The Joy of Reading

It’s been a long time since I’ve been with my friends the water-rat, the mole, the toad, and the badger. Last week I decided to enter into their world again with Kenneth Grahame’s classic. Almost immediately after opening the pages of the book (or to be more precise, pressing play on my tablet, but that doesn’t have the same ring to it), a euphoric joy settled upon me. There is something so cozy, homey, and familiar about their world, which is very much like our own. At the same time, their world is sufficiently different from ours to infuse the latter with a sense of the marvelous, enabling one to approach everyday life with a new splendor and clarity. I come away from The Wind in the Willows seeing the real world–and all the interesting characters I am privileged to know within it, whose idiosyncrasies are just as fascinating as those of the four friends–with fresh appreciation.

It’s sometimes hard to find others who share my joy of reading–not to find others who enjoy reading, mind you, but others who derive this same type of joy from books that I’ve been describing (and which is not limited to The Wind in the Willows). Anyone can understand how spending time with the water-rat and mole might be entertaining, but few people understand why my life is enriched and my soul expanded each time I enter into their world. So imagine my delight when HarperOne published a book that exactly describes the joyful experience of reading in all the contours and particularities that I feel.

The book is an anthology of C.S. Lewis’s observations about reading, drawn from his corpus of books, essays, and letters. Titled, The Reading Life: The Joy of Seeing New World Through Others’ Eyes, the book shows Lewis as a kindred spirit who understands how the joy of reading is organically connected to its ability to enlarge the soul, to clarify one’s vision of the world, and to deliver one from the parochialism of the self. I’m listening to the book on audio but ended up purchasing a hard-copy just to track down one particularly insightful quote. The quote is from p. 34-35 of The Reading Life and originally appeared in Lewis’s essay ‘On Three Ways of Writing for Children’

“…fairy land arouses a longing for he knows not what. It stirs and troubles him (to his life-long enrichment) with the dim sense of something beyond his reach and, far from dulling or emptying the actual world, gives it a new dimension of depth. He does not despise real woods because he has read of enchanted woods: the reading makes all real woods a little enchanted.” C.S. Lewis, The Reading Life: The Joy of Seeing New World Through Others’ Eyes, p. 34-35

Further Reading

Cultural Formation and Conservative Values

In the age of Trump and an increasingly Neomarxist Republican Party, it can be helpful to pause and remind ourselves what it means to be conservative. Catholic poet and philosopher, James Matthew Wilson, offered just such a reminder in his 2017 book The Vision of the Soul: Truth, Goodness, and Beauty in the Western Tradition.

For Wilson, there can be no recovery of conservative values without a recovery of beauty. Moreover, he argues, there can be no lasting conservative renaissance if cultural formation is overlooked in the lust for institutional success.

Wilson observes that even as the political right has been on the rise since the time of Reagan, institutional success has not run parallel with cultural formation. Rather, political conservatism has restricted itself to an increasingly narrow range of issues disconnected from the formation of the next generation.

“So wide was this chasm between institutional success and cultural formation, that most of the children raised in the age of Republican ascendancy have arrived at adulthood with, perhaps, their explicit political principles informed by a vague belief in free markets and low taxes, but with their imaginations and sensibilities entirely formed on the mass cultural excretions of music, film, and television–and their cultural politics in turn molded by that sensibility.”

Further Reading

Letting go of Troubled Thoughts

I’ve started reading The Mystical Marriage: Spiritual Life According to St. Maximos the Confessor, translated and edited by Archimandrite Maximos Constas. I was struck by the following words from Archimandrite Maximos’ Introduction.

To love God is something that comes naturally to us, it is something that is part of our deep and inalienable nature. In order for us to realize and experience this love, we need only stop our mind from wandering, let go of our troubled thoughts, and silence our inner noise and turmoil, at which the reality of God will come rushing towards us, a reality that has been rushing toward us from all eternity, though we are too distracted to see it. The more we empty our mind, the more it will be naturally filled with the presence and love of God, who pours Himself out to us to the extent that we open our hearts to Him.”

Letting go of our troubled thoughts! Creating space in our minds for God to dwell! These are keystones of the spiritual life, but how hard it can be in our age of constant distractions and noise.

Archimandrite Maximos Constas expands on this in his talk “Our Thoughts and Mental Health: an Orthodox Perspective.” In this talk he offers practical advice for dealing with distractions and silencing the inner noise and turmoil. The talk is so good that I try to listen to it at least once a year.

Alfred the Great’s England

Alfred the Great

Alfred the Great

When I was writing my book Saints and Scoundrels, one of the most fulfilling chapters was my chapter on Alfred the Great. I have been fascinated by King Alfred (849-899) ever since I was a boy and read the famous story about him burning the honey cakes. But what impressed me the most when researching for my chapter was the extent to which King Alfred laid the foundation for modern England.

Although King Alfred is considered one of the early kings of England, in actual fact England did not exist in the ninth century. Alfred was the King of Wessex, which was one among a number of small Saxon Kingdoms at the time.

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Wisdom from St. Basil the Great

“As for those things that are of service to you in this temporary life, do not regard them as great. Through concern about these things do not neglect the life that comes first for you, but be attentive to yourself, that is, to your soul. Adorn it and take care of it, so that all the filth befalling it from wickedness may be removed through attention, and all the shame due to evil may be cleansed away, but adorn and bright it with all the beauty that comes from virtue.” St. Basil the Great

 

Identity Politics

We’ve been hearing a lot recently about the problems with “identity politics,” but what exactly is this pernicious ideology? The simplest explanation is that identity politics makes a person’s particular group paramount, so that group-identity forms the lens through which to view political issues or make policy decisions.

Identity politics draws heavily on certain variants of postmodernism which sees all of us trapped in micronarratives that define us and prevent intelligible interaction across our ideological divides. (I have discussed this in my article, ‘John Milbank and the Life of Pi.’) Society becomes reduced to a battleground among competing among groups, who are locked in a zero-sum battle for power.

Identity politics has been a growing concern in the political left ever since Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937), and later the Frankfurt School, reinterpreted Marxism to no longer be about economics but about power. The resulting “social Marxism” no longer divides society into economic classes, such as proletariats and bourgeoisie, but instead divides society into various group identities, such as race, gender, sexuality, religion, etc. (I have discussed the history of social Marxism in my article ‘The “Quiet Revolution” of Cultural Marxism.’)

A toxic mix of identity politics, postmodernism, and social Marxism, now dominates the humanities departments of most universities, as Rod Dreher has been documenting at The American Conservative. The result is that it is impossible to look at history, religion, literature, culture, and art, without these disciplines becoming fodder for ideology and politicization.

Although identity politics has largely been limited to the political left, it has seen a precipitous rise among right-wingers in the United States since around the middle of this decade, as I discussed in my article ‘The Republican Retreat to Identity Politics.’ Whereas left-wing identity politics owes itself to post-war social Marxism, the new right-wing identity politics comes from the long re-mapping of American conservatism in the post-cold war era, having recently been fueled by the rise of left-wing identity politics, unsustainable immigration, political correctness, and virulent attacks against Judeo-Christian culture.

Politicians who have succumbed to identity politics see little problem pigeon-holing individuals into belief-patterns based on their group identity, on the assumption that someone’s skin color, ethnic origin, gender, or sexual preferences ought to determine their political beliefs. For example, last year Democrat Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts went on television and announced,

“We don’t need any more brown faces that don’t want to be a brown voice. We don’t need black faces that don’t want to be a black voice. We don’t need Muslims that don’t want to be a Muslim voice. We don’t need queers that don’t want to be a queer voice.”

Responding to Pressley’s comments in Tablet Magazine, journalist James Kirchick observed that her identity politics differs little from classic racism:

“Insisting that someone with a ‘brown’ or ‘black’ face must endorse a set of ideological precepts (presumably dictated by Ayanna Pressley)—in other words, that one’s skin color ought to determine how one thinks and acts—is textbook racism.”

Pressley was not an isolated case. Pigeon-holing people based on race is now routine within corporate America thanks to equity policies. The basic idea behind equity policies goes something like this: the different races all have their own perspective; therefore, in order for our corporation to have a access to all the perspectives, we need to put policies in place that enforce racial stratification. This theory might make some sense if members of each racial group thought and acted as a uniform block, but this is far from the case. As Jordan Peterson observed in an interview, “It’s such a pernicious philosophy because it’s predicated on the idea that the way someone thinks is inextricably tied with their group identity.” In another interview he warned that dividing people up into groups leads to “an enhancement of our tribal proclivities.”

Peterson’s point about tribes is crucial. Human beings have always struggled with the polarity between the tendency to break up into competing tribes, on the one hand, and the tendency to control social division through totalitarianism, on the other. Historically, nations avoid these extremes by being held together by common memories, customs, symbols, myths, legends, and strong social institutions that act as a hedge against both tribalism and totalitarianism. In its most rigorous and consistent form, classical liberalism de-emphasizes or ignores these deep-seated cultural-symbolic underpinnings of civil society and attempts to secularize the public life, often migrating transcendence to the claims of the state. This creates a dangerous vacuum in which citizens find themselves without the basic building blocks of national cohesion. This inevitably results in human beings looking to their most basic and primitive bonds for cohesion, thus reverting to a raw tribalism. A secular and materialistic society offers little scope for the type of roots that humans innately long for, while the isolated individualism of Western capitalism leaves humans without a sense of healthy community. All of this creates a dangerous vacuum in which it becomes easy to start looking to race and ethnicity to fulfill our need for identity and inner cohesion. The reason this is dangerous is because every time a nation goes down this road, thousands to millions of people have died. If the West continues this dangerous experiment with identity politics, it is only a matter of time before blood begins flowing in the streets.

Further Reading

Calvin’s Dual Teleology

From ‘From Calvin a Nominalist? (Part 3)

“Within Calvin’s theological metaphysics, God’s sovereignty becomes acutely fragile, threatened by anything that might undermine the creational and soteriological monergism on which it precariously hinged. The result is that instead of God and nature being related analogically, there is a univocal freedom and a univocal glory that must be partitioned out between God and creatures. A concomitant of this nominalist dialectic is that meaning and teleology no longer reside in things themselves but are imposed from outside in ways that involve explicit incongruities. The incongruities arise at the point in which the divine will-acts, now broken down into separate modes, offer a competing teleology to the same object simultaneously. For example, the distinction between God’s revealed will and His hidden will forced Calvin to set in opposition the teleology that is normative for an object with the teleology that God ultimately wills for the same object. With respect to God’s revealed will, the telos of each and every individual includes eternal union with Him, but with respect to God’s hidden will, the telos of certain individuals includes eternal disunion with Him. (And by the way, this dual-telos is a necessary consequence of Calvin’s system regardless of whether one maintains he was a supralapsarian or an infralapsarian, and regardless of whether one holds that Calvin believed in single predestination or double predestination.) However, since God reveals Himself to humankind in terms of the first mode while relating to humankind in terms of the second, a radical discontinuity is set up between God as He is and God as human beings experience Him, between appearance and reality. Accordingly, the telos that is universally normative for all persons (i.e., that the final end of all men is to be united with Him) achieves its normativity purely through God naming it to be such, even though this naming-activity remains dislocated from the actual telos of God’s hidden will (i.e. that it is not the final end of all persons, but only some, to be united with Him). However, since Calvin could not completely abandon the quest for teleological unity, the hidden generally takes precedent over the revealed will, with the latter being reduced to mere accommodatio.”

Fred Rogers vs. Oprah Winfrey

In an interview for NBC’s TODAY, Tom Hanks talked about his role in the film A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. Sharing what he had learned from playing children’s TV celebrity Fred Rogers (1928-2003), Hanks summed it up by commenting, “It’s good to talk, it’s good to share the things we feel.”

For many children in the last half of the twentieth century, watching Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood may have been the only place they encountered the idea that emotions are okay.

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