Thursday, February 25, 2016

not that old landmark, the other one...

Almost a year ago, David O'Brien, the grand doge of liberal American Catholic scholars--and, let's face it, a really great guy who's never forgotten he grew up in PITTSFIELD, MASS.--wrote about Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign and socialism.  O'Brien reminds us of Eugene V. Debs, the great socialist organizer and presidential candidate of a century ago as he reviews three kinds of socialism.  Two kinds are actually familiar to Americans:...

One is public ownership, known to us via the post office, city buses and subways, municipal utilities, state and national parks, a few government- owned businesses, like Amtrak, and at least one state-owned bank. The idea here is that there are some resources so important that they should not be subject to competition and market manipulation. Instead, they should be controlled by the public through the instruments of democratic government. 


The second and perhaps best known form of socialism is public provision of services to meet basic human needs. Thus the label “socialized medicine” for the healthcare systems of Canada, the United Kingdom, and other countries. We have such a system for the elderly, with Medicare, and for military veterans, but we have shied away from a sensible “single-payer” system. In many other countries there is enough sense of shared responsibility for a valued common life to allow for effective public provision of education, healthcare, pensions, basic research, and other services considered essential to human dignity and a rich life.
We Americans are not immune to civic responsibility--we sacrifice for national security and generously support private charities. But Americans have been slow to accept wider social responsibilities when it comes to the environment, wages, and healthy food. In addition, many Americans are discouraged about public education, public safety and, perhaps most of all, public finance. Democratic socialists share these anxieties but insist that good government, not even more limited government, is the solution.

Then O'Brien concludes:

In the end, economic and social democracy, and the common good, depend on the people. If Bernie Sanders can do what Barack Obama failed to do, inspire a renewal of that kind of realistic participatory democracy, local communities and the entire country will be in his debt.

Read it all here.

Did you catch the contrast?  If Sanders can do what Obama failed to do....So after all the ink spilled, blog posts, organization, and mainstream cable news appearances, the American Catholic infatuation with Barack Obama has, ultimately, ended in frustration.  We thought he was THE GUY, but he was not.  Maybe the next guy is THE GUY.

This failed messianism ought to shake us out of our dogmatic slumbers, in this case the sleep-walking belief in our ability to find the next earthly savior to our problems.  The Right looks for the next Ronald Reagan while the Left ponders the Obama legacy, wondering what went wrong.  Meanwhile,  Republicans confront their own bete-noire:

The Christian tradition has all sorts of things to say about this arrogance, and none of it good.  Wisdom starts with fear of the Lord, but we'd much rather seek temporary salvation in other humans offering better snake-oil-solutions.  Their sales pitches escalate our covetousness and thus we are never satisfied.

This great thirst to, first, find the true prophetic connecting points--leaders, people, movements--between ourselves and the heady days of Christ's earthly life, and second, the assurance and comfort we take in linking ourselves thusly, reminds me of the Landmark Baptists.  Confronted with the reality of significant and unavoidable geographical, spiritual, and ecclesiological distance between themselves and Christ's own time, some American Baptists construed church history as a series of "landmarks" -- signs of the true (Scripturally-founded and local) Church amid the flotsam and jetsam that filled the medieval and Reformation eras.  These "Landmarks" thus tie current believers back through the fog to the original glory days.  Back when things were good/right.

There's an air of "Landmarkism" in O'Brien's wishes for the Sanders campaign as well as the current infatuation with Trump.  These figures assure us that they will dispel the immediate past between ourselves and the original truth.  We embrace the current Landmark--whatever it happens to be--because our current situation being so dismal, we crave the clarity and connection Landmarkism offers.

Now there are times when going back to the old Landmark isn't necessarily a bad thing, either.

diet and exercise--spiritual version, Part I

Dreary, rainy drive into work Wednesday of last week and one week later not much has changed except now it has snowed, mind going in several directions. Reciting the Creed to start the Rosary, though, brought everything back to reality.

I believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty
Maker of Heaven and Earth, of all things visible and invisible

Well!  That's one way of getting a grip on the situation!  No matter the trials--great or small--facing us, the Creed allows us to see through it all to the source of life, God Himself.  The Rosary constitutes perhaps one of the Catholic tradition's steadiest, most tried-and-tested, "diet and exercise" paths to spiritual fitness.  It takes some getting used-to, just like any new workout, but once accustomed and you're "in the groove," reciting the Rosary uncovers and illuminates so many levels and directions of spiritual growth to be enjoyed. In this particular case, reciting the Creed beforehand has illuminated once again the Trinitarian shape of reality itself.  God creates all things visible and invisible and creates them through the Son and gives them all life through the Holy Spirit.  It is in this vein that some Rosary-influence Lenten reflections will be offered.

Consider Steve Skojec's recent post on fasting.  First, some honesty which I admired--Skojec admits he's not good at fasting.  That's good, because I'm not, either.

I’m horrible at fasting. Always have been. Every time I hear someone say that our present crisis requires “more prayer…” I do a fist pump and say “YEAH!” – but then, they inevitably finish with, “…and fasting” – and I become instantly sullen. “Jeeze. Why is that person such an extremist about everything?”

Then more:

Suffice to say, food and I are great friends, and I carry around the extra pounds to prove it. My lovely bride and I experienced the first spark in our relationship when she asked if I’d like to join her for lunch at a sushi place in downtown Phoenix. (We were co-workers at the time.) In a manner of speaking, you could say we dined our way into a shared life together, our joy over great food and life fully lived forming the initial basis of our blossoming romance. If there was a film that captured our ethos, it would have perhaps been Big Night, or better yet, Babette’s Feast. And we didn’t just go out. My wife — as anyone who knows her will tell you — is a phenomenal cook. Friends and family never turn down an opportunity to come to our house when Jamie is offering to feed them.
I’m supposed to be writing about fasting, and all I can talk about is eating.
That alone is a cash-money line:  supposed to be fasting, focusing on eating.  This is a spiritual diabetes outlook one hundred percent.  Supposed to focused on spiritual food, but usually my mind is running somewhere toward this:

From a wonderful church supper in Montgomery, Alabama, March 2010.  Yes, those are real collard greens, and, yes, I ate about five squares of cornbread with this and, yes, I had fried chicken and a grilled sausage to go with it.  No, I didn't skimp on the sweet tea, either.

Skojec doesn't stop there. Seeking deeper roots to guide his fasting, he turns to the 1917 Code of Canon Law which he, a traditionalist Catholic, cites from the Society of St. Pius X.  OK, for the few readers who tend more left than right, please Skojec some slack.  He then cites at length St. John Chrysostom; the best lines are these:

Sharpen thy sickle, which thou hast blunted through gluttony–sharpen it by fasting. Lay hold of the pathway which leads towards heaven; rugged and narrow as it is, lay hold of it, and journey on. And how mayest thou be able to do these things? By subduing thy body, and bringing it into subjection. For when the way grows narrow, the corpulence that comes of gluttony is a great hindrance. Keep down the waves of inordinate desires. Repel the tempest of evil thoughts. Preserve the bark; display much skill, and thou hast become a pilot. But we shall have the fast for a groundwork and instructor in all these things.
Again, that's Chrysostom--and Skojec rightly attends to that devastating line "For when the way grows narrow, the corpulence that comes of gluttony is a great hindrance."  Of course, Chrysostom means more than merely physical corpulence, although he certainly means that, too.  Spiritually we've become fat, but we've been called--like great soldiers, sailors, farmers, and travellers--to go out and do.  To succeed in these endeavors, we must train and the basis for that training, the beginning of diet and exercise, is fasting.  Skojec notes that Chrysostom also advised fasting from more than just food;  visual and audial fasting should accompany the stricter diet.  Otherwise, what good will less food, sugar, red meat, or coffee do us if we continue to slake our lust-tastes visually?  That's a great point and Skojec does a great service to us all--and especially somebody like me--for citing the saint thusly.

Read it all here--and may God continue to bless us all this Lent.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Tragedy is a Thin Place

Last Wednesday (February 17) a man employed by Wabash College, my alma mater, murdered two people in Zionsville, Indiana.  He then went to work like any other day. Just before the police caught his trail, he fled to Indianapolis.  The subsequent manhunt led to the Wabash campus being locked down as authorities swept every building looking for the subject.  Once located in Indianapolis, he killed himself.

That night, Wabash squared off against its eternal rival, DePauw University, on the basketball court.  The next day, Dr. Derek Nelson, a Wabash graduate and faculty member, delivered the following Chapel Talk.  Brief by Wabash standards, "Tragedy is a Thin Place" strikes all the right chords for such a desperate time--at Wabash and elsewhere.  Nelson, following C. S. Lewis' confrontation of continuing liberal arts studies as World War II exploded, traces how such times are precisely when we need liberal studies the most, not least.  Wabash, being an all-male liberal arts college in a small Indiana town, is prone to such self-doubt, never more so surely than last week.  Nelson, graduating almost a decade after me, enjoyed the return of these Chapel talks and a host of other traditions that were reinvigorated between my graduation and his arrival.  I've thus come to enjoy many of these via YouTube.  Nelson's ranks with the best three or four I've ever heard.  It is well worth a listen--not just for us Wabash guys but for anybody who values liberal learning and the pursuit of the true, the good, and the beautiful--things and qualities so needed these days.

“Risen” and the Reality of the Resurrection | Word on Fire

“Risen” and the Reality of the Resurrection | Word on Fire

Latest film review by Los Angeles's bishop Robert Barron.  The bishop's reviews always spark reflection, but this one particularly so since the film in question involves the Resurrection--the very heart of the entire Christian world view and endeavor.  Barron:

I specially appreciated this scene, not only because of its clever composition, but because it reminded me of debates that were fashionable in theological circles when I was doing my studies in the 1970’s and 1980’s. Scholars who were skeptical of the bodily facticity of Jesus’ resurrection would pose the question, “What would someone outside of the circle of Jesus’ disciples have seen had he been present at the tomb on Easter morning or in the Upper Room on Easter evening?” The implied answer to the query was “well, nothing.” The academics posing the question were suggesting that what the Bible calls resurrection designated nothing that took place in the real world, nothing that an objective observer would notice or dispassionate historian recount, but rather an event within the subjectivity of those who remembered the Lord and loved him.

Barron then reviews the work of well-known theologians--now probably widely regarded as 'liberal' but in the 1970s they were the en vogue mainstream--Edward Schillebeeckx and the more current Roger Haight.  These and the popular historian James Carroll view the Resurrection event as an event occurring in the experiences of Jesus' followers, i.e., it didn't really happen.  Barron's having none of this, and he's not alone:

The great English Biblical scholar N.T. Wright is particularly good at exposing and de-bunking such nonsense. His principal objection to this sort of speculation is that it is profoundly non-Jewish. When a first century Jew spoke of resurrection, he could not have meant some non-bodily state of affairs. Jews simply didn’t think in the dualist categories dear to Greeks and later to Gnostics. The second problem is that this post-conciliar theologizing is dramatically unhistorical. Wright argues that, simply on historical grounds, it is practically impossible to explain the rise of the early Christian movement apart from a very objective construal of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. 

Thus more Barron:

Risen’s far more reasonable and theologically compelling answer is that, yes indeed, if an outsider and unbeliever burst into the Upper Room when the disciples were experiencing the resurrected Jesus, he would have seen something along with them. Would he have fully grasped what he was seeing? Obviously not. But would the experience have had no objective referent?  Just as obviously not. There is just something tidy, bland, and unthreatening about the subjectivizing interpretations I rehearsed above. What you sense on every page of the New Testament is that somethinghappened to the first Christians, something so strange and unexpected and compelling that they wanted to tell the whole world about it. Frankly, Risen conveys the edgy novelty, the unnerving reality of the resurrection, better than much contemporary theologizing.

Once again, exactly right.  The Resurrection was an event--and thus is an event.  Unfortunately, the Catholic theological mainstream since the Second Vatican Council, mistaking the Council's great call to reach out to the world as a call instead to "drop everything you hold dear and reach out to the world," has sought to diminish this.  Largely, it seems because they feel it's embarrassing.  Barron sees Risen has raising a far more probing question:  what if it happened as they feared?

Friday, February 5, 2016

liberal, as in liberating

as opposed to servile, which means "an exceeding willingness to serve" something else.


As noted previously on this blog, that version of college education has taken some hits recently. Why study the classics and old-fashioned disciplines (Religion, History, English, Biology, Sociology) when what the kids (and their parents) really want is job-training? Out with the liberal arts, in with "Competency Based Education" (CBE)!

And the hits keep comin'...Steven Ward sees this high-level vocational training as furthering an already troubling bifurcation in American education. Liberal education has become elite education.

However, in the rush to emphasize marketable skills over a deeper liberal knowledge content, proponents of CBE in all forms are forcing students (particularly the underserved in lower-tier institutions, whom they claim to be helping) into a “knowledge-less” version of liberal learning in order to “hurry things along” and not get in the way of their job training.
Despite the rhetoric of “serving the underserved” and “closing the skills gap,” they are responsible for generating new hierarchies between those who receive a cheap, fast food-style or “good enough” education from those who receive a quality one. They are forging new barriers and strata in an already highly stratified higher education system, not removing them as they often claim.
CBE stands in marked contrast to a past emphasis on quality, across-the-board liberal learning to be acquired regardless of the type of student or institution that was at the heart of general liberal education. This was partly what a Dewey-style social democratic vision of liberal arts education was supposed to be about -- general knowledge available to and shared by all -- a kindergarten for adults.
CBE essentially gives up on this dream of democratizing knowledge and promotes a division between those who need a thorough, content-centered liberal education and those who only need a light, fast and vocation-friendly version. It suggests that the big questions, or what the British sociologist Basil Bernstein referred to as powerful or sacred knowledge, where the unimaginable becomes imagined, is not really relevant for most middle- and working-class students who attend community colleges and regional state universities where most of the CBE experiments are being played out.
These students will not need to concern themselves with the bigger questions of theoria -- those can be left up to those with more elite training who will occupy the corridors of power, making laws and running things, but can instead stick to the mundane knowledge and the basics of everyday praxis happening in their assigned cubicles.
In this new model, students in more elite institutions will go on receiving broad liberal training and having access to powerful knowledge as a core part of their university experience, while those at lower-tier public institutions will be loaded up with watered-down, box-checking skills and vague competencies like “critical thinking” or “intercultural understanding” to be provided by standardized, online platforms.

Read it all here.

Monday, February 1, 2016

visual proof

OK, so last month's announcement of faculty layoffs at The College of Saint Rose has sparked outcry in several different forms.

To hear that programs will be eliminated is one thing.  To see proof of this and that future is another matter.  Consider this irony:  the invitation to pursue questions of faith, rationality, politics, and culture preceded by the notice: "no more applications are being accepted."  From the College's own website:


Bachelor of Arts in Religious Studies


**No new applications are being accepted for this program**

Do you ask the big questions about faith, God, humanity, and the fate of the world?

Are you interested in the relationship between Religion, Culture, and Politics? Do you want to live a good life? Is your life shaped by Scripture and prayer? Do you appreciate intellectual discipline? Do you long to reflect on the extraordinary character of life’s spiritual purpose and meaning? Do you want to make your time at College really count? If so, we hope you will consider a course of study in Religious Studies.


In other words, don't bother.