Living in the time of Trump

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Photograph by Marco Grob

Since the 2016 presidential election, nothing has provoked more needful thought than the following essays on living in the time of Trump.

ABC: Religion & Ethics (March 31, 2017)
A Sanctuary Politics: Being the Church in the Time of Trump (PDF)
by Stanley Hauerwas and Jonathan Tran

Christians in America can no longer differentiate between America and God – something scripture calls idolatry, which is precisely what President Trump wants of Americans.

National Affairs (Spring 2017)
When Character No Longer Counts (PDF)
by Alan Jacobs

One of the most surprising developments of the 2016 election was the wholesale abandonment by many conservative Christians of a position they once held almost unanimously: In politics, character counts. But if character no longer counts, what criteria should matter to Christian voters assessing potential leaders?

National Affairs (Spring 2017)
A New Awakening (PDF)
by George Weigel

Since election day, Americans of all political persuasions have been asking themselves two questions: What happened? And now what? The answers will be found only if we dig into the subsoil from which our present discontents have emerged. The challenges we face are far more than economic or even political. To overcome our moral-cultural crisis, we will need a new Great Awakening.

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The ancient humoural system

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Diagram from Noga Arikha’s Passions and Tempers. Read about the four humours.

In The Discarded Image, C. S. Lewis wrote, “At his most characteristic, medieval man was not a dreamer nor a wanderer. He was an organizer, a codifier, a builder of systems. He wanted ‘a place for everything and everything in the right place.’ Distinction, definition, tabulation were his delight.” This systematizing impulse was made possible, I submit, because the medieval man had discovered the writings of Aristotle, arguably the first thinker in the West who possessed what Lewis calls an “intense love of system.”

On the Myers & Briggs Type Indicator, the “fourth preference pair describes how you like to live your outer life – what are the behaviors others tend to see? Do you prefer a more structured and decided lifestyle (Judging) or a more flexible and adaptable lifestyle (Perceiving)?” I test as a “P”, which means that I am not constitutionally disposed to systematizing like a “J.” Perceivers are like jazz artists, insofar as we improvise based on a score rather than adhere rigidly to it. It would be mistake to think that perceivers are disinterested in systems. For example, I am fascinated by the ancient system of four humours, and continually trying to learn more about this typology and to discern its fittingness within Christian living. These two books come highly recommended:

  • Noga Arikha, Passions and Tempers: A History of the HumoursThis is “the first book ever to recount the full history in the West of the system of the four humours – blood, phlegm, choler, melancholy – fluids within the organism that, for 2500 years, were deemed to determine health and illness, mood and temperament. It takes the reader from ancient Greece to today`s world, via the middle ages, the Renaissance, the era of scientific revolutions, the period of the Enlightenment, and the beginning of neuroscience in the 19th century. The humoural system theoretically disappeared with the advent of modern medicine, but Passions and Tempers describes the surprising and fascinating guises it takes in our day.” The author is “a historian of ideas, particularly interested in the relation between mind and body, and in helping to bridge the divide between the sciences and the humanities.” (See website for book).
  • Art and Laraine Bennett, The Temperament God Gave You. “All of us are born with distinct personality traits. Some of us live for crowds and parties; others seek solitude and time for quiet reflection. Some of us are naturally pushy, while others are content just to get along. We don’t pick and choose these traits; they’re just part of the way we’re made. For in the womb God doesn’t merely mold our body; He also gives us the temperament that, all our days, colors our understanding, guides our choices, and serves as the foundation of our moral and spiritual life. Ancient philosophers identified four basic temperaments, and over the centuries, countless wise souls have used these four to understand human nature. Now comes The Temperament God Gave You, the first Catholic book on the subject in 70 years. Here veteran Catholic counselor Art Bennett and his wife Laraine provide an accessible synthesis of classical wisdom, modern counseling science, and Catholic spirituality: a rich understanding of the temperaments and what they mean for you and for your family. Drawing on decades of study, prayer, and practical experience, Art and Laraine show you how to identify your own temperament and use it to become what God is calling you to be: a loving spouse, an effective parent, and a good friend. Best of all, they give you a Catholic understanding of the four temperaments that will bring you closer to God and help you discover the path to holiness that’s right for you.” (See the temperament indicator from book).

I took the Temperament Quiz based on Art & Laraine Bennett’s book and my results were surprising. I always thought of myself as a sanguine-choleric but on this particular test I come up as a melancholic-phlegmatic, which may indicate that there is a gap between my self-perception and reality or, alternatively, my temperament has undergone some transformation over the years. The unexpected outcome may also indicate that systems have limited value, and no human being, in his or her full-orbed complexity, can or should be pigeonholed. Take the quiz and share your results with me through the above website.

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Royally ugly

Even though I am a monarchist in my politics, I am not a royal watcher of the House of Windsor—unless Netflix’s The Crown qualifies. Nonetheless, I could not pass up on sharing a photograph of the royal family donned in ugly Christmas sweaters, thanks to Madame Tussauds London. In case you think the family looks a bit fake, they are . . . wax figures.

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Cultivating a cultural imagination

From the Center for Faith & Work: “… where my soul is floodlit by light which space cannot contain, where there is sound that time cannot seize, where there is a perfume which no breeze disperses, where there is a taste for food no amount of eating can lessen, and where there is a bond of union that no satiety can part. That is what I love when I love my God.” – Augustine

All human beings long for transcendence. The yearning for something holy, something higher than what we currently experience or know, can be the spark for so much of our work. But if that longing isn’t active, if our imagination atrophies and we can no longer see the unseen, work can seem meaningless. So how does the imagination stay active? And how does our common longing for what’s transcendent shape communities and industries? Author and cultural commentator David Brooks sheds new light on the reality of our common longings and the hope that it bears for our society.

David Brooks became an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times in September 2003. He is currently a commentator on “The PBS Newshour,” NPR’s “All Things Considered” and NBC’s “Meet the Press.” He is the author of Bobos In Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There and On Paradise Drive: How We Live Now (And Always Have) in the Future Tense. In March of 2011 he came out with his third book, The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement, which was a number 1 New York Times bestseller.

Proust Questionnaire

French essayist and novelist Marcel Proust filled out a questionnaire at age 13 and then at age 20, which is known called the Proust questionnaire. The 19th century parlor game popularized by contemporaries of Proust was believed to reveal an individual’s true nature.

  1. What is your idea of perfect happiness?Proust
  2. What is your greatest fear?
  3. What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?
  4. What is the trait you most deplore in others?
  5. Which living person do you most admire?
  6. What is your greatest extravagance?
  7. What is your current state of mind?
  8. What do you consider the most overrated virtue?
  9. On what occasion do you lie?
  10. What do you most dislike about your appearance?
  11. Which living person do you most despise?
  12. What is the quality you most like in a man?
  13. What is the quality you most like in a woman?
  14. Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
  15. What or who is the greatest love of your life?
  16. When and where were you happiest?
  17. Which talent would you most like to have?
  18. If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
  19. What do you consider your greatest achievement?
  20. If you were to die and come back as a person or a thing, what would it be?
  21. Where would you most like to live?
  22. What is your most treasured possession?
  23. What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?
  24. What is your favorite occupation?
  25. What is your most marked characteristic?
  26. What do you most value in your friends?
  27. Who are your favorite writers?
  28. Who is your hero of fiction?
  29. Which historical figure do you most identify with?
  30. Who are your heroes in real life?
  31. What are your favorite names?
  32. What is it that you most dislike?
  33. What is your greatest regret?
  34. How would you like to die?
  35. What is your motto?

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The great god Gun

PhotoAs a foreigner in the Lone State State, I have observed that many Texans cling to their guns with a disturbing religious zeal. My casual observation now finds articulation in a searing meditation by Pulitzer Prize-winning author, journalist and historian Garry Wills, who now holds the Alonzo L. McDonald Family Chair on the Life and Teachings of Jesus and Their Impact on Culture at Emory.

Few crimes are more harshly forbidden in the Old Testament than sacrifice to the god Moloch (for which see Leviticus 18.21, 20.1-5). The sacrifice referred to was of living children consumed in the fires of offering to Moloch. Ever since then, worship of Moloch has been the sign of a deeply degraded culture. Ancient Romans justified the destruction of Carthage by noting that children were sacrificed to Moloch there. Milton represented Moloch as the first pagan god who joined Satan’s war on humankind:

First Moloch, horrid king, besmear’d with blood
Of human sacrifice, and parents’ tears,
Though for the noise of Drums and Timbrels loud
Their children’s cries unheard, that pass’d through fire
To his grim idol. (Paradise Lost 1.392-96)

Read again those lines, with recent images seared into our brains—“besmeared with blood” and “parents’ tears.” They give the real meaning of what happened at Sandy Hook Elementary School Friday morning. That horror cannot be blamed just on one unhinged person. It was the sacrifice we as a culture made, and continually make, to our demonic god. We guarantee that crazed man after crazed man will have a flood of killing power readily supplied him. We have to make that offering, out of devotion to our Moloch, our god. The gun is our Moloch. We sacrifice children to him daily—sometimes, as at Sandy Hook, by directly throwing them into the fire-hose of bullets from our protected private killing machines, sometimes by blighting our children’s lives by the death of a parent, a schoolmate, a teacher, a protector. Sometimes this is done by mass killings (eight this year), sometimes by private offerings to the god (thousands this year).

The gun is not a mere tool, a bit of technology, a political issue, a point of debate. It is an object of reverence. Devotion to it precludes interruption with the sacrifices it entails. Like most gods, it does what it will, and cannot be questioned. Its acolytes think it is capable only of good things. It guarantees life and safety and freedom. It even guarantees law. Law grows from it. Then how can law question it?

Its power to do good is matched by its incapacity to do anything wrong. It cannot kill. Thwarting the god is what kills. If it seems to kill, that is only because the god’s bottomless appetite for death has not been adequately fed. The answer to problems caused by guns is more guns, millions of guns, guns everywhere, carried openly, carried secretly, in bars, in churches, in offices, in government buildings. Only the lack of guns can be a curse, not their beneficent omnipresence.

Adoration of Moloch permeates the country, imposing a hushed silence as he works his will. One cannot question his rites, even as the blood is gushing through the idol’s teeth. The White House spokesman invokes the silence of traditional in religious ceremony. “It is not the time” to question Moloch. No time is right for showing disrespect for Moloch.

The fact that the gun is a reverenced god can be seen in its manifold and apparently resistless powers. How do we worship it? Let us count the ways:

1. It has the power to destroy the reasoning process. It forbids making logical connections. We are required to deny that there is any connection between the fact that we have the greatest number of guns in private hands and the greatest number of deaths from them. Denial on this scale always comes from or is protected by religious fundamentalism. Thus do we deny global warming, or evolution, or biblical errancy. Reason is helpless before such abject faith.

2. It has the power to turn all our politicians as a class into invertebrate and mute attendants at the shrine. None dare suggest that Moloch can in any way be reined in without being denounced by the pope of this religion, National Rifle Association CEO Wayne LaPierre, as trying to destroy Moloch, to take away all guns. They whimper and say they never entertained such heresy. Many flourish their guns while campaigning, or boast that they have themselves hunted “varmints.” Better that the children die or their lives be blasted than that a politician should risk an election against the dread sentence of NRA excommunication.

3. It has the power to distort our constitutional thinking. It says that the right to “bear arms,” a military term, gives anyone, anywhere in our country, the power to mow down civilians with military weapons. Even the Supreme Court has been cowed, reversing its own long history of recognizing that the Second Amendment applied to militias. Now the court feels bound to guarantee that any every madman can indulge his “religion” of slaughter. Moloch brooks no dissent, even from the highest court in the land.

Though LaPierre is the pope of this religion, its most successful Peter the Hermit, preaching the crusade for Moloch, was Charlton Heston, a symbol of the Americanism of loving guns. I have often thought that we should raise a statue of Heston at each of the many sites of multiple murders around our land. We would soon have armies of statues, whole droves of Heston acolytes standing sentry at the shrines of Moloch dotting the landscape. Molochism is the one religion that can never be separated from the state. The state itself bows down to Moloch, and protects the sacrifices made to him. So let us celebrate the falling bodies and rising statues as a demonstration of our fealty, our bondage, to the great god Gun.

The New York Review of Books: Our Moloch

Do not be afraid!

FaithHopeLoveHere are excerpts from a thought-provoking essay by Marilynne Robinson, America’s greatest living novelist (next to Cormac McCarthy). As a liberal Calvinist, she is a curiosity. Her two-fold thesis is spot-on: “contemporary America is full of fear” and “fear is not a Christian habit of mind.” Robinson reminds me of how Jesus often rebuked his disciples’ faithlessness, saying “Do not be afraid!”, and of how David yields his fear to God when the Philistines seized him in Gath, praying: “When I am afraid, I put my trust in you. In God, whose word I praise, in God I trust; I shall not be afraid. What can flesh do to me?” (56:3-4).

America is a Christian country. This is true in a number of senses. Most people, if asked, will identify themselves as Christian, which may mean only that they aren’t something else. Non-Christians will say America is Christian, meaning that they feel somewhat apart from the majority culture. There are a large number of demographic Christians in North America because of our history of immigration from countries that are or were also Christian. We are identified in the world at large with this religion because some of us espouse it not only publicly but also vociferously. As a consequence, we carry a considerable responsibility for its good name in the world, though we seem not much inclined to consider the implications of this fact. If we did, some of us might think a little longer about associating the precious Lord with ignorance, intolerance, and belligerent nationalism. These few simple precautions would also make it more attractive to the growing numbers among our people who have begun to reject it as ignorant, intolerant, and belligerently nationalistic, as they might reasonably conclude that it is, if they hear only the loudest voices.

There is something I have felt the need to say, that I have spoken about in various settings, extemporaneously, because my thoughts on the subject have not been entirely formed, and because it is painful to me to have to express them. However, my thesis is always the same, and it is very simply stated, though it has two parts: first, contemporary America is full of fear. And second, fear is not a Christian habit of mind. As children we learn to say, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me.” We learn that, after his resurrection, Jesus told his disciples, “Lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.” Christ is a gracious, abiding presence in all reality, and in him history will finally be resolved.

These are larger, more embracing terms than contemporary Christianity is in the habit of using. But we are taught that Christ “was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made….The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” The present tense here is to be noted. John’s First Letter proclaims “the eternal life which was with the Father and was made manifest to us.” We as Christians cannot think of Christ as isolated in space or time if we really do accept the authority of our own texts. Nor can we imagine that this life on earth is our only life, our primary life. As Christians we are to believe that we are to fear not the death of our bodies but the loss of our souls.

We hear a great deal now about the drift of America away from a Christian identity. Whenever there is talk of decline—as in fact there always is—the one thing that seems to be lacking is a meaningful standard of change. How can we know where we are if we don’t know where we were, in those days when things were as they ought to be? How can we know there has been decline, an invidious qualitative change, if we cannot establish a terminus a quo? I propose attention to the marked and oddly general fearfulness of our culture at present as one way of dealing with the problem. In the twenty-sixth chapter of Leviticus we find a description of the state the people of Israel will find themselves in if they depart from their loyalty to God: “The sound of a driven leaf shall put them to flight, and they shall flee as one flees from the sword, and they shall fall when none pursues. They shall stumble over one another, as if to escape a sword, though none pursues.”

Now, of course, there are numbers among us who have weapons that would blast that leaf to atoms, and feel brave as they did it, confirmed in their alarm by the fact that there are so very many leaves. But the point is the same. Those who forget God, the single assurance of our safety however that word may be defined, can be recognized in the fact that they make irrational responses to irrational fears. The text specifies the very real threat that fear itself poses—“you shall have no power to stand before your enemies.” There are always real dangers in the world, sufficient to their day. Fearfulness obscures the distinction between real threat on one hand and on the other the terrors that beset those who see threat everywhere. It is clear enough, to an objective viewer at least, with whom one would choose to share a crisis, whose judgment should be trusted when sound judgment is most needed.

* * *

I defer to no one in my love for America and for Christianity. I have devoted my life to the study of both of them. I have tried to live up to my association with them. And I take very seriously Jesus’s teachings, in this case his saying that those who live by the sword will also die by the sword. Something called Christianity has become entangled in exactly the strain of nationalism that is militaristic, ready to spend away the lives of our young, and that can only understand dissent from its views as a threat or a defection, a heresy in the most alienating and stigmatizing sense of the word. We are not the first country where this has happened. The fact that it was the usual thing in Europe, and had been for many centuries, was one great reason for attempting to separate church and state here.

Jesus’s aphorism may be taken to mean simply that those who deal in violence are especially liable to suffer violence. True enough. But death is no simple thing when Jesus speaks of it. His thoughts are not our thoughts, the limits of our perceptions are not limits he shares. We must imagine him seeing the whole of our existence, our being beyond mortality, beyond time. There is that other death he can foresee, the one that really matters. When Christians abandon Christian standards of behavior in the defense of Christianity, when Americans abandon American standards of conduct in the name of America, they inflict harm that would not be in the power of any enemy. As Christians they risk the kind of harm to themselves to which the Bible applies adjectives like “everlasting.”

The New York Review of Books: Marilynne Robinson, Fear