Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Morally Homeless


THE PRESENT POSITION of the Bright Young Thing, or Brilliant Young Cynic of a hard and realistic epoch, is so heartrendingly sad and pitiable that aged sentimentalists can only gaze at it through floods of senile tears. The cynics themselves, of course, do not believe in sentiment, but they embody a most poignant example of pathos….

Oddly enough, it is the same people who always teach us, in their Outlines of History and Encyclopaedias of Everything, that everything is always getting better and better, and that even our most miserable contemporaries are more happy than their fathers—it is these same people who always tell us that one slip in modern diplomacy, or one falsehood in modern journalism, may precipitate a towering and toppling horror of torture and panic far worse than anything the world has ever known before. It might well be asked, with a certain abstract curiosity, why our civilization must produce the very worst in the way of war, if it must produce the very best in the way of everything else….

Here, again, the brilliant modern is bringing in as modernity something that was rather like one of the antics of antiquity; he is rushing back to his ascetical grandfather to escape from his romantic father. And the confusion in both cases is due to the same pathetic quality in his whole position. He is staggering about from century to century, because he has no real standing-ground of his own; and he has no standing-ground because he has destroyed anything on which he could stand….  

As we should be genuinely sorry for tramps and paupers who are materially homeless, so we should be sorry for those who are morally homeless, and who suffer a philosophical starvation as deadly as physical starvation.

Not only is it true that some of the most modern philosophers are only trying to prove that we cannot have a philosophy; it is even more true that the most modern among the physical scientists are only trying to prove that science is not physical. It would be even truer to say that some of them are trying to prove that science is not science. For science is only an old word for knowledge; and knowledge is exactly what some of the new scientists say we can never obtain. All this, right or wrong, has left that generation in an unprecedented degree unprepared with any axioms on which to act, or any tests on which it could really rely. And it is especially awkward, when the young man who has never learned anything except how to hate his own father and grandfather, is suddenly called upon to love all men like brothers.


-G.K. Chesterton:  As I Was Saying, XI.

Monday, February 19, 2018

From "The Naked Public Square"



In a democratic society, presumably, the public business is carried on in conversation with the actual values of people who are the society. In a survey of North Carolinians in the 1970s, seventy-four percent agree with the statement: "Human rights come from God and not merely from laws." . . . North Carolinians may be more "traditional" than other Americans on these scores, although there is no reason to assume that. One suspects, rather, that there is among Americans a deep and widespread uneasiness about the denial of the obvious. The obvious is that, in some significant sense, this is, as the Supreme Court said in 1931, a Christian people. The popular intuition is that this fact ought, somehow, to make a difference. It is not an embarrassment to be denied or disguised. It is an inescapable part of what Bickel calls the "tradition of our society and of kindred societies that have gone before." Not only is it tradition in the sense of historic past; it is demonstrably the present source of moral vitalities by which we measure our virtues and hypocrisies.

The notion that this is a secular society is relatively new. . . . In a democratic society, state and society must draw from the same moral well. In addition, because transcendence abhors a vacuum, the state that styles itself as secular will almost certainly succumb to secularism. Because government cannot help but make moral judgments of an ultimate nature, it must, if it has in principle excluded identifiable religion, make those judgments by "secular" reasoning that is given the force of religion. . . .

More than that, the notion of the secular state can become the prelude to totalitarianism. That is, once religion is reduced to nothing more than privatized conscience, the public square has only two actors in it--the state and the individual. Religion as a mediating structure--a community that generates and transmits moral values--is no longer available as a countervailing force to the ambitions of the state. . . .

No, the chief attack is upon the institutions that bear and promulgate belief in a transcendent reality by which the state can be called to judgment. Such institutions threaten the totalitarian proposition that everything is to be within the state, nothing is to be outside the state....

In recent decades, "pluralism" has become something of a buzzword. It is variously employed. Often it is used to argue that no normative ethic, even of the vaguest and most tentative sort, can be "imposed" in our public life. In practice this means that public policy decisions reflect a surrender of the normal to the abnormal, of the dominant to the deviant. Indeed it is of more than passing interest that terms such as abnormal or deviant have been largely exorcised from polite vocabulary among the elites in American life. The displacement of the constitutive by the marginal is not so much the result of perverse decision makers as it is the inevitable consequence of a polity and legal system in which the advantage of initiative lies with the offended....

The legitimacy of law in a democratic society depends upon the popular recognition of the connections between law and what people think life is and ought to be....

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Prodigal Son



Return of the Prodigal Son
Date: 1667 - 1670



11 Then He said: “A certain man had two sons. 12 And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the portion of goods that falls to me.’ So he divided to them his livelihood. 13 And not many days after, the younger son gathered all together, journeyed to a far country, and there wasted his possessions with prodigal living. 14 But when he had spent all, there arose a severe famine in that land, and he began to be in want. 15 Then he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country, and he sent him into his fields to feed swine. 16 And he would gladly have filled his stomach with the pods that the swine ate, and no one gave him anything.

17 “But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger! 18 I will arise and go to my father, and will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you, 19 and I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Make me like one of your hired servants.”’

20 “And he arose and came to his father. But when he was still a great way off, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and fell on his neck and kissed him. 21 And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight, and am no longer worthy to be called your son.’

22 “But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet. 23 And bring the fatted calf here and kill it, and let us eat and be merry; 24 for this my son was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ And they began to be merry.

25 “Now his older son was in the field. And as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 So he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. 27 And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and because he has received him safe and sound, your father has killed the fatted calf.’

28 “But he was angry and would not go in. Therefore his father came out and pleaded with him. 29 So he answered and said to his father, ‘Lo, these many years I have been serving you; I never transgressed your commandment at any time; and yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might make merry with my friends. 30 But as soon as this son of yours came, who has devoured your livelihood with harlots, you killed the fatted calf for him.’

31 “And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that I have is yours. 32 It was right that we should make merry and be glad, for your brother was dead and is alive again, and was lost and is found.’”

Luke 15:11-32

The Prodigal Son

Young man—
Young man—
Your arm’s too short to box with God.


But Jesus spake in a parable, and he said:
A certain man had two sons.
Jesus didn’t give this man a name,
But his name is God Almighty.
And Jesus didn’t call these sons by name,
But ev’ry young man,
Ev’rywhere,
Is one of these two sons.


And the younger son said to his father,
He said: Father, divide up the property,
And give me my portion now.


And the father with tears in his eyes said: Son,
Don’t leave your father’s house.
But the boy was stubborn in his head,
And haughty in his heart,
And he took his share of his father’s goods,
And went into a far-off country.


There comes a time,
There comes a time
When ev’ry young man looks out from his father’s house,
Longing for that far-off country.


And the young man journeyed on his way,
And he said to himself as he travelled along:
This sure is an easy road,
Nothing like the rough furrows behind my father’s plow.


Young man—
Young man—
Smooth and easy is the road
That leads to hell and destruction.
Down grade all the way,
The further you travel, the faster you go.
No need to trudge and sweat and toil,
Just slip and slide and slip and slide
Till you bang up against hell’s iron gate.


And the younger son kept travelling along,
Till at night-time he came to a city.
And the city was bright in the night-time like day,
The streets all crowded with people,
Brass bands and string bands a-playing,
And ev’rywhere the young man turned
There was singing and laughing and dancing.
And he stopped a passer-by and he said:
Tell me what city is this?
And the passer-by laughed and said: Don’t you know?
This is Babylon, Babylon,
That great city of Babylon.
Come on, my friend, and go along with me.
And the young man joined the crowd.


Young man—
Young man—
You’re never lonesome in Babylon.
You can always join a crowd in Babylon.
Young man—
Young man—
You can never be alone in Babylon,
Alone with your Jesus in Babylon.
You can never find a place, a lonesome place,
A lonesome place to go down on your knees,
And talk with your God, in Babylon.
You’re always in a crowd in Babylon.
And the young man went with his new-found friend,
And bought himself some brand new clothes,
And he spent his days in the drinking dens,
Swallowing the fires of hell.
And he spent his nights in the gambling dens,
Throwing dice with the devil for his soul.
And he met up with the women of Babylon.
Oh, the women of Babylon!
Dressed in yellow and purple and scarlet,
Loaded with rings and earrings and bracelets,
Their lips like a honeycomb dripping with honey,
Perfumed and sweet-smelling like a jasmine flower;
And the jasmine smell of the Babylon women
Got in his nostrils and went to his head,
And he wasted his substance in riotous living,
In the evening, in the black and dark of night,
With the sweet-sinning women of Babylon.
And they stripped him of his money,
And they stripped him of his clothes,
And they left him broke and ragged
In the streets of Babylon.


Then the young man joined another crowd—
The beggars and lepers of Babylon.
And he went to feeding swine,
And he was hungrier than the hogs;
He got down on his belly in the mire and mud
And ate the husks with the hogs.
And not a hog was too low to turn up his nose
At the man in the mire of Babylon.


Then the young man came to himself—
He came to himself and said:
In my father’s house are many mansions,
Ev’ry servant in his house has bread to eat,
Ev’ry servant in his house has a place to sleep;
I will arise and go to my father.
And his father saw him afar off,
And he ran up the road to meet him.
He put clean clothes upon his back,
And a golden chain around his neck,
He made a feast and killed the fatted calf,
And invited the neighbors in.


Oh-o-oh, sinner,
When you’re mingling with the crowd in Babylon—
Drinking the wine of Babylon—
Running with the women of Babylon—
You forget about God, and you laugh at Death.
Today you’ve got the strength of a bull in your neck
And the strength of a bear in your arms,
But some o’ these days, some o’ these days,
You’ll have a hand-to-hand struggle with bony Death,
And Death is bound to win.


Young man, come away from Babylon,
That hell-border city of Babylon.
Leave the dancing and gambling of Babylon,
The wine and whiskey of Babylon,
The hot-mouthed women of Babylon;
Fall down on your knees,
And say in your heart:
I will arise and go to my Father.

James Weldon Johnson

Saturday, January 20, 2018

When the Tumult Goes Silent


Imagine a man in whom the tumult of the flesh goes silent, in whom the images of earth, of water, of air and of the skies cease to resound. His soul turns quiet and, self-reflecting no longer, it transcends itself. Dreams and visions end. So too does all speech and every gesture, everything in fact which comes to be only to pass away. All these things cry out: 'We did not make ourselves. It is the Eternal One Who made us.' And after they have said this, think of them falling silent, turning to listen to the One Who created them. And imagine Him speaking. Himself, and not through the medium of all those things. Speaking Himself. So that we could hear His word, not in the language of the flesh, not through the speech of an Angel, not by way of a rattling cloud or a mysterious parable. But Himself. The One Whom we love in everything. Imagine we could hear Him without them. Reaching out with speeding thought we come to Him, to the Eternal Wisdom which outlasts everything. And imagine if sight of Him were kept available, while all lesser sights were taken away. Think of this encounter, seizing, absorbing, drawing the witness into the depths of joy. Eternal life would be of a kind with this moment of understanding.

- from The Confessions of Saint Augustine, ca. 400  AD