Pronouncing blessings is a sign that our humanity is present. There is nothing religious– overtly or implicitly– about the following video (by Improv Everywhere, in New York); but in another way it is nothing but deeply religious, as people offer spontaneous benedictions on one another. Enjoy.
Part of the balance that religious realism gives us, is the reminder that life is transitory and fragile. There are, still, only 168 hours every week. This is a helpful reminder to princes, paupers, and all of us in between– a reminder to be humble and thankful for the gift of daily bread, for the gift of human and divine forgiveness, and for the gift of any intimation– no matter how small– that the Kingdom of God is here now already, if not yet in fullness.
Religion in the Balance will be taking a 10-day break, out to San Francisco and Yosemite. In preparation, I loved this somewhat dark–yet realistic–assessment of dangerous trees, from the National Park Service:
While the National Park service seeks to identify and remove threats due to hazard trees, trees without apparent defects also fail and tree hazards cannot always be immediately identified and mitigated; several catastrophic tree failures have left visitors seriously or fatally injured in Yosemite…. Be aware of your surroundings, especially away from developed areas, and keep in mind that some trees may fail at any time. (emphasis added)
Give thanks for the day.
EJ Dionne, another thoughtful and balanced observer of American culture, has a trenchant (love that word) commentary in Commonweal about the debt crisis, and the growing failure of politicians to provide leadership. An excerpt, and the link, are below.
We expect too much of our politicians, but even the minimum that we can expect– some semblance of seriousness– is missing. That’s a problem, but it’s hardly– sorry to say– new.
It’s my contention– and will remain my contention until I change my mind– that the problems and challenges we face here in the early 21st century are better addressed by artists, psychotherapists, theologians, and prophets than by politicians. In other words, our problems and challenges are more about spirit and meaning, than they are about law and policy.
EJ Dionne writes:
The first week of August 2011 will be remembered as a singularly irrational, wasteful, and shameful moment in the political and economic history of the United States. It reflected much of what is wrong with the priorities of our political elites and the obsessions of those who now hold effective veto power over our government….
From Religion Clause:
Monks Win Constitutional Challenge To Louisiana Limits On Selling Caskets
In St. Joseph Abbey v. Castille, a Louisiana federal district court ruled that Louisiana’s Embalming and Funeral Directors Act cannot constitutionally be applied to prevent a Catholic monastery from selling simple wooden caskets that it manufactures. The Louisiana law provides that only licensed funeral directors may engage in the retail sale of caskets, and they may be sold only at licensed funeral establishments.
The court held that the restriction violates the due process and equal protection clauses because the licensing requirements are “not rationally related to public health and safety concerns.” Instead, “the provisions simply protect a well-organized industry that seeks to maintain a strict hold on this business.”
via Religion Clause.
Last winter I had the opportunity to hear and interact with Imad Moustapha, the Syrian ambassador to the United States. This preceded the beginning of the unrest in that country, and the recurring violent response of the Assad government. Since that opportunity last winter, I have periodically checked the ambassador’s blog (simply google “Syrian ambassador” if you want to find it), just to see if he has been able to write anything new for public consumption.
His last entry– and it has been his last entry for awhile now– is dated March 25th, 2011 (just after the initial government crackdown on protesters in Daraa). In it, Imad reflects on the teachings of the 8th-century Muslim thinker Al-Kindi. Islam grew in the early centuries after Muhammad; in its openness and confidence it was able to engage Hellenistic ideas, and Al-Kindi’s thought reflects that engagement. Al-Kindi’s teaching on suffering– to which Imad gives his approval– is to cultivate a detachment to the world of ephemera. This detachment is to be cultivated in response to the old wisdom that everything of this world will rust and rot and pass away. What is permanent (a la Plato) is the world of ideas: consequently, intellectual contemplation is the way around suffering. The world of the intellect– from this perspective– is unchanging, and endures.
Yesterday the Assad regime received a rebuke from the U.N. Security Council. According to some human rights organizations, 2000 citizens have been killed by Syrian security forces. Apologists for the regime counter that such a response has been necessary for two reasons: first, Syrian security forces themselves have been violently attacked, and therefore need to defend themselves; and second, radicalized Islamic groups have infiltrated the protesters and are taking advantage of the unrest to promote deeper instability.
While those mitigating factors are probably true to some degree, it’s not clear that they would justify the kind of force that the government has used. And further, even the Syrian ambassador admits that the Assad regime has made mistakes in its response to the events of the last 5 months.
The choices of the Assad regime are not straightforward. What is straightforward, however, is that a regime that cannot be in solidarity with the suffering of its people is not just. It may survive through the use of overweening physical and psychological coercion, but it risks reaping what it has sown.
Here is an excerpt of Imad Moustapha’s reflections on Al-Kindi:
Al-Kindi rightly argues that it is not rational or natural to expect permanence and endurance of things. If we want to acquire and keep sensible things without them perishing, we are expecting from nature something that is unnatural and does not exist.
However, al-Kindi is not advocating a life of asceticism to avoid sadness; he is suggesting that we should be stoic about what is ‘good’ and what is ‘bad’ in life. Thus we should accept good things graciously when they arrive, but never break our hearts when they depart. This is not nonchalance, it is a rational moral position that needs vigorous mental training and inner-self discipline ‘mujahadat al-nafs’. Unnecessary sorrow can be avoided by cultivating moral courage and detachment. The reasonable person is content to enjoy temporary things but does not grieve over what is lost.
Al Kindi wrote that stability and constancy, by necessity, only exist in the world of intellect, which we can contemplate. Therefore, if we do not want to lose the things we love and do not want to be frustrated in obtaining things we seek out, we must contemplate the intellectual world and, from our conceptions of what we love, possess and want from that intellectual world. Hence, he refers to those who are able to resist grief over the loss of cherished things as men of intellect, while those who do grieve are described as men of weak intellect….
Andrew Bacevich is a thinker I admire. The essay (excerpted below) appears in August’s Commonweal, and is another in Bacevich’s line-up of penetrating critiques of our culture– and especially of our triumphalism. Like theologian Douglas John Hall (click here for a link), he calls our triumphalism for what it is: the false bravado of a (mostly unconscious) desperate, fearful society that has cut its ties to its moorings, and floats perilously in the chaotic seas of post-modernity.
Difficult to remember as we walk down aisles of sumptuously overstocked grocery shelves, is the saying (variously attributed), that any society is only three meals away from a revolution. While jarringly dramatic, the saying points to the anxiety that nips at us humans: our awareness that life is fragile; that the line between meaning and meaninglessness is thin; that chaos is always lurking at the edges of civilization. The barbarians are at the door, and they are us.
At the risk of oversimplification, I think it is fair to say that part of Bacevich’s argument– and, more fully, Douglas John Hall’s– is that Western Christian religion (with notable exceptions, to be sure) has been complicit in creating our present predicament. Institutional Christian religion has done this by accommodating, supporting, and legitimizing the political, technological, and economic powers that have gotten us to this point. To be fair, it was an honest mistake: the blessing and glory of human progress certainly seemed to coincide with God’s very own blessing and glory. What Christianity forgot (and this is more Hall than Bacevich), is the cross– and all of what being a disciple of that God means.
Commonweal is a Catholic publication, so Bacevich appropriately refers to Catholicism. With some important qualifications, we can read “Western Christianity” where he writes “Catholicism”:
Confronting the twentieth century, Catholicism stood fast. This was its mission: church as bulwark against the disorders afflicting the age. The excitement of Vatican II (I was a teenager when the council convened) derived from the sense that the church possessed a hitherto unsuspected capacity to adapt its witness. Rather than merely standing in lonely opposition, the church intended to engage—and then redeem—modernity.
Catholics in the twenty-first century find it increasingly difficult—perhaps impossible—to sustain any such expectations. The problem is not simply that the institutional church today stands dishonored and discredited, but that it has misconstrued the problem. The ramparts it persists in defending—a moral order based on received, permanent truth—have long since been scaled, breached, and bypassed, and have fallen into ruin.
What went wrong? The great American historian Henry Adams—dead nearly a hundred years—offers a more cogent answer to that question than any we are likely to hear from Rome. Recalling his return to New York City after a lengthy stay in Europe in “The Education of Henry Adams,” the historian rendered this verdict: “The two-thousand-years failure of Christianity roared upward from Broadway,” a panoply of false gods clattering in its wake. That failure had created a vacuum. The heresies that were filling that vacuum filled Adams with foreboding.
Worse, he could see no reason to consider Christianity’s demise as anything other than definitive and irreversible. Yet a century later we remain largely oblivious to its implications. We still don’t understand what hit us….