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Last Things

By David Mills | September 2019
David Mills, a Contributing Editor of the NOR, is Editor of Hour of Our Death (www.hourofourdeath.org). He writes for several Catholic and other publications, and his “Catholic Sense” column appears in The Pittsburgh Catholic and other diocesan newspapers.

My ecumenically minded Protestant friend John Armstrong notes that we hear a lot about millennials who’ve left their churches and become “nones.” Everyone wrings their hands about losing them. But we don’t hear much about the “dones,” the baby boomers who’ve given up on their churches and often on Christianity. Most of his “done” friends still love Jesus, John says, but not the church. That would include a lot of older Catholics, I suspect.

John’s in his early 70s and he’s hard on his generation. We “inherited the benefits of the post-War prosperity and opportunity. We also inherited a Christianity that invited us into an easy commitment, a form of religion that fed our latent narcissism. The result is that many of us find the Bible inadequate, God insufficient, and church impersonal.”

He tells a grim story. Growing up with everything turns out to be bad for you. “We are still unsatisfied, looking to merely finish our lives with enough money and thus with little interest in our local churches.” Yet, “our lives of self-sufficiency have let us down. We have sought happiness as an end-in-itself and when we met challenges and struggles we felt cheated and blamed God. We are now nearing our own mortal end, and not doing well in facing death with a clear path into our eternal future.”

Their churches didn’t help. They offered programs “to satisfy us and grow the church. We realized, at some point, that our propositions of faith are not the same as real, living, loving faith. We never learned the art of transformative prayer and deep meditation in the Scriptures and upon the Word of God, i.e., the person of Christ.”

 

It’s a lasting tradition. Last month I quoted John Adams’s bemused and hostile description of a Catholic Mass he attended in 1774. Nearly 200 years later, Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas cited the book Roman Catholicism by a hyper-Calvinist crank in one of his dissents.

In the parochial schools, claimed the crank, named Loraine Boettner, “history, literature, geography, civics, and science are given a Roman Catholic slant. The whole education of the child is filled with propaganda.” Catholics want to “indoctrinate and train, not to teach Scripture truths and Americanism, but to make loyal Roman Catholics. The children are regimented, and are told what to wear, what to do, and what to think.”

Schools should teach “Scripture truths and Americanism.” Yeah…no. A typical bigot, Boettner assumes that his own beliefs are self-evidently true and virtuous. He teaches; everyone else indoctrinates. But then that’s the problem of American liberalism: It claims neutrality for its own distinctive beliefs.

 

Not every Calvinist is a crank. The great Presbyterian theologian J. Gresham Machen spoke up for the parochial schools in the 1920s. He’s best known now for his classic Christianity and Liberalism (1923), a book that gives you a the-more-things-change-etc. feeling.

“What absurdities are uttered in the name of a pseudo-Americanism today,” he said. Take that, Loraine Boettner.

The attack on the parochial schools Machen called an “attack upon tolerance in America” and an act of “tyranny.” Fair is fair. “I am for my part an inveterate propagandist; but the same right of propaganda which I desire for myself I want to see also in the possession of others.”

People object to Catholics engaging in propaganda, but why shouldn’t they? “How should we have any respect for them if, holding the view which they hold — that outside the Roman church there is no salvation — they did not engage in propaganda first, last, and all the time?”

 

A writer I know was one week attacked by traditionalists as an establishment shill and the next week found them sharing his articles, when all he was doing was trying to tell the truth. Being a centrist means no one trusts you and both sides use you.

 

A lot of people admire power, in all its forms, including wealth and fame. Especially wealth and fame. It’s one of the things that, by contrast, give you an idea what being in but not of the world means. While visiting a friend, my wife and I toured the Rockefeller Estate called Kykuit. My wife is big on historical houses.

The guide talked about the house as an artifact and the people as creators of the artifact. She seemed awed by the things and the really rich people who built the things and bought the things. I will be happy never again to hear how much JDR Jr. loved Japanese art, which we know because he bought lots of it for fabulous amounts of money.

In showing us the formal dining room, our guide went on about the famous politicians and businessmen who had eaten there (presidents, prime ministers, et al.). She ended by speaking raptly about “all those wonderful people.” If she had clasped her hands in front of her chest and gazed upwards, I would not have been surprised.

I have my doubts that any of those she listed was a wonderful person. Our hostess that weekend is a wonderful person. But someone who is merely powerful is not thereby wonderful. More likely the opposite.

 

A useful lesson for writers, scholars, teachers, and anyone else doing some kind of creative work, especially for the clever person, from a famous teacher. “It was his favorite subject and he knew it perfectly, but they had sent him to the exam for not having finished an assignment, so he knew passing it would not be easy.”

At the end of the public examination, his teacher told him he should get a ten out of ten, but he only got a nine. “This is not to punish you,” his teacher explained, “but it’s so you always remember that what matters is fulfilling your duty every day: performing systematic work without letting it become routine; building things up brick by brick rather than in a fit of improvisation that seduces you so.”

The teacher was Jorge Bergoglio, teaching at a Jesuit school in Argentina. The student, Jorge Milia, now a writer, tells the story in his memoir. “I never forgot that lesson, which I keep in mind even today, and I didn’t think they could’ve treated me more fairly.”

It appeals to me because I know well the seduction of improvisation Bergoglio warned against. A clever craftsman (writer, carpenter, plumber) can go far improvising, but eventually he screws up.

 

Perhaps helpful for reflecting on the effect of popular culture on our thinking: Dorothy Sayers wrote in 1940, “The detective market — thank Heaven — has fallen off; I say, thank Heaven, because it was getting bad for people; encouraging them in the delusion that there was a nice, complete, simple, one-and-only-one solution to everything. There isn’t. There is a solution to murder mysteries because the murder is made to be solved.”

 

A Chabad rabbi in Peabody, Massachusetts, tells of being harassed by men in a pickup truck while walking with another rabbi. The driver threw a coin out of his window and yelled at the rabbi, “Go pick up the penny, [expletive] Jew.” This kind of thing happens to him and his children from time to time.

He asks, “Why does this person hate so much? I have never met him. In all likelihood he never met an Orthodox Jew in his life.” His answer: “My only guess, and that is all it is, is a guess, is the upbringing and training.”

That’s obviously part of it. The moron’s parents were probably morons too. But I think there is a deeper, more worrisome, reason. Obviously-observant Jews don’t fit. They dress differently, they worship on a different day, they speak their own language, they see many things differently. They’re clannish and keep to themselves.

Something deep within us, within all of us unless we’ve been trained out of it, hates difference, feels it as an insult or an offense or even as treason. This may be the dark side of an affection for our own people. We demand people mark their membership in our community by looking and acting like the rest of us.

Many people will focus that hatred of difference on the people most easily identified as different. So you find, as I did once, a group of white and black people talking in full equality and perfect concord about the annoying, grasping Jews.

 

That’s one reason I find localist movements worrisome. They respond to the modern world with a vision of small, homogeneous, culturally united or uniform communities — communities that have no place for Jews. Places where the bigoted moron in the pickup truck fits in better than the learned and pious rabbi.

Picture such a place. Close your eyes. You can see the white clapboard church with its steeple, or the grey stone neo-gothic church with its stained-glass windows, the main street with its shops and eateries, the parks and the commons, and the brick schools and the neighborhoods. All lovely. All idyllic. All ideal. But you didn’t think to include a synagogue, did you?

 

We’re not so different from our Jewish brothers and sisters, especially the observant ones. Serious Christians stick out, more and more. The world conspires to make us stick out. It doesn’t always mean to. It just goes on doing what it wants to do.

The average suburban kids’ soccer league schedules its games on Sunday mornings. They don’t schedule the games to strike a blow against Christianity. It just looks like a good time for everyone. You don’t want to be that family who skips Sunday morning games to go to church, especially if your kid’s a star who can make the difference between winning and losing.

If he’s not a star, he may find himself busted back to the bench because he’s not reliable. Nothing personal. If you don’t play, you get benched. You don’t want to be that parent who dooms his child to riding the bench. Your child doesn’t want you to be that parent.

Sticking out hurts. We need to learn from our observant Jewish friends how to stick out.

 

Speaking of Chabad, it’s a movement that cares much about living the Jewish faith. They do it without being annoyingly pious. For example, one of their writers, struck by a friend’s chaste language, tried an experiment. She wouldn’t swear for a week.

She said things like “What a…greedy person” and “That was so…deliberately hurtful.” (The ellipses represent her groping for a word that isn’t profane.) She found something she didn’t expect: “Often, the new word I used was much more descriptive and illuminative than any obscenity I might have uttered.”

But she had to work at it. “Was an unsatisfactory item broken, messy, unnecessary or defective? Was an unpleasant person brusque, abrasive, condescending or rude? Refusing to swear forced me to evaluate situations with more precision and decide exactly what it was I wished to say. Soon, I relished my newfound clarity as much as my more elevated mode of speech.”

 

Whatever use the Bible has, its first use for each one of us is as a message to each one of us. It comforts, but it also challenges and even condemns. “Come to me you who are heavy-burdened,” but also “Get behind me, Satan,” depending on the day and time. Too much Christian talk is based on taking the comfort as the message for ourselves and the challenge and condemnation as the message for others.

 

Culture, writes the late sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, as commonly understood, means the way we choose to do things. In his book This Is Not a Diary, he discusses an article he read in Canada’s most influential newspaper. It reported that death from cancer “was closely correlated with [the sufferers’] income.” The poor died more often and sooner.

The newspaper and the experts it quoted explained the difference by noting that the poor smoke more than those with a lot more money. Makes sense. But they left something out, Bauman writes.

They did not mention “factors less easy to get rid of than the smoking habit — such as, for instance, chronic undernourishment and inferior life conditions, or just the absence of the money a thorough therapy would certainly require.” For the newspaper and its experts, “it was the ‘culture of the poor,’ that is the cultural precepts chosen by the poor, that were guilty of killing them more often and more promptly.”

Bauman calls this “culturalism,” and he doesn’t like it. It’s the belief that the different fates different groups suffer can be explained by the different choices each tends to make. There’s obviously something to that.

But, as he notes, what the “culturalists” leave out is the reality that “the dice might be loaded.” The “sets of options confronting different categories, and among which they are realistically able to choose, might have been varied well before the question of individual choices arose.”

People are the creatures of cultures and imaginations and worldviews but also of material circumstances, including laws. The conservative mistake is to exaggerate the effects of the first and reduce everything to a “worldview” or a “spiritual” issue. The liberal mistake is to exaggerate the effects of the second and treat culture as a kind of decoration and not as a foundation.

 

My friend John Armstrong, with whom I began, is an interesting thinker. He was a friend of Francis Cardinal George and spoke with him at a Wheaton College event — that is, he brought a Catholic into Evangelicalism Central. His latest book is Costly Love: The Way to True Unity for All the Followers of Jesus, with a foreword by Joseph Cardinal Tobin. He created The Initiative (www.theinitiative.org) to promote what he calls “missional ecumenism.”

 

A lesson in holiness, from Evelyn Waugh’s biography of St. Edmund Campion. Campion was an enormously gifted young man who could have risen to the top of the English establishment had he not become a Catholic and then a priest and been martyred (brutally) for it. Waugh is writing of a fellow student of Campion’s named Tobie Matthew, who seems to have been the other superstar student at Oxford.

“A splendid career lay before him,” Waugh writes. “He became Canon of Christ Church four years later; in 1572, at the unusually early age of twenty-six, he was made President of St. John’s [college], where he set himself to release the college from its obligation to receive poor scholars elected from the Merchant Taylors [school]; four years later he was Dean of Christ Church, later Vice-Chancellor [of the university]; from there he turned to the greater world, became successively Dean and Bishop of Durham, and, finally, Archbishop of York.”

Matthew was well liked, did what he was expected to do, and married a very well-connected woman. While Campion went round England with the police at his heels, knowing he’d be tortured to death when (not if) they caught him, as they did, and he was, Matthew rose and rose and rose, all the way to the very top of the English establishment. “Tobie Matthew died full of honours in 1628. There, but for the Grace of God, went Edmund Campion.”

 

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