Monday, December 01, 2014

And so this is Advent, and what have we done?

Pretty much how the season feels, right down to the cold....

More blasts from the past:  lumped together and injudiciously edited for your reading pleasure.  We begin, because there is no particular order, with Bill O'Reilly:

From the November 28 edition of Fox News' The O'Reilly Factor:

O'REILLY: What's happened is frightening. A legal assault by the ACLU [American Civil Liberties Union] combined with the media that blatantly promotes secularism has succeeded in convincing some Americans that the words 'Merry Christmas' are inappropriate while celebrating the national holiday of Christmas.

This, of course, is nuts. Anyone offended by the words 'Merry Christmas' has problems not even St. Nicholas could solve.

Every company in America should be on its knees thanking Jesus for being born. Without Christmas, most American businesses would be far less profitable; more than enough reason for businesses to be screaming Merry Christmas.
Jesus may have died for your sins, but he was born in order to enrich corporate America.

Adding:  you have to admire a man who is so obtuse.  Admire him for his complete lack of self-reflection, I mean; or self-awareness, for that matter.

Speaking of self-awareness, we must speak of Auden.

ALONE, alone, about a dreadful wood
Of conscious evil runs a lost mankind,
Dreading to find its Father lest it find
The Goodness it has dreaded is not good:
Alone, alone, about our dreadful wood.

Where is that Law for which we broke our own,
Where now that Justice for which Flesh resigned
Her hereditary right to passion, Mind
His will to absolute power? Gone. Gone.
Where is that Law for which we broke our own?

The Pilgrim Way has led to the Abyss.
Was it to meet such grinning evidence
We left our richly odoured ignorance?
Was the triumphant answer to be this?
The Pilgrim Way has led to the Abyss.

We who must die demand a miracle.
How could the Eternal do a temporal act,
The Infinite become a finite fact?
Nothing can save us that is possible:
We who must die demand a miracle.

--W.H. Auden


Where is that Law for which we broke our own? "How could the Eternal do a temporal act,/ the Infinite become a finite fact?" I would put that against Richard Rorty and the legion of on-line atheists who seem to firmly believe that through science and technology we can, as I originally put it, "that the Eternal [which is science, having replaced "God"] can do a temporal act, and we, through our military power and hubris, can rearrange nations [and cultures] and usher in a "new world order," a secular "kingdom of heaven," if you like. Seems to me we have all agreed that "the Infinite [can] become a finite fact," and we avidly sent our youngest and poorest off to die in order to realize that dream.

And now we pay the price for it."

"Woe to those who yearn for the day of the Lord!
What will this day of the Lord mean for you?
Darkness, and not light!"

--Amos 5:18

Which is what Advent is about; the apocalypse, the revelation, the coming of the day of the Lord.  Keep awake, if only so you can consider the wit and wisdom of Penn Jillette.

It's funny that I missed this on NPR. Funny, because I usually have the radio on in the mornings and the evenings, and I usually catch the "This I Believe" segment, and I usually find it to be so much audio treacle that I wish I had missed it. But I wish I'd heard this one, and I'm glad it showed up as the "most e-mailed" piece on their website, or I'd have never gone looking for it and had a chance to read it.

Funny, too, because everything Penn Jillette mentions enjoying here, I enjoy, too, and probably for much the same reasons. And funny, lastly, because it fits in with my thinking, recently, about the caricature we have made of Augustine's insight: "Our hearts are restless until they rest in thee."

Mr. Jillette simply presents us with the same caricature, from the other direction.

Mind, I don't blame that caricature solely on "fundamentalists." The Church has exploited it over time, one way and another. But its abuse today owes more to the Romantics than to tradition. Once we established that humanity was more than profits and factory owners, that laborers were worthy of not only their hire but their dignity, and worthy because they were unique individuals (a very 19th century notion, and very radical for most of that century), it was a short leap to saying that we all longed for what Wordsworth longed for: deep spiritual connection, whether it sprang from "powerful emotions recollected in tranquility" or the memories of childhood (another Wordworthian invention; Freud owes more to Wordsworth than he does to science). And from there, a short step indeed to Augustine's Confessions, which begin in childhood and culminate in his recognition of a "need" for God, what later commentators have come to call the "God-shaped hole" in each of us.

Except, of course, that's not what Augustine said, or meant. It's much closer to Wordsworth, to the poet crying out that he's been "suckled on a creed outworn" or that his intimations of immortality spring from recollections of a happy childhood.

So much of what we think, today, in matters religious, is divorced indeed even from true spirituality. Huston Smith tries to get at this problem in Why Religion Matters, which I'm currently reading (and which prompts this "spontaneous overflow"), but he tries to discuss it in the vocabulary of the modern world, and frankly, as I sit here and try to type it myself, I realize what his central problem is: you cannot discuss "spirit" except in the vocabulary of spirituality. The importance of spirit cannot be defended, or even discussed, in the language of Penn Jillette, because Mr. Jillette will simply say: "I don't believe it, and you cannot prove it." And he is right on both counts; and there the discussion ends, having never really started.

But there is a rich body of spirituality and spiritualism in Christian tradition. It speaks of spirit and vision and "the cloud of unknowing," of mystery and beauty and sex and humanity, in a way not even cognizable to the language of "proof," although proof is not unknown to it, either. Julian of Norwich wrote and re-wrote of her visions during her illness and near-death experience. Teresa of Avila complained to God, like Isaiah, that she didn't always have proof of what had been revealed to her. The greatest mystics never moved "beyond proof," so much as they didn't let it rule them; but they always understood its importance, if only so they could communicate their experiences to us.

I think of this now in terms of Richard Rorty (again!), and his assertion in his essay that Western philosophy has reconciled with religious belief by labeling those who, like himself, do (or did) not believe as being "unmusical," equivalent to those who are merely tone-deaf.  It's an endearingly condescending way of labelling religious believers as people with a mild capacity for a minor function that isn't really important to human existence (except as it creates a major American industry) and really not all that necessary to the "important work" of better living through science.  Although today that would be "through technology and positivism," even as it was, originally, through chemistry (which is so 19th century, donchaknow!).  Insiders and outsiders, and the person who gets to set the definitions gets to control the hierarchy of values, too.

And so this is Advent, and what have we done?


  1. i tripped over this elsewhere and thought you might find parts of it of interest: