The searching soul of Ridley Scott

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Ridley Scott has not always hit the nail on the head when it comes to making films. But when he has, the nail can go straight to the heart of the matter. He seldom gives answers to the mysteries of our existence on this crazy planet but he certainly keeps us asking.

His masterpiece, Blade Runner, can be visited again and again and has enough layers in its composition to keep us coming back to it repeatedly with relish, either for yet another viewing or just in our imagination and memory where, for some of us at least, it will remain embedded forever.

The Martian has ideas but lacks the atmospheric power of Blade Runner. It is still bright star in the rather dark firmament of 21st century film-making to date.

Scott’s new film is Alien: Covenant – a return to the tried and tested franchise which for all its misfits is away above the sci-fi comic-book franchises which have plagued and blighted this great art-form for decades now.

Just released worldwide, the latest Alien is reviewed by David Ives for Aleteia. In it he sees signs of Scott’s further probing of the universe for answers to the overwhelming question: is there or isn’t there a God in the heavens? Ives describes himself in these terms:

In a world he didn’t create, in a time he didn’t choose, one man looks for signs of God in the world by… watching movies. When he’s not reviewing new releases for Aleteia, David Ives spends his time exploring the intersection of low-budget/cult cinema and Catholicism at The B-Movie Catechism.

He writes this about Scott and his oeuvre: 

The previous film in the Alien franchise, 2012’s Prometheus, was something of a mixed bag for long-time fans of the series. While it marked the much longed for return of original director, Ridley Scott, it was hardly a revisit to the thrills and chills of the first film. Rather than H. R. Giger’s classic Alien xenomorph chasing astronauts through darkened corridors, there were instead puddles of evil black goo and lots of arguments about whether or not God exists.

That seems to be a question that has been bothering Scott for a while now, as evidenced by such projects as Kingdom of Heaven, Exodus: Gods and Kings, and his failed attempt to jump start a TV series about the Vatican. Perhaps he keeps coming back to it because he can never get a solid “No” as an answer. For example, in a recent interview with Dread Central, the director talked about speaking to a group of scientific advisers while filming The Martian.

“I said, to some scientists, who believes in God? There was a long silence and out of seven of them, four went … and I said you believe in God? Oh wow, and you’re astrophysicists, astromathematics, I mean how can you actually believe in God when it’s all about technology? They said, we always reach a wall. I said, is that right, what did the wall tell you? It tells me we’re not clever enough so whatever is behind that wall is the evolution of how it really occurred. So I said, is that where we get God from? He said, yup.”

Apparently, nothing shakes up an atheist’s worldview like a scientist who believes in God. However, rather than dismiss the existence of such people like so many others in popular culture try to do, Scott incorporates them into his works. So, once again, we get an Alien movie in which a fair amount of time is spent watching smart people ponder the possibility of a creator.

Ives full review is here.

The madness continues unabated

Of all the strains of that debilitating mental illness we call political correctness, none is more threatening to our culture and Civilization than the faux phobia generated around the so-called crime of cultural appropriation.  I’m an Irishman. How dare I write in the language of the English?

Without what they call cultural appropriation there would be no Madam Butterfly, no Turandot, Le nozze di Figaro. Nor would there even be rock’n roll.

It is bewildering. The latest – at least at the time of writing, and if I wait a few minutes it probably will not the the latest – outbreak of this malady is reported in Canada and commented on here by a writer in the National Post.

I have checked my white privilege, which may be balanced somewhat by the fact I’m a woman and thus a member of a group which on paper is chronically oppressed, which may in turn be offset by my relative age and affluence, which may be softened just a smidge (Note: not smudge) by my blue-collar roots and experience, which is almost certainly erased by my status as a cisgendered female, and can we all agree to just stop this nonsense now?

I refer of course to the latest twitstorm about Hal Niedzviecki, the editor of Write magazine, a quarterly published by The Writers’ Union of Canada.
According to a history written in 2007 on the occasion of TWUC’s 35th anniversary, the union then had 1,639 members, from which I draw the not unreasonable inference that its magazine, a professional-type journal alternately dreary and precious aimed at professional book writers, similarly is not read by millions.

Anyway, in the current edition, otherwise devoted to indigenous writers and writing, Niedzviecki wrote an editorial entitled Winning the Appropriation Prize, in which he began by saying: “I don’t believe in cultural appropriation” and suggested that writers should be able to imagine and write about, well, anything and anyone — “other peoples, other cultures, other identities,” as he put it.

“I’d go so far as to say that there should be an award for doing so — the Appropriation Prize for best book by an author who writes about people who aren’t even remotely like her or him,” Niedzviecki said.

Naturally, he joined the growing list of people who have committed sins against the modern orthodoxy and who for their troubles have been silenced or bullied and in some cases forced into abject apology.

(This is by no means a complete list, but includes Andrew Potter, the director of McGill University’s Institute for the Study of Canada, who in a Maclean’s column observed an extraordinary traffic jam in Montreal caused by a blizzard and wrote that it revealed Quebec as “an almost pathologically alienated and low-trust society” and who subsequently resigned or was voluntold to resign as director; the Toronto artist Amanda PL, a non-indigenous woman whose gallery show was cancelled last month after she was accused of appropriating aboriginal culture by painting in the style of Anishinabe artist Norval Morrisseau; Candis McLean, author of a book that critically examines the 1990 freezing death of an aboriginal youth and whose speaking and signing events were cancelled in the face of protests organized by a University of Regina associate professor named Dr. Michelle Stewart; University of Toronto psychology prof Dr. Jordan Peterson, who had his knuckles rapped by his own university when he vowed not to use genderless pronouns.)
Read Blatchford’s full commentary here.

Take a look at this short horror film which peers into the future which faces us if we do not get a grip on this epidemic soon:

Cormac McCarthy – challenging us in our comfort zones

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You can read the novels of Cormac McCarthy and treat them like a bad dream. Or you can read them like a “Stephen King nightmare thriller with no cheap thrills” – as Kenneth Lincoln says in his study of McCarthy’s work. You can also treat his stories as you might treat those grotesque surrealistic narratives which sometimes invade our sleep and with which we then might entertain each other around the water-cooler. With some of them you would not even dare do that – lest your friends might call in the men in white coats.

Alternatively, you can take them seriously and come to the worrying conclusion that they are not just stories, but something akin to prophesies. As the five decades rolled by over which McCarthy worked on these fables – for two of those decades in relative obscurity – they became more and more like a mirror revealing to us the horrors lying beneath the facade of modernity. They tell us in the grimmest possible terms about the terrible things we have done to each other – and continue to do – and the terrible consequences of our failure to be what we really are and were meant to be.

Cormac McCarthy, although brought up a Catholic by his Irish-American family, does not avow any particular religion. But he is profoundly religious. The terrible contortions of humanity which we encounter in so many of his characters point to the same devastating end as do some of the lethally deranged characters which we find in the oeuvre of that profoundly Catholic writer, Flannery O’Connor. Those aberrations have all got the same gaping hole in their heart – the ignorance or wilful rejection of objective truth and a transcendental Creator.

In this, the second decade of the third millennium of the Christian era, the centre no longer seems to be holding. An apocalyptic vision of mankind’s fate, and the place to which our folly has brought this world, runs through every one of McCarthy’s ten novels. But he does not preach. He portrays the victims of our folly and the interplay of the forces of evil with our foolishness – and then implicitly leaves us with the simple exhortation, “he that has ears to hear, let him hear.”

He is not the only prophet of our time. Other Tiresian witnesses  “have foresuffered all enacted on this same divan or bed; … have sat by Thebes below the wall and walked among the lowest of the dead.” Surveying the excesses of modernity over the last century they have pointed to the same end: Alasdair McIntyre spelled out the philosophical roots and practical consequences of our flight from virtue and reason into the quagmire of emotionalism where our private lives and public policies now wallow in disastrous self-indulgence;  Charles Taylor and Brad Gregory take the story through its sociological and historical ramifications, while Rod Dreher now looks in desperation towards a neo-monastic solution for it all.

McCarthy depicts a world which has come apart at the seams. He does not spell out the reasons why this has happened. He does not tell us how to redeem ourselves. But neither does he tell us that we are irredeemable – despite his going within a hair’s breath of this in some narratives, particularly in the earlier portrayals of our plumbing the depths of depravity. In the last  instalment of his ten-novel output, The Road, the hope which is the basis of mankind’s salvation is burning ever so fragilely on its final pages.

“SPE SALVI facti sumus”—in hope we were saved, says Saint Paul to the Romans, and likewise to us (Rom 8:24). According to the Christian faith, “redemption”—salvation—is not simply a given. Redemption is offered to us in the sense that we have been given hope, trustworthy hope, by virtue of which we can face our present: the present, even if it is arduous, can be lived and accepted if it leads towards a goal, if we can be sure of this goal, and if this goal is great enough to justify the effort of the journey. (Pope Benedict XVI, encyclical, Spe Salvi, 1)

I am not suggesting any kind of link of mutual influence to be found between the author of The Road and the author of Spe Salvi, but in both we do find a signpost to the same truth. Hope is a sine qua non for our survival as it is for our salvation. The road travelled by the man and the boy in McCarthy’s novel is symbolic of our own journey. The devastated landscape through which they travel is akin to the desert  brought about by the scourge of relativism of which Pope Benedict frequently spoke. The total breakdown of law and order which constantly threatens their lives is the consequence of the same scourge which has destroyed the foundation of all morality.

“The  man” in The Road lives out the last years, months and days of his life on this earth because, he says, God has entrusted him with the life of “the boy”, his son. Hope is fragile in the world of The Road, a sunless world of grey ash which has been devastated by some cataclysmic disaster – man-made, we assume. But it is still there in the boy’s heart. After they find a well-stocked larder in an underground shelter the boy says a prayer for those who left it behind: “Dear people, thank you for all this food and stuff…and we hope that you’re safe in heaven with God.”

The man perseveres in the struggle to stay alive and protect the boy from the pursuing cannibals and other desperate human predators, the “bad guys” in the child’s language, for as long as he can. Dimly, he sees he has to, for the boy is humanity’s last hope. As he dies, that hope is still alive and with his last breath he tells the boy that goodness will find him, “It always has. It will again.” As the boy cries beside the body of his father, other fugitives, families, parents and children, find him.  They have been following them and now adopt the boy as their own. A woman tells him that God’s breath is his “yet though it pass from man to man through all time.”

All great novels probably constitute a kind of biography of their writers and tell us something of the story of their souls. The novels of F. Scott Fitzgerald, taken in sequence, tell a sad story of a young man’s struggle with the temptations of a degenerate age and his tragic surrender to vanity, ambition, infatuation and self-indulgence. McCarthy’s novels seem to tell a better story. It seems to be a story of a man’s struggle with the temptation to pessimism and despair about our flawed human condition and the state in which we have left the world. It might be too much to say that McCarthy has reached the point at which T.S. Eliot felt able to conclude The Waste Land with the three words “shantih, shantih, shantih”, the “peace which surpasseth human understanding”. But  the evolution of his soul as evidenced by the sequence of his novels suggests something like it.

In all McCarthy’s novels the element of evil is palpably present. In some it is the only element, in the same way in which it is the only element in the hell-centred books of Milton’s Paradise Lost when we are in the company of Satan and his diabolical legions plotting their revenge on the Creator. In two of the novels Satan himself is incarnate: in “The Judge” in Blood Meridian and in Chigurh in No Country for Old Men.

But the apparently unredeemable grimness of the early novels now has a counter-balance of goodness in the wings – without any loss of the power of the warning about what lies in store for mankind when truth is denied. Placed before us is the horror of a world laid waste when men and women, in wilful blindness or malice, exercise their choices in favour of things evil. McCarthy’s questions, stated or implied, are begging to be answered. Where do the “bad guys” come from? Where do the “good guys” come from? What drives the one, what drives the other? What he shows us is the lethal conflict in the heart of men and among men which follows from evil choices – untold suffering for the innocent and the guilty alike.

McCarthy’s fiction is much more than fiction. It is fiction which has a frightening truth at its heart  – the truth which tells us that by denying the essence of our humanity we are capable of destroying everything that mankind has achieved since the moment of his creation.

The words of Rod Dreher’s friend, a monk in the Benedictine Monastery of Norcia, imply the critical choice before mankind today when he says “Those who don’t do some form of what you’re talking about, they’re not going to make it through what’s coming.” That’s not fiction. It’s time to identify with the boy of McCarthy’s fiction, “the one”.

Kenneth Lincoln describes the boy’s final acceptance of his destiny like this:

The boy speaks guileless truth and still brushes his teeth in the morning. He knows there are not many good people left, if any, and the odds are against them, so he comes to the point for his father. “I don’t know what we’re doing, he said.” And still they do what they’re doing, leaving a thief naked in the road to die, the boy sobbing to help him. His father says that the boy is not the one who must worry about everything, and the boy mumbles something. “He looked up, his wet and grimy face. Yes I am, he said. I am the one.”

Comments on this post can be read on its MercatorNet posting here

 

Culture War Backfire: Polls Show Left Losing Gender Debate to More Traditional Millennials

Aussie Conservative Blog

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There is some good news amid an apparently changed cultural context, as despite extreme feminism and other Leftist causes being prevalent in public life, these ideas are becoming increasingly unpopular amongst the bulk of society.

Clearly, the voices who shout the loudest and make themselves the most visible, are not always those who enjoy overwhelming support.

While we should be proud that conservatives are more modest and pleasant in this regard, such an environment should serve as reason for an emboldened, re- energized populist backlash, to ensure that further ground is not lost on key social issues.

Because as Hitler’s Germany proved, wicked ideas do not require predominance in a society, for great acts of evil to subsequently occur.

Daily Wire, by John Nolte, April 3, 2017:

Last week I wrote about why I am not buying into the conventional wisdom that the Left is winning the culture wars. This is objectively true on the issues of guns…

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That long black cloud is comin’ down

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Fear, desperation and pessimism make a dangerous cocktail. American journalist Rod Dreher seems to have imbibed this potion. “The West has lost the golden thread that binds us to God, Creation, and each other,” he writes. “Unless we find it again, there is no hope of halting our dissolution.”

He outlines his survival strategy in a New York Times best-seller, The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation. It has been widely reviewed in secular newspapers and magazines like the Think Progress, the National Review, Atlantic, the Huffington Post, and the Washington Post – to say nothing of Christian blogs. So Dreher’s solution is an intriguing one – but is it the right one?

There is no doubt about the truth of much of his analysis. Dreher notes that many of today’s Christians are perfectly at home in a liberal world: Liberalism has changed them, and they, in turn, have changed their Christianity. We have only to think of the Podesta-Hillary Clinton emails plotting the subversion of the Catholic faithful. Clinton lost the election, but for Dreher the respite is only temporary.

“We are on the brink of entire areas of commercial and professional life being off-limits to believers whose consciences will not allow them to burn incense to the gods of our age,” he predicts. Fewer and fewer public spaces will be open to faithful. Young Christians who dream of becoming doctors or lawyers may have to abandon their ambitions.

His pessimism about our future political and cultural life is rooted in the conviction that “we in the modern West are living under barbarism, though we do not recognize it.” This is a world in which “Our scientists, our judges, our princes, our scholars, and our scribes … are at work demolishing the faith, the family, gender, even what it means to be human.” It’s scary stuff.

But I would argue that Dreher has good intentions, but the flight from the world which he advocates is misguided. Ever since Cain killed Abel, mankind has grappled with evil. And, by and large, we have coped. There have been highs and lows, but the overall picture is one of progress.

For the rationalist there is one reason for this – mankind’s ingenuity. For men and women of faith, it is the hand of providence. For Christians, the love and mercy of a Divine Father whose Son redeemed us is the foundation of all our hope for the future. It is a lack of emphasis on hope and a failure to see how it has unfolded in two millennia that are the weaknesses of the Benedict Option.

– See more at: https://www.mercatornet.com/above/view/the-benedict-option-terrific-for-monks-but-not-for-ordinary-christians/19588#disqus_thread

Footnote to a commemoration

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A biography of the great art historian, Kenneth Clark, has just been published. It is reviewed in the Times Literary Supprumlement this week. And a paragraph in the review reminds us of something that might be forgotten in the commemoration currently going on around the world of an event 500 years ago.

Clark is mainly remembered now for his masterly book and BBC Television series, Civilization, first broadcast back in the 1960s.

Susan Owens, reviewing James Stourton’s new biography, notes that he has been able to quote extensively from Clark’s letters for the first time, “and the voice we hear is unexpectedly funny and candid.

“But it is the accounts of Clark’s involuntary reactions that perhaps shed the most light on the character of someone so often described as ‘chilly’ and ‘remote’. While making episode six of Civilisation, ‘Protest and Communication’, he kept breaking down in tears in front of an astonished crew as he stood at the church door in Wittenberg to speak Luther’s words ‘Here I stand!’ The shot took six takes.”

In the very depths of his being Clark felt the pain of the devastating impact on western civilisation symbolised by that moment in history, a gesture of rebellion – without passing judgement on its causes – from which flowed so much death and destruction, wars, persecution and impoverishment of the human spirit, century after century ever since.

James Stourton, KENNETH CLARK Life, art and civilisation, 496pp. William Collins. £30. ISBN 978 0 00 749341 8

Green with envy… to be sure, to be sure!

Just for the Day that’s going to be in it…

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In the next few hours a large chunk of the world will go green – not out of a love for the environment, but because that’s what you do on March 17.

Forget about any sense of style, every shade of green you can envisage will be flown, painted, worn and waved on St Patrick’s Day. All those inner Irishmen and women will surface for 24 hours of corned beef and cabbage, stout, whiskey and a few old songs about the Emerald Isle.

Paddy’s Day is an occasion for celebration, a day to maybe overindulge with drinking and singing… sure isn’t that what those Irish are famous for?

That’s true. Us Irish have a bit of a reputation when it comes to having a hooley or losing our tempers. The hot-blooded, big-drinking Irish… the Land of Saints and Scholars from which some of the world’s greatest writing has emerged.

But…

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Religious freedom – an eternal conflict?

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The long and winding road that leads to the double doors of religious tolerance and the tolerance of religious freedom will, it seems, never disappear. The history of mankind shows us this, as does the daily news of our own time.

Stephanie Slade, managing editor at Reason magazine and a Robert Novak Journalism Fellow, has written a long, – very long – powerful and sobering essay in the Jesuit-edited America Magazine, reflecting on the battles for religious freedom in the United States. No summary can do justice to the historical analysis which she offers us and all we can do here is highlight some of the evidence she puts before us to support her overall contention: the fight for religious liberty is never going to end. We’d better get used to it.

But it is not just an American story. It is a story which unfolds daily in almost every country in the world in one way or another – sometimes in the form of mild hostility, sometimes leading to martyrdom and unthinkable cruelty. Slade’s focus is on America and on the more institutional forms of intolerance and denial of freedom of conscience. Those of us in other jurisdictions within the democratic tradition can easily extrapolate from her analysis and see the parallels in our own public squares.

Populism is the bête noir on everyone’s political horizon just now. New Criterion, the heavyweight journal of ideas, has just published the seventh in a series of essays on the phenomenon and how it may be threatening to tear apart the trusted and tried political institutions through which we try to organise a civilised society. Populist movements across the democratic world no longer seem to trust those institutions.

But who is populist and who is not? One of the suggestions implicit in the historical picture presented to us by Slade is that populism, from both left and right, has being playing fast and loose with our politics and laws for a long time. Our fundamental freedoms, and especially our freedom of conscience and religion, have been suffering at the hands of populism for centuries.

Sometimes it changes sides and it cries stop, in defence of a freedom denied to “the other side”. The United States may now have experienced one such moment. Slade recounts a conversation on CNN.

“I feel the country was founded on Christian principles,” Sandra Long, an 80-year-old resident of Mahanoy City, Pa., and a lifelong Democrat, told CNN before the election. “And now, if our ministers don’t marry a gay couple or refuse to marry a gay couple, they can be arrested and taken to jail.”

Long was mistaken. Despite the Supreme Court’s legalization of gay marriage two years ago, ministers are not required to perform same-sex wedding ceremonies. But the perception that they might soon be—and that the government is continually encroaching on the ability of houses of worship and even individual Americans to live out their beliefs—seems to be widespread. Moreover, it likely played a role in the decision of many voters, such as Ms. Long, to support now-President Trump last November.

Megan McArdle, a columnist at Bloomberg View, wrote in December, “When you think that you may shortly see your church’s schools and your religious hospitals closed, and your job or business threatened in the private sphere by the economic equivalent of ‘convert or die,’ you will side with whoever does not seem to set its sights on your conservative beliefs. If that side is led by an intemperate man who more than occasionally says awful things … well, at least he doesn’t want to destroy you.”

The Catholic writer Mary Eberstadt, in her recent book It’s Dangerous to Believe, called this “the new intolerance” and said that what many believers “feel to the marrow these days is fear.”

“There is no doubt,” Slade says, “the concern is widespread. If the government can force family-run businesses to provide services for gay weddings and Catholic sisters to facilitate access to birth control, people are asking ‘what might be next?’ Could laws be on the way that criminalize traditional beliefs about sex and marriage? Or punish churches for excluding gay men and women from ministerial positions? Or, as Sandra Long assumed was already the case, compel houses of worship to host and solemnize same-sex weddings?”

The political left is of course quick to assure believers that their rights are safe. After all, they say, the First Amendment protects the freedom to believe whatever you want, and any attempt to constrain that freedom would surely be invalidated by the courts.” Really?

McArdle, doesn’t buy the response from the left which, she says, “has (mostly) been that this is so much whining, clinging to a victimhood belied by Christians’ social power and majority status. No one, they have been assured, wants to touch their freedom to worship, but when they enter the commercial realm, they have to abide by anti-discrimination laws, whatever their private beliefs.”

Mozilla’s founder, Brendan Eich, donated to an anti-gay-marriage campaign and was kicked out of his own company.

Slade is certainly unconvinced by this assurance. She quotes Douglas Laycock, a law professor at the University of Virginia who is an expert on issues of religious freedom. While Laycock thinks there is too much alarm about the issue he did acknowledge that the line is moving all the time. Even those pushing the line admit this openly. During arguments in Obergefell v. Hodges, the case that legalized same-sex marriage nationwide, Justice Samuel Alito asked the Obama administration’s lawyer whether a college could have its tax-exempt status revoked because it upholds traditional marriage. “It’s certainly going to be an issue,” the solicitor general replied. “I don’t deny that. I don’t deny that, Justice Alito. It is going to be an issue.”

But Slade shows us that the war is not a new one.

Ninety years before the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in the case of the Little Sisters of the Poor, another group of Catholic sisters appeared before the highest court in the land.

This time it was the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary. An Oregon law passed by voters, at the behest of the anti-Catholic Scottish Rite Masons, required all children to attend public schools. “The effect of this law will be, if upheld by the courts, to close every private school in the State,” The New York Times reported. “That was its purpose, openly avowed in public discussions preceding the election.”

The measure had the enthusiastic support not just of the state’s majority-Protestant electorate but also of the Ku Klux Klan, newly arrived in the Pacific Northwest. “We are against the Catholic machine which controls our nation,” explained “Kleagle Carter,” according to a book about the Oregon chapter of the Klan. It is a refrain being heard repeatedly in Ireland just now. “Dear Catholic Church, get out of our wombs,” one histrionic headline screamed at Catholics last week. But that’s another story.

The Oregon story had a happy ending: The Supreme Court justices unanimously struck down the statute.

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That does not reassure Slade because other violations of religious liberty did not have such a happy ending. More than 30 states have on their books to this day some form of legal prohibition on public dollars going to religious institutions. They are known as Blaine amendments, after the House Speaker James G. Blaine.

As with the Oregon private school ban, all accounts suggest that the Blaine amendments were motivated by deep animus toward Catholics. “They were passed in a series of outbursts of anti-Catholicism, there’s no doubt about the history,” Professor Laycock says. State-level “baby Blaines,” as some now call them, remain in force.

As bad as anti-Catholic sentiment has been at points in America’s past, however, it is nothing compared to the vitriol directed at smaller religious groups over the years. Just consider what the Mormons have had to suffer.

Justices Alito, Thomas and John Roberts noted in their dissenting opinion on one court challenge, ominously wrote, “those who value religious freedom have cause for great concern”.  Slade says that it is hard to escape the conclusion that strong forces hostile to traditional belief are on the march.

If a form of populism is not driving much of what Slade describes, what is? The glib phrases being bandied around about conservatives being on “the wrong side of history” betray a populism as sinister as anything on the right. It is not rational argument. Slade asks us to look at the history of the Supreme Court to see how much more than measured legal judgement is at play here.

If a study of Supreme Court history makes one thing clear, it is that there is no fixed line differentiating the kinds of laws that are acceptable under the First Amendment from the kinds that go too far. Where lawmakers and the courts come down on contested questions is often influenced by what a majority of Americans seem to favour.

None of the experts I talked to thought the Supreme Court literally keeps an eye on poll numbers as it hands down decisions. But they all agreed that as fallible humans, even the most upstanding jurists will be affected by the cultural zeitgeist.

Gay marriage is among the most vivid illustrations of that. For decades, public support for legal recognition of same-sex unions was a minority position. Between May 2011 and May 2012, according to Gallup, the numbers flipped. On May 9, 2012, President Obama suddenly announced that his views had “evolved” and he was now in favour of same-sex marriage. Thirteen months later, the Supreme Court ruled the federal Defence of Marriage Act unconstitutional. Two years after that, it struck down all state-wide bans on same-sex unions.

Within hours of the Obergefell decision, people began suggesting the precedent should be extended even further. Fredrik DeBoer wrote an article for Politico titled “It’s Time to Legalize Polygamy.” Similarly, in 2013, Jillian Keenan had argued at Slate that “Legalized polygamy…would actually help protect, empower, and strengthen women, children, and families.” If marrying whomever you want is a fundamental right, they wondered, shouldn’t the same be true of taking multiple spouses?

So what does Slade suggest we conclude from all this history?

She wants us to accept that institutional protections are only as strong as the underlying culture. If people are willing to see a minority group’s rights disregarded, neither the courts nor the Constitution is an airtight safeguard against abuse. But if the majority is unwilling to see liberties infringed, those in positions of authority are likely to take notice. Like it or not, popular culture has been in the driving seat for decades and conservative thinking has been in the back seat.

Slade reminds us that Martin Luther King Jr. famously said that the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice. “It might have been truer if he had said it can be bent, assuming enough people are willing to do the hard work of persuasion. In other words, if what counts as ‘religious freedom’ is eternally in dispute, it matters who shows up to the debate.”

The choice is ours

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“The whole world is in a terrible state o’ chassis”, Captain Boyle, famously proclaimed in Irish dramatist Sean O’Casey’s masterpiece, Juno and the Paycock.

Indeed it is, and we suppose it always will be. The evidence is compelling. It’s a long, long story and it’s not really a terribly productive pursuit to go on analysing the ‘whys’ and the ‘wherefores’ of it all. But what is incumbent on us is to constantly and creatively respond to and deal as best we can with each new symptom of chaos, generally in the form of some crisis, as it arrives on our doorstep – whether personal, local or global. Generally there are plenty to choose from.

Just now we have the Brexit fallout and its related knock-on implications for the future of the troubled states of the European Union. Across the Atlantic there are the multiple storms associated with a very unusual new US administration, and further to our east we have an enigmatic Russian regime which might or might not be playing high stakes cat and mouse games with its nervous neighbours. ‘Plenty of potential for chassis there – accepting Captain Boyle’s Malapropism – to be going on with.

I often wondered what St. Josemaría  Escrivá meant when he wrote “A secret. – An open secret: these world crises are crises of saints”. It’s an intriguing and even strange phrase. But it is only strange if we limit our understanding of what saints are to those popular images we have of them – halos, pious postures and sometimes living hermetic reclusive lives separated from the affairs of the world. These were the saints a good number of us grew up with, and who indeed may have played an important role n helping generations of Christians to model their lives according to the teaching of Christ.

But these saints do not really get to the heart of St. Josemaría’s challenging phrase, which seems to suggest that being a saint offers some hope of a resolution of the world’s problems. Is that credible? Daringly, maybe outrageously for some, he maintains that it is.

The origins of his thinking about this, and its place in his teaching about what being a saint in the middle of the world is all about, is elaborated by the editor of the critical-historical edition of the book in which he first put this statement down on paper, The Way.*

What the phrase essentially underlines is the central idea of Escrivá, that Earth is really only properly understood in the context of Heaven and that if the problems of the earth are to be solved at all they can only be truly solved on that horizon where heaven and earth meet in the hearts of women and men, in the reality of holiness, that is, sanctity, the stuff of saints.

This phrase, and the chapter of the book from which it comes, is an example of his insistence on the correspondence to grace — holiness — of those who have become aware of God’s calling. That calling was a universal one, not one for the special few – the saints of popular piety. It was a call for all women and men because it was, it is, the express will of God that all be saved. The doctrine on holiness, the editor of the edition points out, is not an idea outside time, but is an idea realised in time, and more specifically, it determines the solution to the “world crises”.

This idea permeated all of St. Josemaría’s teaching and preaching. On another occasion, stating it in very practical terms, he reminded people, putting before them a very simple ideal:

“If every country had a group of holy fathers of families, holy doctors, holy architects, holy workers, all the world’s problems would be solved.”’

Nor did he see it as a big numbers game. The same point in The Way is completed with this rider:

God wants a handful of men, “of his own” in each human activity. – And then…pax Christi in regno Christi – the peace of Christ in the kingdom of Christ.

In 1937, when he was in hiding during the Spanish Civil War, he explained his vision in more detail in a homily:

“A pinch of salt is enough to season a meal for many. To impart new savour to the world, relatively few people will be necessary. But these few, by obeying God’s Will, have to truly be salt that cures and seasons. […] If we carry out our apostolate, then the face of the world will change, and the disorder and wretchedness we see in the world will be replaced with Christian peace and happiness. Then peace will spread throughout the world.”

He always rejected any conception of Christian life as something ‘private’ which absents itself from the “world crises” —- a mistaken sense of ‘interior life’ — and puts, instead, the ‘interior life’ in strict and close connection with ‘human activity’, with the problems of human society.

In this, as in all things, Escrivá’s vision was always united to the popes of his time. He was moved by the vision of Pope Pius XI who used the expression “Pax Christi in regno Christi” which to a great extent summarised his pontificate’s programme laid out in his first encyclical (1922). There Pius recalled that his predecessor, Pius X, in taking as his motto ‘To restore all things in Christ’ was inspired from on High to lay the foundations of that ‘work of peace’ which became the programme and principal task of Benedict XV. These two programmes of Our Predecessors We desire to unite in one — the re-establishment of the Kingdom of Christ by peace in Christ – ‘the peace of Christ in the Kingdom of Christ . With might and main We shall ever strive to bring about this peace, putting Our trust in God, who when He called Us to the Chair of Peter, promised that the divine assistance would never fail Us.” (Urbi arcano 22)

The teaching of Pius XI gave a great impetus in those years to Catholics to take seriously their responsibilities in the public square. Nevertheless, the understanding of the role of lay people in the life of the Church and in society still remained limited and the universal vision of St. Josemaría was not widely appreciated.

As the editor this edition states in his note, St Josemaría goes to the root of the problem, beyond social and political factors and every form of Catholic organisation. He sees peace as the result of men and women of God – saints – present in all human activity: the peace of Christ springing from within human activity.

His theology of peace, so to speak, has to be seen in close connection with a ‘locutio divina’ more than five years earlier, and which remained engraved in his soul for ever. It took place on 7 August 1931. In his personal notes from that time St Josemaría left an account of this intervention of God in his life, written and dated that very day.

Referring to the celebration of Mass that day, he wrote:

The moment of the Consecration arrived; as I raised the Sacred Host, without losing proper recollection, without being distracted — I had just mentally made my offering to the most merciful Love — some words of Scripture came to my mind, with extraordinary force and clarity: et si exultatus fuero a terra, omnia traham ad meipsum’ (And when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all things to myself: John 12:32). And I understood that it would be the men and women of God who would raise the Cross, with the teachings of Christ, above the summit of all human activity. And I saw Our Lord triumphant, drawing all things to Himself.”

In a recent column by Erasmus in the Economist, reflecting on the origins of the European Union in the aftermath of the horrors of two wars, the Catholic inspiration which was central to that movement in the persons of Robert Schuman, Alcide de Gaspari and Konrad Adenauer is noted. These men, some of whom are now being thought of as candidates for canonisation, were types of the saints Escrivá saw as proper to the modern world, responders to its crises in a thoroughly modern way but moved to do so from the deepest resources of lives sustained by grace and sanctity.

The Erasmus column looks at the resurgence of Catholicism in France but sees it as a much weaker player now in the politics of that nation. Nevertheless, its influence is there and perhaps it will only be when, or if, the fullness of Christian virtue begins to flower in the lives of people that the many crises of that nation will be responded to effectively and fruitfully.

Romano Guardini has called for a purer reading of Christ’s role in the world and an end to the reductive reading of him as the greatest and wisest man who ever lived. Again, it is a reading which calls on his followers to be saints, people who as such must read the world and their place in it in a truly radical way, not just followers of another great leader.

Christ does not step into the row of great philosophers with a better philosophy; or of the moralists with a purer morality; or of the religious geniuses to conduct man deeper into the mysteries of life; he came to tell us that our whole existence, with all its philosophy and ethics and religion, its economics, art, and nature, is leading us away from God and into the shoals. He wants to help us swing the rudder back into the divine direction, and to give us the necessary strength to hold that course. Any other appreciation of Christ is worthless. If this is not valid, then every man for himself; let him choose whatever guide seems trustworthy, and possibly Goethe or Plato or Buddha is a better leader than what remains of a Jesus Christ whose central purpose and significance have been plucked from him. Jesus actually is the Rescue-pilot who puts us back on the right course.”

This is a hard saying for the world to accept. It offends our vain-glorious sense of self-sufficiency. But there it is, until it does, these world crises will go on and on in their chaotic way. Some will leave us muddled, like poor Captain Boyle. Others, tragically will once again plunge us into the abyss of human degradation. The choice is ours.

In our struggles with the world’s and our own crises, we may be, as T.S. Eliot said, “only undefeated because we have gone on trying”. But that is not a little. That, in fact, in the eyes of our Creator, is certain victory.

  • The Way (Critical-Historical Edition), P. Rodriguez, Scepter.

Who’s haunted by Virginia Woolf

virginia-woolf

On one level Virginia Woolf’s first novel is essentially a poignant story of love and loss. On another it is an exploration of the working of human consciousness across a range of characters thrown together over a period of several months. The smaller group voyages across the Atlantic and takes up residence in a villa in a Latin-American town at the mouth of an unspecified great river in an unnamed county. They then form a larger group when they meet up with a randomly assembled coterie of British ex-patriates and holiday-makers in the town’s hotel.

Among these people are two couples who fall in love and others who search unsuccessfully for what they think – but are not quite sure – is love. Woolf’s journeys into the minds of her characters is rich in its observation of thoughts, half-thoughts and human emotions.

But there is a third level, the level which is the creation of the reader much more than it is the work of the author. Some books are like that. They are not just contained within the hard or soft covers of their binding. They are more than fiction. They are created in part by the reader – and sometimes long after they are written, completed for each new reader by the document of the life of the author which they constitute. So it is with The Voyage Out.

The emotion evoked by Virginia Woolf in the heartbreak denouement of The Voyage Out is powerful. But for a reader of the book reflecting on its biographical elements the impact is more powerful still. When we read, aware that the explorations of human consciousness within it is in large measure the consciousness of the tragically flawed author herself, then the pain of loss goes deeper still.

Reading texts, and reading into texts, are of course contentious issues. But we are what we are, the world is what it is and there is no escape from history, personal and otherwise. Professor Denis Donoghue, in his discussing Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter in The American Classics, remarks how his reading of the novel does not articulate a common sense of the book. Talk of sin, repentance, and confession is alien to the ‘spirit of the age’. I gather, on informal evidence, that most readers of the book take the book as a parable of civil disobedience and revere Hester for exemplifying it and for triumphing over a community they regard as undemocratic, ‘un-American’. He rejects such interpretations as reductionist and meretricious.

But reading The Voyage Out and responding to it in the way suggested is not interpreting it in a way which has no bearing on the meaning Woolf ascribed to it. It is simply bringing to it a consciousness of a reality which does have a bearing on the novel, namely the life and death of the author herself and in so doing experiencing a sense of tragedy which goes beyond the author’s intention.

The story told by Woolf is the story of young people falling in love and the story of abandonment of faith in God. Escaping a consciousness of the autobiographical and the biographical elements in a novel like this is well-nigh impossible. This is not a description of everything that Bloomsbury represented but it is a description of many things which contributed to what the Bloomsbury group became for the Moderns. It is not a story of decadence. But it is a story in which one sees the elements in a culture which were to lead to the destruction of the framework of faith in God which held a Judaeo-Christian civilization in place for thousands of years.

The loss of faith is as much a mystery as the gaining of faith. Rachel Vinrace, the central character in The Voyage Out has something of Virginia Woolf in her. A conversation takes place about one third of the way through the novel. Each of the characters is introducing themselves to the others when at one point in the process one of them says,

“That’s all very interesting… But of course we’ve left out the only questions that matter. For instance, are we Christians?”

“I am not,” “I am not,” both young men replied.

“I am,” Rachel stated.

“You believe in a personal God?” Hirst demanded, turning around and fixing here with his eyeglasses.

“I believe-I believe,” Rachel stammered, “I believe there are things we don’t know about, and the world might change in a minute and anything appear.”

At this Helen laughed outright. “Nonsense,” she said. “You’re not a Christian. You’ve never thought what you are.”

Towards the end of the novel Rachel agrees. She does so under the pressure of a religious experience with which she cannot cope – a mixture of bad preaching and what she sees as sanctimonious posturing by those around her. She has continued to attend church but on this occasion and in a fit of frustration born out of that failure she rebels against it all and is vehemently no longer a Christian or a believer.

Was this Woolf’s own passage to atheism? It may be significant that the Helen of the story is taken by many to be partly based on Woolf’s own sister, Vanessa. Was this conversation some version of an actual one between the sisters? Whatever the answer to that might be we cannot read this sad story of loss without bemoaning the destruction wrought by bad religion.

Romano Guardini writes:

As soon as a religious consciousness that preaches ‘pure doctrine’ comes into being, and with it an authority ready to spring to its defence, the danger of orthodoxy becomes acute. For what is orthodoxy but that attitude which considers obedience to the Law already salvation, and which would preserve the purity of the Law at all costs— even at the price of violence to the conscience?

The moment rules of salvation, cult and communal pattern are fixed, one is tempted to believe that their strict observance is already holiness in the sight of God. The moment there is a hierarchy of offices, and powers, of tradition and law, there is also the danger of confusing authority and obedience with the kingdom of God.

The moment human norms are applied to holiness, inflexible barriers drawn between right and wrong, the danger of laying hand on divine freedom, of entangling in rules and regulations that which falls from God’s grace alone becomes considerable.

No matter how noble a thought may be, once it enters the human heart it stimulates contradiction, untruth and evil. The same fate awaits that which comes from God.

Order in faith and prayer, in office and discipline, tradition and practice is of genuine value; but it opens up negative possibilities. Wherever a decisive either-or is demanded in the realm of sacred truth; where the objective forms of cult, order and authority are all that count, there you may be sure, is also danger of “the Pharisee” and his “Law.” Danger of accepting outer values for intrinsic; danger of contradicting attitude and word; danger of judging God’s freedom by legal standards— in short, danger of all the sins of which Christ accuses the Pharisees.

The religious possibilities left to Virginia Woolf’s generation by the degeneration of Protestantism to the pathetic offerings it made to Christian believers by the end of the nineteenth century makes us very loath to judge the anger and the frustration depicted as the experience of poor Rachel Vinrace in The Voyage Out. This is the haunting tragedy which stalks the pages of this novel, as much or more than the sad fate of the fictional story’s protagonists.