Saturday, April 18, 2015


Is that the word?  I think so.

It was almost exactly a year ago that I said I'd try to post here every couple of weeks, and I've mostly been able to keep that up--without, I hope, appearing to talk for the sake of talking.

It looks like a very busy time is coming up, so I've decided to stop posting here till mid-summer or so.  Hope the "happy few" will be looking in again then when I hope to have a little more leisure.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Grundkurs & Catechismus

Having just completed Rahner's Grundkurs des Glaubens I think it appropriate to make a few closing comments.  Earlier posts can be found on April 12 and November 9 of last year.

After finishing the book I remembered that I had actually owned a copy of the English translation, Foundations of Christian Faith, in the late 1980's, but that, for whatever reason, I never started it and in fact eventually gave it away.  I also acquired, some few years later, a Rahner anthology (I think it was called A Rahner Reader) which I occasionally picked up, but which I got very little out of and also gave away.  I'm a little puzzled myself about why I now find compelling what I first found simply daunting, then pedestrian.

The closing substantive sections of the book cover Church, Christian life, and eschatology.  I think it goes too far to call them "conventional."  I myself didn't enter the Catholic Church until after the book was first published in the late 1970's, and Rahner's influence in the Church had long been felt (if rather controversially) since the convening of the council.  Perhaps it's more accurate to say that the latter part of the book largely presupposes the grand ambition inherent in the earlier chapters' development of human transcendence and its subsequent link with the self-mediation of God in history.

Surely thousands of theological books have been published over the last half century.  Rahner's Grundkurs, though, has credibly been claimed as the great Catholic Summa of the twentieth century; that is, a work that tries to integrate post-Cartesian European philosophy--up to and including the ontology of Martin Heidegger--with the Catholic faith, in the same way that St. Thomas Aquinas integrated the newly-revived philosophy of Aristotle. 

Respecting that goal it seems to me that it achieves a high level of success.  And, as an old philosophy major, I found it a very rewarding and provocative re-statement of the claims and core of the Catholic faith.

On the other hand, when I look out into contemporary popular culture, I don't see a lot of anxiety about keeping the faith current with Heidegger.  Even "existentialism," a term that still excited my generation, has become old hat, a matter for history, not concern and engagement.  What matters now is sexual ethics.  That's what's dividing ancient communions, causing the shouting matches, marching forward or backward in churches, legislatures, and courts.  Next to Sex, Existence has lost its luster.  Everything in time ages.

In the last, brief section, Rahner unexpectedly takes up the subject of concise statements of faith, citing the Apostle's Creed as the prime example, and asks whether, and how, the material he has developed could go into such a statement.  He detours into the question of a catechism, and concludes that such a thing would be fruitless because of the plurality of cultures among which the contemporary Church lives, and ends by concisely restating what he considers his fundamental assertion, under three different aspects, which he finally, neatly, correlates to the persons of the Trinity.

Now what I find interesting about this conclusion is the middle part, the skepticism about the possibility of a catechism.  In fact, as is well known, a universal catechism was published roughly ten years after Rahner's death, the original French text in 1992, the final, official Latin version in 1997.  Rahner was right that it couldn't be concise; the Latin version runs a few hundred pages longer than Grundkurs des Glaubens.

The Catechism, the first to come out of Rome since the Counter-Reformation, is not simply a compendium of doctrine and ethics.  It is not a treatise, an argument, a systematic development of ideas, as Grundkurs is, but it's not without its rhetorical aspect; the very organization suggests a systematic whole, beginning with a mutual seeking, man for God, God for man.

So in some sense, the two volumes provide a suitable epitome of late 20th century Catholicism, first through the eyes of the critical philosophical theologian, then as the careful exposition of the curial magister.

I often think that the actual function of magisterial authority in the Catholic Church is misunderstood.  For me it's well-described by a slogan I first came across in freshman Economics, as applied to regulating the money supply:  The better your brakes, the faster you can drive your car.

I see the perennial conflict between theologians and bishops as one of the strengths of the whole structure.  The Church has excellent brakes, and those brakes, Dottrina Fide primarily, in the eyes of outsiders, make the institution appear oppressive.  But that, I think, is what allows thinkers like Rahner to flourish.  It's not a comfortable place to be, and I need not list the other names, fairly well known, of those who left rather than remain subject to magisterial supervision.

Still, I admire a John Courtney Murray, who was silenced for a considerable period, but who provided the foundation for a revolution in Church/State and ecumenical relations in the decrees of Vatican II that took up where he left off.  Even more can I admire someone like Pierre Teillard de Chardin, who was never allowed to publish his theological reflections in his lifetime, but remained obedient, became rather wildly popular after his death, and whose work has even been praised (if guardedly) by former Pope Benedict XVI.  For myself I have many doubts and questions about the work of Teillard de Chardin, but in some ways I see that the "brakes" of the magisterium allowed his "wild surmise" to develop, sub silentio, and bear fruit over a longer period of time than any individual's natural desire for success, fame and recognition might allow.

But yes, I digress.  As to Grundkus and the Catechismus, I think we can prize them, together, as a dialectic of "pushing the envelope" and "protecting the envelope," so that it still conveys the message the Church was founded to proclaim.  The first without the second might consume itself; the second without the first would petrify.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Pericles' Funeral Oration, paragraph 3

Χρώμεθα γὰρ πολιτείᾳ οὐ ζηλούσῃ τοὺς τῶν πέλας νόμους, παράδειγμα δὲ μᾶλλον αὐτοὶ ὄντες τισὶν ἢ μιμούμενοι ἑτέρους. καὶ ὄνομα μὲν διὰ τὸ μὴ ἐς ὀλίγους ἀλλ' ἐς πλείονας οἰκεῖν δημοκρατία κέκληται· μέτεστι δὲ κατὰ μὲν τοὺς νόμους πρὸς τὰ ἴδια διάφορα πᾶσι τὸ ἴσον, κατὰ δὲ τὴν ἀξίωσιν, ὡς ἕκαστος ἔν τῳ εὐδοκιμεῖ, οὐκ ἀπὸ μέρους τὸ πλέον ἐς τὰ κοινὰ ἢ ἀπ' ἀρετῆς προτιμᾶται, οὐδ' αὖ κατὰ πενίαν, ἔχων γέ τι ἀγαθὸν δρᾶσαι τὴν πόλιν, ἀξιώματος ἀφανείᾳ κεκώλυται. ἐλευθέρως δὲ τά τε πρὸς τὸ κοινὸν πολιτεύομεν καὶ ἐς τὴν πρὸς ἀλλήλους τῶν καθ' ἡμέραν ἐπιτηδευμάτων ὑποψίαν, οὐ δι' ὀργῆς τὸν πέλας, εἰ καθ' ἡδονήν τι δρᾷ, ἔχοντες, οὐδὲ ἀζημίους μέν, λυπηρὰς δὲ τῇ ὄψει ἀχθηδόνας προστιθέμενοι. ἀνεπαχθῶς δὲ τὰ ἴδια προσομιλοῦντες τὰ δημόσια διὰ δέος μάλιστα οὐ παρανομοῦμεν, τῶν τε αἰεὶ ἐν ἀρχῇ ὄντων ἀκροάσει καὶ τῶν νόμων, καὶ μάλιστα αὐτῶν ὅσοι τε ἐπ' ὠφελίᾳ τῶν ἀδικουμένων κεῖνται καὶ ὅσοι ἄγραφοι ὄντες αἰσχύνην ὁμολογουμένην φέρουσιν.

"Our constitution does not copy the laws of neighbouring states; we are rather a pattern to others than imitators ourselves. Its administration favours the many instead of the few; this is why it is called a democracy. If we look to the laws, they afford equal justice to all in their private differences; if no social standing, advancement in public life falls to reputation for capacity, class considerations not being allowed to interfere with merit; nor again does poverty bar the way, if a man is able to serve the state, he is not hindered by the obscurity of his condition. The freedom which we enjoy in our government extends also to our ordinary life. There, far from exercising a jealous surveillance over each other, we do not feel called upon to be angry with our neighbour for doing what he likes, or even to indulge in those injurious looks which cannot fail to be offensive, although they inflict no positive penalty. But all this ease in our private relations does not make us lawless as citizens. Against this fear is our chief safeguard, teaching us to obey the magistrates and the laws, particularly such as regard the protection of the injured, whether they are actually on the statute book, or belong to that code which, although unwritten, yet cannot be broken without acknowledged disgrace."

This passage introduces us to the idea of Athenian "democracy," not as "rule of the people, " which I suppose would be "demarchy," but "power (or force ) of the people," because it is "for" ("ἐς'') the many rather than the few.  It boasts of an equality of opportunity in public life that is claimed absolutely, but which we would immediately discount because of the exclusion of slaves and women (the exclusion of foreigners and children from public life we still pretty much observe).  It is, in short, more directly participatory than our own "democracy," but with a considerably smaller percentage of the population participating.

There is also the assertion that this social equality in government ("πρὸς τὸ κοινὸν ," "regarding the common") also applies to ordinary life, ("ἐς τὴν πρὸς ἀλλήλους τῶν καθ' ἡμέραν ἐπιτηδευμάτων,"daily pursuits with respect to each other").  This freedom may be offensive, but it isn't lawless, for two reasons:  first, because of the legal protection against injury, and second, because of the disgrace attending the breaking of unwritten codes.

When we think of the legal protection against injury we immediately think of our own system, whereby civil wrongs, or torts, are redressed, for bodily injury, or injury to reputation.  The Greek notion is probably a little broader.  The phrase used, "ὅσοι τε ἐπ' ὠφελίᾳ τῶν ἀδικουμένων κεῖνται ," "whatever is owed as a result of injustice," has a rather broader meaning than we would normally expect, I think.  To take one example, from Douglas MacDowell's The Law in Classical Athens, there was a legal penalty for the commission of hybris, which is "indulging in conduct which is bad, or at best useless, because it is what he wants to do, having no regard for the wishes or rights of other people,"--in other words, in misusing energy or power self-indulgently.  Now admittedly the evidence MacDowell cites is later than the Age of Pericles--from Aristotle and Demosthenes.  But I think that it illustrates the often-overlooked differences between the freedom (and indifference) of our mass societies and the considerably greater expected social conformity of smaller, self-contained communities like Athens.  Plainly Plato, who associated the execution of Socrates with Athenian democratic tendencies, didn't find the Periclean balance satisfactory. 

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Daniel Auteuil's Marcel Pagnol

I didn't know Marcel Pagnol by name until last year, though I had seen a couple of film adaptations of his work in the eighties--"Jean de Florette" and "Manon of the Spring."  Lately, having picked up an interest in Provence, I have taken a more particular interest in his work.

Pagnol's life coincided with the first three quarters of the last century.  His stories are set in Provence in the time of his childhood, in Marseilles, or inland, among the dry hills.  He was a playwright, novelist and filmmaker, though I've neither seen his own films, nor read any of his written work.  I therefore know him only through more contemporary film adaptations, the above-mentioned "Jean de Florette" and "Manon of the Spring," as well as "My Father's Glory," "My Mother's Castle," "The Well-Digger's Daughter," "Marius" and "Fanny."  

I understand that he is not so popular as he once was.  No existentialist, or nihilist, or structuralist, his work mostly celebrates the working peasantry and the petty bourgeoisie.  It's not all sunny, of course.  The heartbreaking "Jean de Florette" reveals just how very cruel a peasant maliciousness can be (comp. Hugo's mauvais pauvre).  But his plots typically follow the usual conventions of romantic melodrama:  infatuation, obstacles, dilemmas, and resolution, not always satisfactory.

Not too long ago I was re-watching "The Graduate," and was a little taken aback (as I shouldn't have been) by the fact that suddenly, it seemed, I was identifying, not with Benjamin, but with his parents (but not, I hope, with Elaine's).  Romance has a different cast from the parental perspective, and that's part of what struck me about these films.

Daniel Auteuil directed the three most recently-made films, "The Well-Digger's Daughter," "Marius," and "Fanny."  In all three films he also plays the widowed father of one of the romantic leads--the father of Patricia in "The Well-Digger's Daughter," the father of Marius in "Marius" and "Fanny."  Perhaps it was because he was directing himself, or perhaps it was because of my own age and role, but in all three films there was a pronounced sense of the joys, and fears, and conflicting demands on the paterfamilias--the urge to protect children (even those who have left childhood), the need to let them pursue their own separate ambitions, the vicarious happiness of anticipating their happiness, and the memory of one's own navigation of the uncertain waters of youth.

These stories are set in a conventionally-simpler time, in a setting that many would find idyllic--the landscapes of Provence, the Mediterranean seascape of Marseilles.  They have been mediated to us by Cezanne and Van Gogh, and arguably rendered irresistibly picturesque by the likes of Peter Mayle.  But the characters are real, and upon their actions and decisions hang happiness or misery, however quaint the setting or breathtaking the cinematography.

And the society is more traditional, more provincial, probably more patriarchal than our own.  But I don't have the problem with tradition that many have, and, far from seeing patriarchy as a thing evil in itself, I tend (as a pater myself) to see patriarchy as a power coupled with a responsibility, a kind and protective thing when used rightly, though unimaginably destructive when abused, or abusing.  One of the unexpected revelations in "Fanny" is the discovery that the old man who offers to marry her, whom we naturally imagine an old lecher, turns out to be motivated, himself, by a paternal instinct:  though a "rich man" in his own circle, he is sad and disappointed that he has no child himself.

 Pagnol in fact followed up "Fanny" with a third story, "César," the name of Auteuil's character, Marius' father.  Auteuil is supposed to have it in the works.  I will be looking for it.      

Saturday, February 21, 2015


In Dickens' Bleak House there is a chapter in which we learn that poor Caddy is engaged to a young man named Prince Turveydrop.  Prince is neither here nor there, but his father, the elder Mr. Turveydrop, is a quintessential Dickens character, a man with little learning or ability, but renowned for his astonishing deportment, which he nurtures with all the strength of his being.

It's a term I'll admit I found a little vague on the occasion of meeting Mr. Turveydrop, and which I continued to find vague on taking leave of him--a kind of absurd propriety, an affected grace, a superiority of manners.

The memory of this character (and characteristic) was revived on the occasion of my beginning Douglas Southall Freeman's R.E. Lee.   The eighteen-year-old Lee is from a good family, but his father, Henry "Light-Horse Harry" Lee, has died abroad after impoverishing his second family through improvident speculation.  Lee sees his best chance in a military career, and, in pursuit of an appointment to West Point, has the following recommendation send to the then-Secretary of War, John C. Calhoun.

Robert Lee was formerly a pupil of mine. While under my care I can vouch for his correct and gentlemanly deportment. In the various branches, to which his attention has been applied, I flatter myself that his information will be found adequate to the most sanguine expectations of his friends. With me he has read all the minor classics in addition to Homer & Longinus, Tacitus & Cicero. He is well versed in arithmetic, Algebra & Euclid. In regard to what he has read with me I am certain that when examined he will neither disappoint me or his friends.
W B Leary

What caught my eye was the prominence of the first recommended trait:  "his correct and gentlemanly deportment."  It is one of those small distinctions that confirmed my decision to finally begin Freeman's biography.

I like to read all sorts of history and literature, and it is satisfying to find, in so traveling to the past, both a common humanity and significant differences.  In fact, one of the great pleasures of reading about, say, classical antiquity, is in the dim perception of their own self-understanding, wholly innocent of the considerable train of events that has formed ourselves after the intervening ages.

 It's a paradox of this kind of reading that, just as I am often surprised at how little has changed over the millennia, I am still surprised by how much can change in just a few generations.  In some ways Freeman's Lee, and Freeman himself, seem very, very far away.

My interest in Lee is somewhat personal.  I am a Southerner by birth, if not much by inclination.  I attended a Robert E. Lee High School.  Like many, many Southern towns, the first high school was named after the city, the second, after Robert E. Lee (or Jeff Davis or Jeb Stuart).  The burden of the loss of the Civil War was still quite real when I was growing up, and left many traces, some of them quite ugly.  Defeat was humiliating, the cause was hardly anything to brag about, the aftermath was devastating, and the former slaves, if freed, were kept in subjegation by laws that were beginning to be set aside when I was born, but which left a poisonous social and economic legacy.

Robert E. Lee was singled out, however, as a figure who somehow embodied the virtues of the defeated South.  If he was a slaveholder, he was a reluctant one, no worse, at least, than Washington or Jefferson.  He opposed secession, and took up arms not so much against the Union as in defense of Virginia, which, we tend to forget, had a claim to loyalty that has all but vanished this last century.  He was a gentleman and an outstanding soldier, and, in defeat, he made reconciliation his priority.  His life has something of the dignity of tragedy, and his commitment to ideals even then vanishing, an odd combination of chivalry and Jeffersonianism, lends him a touch of Don Quixote.

I had, in high school American history, a teacher, Bob Wyche. who was a notorious eccentric, and a huge Civil War buff.  He was a very good teacher, whose particular enthusiasms I never adopted, but whose love for and dedication to learning from the past I never lost sight of.  I remember him excitedly playing for us a tape of Douglas Southall Freeman discussing the historian's work, the careful sifting and organization of evidence, a voice whose surface flatness only slowly revealed the satisfaction of uncovering historical truths, and communicating them for posterity.  So I have always had a notion to one day read Freeman.

And I find much value in reading him.  He was a journalist, not a professional historian.  Like many biographers, he much admired his subject, and didn't seek to conceal that admiration.  He was, nevertheless, careful to qualify its implications:

For more than twenty years the study of military history has been my chief avocation. Whether the operations have been those of 1914‑18, on which I happened to be a daily commentator, or those of the conflict between the states, each new inquiry has made the monstrous horror of war more unintelligible to me. It has seemed incredible that human beings, endowed with any of the powers of reason, should hypnotize themselves with doctrines of "national honor" or "sacred right" and pursue mass murder to exhaustion or to ruin. I subscribe with my whole heart to the view of General Lee that had "forbearance and wisdom been practised on both sides," the great national tragedy of 1861 might have been prevented. If, in this opinion, I have let my abhorrence of war appear in my description of Malvern Hill after the battle, and in a few indignant adjectives elsewhere, I trust the reader will understand that in these instances I have momentarily stepped back on the stage only because I am not willing to have this study of an American who loved peace interpreted as glorification of war.

Some will object to a description of Lee as "an American who loved peace."  But Freeman takes Lee at his word, and he may not be wrong to do so.

The biography itself can perhaps best be described as possessing a certain "gentlemanly deportment."  Here is Freeman on the scandal that destroyed the career of Lee's older half-brother, Henry:

Impoverished and embittered, Henry Lee had tried to make a living by writing. By inheritance he was a Federalist, but he had become a protagonist of Andrew Jackson. He had resided at "The Hermitage" after the sale of Stratford, had been engaged in arranging Jackson's military papers, and had written several polemic in behalf of "Old Hickory." Jackson found these last to be indited in a temper that matched his own and he felt much gratitude to Lee. When he became President, he named his defender United States consul to Morocco. It was a vacation appointment, which Lee was very glad to accept. He left the country for his post, only to find that he left a storm behind him. His wife had a younger sister, co-heiress to her father's estate. In some way, Henry Lee became enamoured of her and had been guilty of misconduct with her.

"Guilty of misconduct."  This reticence is characteristic.  We are left in no doubt as to what happened, but we are allowed no unsavory details.  It is an old-fashioned approach, exactly appropriate to the temper of its subject.  If it gives us less than the three-dimensional man, one can reasonably respond that what we today conventionally consider the whole man may be nothing more than our post-Freudian speculations.  Arguably, Freeman delineates the legend.  But the legend is set out strictly on the basis of the facts and the documents.  It could be criticized as selective history, were it not for the fact that all history is selective.  We never, and can never, reproduce the whole.    

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Calvin and Wahhabis

Recent events have gotten me thinking about Islam and the extremists whose crimes keep putting it in the news.

It's odd to to remember a time when Islam per se wasn't perceived as a significant global issue.  As a kid I followed the Arab/Israeli conflict, the black-and-white images of the Security Council on television during the Six-Day War, and recall, being young, the mild surprise at seeing the armies deploying in tanks rather than chariots.

But Islam had nothing to do with it.  The world was about the cold war, and all conflicts, as I understood them, were proxies for the struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union. Israel represented the United States, and Egypt, and its allies, stood in for the Russians (who had built that dam, and moved those statues that were always showing up in My Weekly Reader).  Yes, a lot of that understanding was a child's selectiveness, but I think that that was also the way the networks and the papers tended to carry it.

So, in my lifetime, the first appearance of Islam as a challenge to the "West" came in the aftermath of the Iranian revolution.  I remember "Down with the Shaw" demonstrations beforehand, and was vaguely aware that the discontent of Iranian ex-pats in the U.S. was directed, too, at our government, which apparently had been hand-in-glove with the Shah for too long a time.  The hostage crisis and the emergence of the Ayatolla Khomeni as supreme leader introduced a new element:  extremist Islam, fanatical Islam, jihadist Islam  And this new, threatening face of Islam had a name:  Shi'ism.  The Shi'ites were different from the other Muslims.  They broke international law.  They mocked the immunity of ambassadors.  They demanded that women wear the chador.  And they called us the "Great Satan."  Iran became the new Cuba--the irreconcilable country.

All that was well and good, but the end of the cold war in 1991 was still the real news.  That got even serious people talking about an "end of history"--until the end of history ended with the bringing down of the World Trade Center.

There had been, of course, no cessation of violence, by all sorts of violent and marginal figures (including home-grown ones, like the Oklahoma City bomber).   But in one terrible day Muslim extremism come to the fore with new names and faces--Al Qa'eda, Bin Laden, Taliban.  And all of a sudden--at least to a casual observer--the baton had been passed from Shi'i radicalism to Sunni radicalism, to the heirs of Muhammed Ibn 'Abd al-Wahhab--the Wahhabis.

These were names wholly unknown to me in 2001, and remaining so for years thereafter.  Just this last month I finally got around to starting a biography of al-Wahhab, and learning how directly his movement promoted the rise of the House of Sa'ud in the Arabian peninsula.

What was unexpected, in reading through this material, was the parallel with puritanism in Christianity.  Please don't get me wrong.  This is simply a matter of noting certain interpretive parallels between movements in two different religions.  It is not about asserting some sort of equivalence between Christianity and Islam, or between puritanism and Wahhabism, but of understanding how certain interpretive approaches can operate in different religions.

In a previous post I had contrasted the Islam of the fourteenth century, as found in the travel writing of Ibn Battutah, with the Islam of ISIS, which some Western journalists habitually mis-characterize as "medieval."  Medieval Islam had much in common with medieval Catholicism:  intercession with God provided by recognized saints and living holy men; pilgrimages to shrines and tombs of the saints; traffic in amulets and protective objects; a distinctive sacred architecture and art; schools of religious law and philosophy; mystical fraternities; recognized hierarchies of religious authority; and the kind of reverence for the foundational sacred writings that made popular, direct recourse to them, if not formally forbidden, discouraged.

It was in the late eighteenth century that al-Wahhab began preaching his new, rigorous version of Islam.  It was based, fundamentally, on an unprecedentedly broad understanding of shirk, the forbidden association of any god, person or object with the one supreme God.  For al-Wahhab all veneration of Islamic holy men, living or dead, was forbidden, as was seeking their intercession.  Veneration of their tombs, and traffic in and use of amulets, was utterly unacceptable.  Though al-Wahhad was himself most closely associated with the rigorist Hanbaliyya school, he denounced all schools of law and systems of theology and philosophy, especially insofar as they in fact operated as illegitimate intermediaries; their great crime was that, in asserting that the Qur'an needed expert interpretation, they dared to subordinate it to their own assertions.  Needless to add, al-Wahhab denounced the mystical way of Sufism, and considered Shi'ites as worse than idolaters.

Now it is sometimes said that the problem with contemporary Islam is that it has not yet gone through a "Reformation," and that if it would do so it would lose its militant edge.  I now tend to think, on the contrary, that the Wahhabist movement, far from being a "medieval" throw-back, constitutes in surprising detail a counterpart to the Protestant reformation:  a denunciation of saints, intercession, pilgrimages, shrines, pictures, mysticism, sacred brotherhoods, and necessary interpretive hierarchies, all based in a need for the individual Muslim to go to God directly, and an ability to do so by means of direct engagement with the Qur'an.  It is sola scriptura in another key.

We tend to forget that the Protestant reformation, far from bringing peace and tolerance to Christendom, initiated an unprecedented age of Christian-on-Christian violence.  My own patron saint, Thomas More, got his head cut off by fellow Christians, and the violence of the English reformation was rather modest compared with, inter alia, the Wars of Religion in France, and the Thirty Years War that devastated central Europe during the first half of the seventeenth century.  Religious tolerance came to Europe, not through any triumph of one or the other party, but in the exhausted realization that none could win by force of arms.

And something similar, I think, is going on now in Islam.  There is, to be sure, an anti-Western, anti-Christian component, that stems from a distinctive Western imperialist domination of the middle east and the Maghreb for the last couple of centuries.  That does indeed fuel much of the resentment.

Nevertheless, most of the violence is Muslim-on-Muslim.  The "reformed" ideology of al-Qaeda and ISIS makes most of the world's Muslims believers in name only.  The aggression initiated by al-Wahhab was not against the West; it was against what he considered the pseudo-Islam of the Ottoman sultans.  And the great political  achievement of the Wahhabist movement was it adoption by the House of Sa'ud.  The Saudi's successful conquest of the two holy cities and their fabulous, if fortuitous, oil wealth made Saudi Arabia a uniquely powerful entity in both the Islamic world and the wider geopolitical sphere of first, second and third worlds.

It is there perhaps that we see one of the greatest differences between Calvinists and Wahhabis.   The puritans were, by intent or default, republicans.  Their churches had no pope, no bishops.  Their churchmen cut off the head of one king, the unfortunate Charles I, and laid out a theological framework for representative government in Switzerland, Scotland and the American colonies.  That record is rather distinctive from the Wahhabist promotion of the Saudi monarchy.

But I wonder, when I peruse Calvin's letter to Francis I, which prefaces his Institutes of the Christian Religion, whether the puritan opposition to kings would have been quite so vehement, had any king of note and staying power taken up the Calvinist banner.  For both Calvin and Wahhab (as, indeed, for Lutheran and for Catholic), the form of secular power is subordinate to the religious message, and will be judged as godly or Satanic not on its own secular merits, but to the extent that it serves and promotes the religious message.

And the point of all this?  To perceive, I hope, some common currents and common human reactions to different approaches to what we hold as most dear.  I hate the fact that Islam is almost only spoken of in light of its most extreme adherents.  I hope that even my slight familiarity with the Islamic "canon," and slight acquaintance with contemporary Muslims, prevent my confounding the fringes with the mainstream.

I, after all, as I've noted before, grew up Presbyterian, a member of a church that at one time shook all of Christendom, both religiously and politically.  I was a good Presbyterian, but by the mid-twentieth century Calvinism was no longer a creed to shatter thrones and cause nations to tremble.  So, just as the rigor and zeal of Calvin is no longer a troubler of a broader Christian peace (and no obstacle to a wider mutual tolerance), so also the Wahhabist approach to Islam may, after inevitable failure to obliterate its Muslim rivals, takes its place in the Muslim world as a distinctive practice which is nevertheless able to live and let live.

If we live that long.  


Monday, January 12, 2015

Eras and Titles

The practice of dividing time into discreet eras goes back a long way.  The Greeks were already talking about the Age of Gold and Age of Silver in what we now call Classical Antiquity.  The eras are always somewhat arbitrary, but useful for keeping the exuberance of the past in manageable and memorable pigeonholes.

It was the mention in the last post of the English historian Eric Hobsbawm that got me to thinking about this use of "ages" and "eras."  Hobsbawm was a true and lifelong disciple of Marx.  And with Marx (as with St. Augustine), history has a meaning, each age having its own particular role and responsibility in the procession of time.

The four volumes I am thinking of I purchased from the Folio Society back in 2005.  They share a common format, and sit in a handsome single slipcase, emblazoned with a series title, "The Making of the Modern World."

But Hobsbawm didn't mean, at first, to write a four-volume account of recent history.  As is so often the case, one thing led to another, and we are now fortunate to have the the following:

The Age of Revolution, 1789-1848
The Age of Capital, 1848-1875
The Age of Empire, 1875-1914
The Age of Extremes, 1914-1991

These are books I can heartily recommend.  God knows I'm no Communist, but I honestly know of no series that compares for conveying the sense of breathtaking change that has overwhelmed the world these last few centuries.  One need not share Hobsbawm's Marxist hopes to get caught up in the drama of this story.

And yet I come back to those titles--especially the incongruity of the last one.  Marxist history, as I said above, has a definite shape.  Class conflict gives rise to revolution, then to a new orientation of class relationships, based on newly emerging forms of the means of production.  The nineteenth century form, bourgeois industrial capitalism, begins to crack when untrammeled competition forces it to make increasingly crushing demands on the industrial proletariat.  Lenin's assertion that imperialism is the final last stage of capitalism then gives a plausibly Marxist rationale for capitalism's unexpected reprieve, the interval in which the entire world is roped into the system.

So far, so good.  We have in the titles of Hobsbawm's first three volumes the three stages that Marxism-Leninism considers the prelude to the triumph of socialism.  So why, I wonder, was the last volume not called The Age of Socialism.

After all, the period chosen encompasses, almost exactly, the lifespan of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the first and most powerful of the "workers' states," and the unchallenged leader of the international Communist movement.  This period also sees the rise of the British Labour Party, the adoption of social democracy and the welfare state as the predominant form of government in Western Europe, and, even in the resisting United States, a vast expansion of the regulatory apparatus and the so-called "safety net":  social security, mandatory unemployment insurance, the federal reserve, medicare, and the like.  And fascism?  We tend to forget that fascism was not an ideology of laissez faire capitalism or material consumption, but a corporate and centralized movement for collective effort;  we overlook the fact that Hitler's "Nazism" was short for "National Socialism."

So why didn't the next stage in Marx's schema, which fits so well the world of 1914-1991, supply the title to Hobsbawm's last volume?  Perhaps because it wasn't supposed to end that way...or even end at all.  There is a certain sense to the Marxist eras.  But history is not that clean or precise.  Socialism, though denied in name, is a growing omnipresence.  But revolutions have not ceased.  Capitalism and imperialism, far from being abolished by socialism, aufgehoben out of existence, seem to be getting along quite well with socialism.  Our syntheses are much muddier than the Hegelian-Marxist model might suggest.

This should not be a surprise.  The future doesn't, and ought not, to yield so easily to our scrutiny.  "No man knows the day or the hour."  We really, really realize that the future is, essentially, surprise.  Thus our own "Age of Anxiety," as we wonder where the next wonders, the next disasters, will arise.