What a king is

November 18th, 2015 — 10:18am

“Of what does the nature of kingship consist? What are its qualities in itself; what the qualities it inspires in those who attend it? . . . I will tell His Majesty what a king is. A king does not abide within his tent while his men bleed and die upon the field. A king does not dine while his men go hungry, nor sleep when they stand at watch upon the wall. A king does not command his men’s loyalty through fear nor purchase it with gold; he earns their love by the sweat of his own back and the pains he endures for their sake. That which comprises the harshest burden, a king lifts first and sets down last. A king does not require service of those he leads but provides it to them. He serves them, not they him. . . . That is a king, Your Majesty. A king does not expend his substance to enslave men, but by his conduct and example makes them free.”

(Xeones to Xerxes, in Steven Pressfield, Gates of Fire: An Epic Novel of the Battle of Thermopylae)

Comment » | The Way of All the Earth

Who am I?

November 8th, 2015 — 4:39pm

Who am I? They often tell me
I would step from my cell’s confinement
calmly, cheerfully, firmly,
like a squire from his country-house.

Who am I? They often tell me
I would talk to my warders
freely and friendly and clearly,
as though it were mine to command.

Who am I? They also tell me
I would bear the days of misfortune
equably, smilingly, proudly,
like one accustomed to win.

Am I then really all that which other men tell of?
Or am I only what I know of myself,
restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage,
struggling for breath, as though hands were compressing my throat,
yearning for colours, for flowers, for the voices of birds,
thirsting for words of kindness, for neighbourliness,
trembling with anger at despotisms and petty humiliation,
tossing in expectation of great events,
powerlessly trembling for friends at an infinite distance,
weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at making,
faint, and ready to say farewell to it all?

Who am I? This or the other?
Am I one person today, and tomorrow another?
Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others,
and before myself a contemptibly woebegone weakling?
Or is something within me still like a beaten army,
fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved?

Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.
Whoever I am, thou knowest, O God, I am thine.

(Dietrich Bonhoeffer, July 1944)

Comment » | From the Dead Thinkers

The point of leisure

November 8th, 2015 — 3:07pm

Leisure does not exist for the sake of work—however much strength it may give a man to work; the point of leisure is not to be a restorative, a pick-me-up, whether mental or physical; and though it gives new strength, mentally and physically, and spiritually too, that is not the point. . . .

The point and the justification of leisure are not that the functionary should function faultlessly and without a breakdown, but that the functionary should continue to be a man—and that means that he should not be wholly absorbed in the clear-cut milieu of his strictly limited function; the point is also that he should retain the faculty of grasping the world as a whole and realizing his full potentialities as an entity meant to reach Wholeness.

Because Wholeness is what man strives for, the power to achieve leisure is one of the fundamental powers of the human soul. Like the gift for contemplative absorption in the things that are, and like the capacity of the spirit to soar in festive celebration, the power to know leisure is the power to overstep the boundaries of the workaday world and reach out to superhuman, life-giving existential forces that refresh and renew us before we turn back to our daily work. Only in genuine leisure does a “gate to freedom” open. Through that gate man may escape from the “restricted area” of that “latent anxiety” which a keen observer has perceived to be the mark of the world of work, where “work and unemployment are the two inescapable poles of existence.”

(Pieper, Leisure the Basis of Culture, pp. 49–51)

Comment » | Of Worship and Work

Hard work and divine gifts

November 8th, 2015 — 2:55pm

The inmost significance of the exaggerated value which is set upon hard work appears to be this: man seems to mistrust everything that is effortless; he can only enjoy, with a good conscience, what he has acquired with toil and trouble; he refuses to have anything as a gift.

We have only to think for a moment how much the Christian understanding of life depends upon the existence of “Grace”; let us recall that the Holy Spirit of God is himself called a “gift” in a special sense; that the great teachers of Christianity say that the premise of God’s justice is his love; that everything gained and everything claimed follows upon something given, and comes after something gratuitous and unearned; that in the beginning there is always a gift—we have only to think of all this for a moment in order to see what a chasm separates the tradition of the Christian West and that other view.

(Josef Pieper, Leisure the Basis of Culture, pp. 35–36)

Comment » | Of Worship and Work

A double noughting

November 1st, 2015 — 3:43pm

It is [a] double nullity of both subject and world, I contend, that underlies entertainment culture and the numbing array of cultural choices produced by it. The very notion of entertainment presumes the state of boredom as the norm, which means that a culture increasingly fueled by this notion assumes that our lives are innately and intrinsically meaningless without the constant stream of “stimulation” and distraction, a stream inevitably subject to the law of diminishing returns. This nullity on the side of the subject is matched by a similar noughting in the world, for latent in this assumption is a corollary denial of form, objective beauty, or a true order of goods that naturally and of themselves compels our interest. As a consequence, according to this cultural logic, all such choices can only be indifferently related to one another. None is intrinsically good or bad, and indeed no good approaches that of choice itself. Hence most citizens of the modern West, almost of necessity, live lives of profound fragmentation and internal contradiction, and yet these contradictions too frequently make no real competing claims on lives and loyalties and cause little pain or anguish to those who are subject to them. Yet the effect of many of these choices is less to please than to stupefy, anesthetize or distract us from the failed festivals, broken communities, and otherwise empty existence imposed by a formless goalless world. (Michael Hanby, “The Culture of Death, the Ontology of Boredom, and the Resistance of Joy”)


Comment » | Of Worship and Work

A welling-up of the authentic self?

October 29th, 2015 — 3:42pm

According to the prevailing notion, to be free means to be free to satisfy one’s preferences. Preferences themselves are beyond rational scrutiny; they express the authentic core of a self whose freedom is realized when there are no encumbrances to its preference-satisfying behavior. Reason is in the service of this freedom, in a purely instrumental way; it is a person’s capacity to calculate the best means to satisfy his ends. About the ends themselves we are to maintain a principled silence, out of respect for the autonomy of the individual. To do otherwise would be to risk lapsing into paternalism. Thus does liberal agnosticism about the human good line up with the market ideal of “choice.” We invoke the latter as a content-free meta-good that bathes every actual choice made in the softly egalitarian, flattering light of autonomy.

This mutually reinforcing set of posits about freedom and rationality provides the basic framework for the discipline of economics, and for “liberal theory” in departments of political science. It is all wonderfully consistent, even beautiful.

But in surveying contemporary life, it is hard not to notice that this catechism doesn’t describe our situation very well. Especially the bit about our preferences expressing a welling-up of the authentic self. Those preferences have become the object of social engineering, conducted not by government bureaucrats but by mind-bogglingly wealthy corporations armed with big data. To continue to insist that preferences express the sovereign self and are for that reason sacred—unavailable for rational scrutiny— is to put one’s head in the sand. The resolutely individualistic understanding of freedom and rationality we have inherited from the liberal tradition disarms the critical faculties we need most in order to grapple with the large-scale societal pressures we now face.

(Matthew B. Crawford, The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction)

Comment » | Life Together

The wrong “why”

September 8th, 2015 — 11:46am

If you look on the world with the eyes of science it is impossible to find the place, the time, or the particular sequence of events that can be interpreted as showing God’s presence. God disappears from the world, as soon as we address it with the ‘why?’ of explanation, just as the human person disappears from the world, when we look for the neurological explanation of his acts. So maybe God is a person like us, whose identity and will are bound up with his nature as a subject. Maybe we shall find him in the world where we are only if we cease to invoke him with the ‘why?’ of cause, and address him with the ‘why?’ of reason instead. And the ‘why?’ of reason must be addressed from I to you. The God of the philosophers disappeared behind the world, because he was described in the third person, and not addressed in the second. (Roger Scruton, The Face of God, p. 45)

Comment » | Science, Theology, and Priestcraft

Just you wait

September 1st, 2015 — 12:37pm

Somewhere near the top of my list of Extremely Irritating Things is when parents a few years ahead of me in the childrearing process say, “Oh, just you wait until . . .” Fill in the blank: “Just you wait until the terrible twos.” “Just you wait until the preteen years.” “Just you wait until they’re thirteen; you haven’t seen anything yet.” “Just wait until they want your car every Friday night.” And so on. I’ve had to boost my filters so many times, lest something slip out like, “I’ve seen the way you parent, and I guess we all reap what we sow. Thanks for sharing.” But let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall.

I’ve been warned and warned in particular about the “preteen” and “teen” years. Personally, I think Christians ought to be ashamed of thinking in these terms. God didn’t create teens, market researchers in the last century did, and we’ve fallen for the whole stupid construct like lemmings.

Preteens and teens are just children transitioning to adulthood. They’re not a third category in addition to children and adults; they’re simply young humans experiencing the very early awakenings of adulthood, who will (hopefully) spend the rest of their lives growing into mature adults, without (again hopefully) ever leaving behind the wonder, purity, and joy of childhood.

If young children need parents to keep them from killing themselves (!), to teach them to discern right from wrong, and to train them in loving and doing the right, emerging adults need parents to take them by the hand and guide them into the mental and emotional life of adulthood and into its responsibilities and accompanying privileges. I don’t know why parents seem so surprised when this is (for the parent) a lot of work. In the nature of the thing, you’re going to encounter a lot of emotional responses that are extreme and immature. That’s because . . . your child is immature. We don’t expect newborn colts to run races. Take it easy. Better things will come in time. Just don’t sink to the level of the immature responses yourself, and you’ll be fine. Remember, you’re the parent. You’re setting the example.

There’s the rub, though. In my experience (so far), emerging adults tend to “push your buttons” more than really young children for the simple reason that they’re now playing (however ineptly) on your game board. Suddenly they have ideas and opinions about adult things. Suddenly they have some real adult expectations (the age at which these expectations emerge in our entitled age seems to be getting younger and younger – one wishes the same could be said about a sense of responsibility). Suddenly they begin to manifest that they’re carrying emotional burdens and feeling passions and dreaming dreams that seem faintly . . . adult. You don’t just have a bunch of kids running around that you can put to bed or put down for a movie or otherwise put out of your thoughts as players in another game. They’re in your game. Their moves are starting to interfere with yours in real ways. To make things worse, they learned this game mostly by watching you – so guess what? You get to see all the ways you’re a loser at it, played out in very immature form in them. That child heaping snark on his sister got his tone, posture, and much of his vocabulary from you – and you get to watch it in caricature, because he’s still only ten.

It dawned on me the other day as I was talking with my twelve-year-old daughter, and she was blowing me away with her budding insight on the world, that just as I was far too surprised when my two-year-olds needed obedience training, I’m far too surprised when my preteens need virtue training – when they need calm, caring, and confident guidance in laying aside foolish ideas and emotional vices. Of course they still need a lot of wisdom. Of course their character needs to be formed in all sorts of ways toward goodness rather than selfishness and irresponsibility. That’s what this season of parenting is for. The fact that this is the season we’re in doesn’t mean we’re way off the track. It just means we need to get busy doing what we’re called to do: going for the hearts of our kids, training them to open that citadel to wisdom and invite her to sit on the throne. We need to rebuke, exhort, instruct, discipline, enjoy, empathize, invite, demonstrate, and cheer their every step. We need to ask forgiveness, and forgive. We need to spend time with them at the cross, where all progress starts and hope is always fresh. We need to put them through their relational paces every day, showing them how to prosper in their relations with God, other humans, and the stuff of the earth. We need to take the time that it takes. We need to be careful of frustrating them, because they’re still very new to the game. Where we see that they struggle because we failed in their earlier years – and we will see it every day – it’s critical that we repent to God and to them. Nothing is more central than teaching them that God is their Rock, and we know it, and we need Him, too.

Just you wait, then. Those who sow in tears will reap in joy. It’s going to be wonderful.

Comment » | Hearth and Home

The end of pioneering

February 17th, 2015 — 12:12pm

Long years after the last Conestoga wagon, the pioneering spirit lives on. For centuries it has made America great, this restless quest for a better life, and it animates us now more than ever. We may have run out of uncharted territories, but we’re still a land of options and opportunities, and we rush feverishly to every new frontier. Up and outward we move, seeking better things.

The true aim of pioneering, however, is settlement; the pioneering spirit is not mere wanderlust. The goal is to get somewhere and build something – something worth preserving. This creates a tension between the desire to go farther and achieve more, and the desire to stay, build, and beautify. A wagon track dotted by ghost towns is not a cultural achievement. For civilization to occur, some must stay and cultivate, being rooted for years, even generations. And this not just for stability’s sake, but for the glories that come only through long accretion.

Amid the mobility – the mad rush, one might say – of the 21st century, the tension just described is acute. Few of us are locked into any life arrangement; we can easily seek new and better things if something proves unsatisfactory where we are. Often it’s clear that we should do so: we should move to greener pastures. Yet for all the blessings of the fact that we now so easily can, we face a nagging question: how can meaningful relationships with people and place be sustained in the midst of endless pioneering? Relationships fare badly when nothing is nailed down, nothing deeply rooted. When is it important, in the interests of human flourishing, not to take the road to a better life, but to stay and build that life where we stand?

The problem is that, in the abstract, there’s no end to the possibilities of a better life. Things could always be better. Thus the temptation to move on from where I am is perpetually strong. Of course, it never works out exactly right. There are always tradeoffs. When I get to the new place, the new people, the new circumstances, there are always things I miss about the pasture left behind. With that said, though, there are always not just illusory but also very real benefits to be gained by moving on. I can find better things, a better life elsewhere if I look long and hard enough. So when is it time to pioneer, and when is it time to settle?

I think the answer must be that at some point, to experience meaningful relationships with people and place, I must simply commit myself in love to particular people in a particular place; I must love them particularly because in their particularity they are irreplaceable.

Marriage is the best example. In the abstract, can I imagine myself happily married to a number of women? Well, yes. That’s what makes finding the right mate so daunting. At some point, however, I must look at a particular woman and (if she’ll have me) decide my pioneering days are over and I’m hers till death do us part, “forsaking all others.” The idea that flourishing demands my keeping my options open thereafter – since a happier marriage might await me out there somewhere – is a ruinous (though very popular) delusion.

Flourishing requires loving relationships, and loving relationships require commitment – the end of pioneering. The commitment must be free. Coerced commitment is not really commitment to the beloved; it’s just acquiescence under force. But commitment, while free, is real: it’s a self-imposed binding of oneself to a beloved: “This will be my place. These will be my people.”

The same experience of flourishing that comes only after fifty years of faithful marriage will also be experienced after fifty years of faithfulness in a particular place to a particular people. This is not to say the first place one stops should be the same place one finds oneself fifty years later. Obviously, there are times when we realize a community or a location just isn’t a good fit for us, and it’s beneficial to move on. But we should pity the poor soul who, through no providential necessity but simply because of wanderlust, never unpacks his wagon, dismantles it, and builds a house where he plans to play with his grandchildren. Maybe it’s enough for him that he has seen many places and many people; the question is whether he knows any of them deeply, deeply enough to truly love them and be loved in return. The pioneers of old were going somewhere to stay; in this, we moderns would do well to imitate them.

Comment » | Hearth and Home

What is an argument?

February 17th, 2015 — 5:04am

What is an argument? In an argument, you offend ME by crossing my will. I respond by confessing your offenses to you. At the same time, I explain to you how all my failings are really your fault. If only you were different, I wouldn’t be the way I am. You do the same to me, confessing my sins to me and excusing your own. Nowhere in the heat of conflict does anyone confess his own sins, except as a way to buy time for a counterattack: “Yeah, I was wrong to do that, but . . . .” The log remains firmly planted in the eye (Matthew 7:1–5) as each party plays lawgiver and judge. “But there is one Lawgiver and Judge, He who is able to save and to destroy. Who are you that you judge your neighbor?” Here we see that at the heart of interpersonal conflict, a far more profound conflict rages: the presumptuous sinner stands at odds with the one true God. (David Powlison, “Getting to the Heart of Conflict”)

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