Violence Unveiled: Humanity at the Crossroads – Audio book now available

It has been over five years since we started the project of making an audio book version of Violence Unveiled: Humanity at the Crossroads available. Just after Christmas Amazon/Audible approved the audio book for sale. In coming months it will also be available in other audio book vendor sites. Patience has paid off, finally. You may listen to the new introduction to the audio book below.

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Awakening in the New Year

Which is more difficult, to awaken one who sleeps or to awaken one who, awake, dreams that he is awake?

Soren Kierkegaard

Some weeks ago I reflected on our American Thanksgiving tradition of civic proclamations of corporate repentance for our sins and gratitude to God for blessings in the year past. At the end of these musings I suggested we pray for a new ‘Great Awakening’ in our land so that we might again whole heartedly “offer up our bodies and souls as a living and acceptable Service unto God by Jesus Christ” as did the Puritan colonists of Charlestown, Massachusetts in 1676.

David Goldman (aka ‘Spengler’) has recently reviewed American Awakening, Identity Politics and Other Afflictions of Our Time, by Joshua Mitchell. I recommend the review to those who, like myself, are concerned and troubled by what many have seen as a rapid secularization of the fabric of American life. Mitchell suggests that certainly there has been a dramatic drop in traditional, especially ‘mainline’, religious involvement across the US since the 1960’s, but what appear to be secular/non-religious phenomena in the passionate dedication to identity politics of all kinds are best understood as de-Christianized Puritanical movements. This new (anti-Christ) Awakening has immense breadth and power not only among the young but also in the leading cultural institutions of education, media, business, law and of course the politics of the left most prominently.

Identity politics is a form of secularized Puritanism, as surely as the ritualized hunt for racists at American universities is a farcical reenactment of the Salem Witch Trials of 1692, which the Puritan leaders of Massachusetts first supported and later regretted.

Having not read Mitchell’s book, I’m not aware that he references any Girardian influences. But Goldman’s quotes from the text indicate a possible fruitful exploration:

“We have lost sight of the real significance of the individual in proportion to the degree to which we have lost sight of the Christian understanding of the scapegoat,” writes Mitchell. “Should this loss become complete, we would not replace much-maligned individualism with wholesome communitarianism, but rather with the satisfaction that comes when one group scapegoats another group. We will replace it with tribalism. Although he wrote reverentially about the precious gift of liberty in the democratic age, Tocqueville understood that democratic man would find the plural world of parochial, local, and national attachments in which that liberty had to be embedded too much of an encumbrance to endure. He would wish to take flight. Having already broken free of some of the linkages that bound him to nature, to his past, and to his fellow citizens, democratic man would wish to break free from them altogether…. This democratic impulse goes too far. Citizens are, ultimately, creatures that must have a home, a family, a locale, a nation, a religion.”

What makes men equal, Mitchell avers, is “the radical asymmetry between God and man.” For Christians, God himself provided the scapegoat for all of our shortcomings, in the person of Jesus of Nazareth sacrificed on the cross. That sacrifice, Mitchell argues, makes it possible for every man to look at every other as an equal; without it, we inevitably find a human scapegoat and descend into tribalism.

Mitchell has hope that we will awake from from the slumber into which we have fallen due to identity politics, bi-polarity, and addiction. But as Kierkegaard implies it is much more difficult to awaken someone who, while “woke”, ‘dreams he is awake’

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Reflections on the Girard Christmas Card

In past years in celebration of Christmas we have posted a short excerpt from the Hoover Institutions Uncommon Knowledge series of an interview by Peter Robinson with René Girard recorded in 2009.

Viewing it again, I find the combination of profound intellect with humility one of the most compelling aspects of the man. My experience tells me this is not common among scholars. In our current fractured world I miss his graceful presence and wisdom even as I pray for the repose of his soul.

As we approach the Feast of the Nativity (and remembering the anniversary of the birth of René Noël Théophile Girard on December 25, 1923) it is good to again be reminded that:

  • history contains both human and divine threads, it is religious
  • our destiny and duty is to look for the truth – which must be discovered/uncovered
  • human life is essentially drama and each of us must take our part in the struggle for the good and right

Finally, when Peter Robinson asks René to give a summary of his insights for those unfamiliar with his work he protests that it is unimportant – emphasizing again the fundamental religious understanding of history and each person’s essential part in it.

It is clear that René Girard was faithful to the work he was called. Both Gil Bailie and I strive to emulate that faithfulness in our work and lives. We are grateful to all those who have made our work possible by their prayers and material support, and wish a blessed Christmas to all.

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Holiday Parties (circa 1830’s Maryland)

The holidays are part and parcel of the gross fraud, wrong, and inhumanity of slavery. They are professedly a custom established by the benevolence of the slaveholders; but I undertake to say, it is the result of selfishness, and one of the grossest frauds committed upon the down-trodden slave. They do not give the slaves this time because they would not like to have their work during its continuance, but because they know it would be unsafe to deprive them of it. This will be seen by the fact, that the slaveholders like to have their slaves spend those days just in such a manner as to make them as glad of their ending as of their beginning. Their object seems to be, to disgust their slaves with freedom, by plunging them into the lowest depths of dissipation. For instance, the slaveholders not only like to see the slave drink of his own accord, but will adopt various plans to make him drunk. One plan is, to make bets on their slaves, as to who can drink the most whisky without getting drunk; and in this way they succeed in getting whole multitudes to drink to excess. Thus, when the slave asks for virtuous freedom, the cunning slaveholder, knowing his ignorance, cheats him with a dose of vicious dissipation, artfully labelled with the name of liberty. The most of us used to drink it down, and the result was just what might be supposed; many of us were led to think that there was little to choose between liberty and slavery. We felt, and very properly too, that we had almost as well be slaves to man as to rum. So, when the holidays ended, we staggered up from the filth of our wallowing, took a long breath, and marched to the field,—feeling, upon the whole, rather glad to go, from what our master had deceived us into a belief was freedom, back to the arms of slavery.

Frederick Douglass
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Educating the young

Try to guess when the following observation was made:

… the more completely secularized public education becomes . . . the more the Christian element in our culture will diminish and the more complete will be the victory of the secularization as the working religion, or rather counter-religion, of the American people. Even today the public school is widely regarded not as a purely educational institution in the nineteenth century sense . . . but as a moral training in citizenship, an initiation and indoctrination in the American way of life; and since the public school is essentially secular this means that only the secular aspects of American culture are recognized as valid. It is only a short step from here to the point at which the Christian way of life is condemned and outlawed as a deviation from the standard patterns of social behavior.

Unless there is a revival or restoration of Christian culture – of the social life of the Christian community – modern civilization will become secularist in a more . . . aggressive way than it is today. And in a Godless civilization of this kind, it will be far more difficult for the individual Christian to exist and practice his religion than it has ever been before, even in ages of persecution. In the past, as for instance under the Roman Empire, the family formed an independent society which was almost immune from the state, so that it could become the primary cell of an unrecognized Christian society or culture. But today the very existence of the family as a social unit is threatened by the all-persuasive influence of the state and the secular mass culture. Yet without the Christian family there can be no Christian community life and indeed no church in the traditional sense of the word: only a few scattered individuals who maintain an isolated prophet witness, like Elijah in the wilderness.

When was this observation made, and by whom? It was made by the British historian, Christopher Dawson in lecture at the Harvard Divinity School in 1959.

Reaching back much further than 1959, Isabel Lyman quotes a 19th century Princeton Seminary theologian, A. A. Hodge:

I am as sure as I am of Christ’s reign that a comprehensive and centralized system of national education, separated from religion, as is now commonly proposed, will prove the most appalling enginery for the propagation of anti-Christian and atheistic unbelief, and of anti-social nihilistic ethics, individual, social and political, which this sin-rent world has ever seen.

Lyman adds: “Have events of the 20th century proved him wrong?” And from her own essay entitled “Taking Back Our Children,” Lyman offers this:

Abetted by mandatory education laws, many modern schools now serve as de facto indoctrination centers where little kids, tweens, and teens are compelled to listen to half-truths about everything from the Founding Fathers to the free market.

I might add that the moral indoctrination the young are receiving very often deals with matters of far greater import than the Founding Fathers and the free market. For they are being taught to accept as the moral prerequisite for social respectability suppositions which, as Dawson warned almost half a century ago, call into question “the very existence of the family as a social unit.”


Note: this was originally posted on our old weblog on September 6, 2007

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Thanksgiving retrospective

Reflections on Civic Religion – public expressions of national faith in God

This year’s pandemic transformed holiday traditions have attempted to replace physical with virtual presence to mitigate the spread of the COVID virus. Perhaps those adapted to the virtual existence of social media platforms and video games find this unproblematic. But for those whose relational sensibilities remain embodied this altered state has an unsettling feeling. No doubt the recent increase in COVID infections give testimony to the reluctance of many to forego physical distancing and mask wearing while enjoying the company of friends and family as people move indoors in cooler weather and the habits of past Thanksgiving celebrations overcame public health guidance. Trying to be thankful while one’s family appeared on screens around the Thanksgiving table was likely an effort. At least it was for me.                

Hoping to find a touchstone of thanks after the contentious messiness of the recent national election and its aftermath I sought some relief in reading about Thanksgiving and the holiday’s historic mixture of civic and religious sentiments. I was led to revisit the texts of past Thanksgiving Proclamations to see how our predecessors expressed their gratitude.

The first English settlers on the shores of North America in the late 16th century had little to be thankful for amid hostile locals, lack of food and ultimately did not survive (though some suggest any who did manage to escape death were assimilated by local tribes). However, by the mid-17th century successful colonies began to thrive. The Thanksgiving Proclamation of the governing council of Charlestown (near what is now Boston) of the Massachusetts Bay Colony dated June 20, 1676 was the earliest I could find. The attitude it reveals is remarkable for its sense of the tenuousness of their existence referring to the “afflictive dispensations” they understood God had visited upon them due to their sins. Yet the council nevertheless instructs that the people keep a day of “Solemn Thanksgiving and praise to God” and “persuaded by the mercies of God we may all, even this whole people offer up our bodies and souls as a living and acceptable Service unto God by Jesus Christ.”

A century later in proclamations by the Continental Congress (1777), and the President of the United States, George Washington (1789) confession of the sins and transgressions of the nation against God continued to be included in the document. In asking for a day of Thanksgiving they also implore the nation to “prosper the Means of Religion, for the promotion and enlargement of that Kingdom, which consisteth in Righteousness, Peace and Joy in the Holy Ghost” and “to promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue.” The following late 18th century Thanksgiving Proclamations by US presidents became an episodic tradition enjoining the nation to examine its sins and give thanks to God for all the blessings the nation had enjoyed.

In Abraham Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Proclamation of 1863 (initiated and written by Secretary of State William Seward) after outlining the good that had come to the nation even in the midst of civil war he says, “No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People.”

After the Civil War the proclamations contain hardly any mention of “sins or transgressions” of the nation. But there are more frequent references to “pestilence” both avoided and experienced in the past year. Into the 20th century the proclamations take on a ‘pro forma’ character while continuing to acknowledge God as the source of the nation’s blessings, there is apparent a sense of the special character of the American people as a nation and as individuals. For example, this from President Theodore Roosevelt’s Thanksgiving Proclamation in 1904, “Our success will mean much, not only for ourselves, but for the future of all mankind, and every man or woman in our land should feel the grave responsibility resting upon him or her, for in the last analysis this success must depend upon the high average of our individual citizenship, upon the way in which each of us does his duty by himself and his neighbors.” The absence of humility in the face of our sins and dependence upon God’s grace through Jesus Christ is evident.

Reading through the Thanksgiving Proclamations into the 21st century one gets the impression similar to what Soren Kierkegaard expressed in describing attitudes toward the worship of God in his book “Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing”. He used the metaphor of a theater (church) where the parishioners of his day would come to be entertained by the minister on stage who would be fed lines to speak by the Prompter (God). Kierkegaard shows rather that proper worship puts God in the audience as Spectator for Whom the performance of the people on stage (in their lives) glorify God, as the minister prompts them to virtue.

There is a sense that our nation remains a nation that worships. But for some parts of our ‘woke’ citizenry, especially the most elite, the object of our worship is no longer God but ourselves. No doubt there are some others who worship the Nation. For many in the political class God is a mere rhetorical trope, and sin simply no longer has any meaning. Perhaps a new Great Awakening will begin to move the hearts and minds of the American people to recognize our manifold sins before God, personal and national, such that we experience the grace of repentance and then as our predecessors once aspired, we may “even this whole people offer up our bodies and souls as a living and acceptable Service unto God by Jesus Christ.” Let us pray that the ‘woke’ will become Awakened, but I make no predictions and, in any case it would take many decades of many institutional changes to reorient the fabric of civil society. How this could come to pass without disruptive civil unrest is unimaginable.  Only God knows.

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Sobering Advice

For if each individual allows himself to be led by his personal whim, and betakes himself to what pleases him taking no account of the judgment of reason, and still more if no one is content with his allotted function, but if all wish to be concerned with everything which attracts them by an indiscreet exercise of activity, then surely there will be no unity but rather confusion and disorder.

May the Lord Jesus order in me that small degree of love that he has granted me; so that I may set my heart on the whole, which belongs to him, in such a way that I may attend before all things to that part which he has allotted me in the scheme of duties; but that the precedence given to this shall not prevent my dwelling with great interior interest on the many other duties which are no concern of mine in the performance of my own function. For what we must principally apply ourselves to is not always what we must love the most. It often happens that what is primarily our own concern is of itself the least important and that, consequently, we should not bring our greatest interest to bear on it.

St. Bernard
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Waiting for…?

Now that our great sacrificial sorting of elected office holders is behind us there remains a residue of uncertainty as to what will happen next.

Waiting for the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse to ride through town… with the pandemic continuing to afflict our country and the world for the past eight months we have all become weary of our masked and distanced social relations. We learn of friends who have become ill and of those who have died from the virus wondering if we are doing enough to protect ourselves and our loved ones. As we approach winter outdoor worship will be become not just inconvenient but impossible in some areas. While many whose jobs were suspended in the Spring have returned to work, millions have no jobs to return to as some businesses have permanently closed. The promise of a vaccine to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 is tantalizingly close, but the expectation of its real world distribution to all those in need of it is at least a year away. Again, we have only hope that God will sustain our lives and the lives of those we love. Yet that hope is what we are, as Christians, supposed to be relying on every moment of our lives. In more ‘normal’ times we often find other resources on which to rely, and so our spiritual lives atrophy as we warm ourselves by the world’s charcoal fires. Just so is the proclamation of the Gospel in word and deed diminished.  God have mercy on us.

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Election Day Thoughts

“Cultures are constituted by the union of the living and the dead in rituals of living memory. Never before … has the authority of the past been sacrificed with a more conscious effort of forgetfulness. Forgetfulness is now the curricular form of our higher education.”

– Philip Rieff

What Henri de Lubac wrote in the late 1970s on the subject of the role of the Church is worthy of an extensive quotation:

“Every notion which tends to bring down the supernatural order to the level of nature tends, by that very fact, to mistake the Church for the world, to conceive of her after the model of human societies, to expect her to change even in her essential structures and her faith in order to suit the world’s changes – and this is indeed what is taking place among a number of our contemporaries. In the past a theocratic temptation may have threatened; today, on the contrary … the secularist temptation has come to the fore very strongly … The Church of Christ’s primary, essential irreplaceable mission is to remind us constantly, opportune, importune, of our divine supernatural vocation and to communicate to us through her sacred ministry the seed, still fragile and hidden, yet real and living, of our divine life.”

But de Lubac was quick to reassure his readers of a source of strength which is all too often overlooked, both in the life of the Church and in the life of any healthy nation which has had the good fortune to have fallen under the Church’s influence:

“[The Church’s] spiritual leaders will always be able to count on the backing of the humble and simple among the faithful who spontaneously discern, under the action of the Spirit of God, those things in the Church which are at the service of the Gospel, and those things which would empty it of meaning and smother it under other interests.”

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Voter Suppression

Approximately, thirty-four million voters between the ages of 18 and 47 have been deprived of their right to vote in the upcoming US presidential election. They are not felons, though now this is frequently not a reason to be denied the right to vote. In fact, they are universally considered innocent of any act or condition that would disqualify them from casting a vote. The reason they will not be able to vote in this year’s national election is that they were denied the right to life. Yet, were it not for the decision of the Supreme Court in 1973 there could be approximately 34,000,000 additional voters in this election. Of course, there is no way to know how any of those suppressed voters would choose to exercise their right to vote.

This was brought to mind recently after recalling the thoughts of the late Christopher Hitchens in his memoir “Hitch 22”. When Mr. Hitchens was a young man he learned his mother had aborted a pregnancy not long before her becoming pregnant with him. This knowledge had a profound effect on Hitchens’ attitude regarding abortion. He understood the existential contingency of his own life as a ‘choice’ made by his mother.

my-moms-gonna-kill-me

Mr. Hitchens never came to fully supporting an unborn child’s right to life. But in his memoir he evinced a human honesty about abortion’s reality even as an atheist/humanist he intellectually squirmed under the moral claims of innocent human life.

Some believe this election may provide hope for amelioration of the unjust decision of the Supreme Court in 1973, especially now that Justice Amy Coney Barrett is on the bench. However, the attitudes of people of the United States of America have profoundly changed since these words from the Declaration of Independence were written:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

The unmooring of our national foundations from the moral first principles of the Judeo-Christian tradition is but another strident assertion of a ‘NO’ in the long progress of the escalating ‘YES’ and ‘NO’ to God’s revelation of himself 2,000 years ago in the god-forsaken outback of the Roman Empire. A revelation that began in the womb of a young girl who quietly said ‘yes’.

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