Tuesday, November 30, 2021
Advent with Alfred Delp (Week 1)
Sunday, November 28, 2021
Friday, November 26, 2021
Climbing Mount Purgatory
Finally (on Thanksgiving Eve), 100 Days of Dante descended to the frozen lowest lake of Hell, where he met up with Lucifer himself. Inferno has been a long journey into the appalling ugliness of sin and the eternal pointlessness of existence alienated from God. Now, starting the day after Thanksgiving with Dante we begin to climb the Mount of Purgatory. For some reason, he and Vergil find the shores of Mount Purgatory guarded by Cato, the famous Roman opponent of Caesar, who oddly appears here instead of in Limbo, and so serves (so suggests the professor commenting on Canto 1) as another expression of God's inexplicable grace.
Although for Dante it was Easter Sunday morning when he and Vergil arrived at the foot of Mount Purgatory, I will be making my literary way up Mount Purgatory in Advent, which like Purgatory itself is all about hope, the beatam spem to which we refer daily at Mass, the "sure and certain hope" of the funeral liturgy's Final Commendation Rite.
Date's Purgatory is a mountain on the earth. After leaving hell, Dante and Vergil see the stars and then the sunrise, all things not seen in hell, which is deep underground. And the souls in Purgatory will people somewhat like us having experiences that still somewhat resemble our human world - with this important exception that there everyone is already assured that he or she is going to make it to heaven. But, like us, they are still on their way. Already justified, they are still in the process of being sanctified, which is the lifelong labor of discipleship in this world as its is in Purgatory.
(Photo: Domenico di Michellino's 1465 fresco showing Dante exiting Hell with Mount Purgatory and the earthly city of Florence in the background and Heaven above.)
Monday, November 22, 2021
We Gather Together
- We gather together to ask the Lord’s blessing;
He chastens and hastens His will to make known;
The wicked oppressing now cease from distressing;
Sing praises to His Name; He forgets not His own.
- Beside us to guide us, our God with us joining,
Ordaining, maintaining His kingdom divine;
So from the beginning the fight we were winning;
Thou, Lord, were at our side, all glory be Thine!
- We all do extol Thee, Thou Leader triumphant,
And pray that Thou still our Defender will be;
Let Thy congregation escape tribulation;
Thy Name be ever praised! O Lord, make us free!
- (Traditional Thanksgiving Hymn)
Friday, November 19, 2021
Christ the King in "Christ-Forgetting Times"
Earlier this week, Church Life Journal posted an article by Terence Sweeney called "Running Out of Options." The title is a play of sorts on Rod Dreher's 2017 book, The Benedict Option, which according to Sweeney "launched a slew of options." The context for Sweeney's article is the trajectory from Dreher's proposed "Benedict Option" to the current fascination with Catholic integralism.
In both the original BenOp and the subsequent trajectories, Sweeney identifies an essential insight and a constitutive flaw, and his goal "is to figure out how we can have the insight while excising the flaw." While both BenOp and Catholic integralism may still seem to be relatively esoteric and marginal movements, Sweeney's analysis is actually quite insightful and important for the Church at large, especially here in the United States.
Sweeney sees the BenOp conversations as "centered on the question of how the Church relates to the world and how we are to live as Catholics in these Christ-forgetting times." He wants "to take seriously the diminishment of Western Christianity, and to articulate a vision forward for a small Church open to going out into the world to invite our neighbors into the Church." The second part of that agenda highlights what Sweeney sees as the "constitutive flaw in those early debates" - namely, basing Church-world relations in a "friend-enemy binary."
For some, this has made possible the move from a "Benedict Option" which "was premised on having lost the Culture Wars," to an "integralist option" premised on the idea of winning the Culture Wars. Where the former "saw the Roman Empire as fallen," the latter thinks "the Imperium could be restored." The catalyst for the shift "from retreat to reconquest" is, of course, Trump. "The Salazar, integralist, or neo-colonizing options share the goal of acquisition of real power through the seizure of government to impose the conditions for Christendom. Trump showed this could be pulled off."
I think this is an important insight into the contemporary politicization of religion. Whatever one thinks of Dreher's original "Benedict Option," it did really recognize the historical-political reality of the end of Christendom and it implied an abandonment of any attempt to reconquer secular society and acquire political power in order to restore Christendom by primarily political means. That some subsequently made the transition to an integralist interpretation so quickly and easily, Sweeney suggests, derives from BenOp's "core flaw," that it "regards all who are outside" as "like the barbarians of the late Roman Empire." Citing Wittgenstein's image of language as bewitching, he argues "We are captured by the pictures of the world our metaphors shape. To think of other as the barbarians is to imagine them as enemies, and one fights enemies." So, once that metaphor got mixed up with the image of some possible victory, the way was open for many to consider integralist alternatives.
Of course, Sweeney says, such an alternative is impossible in practice, since no tiny minority can convince the majority of society "to place the state at the service of the Catholic Church and reorder the public square and people's private lives." Such an alternative requires force, and Sweeney sees some grim historic precedents in the 16th-century arguments for imposing "Christian civilization" on the indigenous "barbarians" of the New World.
Not that long ago, one would have thought such analogies between the 16th-century and the 21st rather far-fetched. But now we are witnessing an increasing fascination with and a willingness to employ violent language and imagery by those on the political right, even within the supposedly civil zone of Congress. So what seemed beyond believability only recently no longer seems so now.
Putting politics aside, Sweeney stresses the religious folly of such an approach. He wants "to get back to serious discussions about how to live the faith in community while evangelizing our neighbors in this Christ-forgetting world." In their wish to reestablish some kind of Christendom now, the integralists "misread the signs of the times and interpret them according to late scholasticism instead of the Gospel."
Again, he accepts the BenOp premise that "the Church is no longer able to sway political communities in the way it has in the past." He notes that the only growing American religious group is the "Nones," and sees this as confirmation of the classic secularization thesis. The fact that the Church is actually growing in much of the world "does not mean that churches in the West will not disappear." He believes that BenOp's "core insight regarding the decline in faith and the need to respond with invigorated intentional communities of Christian life ... was corroded by its un-Christian view of those outside the faith." He argues that what he calls the "integralist interregnum in Catholic thought, along with the Trump years" have "interrupted a conversation that needed to happen while worsening the moral standing of Christians."
To redirect this conversation, he proposes Pope Francis as a guide. Francis "sees the deep un-Christianity of friend-enemy binaries and the need to restore the biblical language of neighbor, friend, and brother." In Pope Francis' invocation of a Church with an open door and in Pope Benedict XVI's "Court of the Gentiles" initiative, Sweeney sees "the recognition of how many have walked out of the doors of the Church" and the need to promote "something worth walking back to."
Finally, Sweeney suggests that "the friend-enemy binary misdiagnoses the real situation regarding religion, which is sometimes marked by antipathy, but usually by apathy. ... The crisis of our faith is the stagnation of restless hearts or the misdirection of restless hearts towards endless acquisition and away from God."
Almost a century ago, at a time when the collapse of Christendom was already well advanced, while integralist solutions still had intellectual and cultural plausibility in at least some parts of Europe, Pope Pius XI established this coming Sunday's solemnity of Christ the King. The Pope's emphasis was heavily political and social, reflecting the early 20th-century context. Fittingly, he assigned the feast to the Sunday before All Saints Day, thereby highlighting the spiritual reality and relevance of the Communion of Saints.
"The last Sunday of October seemed the most convenient of all for this purpose, because it is at the end of the liturgical year, and thus the feast of the Kingship of Christ sets the crowning glory upon the mysteries of the life of Christ already commemorated during the year, and, before celebrating the triumph of all the Saints, we proclaim and extol the glory of him who triumphs in all the Saints and in all the Elect" (Encyclical Quas Primas, 29).
Since 1970, however, Christ's kingship has been celebrated on the last Sunday before Advent, allowing for a somewhat less political and more eschatological emphasis. Appropriately the liturgy this year recalls Daniel's vision of the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven to receive an everlasting dominion that shall not be taken away, his kingship shall not be destroyed (Daniel 7:13-14) and looks forward to Revelation's vision of Jesus Christ the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead and ruler of the kings of the earth, who has made us into a kingdom, priests for his God and Father (Revelation 1:5-6).
As a kingdom of priests, the Church is challenged to continue Christ's task of mediating his kingdom to the world and the world to his kingdom. While that has inevitably taken different social forms in different eras and different political contexts, the contemporary challenge is increasingly to transcend the dead-end of the friend-enemy binary and religion in the service of politics, in order to open our Church's doors to accompany the world on a renewed pilgrimage - what Evangelii Gaudium famously called "a pilgrimage with Christ to the Father" - always aware that the fullness of Christ's kingdom awaits and cannot be established by any prince, president, or political party.
Wednesday, November 17, 2021
Henry Kissinger has been a private citizen now for 44 years, but he is far from forgotten and his insights into power politics and international relations remain as relevant as ever - and, in light of the current trajectory of both American domestic politics and foreign relations, maybe more so. Long-time NYTimes Book Review editor Barry Gewen has answered this need with The Inevitability of Tragedy: Henry Kissinger and His World (Norton, 2020).
This book is not a biography in the conventional sense, although it does treat in detail what was apparently the formative event in Kissinger's life, the ignominious collapse of the Weimar Republic, exhibit A for the thesis that democracy give no guarantee against either domestic tyranny or international conflict. Kissinger, of course, was one of many similarly situated German Jewish intellectuals who fled Germany (or escaped in just the nick of time) and found a safe refuge in the United States, but who remained in some ways at heart always Europeans, always a bit ambivalent about certain aspects of their adopted country.
So Gewen takes the interesting approach of linking Kissinger's story with those of three other (and older) major figures from among the 20th-century German-Jewish intellectual diaspora - Leo Strauss (1899-1973), Hannah Arendt (1906-1975), and Hans Morgenthau (1904-1980). To someone seeking a retelling of Kissinger's career as academic intellectual and foreign policy expert and then U.S. National /security Adviser and Secretary of State under Presidents Nixon and Ford and still consulted elder statesman, Gewen's detailed treatments of Strauss, Arendt, and Morthgenthau may seem more than expected, but they are critical components of Gewen's analysis. (As a one-time academic political theorist, I especially appreciated his treatment of those three towering figures and the philosophical debates that surrounded them and their ideas throughout their active lives.)
Gewen does deal with Kissinger's political career and the sometimes till controversial policies he was associated with - among them, the Nixon Administration's response to Salvador Allende in Chile, the way the Nixon Administration continued and then ended the Vietnam War, and the general approach to the Soviet Union that came to be called Detente. And he likewise deals with the intense opposition Kissinger roused on both the left and the right. But all this is in service of the larger themes of the book, among them the limitations of the democracy, the need for realism in policy-making, and the recurrent threats of moralism and populism.
In Gewen's words, "Kissinger, Strauss, and Arendt were Germans who cherished what German had given them but were deprived of their identities by the Nazis; Jews who never denied their backgrounds but for whom the content of Judaism was a problem and Zionism no solution; naturalized Americans genuinely appreciative of the shelter the United States had provided to them but whose patriotism did not translate into a wholehearted identification with their adopted country; freethinking individuals who opposed tyranny but nursed a deep suspicion of democracy and its majoritarian processes; moralists whose post-Nietzchean morality, difficult to articulate at best, rested on none of the traditional ethical foundations ... They accepted the findings of modern science ... while denying it could provide answer to life's most profound questions or unravel its deepest secrets."
The last observation especially highlights their quarrel with "political science" as that discipline had come to define itself. Gewen quotes my own grad school mentor Sheldon Wolin, who said Arendt "occupies a special place in the history of political theory," which she rescued from "the dreary and trivial categories of academic political science." Setting Kissinger's public career within this context illuminates important aspects of 20th-century intellectual history and political philosophy. And it explains his complaint that contemporary leaders lack "cultural preparation," reflected in "the study of history and philosophy, the disciplines most relevant to perfecting the art of statesmanship."
Gewen particularly highlights the clash between Kissinger and the "Wilsonianism" that has served as a kind of orthodoxy on both the left and the right for the past century. He calls the Wilsonian mindset "melodramatic and absolutist," and repeatedly recalls that "democracies did indeed go to war against one another, and they could be as oppressive to their own minorities as any authoritarian regime."
Gewen's treatment of Kissinger's policy of detente, which so alienated him from both the neo-conservatives and the populists on his right may be especially timely today as a counter to the temptation to revive "Cold War" categories in relation to China. It was Kissinger's critical insight that "only a settlement without victory or defeat could create stability."
Kissinger shared Hans Morgenthau's understanding of the critical difference between domestic politics, where disputes could "be settled through the instrumentalities of liberal rationality" and the very different national arena. One wonders whether what we are seeing in the U.S. right now is the collapse of that "benign context" of domestic politics and its transformation into something more resembling the international arena of "different values, different traditions, different beliefs."
Now more than ever, Kissinger's approach to political philosophy seems out of sync with our contemporary extremes of moralism and populism. All the more necessary then may be the emphases Gewen distills from Kissinger: "the imperfectability of man, the unpredictability of consequences, the prospect of arriving at no permanent solutions, the inevitability of tragedy."
Monday, November 15, 2021
Arguing About the Eucharist
The Mystery of the Eucharist in the Life of the Church is the working title of the USCCB draft document due to be debated, as everyone knows, at the U.S. Bishops' meeting this week. Well, of course, most people probably don't know, nor perhaps do many of them care. But those who do care about such documents do know!
The history of this document has been enveloped in controversy from its inception, thanks to its presumed relationship to the unfortunate controversy concerning the reception of Holy Communion by our second Catholic president and other Catholic officeholders. Putting that perilous controversy aside for the moment, this document is apparently also a response to the growing concern about American Catholics' understanding of and belief in the Real Presence.
Here too there is controversy. Recently, at the liturgical blog Pray Tell, which "promotes the ongoing renewal of the liturgy and its transformative effect in the life of the Church and the world," a recent post, “Draft of bishops’ Eucharist document reflects 400-year-old theology," not only strongly criticized the USCCB draft but in turn unleashed a storm of argument about it on that site.
The claim that the USCCB document reflects something called a "400-year-old theology" (whatever that means) is, indeed, strange, if for no other reason than that the document is littered with quotations that are considerably less than 400 years old - from, among others, Pope Francis, Pope St. John Paul II, Pope St. Paul VI, Vatican II, the post-conciliar Roman Missal, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, St. Teresa of Calcutta, Dorothy Day, Bl. Carlo Acutis, St. Jose Sanchez del Rio, and, of course, the USCCB itself. Admittedly, it also quotes the New Testament, St. Augustine, St. Basil the Great, St. John Chrysostom, St. Irenaeus, St. Thomas Aquinas, and the Council of Trent. - all 400 years old or more. But, then, this is a Catholic document, purporting to teach the Catholic faith, which represents a continuity of faith and practice that is in fact far older than 400 years! If there are flaws to be found in the document, by all means they should be addressed. But it is hardly a fatal flaw to try to be in continuity with the first millennium and a half of Catholic belief and practice. (How successful and complete that attempt at continuity is, of course, another question.)
Unsurprisingly, therefore, this document really says nothing new about the Eucharist. Why should it? It restates the long-established faith of the Church, with appropriately hortatory exhortations to the faithful. More important than academic quibbles ought to be questions like what is the purpose of this document, to whom is it addressed, and what might it accomplish?
The infamous Pew study that apparently triggered all this anxiety about what American Catholics actually know and believe about the Eucharist preceded the pandemic, which has since created a whole new context for eucharistic anxiety. Very fittingly, the Bishops begin the document by recalling Pope Francis' March 27, 2020, pandemic prayer service in an empty Saint Peter's Square. they also acknowledge that the pandemic is still with us and has impacted all our lives in many ways, including our ability even to participate in the Eucharist. In such a situation, perhaps, what may be more needed by was of instruction would be an encouraging invitation to all to return!
The document sets the discussion of the Eucharist against the background of human alienation as a result of sin and Christ's restoration by grace of what was lost by sin, which appropriately leads into a treatment of the sacrificial character of the Eucharist. The document quotes the Council of Trent to the effect that the Eucharist is "a sacrificial memorial, a re-presentation of the sacrifice of Christ, by which we are reconciled to the Father."
Obviously the document discusses Real Presence. It cites Pope St. Paul VI on how the eucharistic real presence does not exclude other experiences of Christ's presence and helpfully explains the term "substantial" as conveying the totality of Christ's gift to us. There are two paragraphs on eucharistic devotions, which have long played an important part in popular piety - and are increasingly doing so now. Personally, I think understanding how people experience the Eucharistic presence in popular piety may matter much more for many people than arguments about abstract philosophical formulations.
Paragraph 25 stresses the importance of the Sunday obligation as "a vital expression of our unity as members of the Body of Christ, the Church" and "a manifestation of the truth that we are utterly dependent upon God and his grace." Given the calamitous decline in Mass attendance in recent decades and the catastrophic effect of enforced absence from Mass during the pandemic, this section is obviously extremely timely, although again it is unlikely that those who are no longer attending Mass will be reading this document, or would find this approach particularly welcoming.
Helpfully, the document also repeats Pope Francis' recent warning about "eccentricities" and "abuses" in the celebration of Mass. If anyone is serious about addressing an impoverished understanding of and belief about the Eucharist, one place to start is the irreverent ways in which Mass has sometimes been celebrated and Communion administered and received in the past six decades.
Probably, none of this will be of much interest to the secular media (the main vehicle through which ordinary Catholics will likely hear about this, if they hear about it at all). What will likely interest the secular media is the discussion of mortal sin in paragraphs 41-42 and the citation of 1 Corinthians 11:27-29, where St. Paul warned against unworthy reception of Communion (the passage famously excised from the lectionary in the post-conciliar reform). This gives an opening to repeating what the Bishops have previously said regarding Catholics who "knowingly and obstinately" reject defined Church doctrines, "or knowingly and obstinately repudiate her teaching on moral issues," thereby diminishing their "communion with the Church," and who therefore should "refrain" from Communion.
Of course, what this formulation obscures is the distinction between "obstinately" rejecting and repudiating Church teachings and the very different issue of how a conscientious Catholic can and should fulfill his or her duties as a public official in a pluralistic society in which, inevitably, not all laws correspond to Catholic doctrine and moral teaching. For a politician, it is the difference, as John F. Kennedy famously formulated it in Houston in 1960, between being "the Catholic candidate for president" and being "the Democratic Party's candidate for president, who happens also to be a Catholic." That distinction is at the heart of the current controversy. That distinction does indeed deserve to be addressed (preferably in a less polemical context). Leaving it unaddressed meanwhile leaves the issue unresolved and allows all parties to return to their separate corners to continue the conflict with no obvious end in sight.
Against such an outcome, Saint Paul's warning and his command to engage in individual discernment speaks powerfully about what Paul was so strongly upset with the Corinthians about - divisions and disunion within the community. Well might we examine ourselves regarding the increasing tendency to prioritize partisan political allegiances more than the unity of the Body of Christ.
If, moreover, the pastoral purpose of a document such as this is simply to restate in reasonably accessible language the long-established faith of the Church regarding the Eucharist, then might that purpose be met as well by not entering the political thicket at all and just saying what most of the rest of this document says? After all, through the Eucharist the Risen Christ challenges us (in Augustine' famous formula) to become what we receive, a challenge which becomes the lifelong mission of discipleship. It may be legitimate, therefore, to talk about circumstances which may separate us from God and the Church, but - given the alienation of so many from the Church's sacramental life and the increasing incomprehensibility of Catholic religious and moral language to so many in our society - that may not necessarily be the most helpful thing to emphasize.
In a way, this predicament reminds me of the traditional Communion rite in the 1662 Anglican Book of Common Prayer, which contains a "warning" Exhortation - followed, however, by an alternative version, presumably more suited to the situation, to be used when people are "negligent to come to the holy Communion." Maybe there is a lesson in that practice and possibly an opportunity being missed here.
Of course, absent any political controversy, it would seem somewhat unlikely that the final version of this document, however attractively framed, will be very widely read. Most people do not naturally gravitate to Church documents. Instead, the Church needs to reach out to them. Meanwhile, the toxic divisions in both Church and society continue eroding the Church's effectiveness in so many areas.
If, however, bishops, priests, and catechists are somehow inspired by this process to address positively our understanding of the Eucharist, the devotional practices we employ to express that faith, and the reverence this great sacrament ought to require from all of us, then an admittedly limited but nonetheless valuable purpose perhaps may have been served.
Saturday, November 13, 2021
Appropriating Augustine Today
Much has happened in Church and society since Saint Augustine, Bishop of Hippo and Doctor of the Church, was born on this date in 354 (so 1667 years ago). Yet he still stands out as one of the most towering figures from the Church's history and one of those ancient figures who still speaks directly to today.
Besides being a perennial significant towering intellectual and spiritual figure in his own right, Saint Augustine seems especially relevant to our contemporary society, since he lived (and embraced an ecclesial vocation) at a time when Christianity, while definitely on the rise, was still not the only option, when traditional paganism and other religious and philosophical stances were still viable alternatives to Christianity for many. Augustine's spiritual journey was also an intellectual and cultural one, in that he grappled with the leading ideas of his time both in philosophy and in heretical forms of Christianity. How equipped are we today to do that? Or are we tempted instead to hide from this challenge?
At the same time as he engaged with the wider world, Augustine ended up as a provincial bishop in the somewhat self-enclosed province of Roman North Africa. Augustine's youthful spiritual journey led him to attempt a heroic break from the world, but then the Church pulled him back even deeper into engagement with the world. In the process, he experienced the historical process in which the Catholic Church had become the established Church, powerful in practice as well as in theory - yet a situation which was soon to collapse completely in Africa. Meanwhile, thanks to the pressure of such unexpected historical events, Augustine articulated a Christian philosophy of history, which challenged and broke with what was conventional wisdom, what we might call "Roman imperial exceptionalism," thereby definitively demystifying politics. Have we fully appreciated and appropriated that important lesson in the face of the moral threat of a certain sort of renewed Catholic integralism and American religious "exceptionalism"? These characteristics of the transitional time in which Saint Augustine lived and in which he became one of the Church's dominant voices have a lot in common with our contemporary era in ways most other historical periods do not and hence provide ample opportunities for reflection.
That peculiar dynamic of difference and similarity between Augustine and us, between his Church and world and today's Church and world, also offer a multitude of practical questions we would do well to ask ourselves.
For example, it is obvious that Augustine's mother Monica was a genuinely formidable figure in her own right. In Augustine's life and world, she also served as an embodiment of Catholic tradition and popular piety and of their life-long hold on Augustine, constantly calling him to return. The absence of such traditional bonds for so many in our society today is significant, and makes us wonder whether anything remotely resembling Augustine's "conversion" can occur among those unmoored from the hold of tradition and popular piety., and what, if anything, can take their place. Likewise, Augustine grew up and lived all his life in a close-knit society of family and friends. How can faith be authentically lived and passed on successfully in our world of increasingly self-isolated individuals?
So much of our appreciation of Augustine is flavored by that monumental work of self-exploration known as his Confessions, which broke new ground in the ancient art of biography and still speaks to us about how a person's past experiences remain an active aspect of one's present personality. In his own late-life Retractationes, Augustine spoke of his "Thirteen books of my Confessions, which praise the just and good God in all my evil and good ways, and stir up towards him men's mind and feelings," which, "had this effect on me when I wrote them, and they still do this, when I now read them." May they continue to have such effects in us today!
(Photo: What is believed to be the earliest known portrait of Saint Augustine, in a 6th-century fresco at the Lateran, Rome).
Friday, November 12, 2021
The Last King of America (The Book)
Britain's King George III (1738-1820) was the third Elector of Hanover (from 1814, King of Hanover) to reign as King of Great Britain and Ireland. He reigned for almost 60 years (1760-1820). George is best remembered by Americans as our last king, against whom the American Revolution was fought - and, as such, a character in the musical Hamilton. He is also remembered for his "madness," the illness that incapacitated him temporarily in 1788 (the subject of the 1994 movie The Madness of King George) and permanently from 1811 until his death. He is also somewhat more favorably remembered for being monogamous, religious, and relatively popular - unlike the rest of his Hanoverian dynasty (George I, George II, George IV, and William IV).
Now British historian Andrew Roberts, author of a 2018 biography of Winston Churchill, has filled in George III's larger story with a new biography, The Last King of America: The Misunderstood Reign of George III. Roberts readily calls George III “the most unfairly traduced sovereign in the long history of the British monarchy” and shows instead how America's much maligned last king was “well-meaning, hard-working, decent, dutiful, moral, cultured and kind,” while thoroughly presenting George's life and reign within the larger contexts of his Hanoverian house and of late 18th and early 19th-century British and world history.
Born June 4, 1738, at St. James's Palace, George III immediately, if unknowingly, broke one of the family customs of his dysfunctional dynasty. In a family where fathers and sons routinely despised each other, Frederick, Prince of Wales, seems to have genuinely loved his son George. Although Hanoverian-born, Frederick identified as British (unlike his father and grandfather, George I and II), a quality he successfully instilled in his son. Roberts successfully sets George's early years within the confusing context of British factional politics and the lasting legacy of the Jacobite rebellions. We learn about George's education and his reverence for the Glorious Revolution and William III. "Indeed, George regarded the British constitution with something approaching idolatry." At the same time, Roberts also seeks to dispel the "enduring myth that George II was the minion of his ministers, and that one of his successor’s aims was to restore those royal prerogative powers that George I and George II had allowed to fall into abeyance." He also highlights George's "deep-seated Christian faith." One result of this was how George's "religious piety and emphasis on personal virtue precluded the path of sexual infidelity taken enthusiastically by his father, grandfather and great-grandfather – none of whom had a strong Christian faith."
George, aged 22, succeeded to the throne in October 1760. At that time, Roberts notes, the country was still much as it had been a century earlier. It was, however, at war (The French and Indian/Seven Years War), and the Industrial Revolution would soon begin, leading to a doubling of Britain's population during George's reign.
While the Seven Years War was first and foremost a European war, we Americans rightly remember it as the French and Indian War, the outcome of which made the American Revolution possible and likely. Roberts quotes one of the King's contemporaries regarding that outcome: "I do not know whether the neighbourhood of the French to our northern colonies was not the greatest security of their dependence on the mother country, who I fear will be slighted by them when their apprehensions of the French are removed." In other words, if France had kept Canada, the consequent strategic threat to the thirteen North American colonies from the French might have kept them more loyal to the British Empire. Roberts gives this issue a lot of attention, even suggesting that King George would have done better to have visited the American colonies! I agree that it was a failure that "the King, politicians and civil servants completely failed to recognize was that the Seven Years War had fundamentally changed the strategic situation in North America. Britain’s decisive victory had at a stroke removed the French threat over the colonies." I do find his complaint that the King did not visit America somewhat strange, however, given the fact that "George never visited America, just as he never visited the rest of his dominions, including Scotland, Wales, Hanover and Ireland; indeed he never set foot in England north of Worcester or west of Plymouth in his entire sixty-year reign." (In fact, given the time it took to cross the Atlantic, etc., it is hardly surprising that no British King visited his Canadian Dominion or the U.S. until 1939!)
Royal travel aside, Roberts is on stronger ground, I think, in highlighting how British fidelity to commitments to the Indian tribes to limit colonial expansion westward after the French war was a major contributor to the conflict, since colonists (like George Washington) "saw the displacement of the tribes by waves of westward-heading Americans as inevitable." Likewise, he argues that George could have separated his British and American crowns (much as his Hanoverian and Irish crowns were separate) and many other contemporary monarchs held multiple separate crowns). "That George never considered pursuing the same route was a testament to his constitutionalism, albeit one that proved ultimately myopic: today this is the same arrangement that the British monarch has with the fifteen Commonwealth countries which the Westminster Parliament has no right to tax." Thus, while "Whig attacked George for trying to subvert the British constitution" the reality "was his unshakeable respect for it that helped him lose America."
Roberts effectively interweaves the story of the American crisis and war with the factional politics of the time, as well as the king's personal life and problematic family relationships. All in all, there is about as much detail as anyone would want about ministers' comings and goings, the "Wilkes and Liberty" affair, George's cultural interests, and, of course, about the Government's final failure to come up with an alternative American policy. Roberts believes "that the King and his ministers were prioritizing their crises unwisely." But hindsight is always 20/20. and, of course, we all already know how the American story ended, although the King's part in the saga will hopefully be more justly evaluated from now on, thanks to this book.
But enough about America!
Royal watchers will also surely be interested, for example, in the story of the passage of the Royal Marriages Act, which still has its effects today (as any fan of The Crown is aware). But, besides the loss of America, the main thing that everyone knows about George is his mental illness (exacerbated in its final episode by dementia). Modern conventional wisdom has afflicted the king with porphyria, but Roberts rejects this view, which he believes has "nonetheless skewed all the biographies written of him between 1969 and 2016," not to mention the famous play and movie. Instead Roberts proposes a diagnosis of "recurrent manic-depressive psychosis," specifically "bipolar affective disorder Type 1." His account of the successive episodes of "the King's malady" reflect the latest medical insights, while portraying the hapless king's sufferings with sympathy and respect
It was King George's lasting tragedy to be remembered mainly through the distortions of his real record by the leaders of the American Revolution and through his era's inadequate understanding of or empathy for those suffering from mental illness. Roberts does an excellent job of broadening that picture, of painting the larger canvas of George's life and reign, as well as correcting the prevalent but distorted history of the American Revolution along with ignorant and unsympathetic accounts of "the King's malady."
Thursday, November 11, 2021
Today is the 100th anniversary of the interment of the American "Unknown Soldier" in the U.S. Memorial in Arlington Cemetery. The ceremony took place on Armistice Day (now known as Veterans Day), the third anniversary of the end of the “Great War" in the Western Front. The U.S. was the fourth of the victorious World War I allies to memorialize the Great War and its national war dead in this manner. In 1920, the United Kingdom and France had buried their Unknown Soldiers in Westminster Abbey and at the Arc de Triomphe respectively. In 1921, Italy celebrated a Requiem Mass, attended by the King, at Santa Maria degli Angeli, and then buried its Milite Ignoto at Rome's Vittoriano (The Victor Emmanuel II National Monument celebrating Italian unification) on November 4, the third anniversary of the end of the war on the Italian Front.
Congress had approved the project earlier in 1921, and on Memorial Day four unknown soldiers had been exhumed from four World War I American cemeteries in France. From these one was randomly selected by a decorated U.S. Army Sergeant and transported on the U.S.S. Olympia from Le Havre to Washington, DC, where it lay in state in the Capitol Rotunda (photo) on the same catafalque that had held the remains of the three previously assassinated presidents — Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, and William McKinley. The Armistice Day ceremonies were attended by President Warren Harding and the former, wartime President Woodrow Wilson.
Such solemn civic ceremonies have mostly been recorded for posterity and can be seen even today on YouTube. But, perhaps, a most familiar, if much simpler, such ceremony is the one at the end of episode 8 of season 5 of Downton Abbey, when the local village War Memorial is formally dedicated. All the standard features of British post-World War I war commemoration are there, including "We Will Remember Them," and The Last Post. But what is so memorable and evocative about the portrayal of that village ceremony is how everyone is there - from the Lord of the manor to the servants to the men and women of the village, veterans and survivors - all united in a common expression of seemingly inconsolable shared grief, a true testament to the universal impact of that terrible and pointless war on all burdened forever more with memory and sorrow.
For the British 1920 ceremony, go to: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=giJlKBKzy-8
For the American 1921 ceremony, go to: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a8e-I7JRSgY
Tuesday, November 9, 2021
Is God Still Coming Back?
No, this is not a pre-Advent fervorino. And, yes, the Second Coming is still on schedule (whenever that may be).
Rather, my question - and it is just a question - is a belated 2021 response to a 2009 book by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, God Is Back: How the Global Revival of Faith Is Changing the World (NY: Penguin, 2009). As its title suggests, the book argued against the standard "secularization thesis" and instead highlighted evidence for a global revival of religion. In particular, the authors highlighted the historically recognized and much commented upon (at least since de Tocqueville) American deviation from and exception to the pattern of secularization evident in Europe. In fact, religion in the U.S. has historically not only survived in putatively secular modernity but has actually thrived. Indeed, while the U.S. Constitution disestablished religion, the American Revolution was uniquely "not also an exercise in anti-clericalism." By separating church and state - for practical political rather than ideological anti-religious reasons - the American system ended up empowering religion. It recognized "that individuals have a right to choose their own religious opinions. And it introduced competition: churches had to get people in through the door."
All that had long been conventional wisdom about American religiosity, along with the authors' analysis of the specific successes of Catholicism in the U.S. What was perhaps most interesting and challenging about the book - at that time - was its thesis that, parallel to a supposed reshaping of the world by market forces, the same American-style religious free market was facilitating a global future for religion.
However, it is not to that global thesis that I am posing the question, Is God Really Still Coming Back? Rather, that question is directed to the specifically U.S. part of the authors' analysis. In other words, while accepting the authors' overall account of the trajectory of American religious history (including its 20th-century setbacks which the authors also acknowledged), have circumstances since significantly changed - in some seriously substantive way - since 2009, such as to warrant revisiting that familiar and quite comforting account of American religious exceptionalism?
The three 20th-century setbacks identified by the authors were the split between liberal and fundamentalist Protestants, the PR fiasco of prohibition and opposition to Darwinism, and post-war religious revival's potential to reduce religion to mere conventional social observance and "bland civil religion." Instead of the third being an actual setback, however, they argued that the late 20th century saw a sort of religious revival - rooted in "religious wars" (more commonly called culture wars) "ignited by the overreach of those bent on driving religion to the margins of American society." Unsurprisingly, they identified the disastrous Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade (1973) as decisive. "By 2000, the country was split just as dramatically over religion as it had been in 1900 - but this time the split was not between different denominations ... but between people who were hot for religion ... and people who were cooler, whether they were atheists, modernists, or infrequent church attendees." Regarding the relatively unique case of American Roman Catholicism, the author acknowledged the reality of the enormous losses in membership being sustained by the Church, but highlighted how they were more than compensated by (especially Latino) immigration.
Obviously, this book belongs to the first decade of the 21st century. Just as obviously, a lot has happened and a lot has changed since then. The social and political and more particularly the moral and cultural landscape has dramatically changed in the past decade or so - changed so dramatically that certain aspects of American society have become almost unrecognizable. This relatively rapid change has presented and is presenting sudden and somewhat unexpected challenges for religion (particularly Christianity).
I recently read an article, "The Failure of Evangelical Elites," by conservative Christian Professor Carl R. Trueman, in the right-wing intellectual journal First Things. Without endorsing all aspects of Trueman's argument, I think his salient point in this connection is the categorical difference between previous challenges to Christianity, which posited that Christianity was intellectually implausible, and a "postmodern," contemporary critique that considers Christianity "morally reprehensible." Trueman emphasizes how little, short of complete cultural capitulation, Christianity can do to overcome this new conflict with the enforced orthodoxies of postmodernity.
That does not mean, of course, that Christianity cannot continue to profess its traditional faith. But it does, I think mean that, apart from some surprising breakdown in the culture's postmodern consensus, it will be increasingly difficult for Christian faith to get much of a hearing in society and so successfully compete in the prevailing moral and cultural marketplace.
I am reminded of Augustine-scholar Peter Brown's observation that the congregations to whom Saint Augustine was preaching "were not exceptionally sinful. Rather, they were firmly rooted in long-established attitudes, in ways of life and ideas, to which Christianity was peripheral" (Augustine of Hippo: A Biography, 1967, p. 243). In the contemporary case, the chronology is reversed. Christianity is old, and it is new attitudes, ways of life, and ideas which have quickly become firmly rooted, and to which Christianity is peripheral.
The surprisingly swift triumph of postmodernity in a society which was supposed to be a citadel of religious exceptionalism, even in spite of what Walter Lippmann famously called the "acids of modernity," certainly does not call into question Micklethwait and Wooldridge's Tocquevillian analysis of religion's surprising strength in 19th-century America. Nor does it negate the real vitality of religion in 20th-century America. And it certainly says nothing definitive about the wider role for religion in the global context, where the postmodern moral and cultural obsessions that are threatening to tear the U.S. apart today are largely irrelevant. But it may call into question what was thought to be happening within the religious world as recently as a decade or so ago. It may even reopen the question as to whether what was perceived to be a late 20th-century religious revival was really a revival and whether it really was adequate to forestall American religion's becoming (as the authors then feared) mere conventional social observance and "bland civil religion" - or, in our contemporary context, basically a badge of tribal identity in a politically defined social and cultural civil war.
Of course, God has never left and never will leave his world, but whether "God is back" in a way which reinforces the complacent expectations of American religious exceptionalism is quite another matter.