31 December 2011

A Mid-Christmas Nonmeditation

Ever notice how we humans don’t take any too warmly to reminders of our own finitude, as distinct from other people’s? 

No doubt nearly all of us - in one degree or another, at some point or phase of our lives - have assumed  ourselves to be either immortal, or invincible, or indestructible. And even though most of us can pretty easily imagine some really bad things happening to us, that doesn’t mean we find it easy to identify with those people in our lives (near or distant) in whom the bad things are most visibly embodied. Homeless individuals, for instance. Or even those suffering the effects of a recent foreclosure. 

Which in turn makes me wonder: Since when does any conscious margin of superiority, or advantage, that I believe myself to hold over you – be it “permanent” or temporary or even imaginary - better equip me to be of actual use or service to you? Does even the shrewdest, most efficient, most dedicated merchant do a better job of serving her customers by not identifying with them? By looking down on them? By knowing – or pretending to know – nothing of what it feels like to be patronized, hoodwinked, strung along, sold a bill of goods? And if the maker of all things could see the point, not just of knowing Divinely but of living humanly our miseries – our stink and blood and excrement and humiliation and cruelty – really, who are we to presume to be any better? Or safer?

Do you know what is the very worst way of ministering to, or consoling, or encouraging, somebody who’s facing death? Old age? Debilitating illness? Poverty? (Believe me, I've done it times past counting.) It is to make an unbridgeable gulf of the differences between yourself and that human creature, and between your prospects and hers. It is to behave – however  unconsciously – as if those things either will not, or could not, ever happen to you.  

05 December 2011

A Poem

I had a dove and the sweet dove died; 
And I have thought it died of grieving: 
O, what could it grieve for? Its feet were tied, 
With a silken thread of my own hand's weaving; 
Sweet little red feet! why should you die - 

Why should you leave me, sweet bird! why? 
You liv'd alone in the forest-tree, 
Why, pretty thing! would you not live with me? 

I kiss'd you oft and gave you white peas; 
Why not live sweetly, as in the green trees? 


- John Keats (1795-1821) 

I want you to notice two things about this poem. First, its all-consuming tenderness. Second, its staunchly (albeit inadvertently) uncompromising realism. So far as I can tell, the narrator had no intention other than to describe exactly what he did, and exactly how he felt. Yet observe how unintended were the results.

I find the effect breathtakingly realistic. We all know how easily, sometimes, what imagines itself to be kindness can turn out to be the reverse: a "care" that's clumsy, confining, even unintendedly stifling of the creature we profess to love. Worst of all, it's the kind of thing that can happen in the most exasperating of moments: even, for instance, when we're doing our best to create what we hope and pray will be a kind of perfect environment, an atmosphere containing the utmost assurance of our care and affection.

So now let's suppose for a moment that human kindness to a mere bird could be something every bit as "cruel," so to speak, as the result described in this poem. Something so estranging from its peculiar paradise;  so exiling, in fact, from everything it calls home. As we all well know it can. Or at least we do in our moments of imagination and poetry, and sanity. But in that case, how much more cruel, I wonder, are those cruelties we humans inflict on each other that we know to be cruel, and yet persist in believing will issue in kindness? I don't mean just those blunders we very discreetly confine to our private homes or private lives. I mean certain very acceptable presumptions that enter into the most visible paths of our public life. Even, every once in a while, into those paths that we positively know - I mean, we're so sure we can practically taste it - will lead to greater profit, greater proficiency, greater progress. My question: If a mere bird's natural paradise be such, that no amount of human tinkering or fretting, worrying or interfering can add to (though it may well subtract from) its stature one inch, then how much more man-impervious, how much more God-dependent, is our paradise? How much more will He clothe us little ones, even despite our little faith?

"It's not that SIMPLE!" you rebuke me roundly and soundly. Fair enough. Certainly if we're to believe our modern dogmas, we humans thrive on limitless complexity; we can never get deep enough into the rat race (no doubt that's why so many Americans dream of endless wealth and early retirement). But what if our wisest modernity is wrong? What if our own Divinely human, lost yet lingering Eden be a place (of body and mind) both immeasurably richer, and unsearchably more complex - and yet simpler - than the simplest yearning of the most irretrievably urbanized pigeon?

I'm not saying we shall have nothing human to do, nothing of our own to contribute - even to those fragments or echoes of Eden yet residual to us in this life. What I'm suggesting, rather, is that even our most strenuous contributions will in no wise conform to our present notions and experiences of strain. What I envision is a kind of "work" so Divinely-natured, as it were - so Word-attuned, and Word-attentive, to the pleasures of even the simplest of that Eden's inhabitants - as to contain in it nothing whatever of a certain Grimness we all know well, having been on both its giving and receiving ends. Nothing whatever of that grimly anxious self-importance which, so often in this present life, makes our attempts at love so heavy and toilsome and tyrannical, both to ourselves and to others. In short, nothing of fret and fuss, of busybodied interference and manipulation.

Of course our own proper Eden may also be technological. In places the City may even seem, by our present puny notions, to be hypertechnological. Yet for all that, I can also imagine it being saturated throughout with a kind of once-and-future, primordially innocent simplicity. One that manages somehow, like the mustard-tree of the parable, to give hospice to living creatures of all sorts. Or even - by some Divine-human feat which for now we can only describe as miracle - to every kind of living thing? Yet without squeezing or straining any of  them (any more than we ourselves would want to be squeezed or strained). A simplicity that would, if anything, be far more trustful, far more childlike, than any such state as known to our first parents. And yet, perhaps for that very reason, all the more exquisitely molded to our original human clay and nature and calling. In short, all the more befittingly characteristic of that Adam who is both once and future: that one greatest, and yet most closely, most intimately God-dependent (Genesis 2:7), of all the visible earthly creatures of God.

27 November 2011

How the "Real" (i.e., more or less Godless) World Works

In keeping with what I take to be the Spirit of the Moment, I thought I'd take a moment to share a few thoughts on the subject of protests. Or, more specifically, protest slogans. I notice that two questions keep popping up, within the limited space inside my skull, whenever I come across a really familiar slogan of protest. One like, for instance, "War is not the answer."

The first question I would address to the protestor is the following:
"Exactly who, and how broad or narrow, is your intended audience?"

The second:
"Assuming your message could have its most desired immediate effect, what sort of rejoinder or other response from that audience would best assure you that your point had been understood and well-considered?"

Now I suppose from the standpoint of Heaven there is such a thing as an ideal audience: People who are uniquely best-placed and best-suited to hear a message, either (1) because they'd find it not only utterly convicting, but convicting to such a degree as to inspire immediate and effective action; or else (2) because they were best able to furnish solid, well-grounded reasons why the message was either beside the point, or wholly unable to convict anybody of anything.

I have only the vaguest notion of what that ideal audience might look like which most deserves to hear and be convicted by the message "War is not the answer" (for all I know it may be most expressly identified by a look in the mirror). But whoever these folks might be, I get the funniest feeling that their most uninhibitedly truthful answer (given sufficient help from alcohol, caffeine, hypnosis or other uninhibitors) might run something like this:

"I got news for you: Peace was never even part of the question." 

24 November 2011

One Thanklessly Productive Generation

One of the many things I am - or ought to be - thankful for:

That our US holiday of Thanksgiving hasn't (yet?) been moved to Sunday or Monday, the better to accommodate our global work, money and stock-trading schedules. (Don't give 'em ideas, right?)

No doubt I'm being way too curmudgeonly for a festive occasion, but stranger things have happened. Certainly our own glorious Age is no stranger to strangeness. In fact, I'd be amazed if any industrial era since 1914 has been more zealous to facilitate the global flow of all things busy - work, trade, money, influence, POWER - than these past sixteen-odd years. Anyhow, we sure have been bustling along. With, in some quarters, hardly so much as a pause for regret through that bitter fall-winter-spring of '08-'09. Ah, but then who among even our wildest optimists could have dreamed that, by 24 November 2011, we'd have so much to show for it all?

It's beginning to dawn on me that the serious, hell-for-leather pursuit of productivity is, in its upshot, not all that different from our other famous American pursuit, that of happiness. In other words, the more we pursue productivity - the more we press and strain and lunge and snarl and claw for it - the more the mercurial Beast eludes us. Until one day it finally tires of the whole ridiculous sport, and turns and snarls back. And then - ever so quietly and resolutely - it starts to hunt us.

31 October 2011

Make ME the Channel of Your Peace

Is it just my wishful thinking?

Or is there more than a hint of family resemblance between St Francis of Assisi and the Lord God of the first few chapters of Genesis? Walk closely through Genesis 2: 8-15. Here we are, amidst all the surely violent terrors and horrors of that very first wilderness of Creation - Tennyson's famous "Nature red in tooth and claw" (or so we've since learned in our evolutionary wisdom; no doubt the ancient Hebrews were faith-blinded to the nastier side of Mother Nature). And, imagine! - not yet a working human soul to add Locke's productive labor and value to the otherwise profitless scene.

So what does God do? He goes and plants a garden.

24 October 2011

Why We're Still So Miserable (with no end in sight)

The world today is awash in religion. But is it any closer to God?

The question is not as presumptuous as it might sound at first to many Christians ("Gasp! How can the world ever be close to God?"). To be sure, the world in and of itself is very likely incapable of ever getting closer to God. But that doesn't mean we should welcome the prospect of its drifting ever farther away. "Woe unto you that desire the day of the Lord! to what end is it for you? the day of the Lord is darkness, and not light." (Amos 5: 18 - KJV)

My point is that none of us really likes looking at something hideous, even when that thing is just "being itself," or acting according to its nature. It may be the intrinsic nature of that thing we call "the world" to make itself more and more repulsive, even as it strives more and more to separate itself from the beauty of God. But the fact that this is the nature - or natural bent? - of the world doesn't mean we have to like it that way. Or even that we will like it, bad as we ourselves may otherwise be. Man without God - and isn't that, after all, what most of us Christians mean when we talk about "the world"? - Man without God has never been a pretty picture to look at. Not even to those who think he's better off without God. For instance, I've yet to read of many atheists (apart from the really dogmatic Marxists) who actually enjoyed visiting or reading about the glories of that supreme atheists' utopia, Maoist China. Indeed, I wonder if many of them weren't frankly bored or even revolted by the spectacle. Which, if true, should come as a surprise to no one. It is only as Man steps "out from behind" God - or worse yet, starts seriously thinking that God is behind him - that he begins to look naked and ugly, sore-ridden and pestilent.

Of course we may think we have every good reason to step "out from behind" God. We may think of our Maker as bad, or primitive, or unreasonable, or unjust, or tyrannical. But even then, how often do we become better than He is by trying to move away from Him? Notice how it is precisely those most eager to throw aside, or strip away, some yoke they perceive as tyrannical - be it Divine or human, Godly or governmental - who so often end up becoming the worst, most hellish tyrants of all. (What was it Orwell said? "All animals are equal, but some . . . ")

No doubt everything that is exists for a reason. Even Hell. Indeed, what is any human tyranny if not a kind of anticipatory hell? If I may paraphrase Voltaire: If Hell were not subterrestrial, man in his ceaseless ingenuity would have found a way of making it terrestrial. And I do mean that. I don't believe we humans have ever been very good at accepting the really easy way out - much less making it easier for any of our neighbors. And least of all when that same Way has been God-provided.

I know it probably seems just the opposite today, what with all our hyperpoliticized Religion-on-Steroids. But the fact that many people talk about Hell (mostly as a place where other people should expect to go) doesn't mean that on the whole we believe in it in quite the ways we used to. For example, suppose it were true that record numbers of people today - as contrasted with, say, the previous three or four generations - believed that the single most important thing in their lives was where they were going to go after they die. And maybe that is the case today, especially in our unashamedly religious America. But if that's so, then perhaps you can tell me: Why do so many of us live - yes, even here in America - as if the most important part of life were how much we leave behind us when we go? Or even as if how much we've accumulated - goods, honors, profits, etc - will determine our precise elevation in the place where we go?

We forget that there are many ways of disbelieving in Hell, or discounting its relevance. Or indeed the relevance of any place or life beyond death. One of the most popular is to try to prolongue your conscious physical existence by any and every means possible here on earth. Another, already mentioned just now, is to try to leave as many things as possible behind you on earth (marks? legacies?). Remember - as our glorious Early Twenty-first Century never fails to remind us - you are what you acquire. And how much more what you pass on? (Cf. Psalm 49 passim for an alternative view.)

Certainly Man wouldn't be the first creature of God who, in finding his Creator to be a tyrant, a suppressor of legitimate ambition, or even a devil, only succeeded in becoming his own devil, tyrant, etc. Maybe that's why it so often happens that, the more reluctant we are to believe that Hell is "down there," the more successful we become in bringing it up here.

18 October 2011

American Wisdom

Arrogance and stupidity: Two words that, in modern American political discourse, seldom if ever occur together in the same sentence. Unless, of course, as direct antitheses.

12 October 2011

Progress! "Where? where?"

I swear, we Americans keep getting this whole business of technological change backwards. It's not about the welfare of you or me or in fact any of us. The real reason - whether fully grasped or not - why things keep changing ever faster is not that our things may be ever better adapted to our selves. It is that our selves may be ever more pliably adapted to our things.*

* And since we're on the subject: Which of the two - our things or our selves - do you suppose is the richer, more storied, more untraceably imaginative? Or more Divinely inexhaustible? And which of the two is more likely to remain as richly abundant as it was before, once the other has gotten through with it? 

Honestly, how else did you think Man was ever going to become his own (supersedable) god? How else, other than by making things that so re-create him - methods, systems, technologies, organizations, ideas, intelligences - so thoroughly re-create him, I say, as to leave no trace of the original Designer?

"But that's impossible!" you tell me. "Surely there'll always be some trace?" 

Maybe. But isn't it funny, I could have almost sworn we'd entered an Age in which nothing was impossible, given sufficient will, effort, energy and (when all else fails) chutzpah. 

And in any case Who's to blame us for trying?

07 October 2011

Some Earthly Good

I don't know if we're living in one of the Great Ages of Satire. But even if I could be sure of it, I don't think I should find much consolation in the fact. For one thing (and I know this from very direct personal experience), satirists are not always the most pleasant literary company. Particularly the great vehement, violent satirists of our human nature and human condition, like Jonathan Swift. Or, a bit more recently, H L Mencken. It's not that they're always blind guides, like the Pharisees. But seldom do they ever manage to see everywhere they're trying to look. Especially when it comes to seeing such little (or much) good as we poor humans actually possess. Under their guidance, indeed, we can often find ourselves regarding Man as such a vilely, repulsively corrupt creature, it might seem an unending wonder that any human being could ever have been loved by anybody anywhere. And an even bigger wonder that God should have bothered to create us in the first place. But God does not make anything merely in order to "show it up": merely for the sake of showing how awful it is, and how wonderful He is. God does not make devils. And it is only as we embrace this simple core truth - that God not only made but fully intended us - that we can begin to understand something of the nature of the good that is in us already, prior to anything we humans think or will or do (much as a wildflower or an oak tree is good, simply by being what it is). And also where that good in us came from, and how it got there. And why, so often since then, it's been so devilishly hard to see and hear.

One reason why, I believe, is that its roots lie considerably deeper than anything we could ever imagine. Because the good in us humans - by which I mean specifically that in us which delights in the beauty of any thing's being all that it is, and having all that it needs* - the good in us, I say, is not just something that's innate. It is in fact much older than anything in us that could ever be revealed by the most clairvoyant of future biologies or sociologies. So old is this goodness, in fact, that so far as it's concerned, the whole debate about which came first - the nature or the nurture - ends up becoming more than a little silly. Rather like debating which grade of weaponry was most decisive in causing the Civil War. And surely, even in so relatively simple a human phenomenon as war, there's a world of difference between what causes, and what merely contours, amplifies, accelerates an event?

* And - if we're to take literally both Isaiah and St Paul - no lion's joy in slaughtering an antelope has ever been greater than its own need for the Savior of the world. 

In any case, the goodness in us goes back much farther than anything any biochemist - or biophysicist - could ever measure, much less any sociohistorian ever document. It is, in other words, a most anciently yearning, brooding, remembering thing. Almost as if it were a kind of junior mirror-image, so to speak, of that most ancient of all broodings, over those very darkest of all waters. Indeed, I suspect we might have a better chance of tracing its beginnings, had we but some real hope of tracing, charting and measuring all the other movements of God.

And yet despite its great antiquity - or perhaps because of it? - the good in us has always had the most brutal and disheartening difficulty making its voice heard. Above, I mean, the din of all the newer, seemingly more urgent and important voices going on within and among us. But that's not to say it can never be heard. On the contrary, it has been known to make the most enrapturingly, heart-achingly lovely, sometimes even eloquent sounds, in the hands of the right coaxer, trainer, elocutionist. And that itself is no exotic event, but something that can happen pretty much anytime, anyplace - given, that is, the right pairing of any one of us with any other. We all have within us the right sounds, and even words, just waiting at eventide, as it were, to crawl out from under the rummage and rubble of our loud, noontime, marketplace voices and selves. And we all have in us the capacity to be the right voice-trainer, given the right student crossing our path. All of which pairings presuppose, of course, that that particular Jesus whom we most often call Christ is already at work in us both. And not just as our covering but as our life and breath. Breath - in other words, spirit. You know, that least understood and most neglected part of us. "I know that nothing good dwells in me,declares St Paul, " that is, in my flesh." Thank God, then, that we humans are so much more than our flesh - more even than the mind of our flesh. For that is where all really Divine work in us begins: beyond any mere carnality, whether of body or of mind. And who knows the way into and out of us - into, and out of, that strange, seemingly inexhaustibly-roomed and -compartmented house of our spirit - better than its carpenter?

Which brings me to my other point. The "evening " good in us is not just hard to hear above the "noontide" noise of our self-importance; most of the time it's all but impossible to see. Like a small, timid animal, that customarily hides because it's grown all too used to being hunted, the good in us usually has to be flushed out. And often - at least when it's not hiding in the house - from out of some pretty dense foliage too. Not to be hunted down, of course, but rather reassured that the coast is clear, that it's now free to move about, provided it keeps to certain paths, and to the company of a certain unrivaled wilderness-guide.

And so again we thank God that we have, in His Son, not just a carpenter who knows the house, but also an explorer well-apprised of its often treacherously-overgrown gardens and other grounds. In short, we have One who knows a thing or two about navigating (and even taming) jungles not just every bit as inhospitable as any found on earth, but more fearsome than any terrain this side of Hell, too. All that - imagine! - inside of us: and each one of us.

Yet it isn't, and never has been, the whole Story. For as I hinted earlier, we too can be trained to keep house and grounds in good order. Both our own and (hard as it may be to imagine in today's semi-Randian America) each other's. But in order for that to happen we need to grasp two things: first, that we even have a spirit, or soul - as well as a mind and a body; and second, a little something of why we have one.

And that is, I find, the one most damning problem with most man-despising satirists, and what makes them so opposite of our wilderness-guide and (if we let Him) grounds-keeper. They can't see the human soul for the human flesh. They spend so much time getting lost in, and angered by, and frustrated and disgusted with, the ill-kept grounds of the estate, that they seldom discover there's a house there at all. Much less the good in that house: the tiny, timid, quavering animal huddled in a dark corner somewhere inside. Rather not unlike Cinderella, quietly lost amid all the commotion of her loudly self-promoting stepmother and stepsisters. But whom did the Prince finally choose?

Which brings me to one last question, apart from which I doubt this essay would even have been possible. For one thing, I'm not sure how far you can judge an entire household merely by who most often comes in and out of it. Or how far you can determine the real worth of a family by considering its Marthas only, and not its Marys. For instance, you'd hardly judge the whole character of even a deceased father's house by ignoring his one surviving daughter, Cinderella; after all, the remaining mother and daughters are only step-. But that's just the problem with most writers of satire: They look at the whole house - the whole man, if you will - from the outside, and they hear the various noises coming from within, and frankly they're no longer even sure the real daughter still exists. I mean, you never see her come out anymore; and in any case she probably always was more or less of an idiot. And, of course, in thus judging "Cinderella" they only succeed in judging themselves, and that the very core, the very heart of themselves. As well of you and me.

Which is exactly my point. For if satirists aren't even sure they have a soul worth bothering about (much less any "Cinderelic" vestige of good in it), on what grounds do they judge and reprimand and castigate ours?

30 September 2011

When My Dream Becomes Your Nightmare

Want to read a really good article on US-Russian relations? Or on the challenges more broadly facing US foreign policy in the coming years, if not decades? You could hardly do better than one of historian Walter Russell Mead's Via Meadia blog entries from four days ago: http://blogs.the-american-interest.com/wrm/2011/09/26/reset-regret/. Here, in just two short paragraphs, I've encountered more sanity, level-headedness, nuance, balance, and good old-fashioned common sense than I'm sure I could find in a whole year's worth of either The National Review or The New Republic on the same subject:

There is a good case for a businesslike relationship no matter who runs Russia. There are many areas of vital strategic interest to both sides where our interests are aligned. Neither country wants China to dominate Eurasia, for example. Neither country wants Islamic radicals to destabilize Central Asia or get control of weapons of mass destruction.

There are also a number of areas in which our interests come into conflict.  The US does not want the Russians to rebuild something like the Soviet Union by incorporating former Soviet republics into a tightly centralized sphere of influence.  Nor do we like the idea that Russia could use its energy resources to detach Europe and especially Germany from the Atlantic alliance. Americans by and large remain convinced that governments like the Putin system in Russia are ugly, unreliable and in the long run justly doomed.  Prime Minister Putin disagrees.

But just to give you an idea of the overall caliber of the blog, and of the general quality of the posts submitted in comment, here's a sample from one of the best responding posts of the day:

I doubt that Germany is thinking in terms of being a client state of Russia. It may well be looking to rearrange European politics; it is practically inevitable that that would mean looking East rather than looking West, considering how heavily tilted West it has been since the end of the second world war. 

In any case, if Germany rearranges its foreign policy, it will be because it is to Germany’s advantage, not because of Russian pressure. It will also be to some arrangement where Germany takes more of a leadership role (as “befits” a country of its economic clout), not an arrangement where Germany bows to a superior.

Now inevitably all this got my own overheated brain going in its usual geopolitical channels. And of course my own reading of Modern History tells me, again and again, that just about any combination of Germany and Russia - and particularly one that works at the expense of the countries lying in between - tends to bring out the ungodly worst in both parties. And so my own posted comments on the original article follow, in a form revised and slightly expanded for the purposes of this blog. But first let me re-highlight just one crucial sentence from the original Mead quote:

Nor do we like the idea that Russia could use its energy resources to detach Europe and especially Germany from the Atlantic alliance. 

If that isn’t one red devil of a geopolitical nightmare, I don’t know what is. And again - as is clear from the responding poster's comments - how easy it is to imagine dog and tail trading places! Picture, say, a Germano-European-managed or -orchestrated Russia, its resources increasingly at the disposal of a most Eurasianly- (rather than Atlantically-) minded Germany. A Germany quite willing to borrow a page from the nineteenth-century American experience of “limitless” frontier expansion. It would be, if I’m remembering correctly, an outcome very much in keeping with Hitler’s own admiration of an American settler-driven land empire, as opposed to the older Western European pattern of maritime, soldier-and-administrator-dependent colonization. At the same time, this new “New Order” could hardly afford to treat all pre-existing inhabitants as just so many Red Indians – or Jews and Slavs? – to be disposed of. On the contrary, I should think a new, eastward-facing Europe would be happy to work with demographically dominant or “stronger” nations (like the Russians?), at the expense of “weaker” or dwindling peoples (like today’s endangered Baltics). Here I keep being reminded of John Foster Dulles’ grim, almost apocalyptic pre-World War II dichotomy of “dynamic” vs “static” nations; small wonder he opposed “dynamic” America’s tilting towards "decadent" Britain and France in the 1930s.    
     
For some reason, too, I have very little trouble imagining this latest New Order mending fences with the sort of emerging Sino-Saudi-Pakistani axis explored in a previous Mead post. After all, might they not both perceive in the US a common enemy – or at least a common competitor? If not the “Anglosphere” as a whole? And what better incentive could they then have for rationalizing and streamlining the resources of their common Eurasian interior? And that for the benefit of all big local buyers – er, powers? 
     
Some might argue, of course, that a Germano-Russo-European combine would have at least as strong an incentive to work with India and Iran against a Saudi-Paki-Chinese axis. Yet somehow I doubt it. Historically Germany – and not least its more Russophile elements (e.g., General Hans von Seeckt during the interwar period) – has enjoyed techno-military ties with China going back to the earliest days of the Nationalist government, if not earlier. Nor can I imagine any rationally-motivated China letting its “fears” of India stand in the way of upgrading ties with Russia and Iran. I mean, if there’s one thing geopolitical Goliaths can agree on, surely it’s the need to eliminate the common obstacle of a bunch of scattered or isolatable Davids?    

The key for us here, I suspect, lies in somebody persuading the Chinese that they’ve far more to lose from a radicalizing and imploding – or implosion-exporting? – Pakistan than from a stable, modern, secular India. (Again assuming, in India’s case, that the modernity and the secularity haven’t already become inversely proportionate.) And that outcome, in turn, may depend on China’s ability to see itself more as a specific, concrete nation and territory, to which jihadists pose an existential threat, and less as a globe-straddling, corporately-organized civilization for which jihadists may be just as much geostrategic assets and business partners. The same may be more or less true of Russia – in which case their real, national interest lies most emphatically in partnership with the West, NOT with an eastward-facing Germany. In either case, I believe the key lies in persuading these two great powers that, humanly (as distinct from corporately) speaking, they’re far better off regarding themselves as national and territorial entities, whose populations are finite and therefore valuable, rather than as corporate and civilizational entities whose human resources are infinitely renewable, downgradable and disposable. I just wish I knew whose gifts of persuasion we could rely on. Ours seem to be in a state of steady depletion since George H W.  

In any event, should both “axes” ever solidify and combine – say, in an effort to limit the Eurasian reach or leverage of Anglosphere – then personally I fear greatly for (quaint old diplomatic phrase!) the “liberties” of Central Asia. And naturally also, in time, for the political freedoms of the whole Euro-Asian land-mass. For one thing, the bulk of the “smaller” peoples would be under immense pressure to go more or less the way of our own native Americans. Or, to phrase it with more geographic relevance, to become "Tibetanized." 

Yet even then, mind you, it’s not like there would necessarily be nothing to celebrate. No doubt the result would prove to be an amazing triumph, on an unprecedented scale, of one version of the American Idea – namely, the American Geohistorical Model of the nineteenth century. Albeit mostly at the expense of the solidarity, power, influence, perhaps even ultimately independence, of the present American Nation. Or, for that matter, of any nation as we presently know it. (Right, as if anyone still cared . . .)   

And then just think: The lifelong horror of that grand old geopolitician Mackinder – a unified Eurasian continent able to command (“No, no, you idiot – AMERICANIZE!”) the globe – would have become a reality. 


Once again: God heal America (before it’s too late?).   


13 September 2011

POST-9/11 Anniversary Reflection

POST . . . because there’s nothing like even a day or two’s dust-settling for helping one see the ground more clearly. Besides helping me to see things in a less jaded (i.e., more wide-eyed and wondrous) fashion.    

For one thing, it never ceases to amaze me how unpredictable, “wildcat,” and unco-operative human political evil can be. Especially when it comes to meshing with our prevailing US political assumptions and agendas.

Take jihadism, for instance. Really, you'd think that what began as a major Godly anti-Communist force of the latter twentieth century (one which - apart from a dash of ideological cement from the Saudis- we and the Pakistani military raised up from practically nothing) would at least have had the  decency not to imitate the barbarism of the godless Soviets they’d just defeated. To say nothing of going those same Russkies one, two or even three better. And then think of the sheer treachery of what eventually followed. I mean, when you consider whom they ultimately proceeded to turn on  (“No, no, Frankie, not me – I’m your CREATOR!”) . . . 

And no, the various al-Qaeda/Taliban/Hizb-ut-Tahrir, etc, franchises may not yet have succeeded in creating their own “god”-anointed Gulag.  But in the event they finally do fail, do you seriously think it will be for want of trying?     

Anyhow, one thing we all do well to bear in mind: Whatever may be the future of al-Qaeda and Sons as a global and organized political force, the peculiar genie called jihadism is now out of the bottle. And it came out of the bottle under our Free World watch (the Communists having by then been well out of the picture), and among our Free World allies. Nor, for once, is this truly monumental wickedness in any way tainted with anything liberal, secular, socialist, atheist, materialist, Eastern European, Russian, Orthodox Christian or even Slavic. Indeed, the sheer absence alone of these characteristics not only seems to have stumped us. It has left us, I would argue, singularly unready to confront the uniquely monstrous evil of this new villain.    

After all, what is jihadism? It is in essence the human preparedness to destroy any human being anywhere without limit. And all in an effort to appease the wrath of one very strange god indeed. A god who – even if he’s not exactly Hate Incarnate – is such, in his blanketing hatred of both sin and sinner, that he seems to like nothing better than the chance to consume them both in one fell swoop. (Then again, isn't it we Yanks who've always said “You are what you do?”) Now for some reason that hatred strikes me as a considerably more hideous menace to decent society than any mere prejudice against non-whites, women or homosexuals. Of course I lack the soaring imagination of more politically correct souls. And so I’ve never understood why we did not, long ago, stigmatize this belief as every bit as reprehensible, shameful and unthinkable as our worst racism, sexism and homophobia. Indeed, as immeasurably worse than any of them. In fact, if we continue NOT to, then I, for one, don’t see how we have any hope of returning our societies to anything like a sane, moderately surveillanced normality.    

Right now, of course, we Westerners prefer to be more or less undiscriminating in the thoroughness of our security procedures (as in airports, tall buildings, etc). That is, we prefer “officially” to treat every man, woman and child, without discrimination, as either a potential jihadist or the potential instrument of a jihadist. Thereby conferring upon one and all the blessings of at least potentially Maximum Public Visibility. Which, I will admit, is very much in the interests of those who market to us all, and sell to us all (i.e., can one ever really know enough about one’s customers?). But meanwhile the jihadist – especially if he’s “only” a sympathizer – is able to escape the one stigma he most richly deserves: that of being a social pariah whose ideas are no more worthy of polite consideration than those of the most hardened neo-Nazi. And we, as states and societies, in our efforts ever more closely to monitor the actions of certain monsters we dare not name, only succeed in becoming more intrusive, more overweeningly arrogant - in a word, more monstrous, ourselves. Not, of course, that our own growing monstrosity should give us Westerners any great cause for alarm. After all, what better way to render even the worst political evils co-operative and pliable than to embrace and enfold them into oneself? 

17 August 2011

Some Work That Has a (Human) Future

We humans are not the only makers in the world. And that is, I think, an important point to bear in mind when we consider that every single thing we do make once came from something else we did not. But even if it were both lavishly possible, and infinitely profitable, to make over every tree on earth into something else, that doesn't even remind us of a tree, I think it might still be worth our human while to keep at least a few "unmade" trees around. The reason is that every tree we keep alive and around is a door we keep open, whereas every dead tree is a door more or less permanently closed. Any living tree is a door, or at least a window, into an aspect or a facet of the mind of God that we ourselves can never hope to recover, or reproduce, or make reoccur - no, not even in our most munificently-endowed space laboratories. The most spitting-image clone we make, and that of the healthiest tree we choose, is still a tree refracted through our minds, our hearts, our hands. Whereas the most pitiful living tree we chance to stumble on is by comparison, as it were, not stale or hothouse, but fresh from the mind of Another. And not, of course, just any other, but One who knows us both in our innermost entireties, because He is both its and our Maker.

Which brings me to what is, I believe, quite probably one of the biggest questions we Christians are likely to face, both at the present time and in our imminent future. A question on the answer to which may hang not only much of our future understanding of that strange, ongoing work we call the Universe, but the future of our own, human, work too. The question is which of the two is more revelatory - more intimately and confidingly self-disclosing - of not only the mind but the face of God (to say nothing of His heart and soul): that tree, or tortoise, or hare, or human being as they've been made; or any, or all, of these creatures as we humans have made them over.

One might argue, of course, that any answer to that question is necessarily a contingent one. That it depends, among other things, on the degree of complexity or sentience or even selfhood, that is already in the creature we're trying to make over. And also upon our own motives in trying to remake it. There is, for example, that wheat whose "nature" we domesticate for our otherwise unsupportable human population-growth, so that a mere grain becomes the basis for whole new civilizations. And then there is that monkey whose nature we distort for our own amusement or self-exaltation, in the hope of making it behave more like a donkey; which practice of cruelty can become the basis for whole new barbarisms. One might suggest even further, perhaps, that the ultimate quality of our motives depends on that part of us - or that place in us - from which those motives come. Suppose there was a "place," as it were - even in us busy hypermodern humans - a place that was most sensitive to, most reluctant to stifle or adulterate or mutilate, the pre-existing selfhood of another living thing. As distinct from some other, more aggressively proactive part of us, which might be prepared to treat even higher living things - and even "unmade" human beings - as just so much "material," like our unfortunate monkey: as things having scarcely more pre-existing selfhood or consciousness than the clay from which one molds a sculpture. Of the two "places" in us, is there one that might be more truly reflective of the nature - or even the Image - of God? Or at least of that face towards us which He "turns" when He is most pleased with us? As distinct from that other face He sometimes shows us, when He finds us most pleased with ourselves? And might not that former place be the source of all the best in our motives? And even - or especially - of those motives by which we Grace-fully remake, or "cultivate," ourselves and each other? This is a matter which I think we'd best leave open at this point: though it is a point to which we'll be returning shortly.

But for now, let us both repeat and expand on our original question: Which creature, in this present and fallen world, is more consistently revelatory of the nature of God - that is, of our Maker as He most longs and yearns to reveal Himself: the man-revised, or the un-man-revised, human or other living being? And if our answer depends, in turn, upon the kind of revision being made, which revision is the more God-revealing: That change which more nearly respects the original nature and personality of the creature being revised, in an effort to discern in them both some original purpose of God (assuming there is any); or that change which more nearly runs roughshod over both nature and personality, in an effort to bend them ever more rigorously and thoroughly to our own purposes? On the answers to these two questions, plus one other, I believe, there hangs the future of our human work. And particularly whether that work is merely great, or truly good.

Because, it seems to me, all work we do that isn't bad or mediocre is either mostly great, or mostly good. Now great work is quite easy to recognize, besides being extremely if not monotonously common these days. Great work essentially is of the kind that dazzles and overwhelms (and sometimes even disorients) you, spinning you around and tossing you head over heels; it can be taut and gripping as a movie, and exhilarating - or nerve-racking- as a videogame; but in any case it's always of the kind that makes you follow, if not chase frantically, after it. Except that when it's "over," you as often as not find yourself wondering just what has been accomplished, or even generated, other than more work. Indeed, one of the strangest things about great work is that it never seems to stop at all. Which is one of the reasons, I think, why it's much better done by all the hyperglorious devices, and systems, and procedures, and ultimately even persons, that we humans create - and will create - rather than by any of us mere humans ourselves. Just watch, I'm telling you, our future superintelligent androids in the making. Watch them take to that same great work, in which we mere land-creatures are presently all but drowning, as a shark takes to water. I question how far any human creature - including the most aggressively driven and enterprising among us - will relish the prospect of swimming with those kinds of workers. Or owners, for that matter (give it time, give it time).

Good work, on the other hand, can be much harder to recognize (especially as it is often so closely interwoven with the great - and in some cases may be all that makes the latter truly purposeful and fruitful). But in any case its results are also, as a rule, much easier and more pleasant to live with - besides being much more humanly (or at least successfully humanly) proportioned. Good work is the kind that does not run away with or from you. And the reason it keeps pace with the one doing it is because it above all it is faithful. Faithful, first of all, to its purpose; but also both to the doer, and to the one(s) on whose behalf that work is being done. In short, good work hews - or adheres - closely to three things:

1) its aim;

2) the nature and the capacity of the worker;

3) the needs - and not just the wants - of those whom that work is meant to benefit, or bless.

And so it follows that any good work, if it is to remain good, must be very deeply and investedly concerned with the lives of those living creatures for whom, by whom, and (in some cases even) around whom it's being done. Which is to say, good work never quite ceases to remember that those human and other creatures who are its means and its ends are, when all's said and done, still God's creatures, and not its own.

And yet even here, much as good work is pleased - and even enraptured - to see the hand, face and heart of God at work in any living thing, it is never content to rest in that knowledge. Rather does it long to be taken, as it were, by those same hands of God to approach, and by those same eyes of God to see into, and even behind, the face of the creature itself. "But whose face?" you ask. First - and most immediately and urgently - the human face, of course. And yet not in such a way as to exclude the faces of those lesser creatures we may encounter, in whatever degree they may be said to possess personality. After all, you don't love the Person of God better by despising, crushing or mutilating the personalities of any of His creatures, any more than you would love the author Dickens more by hating Mr Micawber. Or, for that matter, the author Collodi by hating Pinocchio.

And so finally, as I mentioned earlier, there remains one other question, on which I believe the future of all our good work depends. It is the question of to what face in any creature are we appealing - or better yet, again, what place in that creature are we visiting - when we attempt and resolve to do good work. For there really are, after all, only two places in any living thing, human or otherwise, that we're seeking chiefly to satisfy in any work that we do. Earlier I tried, in a very tentative and rather poor way, to define these two places more or less as the proactive, and the responsive. But I think now may be the time for some rather more thorough - albeit far more poetic - attempts at definition. First, and most familiar to our everyday lives, there is that place, flawlessly level, smooth-paved, sun-baked, endlessly (and exhaustingly) wide and long, in which any creature is most dependent upon itself, and can easily become most conscious and proud of that self-dependence. And then there is that other place, cool, shaded, rippling-streamed, secret as the soul, in which that same creature is most needful -  indeed most haunted and pursued and possessed by the memory - of its Maker. My point is that all meaningful and rewarding work, even when it's being paid for, is an attempt to satisfy some creature's want however shallow, or some creature's need however deep. And of course, in any living being - in any of us - the most pressing and immediate of things crying to be gratified are normally also the most outward. But now suppose that the whole Key to satisfying rightly even the most surface of our wants were found to lie ever further and deeper inward. How then could we know we'd met even our shallowest wants intelligently and wisely -  apart, I mean, from some consideration also of our deepest needs? How could we be sure we'd even begun to satisfy that broad-paved, sun-beaten, most starkly and drily "independent" place in any creature? Until, that is, we'd made at least some attempt to enter into that other, most dependent place of all, dark and cool as that first evening in the Garden when the Lord God walked abroad and Man hid himself, because he knew he was naked, and was afraid?

09 August 2011

A Gun to the Foot

I wonder: Is there such a thing in politics as deliberate self-marginalization? If so, then something tells me our beloved US Congress has just written the definitive book on the subject. For years to come.

I suppose there's nothing quite like mutual sneering, denouncing and anathematizing (as Washington burns) for letting the rest of the world know they don't need you. 635 points in one day. And that's just the Dow. Seriously, did our righteous brothers and sisters do a number or what?

Meanwhile the Dream goes on . . .

07 August 2011

The Dream That Dare Not Speak its Name

Don’t you think the world would be a much simpler place, as well as more cleanly and efficiently run, if more of us would cease to regard our lives as our own? If, once and for all, we’d simply resign ourselves to being self-, leisure- and family-denying foot-soldiers in what, after all, is really a great Global Army of Growth? What’s anyone’s so-called happiness finally worth anyway, compared to the Success of Mankind in ensuring its own indefinite survival, and its own capacity to overcome all human and natural obstacles? What’s friendship finally worth compared to these aims? Or sleep? Or unhurried conversation? Or reading? Or the Humanities? What finally is the value of uncontaminated food to eat, and uncontaminated air to breathe, compared to the immense, presently unimaginable power and longevity we shall soon bequeath to our descendants? 

We were prepared to do it once. If misguided people once considered their own lives as just so many replaceable rungs on the Ladder of Progress, and all in the service of a bad cause – Communism – why can’t we more enlightened ones regard our own lives in a similar light, in the service of a good cause? If people then were prepared to sacrifice their lives, when commanded to do so, to incompetent organizations that barely kept them alive, clothed and fed, how much more should we now be prepared to give our all without question to competent ones – especially seeing that we’re being merely requested to do so, and by organizations that feed, clothe and shelter us efficiently, successfully, and at a profit available to all? And all the more enthusiastically, when you consider that you remain free to do otherwise – that these organizations are in no wise prohibiting or forbidding the satisfactions above-listed, but merely making them more difficult and costly to obtain? 

05 August 2011

A Child Shall Lead Them

I know I've touched on  this subject before. But some things bear repeating. And particularly when that repeating opens the door to further exploration, and deeper discovery.

Time and time again, through many years of reading, I've found my favorite "modern" English poet, Walter de la Mare, to be an all but unique kind of literary master. A master at deriving a sort of sense, or atmosphere, from out of some of the strangest things you'd ever think of. Things so tiny, so faintly and tremulously real, you would think they'd have all they could do just to be themselves, much less carry their own atmospheres about with them. Things like the seeming eternity - or eternality? - of certain often very private, and very brief, interludes of human experience. Or brief, at least, in terms of what de la Mare calls clock-time.

Now in this instance, I'm not sure of everything the author was trying to put into that strange "children's" tale (razor-sharp in both its quietude and its intensity) that he calls "Maria-Fly." But whatever may have been his intentions at each point, I doubt if I've ever been more sure of what I've been able to get out of a story.

Every so often it happens - de la Mare seems to be telling us - it happens that we get a glimpse, a tremor, a tantalizing savor of what the Divine joy in us is like. A taste of the Divine joy in the joy of any living creature at being its own unfettered, unstrained, exquisitely idiosyncratic Self. A Self that is really more like a kind of fragment, or patch, or island, of what we were back at the Beginning - back when we older and newer and fresher than sin. Or, in a word, independent of sin. Because, after all, it is only as we become conscious of ourselves, and self-conscious, and self-critical, and critical of the creatures we've been made (as if we could have done better), that we grow tempted to fashion ourselves, and become fashionable, and so fall into really ugly and ingrained habits of rebellion and sin. But every once in a while we forget ourselves - much as do both Maria and the fly in the story. And then something of the original brilliance, the crystalline glow of the Divine handiwork may show through: both through us, I mean, and through whatever, and whomever, it is we are looking at and trying to get to know. And particularly it may show through - de la Mare seems to suggest - when the encounter is between two distinct, and even distant, kinds of creature. It's as if there were no limit to how happy, and lovely, and love-able the whole world would seem - and even (in a sense) be - given the most intimate degree of self-disclosure between one order, or level, of visible creature and another. And how much more so ( I myself am moved to ask) when that self-disclosure is exchanged between a creature of one kind, and that One who is behind and beyond all kinds?

And then, having come up from such an encounter, as if from out of a cold, sense-awakening baptism, the question is, With what best words do we tell the story, to others of our kind? First of all, with words that know how to do the job, obviously. Yet not just in their usual mercenary and professional ways. Rather, what we want are words that secrete within themselves, as it were, a kind of pastoral vision, acuity, intensity. Which is to say, words that do their jobs not just for love of the pay, like a hired hand, or even for love of the calling or profession. What we need, rather, are words that do what they have to do out of love for the creatures they must tend and care for, like any good shepherd - and however deeply those same words must sometimes cut:

Up until then it had been a morning like a blue-framed looking-glass, but now a fleece of cloud was spread over the immense sky. Far away in the kitchen-garden she came across the gardener, Mr Pratt. With his striped cotton shirt-sleeves turned up over his elbows, he was spraying a rose-tree on which that day's sun even if it came out in full splendour again would shine no more. Maria watched him. 


"What are you doing that for?" she said. "Let me!"

"Steady, steady, my dear," said Mr Pratt - "you can't manage the great thing all by yourself." But he put the syringe with a little drop of the liquid left in its brass cylinder in her hands. "Now push!" he said, "all your might."

Maria pushed hard, till her knuckles on her fat hands went white, and she was plum-red in the face. But nothing came out. So Mr Pratt put his thick brown hands over hers, clutched the tube, and they pushed together. And an exquisite little puff of water jetted like a tiny cloud out of the nozzle.
"It came out then," said Maria triumphantly. ''I could do it if I tried really hard. What, please, are you doing it for?" 


"Ah," said Mr Pratt, "them's secrets."


"Ah," said Maria imitating him, "and I've got a secret, too." 


"What's that?" said the gardener.


She held her finger at him. "I - have - just - seen - a - fly. It had wings like as you see oil on water, and a red face with straight silver eyes, and it wasn't buzzing or nothing, but it was scraping with its front legs over its wings, then rubbing them like corkscrews. Then it took its head off and on, and then it began again - but I don't mean all that. I mean I sawn the fly - saw it, I mean."


"Ah," said Mr Pratt, the perspiration glistening on his brown face, and his eyes at least two shades a paler blue than Mrs Poulton's, as though the sun and the jealous skies had bleached most of the colour out of them. "Ah", he said. "A fly now? And that's something to see too. But what about them pretty little Meadow Browns over there, and that Painted Lady - quiet, now, see, - on that there mallow-bloom! There's a beauty! And look at all them yaller ragamuffins over the winter cabbage yonder. We won't get much greens, Missie, if you can underconstumble, if they have their little way."  


Maria could perfectly underconstumble. But she hated greens. She hated them as much as if she had eaten them on cold plates in another world. It was odd too that nobody had even the smallest notion of what she wanted to say about the Fly. How stupid. But she looked at the Painted Lady none the less. It was limply perched on the pale paper-like flower of the mallow, with its ball-tipped antennae, and sucking up its secret nectar for all the world like the Queen in her parlour enjoying her thick slice of bread and honey. And then the sunshine stole out again into the heavens above them, and drew itself like a pale golden veil over the garden. The Painted Lady's wings, all ribbed and dappled orange and black and white, trembled a little in its gentle heat, as if with inexpressible happiness and desire.

But though Maria admired the creature in its flaunting beauty more than she could say, this was not her Fly - this, at least, was no Maria-Fly. It was merely a butterfly - lovely as light, lovely as a coloured floating vapour, exquisitely stirring, its bended legs clutching the gauzy platform beneath it and supporting its lightly poised frail plumy body on this swaying pedestal as if the world it knew were as solid as marble and without any change; even though now it appeared as gentle as a dream.

Maria was not even thinking as she watched the butterfly, except that she was saying over to herself, though not using any words, that she did not want to go into the drawing-room any more just now; that she had no wish to see her fly again; that she didn't ever want to be grown-up; that grown-ups never could underconstumble in the very least what you were really saying; that if only they wouldn't try to be smiling and patient as though the least cold puff of breath might blow you away, you might prove that you were grown-up too and much older than they - even though you had to eat your greens and do what you were told and not interrupt old gentlemen writing sermons, and must wait for bed-time - no, she was not really thinking any of those things. But her small bosom rose and fell with a prolongued deep sigh as she once more glanced up at Mr Pratt. 


He was hard at work again with his syringe, and now, because the sun was shining between herself and its watery vapour, it had formed a marvellous little rainbow in the air, almost circular, with the green in it fully as vivid as that of the myriad aphides clustered like animated beads round the stems of the rosebuds.


"I told you," she quavered a little sorrowfully, though she was trying to speak as usual, "I told you about something and you didn't take any notice." 
 
( from The Old Lion and Other Stories. London: Faber and Faber Ltd, 1942)


In short, what de la Mare is asking and questing for, I believe, are words of an almost superhuman - or Divine-human? - dexterity and delicacy. Words that, assuming that our encounter has taught us anything, are far less clumsily invasive, and more delicately effective, than even the most intelligent and considerate of modern surgical instruments. And that is to say, finally, words so knowing, and so loving - of both the known and the knower, both the You and the I - that they're able to combine the least trauma, pain and inflammtion with the utmost excision of the actual disease: namely, that peculiar disease of Self - called Self-Importance - which most prevents us from enjoying any God-made thing. Including one as puzzling and exasperating as a human child.

A Conspiracy of Dunces

I don’t typically believe in conspiracies. At least not on the mere human level. The great majority of us suffer from far too limited foresight – and these days, increasingly, attention spans – to sustain a really good conspiracy over more than a few decades. And in particular the more swaggeringly ambitious young bucks among us, who also happen to be, as often as not, the most history-impatient, and history-disregarding. I mean, how can you hope truly to master – much less manipulate – something you consider beneath your dignity even to know and understand? (Although, to be fair, I’m told we make pretty decent stooges, pawns and playthings of certain other beings, entities, etc, who occupy a rather mysterious level at once higher and lower than the human. And that, if anything, the greater and more arrogant our contempt for history the more pawnable we become.)   

But there is one thing – and only one – that I’m sure of, concerning this country’s recent game of chicken over the debt-ceiling issue, and the daily-more-receding mirage of resolution that followed. If the “aim” all along has been, slowly but irrevocably, to make this country an utterly negligible factor in world affairs, then suddenly the mist clears. All at once, everything that’s been happening (and failing to happen) starts to make – not just absolute – but perfectly defensible sense.

19 July 2011

Beyond the House of Pain

Isn't it funny, how often we humans think of the visible world not just as our dominion, but as our preserve, our monopoly, our source of raw materials and field of free-ranging exploitation? And yet - no less do we feel exploited and victimized by it(!): as if we ourselves were somehow cut from a finer cloth, and had been exiled to this gross material realm as to some incomprehensibly strange place, alien and repugnant to our pure spirits, and hostile to our spiritual growth and progress. But what is it precisely we feel exiled from? Is the "enemy" in this case merely a sum total of all the other, subhuman creatures, who've been all along secretly ganging up on us, and now threaten to entangle us pure humans in a materiality that promises only the further suffocation and devouring of our souls? Is this thing, this "world" we find so alienating and corrupting, merely outside of us - and so by implication a thing more comfortably inherent in, or "natural to," subhuman creatures? Or is it something in whose creation - in whose producing and expediting - we humans have been at least partially instrumental? And even something that, in its turn, has made this once very differently configured earth an exile and a prison not just for "old Adam," as it were, but for each and every other creature of the Garden?

I'll tell you what I think. Inside every living creature, I believe, there is that which belongs to this World and is more or less at home in it, and revels in that fact (or thinks it does, or pretends and parades in front of others that it does). Inside every living creature - to whatever degree it is able to will and do anything - there is that which delimits and determines and defines, and resolves and plans and calculates, and drives and executes and intimidates, and ultimately terrorizes and, yes, sometimes even kills. And there is that in it which stops dead in its tracks, and is quiet, and remembers, and ruminates. And yearns. And these two aspects of the same creature are very, very different things. And while no doubt some measure of the first aspect is necessary to that creature's survival in this present order of existence, it is the liberation, if you will, of the second aspect that is most necessary to its rebirth in the world to come. Or - perhaps - even to its carving-out of some (large or small) oasis of peace in this one?

Now I can imagine how improbable and bizarre all this must sound to modern rationalistic ears. What I can't imagine is why it should in the least strange or bizarre to Christian ones. Especially if our Christ is indeed a prince of peace, and if the Grace He sheds abroad truly builds on the Nature He has made. If that is so, then surely somewhere in the nature of the fiercest predator, or of the busiest beaver, there must be something that desires rest and peace, no less than it delights in work and war. Otherwise, it seems to me, we make our Messiah into little more than a celestial Dr Moreau, and His Kingdom scarcely better than a heaven-descended House of Pain, in which not only our creaturely animality, but all our species' native dispositions towards aggression and strife must be tortured out of us.

But if that is so, how do we explain the many passages throughout Scripture - both Hebrew and Greek - that testify of seemingly the whole subhuman creation eagerly awaiting its liberation at the hands of One who is to come? Are these lions and sharks and scorpions naive or what? Can't they see how their "basic natures" are going to be brutally suppressed? That

"they shall neither hurt nor destroy in ALL my holy mountain"?

Or is there - just maybe - something in the nature of lion, no less than of lamb, that hungrily awaits such deliverance as only a Prince of Peace can give?

15 July 2011

When Slave Becomes Master

Once upon a time we were told, on very good authority (Genesis 11:6), that there's no limit to what we human creatures can accomplish when we are of a unified mind and purpose. Neither have we been exactly wanting in diligence since then, in the seeking out, as Ecclesiastes 7:29 puts it, of many inventions. What is unclear to me is the cumulative moral result of all these myriad inventions. Has their net effect so far been such as to make us more pleasing to our Maker, less pleasing, or about the same as when we started? And so, as is nearly always the case with me, I have a question for the present Age.

When, from out of our various automations and automatons, we succeed in creating gods of our own, gods eventually so vast, that we mere men shall be able neither to encompass them, nor to enter into every part of them, nor to heal nor judge nor save them - when we invent gods so greatly superior to and superseding of ourselves, and yet bearing so much the imprint of our fallen selves in everything they think and do, that there'll be hardly a sentence we start that they won't be eager to finish (and rolling their eyes as they do so) - in that event I can't help but wonder: Will these gods, who came from us, be anything like the one we came from? Will these gods we make be anywhere near as merciful and patient, as tender and humble and exquisitely self-identifying with our poor human clay, as the God who made us?

Do you suppose it was mere rhetoric, when our Lord warned His servants that not one of them could ever be greater than his Master? Or did He - just possibly - have in mind another, wholly unexpected meaning than the one we most commonly assign to the word "greatness"?

10 July 2011

All the Confidence of the World

Civilizations, it seems to me, may go on for centuries and even millennia before they finally die or peter out. But nations' powers and pre-eminences can come and go with astounding rapidity. Including those nations whose influence seems endlessly popular or fashionable, or capable of infinite self-renewal. Whatever may be the future of American civilization, there remains yet, I think, one big sticking problem with American power in the post-Cold War era. On the one hand, we've grown far too full of all the glorious things we've accomplished - particularly in the realms of economics, and technology, and just plain getting-stuff-done. On the other hand, we've grown far too empty of any sense of how indebted we are, for whatever good there is in those accomplishments, to anyone or anything either before, or besides, or even beyond ourselves.

In short, we've grown royally stuck on ourselves over the past 20-odd years. And even where the original causes and inducements for it are long gone, conceitedness is a hard frame of mind to get unstuck from. Amazing, too, how it can filter down imperceptibly into every tissue and pore of a society, and into all manner and kind of individual and community (rap, anyone?), even as there's less and less of real accomplishment to justify it in one's country or civilization as a whole. And frankly I fear that, at the rate we're going, this attitude may be the ruin of our American country, even as it seems - for now - to have extended the "relevance" and popularity of our American civilization. In any case, isn't history full of sideliners who are happy to admire and applaud your bravado - until, that is, such a time as the whole charade blows up irrevocably in your face?

I mean all this particularly, though not exclusively, in light of a fast-ascendant China. What a miserable thing it is to have seemingly nothing with which to reply to a competitor's mounting arrogance. Other than more of your own, I mean. Especially when your own has likely played no small part in provoking or fueling your competitor's worst arrogance in the first place. But even with no overconfident mainland China to contend with, I think it still would have been only a very short time before we'd found ourselves stuck between inevitable rock and hard place. Nor is it a matter of us Yanks being vainer or more vicious than other folks. It simply stands both to reason and to human nature as we know it: Whether you're a civilization, a country, a company or an individual - the more you think you have to be proud of, and the less you think you need to be grateful for, the more brutally disregarding you're apt to become of the needs of others. And then eventually - as this climate of brutal mutual disregard spreads - how much more wary, and distrustful, and pre-emptive shall we all need to become, of each other?

An Immor(t)al Future

We all know what it's like to take somebody for granted. But what will happen, do you think, when we start living so long, that that nasty habit becomes virtually hard-wired into the routine social life of the species?

Do you know what is the all-time worst way to treat those closest to you (or even Facebook-close)? Like they're never going to die.

05 July 2011

The Most Vicious Circle

“America is such a young country.”

What?

Do you mean we’re younger than Canada? Younger than Australia, or New Zealand, or even Argentina? Will somebody please tell me what on earth that phrase - which I must have heard times past counting over the course of my life - is supposed to mean?

I suppose it might mean there’s no nation on earth with greater powers of self-renewal and self-reinvention. Or no nation more blithely dismissive, if not brutally devouring, of its own Past (to say nothing of other countries’). Or is it meant more as an excuse for why so often we Yanks not only refuse to learn from, but even more often despise, the lessons of our Past? I know, I know, this time (read bubble) is different.

Anyhow, so much for our perennial vices. As for the youth(fulness) of the Present American Age, ah, now there’s a subject about which, for some reason, I feel far less mystified. In fact I'd swear we’re living in one of the great Cult-of-Youth ages. A revolutionary youth cult so hands-on, so business-driven and corporately-mandated, I can imagine it stirring the capitalism-and-America envy of Chairman Mao himself, at the height of his Cultural Revolution. Then again, why shouldn't we glorify and heroicize youth(ful management)? Hasn't our population - not to mention China's - been getting younger all the time?

Indeed, today we dream as never before of a (medically- and technically-perfected) Fountain of Youth. And so, as if a voice spoke from heaven, there goes out unto the firmament the global command:

"Let nothing and no one ever be old."

At least in spirit. But in that case I wonder, how does anyone ever really grow up? Surely that's one of the more unforeseenly unpleasant side-effects of never growing old - that there may be some life-phases we never quite grow out of? Imagine - no matter how aged you may become physically, or jaded morally - imagine never outgrowing the wisdom and maturity of your 18-year-old self. Or of your 28- (or even your 38-) year-old self.

That is the problem with our American youth today: It starts out much too early (who needs childhood anyhow?) and finishes way, way too late.

29 June 2011

The Fading Inheritance

Obnoxious as modern British culture has become in recent decades - and surely there's no smugness more odious than that which exudes contempt not just of other people but of one's former "stupid" self - yet there is one thing about today's Brits that I continue to enjoy. Unlike perhaps most of us Americans, the British by and large have not yet abandoned the art of writing as if they actually liked words, and took pleasure in them, and saw the point of them. The British, even today, don't seem to write as if they were embarrassed from writing, as if it were something intrinsically effeminate or evasive of real life. They don't write - or maybe they haven't yet mastered the American art of writing - as if the specific words you chose were all a matter of the sublimest indifference, because ultimately having to use words at all was at best a pitiful substitute for actually - well, you know, doing something.

But most importantly for me, somehow the British continue to write - however routinely and indifferently - as if they still had some vague, ancestral notion of words' power, not just to dilute or diminish or obscure, but to enhance and invigorate, one's sense of the living creature being described. And here I mean one's sense, not just of how vivid, and crisp, and cleanly and deliciously itself that creature is, but how loved, and love-able, and able-to-be-delighted-in. Even (when he wants to) by Man. Or certainly, in any case, by the writer. I mean, again, a kind of writer (in this respect not unlike her own Author) so intent on reaching the Heart of the people and things she describes, that the words themselves no longer have to be just traffic jams or temporary roadblocks, or delays or detours due to construction, but can actually become main thoroughfares, maybe even highways and expressways. Or else, at the very least, a long, interminably-winding, yet thoroughly absorbing garden path. (And how much better one that helps us find the shed of the Gardener?)

Best of all, even the most modern- or future-minded British writing may still betray the hint - occasionally - that real creatures, human or otherwise, were made for something better than just human manipulation. It is these latter kinds of suggestion that I especially enjoy, because they contain a subtle reminder to me - however little intended by the writer - that there really are no earthly frontiers, and never have been: that no place on earth is a clean slate; that no frontiers are ever absolute (not even those blazed by hardy Americans); that every earthly place into which we enter is laden with human meanings that preceded ours. And even those few remaining places as yet unsettled by Man are everywhere etched and inscribed with Divine meanings, which once in a while may clash with those cherished significations we'd most prefer to assign or impose.

And so let's by all means try to enjoy today's better British writing where we find it - Charles Moore's weekly column in the Spectator is one instance that comes to mind - and while we can. After all, no writer is indefinitely immune to the inroads of his culture. And in a culture as rapidly and dynamically evolving as modern Britain's, how long, I wonder, before its people one day become thoroughly disgusted with their past selves, and irretrievably infatuated with their present ones? How long, in short, before your average educated Brit has no more use or respect for words than, say, an educated American?

14 June 2011

The Power of Change

Maybe I'm haunted. But somehow I can't seem to shake this haunting sense I have - this sense of an extraordinary fear walking abroad in America today. A virulent, agitating, frenzying fear of tyranny. And not just any tyranny either, but specifically one that is exercised over normal, healthy, strong people by the weak and mediocre.

Indeed I find it to be much the same fear, whether it's of a tyranny exercised by the weak and mediocre directly, or by a certain sinister and ominous Somebody Else on their behalf. Hence this gnawing sense I get - mostly from a lot of things I read, sometimes from what I hear - of a widespread, and possibly growing, perception. A perception that weak and mediocre people, if left to flourish and proliferate unduly, can easily become a positive danger to civil liberties and a free society. That they need either:

1) to die out of their own accord gracefully and unobstrusively; or else (to be less eugenic and more egalitarian about it)
2) to have their weakness and mediocrity more or less squeezed, or scared, out of them, lest that same unfitness to rule and manage themselves - or even, say, to manage a business - should become an opportunity and a foothold for would-be despots, or aspiring demagogues.

As if tyrants wanted nothing more challenging in life than to rule over weak people. As if most really serious, all-or-nothing dictators - the kind most worth worrying about - were looking for nothing better than a secure, easy, predictable life.

I don't think it's that simple. What this scenario keeps forgetting is that your truly self-made, state-of-the-art dictator is about the last one to want to suffer fools easily or willingly. He's apt to have far less patience for weakness and mediocrity than do most to-the-manner-born kings and queens. After all, he's earned his way up; why should he have time for cretins who in all probability have never really earned anything? Any tyrant who's worth his salt, and is on top of his game, is not looking for mostly cringing, sniveling wretches to rule over. He likes and welcomes a challenge. Not only is he at least as good at tyrannizing over the strong and exceptional as over those whom they habitually despise. He's even better at making both strong and weak, rich and poor, slave and free, feel obliged to become yet stronger, and more exceptional. And yet also to feel that, somehow, they can never be quite strong and exceptional enough - either to meet his (always escalating) expectations, or even to earn a small modicum of his respect.

All of this may seem hard to imagine or envision. But I'm quite an optimist when it comes to the Future of Tyranny. I'm convinced that the top-of-his-game tyrant both has been, and will continue to be, able to pull this off. And he will do so with polish and ease, because he understands that even the utmost non-violent mutual animosity among his subjects is a smart despot's best friend. He knows that a State in which every citizen feels desperate to be strong - and equally desperate to prove it - is far the best way to make all citizens most distrustful of and at enmity with each other, and so least able and fit to govern themselves. It is also the best, or at least the most continually tested, way of assuring himself that he continues to be stronger than all of them. Besides further securing and buttressing his own moral high ground ("Look at this pack of hungry wolves I rule over"). And as any honest woman who's ever been seduced and discarded by a rake can tell you: How do you know you're strong, until you've succeeded in exercising your power over someone or something truly powerful? Granted there are risks involved. But what's bitterness and a broken heart compared to a chance at that kind of victory?

In any case, the really skilled adept at tyranny has little if anything to fear from those particular quarters. He's long since buried irretrievably - or so he hopes? - any lingering, pestering memories of either bitter- or broken-heartedness. He alone, in contrast to the various grades of swine grunting round his feet, is authentically master of himself. And so by rights equally free, both to make his herd into whatever he wants them to be, and to make them think they're doing it freely to themselves. Nor am I sure he has any other choice but to mold and manipulate them in this fashion, if he's really serious in his pursuit of power. That is, power as we humans conventionally think of it. Power not in the Divine sense, which of itself is an exquisitely humble, attentive, supportive thing, but in the human sense of a constant vindication of one's pride of independence of anyone and anything, and of one's ability endlessly to remake oneself and others. In this latter sense, please understand, our tyrant has no hope of ever discovering the full extent of his power over his herd - the full depth of what they are prepared to think and do and become in order to please him - so long as he makes few or no demands on his swine. On the contrary, his demands must be constant and relentless and always changing, even to the point of requiring the utter denaturing and dehumanizing of his subjects. After all, how can you truly become anyone's god, except by working incessantly to undo the work of the previous?

"How does one man assert his power over another, Winston?"

I can't help thinking either that Orwell was essentially wrong in the answer he puts into Winston's mouth, or that he was grossly oversimplifying his whole argument in the interests of narrative flow. You don't assert your power over another merely by making him suffer. Any unthinking, unfeeling brute can do that. It is rather - as any honest woman knows - by making him change.

23 May 2011

A Prayer

That real freedom of thought and worship may come soon to the people of mainland China.

And not just freedom of enterprise.

A Cry for Rain

The ardent notes of what I'm told was either a cardinal or a robin (and variously interpreted as either a mating-call or - and I love this one - a cry for rain) came "pleading" through the church windows just this morning. And right in the middle of Mass.

"Lord defend us!" I can imagine some (genuinely!) pious soul intoning. "You see how, even here, Satan uses even the tiny things of the world to impinge upon the sacred things You've given us."

On the other hand, might not that little bird's have been a voice from a certain other corner of "the world?" A realm of which Satan knows little, and understands less? A realm in which - unlike certain places in the human heart - he's always had the most devilish time securing even the tiniest foothold?

17 May 2011

Tory (as opposed to Whig) Interventionism

History waits for no one. And neither, apparently, do the good people of Syria. Talk about sweet reversals. About the Great Destabilizer at last suffering some serious instability. (Though God help us all when/if it starts to boil over.) Anyhow - and regardless of how it ends up - there's a certain delicious irony in the fact that it's happening at all. Really, it's enough of a novelty to leave even us Yanks perplexed, and short-winded.

Not that it should, necessarily. America has always prided itself on the ease and enthusiasm with which it embraces the new. At least our OSAC (Officially Sponsored American Culture) always has. Nor am I suggesting that that pride is unjustified, or that our love of novelty has always been ill-judged. Personally I can't imagine a time in our history when there's been more urgent need to embrace the new. Indeed, I find today's America to be about as ripe as it shall ever be for a new tradition in foreign policy. A foreign policy not merely revolutionary - we've had quite enough of that already - but really new. I mean one that is conservative, in the broadest, deepest, and probably oldest sense of the word. Much older than the legacies of Barry Goldwater, or even Robert A Taft. And drawn from places at once more ancient and more permanent than either Ohio or Arizona. Places like Jerusalem, and Athens. Perhaps even occasionally Rome and Constantinople. And lastly, a foreign policy that is - some might even say - more genuinely nationalistic than anything we've ever known. I don't much care for the latter phrase, as I've indicated elsewhere. But I think I have an idea of what they might mean.

But in order for you to understand more clearly what I'm getting at, I need to ask you to exercise (as I always do) a little imagination.

Imagine a United States that understands - understands willingly and gratefully - a certain corollary of what is for Christians an indisputable fact. For it is a fact that America has absolutely no power within itself to be the earth's salt (which is the job of Christians everywhere). But that doesn't mean America has either the right or the duty to appoint itself to be the earth's solvent. Or even to be its own solvent. Today, indeed, we Americans may lack even the power to form among ourselves a more perfect union. But that doesn't mean we have the duty to enforce among ourselves a more thorough separation.

Let me see if I can explain a bit further. It is a fact that you can't compel widely disparate human individuals to recognize and value each other's common humanity - and hence each other's common need for salvation (and that quite regardless of how contemptibly idle you are, or how commendably industrious I happen to be). But that doesn't mean you're morally obliged to do the opposite: to create those conditions under which recognition of that commonality becomes increasingly difficult, if not all but humanly impossible. Those precise conditions are, in fact, what creates the breeding-grounds of sin, which in itself is nothing to mess with. Indeed, it is precisely this failure or refusal - on my part or yours - to acknowledge our common humanity that makes it easiest for us to sin in really big ways (to give each other the royal shaft, so to speak): this strange sense I have that, however lowly I may be relative to the God, why, I'm practically a god myself compared to you. And the fact that you or I can never be God does not give either of us the right to play Satan, whether as despot or as tempter. It is no more right to encourage a system that brings out the aggressive worst in each of us - a system of rigid class based on wealth, intelligence, productivity or accomplishment - than it is to acquiesce in a system that's always brought forth our passive human worst - a system of rigid caste based on race, birth, parentage or connections. And there are times, I believe, when encouraging a hierarchy of merit can be every bit as dangerous to a place's military preparedness - to its people's capacity to defend and care for and even cultivate themselves - as accepting a hierarchy of birth can be to that place's civilian productivity.

My point is there are times when we Yanks need to ignore, or set aside, those caste barriers that are apparently so conducive to a robust global economy, and yet potentially so inimical to both national and global security. Times when even a people as proudly individualistic, and as upwardly aspiring, as Americans need to close ranks with those beneath them. And even to regard their supposed inferiors, in the words of Scrooge's immortal nephew Fred, more nearly "as fellow-passengers to the grave, and not as a race of creatures bound on other journeys." Times, in short, when Americans of every description have both a right and a need to act together as a nation, in addition to doing what they already do so well: acting separately and oppositely, as cross-sections of transnational economic, professional, religious and ideological interests.

And to me that means again - and today more than ever - that America needs a new tradition of foreign policy. One that is both patriotic - in the sense of loving unashamedly both the American place, and the American people, for no other reason than because they belong to us - and interventionist, not because the rest of the world also belongs to us, but because other countries have a no less compelling need to belong to themselves. That is, we need to become more interventionist, not nearly as much by interfering in other countries' internal affairs (though that may sometimes be necessary), as by interfering in certain things we're already doing in those countries' internal affairs. Things we're doing, in an effort to make certain countries "more like us," that are based on the rather bizarre assumption that these countries are already like us. Things we've done, like more or less extortionately liberalizing the economies of Egypt and Russia, while making almost no effort to foster in those countries what are surely the institutional foundations of any decent capitalism: rule of law, property rights, a fraternal sense of being one nation, and - last but never least - representative democracy. Finally, things we've been doing that, without anyone in the least intending them to,* are making all sorts of countries an instability and a danger, perhaps even a tinderbox. And not just to themselves or to their immediate neighbors, but sometimes even to us.

* Most of the time we're only trying to make a humble profit, by engaging with like-minded individuals everywhere irrespective of their national origins (I mean they're all Americans at heart, aren't they?).

Above all, I believe we Americans need to be more patiently and delicately interventionist, not so much because of our already keen sense of moral exceptionality - our sense of superiority and immunity to the problems afflicting "lesser" countries and peoples - as because of an even sharper sense of our moral responsibility. Because after all, no mess that a country finds itself in is ever entirely its own fault. At least not in the extremely interdependent world America has succeeded in networking. In a few cases it may even be a fault in which Americans have had a considerable share. And letting a country stew in "its own" juices - particularly when not a few of the ingredients suggest US as well as local chefs - is no insurance that the pot won't boil over.