Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Saturday, February 27, 2021

The Friendship of Christ, Chapter 12: Christ Our Friend Crucified (second and third words)

The three remaining installments for this chapter each cover two of the last words of Christ. Erin and I will each take a word; here I write about the second, and she'll take the third.

Now one of the criminals hanging there reviled Jesus, saying, "Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us." The other, however, rebuking him, said in reply, "Have you no fear of God, seeing that you are subject to the same condemnation? And indeed, we have been condemned justly, for the sentence we received corresponds to our crimes, but this man has done nothing criminal." Then he said, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom." He replied to him, "Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise." (Luke 23:39-43)

All four gospels mention that Jesus was crucified between two criminals. Matthew and Mark note that both criminals abuse Jesus, John notes that their legs were broken to hasten their deaths. If these three accounts of Jesus's life were all that came down to us, we would know nothing of the drama of the Good Thief. 

Luke, however, recounts two exchanges: one between the criminals, and then between one of them and Jesus. Even John, standing at the foot of the cross, didn't hear or remember this detail, and indeed, a crucified man can barely get enough air to project his voice without excruciating pain. So Luke's source for this incident, as for the rest of his gospel, must have been someone who was so close to Jesus as to catch and hold every word: Mary.

Benson does not mention this detail, but his next section (on Jesus's word to Mary) reflects on how her share in Jesus's suffering makes her more truly our mother than her physical maternity of his body. And here, through Luke's account, we see her cherishing and honoring a man who who died publicly shamed and dismissed by everyone down to the three other gospel writers.

Benson focuses on the movement of grace in the soul, even (or perhaps especially) in a moment of particular horror and pain: " the silence, the Grace of God and the habits of the past have been at work together." The habits he refers to are of the other criminal, fighting and cursing to the end, but the line in isolation struck me as an example of how grace does often work in our lives: not generally through a blast of blinding light, as with St. Paul, but through what is ordinary, even to the habits we've fallen into. We do a thing one day, something we've done a thousand times before; we pass something we pass every day -- a tree, a building, a person -- and suddenly it is revealed to us as we've never seen it before. We perceive it, even darkly, as through a glass, as God perceives it. And we are aware of grace, whether or not we choose to allow it free rein.

This openness, even the slightest of cracks, is all. "...This man to whom [grace] came was not wholly self-centred," Benson said of the thief; "there was still in him enough receptivity for Grace to enter." Dante, in his Inferno, places the soul of a man still alive on earth, but dead to grace, in the very depths of Hell. This is poetic and literary license, but the horror of it prompts any self-aware reader to examine her conscience and beg Jesus for a heart of flesh, not stone.

But we want to have our spiritual cake and eat it too, what Benson calls "attempting to change God rather than ourselves", rendering ourselves "indispensable to the Divine Cause." And of course, reducing the spiritual life to a human scale of ambition and progress is a recipe for failure, even if externally the failure looks like success and prosperity and productivity. Those are not good benchmarks, for the plain reason that they are not what Jesus asks of us. 

Finally, for whatever reason -- a sudden flash of self-knowledge, as in Benson's example, or the rock bottom of pain and degradation, as with the Thief -- all we have left to offer Jesus is nothing. We can give nothing to him, and ask of him only that he remember us. And we wait miserably for the humiliation we know is in store for the person who gives up her very self.

"And then," says Benson, "by one more bewildering paradox, all is done; and the soul in that instant has what she desires. She has prayed that she may learn to serve, and with the very utterance of that prayer finds that she has been taught to reign. For she has learned the lesson of Him who was made in the form of a servant that He might rule kings -- of him who was meek and umble of heart, and she has found rest to her soul. For His arms are that instant about her, His kiss is on her lips, and His Words in her ear -- "To-day thou shalt be with me in Paradise!"

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

The Friendship of Christ: Chapter 11, Christ in the Sufferer; and Chapter 12, Christ Our Friend Crucified (Part I)

I think that "Christ in the Sufferer" must disappoint many who turn to it in hope, at least if the few comments in our little reading group were to be believed.  

Some of us, being sufferers ourselves, are looking for instructions on what to do with our own suffering.  We have been told that we ought to unite our sufferings to Christ's.  We may have been told that we ought to "offer up" our sufferings, perhaps on behalf of some other soul; for example, one person reported being taught that suffering should be offered "for the poor souls in Purgatory."

But exactly how one does this is always left unsaid.

Others of us, and I count myself among them, may be searching for help learning what to do with other people's suffering.  We may feel helpless faced by the suffering around us:  faraway suffering that we only read about, or a suffering person right in front of us, whether it is a stranger or a loved one.  Maybe it is our appointed duty to do something particular to help; it can be a relief to know it; but perhaps what we can do is useless or incomplete, and then we are still left with suffering we can't help.  Or maybe we don't know what to do:  to say "it's not my job" seems wrong, and yet the fear that we might make it worse if we don't understand what we are doing is not an ungrounded one (see:  book of Job)!  Faced with a third suggestion, that we should suffer-with the sufferer, com-passion-ate ourselves... if we are not naturally feelers of others' feelings, how can we make ourselves do it?

There seem to be no easy answers here either.

And Benson's chapter does not help us.  He remains distant from the sufferer.  He does not help the sufferer, and he does not help the one who would serve the sufferer.   What are we to make of this?
I did not feel quite as alienated by Benson's take on suffering as most of the group did, but this was not a chapter that resonated with the readership. Fortunately, Benson is about to move from a philosophical discussion of suffering to ground zero: Christ our Friend Crucified.


And the first word of our friend, crucified, is, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do."

I. "...they know not what they do." This, Benson argues, is key, because it's very clear in the gospels that the various characters involved in the Passion thought they knew what they were doing: buying themselves peace by putting an innocent man to death. 

Drilling down even further, their error, and the error of all humanity, was that they thought they were doing it. The whole sordid soap opera of the Passion, all the tawdry human motivations on display, the strategies, the alliances, the manipulations, the key players the priests and Pilate, with Jesus as a pawn in their war: nothing more than surface-level dust. And deep underneath it all, on the cosmic level, God himself was willing each sacrifice and step of suffering to undo every tangled surface evil, undoing each deed as the people who thought themselves the chief players enacted them. They knew not what they did because they thought Jesus was truly weak and powerless. They knew they were hurting a man, but they didn't know they were hurting God. And because of that, he forgives them.

II. ...As we should forgive those who trespass against us. As Jesus suffered, so his body, the Church, suffers at the hands of the world. The Church suffers both for being Christlike and unChristlike. As it is unChristlike, as its members sin against each other and the community in ways both hugely evil and almost invisibly petty, this suffering is a purification. As it is Christlike, as it is persecuted even in the midst of providing Christ's love and mercy to a world that lashes out in its own pain, it suffers as Christ does -- which is, Benson points out, by forgiving its persecutors.
This prayer, then, is one which we can take upon our own lips.... We have abused the French Republic and the Portuguese revolutionaries, and the Italian Freemasons, and the Spanish anarchists, and the Irish Orangemen long enough. In the very point of our agony we must learn to pray: Forgive them, for they know not what they do.
I won't add any specific modern groups, because each person thinks the Church is being persecuted by his or her own enemies. The point is: pray for those enemies. Jesus thinks that they know not what they do, which must be enough for us.

III. And so we come to the real sting of the section: where Jesus forgives me, individually, not as his enemy, but as his friend.
We confess to a little sloth and lethargy, a little avarice, a little lack of generosity. We "know what we do," in part: we know we are not faithful fo our highest inspirations, that we have not done all that we might, that we have shown a little self-will, a little malice, and little pardonable temper. And we confess these things, and give an easy absolution. And yet we know not what we do. We do not know how urgent is the need of God how tremendous are the issues He has committed to our care, how enormous is the value of every soul -- of every act and word and thought that help to shape the destinies of such a soul. We do not know how here, in these minute opportunities of every day, lie the germ of new worlds that may be born to God, or crushed in embryo by our carelessness.

First of all, ouch, because Benson has just accurately and publicly dissected my last confession. 

Second, as a constant Friend, Jesus forgives us for repeatedly refusing his help in rekindling our first love for him. Benson sketches the arc of soul whose first ecstatic bliss who gradually grows colder and world-weary, letting its love for Jesus become a static memory rather than a living, changing, deepening relationship. But doesn't that same drama also play out moment by moment and second by second? Things are easy, and we see the future in a straight line from that moment, and rejoice, even just a little. Things turn harder, and we see the future in a straight line from that moment, and despair, even just a little. We create the future -- and the past -- in our own image, without knowing what we do. And as long as we relinquish that creation to Jesus and accept what he gives in return, we hold onto his friendship. And as long as we cling to our scripted joys or sorrows, we refuse the real opportunities to participate in his joy and suffering -- which is, in the end, the true work of a friend.


Next: the second and third words of Christ crucified.

Monday, February 22, 2021

Sweat of My Brow

Last week was a scheduled week off lessons for us, and I had so many plans for my leisure time. I would rewrite the first chapter of Strange Plots. I would build a bookcase, for which I already have all the material to hand. I would write a letter a day for Lent, and get up and say Morning Prayer and do all the dishes each night after dinner.

What I forget when making these pretty plans is that I actually have a full-time job, which is running a household, and that this job does not go away simply because I declare a week off. And since the other adult in the house also has a full-time job, that means that certain maintenance activities that need to be done in daylight hours fall to me. 

So: I spent hours last week shoveling the snow that would not stop falling. I could have fired up the snow blower, but I've never used it, and the shovel has no learning curve. For me, that is: I sent my 12yo son out to shovel one day and ended up redoing the job, which is why I just did it myself the next time.

I spent time up on a ladder on the porch roof, removing snow and doing non-OSHA approved activities with a hammer, sharp screwdriver, and a heat gun to clear the ice dam that was making water back up under the slates and drip into the kitchen. 

Both of these were exhausting jobs, and instead of shaking off the snow and diving right into to creative work, I put in a certain amount of recovery time (cocooned in a comforter trying to restore feeling to my frozen extremities, in the case of ladderwork on the porch roof on the north side of the house, which does not have the aerobic component of snow shoveling).

So much for physical labor, but I also spent the week in constant prayer for and worry about conditions in Texas. Long-time blog readers will know that we lived just north of Austin for years, and many friends were in rather dire straits for several days. Each night as I snuggled in my warm blankets I prayed for those who were without heat; each morning for those without water. And so, the only part of my grand vacation plan I achieved was saying Morning Prayer before I suited up and went out to wrestle with the elements, feeling like offering up my work was the only thing I could do for my friends far away.

As to the dishes, I have been chipping away at them in the evenings, but this resolve also reveals to me the weaknesses in my housekeeping, because when you have eight people using dishes during the day, you can't clear the dinner dishes until you clear the lunch dishes, which you can't clear until you clear the breakfast dishes, which is definitely not happening regularly. "Make your kids do them, MrsDarwin!" you say, to which I say, A, I do, many days, and B) you frickin' come to my house and guide children to maturity day after day for eighteen years, and maybe there will be days when you too wish things would happen without your having to make them happen. And some days they do, and for that I'm very grateful to my big girls.

As to writing: I've forgotten how, and have spent fruitless time staring at a page not even sure how to put down a word to capture what I already know I want to say, and that is why I'm writing here, to build up those muscles again. "In pain shall you labor," said God to Man, "by the sweat of your brow shall you get your bread." And don't I rue it, until that sweat is the only thing I have to offer in solidarity with those far away. Then, work is a gift -- not to God, who requires nothing, but to us who want to feel like we're doing something

But even if that is taken away, then we are most like Christ, on the cross, offering himself through helplessness. And so every moment is a gift. It's just not usually the gift we asked for. But I'll tell you what -- if I'd had my perfect week of writing and bookshelving, I bet I wouldn't have been faithful to my Morning Prayer. And in the end, that's the only thing I did last week that will endure through eternity.

Thursday, February 18, 2021

Snow Day

"I will write something clever," I said, and then I sat down and my hips began protesting because for the last few days, all I have done is shovel snow. And it's a great workout -- I'll see your Crossfit and raise you a load of packing snow -- but my wrists are sore.

So here: A Snow Day, in Photos.

This morning I came downstairs and discovered water on the counter, dripping in from the top of the windows looking out onto the screened-in porch.

The screens roll down from a box above the window, so any time water gets in a box, you have to worry about rust.

What's above that window, MrsDarwin? Glad you asked! The porch roof is covered with two feet of packed snow, except for this mound here, which is about four feet high. The snow covers the edge of the rubber roof of the porch. Could it be melting snow that was dripping down through the roof into the kitchen? Should someone climb out onto the roof to inspect it, and shovel off the weight of snow?

These windows are in our stairwell which overlooks the porch roof. I did not choose to unscrew the storm windows and force open the casements into the snow. No, I chose to open a bedroom window, put out a stepladder, and hoist myself out and down.

Understand that my hips are wider than the opening. I have spared you all video, though my 12yo son longed to record my contortions as I put my one foot onto the ladder while my other leg was still on the window sill, and the ladder sank into the snow.

That's the bottom step of the ladder, without sinking down through all the layers of snow.

And here's that mound. I took a couple of whacks at it before I remembered to get a picture.

"Mom, look up here!" my son yelled from the bedroom, and then he cackled and used my phone against me.

After all that, however, the likely culprit for the leak is our frozen-solid gutter.

The gutter which has icicles forming at the soffits, indicating water inside. 

At which point I took no more photos because I was tired, and I went inside and the dripping had stopped as mysteriously as it started, and then I sat around and stared at my phone for a while and then went out and shoveled the driveway again because it was still snowing.

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

The Anti-Sacramental House

This morning I opened the door, took a nose-cracking sniff at the 0 degree air, and shut myself back in the snug house. Our power grid, optimized for winter performance, is working as it ought, and the water flows both hot and cold. We are not chilly, but if we were, we have winter coats and snow pants and boots for almost everyone. But we shiver in impotent sympathy for our friends in Texas, whose houses are build to shed heat, not retain it, whose heating relies on electricity from a grid never designed to withstand temperatures this low. 

A friend in the Dallas area recently built a house which included a fireplace. The fireplace, which is completely enclosed, runs on gas, with an electric starter. She asked the builders if she could pay extra to get a wood burning fireplace. No can do, she was told. You could put a wood burning fireplace outside, where burning wood belongs, but it was not allowed to include the safety hazard of a fire area designed to heat while safely venting smoke outside. Why would anyone even want such a thing, in Texas?

This week people are dying from carbon monoxide poisoning from trying to heat their homes with fire without an area specifically designed to safely vent smoke outside.

I said that Texas houses were built to shed heat, and that's true in a sense, but let me tell you about the suburban box we lived in, north of Austin. Nowhere, in this house built in a region where there are routinely weeks above 100 degrees in the summer, were there windows on opposite walls to promote a cross-breeze. The house was not designed for air circulation. It was designed for air conditioning. Without electricity, the house barely functioned. The windows neither ventilated nor let in much light; the fireplace (gas, but we never had a gas log and so burned wood for a scenic blaze) was mostly for show, built into a tall open space where any heat it might generate quickly dispersed. Vestigial features, for plugged-in humans.

Such boxes are cheap to build, which is why they're built. They're not unique to Texas, of course; that's just where I lived in one. I don't know what we would have done in a historic cold snap, because we never had one in the seven years we lived there. I do know that if we'd had to heat our house for days on end without electricity, we could have burned every stick of furniture in the house without generating enough warmth to heat beyond the hearth, because the fireplace wasn't made to be functional. It was included in the house mainly to add a bullet point to the real estate list. It was anti-sacramental -- it effected the opposite of what it signified.

I don't know what changes will be made once Texas regains power and takes stock. People are suffering, and the immediate alleviation of that suffering is the first step. But maybe, this and other disasters will cause a rethinking of the very concept of house as aiding survival, not actively working against it.

Please, please pray for Texas, and all without power, water, heat, and food.

Saturday, February 13, 2021

The Friendship of Christ: Chapter 9, Christ in the Sinner, and Chapter 10, Christ in the Average Man

 For Chapter 9, Christ in the Sinner, Erin reflects on a scripture passage in which the sinner and the saint are mirror images of each other:

Christ was crucified between two thieves, or revolutionaries, or both; between two Sinners. 

Christ died on the cross between a Sinner and a Saint. 

I think it is a little bit unfair to contemplate the Good Thief and think merely, "I am contemplating a Sinner."  It's not wrong—with few exceptions, all saints are sinners—but we are ignoring two things when we do this.  First, we are contemplating the Good Thief from a perspective that knows he is really a Saint as well; second, there is a perfectly appropriate example of a Sinner right there on Christ's other side

There will never be a better example of how Christ is reflected both in the Saint and in the Sinner.  The three men look alike in their agonies from the feet of the crosses.  Benson says, "For the crucifix and the Sinner are profoundly, and not merely superficially, alike in this—that both are what the rebellious self-will of man has made of the Image of God..."  Melanie Bettinelli and I have discussed this concept before as the concept of the "damaged icon."

So let's look at the other man.


Erin highlights Benson's point that the Saint and the Sinner are, in fact, mirror images of each other, and both openly mirror Christ. As Jesus said, "When I am lifted up, I will draw all men to myself." His lifting up on the cross was as Sin itself, and yet it is Christ as Sin that draws all men. 

What about everyone else who's neither Saint nor Sinner?

What about all the schlubs who are neither saints nor sinners? The folks just kinda doing their thing, living lives of quiet desperation, or not so quiet desperation, or maybe not desperate at all because they're good people, right? The jerk on the bus trying to impress a bored girl with some long story? The person holding up the check-out line to argue with the cashier about coupons? The clerk at the DMV who's spent the last five minutes gossiping with a co-worker about her sister-in-law while you're stuck in line? The people who are shallow, petty, ignorant, frustrating, self-absorbed?

All Christ.

Benson draws on the parable of the Last Judgment, with its separation of the sheep from the goats, and the ignorance -- "it would seem genuine and sincere ignorance," he notes -- of those being judged. The sheep are truly puzzled that they have been serving Christ all their lives. The goats are truly puzzled that they have not actually been serving Christ.

(Christians, note well: they did not realize that the way they were spending their lives was not actually serving Christ. Which means that they, who knew him, so they thought, thought also that they were serving him with deeds that he did not recognize.)

"But the explanation is not so difficult," Benson says.

It is that the ignorance is not complete. For it is a universal fact of experience that we all feel an instinctive drawing towards our neighbour which we cannot reject without a sense of moral guilt. It may be that owing to ignorance or wilful rejection of light a man may fail to understand or believe the Fatherhood of God and the claims of Jesus Christ; it may even be that he sincerely believes himself justified intellectually in explicitly denying those truths; but no man ever yet has lived a wholly selfish life from the beginning, no man has ever yet deliberately refused to love his neighbour or to deny the Brotherhood of man, without a consciousness, at soe period at least, that he is outraging his highest instincts. Christians know that the Second Greatest Commandment draws its force only from the First; yet, as a matter of fact, in spite of this, it is perfectly certain that though some men fail, for one reason or another, to feel the force of the First, no man has ever yet, without a sense of guilt, totally rejected the Second.

...Here then is an undeniable fact. The man who does not keep the Second Commandment cannot even implicitly be keeping the First: the man who rejects Christ in man cannot accept Christ as God." (emphasis added)

Finding Christ in the average person -- as he or she is right now -- "to do this perfectly and consistently is Sanctity."

Benson makes what I increasingly believe is a truth universally unacknowledged: that doing big exciting things because they are exciting is antithetical to Christianity. Not that projects large in scale can never be undertaken, of course -- but that the thrill of any given venture has nothing to do with whether or not God wills it, and indeed the thrill may be inversely proportionate to the call. is, therefore, a very real spiritual snare that we should mistake Christ's gifts for Christ, religiosity for religion, and the joys possible on earth for the joys awaiting us in heaven -- in a word, that we should mistake the saying of "Lord! Lord!" for the "doing the Will of the Father who is in Heaven." Continually and persistently, therefore, we have to test our progress by practical results. I find it easier and easier to worship Christ in the Tabernacle: do I therefore find it easier and easier to serve Christ in my neighbour? For, if not, I am making no real progress at all. I am not advancing, that is to say, along the whole line: I am pushing forward one department of my life to the expense of the rest: I am not developing my own Friendship with Christ: I am developing, rather, my own conception of His Friendship (which is a totally different thing).

Which leads back to the schlubs. We each have our own conception of what is attractive, even if it is one the World does not share; we each have our own way of seeing the diamond in the rough or hidden worth. Most people do not fall into our private category of loveability, and indeed, our private categories are irrelevant to a person's absolute worth in Christ. Better to learn and live this truth on earth than discover it to our horror at the separation of the sheep and the goats.

Thursday, February 11, 2021

The Great Nothing-Conspiracy of the 2020 Election


Time Magazine has a much-shared piece entitled "The Secret History of the Shadow Campaign That Saved the 2020 Election".  It's been shared around a lot on social media.  On the right, I most often see it shared with the comment, "See, now they're admitting they stole the election" or "No Republican will ever be able to win national office again; the fix is in."  So I figured I'd do what a lot of people sharing the article perhaps hadn't done and read the article -- not the just the headline but the entire thing.  Having finished it, I'm surprised at how little it has to say.

The oft quoted opening summary goes:

The handshake between business and labor was just one component of a vast, cross-partisan campaign to protect the election–an extraordinary shadow effort dedicated not to winning the vote but to ensuring it would be free and fair, credible and uncorrupted. For more than a year, a loosely organized coalition of operatives scrambled to shore up America’s institutions as they came under simultaneous attack from a remorseless pandemic and an autocratically inclined President. Though much of this activity took place on the left, it was separate from the Biden campaign and crossed ideological lines, with crucial contributions by nonpartisan and conservative actors. The scenario the shadow campaigners were desperate to stop was not a Trump victory. It was an election so calamitous that no result could be discerned at all, a failure of the central act of democratic self-governance that has been a hallmark of America since its founding.
This is the inside story of the conspiracy to save the 2020 election, based on access to the group’s inner workings, never-before-seen documents and interviews with dozens of those involved from across the political spectrum. It is the story of an unprecedented, creative and determined campaign whose success also reveals how close the nation came to disaster. “Every attempt to interfere with the proper outcome of the election was defeated,” says Ian Bassin, co-founder of Protect Democracy, a nonpartisan rule-of-law advocacy group. “But it’s massively important for the country to understand that it didn’t happen accidentally. The system didn’t work magically. Democracy is not self-executing.”

But what does the story actually show? 

It partly follows the efforts of Mike Podhorzer, an AFL-CIO political advisor who put together an informal group to share ideas on how to deal with what he considered to be the two most likely outcomes of the election: "Trump losing and refusing to concede, and Trump winning the Electoral College (despite losing the popular vote) by corrupting the voting process in key states."

Now, I think it's worth pausing a moment to think about those two alternatives, because what they highlight is that he wasn't prepared to think about the possibility that Trump might just plain win the election.  He seems to be implying that if Trump won again via a narrow margin in key electoral vote states, this would be "by corrupting the voting process in key states".  In other words, what we're hearing from here is the mirror image of the "stop the steal" crowd -- people not willing to admit it's possible to lose.

You might think this was pointing towards dark revelations of how this "shadow campaign" tilted the election towards Biden.  But what follows is...  not very exciting.  Members of the group helped get funding for masks, gloves, and hand sanitizer for poll workers.  Others supported campaigns to get mail-in voting approved more widely by states and to encourage people to make sure of it if they had COVID related concerns about voting in person.  They promoted news about how the counting would likely look: if the in-person votes were counted first, the counts would at first look Trump-heavy, and then as mail-in ballots were counted the count would shift towards Biden.  They encouraged people to report disinformation to platforms like Facebook and Twitter rather than writing explainers enouncing it because the denunciations tended to just make the disinformation spread faster.

It makes a great deal of some rather anodyne moments.  Such as the AFL-CIO and Chamber of Commerce putting out a joint statement saying: “It is imperative that election officials be given the space and time to count every vote in accordance with applicable laws.  We call on the media, the candidates and the American people to exercise patience with the process and trust in our system, even if it requires more time than usual.”

After the election, the left-leaning parts of the network encouraged their allies not to stage big post election protests, lest they turn violent.  

The article also tries to give the activists a lot of credit for focusing attention on a few of the "pressure points" in the election counting and certification process:

Election boards were one pressure point; another was GOP-controlled legislatures, who Trump believed could declare the election void and appoint their own electors. And so the President invited the GOP leaders of the Michigan legislature, House Speaker Lee Chatfield and Senate majority leader Mike Shirkey, to Washington on Nov. 20.

It was a perilous moment. If Chatfield and Shirkey agreed to do Trump’s bidding, Republicans in other states might be similarly bullied. “I was concerned things were going to get weird,” says Jeff Timmer, a former Michigan GOP executive director turned anti-Trump activist. Norm Eisen describes it as “the scariest moment” of the entire election.

The democracy defenders launched a full-court press. Protect Democracy’s local contacts researched the lawmakers’ personal and political motives. Issue One ran television ads in Lansing. The Chamber’s Bradley kept close tabs on the process. Wamp, the former Republican Congressman, called his former colleague Mike Rogers, who wrote an op-ed for the Detroit newspapers urging officials to honor the will of the voters. Three former Michigan governors–Republicans John Engler and Rick Snyder and Democrat Jennifer Granholm–jointly called for Michigan’s electoral votes to be cast free of pressure from the White House. Engler, a former head of the Business Roundtable, made phone calls to influential donors and fellow GOP elder statesmen who could press the lawmakers privately.

 Maybe these efforts were a factor.  Maybe not.  I think it's worth noting that although many GOP politicians who were in a position to win points with angry and fearful GOP voters by grandstanding about the election did so (looking at you, Ted Cruz) none of the GOP state officials and GOP-appointed judges who had parts to play in the election drama caved to the hysteria and conspiracy theories.  Even the electoral vote objections on January 6th, disgraceful as they were, had no path to changing the election results.  These were drama-only events which served to create hatred and division but did not actually have any chance to change the election result.  

That's not to say that it's bad or even useless that a lot of people put time and effort into trying to make sure that the election moved forward smoothly.  After all, a democracy is a government of and by the people, and out state works not merely because "the state" does things but because many organizations and informal networks throughout society support the working of democracy.  (As a side note, this is why it's hard to "spread democracy" in places that do not have a culture and history which support it.)

But I think it's important to note that the fear-inspired reactions to this piece from left and right are both wrong.  No, we didn't come within a hair's breadth of having our democratic institutions collapse; we just had a very contentious election that some people did not like the results of.  And no, this is not proof that a dark conspiracy of elites and big tech now will control all elections, it's just a puff piece about some people who think they did their part to keep democracy working.

There is probably an important lesson to be learned here in terms of the sorts of organizing that will be important in the future.  Just as Trump's organization in some ways drew lessons from the way that Obama organized his successful campaigns, there are probably useful lessons to be learned from this group left, right, and center.  But what people should not take from this is that not dark forces control it all and there's no point in bothering to vote anymore because the fix is in.

Saturday, February 06, 2021

We Need the Classics

The NY Times had a longform piece this last week about Princeton Classics professor Dan-el Padilla Peralta and the movement of which he is a part to re-form what the discipline of Classics is about, or whether it exists at all.  I've felt the strong desire to say something about it, through I've struggled a bit with what, because my main reaction to it was that it is terribly sad.

As framing, the article uses an incident at a Society for Classical Studies conference two years ago which I recall reading about at the time, at which a dispute broke out during a panel on "The Future of Classics".  The Times's description is pretty surface level.  You can get a more full version of it reading this piece by the woman the Times frames as the villain of the encounter.  After describing the panel, she describes her comments as follows:

I only wanted to make four very brief points, but I felt compelled to state at the beginning that we could not abandon the ancient languages because then we would have nothing left of our field—of all the egregiously shocking things I had just heard, that seemed to be the one that most cried out to be challenged. I then attempted to say the following:

1) It is important to stand up for Classics as a discipline, and promote it as the political, literary, historical, philosophical, rhetorical, and artistic foundation of Western Civilization, and the basis of European history, tradition, culture, and religion. It gave us the concepts of liberty, equality, and democracy, which we should teach and promote. We should not apologize for our field;

2) It is important to go back to teaching undergraduates about the great classical authors—Cicero, the Athenian dramatists, Homer, Demosthenes, the Greek and Roman historians, Plato, and Aristotle—in English translation in introductory courses;

3) One way of promoting Classics is to offer more survey courses that cover many subject areas (epic, tragedy, comedy, rhetoric, philosophy, history, political theory, and art history), or to concentrate on one area such as in Freshmen seminars, or through western civilization classes;

4) It should help with securing funding from administrators to argue that such survey courses are highly cost-effective: a student could learn a tremendous amount even if such a survey were the only Classics course taken. On the other hand, a seminar that concentrated on the close reading of a few texts would prove beneficial for all students.

Unfortunately, I was interrupted in the middle of my first point by Sarah Bond, who forcefully insisted: “We are not Western Civilization!”

 After additional back and forth which gets heated, Padilla responds:

“Here’s what I have to say about the vision of classics that you outlined,” he said. “I want nothing to do with it. I hope the field dies that you’ve outlined, and that it dies as swiftly as possible.”

The Times article then goes back to trace Padilla's career: from his childhood in an illegal immigration family from the Dominican Republican where in a homeless shelter library he found a book entitled “How People Lived in Ancient Greece and Rome” and was so fascinated by it that he took the book and never returned it to the library, to the point in 1994 when a photographer documenting another shelter in which Padilla's family was living saw the nine year old boy reading a biography of Napoleon and started talking to him and eventually helped him get a scholarship to an elite New York prep school called Collegiate.  There he started taking Greek and Latin.

At Collegiate, Padilla began taking Latin and Greek and found himself overwhelmed by the emotive power of classical texts; he was captivated by the sting of Greek philosophy, the heat and action of epic. Padilla told none of his new friends that he was undocumented. “There were some conversations I simply wasn’t ready to have,” he has said in an interview. When his classmates joked about immigrants, Padilla sometimes thought of a poem he had read by the Greek lyricist Archilochus, about a soldier who throws his shield in a bush and flees the battlefield. “At least I got myself safely out,” the soldier says. “Why should I care for that shield? Let it go. Some other time I’ll find another no worse.” Don’t expose yourself, he thought. There would be other battles.

 After Collegiate Padilla got a scholarship to Princeton where he studied Classics, to Oxford for his masters, and to Stanford for his PhD.  He now teaches Classics at Princeton.  But he's apparently taken an increasingly politicized approach to the field, which he sees as being tied up with notions of white superiority and unrealistic visions of history.

Padilla found himself frustrated by the manner in which scholars were trying to combat Trumpian rhetoric. In November 2015, he wrote an essay for Eidolon, an online classics journal, clarifying that in Rome, as in the United States, paeans to multiculturalism coexisted with hatred of foreigners. Defending a client in court, Cicero argued that “denying foreigners access to our city is patently inhumane,” but ancient authors also recount the expulsions of whole “suspect” populations, including a roundup of Jews in 139 B.C., who were not considered “suitable enough to live alongside Romans.” Padilla argues that exposing untruths about antiquity, while important, is not enough: Explaining that an almighty, lily-white Roman Empire never existed will not stop white nationalists from pining for its return. The job of classicists is not to “point out the howlers,” he said on a 2017 panel. “To simply take the position of the teacher, the qualified classicist who knows things and can point to these mistakes, is not sufficient.” Dismantling structures of power that have been shored up by the classical tradition will require more than fact-checking; it will require writing an entirely new story about antiquity, and about who we are today.

To find that story, Padilla is advocating reforms that would “explode the canon” and “overhaul the discipline from nuts to bolts,” including doing away with the label “classics” altogether.


Privately, even some sympathetic classicists worry that Padilla’s approach will only hasten the field’s decline. “I’ve spoken to undergrad majors who say that they feel ashamed to tell their friends they’re studying classics,” Denis Feeney, Padilla’s colleague at Princeton, told me. “I think it’s sad.” He noted that the classical tradition has often been put to radical and disruptive uses. Civil rights movements and marginalized groups across the world have drawn inspiration from ancient texts in their fights for equality, from African-Americans to Irish Republicans to Haitian revolutionaries, who viewed their leader, Toussaint L’Ouverture, as a Black Spartacus. The heroines of Greek tragedy — untamed, righteous, destructive women like Euripides’ Medea — became symbols of patriarchal resistance for feminists like Simone de Beauvoir, and the descriptions of same-sex love in the poetry of Sappho and in the Platonic dialogues gave hope and solace to gay writers like Oscar Wilde.

“I very much admire Dan-el’s work, and like him, I deplore the lack of diversity in the classical profession,” Mary Beard told me via email. But “to ‘condemn’ classical culture would be as simplistic as to offer it unconditional admiration.”

 At this points the Times tries to give a summary of what it describes as the "fantastical, unhinged quality" of Enlightenment admiration for the Classics, though what the NY Times seems to miss is that Greek and Roman works were in fact read throughout Middle Ages and Renaissance, though the attitude towards them changed.  Reading and caring about Greek and Roman philosophy, law, tragedy, and epic was hardly something new and strange which was suddenly invented to bolster ideas of white superiority in the 18th century.  These works had retained a hold in European, Mediterranean, and Middle Eastern cultures since the time they were current.  

The article contrasts one of Padilla's older colleagues with Padilla's own changing views of his discipline and his own history of learning.

For many, inside the academy and out, the answer to that question is yes. Denis Feeney, Padilla’s colleague at Princeton, believes that society would “lose a great deal” if classics was abandoned. Feeney is 65, and after he retires this year, he says, his first desire is to sit down with Homer again. “In some moods, I feel that this is just a moment of despair, and people are trying to find significance even if it only comes from self-accusation,” he told me. “I’m not sure that there is a discipline that is exempt from the fact that it is part of the history of this country. How distinctly wicked is classics? I don’t know that it is.” 


Padilla has said that he “cringes” when he remembers his youthful desire to be transformed by the classical tradition. Today he describes his discovery of the textbook at the Chinatown shelter as a sinister encounter, as though the book had been lying in wait for him. He compares the experience to a scene in one of Frederick Douglass’s autobiographies, when Mr. Auld, Douglass’s owner in Baltimore, chastises his wife for helping Douglass learn to read: “ ‘Now,’ said he, ‘if you teach that nigger (speaking of myself) how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave.’” In that moment, Douglass says he understood that literacy was what separated white men from Black — “a new and special revelation, explaining dark and mysterious things.” “I would at times feel that learning to read had been a curse rather than a blessing,” Douglass writes. “It had given me a view of my wretched condition, without the remedy.” Learning the secret only deepened his sense of exclusion.

Padilla, like Douglass, now sees the moment of absorption into the classical, literary tradition as simultaneous with his apprehension of racial difference; he can no longer find pride or comfort in having used it to bring himself out of poverty. He permits himself no such relief. “Claiming dignity within this system of structural oppression,” Padilla has said, “requires full buy-in into its logic of valuation.” He refuses to “praise the architects of that trauma as having done right by you at the end.”

 I was not a particularly distinguished classics undergraduate.  I'd taken Latin in high school, and at college I tested into 300 level Latin when I entered as a History major, so I signed up to take a class (I forget what it was even billed as) which turned out to focus on Lucretius's philosophical poem De Rerum Natura.  It's fairly difficult Latin, and a poem about philosophical materialism and Epicurus's theory of atoms is perhaps not the most engaging.  But somehow I loved it.  Struggling through Latin poetry and the sometimes very alien thought that produced it gave a powerful sense of reaching through a dark mirror to encounter the thinking and world of a person who lived a century before Christ.  

I switched my major from History to Classics and started taking Greek my sophomore year.  With it's different alphabet and harsher sounds, and classical period several centuries before the Roman flowering of the first centuries BC and AD, Greek even more fed that feeling of reaching far across the centuries to try to encounter someone alien and sometimes profound and beautiful.  

One of my key regrets is that of the Greek reading courses I was able to take my senior year, I didn't get the chance to read Homer or Hesiod.  As I've raised children, built a career, written novels and this blog, one thing I have not done is kept my ancient languages up at all.  Over the years they've slipped gradually away, though I remember some words and a lot of grammatical structures.  (I was always weaker in vocabulary than grammar.)  

But some day, I keep telling myself, I'll set aside the time to knock the dust off my Greek and finally read Homer in Greek -- an epic that even to the classical era Greeks (300-500 BC) was ancient and alien in some ways.  

This, to me, is why Classics and indeed all deep studies of history and culture are valuable.  They put us in contact with other people in different places and times.  They let us see those things in humanity which are the same even in very different conditions, and they let us see the things which we take for granted and yet can be so very different.  

At root, these studies are the study of humanity.  Of human experiences and ideas and beliefs and feelings.  We too are humans, all too much in danger of being stranded in our own time and seeing everything through that time's lens.  We need the study of Classics, and of other places and eras too.  There is, I think, something truly special about the Greek and Roman classical periods.  There are certain times and places in the world's history where there has been an unusual flowering of human thought and culture.  And rather than seeing that particular flowering in ancient Greece and Rome as something which is the particular patrimony of "white" people (a category which surely would have seemed strange to the Greeks and Romans themselves) I think it's important to see it which is accessible to all humanity.  Goodness knows, my ancestors in no way came from Greece or Italy.  Nor do I have any Russian ancestors to justify my appreciation for Tolstoy.  And while I have some mongrel English ancestry mixed in with the Irish side of the family, I get the impression (though it's hard to know, as the family tree vanishes into obscurity pretty quickly) they were not the Jane Austen reading types.  

These great works are not the owned inheritance of specific races or cultures, but rather the shared patrimony of all those who are willing to take and read.

Friday, February 05, 2021

Letter? I Hardly Know Her!

It's the first Friday in February, and it's bitter cold with about a foot of snow piled up outside, which means it is absolutely the wrong time to take stock of your life and decide with Qeheloth that all is vanity. No momentous decisions should be made in February, because February is a sham even in normal years. February is a time for waiting it out.

I have been waiting it out for a while now. My laptop has been commandeered by children for class and for games and for external socialization (as opposed to socializing with one's innumerable siblings), and I find it hard to say no to these essentially okay things. But as a result I'm writing less. My handy dandy notebook disappeared into the void a while ago, and my life has become more and more uncharted. The pace of daily events has slowed to a crawl, as people are not inclined to do more grunt work than Mom gets out of them by sitting on them, and sitting on innumerable children grows wearing after a while, even if they are all your own darlings. 

As a result, we have a very relaxed pace of life around here -- a February pace, you might say. Many good things come from this. My three-year-old has started playing long involved games with his little men, and will even sometimes pick them all up unasked and put them back in the nice wooden box they came in. My six-year-old, previously a rebel at the piano, has discovered a silly song in his book and is working himself to learn it. The ten-year-old with dyslexia has had a jump in her reading abilities and is reading books on her own. The twelve-year-old just ripped through Watership Down, devours books, and is finally learning some grammar and spelling because he wants to send messages to friends. The teen girls keep their own schedules and have found ways to connect with friends even in these hard days for companionship. If I can take any credit for these things, it's that I run the kind of household where people have time to do what they want, an anarchic paradise.

I have taken to trying to get out of the house once a day, lest I atrophy completely. (How odd this statement would have sounded in the days of drama practice and baseball and tae kwon do and youth group.) Most days this involves a walk around the block with Darwin, where we get our needed time alone to talk. But the snow accumulation and sub-freezing temperatures militate against this right now and -- get this! -- I don't actually have a pair of boots for snow walking. I did buy a pair a while ago, but they ended up fitting one of my daughters better, and I just never got my own pair. There's no reason I can't get a new pair, except each particular moment is not the moment I want to deal with it.

This past week, Darwin, who has not found the new work-at-home regime conducive to his style of doing business, decided there was no reason that he couldn't go into work a few days a week, when the building is standing practically empty. It makes a lot of sense, and will probably add some needed structure to our days. But as I stood in the kitchen with many small fry needing things from me -- each making the most reasonable, unobjectionable requests, so why is Mom impatient?, only there are six of them and one of me -- I thought, "But I'll still be here, every day."

All of which is to say: it must be time for Lenten Letters.

If you'd like a letter from me during Lent -- handwritten, and I've even just refilled my fountain pen -- please send me your address at darwincatholic (at) Last year, as the lockdown took full effect and we all went a little nuts, I got behind schedule and the last comers ended up getting postcards from Yellowstone in July. This year I'll try to be more disciplined. (Long-time readers can stop laughing now.)

Last year I asked people to tell me a bit about themselves so I could tailor my letters. Anyone is welcome to do that (and I loved reading your notes!) but the reality is that I'm just going to write about what I'm going to write about that day, so don't feel obligated. I'm just looking forward to knowing that there are other people out there who also feel the need of some real human contact in February.

Tuesday, February 02, 2021

The Friendship of Christ, Chapter 8: Christ in the Saint

 Previous: Chapter 7, Christ in the Priest

You are the light of the world. -- Matthew 5:14

I often tell my religious ed classes that each person is a unique, irreplaceable, unrepeatable example of God's creative love -- a glimpse into God that we'll never get any other way. Like the facets on the tiny diamonds in my wedding ring, each revealing something new about the stone, every person has the potential to shine forth some part of God's creative power that has been hidden until now. When the facets are crystal clear, they allow light to pour through them in every color. 

I'm pleased to see that Benson uses this image as well:

They [the saints] have, by the help of grace, hewn at the stone of their human nature, by mortification, by effort, by prayer--even by the final strokes of martyrdom itself--until, little by little, or all at once by sudden heroism, there has emerged from the gross material, not the angel of Michael Angelo, not merely a copy of the Perfect Model; but, in a real sense, that actual Model Himself. It is He Who has lived in them, as really, though in another manner, as in the Sacrament of the altar; it is He Who now appears in them in the culmination of their sanctity, visible to all who have eyes to see. Certainly it is not He Himself, pure and simple; since there still remains in every saint that film or glass of his own personal identity which God gave him and can never take away. For it is exactly for the sake of this personal identity, and for the service which it renders to the promulgation of Christ upon earth, that the saint has been created and sanctified. To stare upon the Sun unveiled is to be struck blind, or at least to be so dazzled by excess of light as to see nothing. In the saints, therefore--through their individual characters and temperaments, as through prismatic glass--we see the All-holy Character of Christ, the white brilliancy of His Absolute Perfection, not distorted or diluted, but rather analysed and dissected that we may understand it the better. 

It is the lifelong struggle of humans to realize that the imperfections that we consider "ours" -- the yearning to cling to some pleasure, the death-like grasp on The Plan, the small tendencies to comfort and security and power that manifest themselves in self-absorption and lies and the little ways we use other people -- do not truly add any flavor to our character or interesting edge to our personalities. Every person on earth -- except the Blessed Virgin Mary, to whom Benson rightly devotes the first half of this chapter -- has known the bitter pleasure of clutching some favored sin closely to ward off the suffocating dullness of sanctity. If I give up this stupid thing, which gives me some fleeting pleasure, what is left? The long boring slog to heaven.

The saints are proof that surrender does not bring death. Each had to shed a layer of earthly scum -- St. Francis had to molt off the whole dead skin; St. Therese had to chip and scrub at the thin dulling film on the window. And what they received back was not a bland robotic persona, but their own amazing personalities, strengthened, honed, and brilliant. Every bad thing given to God is purified; every good thing is given back a hundred-fold. The saints are not more naturally gifted than everyone else. They just keep giving what they have to God, and God keeps giving them themselves.

Lately, when I've been assailed with temptations -- not to do cruel or evil things, but to do good in fun and interesting ways that God has not asked of me right now -- I've handed them to God, saying, "Give this back to me in Heaven." If all good comes from God -- if God is truly all-good -- then nothing good can be lost. Every love is already his and will return to him. Our gifts are already his, as in the parable of the servants and the talents. The saints know: everything is his.

Once learn that Christ is All, and not merely one among ten thousand--that is, He is All--that there is no glory or grace anywhere that is not His, no perfection that is not relative to His Absoluteness, no colour that is not an element of His Whiteness, no sound that is not in the scale of His Music--once, that is, to rise to what it is that we mean when we name him God; once escape from that modern spirit of rationalizing away His Deity in the hope of seeing His Humanity; and behold! "all things are yours... and you are Christ's: and Christ is God's."

Next: Erin on Chapter 9: Christ in the Sinner