Gaudy Night

I recently finished re-reading Gaudy Night, by Dorothy L. Sayers. It is the second to last of her Lord Peter Wimsey novels and, in fiction at any rate, may reasonably be considered her magnum opus. (As a warning, this is not a review but just the jotting down of some thoughts. It is meant for those who have read the book or who don’t mind spoilers. If you’re neither person, you would be best advised to put his post down and go read Gaudy Night. As the standard joke runs: go do it now. I’ll wait.)

Reading Gaudy Night is always a mixed experience for me. On the one hand, it’s a a triumph of a book. It’s got some of the most vivid, living characters I’ve ever encountered in fiction. It’s got an excellent plot which is excellent both as a mystery and as a story of the characters who are caught up in the mystery. It has an excellent setting. It is very well told. It has fascinating and important themes. It handles the long-running romance between Lord Peter and Harriet Vane with great skill and brings it to a very satisfying conclusion.

So, what’s the problem?

The problem is related to why the atheistic children of atheists can’t tell good stories. This might sound strange to the people who know that Dorothy L. Sayers was a very well educated and intelligent Christian woman. There are better examples of it, but her book The Mind of the Maker, for example, is none the less a good example of the fact.

The problem is that there are limits to how good a story even a Christian can tell with atheistic characters. The atheistic child of atheists is far more limited because he simply has no good stories to tell. Atheism is the supposition that life is not, in fact, a narrative, but merely a meaningless set of coincidences. Such a person can suspend his disbelief, but he will simply have nothing to suspend it for. His parents will not have told him any really human stories, and being an atheist himself he will not have encountered them, either.

A different, but related, problem faces the Christian who is writing a story entirely about atheists. It is that all good stories must flow out of the characters in them. Characters who do not generate the story but to whom the story simply happens are not characters but mere props, possibly of the seen characters and possibly of unseen characters. And the most you can get out of atheistic characters is seeing the problems of life.

Atheists cannot have answers to any of the problems of life for the very simple reason that atheism does not allow for the possibility of meaning in life. (They will whine to you about “the meaning they give their life”. It is nothing but awkward when an adult tells you about the games of pretend they like to play. I mean that literally, by the way. The meaning an atheist chooses to give to life exists only in his mind and goes away as soon as he stops creating it. This is no different than pretending to ride a giant seagull named Harry.)

All themes raised in a book with only atheistic characters—or where the only non-atheists are fools—can thus never say anything about the themes it brings up except to point out that some false answer or other is not true. This can be valuable but it cannot be satisfying. It’s going to dinner and being told that the ham is poisoned. It’s good to know. One leaves just as hungry as one came, though.

One of the great themes of Gaudy Night is that principles hurt people. But it leaves unexplored—or only implicitly explored—that a lack of principles hurt people even more. And, more to the point, that it is only principles that make living worthwhile in the first place.

For example, when Annie was complaining that the lie her historian husband had told never hurt anyone, no one pointed out to her that the only reason he had even had his job in the first place was because he was trusted to tell the truth. If they were to abandon the principle that the truth mattered, he’d have lost his job, instead of by being the wrong man for the job, but by there being no job at all.

Instead they talked of how the truth is important than personal attachments. And so it is; anyone who loves father and mother more than Christ is not worthy of him. But this is a Christian idea—as is, really, the university. I don’t mean that students coming to wise men to learn is Christian—one obviously finds that throughout time and place. Rather, the idea that all of the truth is sacred is a uniquely Christian attitude. You simply don’t find it outside of Christianity; everyone else takes the far more reasonable position that there are big truths and little truths and the latter are inconsequential compared to the former. Most people hold that here’s one truth of overriding importance and everything else should give way beside it. It is not truth that Christianity elevated. To love some truth is simply to be human. It is the elevation of little truths that is uniquely Christian. Christianity is unique among the religions and philosophies of the world for raising up the lowly. All sane men agree that life is a hierarchy; the unique contribution of Christianity is not that the lower should serve the higher, but the higher should also stoop down to serve the lower. The very strange thing about Christianity is that the son of man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.

And this is what is uniquely Christian about a university. It is the attitude that facts which don’t matter, do matter. Which is why in our own time the universities are disintegrating before our eyes. Some take refuge in engineering; others take refuge in pretending that their incredibly minor disciplines are central to life. Most are simply taking advantage of the shade while the building is still standing. But anyone with eyes can see that the thing won’t be standing for many more decades.

In Dorothy L. Sayers’ time the conclusion was not yet so obvious, but the problem was certainly visible. The thing which prevents Gaudy Night from being a completely triumph is that, in the end, no one answered Annie. They didn’t answer Annie because no one had an answer. They didn’t have an answer for her because they didn’t have an answer for anyone. Atheists have no answers. It’s why they always feel so daring when they ask questions. They know, on some level, that merely asking questions will take a sledgehammer to the foundations and it will be discovered that the whole edifice is painted cardboard.

In the end, I think it’s very symbolic that the problem was dealt with “medically”. They had no arguments, they had only force. But they didn’t even have the courage of their convictions to use the force; they had to pay someone else who would soothingly pretend that they weren’t using force.

In a sense this conclusion was merely true to life. The events of the story take place in its year of publication: 1935. World War II was four short years off, but you could hear it coming in Gaudy Night. The project of living a Christian life without being Christian was coming to a close. Which ultimately makes Gaudy Night a book about failure. It’s a very good book, and a very important book. But this limits it. Failure is, in this world, only a prelude. The true story of life is, ultimately, about victory.

If you like Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries, consider checking out my own murder mystery, The Dean Died Over Winter Break.

No, Not All Are Welcome

I was recently reminded of a rather bad hymn that seems to be standard in american Catholic hymnals: All Are Welcome.

Let us build a house where love can dwell
and all can safely live,
a place where saints and children tell
how hearts learn to forgive.
Built of hopes and dreams and visions,
rock of faith and vault of grace;
here the love of Christ shall end divisions.
All are welcome, all are welcome,
all are welcome in this place.

Granted it suffers from the problem that many hymns written in the post-war period suffer from: it’s really about man, not about God. However, that’s not why I despise it. I despise it because it’s a lie.

All are most certainly not welcome in the place that hymn is sung. The only place in the world of which that’s true is prison. Everywhere else has membership requirements. Whatever they sang, the hippy-dippy hippies who sang this with all of the enthusiasm they could muster would ask the chainsaw-wielding man covered in filth and screaming obscenity-laced death threats to come back some other time.

Some will object that they mean that the man is welcome once he puts away his chainsaw, takes a bath, and speaks politely. So what? It’s not a meaningful sort of inclusiveness to say that one will accept anyone who conforms to the group’s demands. What’s special about that? Everyone will accept those who make themselves acceptable.

Of course, the example I gave, while sufficient to prove the theoretical point, is not realistic. And it’s precisely the realistic extreme example which sheds a lot of light on the theme of that time and the very contrasting theme of our time.

The realistic example is the man in the sweater vest who is openly fornicating and openly saying blasphemies in a normal speaking voice. And the hippy-dippy hippies who sang All Are Welcome did, in fact, let him stay.

There is, of course, a parallel in secular culture. The flagrantly fornicating man who “flirted” with all of the women at the office was welcome too. Modern mythology holds that this was the norm throughout history until fifteen minutes ago but even a cursory familiarity with movies and television from the 1950s and before would tell one that a man who talked openly of sex in the workplace, not just in front of women, but to them, would never have been tolerated.

This is, after all, the repression which the 1970s loved to criticize. Today we call it sexual harassment rather than impropriety but apart from the language a man being fired for “being too free with the ladies” differs only in terminology. But in the 1970s all were welcome, even the sexual harassers.

Our society prefers to call “polite society” by the name “safe spaces” but the thing to which the name refers is the same. There are places and times when people must restrain their impulses and behave in a way that makes everyone comfortable. The idea that everyone should become comfortable with everything simply doesn’t work.

At the same time we see secular culture clawing its way back to propriety in public places we see religious culture clawing its way back to the idea of sacred spaces. Sacred means “set apart” and a thing is set apart not by having walls and doors but by what is and is not done in them. That first part is as important as the second; when it comes to the sacred sins of omission are the equals of sins of commission.

I do not yet know what it was that animated the spirit of the 1960s and 1970s—what it was that made the hippies so dippy that they thought that if they broke down all barriers everyone would somehow get along. (The obvious guess is the devastation of the first two world wars, especially in Europe, and those combined with the trauma of racism in the United States.)

It had the very curious property that it sounded Godly but was actually diabolic—I mean in the original sense of the Greek “diabolein”: to scatter. The diabolic scatters man from man and prevents unity. So surely getting everyone together should be the opposite?

But this is a fallen world and men will not all get along. If you try to force them to all that will happen is that you will break down true friendship and camaraderie. Those need safe spaces in which to grow.

If you let the heretics into church they will not worship God with you. They will only keep you from worshiping God. It is no accident that Christ said:

Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man’s foes will be those of his own household. He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and he who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for my sake will find it.

An even more apt quotation would be what the angels said at the birth of Christ. Curiously, the version most people are familiar with, which comes from the King James translation of the bible, is very badly translated:

Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace, good will toward men.

Bu when it is translated more accurately, you get something like (this one is from the Revised Standard Version):

Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom he is pleased.

Just so you can see the main idea in the variety, here’s an alternative translation which is also faithful to the original text (The New Jerusalem Bible):

Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace for those He favours.

Peace is the ordering of the world to the good. That is, it is a rational ordering of the world according to its nature. But a rational ordering must be in a mind and for it to be a property of the world and not merely imposed on the world it must be in the mind of the world’s maker.

Peace is the ordering of the world according to God’s will. Peace is only possible, therefore, among those who do his will. Those who do only their own will can never be at peace with God or each other. 

Which is why people must set themselves apart so that they can get along.

The age of universal peace is finally over. We can now get back to the business of getting along with each other.

The Frank Friar on Regrets

In a video which I highly recommend, The Frank Friar talks about regrets:

I really like how he distinguishes a proper resolve to make amends where making amends is possible and an inordinate attachment to the past where action in the present isn’t possible.

Much of life is reducible to: do what you can and trust God for the rest. But it can be very beneficial to see the specifics of that in each circumstance because that sort of fundamental orientation is hard, in this fallen world, to achieve.

Natural Theology and God’s Essence

I received an email with an interesting question:

The classical theistic tradition makes it well known that any knowledge of God’s essence is impossible, and even advances several argument as to why this is the case. However, if this is correct, I can’t really understand how the arguments from natural theology can give us any knowledge of his existence: isn’t the point of those arguments to show that God just is his existence itself, that is, that in God essence and existence are one and the same? Wouldn’t this mean that knowledge of his existence is also knowledge of his essence? And the latter being impossible, aren’t we left with a contradiction?

There are two answers to this. They depend on how one answers the question of whether we can predicate anything of God by analogy or whether we can only negatively predicate things of God.

I fall into the former camp and hold that one can predicate things of God by analogy. Thus when we say that God exists, we mean something which is analogous to our own existence but not something which is known in its entirety to us. To make a poor analogy but one that points in the right direction, when we say that a flower is white, we are describing an aspect of its color but we’re not saying anything about what it looks like in spectra that we can’t see. (It is the case that most white flowers look different in the UV spectrum which some insects can see.)

To say what God is, completely, is beyond our ability. But it is not accurate to say that we can’t know anything about God.

Part of why I fall into this camp is that it doesn’t make sense for creation to not even be like its creator; if we do not reflect any of God, then from where do we draw our qualities?

However, it is possible to go the other way and to say that we can only negatively predicate things of God. (These are not, in general, the people who do natural philosophy.) In which case, you get this result:

it is wrong to say that God exists

(“It is wrong to say that God exists. It is wrong to say that God does not exist. But it is more wrong to say that God does not exist. –Saint Dionysius the Areopagite)

Accuracy vs. Charity

A curious experience I have from time to time is when discussing some sort of sin or other moral error, when I identify the lesser good aimed at, I’m told that I’m very charitable. This confuses me somewhat because my goal is not to be charitable, but merely to be accurate.

All sin is the seeking after of some lesser good in place of a higher good. The clearest and easiest example is idolatry—this is worshiping some created good as if it were the Creator. But that means that the idolater is seeking God in a creature. It’s not particularly charitable to note this; it’s simply accurate.

To take a slightly less obvious example, when a person is wrathful—i.e. indulging in excessive anger—they are placing the rectification of some wrong above the good of the injured party and the culprit. In true justice, a wrong done is rectified and a balance restored between aggressor and victim, so that they can return to their proper relationship of friends. When one is wrathful one seeks only to redress the wrong done to the victim, but not to restore the relationship between creatures. By giving an infinite weight to the good of which the victim was deprived, the wrathful person is never satisfied at the restitution and therefore ignores the greater good (once proper restitution has been made) of restoration of the proper relationship between sinner and victim. But saying that the wrathful person goes wrong by over-valuing the victim (or the good of which the victim was deprived which constitutes the injury to the victim) is not—in any way that I can see, at least—being charitable to the wrathful person. It’s just being accurate.

I suppose it’s possible that this is taken for charity because commonly people ascribe sin to the desire to do evil, but this is not actually possible. It’s simply a point of metaphysics that the will can only move towards some good, though it can move toward a lessor good in place of a greater good. As such, whenever a person goes wrong, you know with iron certainty that they were seeking some good, however minor. This doesn’t lessen their sin since it’s inherent in their sin being sin that they are seeking some (lesser) good.

Perhaps people think I mean that the one whose sin I’m explaining must therefore have sinned by accident, or been misled through no fault of their own? That certainly does not follow; we know from the fact that sin is voluntary that one can knowingly choose a lesser good over a greater good.

Oh well. Perhaps some day I’ll understand this.

Pride Vs Stupidity

Over on his blog, Mr. John C. Wright asks the question:

Why is the proud man angry or peeved with the stupidity (real or imagined) of his fellows? I ask because one would think a saint would be very patient with someone who was stupid, if it were honest stupidity, and not merely laziness in thinking. Whereas the devil (or Lex Luthor) is always in a state of haughtiest annoyance, because he is brighter than those around him. Their stupidity proves his superiority – yet it irks him. Why?

To answer this question we have to first answer the question, “what is pride?” (I’m taking the distinction between pride and vanity as a given.) A generally workable description of pride is an inflated sense of the worth of the self. This is, however—when properly considered—a symptom rather than a cause.

The cause of pride is a mistake about the nature of the self. This is inescapable because the value placed on something is inherently a description of its nature. (I should probably clarify that pride is an inflation of the inherent worth of the self—it’s not a utilitarian measure of the worth of the self to someone else’s purposes, as a means to their end. That’s actually a form of vanity.)

There are two possible mistakes to make about the nature of the self which aggrandize it:

  1. That one is a higher creature than one is, but still subordinate to God
  2. That one is God

While #1 is possible, I suspect it’s not the common mode of pride since it’s too subject to correctives. A human being who thinks that he’s an angel, for example, will have a hard time not noticing that he has a physical body and is, therefore, actually a human being. If he still thinks himself subordinate to God, he will in humility accept this recognition. It is, therefore, hard to see how #1 can be a long-lived error. Even Gulliver couldn’t think himself a Houyhnhnm for long at a stretch.

This leaves #2 as the common form of pride, and it is this form of pride in which stupidity angers the proud man. It angers him because it is proof that he is not God. The proud man wills that the people around him are not stupid and yet they are. This proves his limitations and therefore disproves his opinion of his own power. The larger the difference between what he wills reality to be and what it is, the greater the proof that he is not God, and therefore the greater is his anger.

Most of Life is Unknown

We live so awash in stories and news that we get a very skewed perspective on how much of real life is know to more than a few people and God. What got me thinking about this was watching the following song:

It was the theme song used by a sketch comedy group at the university I went to for my undergraduate degree. They were called Friday Night Live (as an homage to the TV show of similar name) and would put on a show about three times a semester. They had apparently been hugely popular when they started, which was at least a few years before I attended. I was in the rival sketch comedy group, Pirate Theater. At the beginning of my freshman year the attendance at our shows was lower than that of Friday Night Live, but by the end of my senior year the positions had reversed. Our audiences were 3-4 times larger and theirs were smaller even than our audiences had been in my freshman year.

A few years ago I ran into someone who was currently a student at the university and I asked about the shows. He said that Pirate Theater was still reasonably popular but Friday Night Live no longer existed. In fact, he had never even heard of it.

There had been a reasonably friendly rivalry between the two shows, and it turned out that our efforts brought success, in a sense. I don’t think that any of us pirates wanted to kill of Friday Night Live, and ultimately I suspect that it was the quality of their writing which did them in. For whatever reason (I never wrote sketches for FNL, so I couldn’t say what it was like to do so), Pirate Theater managed to attract far more of the skilled writers on campus. It also didn’t help that FNL insisted on having an intermission and hiring a local band to play in it. I think in all the time I was there—and I didn’t miss an FNL show all four years—they had one band that I didn’t leave the auditorium to get away from. Really, really cheap bands tend to be so inexpensive for a reason.

As you might imagine, I was never alone outside the doors when the band was playing. And they were always ear-hurtingly loud, too. Adding injury to insult, I suppose.

Towards the end of my senior year, there were probably less than a hundred people attending the Friday Night Live shows. The total number of people who saw their trajectory for those four years I watched it was not very large; the number who remember it now is probably much smaller. And yet the actors did work on their sketches, however little humor was in them. The “turrets family” where the “joke” was that there was a lot of yelling and cussing may not have been entertaining to watch, but it’s no easier to memorize unfunny lines, or to say them at the right time when you’re live on stage. (There was at approximately one of those per show, for all four years, by the way.)

One of the actors was limber and would do physical comedy with a folding chair, getting stuck in it. It wasn’t brilliant physical comedy, and (due to the lack of skilled writing) never really fit into the sketches it was in; one could see it coming a mile away as the sketches it was used in were basically an excuse to do the wacky chair antics. But someone did write the sketch, and people memorized it, and the actor did twist himself through a chair on stage which is not an easy thing to do. And I do have to say that the final time he did it—which was the last FNL show I attended since he graduated the same year I did—was actually kind of funny because it was actually a protracted goodbye dance with the chair, complete with sad music and longing glances.


This was all very real; people put real work, went through real happiness and sadness, and now it is mostly forgotten. That is ultimately the fate of (almost) all human endeavors. This was captured quite well, I think by Percy Blythe Shelley in his poem Ozymandias:

I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Most things fade from memory far faster, of course. How many people now remember more than a few fragments of Friday Night Live’s sketches? I don’t think I remember more than a few fragments of the Pirate Theater sketches which I wrote, let alone those I merely performed in. I do have a DVD with a collection of the video sketches we did (many of which I’m in), but it’s been quite some time since I watched it.

It may well be longer until I watch it again. In the intervening decade and a half, I’ve gotten a profession, married, bought a house, had three children, published three novels, made a YouTube channel with over 1,973 subscribers, and a whole lot more. As much a I value my memories of my college days, I don’t want to go back in the way that video takes one back.

But the thing is, that’s not a strength. I just don’t have the time and energy for it. But all the things I’ve done since which so occupy me now will also fade in time. Eventually I will die; eventually this house will fall down or be demolished; eventually my children will die. Nothing has any permanence within time.

So the only hope we have is for permanence outside of time. There’s a great metaphor, which Saint Augustine uses in his Confessions, of God, at the end of time, gathering up the shattered moments of our lives and putting them together as a unified whole. And that’s really the only hope we have for any of our lives to be real.

Gold Covered Chicken Wings

If you haven’t heard, there’s a restaurant which came up with the idea of gold-covered chicken wings. While there are all sorts of things which could be said about about the wisdom of buying such things, the thing I really want to talk about is the symbolism of the thing.

(Since there’s too much outrage on the internet, I think I should note in passing that due to gold’s astonishing brilliance with only a few atoms of thickness the wings are not actually wildly expensive. You can get 10 wings for $30, which for the location is probably a 3x markup—wasteful, but not very wasteful in absolute terms. You can easily get less food for more money in Manhattan.)

To see the symbolism of the thing, we need to consider what gold-plated food is. Unlike many heavy metals, metallic gold is (basically) inert, which is why it is safe as a food additive. But the fact that it’s inert also means that it has exactly no nutritional value, either. It’s not bad for you, it’s not good for you; it’s just there.

As such it’s an almost pure waste. I say “almost” because it does look pretty, though its beauty in the wrong place. If gold is to be present, it should be on the plates, where its beauty is not destroyed by the act of eating. It should not be on the food itself, where the beauty is destroyed by the act of eating. And that is, I think, the key to the symbolism.

My favorite version of the baptismal promises includes the questions:

Do you reject Satan?

And all his empty promises?

But there is another translation of the second question:

And all his empty show?

Gold-covered chicken wings seem to me an almost perfect illustration of Satan’s empty show. It looks like it has value—but has none—and the acceptance of it destroys even the slight good it uses as a bait.

Without Midwits, Geniuses Would be Useless

Over at Amatopia, Alex wrote an interesting post called, The Curse of the Midwit:

One of the worst things to be is a midwit. And I am one. Let me explain what I mean by “midwit.” I have seen the term used many ways, and they boil down to these six points: Someone who is not as smart as the truly intelligent, but is of above-average intelligence, Who wants other […]

As usual, it’s a post worth reading, but Alex only tells half the story. He talks about the dangers of midwits but every danger is just the flip side of a virtue. (Of a natural virtue, specifically. The natural virtues are things like intelligence, strength, physical beauty, health, and so on; they are distinct from the moral virtues like courage, self control, etc.; which are again distinct from the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love.)

In short, Alex leaves out the virtue unique to midwits. Now, in what follows I’m going to paint with a very broad brush because I don’t have time to give a full description of the hierarchy of being, so I ask you to use your imagination to fill in all that I’m going to leave vague.

As I’ve said before, God’s fundamental theme within creation is delegation (technically, secondary causation). He doesn’t give to each creature everything he gives to them directly, but instead gives some of his gift to other creatures to give to their fellow creatures on his behalf. Through this He incorporates us into his love of creation and into His creative action. But within creation, this theme of delegation echoes. Instead of one intermediary, God orders the world so that there are several intermediaries. He spreads the love around, as it were.

The part of that which we’re presently concerned with is that it is not (usually) given to geniuses to be able to give their knowledge to the great mass of humanity directly. And since it is (usually) not given to them, they generally can’t do it. When a genius speaks to a common man, he’s usually quite unintelligible. If the common man knows the genius to be a genius by reputation, he’ll assume the man is saying something too genius for him to understand, rather than to be raving nonsense, but he will typically get about as much from it as if the genius was raving nonsense. This is where the midwits come in.

A midwit can understand a genius, but he can also speak in ways that common men can understand. Thus God’s knowledge is given to the common man not directly, but first to the genius, who gives it to the midwit, who then gives it to the common man. Geniuses need midwits at least as much as midwits need geniuses. In truth, all of creation needs the rest of creation since we were created to be together.

Of course the distinction of men into three tiers—genius, midwit, and common—is a drastic oversimplification. In reality there are levels of midwits and levels of geniuses, each of which tends to receive knowledge from the level above it and pass knowledge down to the level below it. For example, Aristotle would have had the merest fraction of the effect he has had were it not for an army of teachers, down through the millenia, who have explained what he taught to those who couldn’t grasp it directly.

Of course in this fallen world every aspect of this can and often does go wrong in a whole myriad of ways. And Alex is quite right that midwits can be very dangerous when they consider themselves geniuses—or really, any time that they’re wrong—because the sacred burden of teaching the great mass of common men has been given to them. Midwits have the power to do tremendous good, which means that they have the power to do tremendous harm.  But the tremendous good which midwits were given to do should never be forgotten just because many of them don’t do it.

Thinking about Hell

One of the questions within Christian theology is how many people (i.e. human beings) will end up in hell? There is no definitive answer. While there are people the Church knows to be in heaven (canonized saints), there are no people which the church definitively knows to be in hell. As such, it’s theoretically possible that the answer to the question of how many people wind up in hell is zero.

Theoretically possible, but not very likely. A bit of experience with humanity suggests that the number is definitely higher than zero. And our Lord Himself spoke rather more often about the narrowness of the gate to heaven than about anything which can be taken to be about universal salvation. Which is why many pre-modern scholars such as Saint Thomas Aquinas and Saint Augustine held that most people would be damned.

There’s a lot one can say on this subject, but it’s not really what I want to talk about now. Instead, the thing I want to talk about is how poorly suited to this subject human reason is. And the problem is that, as far as nature goes, we should all go to hell. That heaven is not devoid of human beings is super-natural. It is mercy surpassing justice.

And because it is not a natural state, but a super-natural state, which we are in, our intuition is pretty much useless on the subject.

Christ Change the World Twice

There were two ways in which Christ utterly and completely changed the world forever.

First, by the incarnation, Christ forever elevated the status of matter. No longer could matter be looked down upon as something unworthy of spirit, because God took on a body.

Second, by rising from the dead Christ defeated death. No longer is death the victor over life; now we can say with the Apostle, O Death, where is thy sting?

I find this interesting because human reasoning would tend to expect the savior of the world to change the world in only one way—by saving it. Elevating its dignity as well seems like too much to ask.

Discerning Reality From a Dream

“What if real life is actually a dream?”  is a favorite question of Modern philosophers and teenagers who want to sound deep. It’s a curious thought experiment, but in reality we can all easily tell the difference between reality and a dream. But how? The answer is, I think, very simple, but also telling.

Thought experiments aside, we can tell reality from a dream because—to put it a little abstractly—reality contains so much more information than a dream does. Anything we care to focus on contains a wealth of detail which is immediately apparent to us. Whether it’s the threads in a blanket or the dust in the corner of the room or just the bumps in the paint on the drywall, reality has an inexhaustible amount of complexity and detail to it.

Dreams, by contrast, are very simple things. They feel real only because we’re so caught up in the plot of our dream that we’re not paying enough attention to ask ourselves the simple question, “is this a dream?” But if you pay attention, dreams have almost no detail in them; the things in the dream only have properties where one is paying attention. This is also why they have a “dreamlike” quality to them—if we turn away then come back, they may not be the same because they stopped existing while we weren’t looking at them.

And here we come to the fitting part: the difference in richness between reality and dreams shows what inadequate Gods we are. Our creations are insubstantial, inconsistent wisps. We can tell reality from a dream at a glance between it only takes one glance at reality to know that we couldn’t have created what we’re looking at.

UPDATE: I’ve rewritten and expanded this post in a way that makes its point clearer: Telling Reality From a Dream

Articles About The Poor Should Define Their Terms

I don’t have a particular article in mind here, I’m talking about many articles I’ve seen over the years, but there’s almost a genre of article using the poor as a club with which to beat Christians. This originates from the fact that Christians have a very important and undeniable duty to the poor. Christ himself said, in a parable, “inasmuch as you have done it unto the least of these, you have done it unto me”. There’s a lot to say about about the poor, but it seems to me that much of it is never said.

The most obvious thing to say about the poor being, who is the poor. There are lots of definitions which are used in practice, but at the same time the sort of article I’m thinking of almost goes to trouble to avoid defining the poor. The most popular definition implicitly used seems to be “people whose annual income is below 20% of the GDP”. Of course, the moment an author admitted that he was using this definition he’d have very little to say. For several reasons, not the least of which is that someone earning 19% of the GDP and someone earning 1%  of the GDP have very different incomes. In writing the sort of article I’m thinking of, the author always treats everyone in the group as if they’re in the 1% group. But almost worse than this is that what really matters to quality of life (except as modified by envy) is not relative income, but buying power. If it is reasonably possible to feed yourself, clothe yourself, keep your thirst slaked, etc. on 5% of GDP, then this is not the poor Jesus was talking about when he said “I was naked and you clothed me”. There are legitimate things to say about the poor when defined this way, but they’re not the same things one can say about a naked, hungry man who hasn’t had a drink of clean water in a day and a half.

Then there are the attempts to define poverty in terms of access to almost infinitely expensive things like unlimited medical care or financial security. Under those definitions, probably 99% of the population is the poor, so this sort of thing borders on silly. Not silly, but still problematic, is the attempt to define poverty in terms of things like “access to basic medical care”. And indeed one’s heart does go out to people who can’t afford even inexpensive medicines. But here are two big problems with this. The first and most obvious is that no one in Jesus’ day had access to what we now consider basic medical care, and it’s likely that no one alive today has access to what will be considered basic medical care in 200 years. And it would make many things Jesus said absurd if everyone he was talking to was poor because they didn’t have access to penicillin or hydrocodone. The other problem is that much of what we consider basic medical care is worthless or actively harmful. Using antibiotics for a viral infection, for example, leaves you worse off. Powerful opioids which leave you addicted were harmful. Gastric bypass surgery is most likely a terrible idea. And so forth. It doesn’t make sense to be the poor because you can’t harm yourself in the way rich people often do. This is not in any sense to say that it is not a tragedy when people suffer or die from diseases which are easily preventable with a few dollars’ worth of medicine, or that we as Christians shouldn’t endeavor to get those people that medicine. But that also doesn’t mean that people aren’t often glib about what “life saving medicine” actually is or how much it costs.

Then of course there are also simply outlandish things said about the poor. I’ve come across statements like “our entire economic system is built around exploiting the poor”. This is obvious balderdash under any reasonable interpretation. The poor—if you’re not defining them as anyone below the upper middle class—have fairly low economic output. This is not, of course, to blame them, but it remains that the poor don’t manufacture goods, or drive trucks, or provide professional services, etc. Poor people—in the sense of people who, say, can’t afford to eat every day—might possibly wait tables at cheaper restaurants, but this is  not a significant part of the modern economy. It’s a minor luxury which places from McDonalds to Panera show most people are quite willing to do without. The homeless man begging by the subway station obviously has no economic output at all. It’s quite defensible that Christians should be doing more for these people, but it’s utterly untenable that these people are the basis of the modern economy.

(I should note that it’s possible that people are referring to Chinese and other foreigner workers in countries with lower wages than that of the US when they say this sort of thing. If so, there are several problems here which are being ignored. First, that these people are working class, not poor, in their own lands. Perhaps they would be poor if they lived in America, but they’d also be rich if they lived in some parts of Africa. But they live in neither, they live in their own land. Second, this ignores all the goods which are actually made in America, which is—despite propaganda—actually quite large. American manufacturing is far more mechanized than it was 100 years ago or is today in many other countries, so it may be harder to notice this, but the US economy is not based on China. I looked up recent numbers and US imports from China were less than $500 Billion in a year, while the US economy was around $20 Trillion. That is, trade with China made up one fortieth of the US economy. Are there lots of things with “Made In China” on them? Yes. Would our economy crumble if we had to make 100% of our own stuff? Hardly. Even worse for the case at hand, this trade imbalance is a strategic decision on the part of China’s government which has worked to subsidize the export of goods in order to jump-start their manufacturing economy. This means that some of the costs that make Chinese labor cheap are born by the government as a form of investment. N.B. none of this is commentary on working conditions in China, which as I understand are improving but also related to Chinese cultural norms as Chinese factories are largely run by Chinese people. Working conditions should improve in China, but are not related to the present discussion except in the fantasies of people who have no idea how factories are run who imagine that safety standards are extremely expensive when in fact mostly they just require discipline, training, and awareness of how to manufacture goods safely. But—as should be a shock to no one—heat-stroked, exhausted workers aren’t very productive. About the only thing which does cost money is reducing environmental pollution, but pollution affects rich Chinese as well as poor Chinese, since everyone breathes the same air. Again, though, since all of Chinese trade is a small fraction of the US economy, a small increase in cost to goods through the Chinese improving their environmental regulations would have a very negligible impact on the US economy.)

And then there’s the problem with considering the rich in America because we have a fiat currency. That is, our money is not a physical thing of which there is a determinate amount. Our money is created by fiat by our government. (More properly, by a semi-autonomous organization created by the government for the purpose.) The fabulous wealth of the most wealthy citizens is, therefore, highly suspect. Don’t get me wrong, Jeff Bezos and Marc Zuckerberg are both very wealthy men, but even though Zuckerberg should be about to buy something like 42 aircraft carriers with his fortune, he certainly couldn’t. The further fact that much of our economy is debt-based rather than wealth based—while pretty obviously not a good idea—means that figuring out how wealthy or poor someone is is even more complicated. People of very modest incomes have way more buying power than you would expect on paper.

Since this is the internet, I will emphasize that I am not saying that there is no such thing as poverty, or that poverty isn’t a problem. What I am saying is that poverty is a complicated thing, with the word “poor” meaning many very different things. The poor, however one is defining them, should always be an object of love since they are God’s creatures, and not a club with which to beat people. Since everything seems to require a name these days, I suggest the preferential option for clarity.

Whence Comes the Book?

I read a curious article about a fan of The Mists of Avalon which is about her reaction to learning that the author of the book (Marion Zimmer Bradley) (allegedly) sexually abused her own daughter and other children. It’s curious because of the degree to which it regards the author indulging in astounding amounts of sexual evil as if it were simply a ritual impurity, rather than as something which might be woven into the book itself. A book which, by the reader’s own admission, was very unlike anything else:

I still cannot imagine anything more perfectly aligned with my thirteen-year-old sensibilities than Marion Zimmer Bradley’s masterpiece. Bradley opened my eyes to the idea that, when we look at the past, we are only ever seeing a small part of it — and usually, what we are seeing excludes the experiences of women. Encountering the vain, self-serving, diabolical Morgan le Fay transformed into the priestess Morgaine compelled me to question other received narratives in which women are to blame for the failures of men. The Mists of Avalon also gave me a glimpse of spiritual possibilities beyond male-dominated, male-defined religions. In retrospect, I can see that it gave me ways of seeing that helped me find the feminine even within patriarchal systems while studying religion as an undergrad. The impact of this book lingers in my feminism, certainly, but it also influenced my scholarly interest in folklore, and it still informs my personal spirituality.

And this is her analysis of the book in light of the revelations about the author:

The sexual act described [above] takes place around the Beltane fire. As a young reader, I was disturbed by it, but I saw it as a description of people who have passed beyond the normal world and into the sacred time of a fertility ritual. The scene was frightening for me as a child, and repellent, but also, I must admit, fascinating. In context, this passage made sense: The horror of the scene was an element of its power. And that was all I found. Everything I had always loved about the book was still there, and I didn’t find anything new to hate. So, what was I going to do with this book?

And finally, here is her conclusion:

So, what to do with this once-beloved book? I’ve read it once since Greyland spoke out, and I don’t know if I will read it again. Probably not, I’m guessing. Discovering that powerful men are predators is disturbing, but not surprising. Learning that the author who introduced me to feminine spirituality and the hidden side of history abused children — girls and boys, her own daughter — was horrifying in an existential kind of way. I’m a writer and an editor and I know that characters can exceed their creators. I would go so far as to say that that’s the goal. So I can keep Morgaine — what she has meant to me, what she has become in my personal mythology — while I reject Bradley.

This is a common thing I see in the modern world: assuming that all propositions stand alone, unconnected from all others, as if truth is not things fitting into each other but like a butterfly collection on unconnected facts.

This woman never asks herself whether the book teaching her to “question other received narratives in which women are to blame for the failures of men” is just Bradley trying to escape the blame for her own evil, projected. If in most other parts of the world, people who don’t rape their (and other) children take responsibility for their own wrongs, but a rapist teaches how to shuffle the blame off on others, perhaps the right course of action is not to keep the lesson that you should always shuffle the blame onto others.

Virtue is not a simple thing. Virtue is required for people to live together. Virtue is required for people to live together with everything, in fact, even nature. Virtue is what places us into a right relationship with the hierarchy of being. Evil people reject the hierarchy of being; they substitute their own for the real one. At the extremes you have Satan’s nolo servire—I will not serve. The more vicious an author is, the more one expects this to permeate every aspect of their being, because the fundamental solipsism of their orientation to the world cannot but touch on every interaction they have with the world. To learn life lessons from the book of a thoroughly wicked man is a fool’s errand; they will be right by accident. And since they will be right by accident, their effort will not be in making the truth attractive.

In short, if you’re going to sell your soul to the devil, don’t do it in exchange for wisdom.