The True Myth is the Truth of All Myth

The world’s myths do not reveal a way to interpret the Gospels, but exactly the reverse: the Gospels reveal to us the way to interpret myth. – René Girard, 1996

Like so many other religions, Christianity worships a perfect man who died a sacrifice for his people and the world, and rose again to life. It’s a scandalous thought, perilous to Christian faith – until one remembers that the fact that so many other religions have shared important aspects of the form of Christianity does not mean that Christianity is false. For, that would be like thinking that the great diversity of animals means that there is no King of Beasts, no archetype of animality, or even no such thing as animation at all (this being analogous to the conclusion – or, rather, more often the unthinking presupposition – of those scholars of religion who are atheist).

The unicorn is mythical. The rhinoceros is not.

—————-

I highly recommend the linked essay by Girard. It’s chock full of nourishing nuts.

Sloppy Reduction

That an event is composed entirely of transactions among subatomic particles does not mean that it is nothing but subatomic particles – does not mean that its character is exhaustively specified by the specification of the trajectories and interactions of those particles. If it did, there would be no discernible difference between, say, jumping off a bridge for the fun of it and jumping off a bridge to save a drowning child. If the jumps in question were nothing but subatomic particles moving about, then we would not be able to discern the different meanings of the two jumps; they would look absolutely identical to us in every respect, because, there being in fact no difference between them there would be no way to tell any difference between them.

Continue reading

A Tale of Two Popes

My Catholic columns this month discuss a call for tradition by Pope Saint Pius X in his encyclical against modernism, and a call for–God knows what?–by soon-to-be-blessed Pope Paul VI in his speech closing the Second Vatican Council.

The speech is fascinating and should be read. Paul VI appears to have been a man with considerable intellectual and spiritual gifts who was unable to take seriously how perverse, obstinate, cruddy, stupid, and downright evil people can be. The problems he saw all around him didn’t make sense, so they must all be a big mistake that would dissolve if we only showed sufficient intelligence and good will so the mistake could be cleared up. That’s how he seemed to come out, even though as an intellectual matter his account of the modern world in the speech was quite astute, as a Catholic he should have remembered that superstrength measures were needed to overcome the world, and in any event he was obviously aware of problems with the Council itself. (Otherwise why talk of its “real and deep intentions” and “authentic manifestations”?)

Reading him reminds me that we’ve had a run of pontiffs who were major figures even though they might not always be perfect or make the right decision. The run seems to have come to an end, and the uninspiring day-to-day reality of the post-Vatican II Church has caught up with us at all levels. That’s no fun, but I can’t say we deserve better.

On other fronts, I have a shorter piece at the Catholic World Report weblog about why the Church should keep making natural law arguments on sexual matters even though nobody can make sense of them (they present essential aspects of the Christian view of reality). There’s also a longer piece at the International Journal of Architectural Research on the architectural theorist Christoper Alexander.

Cardinal Kasper’s mercy

St. Paul, picking up on several of Jesus’ allegories, acknowledges in his epistle to the Ephesians that marriage is a type of the Church — that is, that marriage, while real in itself, also symbolically alludes to or foreshadows some greater reality. He thus admonishes wives to be subordinate to their husbands, as the Church is to Christ, and husbands to love their wives, as Christ loves the Church.

Yet the Church, we know too, is made up of sinners, and our sins are acts of adultery — literally, of infidelity — against our Lord and the covenant he has made with us. We are always cheating on him, rebelling against him, hiding from him, spurning, mocking, casting longing glances to the world, the flesh, and the Devil. And is our Lord not a faithful lover? Does he not continue to withstand our abuses and admonish us to be and do better? Is he not always wooing us?

I suppose we should be glad, then, that the Father is not so merciful as Cardinal Kasper, that he would spare his only-begotten Son the difficulty of our continued company.

“There are none left!”

Catholic Patriarch of Antioch Ignace Joseph III Younan: “We declare, with great distress, that our bishopric in Mosul has been completely burned down: manuscripts, libraries, etc. But they have already announced that all Christians must convert to Islam or else they will be executed. It is a terrible thing! And this puts the international community to shame!”

Vatican Radio Correspondent Sergio Cenofanti: “Are there still Christians in Mosul?”

Younan: “There are none left! There are none left!”

As if our boys in Kiev weren’t bad enough, our boys in Iraq are worse still, and have taken to marking the homes and businesses of Christians with an Arabic “N” (for “Nazarene”) in anticipation of subsequent murder and pillage. The displacement of this nearly two-millennia old population of Christians is now nearly complete.

The Moribund Orthosphere

Bruce Charlton recently noticed that things have been quiet around here lately, and wondered whether it might not be due to an insuperable incoherence in the notion of the “mere Christianity” to which this site has generally been committed as a de minimis condition of true – that is to say, godly – civilization.

It isn’t. Not for me, anyway. There’s a much simpler explanation. For me as for bonald, there has lately been much to write about and almost no time to write. I’ve had little alternative this summer so far but to focus all my energies on my business and my family (for reasons that are all both urgent and happy). There have concomitantly been some interesting developments in my spiritual life, related to the beginnings of my immersion in Roman Catholic spirituality, that have disinclined me to write for the last couple of months – not just here at the Orthosphere, but in my correspondence, and even in my private journal. These developments – not so much a correction as an elaboration, amplification and implementation of the Christian spirituality I had learned as an Anglican – strike me as salutary, but I don’t quite understand them yet. Indeed, with the ground shifting somewhat under my feet, all my understandings, in every department (such as they are), are likewise shifting. This gentle seismic motion is generating a torrent of grist for my intellectual mill – too much, so far, for me to get much of a handle on any of it. So it seems somewhat too early to write about it. But the shift is pervasive, and that means it has been tricky to approach writing about anything at all.

Nevertheless, I feel that I am now ready to begin again. Which will be a relief, because I have about 80 posts waiting to be set down.

The Orthosphere is in no sense coordinated. We don’t vet each other’s posts, and there is no plan about who will post what when. We just write what we feel like writing. I doubt therefore that the late quiet around here is due to any cause other than the happenstance that from time to time opens a moment of uncanny silence even in a room full of people happily chatting away with each other. Such silences are meaningless in themselves. But I find them strangely refreshing, as reminding everyone involved that all our discourse supervenes upon a wider world of far more powerful and urgent currents, with altogether other, bigger, wilder concerns, that nevertheless graciously stoops to admit and support our little engagements with each other.

I suppose that means that such “happenstantial” silences are not in fact altogether meaningless, even vis-à-vis the details of the conversations they punctuate. Silence, after all, is not noise.

In any event, they pass too quickly away, and the subsequent renewal of conversation seems then even more vivacious than before.

So I will not be surprised if things get a bit busier around here in the coming weeks. Or if they don’t. Conversation here at the Orthosphere is like weather. Sometimes there is a lot of it, and sometimes there isn’t.

None of this, of course, is to say that Bruce is wrong in his skepticism about the viability of mere Christianity. I’m of several minds about that myself.

New Article on the Destruction of Education

An article of mine has appeared at The Brussels Journal under the title, “Hannah Arendt and Richard Weaver on the Crisis of Western Education.” It is accessible at: http://www.brusselsjournal.com/node/5141

Here is a sample:

Arendt writes of assuming responsibility for the inherited world, as the conservative or curatorial heart of education. A strikingly complementary notion occurs in the work of one of Arendt’s contemporaries who also wrote about the perils threatening education in the period of the Cold War. This writer saw in the self-styled progressive pedagogy of his day, which in his view had already begun to subvert traditional education, an essential ‘irresponsibility to the past and to the structure of reality in the present.’ Indeed, he saw that the assumptions of this revolutionary coup-d’état in the classroom could never ‘serve as the foundations of culture because [they] are out of line with what is.’ It was the case that ‘where [these assumptions] are allowed to provide foundations,’ or to allege to provide foundations, ‘they imperil the whole structure.’

The other writer is Richard Weaver (1910 – 1963) and the lines quoted above come from the chapter on ‘The Gnostics of Education’ in his book Visions of Order: The Cultural Crisis of Our Time (published posthumously, 1964). Arendt was a woman of the Left; Weaver was a man of the Right. That their separate and independent commentaries on the same topic, appearing in book form within three years of one another, should be so convergent and complementary is striking. What explains it? A commitment to civilization, shared across the political frontier, might be the best answer to the question. Both Arendt and Weaver, in contrast to the advocates of avant-garde pedagogy whom they criticize, see education in its conservative or curatorial role as a civilizational, rather than as a social, institution. When the high-school English teacher in Santa Monica brought his portable stereo to the classroom and invited his students to listen to Wagner, he appealed to them in the name of civilization, not in the name of society. At the time, society’s idea of music was The Beach Boys and The Rolling Stones. When I challenge students to read and appreciate Tono-Bungay by Wells, I do so in the name of civilization, not of society, whose notion of literary challenge is non-existent.

Perspective

The Supreme Court hates women! Back-alley abortion coat hangars and so on!

Oops, wait:

(1) The Court assumes that the interest in guaranteeing cost-free  access to the four challenged contraceptive methods is compelling within the meaning of RFRA. …

(2) The Government has failed to satisfy RFRA’s least restrictive-means standard. HHS has not shown that it lacks other means of achieving its desired goal without imposing a substantial burden on the exercise of religion. The Government could, e.g., assume the cost of providing the four contraceptives to women unable to obtain coverage due to their employers’ religious objections. Or it could extend the accommodation that HHS has already established for religious nonprofit organizations to non-profit employers with religious objections to the contraceptive mandate. That accommodation does not impinge on the plaintiffs’ religious beliefs that providing insurance coverage for the contraceptives at issue here violates their religion and it still serves HHS’s stated interests.

So, in other words, the court agrees with the left that contraceptives (in this case, really, abortifacients) really really need to be given to women free of charge, it just disagrees prudentially that forcing Hobby Lobby et al. to do it is the best means of getting there.

So, the left is angry not that women won’t get free morning-after pills — because they will, one way or another — but that their enemies don’t yet get to be subjected to the indignity and humiliation of paying for it over their own objections. Such a big fuss over such a small scrap to have fallen from Caesar’s table.

 

Re-Post: Michael Powell’s I Know Where I’m Going (1945)

When, several semesters ago, my department chair asked me to teach the local version of the nowadays-pervasive “popular culture” course, I consented with some mild misgivings and, as I like to do, took a mostly historical approach to course-content. I have no investment in contemporary popular culture, the wretchedness of it striking me as consummate. My students, for their part, being morbidly, continuously immersed in contemporary popular culture, require no one to acquaint them with it. At least they require no one to tutor them in it directly, since it regrettably is their ubiquitous, hortatory guide, and their authoritative cue-giver, for all facets of life. But one might apprise them about the insipidity of existing mass-entertainment indirectly by putting it in contrast with the popular entertainments of the past, including the classic films that most of them have never seen and, more importantly, would never seek out on their own. One film that I showed to students was the Errol Flynn vehicle The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), directed by Michael Curtiz. Another one, not so well known as Robin Hood, was the Roger Livesey/Wendy Hiller vehicle I Know Where I’m Going (1945), directed by Michael Powell (1905 – 1990).

Continue reading