  Not to know that we are ignorant, or to feel it, is to be dangerous, the danger increasing in direct proportion to whatever power an individual may have.  'A little learning is a dangerous thing,' Pope said, and our history has begun to suggest that 'a little learning' means any amount that a human may have.  From a human point of view, the difference between the mind of a human and that of a mountain goat is wonderful; from the point of view of the infinite ignorance that surrounds us, the difference is not impressive.  Indeed, from that point of view, the goat may have the better mind, for he is more congenially adapted to his place, and he would not endanger his species or his planet for the sake of an idea.  As I see it, then, the condition of mystery inescapably implies the necessity of restraint. The great events of our era may all have to do with the democratization of aristocratic vices.  We have now completed the democratization of ostentation and hedonism, and we are well advanced in the democratization of hubris.  A lot of people are now acting on the assumption that they are gods.  Industrial acts of power that seem ordinary to us would have astonished Zeus.  The Pentagon and the Kremlin have far outmoded Milton's war in Heaven.  Dabblers in atoms, genes, toxic chemicals, social, psychological, and anatomical engineering all have promoted themselves far above their intelligence.  One must hope for the democratization of a fear appropriate to the danger, and of a courage appropriate to the fear."

     It has been about a quarter of a century since those words were published, and I here suggest that the situation has not greatly improved.  We do now have the internet available to us (for the moment -- that could change), which has allowed at least a democratization of conversation, which is, in my thinking, a good thing.  I have found blogging and facebooking beneficial in this regard.

     But in a time (the present), in which our world-girdling media have greatly misled us, and in which we have greatly lied to ourselves, I find in his warning about our essential ignorance -- he calls it "the infinite ignorance that surrounds us" -- something that we must take truly to our own hearts.

     And it may be a warning that, having absorbed it ourselves, we ought to pass on -- quietly, perhaps, or firmly, but probably persistently.