Brad East is on point here:

In positive terms, what I want is for American Christians today to learn, or relearn, to be catholic: to belong to the one great tradition, the one apostolic faith, the one universal church. To reimagine faith not as something they create or manufacture or curate or judge for themselves, but that to which they submit, in joy, the way one simply receives an unexpected gift, a beloved friend’s return, the birth of a child. The faith as a given, and the real matter before us one of how to live that faith today, in the midst of so many challenges.

via DIY Christianity — Resident Theologian

My First Foray in Integralism

Below is my running commentary of an article written by Pater Edmund Waldenstein. It’s my first real attempt to learn and understand the integralist position in the debate surrounding liberalism. Waldenstein’s article is a response to another article by Timothy Troutner who offers a critique of the post-liberal Christian/integralist assessment of liberalism.

(H/T to Jake Meador who brought these articles to my attention through his email newsletter, Notes from a Small Place. I´ll also mention that Waldenstein has a great blog that documents some of his life as a monk at the monastery Stift Heiligenkreuz.)

My General Assessment:

I lean towards Waldenstein’s view, but with a few caveats:

  1. Waldenstein’s vocabulary is very specific, and if we’re going to understand and/or disagree with him, we’ll need to make sure we mean the same thing, for example, by “hierarchy” and “nature.”
  2. I’m concerned he downplays the abuses of hierarchy and power too much in this article. I recognize that his goal isn’t to discuss the abuses of hierarchy per se, and that he’s ultimately making a case for it despite it’s abuses. Still, I think we can’t ignore abuses, especially as it concerns the practical consequences it has on an empirical/social level. At it’s best, I think integralism is an attempt to work with the grain of human nature and the order of the cosmos. But it seems that integralism runs the risk of trying to impose an abstract philosophical/theological ideal onto human relationships and social structures.

Commentary

1. Christ self-emptying in the Incarnation and the Crucifixion is meant to restore and elevate the hierarchy of creation wounded by sin, not to replace it with egalitarianism. Nor was the Church’s juridical understanding of herself in Christendom an imitation of worldly power, unaffected by Christ’s kenosis. In fact, the very opposite is the case: the form of temporal politics in Christendom was a conscious imitation of the hierarchy of the Church and the rules of the monastic orders. And the ruler was always understood as an image of Christ, bound to give himself for the common good of his commonwealth just as Christ offered himself for the Church.
  • This, to me, is an important component of the integralist argument. Growing up in a non-denominational church, one of the arguments I heard from pastors about why  protestant/evangelical churches eschew the traditional church hierarchy of bishop-priest-deacon is rooted in the kenotic argument that Jesus came down to earth and turned hierarchies upside down. Waldenstein’s point, however, goes deeper and sees Christ’s incarnation, death, and resurrection as restorative of the natural hierarchy embedded in the cosmos. Sin, at it’s core, is a rebellion against authority. Satan, at the bottom of Dante’s hell, won’t stop flapping his wings out of pride–as if to say, “I will rise of my own power!” Christ reminds us that we are under authority. We are under the authority of God and of the people (e.g., the apostles) who God invests with authority.
2. Waldenstein’s argument/description of hierarchy I think is important to our understanding of integralism. He’s not arguing (…at least, I don’t think he’d say he is…) for a totalitarian structure. Rather his argument is an attempt to argue for a “natural” hierarchy in creation (and in heaven) that worldly power structures would do well to imitate.
3. Robin’s book is a strident defense of the same program of liberation in the form of an attack on the reactionary conservatism that has always opposed it. “Since the modern era began,” Robin writes, “men and women in subordinate positions have marched against their superiors in the state, church, workplace, and other hierarchical institutions.” Robin sees this series of rebellions of subjects against their rulers—the bourgeoisie against the nobles, peasants against land owners, workers against industrialists, wives against husbands, and so on—as fully just.
  • If I understand him correctly, I think Waldenstein is mainly taking aim at the liberal push for “egalitarianism-at-all-costs.” In which case, this seems like a straw-man argument that would cut both ways. Rebellion against a particular power structure isn’t an inherently good thing, nor is it an inherently bad thing. Rebellion against injustice, on the other hand, is always good (maybe…).
4. As rational beings, men are capable of understanding their good and pursuing it by their own will: true freedom.
  • I like this: there’s a distinction to be made between liberty and license. True liberty is enjoyed when we understand what the good is and then pursue it. License leads to the slavery of sin.
5. I admit, of course, that in human affairs the good of hierarchy has often been abused. Rulers have often exploited their subjects for selfish advantage rather than aiding them to attain to the common good. And, indeed, the world has seen many false hierarchies—such as chattel slavery—founded on unjust principles. But the abuse of something does not take away its proper use.
  • Two thoughts here: 1) This would’ve been an opportune moment for Waldenstein to mention the sex-abuse scandal that plagues the RC church; not doing so feels a little disingenuous. 2) Nevertheless, his last sentence rings true: abuse does not mean no use.
6. The Hierē Archē, the Holy Beginning of all.
  • I did not know the etymology of hierarchy prior to reading Waldenstein’s article, and now I’m a BIG FAN.
7. Here again there is a kind of equality, for each angel enjoys the same common good, but it is an equality that depends on the inequality of their hierarchical order. The spiritual symphony whereby the angels proclaim the Divine Silence is entirely determined in all its acts and motions, and yet this is a completely voluntary and personal determination—in a sense, it is freedom.
  • I’m loving this section on angels. And this idea (quoted above) is something I talked with my students about while reading Dante. Inequality as a good is hard to digest in our liberal order. God, however, is not an egalitarian, and it’s this emphasis that I appreciate about the integralist position. It’s a reminder that heaven won’t be a democratic republic, much less a democracy. God’s will will be done, and it will set us free.
  • I also like this section on angels because it sets him up well for the macro – micro image he argues for later.
8. Lucifer’s sin was therefore a proto-liberal rebellion against hierarchy and obedience.
  • Not to put to fine a point on it, but….LIBERALISM = SATAN
9. Since original sin was rebellion against hierarchy, our Lord’s work of salvation is the exact opposite.
  • His discussion of Satan and the fall is a clever way of turning Troutner’s libido dominandi argument on its head. Hierarchy has never been the problem (even if it’s been abused); it is rebellion that’s the problem, not hierarchy.
10. As long as he is a tyrant who exploits the poor and weak, Herod should indeed fear Christ who comes to save the poor and oppressed. But as a tyrant Herod is himself a rebel. If he were to start ruling for the common good, his power would be legitimate, and he would receive his authority from God.
  • This is also an interesting idea given what I see Waldenstein doing with Troutner’s argument (see point 9 above). He concedes that it’s possible for rebellion to exist within worldly hierarchies–both ecclesiastical and “secular” (for lack of a better word). I’d like for him to flesh this point out more. Is there any redemptive value to rebellion? I’m wondering specifically if we may conceive of Christ’s ministry and the establishment of the kingdom of God as a form of rebellion in this world. Or is “rebellion” the wrong word to describe the work of Christianity in this world? I’m tempted to think it’s the latter–especially if we want to keep our vocabulary clear and consistent.
11. It is certainly true that Christendom did not always live up to such ideals. There were many abuses. But Troutner makes no distinction between abusive and legitimate uses of temporal power. It would be wearisome to go through the examples of the uses of power that Troutner mentions, and distinguish abuses from proper uses (Thomas Pink and others can be consulted on most of them). The point that I want to make here is a more fundamental one: power has good uses.
  • Again, this feels like a deflection regarding the real and horrible abuses that have occurred within the hierarchy of the church catholic (not just RC). But I take his point.

Wibbly Wobbly Timey Wimey

When students ask me, “Mr. Dalbey, what time is it?” I usually respond, “Time doesn’t exist. It’s a construct of your mind. Therefore, your question is meaningless.” I’m joking of course–it’s my way of responding to students who are wondering about the time because they’re trying to avoid the assignments staring them in the face.  WIBBLY,WOBBLY TIMEY WIMEY STUFF - Tardis - T-Shirt | TeePublic

The other day I received L.M. Sacasas’s newsletter in my inbox and I was reminded that my joke isn’t too far off the mark:

…for example, we don’t experience time in some direct, unmediated fashion; we experience time as a product of technological mediation. In modern societies, this ordinarily means the experience of what we might call clock time. Of course, because clock time has been the dominant mode of experiencing time for us, it probably appears to most people as the natural way of experiencing time. Clock time simply is time. But, of course, one only needs to be spatially or chronologically displaced from modern clock time societies in order to realize that clock time does not simply equal time. We may imagine, for example, how time might be kept and thereby experienced before the invention of the clock, or we might visit places, fewer and farther between, where clock time has not yet colonized the experience of time.

As Sacasas points out, the mediation of time by way of clocks is a relatively new phenomenon. I’ve sometimes wondered how people experienced time in their daily lives before they could look at a watch, much less a phone. Heck, how did people wake up at a particular hour/time of day before alarm clocks?

Clocks, Sacasas points out, impose a default experience of time: one that is measured in linear and discrete units. The power of such mediation is that it sublimates the experience, and then transforms it into an unquestionable fact. “Time,” my students will argue in response to my joke, “is the measurable progression of one event to another!” But how do you measure a sequence of events? We don’t reference a magical ruler floating in the sky when we want to know “how long” it took for something to occur. If I can’t touch, smell, see, hear, or taste time, how can I measure it?

The Paris Pneumatic Clock Network

The idea that time is measurable, or that it is a thing by which human events are measured, raises all sorts of questions: e.g., What exactly are we measuring when we measure movement of time? What is the tool, and what makes it a reliable implement for measuring?

Understanding time is a tricky business. Thinking about the nature of time inevitably reminds me of T. S. Eliot’s famous opening lines to the Four Quartets:

Time present and time past
are both perhaps present in time future
and time future contained in time past.

Eliot’s notion that past, present, and future time intermingle with one another adds to the confusion. If we think of time in a strictly linear sense, then we lose a proper understanding of all three tenses. In the next two sentences, Eliot points out the problem of linear time:

If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.

(I’m not going to pretend that I know exactly what Eliot means here. The following analysis is one of many I’ve attempted in discussions about Eliot’s poem. Proceed with caution.)

Eliot’s description of the present and the future (“what might have been”) is a logical conclusion of a linear view of time: the present is the only thing that exists, but it’s so fleeting that no one can harness it in any meaningful way; it always slips into the past, unchangeable and permanent.The future, by contrast, remains a mere abstract construct of the mind. If this is true of a linear-bound view of time, then existence is slavish and meaningless.

(The one hesitation I have with this analysis is Eliot’s use of the word “eternally.” The word “eternal” evokes a whole different set of meanings and connotations, most of which are related to God’s relationship to time which is not linear. Maybe Eliot means something different by “eternally” here…or maybe he’s setting us up for how he’ll  redefine and reuse the word throughout the rest of his poetry…?)

So what’s the solution? I think it’s contained in the next sentence:

What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.

The reality of the future–even as an abstract concept–and the un-changeability of the past (“what has been”) must exist somewhere. It would be silly to assume the non-existence of either given the almost universally shared human experience of both. But if past and future exist somewhere, then that somewhere might as well be called the Present (capital “P” intentional) because they would both occupy the same “space” (…for lack of a better word).

So why do I care about any of this? Apart from the fact that I’m a glutton for punishment, I think there are several philosophical and scientific reasons to be concerned about the nature of time.

But I have theological reasons for being interested in the nature of time as well. The western church has recently entered its Easter season, and that alone has prompted questions about the nature of Christ’s death and resurrection as an act that influenced both the past and the future. Christ died once, in a particular place, at a particular time–i.e., in a present moment. But his death is efficacious for all time. How can this be? I don’t think this would be possible if time by its nature is merely linear, since linear time maintains hard and fast boundaries between past, present, and future. The passion of Christ, his death and resurrection, and Christ himself are always present to us. Christians do not simply commemorate Christ’s victory over death. They live it. Fr. Stephen Freeman says it better than I can:

The liturgical life of the Church is not a rationalizing activity. It is a sacramental presentation of the whole universe in the presence of God. All things are there as are all times. The actions of Holy Week are not required as an exercise in historical memory. They allow us to be present to the fullness of time. We do not merely think about the events of that week – we walk in their midst and take a share in their reality. All of those things are “for our sake.” St. Paul can say, “I am crucified with Christ,” because he is utterly present to that day, just as that day is utterly present to and in him.

From the perspective of our limited human experience, it’s possible to say that there was a point when Christ had died and saved us from our sins. But after that moment, when Christ was raised from the dead, all time was transformed. All time has been redeemed in the eternal present of God in which both time past and time future are contained.

Happy Easter to my western friends! And a blessed holy week to my friends in the eastern church.

Thinking Through Hell: Hate to Die

I’m finally doing something I’ve wanted to do for a while: catalogue scenes in the Inferno where Dante exhibits a physical and/or emotional reaction to the damned. I’m sure someone has already done this somewhere, but I wanted to comb through the text myself. In every instance, either Virgil explicitly comments on the appropriateness of Dante’s reaction, or the narrative description invites reflection on Dante’s view of sin in that particular moment.

Below, I’ve listed the scenes with a brief summary of what happens. At the bottom of the post, I’ll remark briefly on my own conclusions about what I think is going when these scenes are taken together.

Note on the Translation: I used the online text available through the World of Dante website.

I. Canto 5: Paolo and Francesca, circle 2, Lustful

  • Dante: swoons and faints when he hears Francesca tell her story, “so that-because of pity- / I fainted, as if I had met my death. / And then I fell as a dead body falls” (5.140-42).
  • Virgil: No reaction.

II. Canto 6: Ciacco, circle 3, Gluttonous

  • Dante: “Ciacco, your suffering so weights on me that I am forced to weep” (6.58)
  • Virgil: No reaction. Tells Dante that the damned will receive their body again on the day of doom which will perfect their punishment.

III. Canto 7: N/A, circle 4, Avarice

  • Dante: Desires to meet some of the souls in this circle.
  • Virgil: Does not allow Dante to talk with anyone because… “That thought of yours is empty: / the undiscerning life that made them filthy / now renders them unrecognizable” (6.52-54).

IV. Canto 8: Filippo Argenti, circle 5, Wrathful

  • Dante: Insults Filippo (8.37) and then tells Virgil “I am very eager / to see that spirit soused within this broth / before we’ve made our way across the lake” (8.52-54).
  • Virgil: “you shall be satisfied; / to gratify so fine a wish is right” (8.56-57).

V. Canto 10: Farinata, circle 6, Heretics

  • Dante: initially afraid to speak to Farinata; lost in thought after his conversation with Farinata who has told him about the political future of Florence and the nature of a damned soul’s knowledge.
  • Virgil: reprimands Dante for cowering at the sound of Farinata’s voice and forces him to speak with him; encourages Dante to remember the words spoken against him by Farinata.

VI. Canto 13: Piero della Vigna, circle 7, Suicides

  • Dante: breaks a twig of a tree that happesn to be Piero; cannot find the words to ask questions of Piero because “so much pity takes my heart” (13.84);
  • Virgil: tells Dante to break one of the branches though it “grieves me deeply” (13.51); encourages Piero to tell Dante his story so that he can refresh his fame (13.53); also takes Dante to the tree ravaged by the souls and hounds racing through the forest.

VII. Canto 14: Capaneus, circle 7, Blasphemers

  • Dante: —
  • Virgil: Rebukes Capaneus and tells Dante that in hell, Capaneus’ true nature is revealed (14.70).

VIII. Canto 15: Brunetto Latini, circle 7, Sodomites

  • Dante: Strongly desires to sit with Brunetto (15.34); remains fond of and grateful for Brunetto (15.82); narration end on a positive description of Brunetto.
  • Virgil: allows Dante to speak at length with Brunetto.

IX. Canto 16: Three Noble Florentines, circle 7, Violent Against God

  • Dante: speaks with them at length and then says, “Your present state had fixed / not scorn but sorrow in me-and so deeply / that it will only disappear slowly…” (16.52-54).
  • Virgil: Tells Dante that these three souls deserve his respect.

X. Canto 19: Pope Nicholas III, circle 8, Simonists

  • Dante: delivers a long invective against Pope Nicholas III
  • Virgil: appears happy with Dante’s rant.

XI. Canto 23: Two Friars, circle 8, Hypocrites

  • Dante: speaks with two friars; begins to respond to their story, “O friars, your misdeeds–” (23.109), but then he cuts it short when he sees Caiaphas crucified to the ground.
  • Virgil: Recommends the friars as sinners for Dante to speak to; he stares at Caiaphas in amazement (23.124).

XII. Canto 26: Ulysses & Diomede, circle 8, Evil Counselors

  • Dante: desires to speak to the “twin flame” that contains Ulysses and Diomede
  • Virgil: says that Dante’s desire is a worthy request, but forbids him from speaking to them directly–Virgil claims that they would shy away if Dante attempted to speak to them in Italian, so he speaks on Dante’s behalf.

XIII. Canto 27: Guido de Montefeltro, circle 8, Evil Counselors

  • Montefeltro’s story is detailed, but as soon as he’s finished speaking, the narrator simply says that Dante and Virgil walked away. Strange that there’s no description of Dante’s reaction to such a detailed–and sad!–story.

XIV. Canto 30: Master Adam & Sinon, circle 8, Falsifiers

  • Dante: “intent on listening” to two sinners insult each other (30.130)
  • Virgil: reprimands Dante for being so captivated by the scene.

XV. Canto 32: Bocca Degli Abati, circle 9, Traitors

  • Dante: accidentally stubs his toe on Bocca; asks Bocca to identify himself, and when he refuses, Dante first tries to convince him by offering him fame, but eventually must yank his head back and pull out his hair to force him to respond.
  • Virgil: no response

XVI. Canto 33: Count Ugolino, circle 9, Traitors

  • Dante: listens to Ugolino’s story; instead of a direct response, the narrative complains that the people Ugolino betrayed should not have punished his sons along with him.
  • Virgil: no response

XVII. Canto 33: Brother Alberigo, circle 9, Traitors

  • Dante: Alberigo cries out to Dante to hear his complaint; promises to wipe the ice from Alberigo’s eyes if he tells the truth; when Alberigo has finished talking, Dante refuses to fulfill his promise to him because “it was courtesy to show him rudeness” (33.150).
  • Virgil: No response

XVIII. Canto 34: Satan, circle 9, Traitors

  • Dante: when he sees Satan, he says, “I did not die, and I was not alive…I became deprived of life and death” (34.25-27).
  • Virgil: No response

(Brief) Concluding Thoughts

The pattern of Virgil’s responses seem relatively straightforward: Virgil only reproves Dante when he fears or is entertained by the sinners. Anger and pity, however, are allowed and often praised.

One question that often comes up in discussions about the Inferno is why Dante must travel through hell before ascending Purgatory into Heaven. The answer, I think, lies in the pattern of Dante’s behavior that Virgil praises and censures. Dante must learn to hate sin. Hate encompasses a spectrum of responses to sin that range from anger to pity.

Dante must also be bold in facing sin. Cowardice cannot hate. Boldness counter-balances the opening scene where Dante “awoke” in a dark wood. He’d become lazy and fell asleep, no longer vigilant in his fight against sin. The way was lost to him because he didn’t keep up his courage.

The goal of Dante’s journey through hell is to hate sin so much he’d willingly die to it. Dante’s transformation ends in a form of death–i.e., a state of being deprived of “life and death.” This death is different than the kind of death the sinners in hell experience. Sin does not kill Dante. Rather, Dante’s perseverance throughout his journey suggests that he’s resolved to die before he allows sin to chain him in hell. Such a death ultimately liberates Dante and allows him to escape.

Places and Spaces

I’ve read and watched two things today that have my mind humming with old ideas re-presented in new contexts.

The first is from Wilfred M. McClay at Comment:

As we have become ever more mobile and more connected and absorbed in a panoply of things that are not immediately present to us, our actual and tangible places seem less and less important to us, more and more transient or provisional or even disposable. Sometimes it almost seems as if we are moving toward a nomadic existence as plants without definable roots, perpetually forgetful beings who draw our daily sustenance from what is far rather than what is near. We rely on the ubiquitous satellites that encircle us and the resultant computer clouds that feed and absorb our energies. We do this rather than drawing sustenance from the actual people before our eyes, and the specific ground beneath our feet, and the stories and memories that form our lives in community. We forget the things that make our places distinctive, and concentrate on the things that make them interchangeable.

(Note: I struggled not to copy and paste the whole essay. You should read the whole thing).

The second is from a talk by Andy Crouch:

A couple takeaways:

1. When we abstract our material and tangible experiences, we implicitly alter our conceptions of personhood and leave ourselves vulnerable to powers that would impose their will upon us. Abstraction is as reductive as materialism. Abstraction, however, is not just the sin of the ivory tower. It is located within tech. industry and our cultural obsession with convenience. For Crouch, one of the problems that emerged from the Industrial Revolution was the replacement of human work with machines. Ostensibly, technology allows us to off-load human work so that we can live lives of uninterrupted pleasure. The result is a vision of humanity unfettered from the work that produces tangible goods. In a word, we become “consumers,” and so we are at the mercy of those who provide the consumable goods.

2. One of my favorite parts in McClay’s essay (not included in the above quotation) is his image of human beings as gardeners and pilgrims. These are competing extremes within the human psyche and within philosophy/theology of personhood. McClay points out that the gardener can’t subsume the pilgrim aspect of our nature, and vice versa. The two must always be held in tension. But, McClay emphasizes, our present cultural moment leans too much in the direction of pilgrimage–both in secular (i.e., technological conveniences) and religious contexts: “We cannot flourish without rootedness, and we should not let the pilgrimage element in our faith become a pretext for relegating all our attachments to meaningless shadows, a world in which there is no there there, only a vague spiritual beyond.” Paradox is at the heart of human experience, and our tendency is to try to eliminate one of the competing aspects. After all, paradox is both uncomfortable and inconvenient–two words our “technological progress” is hell bent on eliminating.

I also appreciated McClay’s essay because it helped keep my inner-luddite in check. Technological improvement does not have to progress at the expense of human flourishing. And much of the technology we enjoy today–whether medicinal, recreational, educational, etc.–has enhanced our lives in good ways. The trick, McClay says at the end of his piece, is preserving our memory of what it means to be human.

Feast of the BVM

This morning I received a notification in my inbox that Malcolm Guite had published a new post that featured a collection of his own sonnets about the Blessed Virgin Mary (BVM). And I was reminded that today is the feast day of the BVM. Having grown up in a non-denominational Church, Mary was only an important character during the Christmas season. She was rarely, if ever, mentioned the rest of the year. My childhood memories of Mary are factual: she was very young when she was pregnant with Jesus, and her betrothal to Joseph was jeopardized because of her per-marital pregnancy. Not much else was said aside from the occasional reference to the courage she showed volunteering to be the human means for the incarnation.

It wasn’t until college, when I started to read more widely in Christian history, that I realized the strength of her influence on Christian theology and literature. As Guite points out, she has often been a source of bitter disagreement among Christians. See for example the “immaculate conception” and the “dormition of Mary.”

Personally, reading and reflecting on Mary’s role within the larger salvation narrative has been a spiritual comfort. It’s hard to explain in words, or in any rational way, why this has been the case. But I’m not alone. Guite also mentions that Mary has historically been “a sign of hope, an example of prayer, devotion and service, and an inspiration.” The BVM is so much more than a historical necessity or factoid. She maintains symbolic significance and an undeniable presence in the life of the Church–past, present, and future.

Her symbolic importance is especially prevalent in her title “Theotokos”–God-bearer. While the title itself is used predominately in Orthodox theology and liturgies, the idea runs throughout the Church catholic. The verb “bear” is rich in meaning. It can mean “to carry, convey, display, be called by, or conduct oneself.” Not only are all these meanings at play in the title Theotokos, they have both a literal and spiritual meaning as well. Mary physically bore God for us, and she continues to bear God to us as a witness and example of God’s love in the person of Jesus Christ. In Christian iconography, Mary is usually depicted with Christ or in a way that demonstrates her relationship to him. Often she is either visibly or implicitly pointing (us) to Christ.

I’ve never read a decent or satisfying prose description of Mary’s importance to history,  to the life of the church, or to Christian individuals. Poetry and iconography seem to be the best mediums of representation. So here are a few of my favorite Marian poems and icons. (Click on the links for the full poems).

Theotokos, by Malcolm Guite

“You bore for me the One who came to bless

And bear for all and make the broken whole.

You heard His call and in your open ‘yes’

You spoke aloud for every living soul.”

mary 3

The Blessed Virgin Compared to the Air we Breathe, Gerard Manley Hopkins

“If I have understood,

She holds high motherhood

Towards all our ghostly good

And plays in grace her part

About man’s beating heart,

Laying, like air’s fine flood,

The deathdance in his blood;

Yet no part but what will

Be Christ our Saviour still.”

mary 1

The Magnificat, Luke 1:46-56

46 My soul doth magnify the Lord.

47 And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.

48 For he hath regarded the lowliness of his handmaiden: for, behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.

mary 4

Kaepernick & the Water We Swim In

Alastair Roberts recently wrote a post about the controversy surrounding the Colin Kaepernick and Nike ad. I’ve been thinking about his post all week because he seems to get to the heart of the issue. He starts with the idea of the “Cult of Patriotism:”

Beyond drawing attention to the specific issue of racial injustice, in kneeling for the American national anthem before the start of games, Colin Kaepernick’s actions served to expose the power of the American cult of patriotism, which has steadily brought professional sports into its orbit. While many justifiably lament the increasing politicization of every area of life, it wasn’t Kaepernick who really initiated the politicization of the NFL. The spread of the cult of the state and the military in American football was considerably advanced before Kaepernick ever took a knee.

Alastair is exactly right. Every time I hear people complain about how every area of life has been politicized, my knee-jerk reaction is to wonder when politics was ever a separate or contained social reality. Every social institution and entertainment industry–including governments and professional sports–is an extension of cultural values and identity. The NFL, MLB, and NHL have always been political entities because they represent a history of American cultural identity.

Consider, for example, the names of two teams in the NFL: the New England Patriots and the San Francisco Forty Niners. The Patriots recall the history of the Revolutionary War, and the 49ers recall the prospectors who journeyed to Northern California during the gold rush in 1849.

The names of both teams, however, are more than reminders of factual historical events. It’s safe to assume that a nation wouldn’t intentionally name a sports team in honor of a collectively recognized national shame. Team names are meant to promote a sense of national identity, and they do this by affirming a specific view of history.

“Patriots” is an unequivocal celebration of the heroic efforts of those who fought for American independence. “49ers” is a celebration of the wealth and prosperity promised to those who work hard and courageously seek a better life for themselves–i.e., the American Dream.

Seen as an endorsement of a particular view of American history, we shouldn’t be surprised when disagreement emerges. History is as much a game of interpretation as it is a record of dates, events, and people–hence, the name controversy surrounding the Washington Redskins. The flurry of denouncements and support of Kaepernick’s decision to take a knee during the anthem underscores Alastair’s point: Kaepernick did not politicize football. He exposed yet another way in which football was, is, and will always be political.

The difficulty, of course, is that the politics of professional sports is usually unstated. Professional sports are built on unquestioned assumptions about national identity, and they participate in the rituals/habits of culture. The result is a large-scale form of peer-pressure, what Alastair describes as the “power of cult.” The most effective way to reveal cultural habits of thought is to behave differently. In this case, “for the power of the cult to be made manifest, all Kaepernick had to do was to kneel.”

Alastair extends his argument further into the realm of civil religion, which I may take up in another post. But for now, I found his description of culture, sports, and politics especially fruitful for reflection and further discussion. It reminds me of David Foster Wallace’s Kenyon College Commencement speech. Culture and politics are part of the water we swim in. Unfortunately, we’re not always aware of it.