Commonplace Book #31

Before the advent of modern epistemology, before the arrival of “religion” with the boundaries of Enlightenment reason, ethics, and linguistics, and before the codification of “religion” in national constitutions and diplomatic treaties, the woods, homes, and forests of Europe, its churches, statues, relics, holy oils and waters, and shrines were filled with the presences of spirits, pre-Catholic, Catholic, or a hybrid of the two.  These beings were really there.  Max Weber famously referred to all this as “enchantmnet,” which he contrasted with modernity’s disenchantment.   Humans lived alongside and in the company of supernatural presences.   They called on these extra-human presences to witness to and intervene in the affairs of life, domestic and social. From these presences, humans sought protection of their bodies and souls, property, kin, animals, towns, and families.  Jesus was there in flesh and blood on the altar, in the Host, in the priest’s hands, and supernatural beings were everywhere, experienced in all the modalities of the senses….

Robert Orsi, History and Presence, 37

Commonplace Book #30

The simple equation—Catholics=presence, Protestants=absence–was a caricature and polemical overstatement already in early modernity, and it remains so in the twenty-first century.  Protestantism, its Lutheran varieties certainly, but also its Anglican and Reformed, generated out of itself ways of being in the world in which not only Jesus Christ but also angels, monsters, and the souls of the dead, among other supernatural entities, were visibly and audibly present to practitioners.  This was so among the different strains of pietism, High Church Anglicanism, and, on Protestantism’s more recondite edges, in spiritualism, Mormonism, and the visualizations of New Agers.  Mormon founder Joseph Smith had visions of angels in heaven, visions that occurred sometimes in the company of followers who saw what he saw.  In the latter half of the twentieth century, American Pentecostal televangelists such as Oral Roberts urged viewers to put their hands on their radio consoles and later their televisions in order to bring themselves into immediate contact with the power of the Holy Spirit moving through the healer in his distant studio….

Robert Orsi,  History and Presence, 25

Commonplace Book #29

Real theological thinking, which is thinking with the mind of Christ, is hard to find in the practice of the ministry.  Without solid theological reflection, future leaders will be little more than pseudo-psychologists, pseudo-sociologists, pseudo-social workers.  They will think of themselves as enablers, facilitators, role models, father or mother figures, big brothers or sisters, and so on, and thus join the countless men and women who make a living by trying to help their fellow human beings cope with the stresses and strains of everyday living.

Henri Nouwen, In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership, 86.

Commplace Book #28

One of the great ironies of the history of Christianity is that its leaders constantly gave in to the temptation of power–political power, military power, economic power, or moral and spiritual power–even though they continued to speak in the name of Jesus, who did not cling to his divine power but emptied himself and became as we are….

One thing is clear to me: The temptation of power is greatest when intimacy is a threat.  Much Christian leadership is exercised by people who do not know how to develop healthy, intimate relationships and have opted for power and control instead.  Many Christian empire-builders have been people unable to give and receive love.

Henri Nouwen, In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership, 76, 79

Commonplace Book #27

When one watches some tired hack on the platform mechanically repeating the familiar phrases–bestial atrocities, iron heel, bloodstained tyranny, free peoples of the world, stand should to shoulder–one often has a curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy: a feeling which suddenly becomes stronger at moments when the light catches the speaker’s spectacles and turns them into blank discs which seem to have no eyes behind them.  And this is not altogether fanciful.  A speaker who uses that kind of phraseology has gone some distance toward turning himself into a machine.  The appropriate noises are coming out of the larynx, but his brain is not involved, as it would be if he were choosing his words for himself.  If the speech he is making is one that he is accustomed to make over and over again, he may not be almost unconscious of what he is saying, as one is when one utter the responses in church.

George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language” (1946) cited in Alan Jacobs, How to Think, 95-96.

Commonplace Book #26

Over the years, I’ve had to acknowledge that some of the people whose views on education appall me are more devoted to their students than I am to mine; and that some of the people whose theological positions strike me as immensely damaging to the health of the church are nevertheless more prayerful and charitable, more Christlike, than I will will ever be.  This is immensely disconcerting, even when it doesn’t mean that those people are right about those matter we disagree on.  Being around those people forces me to confront certain truths about myself that I would rather avoid; and that alone is reason to seek every means possible to constrain the energies of animus.

Alan Jacobs, How to Think, 76-77.

Commonplace Book #25

You are not oiling the wheels of a machine that’s about to roll over a cliff.  You are not restoring a great painting that’s shortly going to be thrown on the fire.  You are not planting roses in a garden that’s about to be dug up for a building site.  You are–strange though it may seem, almost as hard to believe as the resurrection itself–accomplishing something that will become in due course part of God’s new world.  Every act of love, gratitude, and kindness; every work of art or music inspired by the love of God and delight in the beauty of his creation; every minute spent teaching a severely handicapped child to read or to walk; every act of care and nature, of comfort and support, for one’s fellow human beings and for that matter one’s fellow nonhuman creatures; and of course every prayer, all Spirit-led teaching, every deed that spreads the gospel, builds up the church, embraces and embodies holiness rather than corruption, and makes the name of Jesus honored in the world–all of this will find its way, through the resurrecting power of God, into the new creation that God will one day make.

NT Wright, Surprised by Hope, 208.

Commonplace Book #24

..The Kingdom-inaugurating public work of Jesus and his redemptive death and resurrection…isn’t just a story of some splendid and exciting social work with an unhappy conclusion.  Nor it is just a story of an atoning death with an extended introduction.  It is something much bigger than the sum of those two diminished perspectives.  It is the story of God’s kingdom being launched on earth as in heaven, generating a new state of affairs in which the power of evil has been decisively defeated, the new creation has been decisively launched, and Jesus’s followers have been commissioned and equipped to put that victory and that inaugurated new world into practice.  Atonement, redemption, and salvation are what happened on the way because engaging in this work demands that people themselves be rescued from the powers that enslave the world in order that they ca n in turn be rescuers.  To put it another way, if you want to help inaugurate God’s kingdom, you must follow in the way of the cross, and if you want to benefit from Jesus’s saving death, you must become part of his kingdom project.

N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope

Commonplace Book #23

And if God’s good creation–of the world, of life as we know it, of our glorious and remarkable bodies, brains, and bloodstream–really is good, and if God wants to reaffirm that goodness in a wonderful act of new creation at the last, then to see the death of the body and the escape of the soul as salvation is not simply slightly off course, in need of a few subtle alterations and modifications.  It is totally and utterly wrong.  It is colluding with death.  It is  conniving at death’s destruction of God’s good, image-bearing human creatures while consoling ourselves with the (essentially non-Christian and non-Jewish)  thought that the really important bit of ourselves  is saved from this wicked, nasty body and this sad, dark world of space, time, and matter!  As we have seen, the whole Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, speaks out against such nonsense. It is, however, what most Western Christians, including most Bible Christians of whatever sort, actually believe. This is a serious state of affairs, reinforced not only in popular teaching but also in liturgies, public prayers, hymns, and homilies of every kind.

N.T. Wright, Suprised by Hope, 194-195

Commonplace Book #22

Politics related to immigrants, refugees, and citizenship are the heart of current identity debates, but the issue is much broader than that.  Identity politics is rooted in a world in which the poor and marginalized are invisible to their peers, as Adam Smith remarked.  Resentment over lost status starts with real economic distress, and one way of muting the resentment is to mitigate concerns over jobs, incomes, and security.

Particularly in the United States, much of the left stopped thinking several decades ago about ambitious social policies that might help remedy the underlying conditions of the poor.  It was easier to talk about respect and dignity than to come up with potentially costly plans that would concretely reduce inequality.  A major exception was President Obama, whose Affordable Care Act was a milestone in U.S. social policy.  The ACA’s opponents tried to frame it as an identity issue, suggesting sotto voce that the policy was designed by a black president to help black constituents.  But it was in fact a national policy designed to help less well-off Americans, regardless of their race or identity.  Many of the law’s beneficiaries include rural white in the South who have nonetheless been persuaded to vote for Republican politicians vowing to repeal ACA.

Francis Fukuyama, Identity, 178.

Commonplace Book #21

The creedal national identity that emerged in the wake of the American Civil War today needs to be strongly reemphasized and defended from attacks by both the left and the right.  On the right, plenty of new white nationalist voices would like to drag the country backward to an identity once again based on race, ethnicity, or religion.  It is urgent that these views be firmly rejected as un-American, much as Ben Sasse sought to do.

On the left, identity politics has sought to undermine the legitimacy of the American national story by emphasizing victimization, insinuating in some cases that racism, gender discrimination, and other forms of systematic exclusion are somehow intrinsic to the country’s DNA.  All these things have been and continue to be features of American society ,and they need to be confronted in the present.  But a progressive narrative can also be told about the overcoming of barriers and the ever-broadening circles of people whose dignity the country has recognized, based on its founding principles.  This narrative was part of the “new birth of freedom” envisioned by Abraham Lincoln, and one that Americans celebrate on the holiday he created, Thanksgiving.

While the United States has benefited from diversity, it cannot build its national identity around diversity as such.  Identity has to be related to substantive ideas such as constitutionalism, rule of law, and human equality.  Americans respect these ideas; the country is justified in excluding from citizenship those reject them.

Francis Fukuyama, Identity, 170-171

Commonplace Book #20

The humanities are all well and good, goes another argument, for the children of the privileged, who don’t need to worry about earning a living.  But other students, even at selective schools, should stick to the practical disciplines: engineering, computer science, economics–quantitative fields, not verbal ones.  The notion echoes something Woodrow Wilson said a century ago: “We want one class of persons to have a liberal education, and we want another class…very much larger…to forego the privileges of a liberal education and fit themselves to perform specific difficult manual tasks.”  Substitute “technical” for “manual” and the argument is the same.  It is not the proponents of a liberal arts education who are the elitists; it is those who reserve it for a lucky few.  If you think the humanities have any value, whether as a doorway to enlightenment or just as cultural capital, then they are valuable for everyone and should belong to everyone.

–William Deresiewicz, Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite & the way to a Meaningful Life, 166-167,

Commonplace Book #19

No, no.  Lucia Santa had been fortunate to escape for so long a period of time that measure of sorrow due her station in life.  Her children  were strong, healthy, handsome, the world was before them.  Soon she would reap the rewards of all her travail.  So, courage.  America was not Italy.  In America you could escape your destiny.  Sons grew tall and worked in an office with collars with ties, away from the wind and earth.  Daughters learned to read and write ,and wore shoes and silk stockings, instead of slaughtering the bloody pig  and carrying wood on their backs to save the strength of valuable donkeys.

Had not misfortunate entered once even into heaven?  Who  could escape sorrow?  Who could pass through life without weeping?  Only the dead do not suffer.  Ah, the happy, happy dead.  The old women clasped their hands to give thanks giving for the day they would leave this earth, this unhappy vale of tears.  Yes, yes, the happy dead who suffered no more.

Mario Puzo, The Fortunate Pilgrim, 260.

Commonplace Book #18

…literature, history, philosophy, and the arts are becoming the stepchildren of our colleges.   This is a great loss because they are the legatees of religion in the sense that they provide a vocabulary for formulating ultimate questions of the sort that have always had special urgency for young people.  In fact, the humanities may have the most to offer to students who do not know that they need them–which is one reason it is scandalous to withold them. 

Andrew Delbanco, College: What It Was, Is, And Should Be, 99.

Commonplace Book #17

This was the road over which Antonia and I came on that night when we got off the train at Black Hawk and were bedded down in the straw, wondering children, being taken we knew not wither.  I had only to close my eyes to hear the rumbling of the wagons in the dark, and to be again overcome by that obliterating strangeness.  The feelings of that night were so near that I could reach out and touch them with my hand.  I had the sense of coming home to myself, and of having found out what a little circle man’s experience is.  For Antonia and for me, this had been the road of Destiny; had taken us to those early accidents of fortune which predetermined for us all that we can never be.  Now I understood that the same road was to bring us together again.  Whatever we  had missed, we possessed together the precious, the incommunicable past.

Willa Cather, My Antonia

Commonplace Book #16

I lay awake for a long while, until the slow-moving moon passed my window on its way up the heavens.  I was thinking about Antonio and her children; about Anna’s solicitude for her, Ambrosch’s grave affection, Leo’s jealous, animal little love.  That moment, when they all came tumbling out of the cave into the light, was a sight any man might have come far to see.  Antonia had always been one to leave images in the mind that did not fade–that grew stronger with time.  In my memory there was a succession of such pictures, fixed there like the old woodcuts of one’s first primer.  Antonia kicking her bare legs against sides of my pony when we came home in triumph with our snake; Antonia in her black shawl and fur cap, as she stood by her father’s gave in the snowstorm; Antonia coming in with her work-team along the evening sky-line .  She lent herself to immemorial human attitudes which we recognize by instinct as universal and true. 

Willa Cather, My Antonia.

Commonplace Book #15

I sat down in the middle of the garden, where snakes could scarcely approach unseen, and leaned my back against a warm yellow pumpkin.  There were some ground-cherry bushes growing  along the furrows, full of fruit.  I turned back the papery triangular sheaths that protected the berries and ate a few.  All about me giant grasshoppers, twice as big as any I had ever seen, were doing acrobatic feats among the dried vines.  The gophers scurried up and down the ploughed ground. There in the sheltered draw-bottom the wind did not blow very hard, but I could hear it singing its humming tune up on the level, and I could see the tall grasses wave.  The earth was warm under me, and warm as I crumbled  it through  my fingers.  Queer little red bugs came out and moved in slow squadrons around me.  Their backs were polished vermilion, with black spots.  I kept as still as I could.  Nothing happened.  I did not expect anything to happen.  I was something that lay under the sun and felt it, like the pumpkins, and I did not want to be anything more.  I was entirely happy.  Perhaps we feel like that when we die and become a part of something entire, whether it is sun and air, or goodness and knowledge.  At any rate, that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great.  When it comes to one, it comes as naturally as sleep.

Willa Cather, My Antonia

Commonplace Book #13

As historian  Matthew Jacobson has written, ” It was not just that Italians did not look white to certain social arbiters, but that they did not act white.”  In many cities, Italian immigrants not only were stigmatized as outlaws and political subversives, they also accepted work coded as “black” by local customs, mobilized alongside people of color , and incited the wrath of white supremacists by their transgressions across the color line. David Roediger and James Barrett’s work elsewhere has shown that the racial oppression of Italians had roots in the racialization of Africans.  The epithet guinea, for example, was used by whites  to make African slaves and their descendants as inferior before it was applied to Italians at the turn of the twentieth century.  Italians also learned that they were racially “other” in the United States in ways that went beyond language: lynchings; the refusal of some native-born Americans to ride streetcars with or live alongside “lousy dagoes”; the exclusion of Italian children from certain schools and movie theaters, and their parents from social groups and labor unions; segregated seating in some churches; and the barrage of popular magazines, books, movies, and newspapers that bombarded Americans with images of Italians as racially suspect.

Jennifer Gugliemo, Are Italians White?11.

Commonplace Book #12

The world…gives birth to enmity.  Says Saint Augustine of the city of man, “Each individual in this community is driven by his passions to pursue private purposes,” his “dreams” as we sentimentally call them now.  But these objects “are such that no one person (let alone the world community) can ever be wholly satisfied” because we are made by God, for God, and “nothing but Absolute Being can satisfy human nature.”  That means that “the city of man remains in a chronic condition of civil war” (City of  God, 18.2).  We see this sad truth born out in the relentless political unrest of our time.  There is no Sabbath to relieve us of our laborious enmity, as there is no secular sacrament to heal our exhausted spirits and nourish us after the depletion wrought by ambition and lust.

Anthony Esolen, Nostalgia, 169.

Commonplace Book #11

The point of this final of the book is that a proper grasp of the (surprising) future hope held out to us in Jesus Christ leads directly and, to many people, equally surprising, to a vision of the present  hope that is the basis of all Christian mission.  To hope for a better future in this world–for the poor, the sick, the lonely and depressed, for the slaves, the refugees, the hungry and homeless, for that abused, the paranoid, the downtrodden and despairing, and in fact for the whole wide, wonderful, and wounded world–is not something else, something extra, something tacked on to the gospel as an afterthought.  And to work for that intermediate hope, the surprising hope that comes forward from God’s ultimate future into God’s urgent present, is not a distraction from the task of mission and evangelism in the present.  It is a central, essential, vital, and life-giving part of it.

N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope, 192.