Return to the Monastery

The walls are ancient, massive, and seemingly impenetrable. Built over centuries, stone by stone, they allowed those who lived within them to largely forget their existence. Their security was a given, their maintenance deemed unnecessary, the once-white radiance which glimmered from afar now pockmarked and pummeled, the mortar crumbling but unnoticed by those thus protected. The ramparts stand lightly guarded now, for few found the siege of small hideous men a threat — and many envied their crazed passions from atop the high walls, where sanctuary seemed like slavery and chaos freedom.

Those few who sounded the alarm went unheeded, for the massive stones which tumbled and thundered to earth were lightly regarded, the trembling of the ground at their impact ignored lest it disturb the revelry within. The city has been infiltrated, not with shock troops but with trollops, its defenders lying naked in the embrace of whores. The breach is imminent — yet the city sleeps, its shops shuttered, its currency squandered, its treasury depleted, its armies far abroad fighting fearlessly a war no one notices for a cause long forgotten.

The light streaming through the now-breached walls most surely represents change — and just as surely brings not hope, but new horrors.

We have been engaged for some decades in what is often called a “culture war.” It is in truth far more than that — far more than simply clashing preferences or soft values at variance, more than red versus blue, big government versus small, professors versus plumbers, city versus rural. It is at its core warfare in a different dimension, in a realm we understand poorly if at all. It rages in the realm of philosophy, or perhaps more precisely, in the realm of spirit.

The increasingly-likely presidency of Barack Obama — teamed with a entrenched, empowered, and intractably secular and liberal Congress — portends a tectonic shift in these cultural clashes, with profound changes looming for those who battle to preserve and advance the causes of traditional morality, respect for life, and religious values. In addition to changes in the political landscape which may prove every bit as drastic (and destructive) as the New Deal, two recent essays peer through the looking glass, not toward this impending change in the socio-political landscape, but rather toward the ethical and moral morass into which we are about to be thrust. The view through the glass is sobering, to say the least.

Richard John Neuhaus, writing in First Things, takes a look at the culture wars and the courts in Obama, Abortion, and the Courts:

We are two nations: one concentrated on rights and laws, the other on rights and wrongs; one radically individualistic and dedicated to the actualized self, the other communal and invoking the common good; one viewing law as the instrument of the will to power and license, the other affirming an objective moral order reflected in a Constitution to which we are obliged; one given to private satisfaction, the other to familial responsibility; one typically secular, the other typically religious; one elitist, the other populist…

No other question cuts so close to the heart of the culture wars as the question of abortion. The abortion debate is about more than abortion. It is about the nature of human life and community. It is about whether rights are the product of human assertion or the gift of “Nature and Nature \'s God.” It is about euthanasia, eugenic engineering, and the protection of the radically handicapped. But the abortion debate is most inescapably about abortion. In that debate, the Supreme Court has again and again, beginning with the Roe and Doe decisions of 1973, gambled its authority, and with it our constitutional order, by coming down on one side.

The result is the Court \'s clear declaration of belligerency on one side of the culture wars, endorsing the radically individualistic concept of the self-constituted self.

In like manner, Robert George at Public Discourse paints an even gloomier prognosis on the future of the defense and protection of human life based on Senator Obama’s own legislative history:

Obama’s Abortion Extremism

What kind of America do we want our beloved nation to be? Barack Obama’s America is one in which being human just isn’t enough to warrant care and protection. It is an America where the unborn may legitimately be killed without legal restriction, even by the grisly practice of partial-birth abortion. It is an America where a baby who survives abortion is not even entitled to comfort care as she dies on a stainless steel table or in a soiled linen bin. It is a nation in which some members of the human family are regarded as inferior and others superior in fundamental dignity and rights. In Obama’s America, public policy would make a mockery of the great constitutional principle of the equal protection of the law.

Grim prospects, these — and surely discouraging to those who mourn over our nation’s growing embrace of a culture of hedonism and death. It is difficult not to grieve over a nation so increasingly lost that it seeks salvation in soothing words while embracing that which destroys it.

Yet I have sensed for some time that we have been fighting the wrong war in the wrong way in such matters. We have massed troops and sent them heroically into the hardened defenses and machine gun nests of an entrenched secular culture. We have protested at abortion clinics; spent millions to defeat laws and propositions to legalize euthanasia, or prostitution, or gay marriage; elected pro-life candidates who too quickly compromise, or leave office shortly after discovering the futility of changing a corrupt and co-opted political culture. We have filled the radio airwaves and internet blogs with billions of words to protest activist judges and the politicians who appoint them, or expose the hypocrisy of politicians who “personally” oppose abortion as “faithful” members of their church while voting in lockstep for every abortion right — even infanticide.

Yet we have, for all our screeds and screeching, changed little — and been unwilling to change that which is most important: ourselves. We rant against the soft porn and profanity of what passes for TV entertainment — but our TV sets stay on. We abhor Hollywood, but go to their movies, obsessing about their empty hedonism while faithfully reading People and Us and Vanity Fair. We decry our materialistic age while filling our lives with costly toys and glittering bangles, as our credit cards threaten to crush and devour us. We criticize our sinful culture but never mention sin in our churches. We hate our corrupt and compromised politicians — then vote them right back into office, showing our sophistication and nuance on political issues. We resist and deplore the aggressive pro-gay agenda in politics, culture, and education — but never befriend the gay man or woman, nor learn to humbly love nor embrace the wounded soul thus enslaved. We split our churches into a million denominations, self-righteously hating those heretic Catholics, or Protestants, or charismatics, or fundamentalists, as is our wont — while fully embracing a culture which will not be content until we are all silenced and destroyed.

In ages past, the church responded to a decaying culture — violent, decadent, pagan, hopeless –by separation, drawing itself apart from a lost and self-destructive world. The monastic movement sought dissociation in order to focus on that which truly mattered, to reject the sound and fury which invariably accompanies the hollow hopelessness of men hiding from the harsh light of truth, who ridicule the eternal while reaping its rebuke. It is perhaps no accident that monasticism prospered most after the church fully embraced the corrupt culture, emerging from centuries of isolation, exclusion, and persecution to embrace the harlot in the person of Emperor Constantine. The church became wealthy, and powerful, and fashionable, and favored — and thereby lost the passion for purity, and humility, and sacrifice, and personal holiness which had been its hallmark in its first three centuries. Yet men yearned for that which is eternal, and sacrificed the comforts of culture for the discipline of devotion.

It is, I sense, time to revisit these truths and this history, to ask ourselves if we have benefited our culture and country by fighting its wars on the battlefields of its choosing. Is it not time to consider whether we, too, should draw back, not in defeat but in strength, and fight this war — and it is most certainly a deadly combat — on grounds where it must be fought, in the hearts of men — starting with ourselves. Perhaps it is time — well past time, even — to begin our pilgrimage away from a lost culture which has embraced the delusion that we control our own destinies, that our pleasures and profits will makes us happy, that freedom and peace may be had by embracing selfishness and slavery. The monastery we must seek is not some sacred sanctuary, some pastoral refuge of stone in a land far away. Our world is not the world of centuries ago; we cannot cloister ourselves in some lonely enclave, distanced and detached from debauchery and decadence far away. Ours must be the monastery of the soul, an abbey of abstinence, and devotion, and prayer, and self-sacrifice.

The call of the monastery is not a call to isolation, or hermitage, nor a call to a John Galt-vengeance on a society which has rejected our noble pleadings and higher values. The heart of the monastery requires no walls, but is instead a community, with a rule of order, spiritual discipline, prayer, simplicity of living, and hard work. It is a place where humility and honesty thrive; where prayer is a daily, even hourly, discipline; where we challenge every desire in the light of absolute values and eternal perspective; where relationships are reconciled and true peace among men can thrive. The abbey abides where we live — in our churches, our small groups or Bible studies, our neighborhoods, in coffee houses, in the warmth and hospitality of our open homes. It is here where we may truly transform our society — one heart, one soul, one life at a time.

Let the culture go where it may; we must be a true light. It is time to abandon the delusion that we may change the hopeless by becoming more like them — we must instead become a shining city on a hill, a stark contrast to the darkness which surrounds us. If what we believe is true — and it is — then those who run from truth may well see in us an answer to their failed and fruitless pursuits, to the shallow shell of a life lived in self-gratification and the pursuit of pleasure and power.

We will be misunderstood, hated, ridiculed, rejected. So be it — our strength will lie in one another, and in Him who calls us to holiness.

Let us now say, “Let it begin — and let it begin, with me.”

Surveying the Abyss

Those who know me best have little doubt: I am irrepressibly optimistic. Not naive, mind you — at least from my perspective — but whether by personality, disposition, or faith, I am wont to believe the best about people, and circumstances, and the future. I drive my wife nuts, she being of a decidedly more pessimistic bent.

But I must confess of late to a recurring sense of foreboding, about a great many things. Now, prognosticating about the future is a fool’s game, to be sure; a review of most any futurist’s predictions invariable shows a predictive rate substantially less than could be had by tossing a coin.

But I do have eyes, and ears, and over half a century of something one less circumspect might call “wisdom” — and a sense of the spiritual sharpened mostly by ignoring its promptings, with the invariable consequences. Wisdom, as they say, is gained by experience — and experience is gained by lack of wisdom.

In a world which incessantly rips its cultural chords at rock-concert levels, it is no small feat to listen to the still, small voice — and harder yet to distinguish it from the countless seductive whispers and wishes of life long lived in self-gratification and indulgence. Yet that voice ever quiet is nevertheless persistent — and it seems to be speaking with an urgency and clarity which is hard to dispel.

We are standing, I sense, at the edge of an abyss — and the earth beneath our feet is shifting and unstable.

We live in a society saturated with information. The paradox of this spectacle is that we no longer possess the ability to integrate and evaluate the information which assaults us from every direction. One moment the news ticker at the bottom of the screen shows some mind-numbing drop in the stock market; the next moment, we are enthralled with some bitch queen trying to kick the shins of his lesbian competitor on Project Runway. The news media jumps from the crisis of the second to the latest Hollywood dalliance, and from there to some hopeless hyped hysteria about global warming or the health scare of the week, providing no sense of perspective about which of these might be the more important.

So it behooves us to stand back; to turn off the TV, shut down the browser, put down the paper, turn off talk radio, and truly listen — not to the screeching banshees with their banal hysteria, but rather to that inner source, be it spirit, or soul, or mind, or the wisdom acquired by life’s experiences.

Take a moment, if you will, for a brief look around, surveying our 21st-century world. Let yourself absorb the panoramic view, all 360 degrees, not averting your eyes at things which are unsettling or fear-provoking.

Glance first dead ahead: we are in the midst of a financial meltdown. Of course, there have been many financial crises in the past, many “Black Fridays”, where years of accumulated wealth have disappeared almost in the twinkling of an eye. Yet our current crisis seems different. The past 50 years in the West, particularly in America, have brought about an extraordinary increase in wealth. This increase has only accelerated, although with periodic painful retractions, as the speed and complexity of our financial systems has increased exponentially. Derivatives, globalization, computer-driven investing, complex financial instruments and securities, have greatly increased both the profitability and the instability of financial systems. Even those who should understand these complex financial instruments and systems can be blindsided — as they were in our current credit crisis.

Much like a complex computer software program, its programmers understand how it should work, and make assumptions about the parameters — which, when when fed unexpected values, leads to catastrophic failure. Our financial wizards lost the ability — or more likely never had it — to control for every eventuality, including those which could cause catastrophic economic failure. We stare in amazement that seemingly no one anticipated our meltdown in mortgage equities; but our hope in and expectations of “experts” will invariably be dashed as system complexity and instability increases.

So now, glancing around, we look to government to save this from the “greed” of Wall Street — although we have long celebrated Wall Street’s greed as long as our profits and portfolio values were rising. It’s Wall Street’s job to be greedy — we have demanded it of them. So we look to government institutions never designed to moderate or correct such lightspeed instability — and are angry when we find them unable to intelligently address this implosion. Even in a perfect world, our elected leaders would have no more wisdom or ability to correct a highly complex and increasingly unstable economic system, where events half a world away can send your nation’s economy reeling in ways you could never have anticipated.

And this is no perfect world, by any measure.

For years we have tolerated incompetence, corruption, dishonesty — and yes, greed — in government while looking the other way. On those rare occasions when politicians have made principled stands, we have rewarded them with a firestorm of political assault, full-throated media ridicule and criticism, and enormous financial pressure from lobbyists pouring money into the pockets of those who purport to represent the people. We have elected a government of the people, in the most literal and disgraceful sense: we have elected, and kept in office, those who share our desire for self-gratification and materialistic acquisition at the expense of character, moral integrity, honesty, and prudence. The cesspool which is our current Congress is what we have reaped by our own actions — or perhaps more accurately, by our inaction. We have elected those politicians who are like us in every way — and we hate them for it. They are, after all, created in our own image.

Glance a bit in another direction and you will find a host of unsolvable problems of a magnitude as great or greater than our current credit crisis. Social Security and Medicare roar down the tracks toward a washed-out bridge, with no engineer at the throttle; massive budget deficits balloon as we pour trillions into a war that no one seems interested in fighting; trillions more pour forth in political favors and pork designed to maintain our corrupt politicians in their unchallengeable congressional seats. $700 billion in bailouts will seem chump change when our bills for this fecklessness come due.

Glance yet again, and watch a presidential election wherein we seem poised to elect a candidate without portfolio, with a long history of association with corrupt political machine pols and leftist bomb throwers, including those both rhetorical and literal. This is the Messiah to whom we look for the solutions to our increasingly intractable problems, setting aside all rational thought for the opiate optimism which sees salvation in smooth words and sage assurances. Indeed, we seem eager and ready to bring to fruition the revolution of the 60’s: with clenched fists thrust skyward, the age of peace, free love, drugs, irresponsibility, and emotional feel-good policies is upon us, based not on experience nor any understanding of human frailty and corruption, but rather on a blind idealistic utopianism.

Then glance around the world, where the Russian bear roars menacingly; where Iran races to nuclear capability while diplomats twiddle and dither, driven by a religious fascism which glorifies death as they bow down to the false prophet; where an increasingly impotent Israel is surrounded and threatened by massing forces zealous for its destruction; where China pursues a massive military buildup as it eyes Taiwan and Southeast Asia; where Korea cranks out nukes and missiles, selling them to the world’s most wicked regimes; where Europe is ludicrous in its impotence, ever seeking our protection when desperate while hating us ever the more; where the sun has finally set on the British Empire, leaving only a pathetic pandering jester where a mighty force for civilization and law once stood; where a thousand failed states are seething cauldrons of violence, and poverty, and hatred, engendering transnational terrorists now empowered by the same technology we hope will save us. The world, like its financial systems, is extraordinarily unstable, with powerful centrifugal forces breaking apart even once proud and powerful nation-states. The parched, cracked grasses await but a spark to start an inferno.

Then glance at culture (if you can stomach it), where the decadent is celebrated, where the good is ridiculed, where the satyr is worshiped, where no pillar of tradition may stand nor bulwark of morality may endure. Our media promulgate not truth but narrative, not fact but fabrication, a fully empowered propaganda machine entirely co-opted by postmodern secular culture and messianic politics.

And yet, here we sit, watching on our flat screens in full HD the celebration of androgynous eunuchs in staged competitions about who can create the prettiest dress or redesign the penthouse of some satyrical single, who long ago decided that life was about getting laid, leaving the emotional, physical, and social tab for someone else to pay. These are the individuals we celebrate and elevate with our eyes, our time, our adulation, our admiration, our money.

The extraordinary instability in the world cannot long endure — and I fear we are ill-prepared in the extreme for the abyss which will follow. We have raised generations to believe they are entitled to ease, wealth, and prosperity; we have taught them through our easy divorces and casual shack-ups that commitment only lasts as long as it feels good, and that love is all about sex; we have failed to provide any framework of character, morality, integrity, and perseverance upon which to rest when all we have taken for granted — the wealth, the comfort, the false security, the easy irresponsibility — crumbles to the ground.

It is long past time to get back to basics — to faith, to church, to principles, to relationships, to integrity. We are, I believe, about to be tested in a most difficult and frightening way — a darkness the likes of which we have not seen before, and may never see again. The provocation may be known, or unknown, be it nuclear terrorism, or some yet-unseen financial collapse; a cataclysmic natural disaster; or a butterfly in some unknown location flapping its wings and setting off a chain reaction which ignites the world in conflagration.

Of course, such prognostications may well be wrong; perhaps naive optimism would be the better course and certainly more pleasant to entertain. But as for me, it is time to focus: to look hard at my spiritual, financial, and relational assumptions, to tune out far more of a chaotic and decaying culture, to prepare for the worst while hoping for the best, while asking God to shine his light of conviction on my life to purify and strengthen it, and hopefully grow in some measure of wisdom. It is time to simplify, to prepare, to fast, to pray, to repent. It is time to stop spending on the frivolous and start giving more generously.

If you are a person of faith, it is time to dig in, hard, and quit playing games — your life may depend on it. If you are skeptical of such matters, consider: upon what will you lean when your world collapses? Will your considered indifference and intellectual smugness about us fools of faith save you? What will you do when all that matters to you is taken, and you are left, finally, profoundly alone with naught but that frightened face in the mirror?

I have slept for too long, as have all of us. It is time to fill the lamps with oil lest they be found empty when the bridegroom arrives.

Wisdom From an Atheist


David Foster Wallace, a writer, professor and committed atheist, died on Sept 12, 2008. He was perhaps best known for his book about John McCain’s 2000 presidential campaign. Wallace was a thoroughgoing postmodernist — and thereby solidly possessed of the notion that there is no capital-T Truth.

Recently, The Wall Street Journal published an essay, adapted from a commencement speech he delivered in 2005, upon which I stumbled by the usual spidery web of disconnected URL links (HT: Touchstone Magazine and Signs of the Times). It is in many ways a stunning piece in its insight and wit.

Consider:

A huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded. Here’s one example of the utter wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: Everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe, the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely talk about this sort of natural, basic self-centeredness, because it’s so socially repulsive, but it’s pretty much the same for all of us, deep down. It is our default-setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth.

And this:

Because here’s something else that’s true. In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of God or spiritual-type thing to worship — be it J.C. or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles — is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things — if they are where you tap real meaning in life — then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you. On one level, we all know this stuff already — it’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, bromides, epigrams, parables: the skeleton of every great story. The trick is keeping the truth up-front in daily consciousness. Worship power — you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart — you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. And so on.

Not bad for a postmodern atheist. And also tragically prophetic:

It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always shoot themselves in the head. And the truth is that most of these suicides are actually dead long before they pull the trigger.

He committed suicide, by hanging, at age 46.

Thank You for Your Prayers …

Just a word of deepest-felt gratitude for those of you who offered your support and prayers regarding my deposition yesterday. The strength of your prayers were felt and experienced in a deep way, one which I consider in many ways to be miraculous.

The deposition itself went well, as best I can judge. My attorney was very pleased (and quite relieved, I suspect) with the way it progressed, and believes I made a very strong case for my defense, neither ceding any ground to the plaintiff’s attorney nor making any grievous missteps which might come back to haunt you later in the courtroom.

That it seemed to proceed so well is no small miracle in and of itself — my attorney was present at the deposition of one of the other physicians being sued, and felt it went very poorly indeed for the defendant, with lots of bad body language, evasiveness, fidgeting, and argumentativeness by the physician with the plaintiff’s attorney. My attorney’s preparation on such matters had been excellent, which was of course a great asset.

The real miracle — as is so often the case with prayer — came within the heart. After my prep last week I was nearly hysterical, panicking about the need the prepare for a hostile interrogation in the midst of of very busy schedule, which included a weekend on call last week. All sorts of calamities were imagined, immediately becoming in my mind an inevitable reality, with much resulting anxiety, depression, anger, resentments, and sleeplessness. The world looked very black indeed.

As Thursday drew near, all this changed, rather dramatically. My work schedule was nowhere near as frantic as anticipated; the call weekend was busy but I had a long sustained period on Sunday to focus on the litigant’s chart and clarify the events of my care in detail — including several things in my defense which I had previously overlooked.

The cavalry, meanwhile, came charging over the hill, leaving a cloud of dust in their wake: my wife and her prayer ministry partners were recruited; my dear office nurse, a devout believer and prayer warrior prayed and fasted with her partners. Many other friends — and strangers — volunteered their calls to the Almighty. Psalm 27 became my own prayer:

The LORD is my light and my salvation—
whom shall I fear?
The LORD is the stronghold of my life—
of whom shall I be afraid?

Though an army besiege me,
my heart will not fear;
though war break out against me,
even then will I be confident.

Wait for the LORD;
be strong and take heart
and wait for the LORD.

By Tuesday most of the insanity had left, although I was still quite anxious. By Wednesday, I was actually looking forward to the opportunity to present my case. By Thursday, there was — astoundingly — no anxiety whatsoever. When I walked into the conference room, I had no anger, no resentment against the attorney who was questioning me and challenging me, was able to see him as someone doing his best to defend an unfortunate child with a serious illness, and was entirely comfortable with where I was and what I had done, and actually enjoyed much of it, with some humor and a real sense of ease. Best exchange of the morning:

Plaintiff’s attorney: “Doctor, did you know what was causing this patient’s urinary tract infections?”

Me: [pause] “Bacteria.”

Plaintiff’s attorney: [shaking his head] “Umm, I guess I walked into that one, didn’t I?”

Me: [smiling, nodding] “Yeah.”

All caught on videotape. Sweet.

The point here is that I was not myself. I could not, in my own ability, have been so comfortable, at ease, so at peace, so joyful even, as I was yesterday morning. That was a gift — and I am indebted ever so deeply to those of you who made that gift possible.

Thank you again from the very bottom of my heart.

Trial by Tort

As some of you may have noticed, my rate of posting has been relatively slow for the past few months. There has been, as you might imagine, quite a few things competing for my time, some of which I hope to discuss forthwith.

My most immediate focus is a legal one. As I mentioned some time ago, I have been involved in a medical malpractice lawsuit for the past year. The wheels of justice — if you can call it that — turn slowly, and many months have passed with little more than an extraordinary plethora of paper which accompanies such a legal adventure. I have, quite literally, no less than 3-4 feet of paper accrued, including countless pages of chart notes, hospital records, court records, and communications from both attorneys. Keep in mind that this is in addition to the daily avalanche of paper accumulated through the normal running of a medical practice. Despite this torrent of tort-related tree products, the actual lawsuit itself has generally been a background matter for me for months, predominantly handled by my attorney.

Last week, however, in preparation for my upcoming deposition by the plaintiff’s attorney, and I had a several-hour prep session with my attorney. While very helpful, it significantly raised my anxiety level by putting this lawsuit front and center. Keep in mind that one cannot simply shut down a medical practice to focus on such things, so the cumulative stress is significant.

Of course, I cannot disclose any of the details of this case — a mistake imprudently made by another physician blogger. We believe our case to be very strong in defense, but of course the legal system can be something of a crapshoot, and the chess game of an interrogation by a plaintiff’s attorney is enough to give even the most steely-nerved defendant a serious case of the butterflies.

These are the matters which also challenge one’s faith, and all of the easy spiritual bromides and Bible verses about trusting God and His protection and provision are put to the test in the crucible of such a confrontation. As you can imagine, the knees on my trousers are getting significantly more wear of late. This road is far from easy; I cannot imagine enduring it without the pillar of my faith — shaky as it may be — and the love and support of those of like mind and belief.

So if you are of the praying sort, and feel inclined to do so, I would be most grateful for any whispered intercession on my behalf before our Creator.

My deposition is this coming Thursday.

God bless, and back soon.

Absolute Fools

A recent post on the worldview of contemporary postmodern liberalism was kindly linked by Gerard Vanderleun over at American Digest. In his link post, a commenter left the following missive:

The essay would have value if there were absolutes. Never have been, never shall be. Our standards of behavior are devised by us, and used or misused by us. We decide which is good and which is evil, and in every case we are right and wrong at one and the same time.

Each of our rules and regulations is enforced through agreement, and through coercion. The wise among us agree to follow the laws because it makes for a calmer, safer life. The fools among us must be made to follow those same laws because they haven’t the wisdom to see the necessity. And this speaks of those ordinances that do make sense.

Those that do not have to be enforced through coercion more often than not because they really don’t make any sense. And there are times when our rules make more or less sense than other times because circumstances differ.

We are responsible for our laws, and for our adherence to them. Our legislation being wise is to our credit. Our legislation being cruel is to our shame. Nobody else can remove that charge from our shoulders.

Now, I take no issue with this gentleman personally; he is doubtless a bright fellow, well-educated in our institutions of higher learning, where professors emeritus emote their postmodern erudition in the lofty ephemeral ethers, far removed from the dross of desperately-ignorant humanity. He is more to be pitied than censured; he has, after all, been taught not to think. But he serves herein a useful purpose, insofar as his comment exemplifies the mindset of those who eschew the idea of absolutes — which assertion is the very metaphysical mortar of secular postmodernism.

I find it interesting that most every argument rejecting absolutes contains within its very language and structure, not to mention its premises, a framework of absolute assertions. And our subject does not disappoint: tossing around terms like “wise” and “fools” and “shame” and “credit”, qualitative words without meaning when there is no transcendent standard against which to measure them. What is shame if not the humiliation of rejecting an absolute good? Who is wise, and who a fool, if there is no standard of enduring and unchangeable wisdom by which to categorize one thusly? The lines of their straightedge are random and irregularly spaced — if there are measuring lines at all — yet they carefully measure and mark off “progress”, confident they have measured accurately. There is, of course, the inevitable rejoinder to all such foolishness which asks, “Are you absolutely sure there are no absolutes?” But beyond this childish rebuttal — childish, not in the sense of silliness or immaturity, but rather of unvarnished simplicity — there lies an even more evident and profound incoherence which can be discerned — from which a not-so-evident proposition emerges from the heart of anti-absolutism.

It is impossible to function as a human being in society without the concept of transcendent absolutes, even if this foundational principle is unrecognized or denied. We as humans do not simply move as pack animals, driven by instinct and primal drives, but are by our very nature creatures of judgment. We are constantly comparing, evaluating, appreciating or depreciating everyone and everything around us. The food is either tasty or awful; the woman is attractive or homely; the music is beautiful or grating; the weather is warm and pleasant or cold, wet, and miserable. Of course, some of these judgments are self-referential: the food tastes good to us, or bad to us; we prefer rock music to Rachmaninoff, while others may differ. Thus to some degree, we individually determine the standard against which we measure objects apart from ourselves. Yet even there it is possible to compare our preferences to a fixed standard: is slasher rock not discernibly different in quality from a Bach fugue?

But within the realm of human interactions, writ large as communities, societies, nations, and cultures, judgments about the outside world become collective, embodied in law and cultural and social strictures. Behavior which is objectionable to some is desirable to others; that which some find beneficial others find harmful. It is at this level of community and human interactions where some overarching determination or standard against which interpersonal behavior is measured becomes utterly necessary if we are to avoid a society capricious in its justice or cruel in its enforcement.

The anti-absolutist posits this standard in the consensus of the group, be it tribal, community, or society. The society at large, whatever its dimensions, determines that certain behavior is acceptable or unacceptable, and enforces the standard through collective coercion or force. While this seems plausible at first glance, it almost immediately runs into problems with the de facto use of absolutes. What standard will the collective mind of a society choose? Is it simply the standard of survival? Is it a collective self-gratification? Self-interest alone? And how can it be a standard at all without becoming, to greater or lesser degree, a transcendent absolute?

If, as our commenter suggests, we decide for ourselves what is good and what is evil, what is right and what is wrong, are these standards not infinitely malleable by their very nature? Such a philosophy of law is nothing more than the tyranny of the masses, the rule of the mob. For a society may agree by consensus that certain members of the society are inferior by nature, or should be exterminated, or have their possessions confiscated, their daughters raped, their members sold into slavery. Such societies are not mere abstract entities, but stark historical realities, evident in gulags, ethnic cleansings, and rape rooms to which even our most recent decades testify. Such a philosophy in its purest form is the will to power; those who gain dominance, either in number or by force, determine the standard against which all will be judged.

The notion that such a standard is invariably beneficial to a society or culture is ludicrous in the light of history. One need look no further than the 20th century, where the social consensus arising out of pathologies such as Nazism, Marxism, and the emperor worship and militarism of Japan, wrought horrors upon not only the world, but especially on the societies which themselves embraced these pathologic standards. That German militarism and anti-Semitism was profoundly destructive to the very society which engendered these ideas and standards is self-evident; ask the citizens of Hiroshima how Japan’s imperialistic and fanatical militarism panned out.

Yet the world of the anti-absolutist one cannot form a judgment about any such self-evident evils. It cannot say that Nazism and the Holocaust were evil — they can only say that by their own standards, self-engendered and not universal, that such abominations are different. The inevitable moral indifference arising from such a philosophy runs counter to every fiber of the human spirit. We cannot say such things are evil if we cannot reference them against an absolute standard arising above, and transcending, any consensus formed only by a society.

Our very language is steeped in the vocabulary of absolutes — it is impossible to communicate without them. Good and evil, right and wrong, justice and injustice, wisdom and foolishness: these concepts are universal, ubiquitous, and unresectable from language and thought, across all cultures and civilizations.

The consequences of the rejection of absolutes, fully embraced, are nothing short of anarchy — or in its stead, tyranny. There can be no true justice, for justice appeals to a standard above the law, and thus judges not only behavior contrary to law, but the law itself. Absent a transcendent moral absolute, there is no limit to the granularity at which arbitrary determinations of good and evil, right and wrong, may occur. it is a recipe for tribalism at best, as competing groups determine their own rules, rejecting those of other groups, large or small, which run contrary to their perceived needs or desires. The inevitable conflict between tribal standards can bring nothing but perpetual conflict or isolation.

Those who claim to reject absolutes do not in reality reject all absolutes. There is never a quibble about the law of gravity, or the laws of nature, or those of nuclear physics or astronomy. Were they consistent in their philosophy, they would reject the term “law” (which implies an underlying transcendent; there is, after all, no laws without law-givers), and instead describe what their metaphysics mandates: that seemingly predictable behavior is no more than random coincidence; the electron may fall into the nucleus at any time, ending this existence as dramatically and as randomly as it came into being. As Chesterton said, “They feel that because one incomprehensible thing constantly follows another incomprehensible thing the two together somehow make up a comprehensible thing.”

At the very heart of a philosophy of deterministic, self-engendered moral standards stands the individual. The rejection of moral absolutes is nothing more than radical individualism broadcast across society — the notion that we are the sole arbiters of our behavior and morality, the we alone determine what is right and what is wrong. As a corollary, there is another assumption underlying this one: that others should bear the consequences, especially adverse consequences of our actions. Those who reject moral absolutes gravitate to a nihilistic narcissism, where there are rights but no responsibilities, demanding freedom to act as they please without thought for anyone else, all the while demanding that others rescue them from wreckage their behavior has wrought.

This battle of worldviews lies at the very heart of our culture wars, of the endless societal conflicts engendered over abortion, or religion in the public square, or the status of heterosexual marriage, or unrestricted sexual license, or any one a host of other seemingly irreconcilable culture clashes which saturate and sour our daily lives. It is a take-no-prisoners battle, for there is no middle ground, no comfortable compromise which will bring peace and harmony. It is a battle to the death, a battle not only of the mind but of the heart.

It is, above all, about bending the knee, a battle for the soul: we will submit to the absolute, or destroy ourselves in dark delusion denying it.

It’s long past time we choose which it will be.

Welcoming the Hypocrites

fishDonald Sensing has a good post about the all-too-common accusation against Christians, that they are hypocrites:

The hypocrisy excuse for staying away from church has got to be the oldest there is. Which only proves what Mark Twain observed, “When you don’t want to do something, any excuse will do.” And to borrow one of Yogi Berra’s malapropisms, If people don’t want to come to church, nobody’s going to stop them.
 
But I say, “Hooray for hypocrites!” If you’re a hypocrite, you’re just my guy or gal.

Yes, the accusation of hypocrisy is freely administered by those who, in their righteous indignation, would never darken the door of their nearest church. To be sure, there is no shortage of hypocrisy in Christianity; in fact, there seems to be a rather large supply well-distributed across the human race, religious or not. I’ve had a few thoughts of my own on the subject, contained in a long-winded riff on refrigerator magnets, here.

Sensing nails the issue beautifully:

Because hypocrisy requires the hypocrite to believe in something or someone outside himself. Hypocrisy requires an aspiration to something higher or better than oneself. That is the meaning of the folk saying, “Hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue.” Hypocrisy is an imperfect, deficient attempt to be better…

It is deceit that makes hypocrisy what it is. The true hypocrite wants others to think better of him/her than is actually justified. Absent this deceit, there is no hypocrisy, just error or human frailty. That’s what the hypocrisy-excuse people don’t understand – or pretend not to understand – about church people. What may appear to be church people’s hypocrisy is almost always just simple failure to meet the standards of our faith rather than deceit. Why? Because the standard is so high:

But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart (Mt. 5:28).

But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual transgression, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery (Mt. 5:32).

There are many such examples. So I say that if our churches are filled with such “hypocrites,” then let’s have many more. Vice is easy, virtue is hard. It’s no hypocrisy to fall short of a very high standard and such an excellent goal. And I would suggest that the hypocrisy-excuse people have largely chosen the easy way over the hard way, and choose to call that virtue. So who are the hypocrites? Well, we always have room for one more.

The irony in this situation is that the accusation of hypocrisy often comes from someone incapable of hypocrisy — for the simple reason that you cannot fall short of a standard which you do not have:

Thankfully I have known very few non-hypocritical people. They were insufferable. They were entirely self centered, self directed, self oriented, self focused and just plain purely selfish. They recognized no cause, entity or belief higher than themselves, their own desires, wants or needs. You can see, I’m sure, that it is impossible for such people to act hypocritically because they are always looking out for No. 1 in every situation. They never pretend they are acting in someone else’s interests. They don’t seek others’ approval because they don’t fundamentally care about others or what they think.

So don’t be a hypocrite — Check it out.

A Meditation on Life, from a Dying Man

Today is Tony Snow’s funeral, and this meditation he wrote in his last days just came across the transom:

Blessings arrive in unexpected packages, – in my case, cancer. Those of us with potentially fatal diseases – and there are millions in America today – find ourselves in the odd position of coping with our mortality while trying to fathom God’s will. Although it would be the height of presumption to declare with confidence ‘What It All Means,’ Scripture provides powerful hints and consolations.

The first is that we shouldn’t spend too much time trying to answer the ‘why’ questions: Why me? Why must people suffer? Why can’t someone else get sick? We can’t answer such things, and the questions themselves often are designed more to express our anguish than to solicit an answer.

I don’t know why I have cancer, and I don’t much care. It is what it is, a plain and indisputable fact. Yet even while staring into a mirror darkly, great and stunning truths begin to take shape. Our maladies define a central feature of our existence: We are fallen. We are imperfect. Our bodies give out.

But despite this, – or because of it, – God offers the possibility of salvation and grace. We don’t know how the narrative of our lives will end, but we get to choose how to use the interval between now and the moment we meet our Creator face-to-face.

Second, we need to get past the anxiety. The mere thought of dying can send adrenaline flooding through your system. A dizzy, unfocused panic seizes you. Your heart thumps; your head swims. You think of nothingness and swoon. You fear partings; you worry about the impact on family and friends. You fidget and get nowhere.

To regain footing, remember that we were born not into death, but into life,- and that the journey continues after we have finished our days on this earth. We accept this on faith, but that faith is nourished by a conviction that stirs even within many non-believing hearts… an intuition that the gift of life, once given, cannot be taken away. Those who have been stricken enjoy the special privilege of being able to fight with their might, main, and faith to live fully, richly, exuberantly – no matter how their days may be numbered.

Third, we can open our eyes and hearts. God relishes surprise. We want lives of simple, predictable ease,- smooth, even trails as far as the eye can see…. but God likes to go off-road. He provokes us with twists and turns. He places us in predicaments that seem to defy our endurance; and comprehension – and yet don’t. By His love and grace, we persevere. The challenges that make our hearts leap and stomachs churn invariably strengthen our faith and grant measures of wisdom and joy we would not experience otherwise.

‘You Have Been Called’. Picture yourself in a hospital bed. The fog of anesthesia has begun to wear away. A doctor stands at your feet, a loved one holds your hand at the side. ‘It’s cancer,’ the healer announces.

The natural reaction is to turn to God and ask him to serve as a cosmic Santa. ‘Dear God, make it all go away. Make everything simpler.’ But another voice whispers: ‘You have been called.’ Your quandary has drawn you closer to God, closer to those you love, closer to the issues that matter… and has dragged into insignificance the banal concerns that occupy our ‘normal time.’

There’s another kind of response, although usually short-lived an inexplicable shudder of excitement, as if a clarifying moment of calamity has swept away everything trivial and tiny, and placed before us the challenge of important questions.

The moment you enter the Valley of the Shadow of Death, things change. You discover that Christianity is not something doughy, passive, pious, and soft. Faith may be the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. But it also draws you into a world shorn of fearful caution. The life of belief teems with thrills, boldness, danger, shocks, reversals, triumphs, and epiphanies. Think of Paul, traipsing through the known world and contemplating trips to what must have seemed the antipodes ( Spain ), shaking the dust from his sandals, worrying not about the morrow, but only about the moment.

There’s nothing wilder than a life of humble virtue, – for it is through selflessness and service that God wrings from our bodies and spirits the most we ever could give, the most we ever could offer, and the most we ever could do.

Finally, we can let love change everything. When Jesus was faced with the prospect of crucifixion, he grieved not for himself, but for us. He cried for Jerusalem before entering the holy city. From the Cross, he took on the cumulative burden of human sin and weakness, and begged for forgiveness on our behalf.

We get repeated chances to learn that life is not about us, that we acquire purpose and satisfaction by sharing in God’s love for others. Sickness gets us part way there. It reminds us of our limitations and dependence. But it also gives us a chance to serve the healthy. A minister friend of mine observes that people suffering grave afflictions often acquire the faith of two people, while loved ones accept the burden of two peoples’ worries and fears.

‘Learning How to Live’. Most of us have watched friends as they drifted toward God’s arms, not with resignation, but with peace and hope. In so doing, they have taught us not how to die, but how to live. They have emulated Christ by transmitting the power and authority of love.

I sat by my best friend’s bedside a few years ago as a wasting cancer took him away. He kept at his table a worn Bible and a 1928 edition of the Book of Common Prayer. A shattering grief disabled his family, many of his old friends, and at least one priest. Here was an humble and very good guy, someone who apologized when he winced with pain because he thought it made his guest uncomfortable. He retained his equanimity and good humor literally until his last conscious moment. ‘I’m going to try to beat [this cancer],’ he told me several months before he died ‘But if I don’t, I’ll see you on the other side.’

His gift was to remind everyone around him that even though God doesn’t promise us tomorrow, he does promise us eternity, – filled with life and love we cannot comprehend, – and that one can in the throes of sickness point the rest of us toward timeless truths that will help us weather future storms.

Through such trials, God bids us to choose: Do we believe, or do we not? Will we be bold enough to love, daring enough to serve, humble enough to submit, and strong enough to acknowledge our limitations? Can we surrender our concern in things that don’t matter so that we might devote our remaining days to things that do?

When our faith flags, he throws reminders in our way. Think of the prayer warriors in our midst. They change things, and those of us who have been on the receiving end of their petitions and intercessions know it. It is hard to describe, but there are times when suddenly the hairs on the back of your neck stand up, and you feel a surge of the Spirit. Somehow you just know: Others have chosen, when talking to the Author of all creation, to lift us up, – to speak of us!

This is love of a very special order. But so is the ability to sit back and appreciate the wonder of every created thing. The mere thought of death somehow makes every blessing vivid, every happiness more luminous and intense. We may not know how our contest with sickness will end, but we have felt the ineluctable touch of God.

What is man that Thou art mindful of him? We don’t know much, but we know this: No matter where we are, no matter what we do, no matter how bleak or frightening our prospects, each and every one of us who believe, each and every day, lies in the same safe and impregnable place, in the hollow of God’s hand.’

Tony Snow

Contrast this with the chatter of our age: the hollow arrogance of the neo-atheist; the mindless and irrational contradictions of the postmodern professor; the decadence devoid of dignity and grace in Hollywood’s finest; the flapping frivolity of the fawning and feckless media.

It is no small irony that the things of life grow clearest in the looming shadow of death; that for those who grasp these deeper things — glimpsed only in part, hoped for in faith rather than seen with the flesh — that the darkness of death casts sharp relief on the very essence and meaning of life.

Rest in peace, Tony. We will meet some day in the light, and our joy will be shared.