Martyrdom… or Blasphemy?

This is my farewell to Eusebius. I’ve now finished the Loeb edition of his Ecclesiastical History that was in my possession… and my sanity, which has taken so many hits in recent years, might not have remained intact if I’d had another twenty pages to go.

I had intended to type out a few paragraphs of my author’s pious bellyaching over the Montanist (or “Thracian”) bid to steal the A Team’s thunder by churning out its own prophets and chatterers-in-tongues. I find that I lack the spiritual stamina, however, to complete that scholarly exercise: I already feel a fit of psychic vomiting dangerously near.

The early church, you see, appears to have been riddled with such controversies as these even as a roomful of pre-schoolers bristles with fights over who gets first dibs on the Silly Putty. “My speakers-in-tongues did it before yours, and they’re not possessed by putrid diabolical vapors carrying noxious lies and blasphemous filth!” One would have hoped for more, especially at a time when those who professed the faith might truly be arrested, tortured, and brutally executed. Usually such treatment separates the wheat from the chaff. In this era, it seems to have brought the slag to the top.

For rival cells of Christians were competing even over who had the most martyrs and whose martyrs suffered the most hideously: if the printing press had been around, I’m sure we would have seen Martyr Bubblegum Cards with stats for number of hours on the rack and number of lions in the arena. Most of Eusebius’s evidence for this wrangling appears in Book 5; earlier books (some of which I mentioned in previous posts) portray the “faithful” vying to see who can starve himself the most, survive with the least sleep, and abstain from all forms of sex with the greatest fervor. (Some of these cultists went so far as to castrate themselves, though I do not recall any reference to them in Eusebius.)

One of the difficulties of getting old is the volume of disillusionment which you must absorb as you acquire a modicum of wisdom. I had always pictured the early church as illumined by genuinely devoted souls still close to the source of their spiritual ignition. Now I find it a miracle that the later church was able a) to survive the miasma of cultic fanaticism that immediately descended upon the faith, and b) to crystallize eventually into an uplifting belief system. Eusebius’s translator Kirsopp Lake appends a note to one of the final pages about how a glancing mention of Aristotle and the Platonists points the way to certain influences upon that crystallization. Of course, the mention in the Greek text was a sneer, charging the classically instructed with rank heresy.

Constant, inviolable honesty; fearlessness in advocating the truth paired with humility about one’s shortcomings as an advocate; imperviousness to worldly threats and applause alike; inexhaustible generosity to the weak sheathed in ringing denunciations of those who encourage weakness for selfish profit… such are the qualities (among others) of the ideal Christian. That this paradigm, within a few generations, should have decayed into verbal warfare about whose followers had thrown themselves before more freight trains is depressing on a colossal scale.

And my “freight train” metaphor is less tropological than you might think; by the merest of coincidences, I also happened to hear—for the first time in my life—of the “circumcellions” this past week. This Heaven’s Gate of yesteryear would send its followers out with blunt clubs to attack Roman soldiers, the objective being to irritate armed men of war sufficiently to get oneself impaled on spears or swords and “exit this life in martyrdom”.

It’s worse than lunacy: it’s blasphemy, of the real variety. To transform a holy message into the pretext for a suicidal ego trip… how loathsome. Again I say, Don’t show me how many pieces your martyrs were torn into before they expired: show me how you yourself handle the dreariness of earning your bread every day, the challenge of resisting advancement offered on condition of duplicity, and the fearful task of providing a model to young children. Show me how you live, not how you die.

Like Don Quixote, I Am Who I Am

A few months ago, when word of an impending high school reunion reached me, I marveled that so many people would want to reassemble after so many years. What was to be gained from it all? I for one (I wrote in this very space) am not remotely the same person now as I was in the Mesozoic Era. Why would you get a bunch of strangers together in a room for the purpose of pretending that they know each other, or of wondering how they happen not to know each other any longer, or of imitating what they once were to play out some long-forgotten game, or of otherwise spending hours and hours in a really unwholesome caricature of nostalgia?

Well, the emails continue to come as the event draws nearer… and I’ve stumbled upon a new realization. For me, the problem isn’t that I’m no longer that boy of all those years ago; it’s that I am precisely that boy. I’ve never changed, and I never will. I rather doubt that any of us ever really, substantially changes. We learn to insulate ourselves better from the risks entailed by our temperament; we learn to impersonate better the manners of whatever group we decide upon joining; but as for deep change… in myself, at least, I just don’t see it.

I can remember feelings that I had far back in childhood—and it hits me that I feel things the same way today. I recall, as a boy of about seven or eight, looking out from a treehouse early on a sunlit Saturday morning… looking across the neighbor’s back yard, across an old highway and a railroad track, far into a field of waving wild grass and a distant forest’s line that quickly dissolved into blue sky; and I recall, more than anything, the pain of that moment. It was as if I understood just then that I longed for something unspeakably beautiful and uplifting, and that I either wasn’t going to find it in this world or wasn’t going to have the strength to reach it.

At seven years old, I got a glimpse of how difficult life would prove for someone of my chemistry—and I knew, somehow, that I wasn’t just looking at a field.

I didn’t understand my classmates that lifetime ago, and they didn’t understand me. I wouldn’t understand them now, either, and they wouldn’t understand me. I intend no reproach here, and certainly no condescension. I could say that it’s as much my fault as theirs, or more my fault… but there’s no fault at all involved, really. It’s how things are. I’m put in a daze by things that people seem to enjoy en masse: cheering sideline participation at a football game, tipsy merriment over a round of drinks, the camaraderie of risqué jokes and endless reminiscences. I’m visiting another planet at those times—and I’m not at all comfortable there.

I have no other explanation. Where most people find enjoyment, I’m just not at home.

My initial error about the reunion was to suppose that people would look at me now and see what I was then, almost half a century ago. The truth is that they would see exactly what they saw then, which was no more what I really was then than what I really am now—but that my appearance would be a fully accurate distortion, now as it was then, given the filter through which I would be viewed. And maybe I just don’t want to be reminded of how much I stick out. It isn’t particularly pleasant, though I make no apologies and will undertake no correction. I’m okay with how God made me. I’m just not going out of my way to gather evidence, for the umpteenth time, that the mold was a very odd one. I’ll pass.

The Decline and Fall of Christianity in Denver (II)

I’m going to have to parse my verbs and decline my pronouns very carefully here. The Denver minister at my son’s church whom I wrote about last is probably a fine human being; and when he proceeded in the second half of his sermon (having flailed himself and the rest of us for a “white guilt” over events in which we played no part) to an appeal for contributions to feed hungry Dominican children, his heart was certainly in the right place. Even on such solid terrain as this, however, one may still stumble.

Query: if charity does more for the giver’s soul than for the recipient’s, as the preacher rightly maintained… then do we need an inexhaustible supply of recipients to keep our souls moving in the proper direction? If we cannot find truly needy people, like the hungry children of the Dominican Republic, will we not proceed to create a “suffering class” to uplift? And is there not a risk that this class may in fact grow to have no realistic need?

For instance, is it healthy or spiritually improving to designate a certain race as disadvantaged so that we may shower its members with freebies and continually feel good about ourselves thereby? At some point, wouldn’t we really be showing more charity not to pass out free goodies… say, wide-screen TV’s and smartphones? Sure, our self-image prospers from the deal… but what about spiritual growth in the victims of our generosity?

Query: if the impoverished residents of a certain nation massively immigrate—legally and otherwise—to our shores in order to partake of our wealth, and if we throw open our doors to all comers (legal and illegal) in the spirit of charity, then are we not aiding and abetting the abusive government of their native land? Do we not deprive that land of the movers and shakers who might make it a better place, and even bolster its arrogant ruling elite by allowing expatriate workers to send their paychecks back home? Isn’t this a version of the Malthusian dilemma, where you feed a hundred thousand in this generation so that a million in the next may starve?

Query: if God sees that the charitable prosper, then is that prosperity of a material sort? Really? How many of this church’s young parishioners left the sanctuary actually believing that their gross income would rise if they “adopted” a Dominican child during the food drive? Material resources are not unlimited: shouldn’t the faithful, especially the naïve among them, be made to understand that the prosperity in question is unlikely to be monetary? (And in any case, wouldn’t they be motivated by the wrong objective if they gave under that illusion?) On a related matter, should a young person take a well-paying job so that he may dedicate more of his income to charity… or should he, rather, seek out a job of lesser salary that satisfies him more and brings him into a more productive spiritual contact with the human community? I’m sure the minister would endorse the latter option… but how many of his young congregants understood this?

That’s my problem with such churches: the impression they create upon those of minimal experience with real life. The stupefying music that I wrote of puts them in a daze before the first word is spoken from the pulpit; then they are exhorted to take a collectivist approach to racial issues, viewing themselves as guilty of a KKK rally just because their skin tone is light. How, in that frame of mind, are they expected to respond to an appeal to feed starving children? Hopefully, they will respond with great generosity; but my true question here is, what concept of charity are they acquiring? Might they not be embarking upon a life of “search and destroy” charity, where they desperately need to find “needy” people lest they despair of their soul’s health? Is this not the precise analogue of the white person who needs to find a person of color to hug so that he may feel the poison of racism drain from his being?

And does not all of this disjointed, impulsively emotional thinking play right into the designs of the centralized nanny state, where what you earn is not really yours, where certain groups designated as underprivileged have a right (backed by legal force) to your possessions, where the ruling elite advances from guaranteeing food for all to medicine—and then entertainment, and then happiness—for all, and where the national debt plunges into such a chasm that only those same elite cynics survive the eventual riots in the streets?

To see the Christian church devolve into the handmaiden of an irrational (and irreverent) secular utopia in this manner is terribly disappointing and worrisome. The young, particularly, are the lambs being led to the slaughter.

Burgess Owens, W.E.B. Dubois, and the Arrogant Do-Gooder

Burgess Owens is an American of African descent who distinguished himself as a professional football player in his youth and, more lately, has achieved prominence for resisting the statist plantation where black people are supposed to spend their lives. He’s an extraordinary man from an extraordinary family. I’ve often wondered how a people who suffered so much from the institution of slavery could deliver themselves so willingly to the patronizing clutches of a Big Government machine promising to do every little thing for them. Believe it or not, several of the old folks who had been born into slavery and were interviewed by WPA social workers in the Thirties recited the mantra, “Things were better in slavery days.” That is, if their owners were reasonably humane, they had housing, clothing, food, medicine… all the essentials provided for them by Master. (A lot of these interviews are available now as free Kindle downloads.)

Owens doesn’t want any magnanimous patron making “life decisions” on his behalf. He feels the way I do about the government rushing in to look after me in my old age: bug off! I would give my life a thousand times to save my son… and my government expects me to rob him of his future because I was too stupid and shiftless to save for my last days?

I do wish Owens might have hooked up with a competent editor in writing Liberalism, or How to a Turn Good Men into Whiners, Weenies, and Wimps… but the editorial “corrections” made by publishing houses nowadays are worse than no editing at all. (I discovered that the hard way.) If you’ll pardon all the brackets and ellipsis points, however, here’s an extremely interesting passage from the end of ch. 9:

It is easy to conclude that for young DuBois, due to his liberal teaching and indoctrination at Harvard and [the] University of Berlin, … both evolution and eugenics had become core tenets of his belief system.  These tenets he would later apply to the “lesser evolved” masses of his race and the “crème de la crème” intellectuals, the Talented Tenth.  As documented by Broderick, DuBois, at 25 years old, would take stock in [sic] his future.  In his diary he would speculate [about] his place in the modern world.  His comments seem to allude to a perception of self as a potential Savior of his race.

“I am glad I am living, I rejoice as a strong man to run a race, and I am strong—is it egotism, … [this] assurance—or is it the silent call of the world spirit that makes me feel that I am royal and that beneath my scepter a world of kings shall bow?  The hot dark blood of that black forefather born king of men—is beating at my heart and I know that I am either a genius or a fool….  This I do know: be the truth what it may I will seek it on [the] pure assumption that it is worth seeking—and Heaven nor Hell, God not Devil shall turn me from my purpose till I die.”

The quoted phrases in the first paragraph were actually used by W.E.B. DuBois, founder of the NAACP. What this passage reveals with shocking clarity is the immense hubris of the man who was the self-appointed Moses (or Jesus) of his race, and who esteemed nine-tenths of his “tribe” too stupid to be capable of finding their own way. The same arrogant attitude is shared by every progressive “do-gooder” on the current scene. If only you could see what’s really in their hearts, the contempt in which they hold you and me… to them, we are mere children. And since we’re not children at all, we are “as if” children—which is to say, idiots.

Real Faith and Fake Faith

I lately ran across an Arthur C. Clarke short story titled “The Star”. I suppose if you can accept space travel to the far reaches of the universe as plausible, you can also accept that a Jesuit priest would participate in the mission—though the latter seems the more challenging proposition. Clarke had to put the narration in the priest’s mouth, no doubt, in order to make his indictment of religion flow from someone who once numbered among the most faithful. Our narrator has just discovered the pitiful remnants of a once thriving culture, parallel to Earth’s highest human civilizations in its art, social order, and sophistication. Its leaders had apparently deposited the essential works and creations of a long history—or some commemorative record of them—on a Pluto-like planet shortly before their solar system’s central star vaporized all traces of life. Now the Jesuit, no longer a believer, cannot imagine how any god worthy of the name would allow an entire higher life form to vanish into nothingness, and to no end whatever.

I’ve heard objections to faith like this all my life. What disturbs me most is that a person might harbor them who really is a priest or minister—for I can’t in good conscience accuse Clarke of manufacturing this character just to deliver his atheistic message more powerfully. There are truly “believers” of this caliber who refuse to accept that God would ever allow the U.S. to be irradiated by a hail of nuclear missiles—or even (let’s keep it all natural) that God would ever allow the Yellowstone caldera to revive and become a super-volcano, its next eruption exterminating much of central North America’s population. The same people are deeply challenged when someone they love happens to die of natural causes, leaving them no one to blame but God himself… whom, in “punishment”, they may declare not to exist.

We might as well have no faith at all if we believe that having it is somehow an assurance against material tragedy or disaster. An entire planet’s being wiped out in a supernova is really no different from an individual’s being suddenly snuffed out in his sleep by a stroke. Even though his life’s “great work”—a novel written, a bridge built, a new water-filtration system invented—is not wiped out along with him in the latter case, everything we do will eventually vanish from these present dimensions. The purpose is all in the trying: somehow or other, in my opinion, that’s the measure of our souls. We’re all on a desert island, if you will, where we will never be found. We can turn wild and rape and kill… or we can build houses and carve instruments and domesticate birds, though no trace of our activity will remain within a century.

Not on the island, at any rate: but if you have faith, then you view the island merely as a small portal to an infinitely vaster reality. It is through that entry, and not on this side of it, that things will make ultimate sense. And if you do not have faith… then see if you can swing the heaviest club and get everyone to kneel to you. Your bones will be bleached just as white as theirs in a few short years.

The really pitiful ones, I repeat, are those who think they have faith, yet make it completely dependent upon a ship’s arriving at the island tomorrow… or the next day.

The Lessons of Working Up an Honest Sweat

Lately, I have been struggling to put up any new posts or to spend much time polishing what does get up. The reason is that the revision of a book I finished a year ago has sucked me in. Once I begin a project like this one, I can’t juggle very much else at the same time. I acquire a kind of vision of where the work should be going, and I need for my mind to cling closely to that vision as I wade through all the chapters that stray hither and yon from it. I can’t simply give the thing an hour’s attention one day and half an hour’s two days later: I have to maintain focus.

Before I start making myself sound like Michel de Montaigne, I should confess that the work in question is about baseball swings as taken a century ago with very different bats. Most people would find that admission a big let-down… “Oh! I thought maybe you were writing about the possibility of preserving our humanity as Artificial Intelligence absorbs more and more of our mental function.” I would scarcely redeem myself before such a commentator if I added that no book whatever exists on the subject, that casual references to yesteryear’s hitting techniques are ludicrously imprecise and inept, and that my crazy dream is eventually to teach some of what I’ve learned through research and experimentation to young people who’ve been told that they’re too small to play the game.

For, yes, there’s a kind of mission involved in this project. I watched my son get nudged aside and passed over for the better part of two decades as he tried to advance and improve in the game he so loved, all because of his size. It ticked me off. It still does, in retrospect. And so I started learning about hitting, and learning more… all of it too late to do him any good, of course; but one of the morals of my study is indeed that much of this sport depends on technique rather than size, and that it seems otherwise only because the professional gurus no longer know the old techniques.

I will add in this forum, though, that yet further and broader lessons might be gleaned from my work. One is that life generally is a terrain occupied by mutually supporting groups of “specialists” who understand nothing beyond their microscopic sphere of expertise—and who often don’t understand that, either, but unite to conceal their ignorance before a dazed public of “uninitiated outsiders”. I can say this confidently, because I have made myself an expert on the subject of yesteryear’s hitting in the game of baseball—and yet much of what I wrote about year ago in the book’s first version is utter crap. My satisfaction in how much I’ve learned lately is more or less neutralized by my chagrin at how wrong I got it all just a few months ago. To paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, we should always remember that we don’t know what we don’t know.

Another lesson is that we forget our culture’s past at our own considerable risk. The assumption has been made in hitting instruction that the oldtimers were comical amateurs who practiced their art about the same way that the Wright brothers practiced flying. You don’t really think that Wilbur and Orville could teach you anything about your Cessna, do you? Probably not, in terms of handling the controls… but maybe they could tell you something about the fear of the unknown or about how to keep a cool head in a crisis.

Finally (just because I need to get on with it today), I have learned that a boy needs to try his hand at something physical, and that a man needs to retain that interest in the active. As politically incorrect as it is to say, boys are in more trouble than girls today because the insulated, safety-net society is more damaging to them. They need to undertake, to initiate… and that means that they must come to know failure well and learn to attack a resistant problem from a different angle. Baseball offers all sorts of opportunity to earn an advanced degree in failure: it breaks you heart. But it can also, for that very reason, teach you how to put a heart back together again.

As for grown men, they—we—need to get out from behind our keyboards once in a while and swing a bat, throw a ball, bail some hay, drive some nails (not with a pneumatic nail-gun, please)… they need to do something other than vegetate with their “ideas”. I’m convinced that quality of thought actually deteriorates as physical contact with the world of hard labor is lost. Indeed, almost all of our political and existential dilemmas in the West are owed somewhat to our losing touch with basic reality. When I was still trying to be a “scholar”, many moons ago, I wrote a little piece about a 2,500-year-old fragment of Sappho’s where she compares a woman getting married rather late in life to an apple that has grown high on the tree, out of reach of the pickers. I pointed out that these are the best fruit because they get so much sun: they grow the largest and taste the sweetest. Any ancient Greek hearing Sappho’s poem would have known that… but the great “scholar” who reviewed my piece could only sniff and turn up his nose because I hadn’t indicated another poet from whom Sappho might have borrowed the image. She borrowed it from life, stupid!

Thank God—and baseball—that my son hasn’t grown up to be a “scholar”!

The Lights Dim on Boyhood’s Last Hour

For Mother’s Day, I can’t do better than post the photo that I took with my iPad on Friday night. My son was excused from attending his college graduation on Saturday so that he could represent CCU in a tournament. That tourney was a story unto itself, and I’ll tell it later; but as the field cleared at 9:30 on Friday evening and the groundskeeper warned us that he would shortly kill the lights, I realized that I needed a shot with whatever device I could operate.

The result was worse than amateurish. The two light towers obscured the figures in the middle–and I was too dumb to see it happening. On the other hand… upon reflection, I really love this photo. God must have smiled on my incompetence, because I couldn’t have created anything half so wistful if I’d tried. Think of it. This young man has lived for baseball since he was a six-year-old boy–and when he takes off his uniform tonight, he’ll never put on another. His sainted mom has collected some of her gray hairs from being dragged all over the lower forty-eight to tournaments… and now, as the lights await the final switch, she has cheered her boy’s last pitches. Yes, the faces are cast in a shadow–as they should be. They and all the hundreds of other figures who played on and cheered around those many green fields (did I write hundreds? no, thousands!) are slipping away into the mystical Land of Youth. They will not revisit our world again, or only as ghosts or in dreams.

The game did not go well, either for our team or for my boy, in particular. Balls just barely fell in or rolled through that might have been snatched and turned to outs with a little more luck or skill. That, too, was entirely appropriate. Baseball is a cruel game. It always finds a way to break your heart. Like life, its ultimate lessons are those of failures and missed opportunities. So why grieve that we shall have no such heartache ever again? I don’t know. Maybe because to live free of failure at last, safely out of its reach, is to have no life at all.

So the final lights are out, for the final time. Goodbye, my little boy–my big boy! I wish I’d been smart enough to teach you more about the game, and sooner… for I, too, failed. Oh, the man I see in that uniform is a great success: I’m not ignoring or diminishing that. But… my boy is gone! Just let me grieve his passing now and then, when I see a ghost.