Friday Links

 ♦ Richard John Neuhaus at First Things has posted his Friday essay, well worth reading. It speaks to many of the same issues I addressed, albeit far less eloquently, in my previous post:

Obama’s public remarks on the freedom of religion and constitutional law demonstrate little awareness of the significance of the first freedom of the First Amendment in America’s law and lived experience. Moreover, after more than three decades of the most passionate public debate of these matters, Obama declared during the election that the moral and legal status of the unborn child are questions “above my pay grade.”

The truly ominous possibility, indeed likelihood, is that Obama does not see his extreme positions on abortion as being extreme at all. They are the entrenched orthodoxies of the parties that got him to where he is. Those in opposition are viewed as a recalcitrant minority guilty of perpetuating divisiveness, and the time has come to break their back once and for all. I hope I am wrong, but this strikes me as the more plausible understanding of the Freedom of Choice Act and other measures aimed at “bringing us together again.”

The response of Christian leaders to the imminent aggressions will require determined legal talent, especially in First Amendment law, a sharpening of public arguments, reaching out to those who do not understand what is at stake, and careful strategizing by pro-life activists and politicians. In the first place and in the long term, however, the need is for the courage to recover a biblical and historical understanding of what it means to say “Let the Church be the Church.” The Church is not an association of individuals sharing the experience of religion as what they do with the solitude. The Church is not in the consumption business, peddling the products that satisfy one’s self-defined spiritual needs. The Church is a unique society among the societies of the world; a community of obligation standing in solidarity with the truth who is Christ.

That is how the Church understood herself in the apostolic period, as witness St. Paul’s opening hymn in the letter to the Ephesians, his depiction of cosmic transformation in Romans 8, and his anticipation in Philippians 2 of every knee bowing and every tongue confessing Jesus Christ as Lord. That is how the Church understood herself in the patristic era when Justin Martyr proposed Christianity not as a more satisfying religion among other religions but as “the true philosophy.” It was the understanding of Saint Augustine, who proposed in City of God that the story of the gospel is nothing less than the story of the world. Were Christianity what a man does with his solitude, there would be no martyrs. In every vibrant period of the Church’s life, it has been understood that her message and mission are based on public events, are advanced by public argument, and invite public response.

Well worth your time, and highly recommended. Also worthwhile is his previous essay: Obama and the Bishops.
 

There are deeper problems. In the last four decades, following the pattern of American Protestantism, many, perhaps most, Catholics view the Church in terms of consumption rather than obligation. The Church is there to supply their spiritual needs as they define those needs, not to tell them what to believe or do. This runs very deep both sociologically and psychologically. It is part of the “success” of American Catholics in becoming just like everybody else. Bishops and all of us need to catch the vision of John Paul II that the Church imposes nothing, she only proposes. But what she proposes she believes is the truth, and because human beings are hard-wired for the truth, the truth imposes. And truth obliges.

 ♦ Duplicate keys from photos: A Picture is Worth a Thousand Locksmiths

 ♦ Best Rube Goldberg idea ever (don’t shoot pool with these guys for money!):
 

 ♦ John Robb looks at the coming Depression — and how it’s not like the last one: Setting the Stage

 ♦  The implications of Washington’s Initiative 1000: Coming to a state near you, very soon: Assisted Suicide: The Wind in Their Sails

 ♦ WWII spooks messed with German radio transmissions: Aspidistra

 ♦ Sippi talks economics. Makes sense to me.

 ♦ Mushroom soup, anyone? Front seat for the A-bomb:
 

That’s all for now — enjoy your weekend, God bless.

Revolution of the Soul

In the past several days, through the lens of my profession, I have been given a rather stark and disturbing vision of our current cultural revolution. It is, it seems, a revolution every bit as pervasive and transformational — and destructive — as China’s Cultural Revolution of the 60s — and indeed may be but a different manifestation of a global transformation which transpired in those very same decades in the West. Ideas have consequences, as they say, and we are watching them bear fruit before our very eyes in a slow-motion train wreck which seems now to be accelerating at a disturbing rate.

Exhibit 1: Phyllis Chesler’s recent piece, “Every hospital patient has a story“, at PajamasMedia. It is a piece to be read to completion, including its lengthy comment section. Therein she details a recent experience during a hospital stay for a hip replacement, with a rather remarkable litany of rudeness, neglect, indifference, and suffering sustained at the hands of her healers, at an upscale New York hospital. Her story is shocking enough, and revelatory; the comments provide even further insight, running the expected gamut of such a piece in the New Media. There are those simply shocked; those sharing similar horror stories; those relaying far better experiences in contrast; those defending doctors and nurses, those attacking them. There is the obligate wackjob who blames the AMA, and the usual finger-pointing: not enough nurses, too much paperwork, inadequate pay scales to draw quality; the evil insurance companies and the government. All mostly true, to greater or lesser degree — but all missing the core dysfunction by a wide mark. At the final period of her post, one comes away with a sense of hopeless, feeling out of control and angry, despairing that such a situation may be even a part of our reality (and not knowing how large a part it may be), yet at a loss to prevent its malignant progression through our remaining hospitals which may have been spared to date, the encroachment of such a toxic stew of callousness, indifference, and coldness. There seems, in the end, little cause for optimism.

Exhibit 2: It is late, nearly 9 P.M., seeing a final consult at the end of a punishing call day, in the ICU. The patient, chronologically young yet physiologically Methuselan, lies in his bed, oxygen mask affixed to his face by heavy straps, bleeding, as he has for months, from a tumor in his kidney. He would not survive surgery, nor even radiological intervention to stem the hemorrhage by strangling its arterial lifeline. He is, furthermore, in the parlance of modern medicine, “non-compliant”: refusing treatments and diagnostic studies; rude and abusive to nurses and physicians alike; demanding to go home though unlikely to survive there for any significant length of time.

The nurse — young, competent, smart, hard-working, the very best of the modern nursing profession — apprises me of his situation, closing with this knockout punch: “You know, we just passed that initiative — you know, the suicide one. He’d be an excellent candidate.”

She wasn’t joking.

Taken a bit off guard, I responded that it is most unwise to give physicians the power to kill you, for we will become very good at it, and impossible to stop once we are.

She continued: “No, I would love to work for a Dr. Kevorkian. Be an Angel of Death, you know?”

“I know”, I muttered under my breath, as she ran off to another bedside, competently and with great efficiency, to adjust some ventilator or fine-tune some dopamine drip. And hopefully do nothing more.

These vignettes in modern medicine are really not about medicine at all. They are in truth about a culture which has lost its compassion. Our calloused and cynical society has become a raging river fed by a thousand foul and fetid streams. We have, by turns, taught our children that ethics are situational and values neutral; taught our women that compassion and service are signs of weakness, that they must become hard and heartless like the men they hate; taught our men that success and the respect of others comes not through character and integrity but through callousness, cynicism, and greed; and taught ourselves that we are a law unto ourselves, the sole and final arbiter of what is right and what is good.

We have, in our post-modern and post-Christian culture, inexorably and irrevocably turned from our roots in Christian morality and worldview, which was the foundation and font of that which we now know — or used to know — as Western Civilization. Yes, we have preserved the tinsel and the trappings, the gilded and glittering exterior of a decaying sarcophagus, where we speak self-righteously of rights while denying their origin in the divine spark within the human spirit, made in the image of God; where we bray about liberty, but are enslaved to its bejeweled impostor, the damsel of decadence and libertinism; where compassion is naught but another government program to address the consequences of our own aberrant and irresponsible behavior, duly justified, rationalized, and denied. Others must pay so that I may play, you know.

This toxic stew of self-centered callousness has percolated into every pore of our society. In health care, the effects are universal and pernicious. Patients demand perfection, trusting the wisdom of a web browser over the experience of a physician — then running to their attorney to redress every poor outcome which their disease or their destructive lifestyles have helped bring about. Physicians, hardened and cynical from countless battles with corrupt insurance companies, lawyers, and Stalinist government regulation, forget that they exist solely to serve the patient with compassion and self-sacrifice, and that financial recompense is secondary to healing and empathy. Nurses have in large measure become administrators, made ever more remote from their patients by mountains of paperwork and impossible nurse-to-patient ratios, their patient-critical tasks delegated to underlings poorly trained and ill-treated. Hospital administrators are MBAs, with no interest or clue about what constitutes good health care, and are indifferent so long as their departments are profitable and their marketing wizards successful as they trumpet “Care with Compassion” in TV ads, radio, and muzac on hold.

The list could go on far longer, but the theme is clear: we have as a culture become utterly self-focused, trusting no one, demanding our rights while neglecting our responsibilities, seeking to be profitable rather than professional. We have abandoned the responsibility to be patient and caring of others, forgiving of human shortcomings and humble about the limits of our abilities — a responsibility not merely of those in health care but of human beings in civil society. We have, through the dubious gift of extraordinary technological advances, industrialized our profession, and replaced a sacred covenant of commitment to the patient’s best — and its corollary of the patient’s trust in the integrity and motives of physicians and nurses — with the cold legality of contract medicine. Small wonder we are treated as fungible commodities in doctors’ offices and hospital beds. Small wonder we will be euthanized when we have exhausted our compassion quotient, dispatched by highly efficient providers delivering “Death with Dignity.”

This utter self-obsession and cynical callousness is by no means limited to health care. We long for “bipartisanship” in government (by which we hope for reasoned men of principle to come together for the good of those they represent), but get instead the blood-lust of modern politics, where power trumps principle, money is king, and votes are bought and sold like chattel. Lawyers sue everything that breathes — and much that doesn’t — raking in billions while their “victimized clients” get pocket change they can believe in. Airlines pack in passengers like cattle, lose your bags, and toss you a bag of peanuts for your trouble. Road rage is rampant, rudeness rules, rip-offs too common to count. The coarseness in culture is extraordinary — in language, art, media, fashion, and behavior. It is revealing how shocked we find ourselves when encounter someone — regardless of the venue — who is actually pleasant, helpful, courteous, and kind; we have come to expect and tolerate far worse as a matter of course.

The revolution which started in the 60s with the “me” generation is bearing its bitter fruit — though its aging proponents will never admit it. And sadly, there’s no going back: the changes which have infiltrated and infected the culture, inoculated through education, media, entertainment, scientific rationalism, and a relentless and highly successful assault on reason and tradition, are permanent, and their consequences will only grow in magnitude.

So it’s time for a counter-revolution.

There is an alternative to our current cultural narcissism with its corrosive, calloused, destructive bent. It is not a new government program, nor a political movement; no demonstrations in the street, no marches on Washington. Its core ideology is over 2000 years old, and the foot soldiers of the revolution are already widely dispersed throughout the culture.

This revolutionary force is called Christianity, and it’s long past time to raise the banner and spring into action.

The true antidote to the nihilism and corruption of the age will be found, as it has always been, in the church. It has since its inception been a revolutionary force, transforming the hopeless and purposeless anarchy of the pagan world of its infancy by bringing light, hope and joy where there was none before.

It can happen again.

The church, of course, has to no small degree been co-opted by the culture it should have transformed. From TV evangelists preaching God-ordained health and wealth to liberal denominations rejecting the core truths of their foundation and worshiping instead the god of government and humanistic socialism; from pederast priests to episcopal sodomy, Christianity in the West has whored itself to a prosperous but decadent culture. Its salt has lost its saltiness, and it has, not surprisingly, been trampled underfoot by men.

It is time to return to our First Love. It is time once again to become light to an dark and stygian world. It is time for a revolution of the soul.

We must, first and foremost, be about grace and truth. We must begin with the truth of our calling: to be holy, transformed by the power of Christ and the work of the Spirit. We are, by nature of our new birth in Christ, His ambassadors: we are to be the face, the hands, the heart, the words, the compassion of Him who saved us.

The task is enormous, yet for each of us, the steps are small, easily achievable yet enormously powerful.

It must begin with a renewed commitment to obedience and submission to Christ, a willingness to fully subject ourselves to His will, rather than trying to bend His will to ours. It means getting serious about church attendance — not merely as a consumer but as an active participant. We need to renew our devotion to prayer, to Scripture reading, study, and memorization, to fellowship with other Christians. These are simple steps which ground us in truth, and give us access to that power which can first of all transform us, then radiate out to all around us.

Then we must act like the counter-culturists we claim to be. Be patient with those who are difficult; be generous in time and money; express gratitude to those around us (when was the last time you wrote a thank you note to your doctor, your contractor, your attorney, to the manager of the store employee who helped you?). Lose the profanity; guard your tongue. Repair broken relationships, as best you can. Be joyful in difficult times, knowing that God is at work in your life despite your difficulties. Be compassionate rather than judgmental to those whose life choices are destructive or misguided. The tattoos and piercings we ridicule are cries of desperation from those hungering for purpose and meaning.

These things will not come easily to many of us who claim to be Christians, as we have become complacent in our self-gratification and comfortable compromises, fearful of being viewed as extremist or weird, rejected and ridiculed.

Get over it.

You may just find that such renewed passion for Christ and love for others might, just might, transform your life.

And you might just find that it will change the world.

Got a better idea? Good, I didn’t think so.

Let’s get started.

The Day After

We’ll be fighting in the streets
With our children at our feet
And the morals that they worship will be gone
And the men who spurred us on
Sit in judgment of all wrong
They decide and the shotgun sings the song

I’ll tip my hat to the new constitution
Take a bow for the new revolution
Smile and grin at the change all around me
Pick up my guitar and play
Just like yesterday
Then I’ll get on my knees and pray
We don’t get fooled again

The change, it had to come
We knew it all along
We were liberated from the foe, that’s all
And the world looks just the same
And history ain’t changed
‘Cause the banners, they’re all flown in the next war

I’ll tip my hat to the new constitution
Take a bow for the new revolution
Smile and grin at the change all around me
Pick up my guitar and play
Just like yesterday
Then I’ll get on my knees and pray
We don’t get fooled again

     — The Who: Won’t Get Fooled Again

Well, “The times, they are a changin’“, aren’t they?

Needless to say, I’m not very happy about yesterday’s outcome, although hardly surprised. Bad news on a number of fronts, actually — Initiative 1000 in Washington, legalizing physician-assisted suicide, has passed as well. The victors are, as we speak, celebrating the great news that “The doctor will kill you now.” How special — how very, very special.

A dark day for the culture of life, I’d have to say …

So I’ve decided — since change is in the air, or so they say — it’s time to “take a bow to the new revolution” and make some changes myself. So here’s the Change I Can Believe In™, my hopey-changitude to-do list.

First, I’ll be taking the time for some gratitude. Not for this outcome, to be sure, but for the privilege of living in a land where free choices — even bad ones — may be made, without threat or coercion. Gratitude that we will not have to endure a dozen Floridas, with hanging chads and hovering lawyers, tearing our nation to shreds in a scorched-earth scuffle for power. Gratitude that this endless election season is finally over, at least for a few months, until it starts all over again, like some endlessly-looped airport infomercial.

Next, I’ll be taking some time to mourn. Not about the fact that my guy lost, and theirs won — such is the normal stuff of electoral politics, the ebb and flow of a democracy. Win some, lose some, life goes on. Or so we hope.

No, I will mourn about deeper things than vote totals and electoral counts. Mourn about a great nation, which has lost its way and its bearings, having exchanged the moral consensus of the Founders for the moral floundering of postmodernism. Mourn about a people so easily misled by a confidence man, so quick to ignore character and embrace ephemeral visions of change with little consideration of where such change might lead. Mourn over the triumph of the superficial over the substantial. Mourn over our repeated failure to learn history’s lessons, to choose a happy illusion while a dangerous and unstable world percolates, a boiling cauldron just out of view of our blinkered and blissful myopia.

Yes, I will mourn over a once-noble nation, born in faith and self-sacrifice, now choosing death over life, frivolity over faith, pandering over productivity, selfishness over sacrifice. We will never again see, never again be what we once were.

Next it will be time to prepare. The times ahead do not look at all promising, despite hubristic boasts about changing the world and pompous claims of a new tomorrow. It is time to look hard at finances at home and in my business, to trim the frivolous and wasteful; time to stockpile basic goods and discard the worthless flotsam of years of materialistic accumulation.

Then it will be time to look at life’s priorities: work, home, family, spirituality. I plan to work hard for the remainder of the year, earning as much as possible — for in January the game changes, and I will reduce my income accordingly. I can learn to live comfortably on less — and working 60-hour weeks makes little sense when much of the fruit of that labor will be taken from me to satisfy that which is perversely called “fairness.” I plan to give more generously, take more free time, get more involved in my church, exercise more, spend more time with my wife, who has tolerated far too many years of my long hours and late nights.

Time, too, to shut out much of the noise which has become the norm. No reason to read newspapers or watch TV news — the information they provide is neither valuable nor truthful, and is best ignored, serving only to confuse and propagandize. Far too much time is wasted on the web; popular political blogs — even those with whom I agree — serve mainly to keep one’s outrage at fever pitch. Time to find those sites with thoughtful essays and content which nurtures the spirit — and be disciplined even here: it is far too easy to waste time on the urgent and entertaining while ignoring the important.

And most importantly, the spiritual: it is time to get serious, single-minded, committed. No more cheap grace. Time to tackle those strongholds of weakness which have plagued me for years; time to be honest, practice integrity with a passion, and memorize Scripture again. Time to be disciplined in prayer, daily: prayer for our President (yes, especially), prayer for our leaders, prayer for our country, prayer for revival and conversion. There is no more powerful force which we possess; it is long past time to stop treating it as a useful tool to satisfy our self-centered desires and dig in, on our knees, like our lives depend on it — which they most certainly do.

It is easy to be discouraged, to cringe at the boastful celebrations and scream in frustration at the corruption, deception, and arrogance. To do so is wasteful of time and energy — gifts far too precious to be squandered. We cannot change a corroded and corrupt culture from the outside in; the change must come from within, one heart, one life at a time. And now seems like an excellent time to start — and the best place to start is with me.

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.

In My Dreams…


 
The vice presidential debate:

Gwen Ifill: The first question tonight is directed to Governor Palin: Governor, many people have raised the issue of your experience and qualifications to be vice president, or in the event of an untoward tragedy, to act as president. How would you address these concerns?

Sarah Palin: Thank you Gwen, I’m so glad you asked that. And before we start, I just wanted to congratulate you on your upcoming book to be released on January 20, “Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama” (Smiling sweetly) That’s so exciting! You know, Senator Obama wrote a book also — in fact, he’s written two of them. And of course, I have many disagreements with Senator Obama’s positions on a wide range of issues. But I read his books, and I was so impressed, especially by his humility.

You know, Gwen, right now we have a major housing crisis. And Senator Obama has handled one of these crises while he was in Chicago. He arranged a “land for favors” swap with Mr. Rezko, which resolved a small housing crisis in that city. And he did it for a little over $1 million — that’s sure a heck of a lot less money than Congress is talking about spending! Absolutely brilliant! Yet he never once mentioned it in either of his books — now that’s humility, and I admire it.

And you know, we have an education crisis in this country as well. Senator Obama spent several years on an education reform committee, the Chicago Annenberg Challenge, with a true revolutionary in the world of education, William Ayres. Education hasn’t seen that kind of reform since the days of Karl Marx — his ideas were nothing less than explosive. Yet Senator Obama didn’t even mention this experience in either of his books. That’s humility we can work for.

You know, I’ve been working on a book myself. I don’t think it will be out before the election, but that’s the kind of experience I will bring to the White House.

I’m sorry, what was your question again, Gwen?

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.