Saturday, June 13, 2015

"Nothing will mar your mood"

So I've started this inter-blog dialogue, which is a good thing, because I crave dialogue above almost all things (well, beer and hamburgers come in ahead of dialogue, but only barely, and I went with the immediate family to a local brewery today, so I'm ready for dialogue!).

My "potshot" at Fr. McBrien was just that: springing off something he said which I was rapidly informed was an early opinion later recanted.  I remember having much the same reaction to Merton's Seven-Storey Mountain, and being told not to take all of Merton from that one, early book.  It's also a lesson seminary students are supposed to learn:  that no matter how much you think you know, you don't know all there is to know so listen and be patient:  there's more information coming, be it theological or about who gets to put up what Christmas decorations in the worship space.

Dialogue is about listening, not just about talking.

Which brings us here, and an encomium on Reinhold Niebuhr, surely the fastest way to my theological heart.  As presented by McBrien even Niebuhr provides dialogue to me, trained to see the basiliea tou theou as imminent and not quite so wholly transcendent as Niebuhr's version; although the basiliea I perceive/expect is also in constant motion, because the first have to be last, in order to be first, and so there's no triumphalism in it.  It's a way of recognizing that:

every partial realization of justice and love inevitably contains elements which stand in contradiction to both these values.

"Higher realizations of historic justice would be possible if it were more fully understood that all such realizations contain contradictions to as well as approximations of, the ideal love," he wrote. "Sanctification in the realm of social relations demands recognition of the impossibility of perfect sanctification."
Which I like to think of as a theological version of Godel's theorem of incompleteness:  no system we can even humanly imagine can fail to prompt a question it cannot answer, and so all such systems remain fundamentally incomplete on their own terms.  It is something, frankly, the law grapples with constantly.  It is good to recognize our limitations.

Which, I think, are by and large being replaced again, already, with the expectations that technology, specifically "digital technology," will provide the solutions which humankind has been waiting for.  And if not digital technology alone, then just technology as a concept.  We think this because computers have changed everything; although more fundamental changes in human life have come from much more mundane (by today's standards) things:  like vaccines (smallpox, polio, most of the "childhood diseases" we think nothing of anymore, but which terrorized my parent's generation; not so long ago, that); public sanitation (clean water, sewer systems), and antibiotics (until penicillin, doctors could really "cure" almost nothing).  Not to mention modern communications methods, engineering which has provided stable water supplies and control of rivers (Austin, Texas, where I used to live, was regularly flooded until LBJ established the Lower Colorado River Authority and, through a series of dams, controlled the river that runs through it).

Be sensible:  on that scale, computers have done nothing for us except provide access to cat pictures and to people who don't think like us, against whom we rail by joining with people who do think like us, thus producing:  well, the "bowling alone" phenomena and the increasing inability of government to be anything except a polarizing force.

But I digress; except I don't, because it is the very access to contradiction that fuels the internet now.

We don't like contradictions.  Niebuhr insisted we dwell on them.  Kierkegaard called them the highest desire of the thinker (and so we don't honor thinkers, today; we honor people who market  very expensive electric cars on the market and promise to set up quonset huts on Mars for a lucky few to die there).  On-line atheists rant about the "contradictions" in the Bible, as if proclaiming light both a wave and a particle was as commonsensical as declaring August in Texas "hot."  And then they insist that all persons who disagree with them withdraw from public life, thus making the world a better place for:  people who think like them.

And if it isn't atheists, it is people who don't like Jerry Seinfeld because of his comment about college audiences for comedy; or it's police arresting teenagers at swimming pools; or it's people declaring their right to insult other people who hold religious beliefs they think they understand, but they don't; or it's just people being damned fools in public, period, and the audacity they have to be part of the human family.

Never think my thoughts, never share my hearth, whoever does such things.

Sophocles was a bit more specific in his declaration of who was unfit for the polis.  We just react to an opinion we don't share.  We sit as judge, jury, and executioner on the life of any person who crosses our attention, and we KNOW all about that person before the story about them has stopped thundering around the virtual halls of our private marketplace of ideas, a marketplace where only outrage is sold, and that by the half-ton.  We have turned the world into our agora, and declared all others unfit to even be there, and we find a new target for our animosity and our exclusion every week.

And if it isn't the outrage du jour, it is neuro-science or sociology or just something "sciency" which will solve all the world's ills if we just recognize it for the truth it finally, FINALLY brings to us.  It is science which will stop us from being monsters.  Even though it was science which made the monstrous mass deaths of the 20th century possible, and was really the engine of the Holocaust*.  No, science will be our salvation.

This is what technology has done for us.  This is the wonder of the internet.

And the funny part is, this is what Niebuhr was talking about nearly 100 years ago.  And it is part of why the "Lost Generation" was lost.  Today's "New Atheists" are punks and quislings against what T.S. Eliot and F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway went through.  They know nothing of the terrors which Jean Paul Sartre endured, they have learned nothing from C.P. Snow or the slaughterhouse Europe became in World War I, a slaughterhouse that was industrialized and trained directly on citizens in World War II.  It was science and technology which made it possible for Stalin and Pol Pot to kill so many.  It was communication technology as much as machetes which turned Rwanda into a killing field in the late 20th century, which allowed a handful of people to so brutally control so many in South Africa; in Haiti; in Uganda; El Salvador; Nicaragua; Honduras.

Europe was civilized, and then Europe went to hell, and hell had reign there for half a century, and it destroyed an entire generation of men in England alone, not to mention the slaughter in the USSR from the war, apart from Stalin's madness.  It was a hell visited on Europe as the consequence of turning as much of the world as they could get their hands on into hell, for the benefit of Europeans.  And now we forget all that, and the horrors of American history and hegemony, and declare our hearts pure because our science is magical and our technology is supreme and we can access all the world's data in the palm of our hand almost anywhere on the planet!

And all that data is not even knowledge, much less wisdom; but it seems to us to be power, and that's good enough.  That's what it's all about anyway:  who has the power.  The internet has given us the power to ignore the world and favor those of like mind, and reinforced in us the belief that those who are not with us are against us, and while we will tolerate their madness because it is not our wisdom, we will tolerate it only if it goes away and leaves us alone.  We seek the holy, the heilige, the pure, the unscathed, and we seek it in creating a community of people who think just like us.

Nothing less will do.

Because we think there is still something, SOMETHING, we can do.  There is; but it isn't that:

"Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we must be saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore we must be saved by the final form of love which is forgiveness."

 --Reinhold Niebuhr

Father, forgive us; for we still know not what we do.

*The nightmare child of eugenics and the Industrial Revolution.


  1. I went back and back and back several links without finding out what is your opinion of The Seven Story Mountain, but I gather it was not favorable. I read Merton's book when I was in high school, and it had a profound effect on me, in that I had one of my several conversion experiences. I was never not a believer, but my fervor in faith waxed and waned over the years and seemed to need a jolt from time to time. Merton's book was my teenage jolt, but it was nonetheless quite real and had a lasting effect.

    I've gone on to read a number of his other books, and, of course, his writing grew in wisdom and grace. I have reread TSSM two or three times since the first reading and have been moved each time, though I now know that much of Merton's account of the more dissolute portions of his early life were censored by the abbot of Gethsemene because they might reflect badly on the monastery.

    The Niebuhr quote is one of his best. Merton had this to say:

    My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.

    Merton's prayer is much more personal, but God surely wills us to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God.

  2. When I first read Merton's autobiography (has it been decades ago? I fear so....), I was struck by the chauvinistic Catholicism of it. I mentioned this to a friend, good Protestant that I was (and he, too), and my friend pointed out Merton was young when he wrote it, and regretted some of what he'd said in it.

    Merton was practically a Buddhist as well as a Catholic when he died. He understood far more deeply, and beyond divisions by then. I still learn from his example.

    So I've probably never said anything about it here, because it was so long ago and my opinion changed. I should have said, somewhere, that I wasn't arguing (in the internet sense, especially, or what I call the sand-box sense: "IS TOO!" "IS NOT!") with Fr. McBrien. He wasn't a theologian writing to theologians, as Anthony pointed out (below), and I agree with him about Harvey Cox (the "secular city" reference). As a rump theologian, I understand the value of the "death of God" theologians (who were all Protestant, I think) and value Moltmann and some of the others McBrien dismissed (the "theology of hope" school). I still need to read Jahner's work, especially as he was influenced (like Bultmann and Derrida) by Heidegger.

    But now I'm off in the weeds again....

    Anyway, I didn't mean to denigrate my source material as much as to rectify some points, and I had the same purpose in referencing Merton. Initial impressions should usually be discarded in favor of further information. It's a way of learning that is too often ignored in public discourse, where everyone stakes a claim and then defends it like a cornered badger (well, me and everyone, but not you, June).

    If you are willing to listen, you can learn from others. If they are not willing to listen, well; that's their problem, isn't it?

  3. I was struck by the chauvinistic Catholicism of it.

    That I cannot deny. The first time I read the book, I was part of the chauvinistic in-group, so I didn't particularly take note. Of course, I did in later readings and was amazed at the arrogance, but that's how it was then and how it still is for a remnant of chauvinistic Catholics.

    Still, there's good stuff in there, and I will be forever grateful to Merton for what he gave me. I certainly try to listen and learn, though I know I don't always succeed. I'm not the same person I was at 16, and thanks be to God and the people I learned from for that. :- )

  4. I'm not sure Gospell is an appropriate post title, so I reject your entire premise.