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Monday, December 31, 2018

It's a Wonderful Life: defending eucatastrophe

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It's a Wonderful Life has been in my mind a lot recently. Not least because a few weeks ago I had the
privilege of playing George Bailey in the climactic scene, as part of a "Christmas Showcase" put on by
Spotlight Playhouse in Berea, Kentucky. My wife's been talking about the movie a lot as a metaphor for
our lives, and she was really upset that it got voted down in a poll of Christmas movies one of our
friends ran on Facebook. And, of course, it was on TV on Christmas Eve.
My FB friend and fellow ASP member Carlo Mariano recently posted a link to an article by K. B. Hoyle
on It's a Wonderful Life making the case that the popular understanding of the movie as a joyful
affirmation of the meaningfulness of life doesn't really express what makes the film so great. According to
Hoyle, the "better message" of the movie is about self-denial and self-sacrifice for the sake of the
community: "Die to yourself, daily. Die, and die again." Hoyle points out that George spends most of the
movie making decision after decision that sacrifices his own desires and dreams for the sake of what is
good for his family and his town. Tellingly, she invokes Macaulay's ballad retelling of the Roman story of Horatius at the bridge (a poem I loved in my childhood), offering his life in defense of his city. Similarly,
she concludes, we should live lives of "civic virtue," offering ourselves up on behalf of our communities
instead of trying to be "true to ourselves" in an individualistic fashion.

I think this is all true, but at the same time I think that dismissing and denying the uproarious joy of the
ending as not really central is a mistake. God created us for joy. Just telling us to keep plugging the gap
and sacrificing
ourselves creates people with gritted teeth and set brows who as often as not wind up turning into
self-righteous prigs who hate and despise the people they are sacrificing themselves for.


So I think the apparently superficial happy ending is also essential to what makes this a great movie.
Yes, the "angel earns his wings" theme is silly (and for some reason typical of mid-century Hollywood
movies about angels, probably because they were created by people whose lives were dominated by the
studio system and who imagined heaven as a sort of idealized MGM). And to be sure, we can't be assured
that if we ever get in real trouble the people we have helped will turn out and rescue us. It's nice if they do,
but George would have been doing the right thing even if Mr. Potter had been right and the people he had
helped had ridden him out of town on a rail. And yet, the ending of It's a Wonderful Life isn't just a bit of Hollywood sentimentality. It's a shining example of what another mid-20th-century storyteller, J. R. R.
Tolkien, called "eucatastrophe." It's the fitting ending, the ending that should happen but doesn't, in our
broken world, always happen. It's the moment when George's long obedience finally gets the response it deserves, as the people he has helped turn out to save him from disgrace and acknowledge what he has
meant to them.
I'm a big fan of what many people consider "depressing" movies. I've been watching the three-part film series
by Masaki Kobayashi (set, as it happens, around the same time as It's a Wonderful Life), called in English
The Human Condition. So far, I've seen the first two parts. The films tell the story of Kaji, an idealistic young Japanese man during WWII, who tries to act morally in a society consumed by imperialistic, nationalistic madness. In the first film, he works for a factory in Manchuria that uses forced Chinese labor, seeking to
make conditions better for the workers while still trying to produce the efficient results that will meet his superiors' approval and keep him out of the army. It doesn't go well, either for him or for the Chinese he is
trying to protect, and in the second movie he is in the army, where the same pattern repeats itself. He tries to stand up for fellow recruits who are being brutally hazed, and again, he fails. At the end of the film, as the Japanese are being overrun by Russian tanks, Kaji kills one of his fellow soldiers with his bare hands because the other man has gone crazy and is giving their position away to the Russians. And from what I've read, the third movie doesn't get any brighter--it ends with Kaji dying alone in the snow. It's an unsparing, bleak masterpiece. And the bleakness comes not only from the vicious opposition Kaji faces from his fellow Japanese, but from the way he gradually crumbles under pressure, continually making compromises, seeking
to preserve his own life, and even at the end of the second movie confessing himself a "monster" after he brutally kills a comrade. At one point in the first movie, one of the Chinese tells him "you have less faith in humanity than you want to believe you do."

And of course the same could be said of George Bailey, though he shows it in more minor ways, as when
he lashes out verbally at his daughter's teacher. Hoyle recognizes this, speaking of George's "brokenness." Tolkien, too, describes Frodo "failing" at the end, a failure that Tolkien seems to find pretty much inevitable. Sometimes trying to be faithful results in being broken. Sometimes it really is an impossible task. And often,
as with Frodo, we have to depend on others in order for our broken faithfulness to have its effect. The Human Condition demonstrates how hard--perhaps impossible--it is to act morally and effectively in a society where pretty much everything militates against you. It's a sober, realistic deconstruction of our fantasy
of the lone hero against a corrupt culture. But on the other hand, the ending of It's a Wonderful Life shows the proper goal and result of moral action: the formation of a community where people build each other up and affirm each other's dignity. George's reward, at the end, is not merely an arbitrary plot device to make us feel good (though it is a plot device and it does make us feel good). It's the natural result of his actions throughout the movie, actions that have been nourished by
the real though imperfect virtues of small-town America and which have in turn reinforced those virtues, making Bedford Falls not into a utopian paradise but into a place where at least to some extent virtue can flourish and receive its proper reward. We are made for joy. We are made for community. A vision of moral action in which we are only the givers and never the receivers, in which we are expected to grit our teeth and act heroically with no reward, is a vision that, in spite of its apparent nobility, actually results in corrupting moral action into an expression of pride and self-assertiveness. Christian virtue, grounded in humility and charity, is about receiving as well as giving--about acknowledging our vulnerability and our need for support and affection. Christian virtue is not that of Horatius. It is not Stoic virtue. It is the virtue of the Son of Man who, on the eve of sacrificing himself for the life of the world, wept alone in a garden and longed for the affection and support of his friends. Hoyle says that the message of It's a Wonderful Life (and by extension of Christianity) is "Die, and die again." But the fuller Christian message is, "Die, and live again." Not only in a life beyond this, but over and over again in this world. Those who give up fathers and mothers and wives and children will, Jesus says, receive a hundredfold even in this life: not in some crass form of worldly prosperity, but in the joyful affirmation of a beloved community. It doesn't always happen like this, and when it doesn't, then yes, we are called to give ourselves in love anyway. But love finds its greatest fulfillment not in lonely and self-congratulatory sacrifice but in beholding its reflection in the face of the beloved. And that's why the image that stays with most of us from Capra's masterpiece is the closing image of George, holding his daughter, surrounded by family and friends, seeing the reward of his long sacrifice in the faces of the community that would, without him, have inhabited a bitter and despairing wasteland dominated by one twisted old man's greed and ambition. Let's not be afraid to be weak. Let's not be afraid to be needy. Let's all dare to be less Roman, less stoic, more vulnerable, and more open to others in this new year that is upon us.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Reformation day revisited, from the other side of the Tiber







Three years ago, I wrote this rather polemical piece attacking the celebration of "Reformation Day" by Protestants. I still stand by what I wrote there. But, in my usual contrarian fashion, now that I've been a Catholic for a year and a half, I have a renewed appreciation for Protestant spirituality. I never rejected that aspect of Protestantism, and I still have problems with the Reformation as a norm. But I'm now much more sympathetic than I used to be to the language many Protestants use about Luther's teachings as a rediscovery of the Gospel, a source of spiritual liberation.

One of the reasons for this shift is just that I'm a contrarian and always see the other side. As a Protestant I was always siding with Catholics. Now that I'm a Catholic I tend to side with Protestants.

But there's another reason too. For the past year and a half I have attended the sacrament of confession quite regularly (sometimes as often as every week, sometimes more like every month/six weeks). I now think that no one can really appreciate Luther who hasn't done this.

The sacrament is, in many ways, a great source of spiritual strength and comfort to me. And contra Luther, I think that the mortal/venial sin distinction can actually help avoid scrupulosity and despair. (If you haven't committed an objectively serious act with full knowledge and consent, it's not a mortal sin.) But trying to follow Catholic teaching on confession, and particularly on reception of the Eucharist, really does become difficult. It feels as if you are in a "state of grace" for brief moments at a time. I've even read conservative Catholic authors suggesting that most of us should expect to spend much of our lives in a state of unworthiness to receive Communion. At some point in the past year and a half, all of this has stopped feeling like a source of grace and has become more of a set of hoops to jump through. And when I feel that way, I feel once again the power of Luther's teaching that jumping through hoops is fundamentally not the point, that God's grace surrounds and precedes and enables us rather than waiting for us to meet the right conditions to receive it. (Yes, I know that Catholic theology teaches prevenient grace.) Ironically, confession is for me most lifegiving when I approach it in a Lutheran spirit, as an admission of my own inability to save myself and a humble acceptance of God's forgiving and transforming grace.

The bigger problem here is that my desire to become Catholic in the first place was driven by my wish to "get it right," to follow God's will, to open myself to grace by living up to the truth I believed I had seen.  And now I'm not sure that whole quest for rightness and purity was one I should have been on in the first place.

None of this is really new. For years before becoming Catholic I argued that perhaps we should all just live in the brokenness and find God's grace in it as best we could, a la Ephraim Radner. But this always felt like a cop-out. And so I took the leap--I tried to follow what I thought God was calling me to do. And after a year and a half of it I feel exhausted and torn apart.

This kind of "post-conversion blues" is pretty common. People get through it. But the one good thing about it is that I finally think I understand Luther.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Honest apostasy vs. faithful dissent

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Every so often one hears conservative Catholics (or conservative Christians generally) say that people whom they consider insufficiently orthodox should just leave, because it's the "honest" thing to do. Most recently, the Patheos blogger Mindy Selmys has announced that she is leaving the Catholic Church, and has been applauded for her "honest apostasy" on the website of the conservative Catholic periodical Crisis. Now for starters, I don't think people leaving the Catholic Church but remaining Christians should be referred to as "apostates," but that's a separate issue. The question I want to tackle here is this: at what point does it become legitimate, or even obligatory, to leave a particular religious community due to doubts about its teachings? When does loyalty become dishonesty? Or, to put it the other way round, when does honesty become a kind of pathological restlessness that makes faithfulness to a community impossible?

One basic point that needs to be made to clear the ground: when speaking of the rational bases for religious faith, we are always talking about varying degrees of probability. Absolute certainty, while subjectively possible (for some people--not for me), is not possible on a purely rational basis. When I speak of probability I don't mean a mathematical probability that can be calculated, but a judgment, based on numerous factors, that a particular claim is more believable than another one.  The rational basis for faith is a judgment of the relative probability of one explanation for the evidence (of all kinds) versus another.

In the case of Catholicism and other religious communities that require adherence to particular doctrinal claims, there are three things that need to be balanced:

1. The basic claim that Catholicism as a whole is true and authoritative.
2. The authoritative status of the particular doctrinal claim. I.e., the claim that a particular doctrine is a genuine, authoritative part of Catholic teaching and cannot be questioned without questioning Catholicism as a whole.
3. One's doubts and difficulties about the particular claim. Or, to put it propositionally, the statement "this doctrine is false."

These propositions: "Catholicism is true," "Catholicism authoritatively teaches X," and "X is false," cannot all be true. Thus, we will inevitably judge the least probable of the three points to be false. In some cases this is an easy judgment, while in others the three may be very close to each other. Obviously one's faith will be more secure if proposition 3 is far behind the other two (and one's unbelief will be secure if point 1 is far behind). But in what follows I want to look rather at the dynamics that arise from different orders of relative probability for these three items, regardless of how close to each other they may or may not be. Obviously this analysis assumes that they are relatively close--otherwise the analysis isn't needed.

The first possibility, yielding a very secure faith (at least with regard to the doctrine in question), is the order 123. This means that I am most confident that the Church is true, and secondarily believe that a particular teaching is a necessary part of Catholic faith. Since I'm more confident of these things than I am of the truth of any arguments against the doctrine in question, I can quite reasonably dismiss these arguments, even if they are strong enough that I would believe them in the absence of my faith in the authority of the Church. Furthermore, even if I did come to believe that the arguments were true, the new "loser" among the three claims would be the claim that the teaching is a necessary part of Catholic faith. I would thus become a "faithful dissenter" (ordering the items 132) rather than abandoning Catholicism. (More about faithful dissent later.) That's why this is a particularly stable situation to be in.

However, holding to all Catholic doctrines in this order is unstable in a different way. The attachment to the Church is secure, but the attachment to any particular doctrine is in principle dispensable. If all doctrines are seen as dispensable, then one's faith comes to have no really secure content _except_ faith in the authority of the Catholic Church itself. The second kind of solid, secure Catholic faith is one in which the items are ordered 213. In this case, I am more convinced of the proposition "if Catholicism is true, then X doctrine is true" than I am of the proposition "Catholicism is true" in the first place. My faith in the Church, in other words, depends indispensably on certain key doctrinal claims and is subordinate to these claims. The most obvious example for me would be the resurrection of Jesus. I would be disturbed by a Catholic telling me that he/she is more certain of the teachings of the Church than that Jesus rose from the dead. A Catholicism that no longer proclaimed the Resurrection would have ceased to be itself. Hence, 213 is a healthier ordering in this case. But if one held to all ostensible Church teachings in this order, then one's faith would tremble any time the arguments against a particular teaching started to look convincing. So the most solid faith actually seems to be one in which some very basic doctrines are held more firmly than one's faith in the overall authority of the Pope, while the others aren't.

But what if one becomes convinced that a particular doctrine really is false? Obviously the easiest situation is one in which one is more certain that the doctrine is false than that it is the genuine, permanent teaching of the Church, but more certain yet that the Church's claims as a whole are true. When one holds this position (the order 132) with regard to a teaching that _appears_ to be Church teaching at this point (the impossibility of ordaining women, say), then one is clearly justified in "faithful dissent." The 132 dissenter will argue that what appears to be Church teaching really isn't. This will bring claims of heresy and even dishonesty, but it appears, when we put things in terms of the relative probability of the three propositions I have identified, to be the most honest way to proceed. It would be absurd to abandon the Church, which one is convinced is true, because of a teaching which one is convinced is false. Obviously the more the Church insists on this teaching, the more difficult the situation will be, and a 132 dissenter may be forced out of the Church against his/her will. But there is nothing at all dishonorable about such a stance. And it's unlikely that things will go that far. Because the 132 dissenter is _most_ fully convinced of the overall authority of the Church, there's obviously a decent possibility that if the Church insists strongly enough, the 132 dissenter will rethink the question of whether the doctrine under dispute is true. So, for instance, there are people who might have supported women's ordination before John Paul II's authoritative statement on the subject but then ceased to do so. Others might change their minds if an Ecumenical Council or an unquestionably ex cathedra Papal statement ruled on the subject.

But what if the person is _more_ convinced that the doctrine is false than that the overall authority of the Church is true? Such a person--a 312 dissenter--would still be justified, I believe, in remaining in the Church. The 312 dissenter still believes that the Church is true. But that belief now depends on the conviction that 2 is false: that in fact, the Church does not permanently and solemnly teach the doctrine in question. With regard to women's ordination, this would be someone who hangs on in the Church solely on the grounds of a conviction that eventually the Church will listen to the Spirit and ordain women. The same increasingly authoritative pronouncements that might bring a 132 dissenter in line would drive a 312 dissenter out of the Church. But as long as the propositions remain in the order 312, the dissenter remains justified in remaining in the Church, however difficult his/her position.

Finally, there are two orderings of the propositions that do make it impossible for a person to remain a faithful Catholic: 321 and 231. Here the last proposition in order of probability, and hence the one rejected, is the overall authority of the Church. The difference between these, however, is that 321 is a position more open to reconsidering whether the doctrine is authoritatively taught, while 231 is more open to reconsidering whether it is false. Obviously as with 123 and 213, the reasonableness of each position will depend very much on the doctrine in question. If someone leaves the Church because of the rejection of women's ordination, it's reasonable to be a 321 dissenter open to being persuaded that in fact the Church may not be permanently committed to this position. But it would be foolish for a Catholic to try to persuade someone to move from 231 to 321 on the doctrine of the Trinity or the Resurrection or even the Real Presence.

There's another way to pair these six possible positions, by which of them turn into which if the last two items were switched. 123 and 132, as I noted above, easily turn into each other. So do 312 and 321, unsurprisingly--a person who is convinced that a doctrine the Church appears to teach is false may easily become someone who no longer believes in the Church at all. But the interesting pair is 213 and 231. These easily turn into each other as well. That is why, as I suggested, holding all Church doctrines in the order 213 actually makes for a rather brittle faith. Some of the most frustrating conversations to have, as a Catholic or (as I was for a long time) a Catholic sympathizer, are with people who are convinced that some relatively questionable issue, perhaps something that occurs in apparently authoritative form in the past but from which the Church seems to have moved away, really is the permanent teaching of the Church and thus justifies rejecting the Church altogether. Yet these folks share basic assumptions with the most traditional Catholics.

I find this numerical way of looking at the question helpful--this line of reasoning played a big role in pushing me into Catholicism, because I couldn't honestly say that I was 321 or 231 on any issue. (Of course, there's a big difference between "what justifies remaining in the Church" and "what requires one to join the Church.") I think it's also very helpful in checking the impulses many Catholics seem to have to question why other people remain in the Church, Yes, of course some people may be 231s or 321s who remain in the Church for reasons other than conviction (such as the alleged statement by a feminist theologian that she remained because that's "where the copying machines are," or the more honorable reasons deriving from the pull of community or family). But more often than not, they are 132s or 312s. They are already in a lot of internal conflict. To add to that conflict is cruel. To drive them out of the Church is, from a Catholic point of view, arguably the kind of behavior that makes one's neck worthy of a millstone.

Sunday, October 07, 2018

An alternate history scenario for supporters of Brett Kavanaugh


Consider the following tale from another timeline:

It was sometime during the presidency of Barack Obama. There was a Supreme Court vacancy. Obama picked a prominent Muslim judge who, before becoming a judge, had worked in the Clinton White House. Indeed, his appointment as judge by President Clinton had been controversial because of charges of partisanship and of anti-Israel sentiment. His ability to be nonpartisan was very much in doubt, but at the same time he was highly qualified. Conservatives saw in his record a troubling pattern of support for sharia and a strong pro-Palestinian bias, and some even accused him of anti-Semitism, but his supporters pointed to the large numbers of Jews who had clerked for him over the years, many of whom testified in his favor.

Then the bombshell dropped. A respected academic who, while no longer a practicing Muslim, had attended the same Islamic high school as the judge, claimed  to have heard him and some of his friends discussing a plan to blow up a public building as an act of jihad. The judge angrily denied these claims, and none of the friends named corroborated it. However, the accuser did rightly identify some of the judge's high-school friends, some of whom had expressed radical sentiments. Many who knew him in high school claimed that he had generally Islamist sentiments at that time, in spite of his later reputation for moderation.

Then his yearbook surfaced. It turned out to contain a number of what appeared to be radical Islamist slogans, though the judge desperately tried to explain them away, more successfully in some cases than others. Several other accusations of involvement in unsuccessful terrorist plots surfaced, though none of them were well corroborated.

Furthermore, in his response to the accusations, the judge went on a rant against the members of the Senate who opposed his confirmation, accusing them of being dupes of the Zionist lobby. Opponents saw this as evidence that he lacked the judicial temperament and was too partisan to be a successful judge. Supporters, meanwhile, claimed that all the accusations against him were trumped-up instances of "Islamophobia" and that if he was not confirmed it would prove that America was hopelessly biased against Muslims.

To conservatives who say that not confirming Kavanaugh would have been a travesty of justice and an instance of mob violence: would you really have no qualms about confirming a judge under the circumstances described above? Would you say that people who connected his documented positions on Israel and other sensitive issues with the accusations of radicalism were simply engaging in political assassination? Would you say that accusations of being involved in terrorist plots were simply to be dismissed because they were not well corroborated? Or would you perhaps say that we should be careful whom we seat on the Supreme Court, even if the accusations against him were not strong enough to stand up in a court of law?

Thursday, June 28, 2018

The American Solidarity Party: still very much alive

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The political party to which I belong, the American Solidarity Party, has been going through a lot of internal conflict in the past year. Founded in 2011 as the Christian Democratic Party USA, the ASP has roots in Catholic social teaching as well as the thought of the Reformed theologian and statesman Abraham Kuyper. It's an attempt to bring the European "Christian Democratic" tradition into American politics. Our most fundamental commitment is to a consistent ethic of life. If you have ever asked the question, "why don't prolifers care about. . . . " we are the prolifers who do. Many of us, on economic matters, are influenced by distributism--the idea that both capitalism and socialism are fundamentally flawed and that property should be distributed as widely as possible. We tend to be anti-war, anti-death penalty, pro-immigrant, pro-welfare, pro-universal healthcare, as well as anti-abortion. You can read our platform here.

We have all kinds of disagreements about the details of these positions. However, in the past year a fissure has opened between two different broad visions of our mission. In one, our goal is to become a mainstream, secular political party centered on a consistent ethic of life:  a "whole-life progressive party." The other side prioritizes our roots in Catholic social teaching and traditional Christian values more generally. The issue that most clearly divides these two visions is same-sex marriage. When I joined the party in 2016, our platform called for a legal definition of marriage as the union of a man and a woman for life. I was one of the people who wanted to change or eliminate this language, since it seemed completely unrealistic as a political program, however correct as an expression of Catholic thought on the matter. And in 2017 the plank was eliminated. Many who were unhappy with this change and with the direction of the party generally formed a group called the "Dorothy Day Caucus" to advocate for their vision of a party rooted more firmly in Catholic social teaching.

Now here's where things get weird. You would expect--and I did expect--that the "DDC" side of the party would be the intolerant, purist side. The group that dominated the National Committee 2017-18 talked about a broad tent, and I expected that with the anti-SSM plank removed, we could draw to the party people from a wide range of positions across the political spectrum, united by commitment to a consistent ethic of life broadly conceived. To some extent we did, but many on the "whole-life progressive" side were concerned that the vocal presence of the DDC in online discussions was tarnishing our image and hindering the recruitment of the "right" people. The legitimate concern here was that, as a small party, we were vulnerable to a "hostile takeover" by extremists. And in fact we did attract some members who, for instance, would love to see America turn into a monarchy with Catholicism as the state religion.

Hence, the dominant faction on the National Committee put a lot of energy into denouncing the DDC and distancing the party from it, repeatedly warning them that they were not allowed to use the party's name for any of their forums or other online expressions. Eventually, in compliance with these warnings, the DDC renamed itself "Imago Dei Politics," an independent political organization most of whose members still belonged to the ASP.  In May, shortly before a national (online) convention in which seven of the nine seats on the NC were up for grabs, the NC passed a resolution saying that no one could hold office in both the IDP and the ASP. This seemed to be an attempt to disenfranchise the conservative opposition right before the convention. (Here's a defense of the decision from one of the NC members.) While this resolution was later modified in order to remove that impression (allowing IDP leaders to run for the NC and then resign from the IDP if they won), it seemed to me and many other people to be part of a pattern of authoritarian, even Machiavellian, behavior by the "progressive" side of the party. I think this is the main reason for the sweeping victory, in the election last weekend, of a slate of candidates who ran on what they called the "Contract with the ASP." (I myself voted for nine people--we have a system called "approval voting" that allows voters to choose more candidates than there are slots--five of whom were "contract" candidates, and four of whom, all contract candidates, won.)  The "contract" candidates were largely supported by the IDP but ran on a promise to decentralize the party and to avoid discriminating against party volunteers based on ideology.

Unfortunately, the opponents of the IDP understood this electoral defeat as a sign that the party has been taken over by right-wing extremists. Both the chair of the national party, Lillian Vogl, and the chair of my own state chapter, Ephrem Bensusan, are leaving the party as a result. Ephrem has given his reasoning here. This leaves me as the acting chair of the Kentucky chapter (I was previously Ephrem's Vice-Chair).

As you can see from the foregoing, I disagree strongly with Ephrem's assessment of the situation. I disagree as a result of my experiences over the past year, beginning as a supporter of Ephrem and becoming increasingly alienated by his approach to those who opposed his vision for the party. I remain broadly in agreement with Ephrem's positive vision for the party, though I am much more sympathetic to distributism than he is and am also more interested in the party serving as a radical witness than in the unlikely prospect of our actually becoming a major party. (That would be nice if it happens, but not at the expense of selling out our principles.)

So in spite of our recent rough weather, I encourage anyone reading this to give us a try. Read the platform, particularly our four core principles. If you agree with them, then join us and help us get better at implementing them. Let's overcome the left-right dichotomy that is tearing this country apart. Let's come together around the core principle of respect for human life, even if we disagree on some of the specifics of implementation.

Monday, March 26, 2018

The much-heralded death of European Christianity

43d5b3120dcc8b49acdd1743f49aa714The Daily Mail announces breathlessly that "Christianity in Europe is dying out." This is just the latest in a long series of such stories that flit about the Internet, often heralded with equal glee by atheists (for obvious reasons) and by conservative American Christians who are happy to use their European brothers and sisters as a foil for their own allegedly more vibrant expression of the faith.

Peter Ormerod responds in the Guardian that this alleged "death" is actually a good thing for Christianity. It frees European Christians to embrace the "weirdness" of the Faith rather than trying to accommodate it to the pressures of society. I think he's absolutely right. In my own experience traveling in Europe, I have been struck by how vibrant and generally hopeful the (admittedly small) congregations I've visited are. Also, there typically are a significant number of young people.

The use of the term "death" for steep numerical decline is highly misleading. Yes, Christianity as a "cultural norm" is dying--but hasn't it been dead in that sense for a while now, in much of Europe? As long as there is even one new convert being drawn to Christianity, or even one person raised in the Faith retaining it or returning to it, the Faith is not dead.

To argue by numbers in matters of faith is one of the most vulgar and destructive mistakes we can make. Each human person is of infinite value. Life and death are not quantifiable.

Meanwhile, American Christianity, also in numerical decline compared to the recent past, seems to have wedded itself to structures of power with new fervor--at least conservative evangelicalism (and to some extent conservative Catholicism) has done so. I would much rather worship with a tiny congregation of European Christians free to proclaim the Faith in all its richness than in a megachurch whose Gospel was a corrupted blend of self-help superstition, American nationalism, and the worst cliches of prooftexting free-church Protestantism.

The further question that needs to be asked, though, is why the decline of European Christianity? The simple, and largely correct, answer given by Ormerod and others is that European Christianity has allied itself with power and that this has made it seem lacking in credibility. We often think of the medieval Church in this respect--the magnificent art and learning combined with the often brutal use of coercive power.

But while I do think that's part of the story, I wonder if we blame the Middle Ages too much. There is a much more direct and more obviously corrupt connection with more recent European history. In the Middle Ages, the people in power who used coercion to enforce Christianity were generally acting, as far as I can tell, out of sincere conviction that Christianity was true. The common people, while often poorly observant, generally (so far as we can tell) also accepted the truth of the Christian Faith. And the elites engaged in a number of efforts to evangelize the poorly catechized, precisely because the genuine truth of the religion was commonly accepted.

But beginning with figures such as Machiavelli in the Renaissance, some members of the elite began to argue that religion was valuable because of its role in maintaining social order. This was of course a revival of a view held by many ancient pagans. It's a fundamentally un-Christian, even anti-Christian position. By the 19th century, it was plausible for atheists to claim that many bishops (of the Church of England, say, but it was commonly believed that this was true of Catholicism as well) really "knew" that Christianity was false but maintained it for its social effects. One of the most common arguments against atheism was that it would lead to social chaos--an argument that tacitly conceded that the truth-based arguments for Christianity were at best inconclusive.

Now I suspect that unbelievers tended to exaggerate wildly how many members of the religious establishment really thought like this. If you think Christianity is patently false, you will have trouble imagining that its representatives are sincere. And of course we can't rule out the possibility that people in the Middle Ages thought this way as well. Certainly some of the Islamic philosophers seem to have thought that the Qur'an and Shari'a were mostly there to guide people who weren't capable of being guided by philosophy.

Nonetheless, it does look very much as if the modern era saw the rise of a more cynical attitude to religion, in which the maintenance of social order was no longer the natural outcome of believing the truth but a substitute for truth. And this is, in fact, what many people in Britain at least think "religion" is--simply an instrument of social control. Often Christians like myself get defensive about this and feel as if our unbelieving relatives and friends are being unfair. But we shouldn't forget that, in fact, there were people who explicitly maintained that religion was valuable specifically for this reason--and there still are such folks.

This is the kind of religion decisively discredited by the World Wars. If your main reason for supporting a Christian order is that it keeps people in line and keeps them from killing each other, and you proceed to spend several decades killing each other on a massive scale, "religion" is going to seem useless.

And this brings us back to Ormerod's point. The kind of Christianity that is dying in Europe needed to die. Religion for the sake of respectability, religion for the sake of social order, is not authentic Christianity. It is a particularly decadent and corrupted form of paganism with a Christian veneer.

In America, this kind of religion still has some legs. The widespread support of many evangelicals for Donald Trump--even the willingness to believe that in some vague way he's really a devout Christian in spite of all the actual evidence pointing the other way--is rooted in a deeply fearful, power-hungry vision of the relationship of faith and society. Some conservative Christians seriously argue that without Trump and other Republican politicians, Christianity in America is doomed. And of course, what they really mean by that is that America will go the way of Europe.

Not only is this craven and faithless (as Greg Forster pointed out in this magnificent piece), but it flies in the face of the historical evidence from Europe. It is precisely this kind of thinking that has led to the current steep numerical decline in European Christianity.

In this, as in so many other things, if you aim for a lesser good you lose it, but if you aim for the true good you may (possibly--nothing is guaranteed) get the lesser good as well.

So why not drop all the triumphalist nonsense about how the "right" kind of Christianity flourishes numerically, and all the idolatrous rhetoric about saving Western Civilization. If we are going to be Christians at all, let's be Christians because it is true and beautiful and gloriously weird. Let's let the consequences take care of themselves. And if that means that we dwindle and die, so be it. The one thing we can be sure of is that if we cling to power we will face destruction anyway, having first corrupted and (so far as is possible) destroyed the faith delivered to us.

The Last Jedi: a defense and explication (lots of spoilers)


In this post, I'm going to lay out what I think the film The Last Jedi is about, and why the film is, for me at least, a thorough-going success, rivaling the original trilogy. This is not to deny the validity of many of the criticisms that have been made. The film doesn't, for instance,  do a good job of explaining why the situation is so desperate and why the Republic appears to have failed entirely. But on the other hand, the prequels tried to flesh out the politics of the Star Wars universe and were largely unsuccessful. It makes sense that the new trilogy would turn away from political analysis to return to the story of a rag-tag band of rebels against an evil host.  I regret the lack of effective world-building, but I can still appreciate both TFA and TLJ for what they are.  TFA is an enjoyable homage to the original trilogy. TLJ contains plenty of echoes itself, particularly of Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, but it's obviously going for something different. Is that something different worth going for? And does TLJ succeed? My answers are "yes, definitely" to the first question and "yes, mostly" to the second.

What impressed me about TLJ, as I watched it, was the way every part of this sprawling film interlocked to reinforce the overall theme. The theme, as in most fantasy stories, is about the proper way to struggle against evil. TLJ has gotten a lot of criticism for being iconoclastic, but frankly the bizarre and naive combination of Manicheanism and pseudo-Eastern monism present in the original trilogy needed to be smashed. I don't read TLJ as cynical or nihilistic at all--rather, its complex narrative fleshes out what genuine heroism in a good cause looks like. Kylo Ren's line "let the past die" has been quoted as the major theme of the film, but I think the ultimate message is better summed up in Rose's words to Finn near the end of the movie, "It's not about fighting what you hate; it's about protecting what you love." (Alas, that doesn't make the "crash your plane into his plane in order to save him" episode any less ridiculous.)

The film tells three interlocking stories. The first story is about Rey's quest to find Luke Skywalker and bring him back to save the galaxy, and when that fails, to turn Kylo Ren to the light as Luke had turned his father Darth Vader. This too fails, when Ren kills Snoke but takes his place as leader of the First Order, inviting Rey to join him, which she refuses to do. But, in the final climax of the film, Luke does show up (though only via "Force Projection") for a showdown with Ren, echoing another moment from the original trilogy, the death of Obi-Wan. Rey rescues the tattered remnant of the Resistance and they all fly off on the Millennium Falcon. This is the principal strand of the story and the one that has gotten most acclaim.

The second story focuses on the fighter pilot Poe Dameron and his conflict first with Leia and then with Leia's temporary replacement Admiral Holdo, as the Resistance fleet attempts to flee the First Order. This part of the story shows strong influence from Battlestar Galactica (a good thing in my book), and is an extended "setup" in which we are led to think that Poe is the hero and that Holdo is either cowardly or traitorous, only to find that in fact she and Leia were on the same page and had a perfectly reasonable plan, which Poe manages to destroy leading to thousands of deaths.

The third strand of the plot, a spinoff of the second, is the story of the former Stormtrooper Finn and his new friend Rose, who ally with Poe and go off on a hare-brained quest for an expert code-breaker who will allow them to disable the tracking mechanism on the First Order flagship. Their adventures on a "casino planet" have been largely dismissed as a silly digression from the main story, but some critics have pointed out that in fact this episode gives the fight between good and evil more specificity and believability than Star Wars usually attempts. Finn and Rose wind up with an amoral criminal as their expert codebreaker, who casually betrays them (and the fleet) to the First Order when they are captured. Reunited with Poe in the final showdown on the salt planet, Finn disobeys the chastened Poe's orders to break off a suicidal attack, only to be (absurdly) knocked out of the sky by Rose, who delivers the line I quoted earlier as the fundamental motto of the film as a whole.

 I'll get back to why I think this third strand of the story is actually important. But first, back to the Rey/Luke/Kylo Ren strand and the much-discussed theme of "killing the past."

The first strand:  "The Jedi must end"
 Rey goes to Atch-To as a naive hero-worshiper of Luke, whom she had considered a myth until the events of the previous film. She clearly expects, as do other characters in the story, that Luke will teach her to be a Jedi as Obi-Wan and Yoda had taught him. This is what the logic of Star Wars has led us to expect. But Luke confounds these expectations by tossing the lightsaber over his shoulder and insisting that the Jedi are a failure and need to die. Kylo Ren reinforces this message by telling Rey in their telepathic conversations (which we find out later were enabled by Snoke in order to turn Rey to the Dark Side) that she needs to "let the past die" or even "kill it if necessary."

The interesting thing about this is that it puts Luke and Ren on the same side. Both of them have taken away the same basic message from their confrontation (which we--and Rey--learn about three times, first from Luke, then Ren, then Luke again, each claiming to correct the other's previous version). Both have concluded that the Jedi Order needs to be destroyed. Some reviewers have suggested that Luke's reaction to his momentary impulse to kill his troubled apprentice is out of proportion--why conclude that the Jedi are all wrong just because you almost made one terribly bad choice? And, some have asked, why would the person who saw good in Darth Vader fail (until it was almost too late) to see anything redeemable in his own young nephew?

To answer this , we need to look at the history of the Jedi as shown in the films, including the much-despised prequels. The Jedi are an elite order of people who have been trained to use the "light side" of the Force. Theoretically, the Jedi want to recruit everyone who has the capacity to use the Force, although they have to get them very young in order to train them properly. The training includes rigid control of the emotions, which are generally linked to the Dark Side. This appears, from what we see in the prequels, to include a commitment to celibacy. That would mean that when Yoda warns Luke that his feelings for Leia could be made to serve the Dark Side, he's understating considerably and he's not just talking about the incest aspect. (Just looked this up and apparently Lucas claimed in an interview that the Jedi were allowed to have sex, just not marriage or family or any kind of "possessive relationships." The case for the creepiness of the Jedi just got way stronger!)

I don't want to get into the whole question of whether this is an implicit criticism of the Catholic Church, and if so whether it's a fair one. (But I think it is fair to say that TLJ is a Protestant, maybe even Quaker movie!) As portrayed in the SW movies, the Jedi approach seems to be fundamentally unsustainable. Vows of celibacy are one thing, but a hostility to all emotion is quite another. (This website, which of course isn't canon, says that Jedi are encouraged to feel emotions, observe them and then "let them pass through you" rather than clinging to them--which sounds very Buddhist. But it does say that emotions get in the way of hearing the Force. What then about "trust your feelings, Luke"? Feelings and emotions are different, I guess?)  And predictably, the Jedi seem to have little to offer someone who is experiencing inner turmoil. Such turmoil is, itself, seen as a manifestation of the Dark Side. The Jedi are also capable of ruthless violence, all for the greater good of course and done without anger. Yoda tells Luke in Empire Strikes Back that the Jedi must only use the Force for "knowledge and defense," but if that's true, then "defense" has a very flexible definition.

All of this explains why Luke responds as he does to the young Ben Solo. His abortive attempt to kill his apprentice was not just a momentary aberration. It was the reasonable way for a Jedi to respond to what appeared to be a rising tide of darkness within an extremely gifted student. After all, Obi-Wan and Yoda had both insisted to the young Luke that he had to kill his father, and both began discussing contingency plans (otherwise known as Leia) when they realized that he might not be willing to do this.

When Luke first meets Rey, he realizes that she, like Ben, is a deeply troubled person with great talent. He tells her that this "didn't scare me enough" in Ben's case. When she immediately feels the draw of the "dark" place under the island, he treats this as some fundamental flaw in her. Yet when Rey dives into the repository of the "dark side," nothing terrible happens.  She doesn't become evil--instead, like Luke in the parallel scene in Empire Strikes Back, she gains self-knowledge. Luke encountered a vision of Darth Vader (whom he did not yet know was his father) and killed him, only to see that the face inside the helmet was his own. Rey seeks a vision of her parents, but only sees endless images of herself. This paves the way for Yoda's words to Luke that Rey already has all the wisdom she needs within herself.

Luke has been on the island for years, seeking to reject the Jedi traditions--but he has deliberately sought out a place of great holiness for the Jedi tradition, and has never actually been able to carry out his intention of burning the Jedi texts. He treats Rey in classic Jedi master fashion even while claiming that he is only teaching her in order to debunk the Jedi ways. He is deeply terrified by her alleged attraction to the "Dark Side," which is a highly conventional Jedi reaction. Thus, ironically, the naive Ray, who seeks initiation, into the Jedi tradition is the push Luke needs to free himself from the Jedi tradition--or, perhaps, to renew it by returning to its true principles.

Luke's final "duel" with Kylo Ren shows the new enlightenment he has reached because of his encounter with Rey. It is a homage, of course, to Obi Wan's death in the first Star Wars movie. But while Obi Wan tells Darth Vader "if you strike me down I will become more powerful than ever," Luke tells Ren, "Strike me down in anger, and I will always be with you, just like your father." It is the language of relationship, rather than the language of power. It is a threat, but also a promise.

Ren's desire to destroy the past violently is not actually a constructive answer. Killing the past, striking it down in anger, only means that it haunts us all the more. Rey's attempt to turn Kylo Ren to the light fails, but that doesn't make it foolish or wrong. At the end of the movie, Ren appears triumphant, but he has unfinished business with both the dead Luke (and, as Luke has pointed out, with his father) and the living Rey.  And Rey has emerged as a genuine heir of everything good in the Jedi tradition, regardless of her parentage.

The second strand: Poe vs. the women
The strand of the story that concerns Poe's conflict with Leia and Holdo over the proper way to fight has gotten a lot of praise and criticism on ideological grounds. Generally speaking, conservatives hate it because they see it as heavy-handed feminist propaganda and they find its attitude to heroic sacrifice inconsistent (good when women do it, bad when men do it). Feminists typically like it, for obvious reasons. I'm on the feminist side on this one. I think it's a neat reversal of conventional stories of derring-do, as well as a homage to Battlestar Galactica (which on the whole I find a good thing). I recognize that there are problems with the plot, but on the whole I found the characters engaging and the standoff one of the tensest parts of the movie, because the film created genuine uncertainty about who was in the right. I don't find Holdo's actions inconsistent--the movie never suggests that courage and sacrifice are bad things in themselves, only that they need to be, as Catholics would say, "rightly ordered." (See Aristotle, and Aquinas, on courage as a mean between cowardice and rashness.) 

Just as the main strand of the film criticizes the ideology of the Jedi order, so this strand criticizes the
ideology of action movies in general, in which the way to resist evil is always to "get in a plane and blow things up." And yes, this is gendered, because men generally are more likely than women to fall into this error. Holdo is set up to look like what my wife and I would call (if you'll pardon a reference to the other classic screen sci-fi mythos) a "Kai Winn" character, from the obnoxious Bajoran leader in Deep Space Nine--someone who conceals her selfish ambition, and perhaps even her treason, behind the mask of motherly female authority. Personally, I loved this part of the story, precisely because I found it disconcerting. I also loved the completely unrealistic gentle treatment Poe got from Holdo and Leia when his mutiny failed.

This strand of the story mirrors the main strand in that more conventional "Star Wars values" are first presented, then debunked, then reaffirmed in a chastened way. Heroic self-sacrifice isn't bad--it just needs to be clearly necessary and serve the common good rather than being an expression of machismo.

The third strand: "Protecting what you love"

The Rose/Finn section of the film has attracted the most criticism, and it does have some problems. The extended sequence on the casino planet drags the movie out, and Rose's "saving" Finn by crashing into him is a rather bizarre act that strains suspension of disbelief, besides seeming like a heavy-handed statement of a theme that has already been made adequately. But from a strictly thematic point of view, this is actually the strand that pulls it together, with Rose's line about protecting what you love rather than fighting what you hate.

Again, this is really just a restatement of a line we have heard from Yoda: "Fear leads to anger. . . anger leads to hate. . . hate leads to suffering." (Maybe the only memorable thing in The Phantom Menace? Other than just how goofy it was?) That this line, which summarizes the message of the film as a whole, is given to such an "unimportant" character further cements the democratic, iconoclastic message of the film.

The closing scene of the film takes us back to the "casino planet" for a shot of a kid using the Force to lift a broom.  In spite of the problems with the earlier casino planet sequence in terms of the pacing of the plot, the events on the casino planet turn out to be thematically central to the film. Rose has commented that the financiers who gamble on the casino planet are the "worst people in the world." The true villains of The Last Jedi are not cackling space wizards but well-heeled, respectable people who sell weapons to both sides in the conflict. And the true heroes, at the film's end, are the down-trodden children who are just beginning to discover their own innate power.
       

                    Conclusion

For me at least, The Last Jedi is just iconoclastic enough to be fresh, while managing to evoke the combination of corny humor and romantic myth-making that made the first trilogy so successful. In the end, the film does not destroy the mythos of the series as a whole--it refreshes it by challenging some of its unacknowledged problems and giving it a more egalitarian message. Star Wars is one of the quintessential American myths (in both good and bad ways). By subverting the "hero blowing things up" model and substituting a message about the potential for heroism in everyone, this last installment has substituted one aspect of the American myth for another. From my perspective, this new version is largely an improvement.

I was finally inspired to finish this long review by watching The Empire Strikes Back today with my five-year-old daughter. The Yoda sequences on Dagobah are among my favorite scenes in the whole franchise, and watching them I realized how much The Last Jedi owes to its predecessors even as it tries to sort out some of their mixed messages. Also, not having watched Empire for a while, I'd forgotten how much TLJ's closing fight really does echo the battle on Hoth in the earlier film. In one scene, Luke destroys an Imperial Walker when the battle is functionally over, accomplishing nothing that I can see for the greater cause. It is precisely this kind of pointless derring-do that the later film will criticize. The earlier films, like most action adventures, create action sequences that in the end don't accomplish much, while completely skating over this futility. In TLJ, the futility is hammered home. Actions have consequences.

With TLJ, the Star Wars franchise has finally, reluctantly, grown up a little. Maybe that's not entirely a good thing. But in a culture of delayed adolescence with a fixation on acts of violent heroism by young males, I think it mostly is.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Star Wars movie review--but not the one you expect

Image result for fn-2187
I've been working on a series of blog posts on Brad Gregory's The Unintended Reformation, which was published five years ago and which I finished reading about a year ago. So it probably shouldn't surprise that I am now writing not about the new Star Wars (which I'm going to see on Tuesday) but the last one, which I only just watched last night (in preparation for seeing the new one). I'd heard a lot of mixed reports on it--many of my friends think that it's too much of a rehash of previous films. Having watched it, I think that's true. It's not a shattering, ground-breaking movie, but I enjoyed it a lot (and probably would have been more impressed on the large screen). I'm certainly looking forward to watching the next one.

Like many people, I particularly liked the story of Finn, the stormtrooper who changes sides. He begins the story without a name except the designation FN-2187. Early in the film, one of his comrades is killed, and reaches up and touches FN-2187 on the helmet, leaving a bloodstained handprint. At this point we only know the character as just another faceless stormtrooper, but the bloodstain individualizes him. A few minutes later, he and he alone refuses to massacre civilians, and eventually helps a Resistance pilot escape. In the fighter, as they are fleeing the "First Order," the pilot, Poe Dameron, names FN-2187 "Finn," just before the fighter crashes and Finn believes that Dameron is dead. I wasn't sure that Dameron would stay dead, and of course he doesn't--turns out he was thrown from the craft and survived perfectly fine. Apparently the original plan was for him to die, and I think that would have made Finn's journey from nameless stormtrooper to individualized hero more poignant.

I also really liked the ending, in which Rey finally tracks Luke Skywalker down on a coastline that reminded me vividly of my ancestral Shetland (i believe it's actually Skellig Michael in Ireland). As I said to someone today, I can put up with nearly anything in a movie that gives me a shot of a windswept landscape overlooking the North Atlantic.

The curse of Star Wars, I think, is Joseph Campbell. His homogenized stereotype of a "hero's journey" has locked the franchise into certain patterns that it can't seem to escape. Of course Hollywood blockbusters tend to follow well-worn grooves anyway, but the particular mythic model George Lucas chose has, I think, accentuated that basic tendency of commercial entertainment. This is why George R. R. Martin's work stands out, I think. It isn't so much that Martin is "cynical" or "nihilistic" (though of course his vision is very dark), but that he treats his characters as individuals. Their actions fall into certain broad patterns, but the complexity and freedom of real human lives keeps busting the heroic stereotypes apart.

Supposedly the new Star Wars movie is bolder than its predecessor. I'll find out on Tuesday. But since apparently it starts with more shots of Skellig Michael, I'll be happy no matter what.