All posts by Kevin O'Brien

The Church In Spite of Itself

Somehow in this corrupt and disappointing institution, there is at least one really great priest.

Obviously, there are many.  But today I met with a man who cannot be explained.  This crooked Church filled with crooked sinners (like me), a Church which can legitimately be prosecuted as a criminal organization under the RICO statues in the diocese of Altoona-Johnstown, has produced, in spite of everything, one really great, humble and holy priest.  I have met him, and I know him rather well.  I will not name him, because he would not want me to.  But he’s the real deal.

But … “are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles?” (Mat. 7:16)

The church in a shambles.  Cologne Cathedral, 1945.

Humanly speaking, an organization that appears as corrupt or at least as incompetent as the Catholic Church should not be able to put forth anything but thistles.

In other words, there is no human explanation for this.  Likewise, Cardinal Newman points out that there is no human explanation for the Church in history.

There have been many kingdoms before and since Christ came, which have been set up and extended by the sword. This, indeed, is the only way in which earthly power grows. … But the propagation of the Gospel was the internal development of one and the same principle in various countries at once, and therefore may be suitably called invisible, and not of this world.

He points out that not only did the Gospel spread without force of arms, on the efforts of an original rag-tag group of misfits we call apostles, but it sprang up as a group of local churches from community to community; local groups answering to a central authority that eventually stepped in and took the hollowed out shell of the Roman empire and made use of it; and you, as a Pagan, might be shocked that people you’ve known all your life are suddenly, even secretly, Christian and that an invasion and transformation of a worldly empire has taken place; and the empire replaced by something not of this world … and all of this, right under your nose.

How did this happen?  And how can a merely human institution produce saints?  The best human institutions can do wonders.  The Marines can produce a few good men.  The best colleges can produce great scholars.  But no one can produce a saint.  Even the family – the greatest of all earthly institutions – cannot produce saints, not even by trying.

How, then, do we find a few holy men and women here and there walking among us?

Seriously, the Church, especially the stump of a thing that calls itself “Church” in most of our parishes, by any human standard of judgment, should not be capable of this.

Anthony Esolen Out of the Ashes

Guess what?  There’s this really great online book club, started by my friend Brian Daigle of Sequitur Classical Academy in Baton Rouge.  It’s called The Pillar and it features online discussions of current books, classics and everything in between.

Last night The Pillar hosted a live webinar with Anthony Esolen, author of Out of the Ashes – Rebuilding American Culture, and Dr. Esolen said some remarkable things.

First, here’s a quote from Esolen’s book, culled by one of our book club members …

Say to yourselves and to your children…  We must be clear about this.  The world around us is not Christian.  It is not even sanely pagan.  It is quite mad and quite unhappy.  …We can minister to them only by being sharply distinct.  Those in the world…are longing for …the real language, which will restore to them the world’s lost beauty and goodness and point them towards what is beyond the world.

This is what the webinar did, in its own way.

The most memorable thing that Tony Esolen said in his hour-long visit with us was his answer to a question to from one of the attendees.  The questioner said (and I’m paraphrasing both the question and the answer, quoting from memory),

Q. “What would you have done differently 25 years ago when you began your career as an educator and a father, knowing, as you do now, how much the culture has decayed?”

Esolen became thoughtful, looked away from the camera, and replied from the heart.  “I would not have assumed that nature would fix things.  I assumed that my daughter, for instance, would manage to meet a good young man.  But even dating has vanished.  Boys no longer know how to approach girls.  We need dances – and not just occasionally, but all the time.  We need to teach boys how to get off their video games and approach girls – because it doesn’t happen on its own anymore.”

He continued with a memorable image.  “It’s a desert on one side, and a flood on the other.  It’s a desert of loneliness.  Not only is there no dating in that desert, there’s no friendship, no connection, no relationship with members of the opposite sex – period.  On the other side of the divide, in the flood, there’s the hook up culture, which is just as miserable and just as lonely, only in a different way.”

My friends, I can’t tell you how true this is.  It’s most serious for devout young Catholic women who are not sleeping around; but it’s bad even for secular women who are.  My most popular posts on my old blog, Waiting for Godot to Leave, were about the difficulties of dating and the complications of the Boy / Girl thing in the Devout Catholic world.

Esolen pointed out that, “The real vocations crisis is not in finding men for the priesthood – though that is a problem.  The great vocations crisis is in marriage.  It breeds all kinds of despair”.

That was the most memorable part of the webinar for me.  Here are a few more random notes I took while Esolen was speaking …


  • The word “productive” is a horrible word.  It’s a word borrowed from the factory.  Esolen (quoting Ruskin, I think) said, “Britain is productive.  Britain produces everything but men.”
  • If men gathered together as men, it might be possible for them, once more, to correct one another.  “Dude, get off the video games.  You’re wasting your life.  You have a family to provide for.  Start taking this seriously.”  If a wife says that to her husband, he will resist it and push back and tell her that she’s nagging.  But if his buddies say that when they’re together as a bunch of guys, he might listen.  “Male shaming” I think Esolen called it: men accusing other men of not being real men – when the need for such an accusation springs up … which, today, it frequently does.
  • Toleration is not simply “putting up with anything”.  It’s admitting a state of affairs is bad, that there’s something wrong with it, but that you’ll endure it, anyway.  “If your coworker is miserable and rude, you might be forced to tolerate this, but you don’t endorse it.”  Modern liberals, however, are not “tolerant” at all.  They seek power and the destruction of those who believe different things than they do.  (This from a man who has recently been more or less crucified by his own intolerant students and administrators at Providence College.)  And the politics behind much of this is the militant gay agenda.
  • At a recent fundraiser for St. Gregory the Great Academy in Pennsylvania, Esolen was impressed by the boys who reside there.  “They take away their phones and their computer.  The administration allows none of that – no internet, period.  Because they know that if the boys have access, they’ll be on porn and they’ll be poisoned.  Instead, the boys end up doing what boys used to do.  They go outside, they play sports, they have fun, they get in shape, and they build things.”
  • “The best young people I know were homeschooled.  They went to good Catholic colleges.  They got married.  They’re 23 with kids and they’re happy.  We need to witness to the secular world in this way.  The best example we can give to these other people is being holy and happy.  They will see us and say, ‘I want some of what they’re drinking’.”
  • The way to get back at bad bishops, especially those who impose “common core” on Catholic schools?  “Bishops are not well educated in the humanities.  Who is?  But they understand money.  Tell them, I am not supporting the schools you have forced common core on.  I’m giving my money to this classical Christian academy over here.  Tell them that.  They may not understand much, but they will understand the dollar sign.”
I was blessed to meet Anthony Esolen last month at the Prairie Troubadour Conference where we both spoke.  And last night’s webinar was almost as much fun as meeting him in person.
There’s more of this sort of thing at the Pillar Book Club, so check it out!
And even though things are very bad all around us – we now have online book clubs!  And good ones too!  So there are occasional silver linings – silver linings behind the clouds that promise the rain that will irrigate the desert in which we live.


When the Well Runs Dry

What is it about homilies on the Woman at the Well that annoys me so much?

The worst I ever heard was by a priest with horn-rimmed glasses, a creepy demeanor and an utter inability to relate to people, who said that Jesus “grew” in his encounter with the Woman at the Well.  He “grew” in learning the limitations of His own judgmentalism, prejudice and sexism.  This is why the reading is included in Lent, because Jesus needed Lent in order to overcome his own narrowness.  You see?

But a homily as bad as that is easy to spot.  The more dangerous homilies are those that do damage not by what they do say, but by what they do not say.

The homily I heard last Sunday, while on tour with my actress Maria, at a random parish we’d never been to before, was a good example.  Of the church itself, Maria said, “This church is so modern it must have been designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.”

“More like Frank Lloyd Wrong,” I countered.

But the art and architecture were not as bad as the music, and the music was not as bad as the constant chatter and party atmosphere before Mass, and the constant chatter and party atmosphere before Mass were not as bad as the homily.

And the heart of the homily was this: enthusiasm!  We need to leave our water jars behind and go spread the news about Jesus, as the Woman at the Well did.  We won’t be able to help it!  When we encounter Jesus we will be so excited that we’ll just have to spread the word!  We won’t be able to hold it in!  Apparently, we’ll just leave our water jar behind go and start to constantly chatter – like the people were doing before Mass started.

Pardon me, but this is so much BS.  And then it occurred to me: most people put their faith in BS.  But if Jesus Christ is anything, He is, at the very least, the antidote to BS – the BS we feed others, the BS they feed us, and the BS we feed ourselves.

But this is not the Jesus we encounter in homilies at Catholic parishes, in almost all cases.  He ain’t at that particular well, generally speaking.  Because at your local parish, you will be told to be enthused!  But the question remains: be enthused about what?  Or about whom?  In the Church of the Oprah, the Church of the Hallmark Channel, the Church of the Always Shape-Shifting Amoeba, we are constantly told to have faith, but we are never told what we are supposed to have faith in.  In our modern religion, there is no longer an Object to our Faith.

Terms have become indeterminate (and, for many bishops and theologians, deliberately so), and faith entirely subjective.

Newman spoke of this nearly 200 years ago, in explaining the tendency of Christians to assess the validity of their “walk with Christ” merely by how they felt about Him, and to be complacent and fruitless simply because they had a kind of vague religious sentiment – which, they were convinced, was the end of it.  Christ died, people believe, not to redeem us or reform us, and certainly not to call us to a greater and more awesome degree of maturity or completion as human beings, but to make us feel good about ourselves.  Which leads to the most shameful form of idolatry: idolatry of self.

They who make self instead of their Maker the great object of their contemplation will naturally exalt themselves, Newman wrote.

Which is what happens at almost every Mass I go to – the inane and insipid exaltation of self.  Our Lord remains in the Eucharist – but in the homilies, the art and architecture, the attitudes, the atmosphere, and above all else, in the deliberately dreadful music, we are self-absorbed.  And content with being self-absorbed!  That’s the part that amazes me.  (Perhaps the people who are not content with being self-absorbed are no longer coming to Mass.)

The Woman at the Well did not just encounter a vague feeling that made her excited.  She encountered God made man: a person who saw through her BS, saw past her half-lie about her so-called fifth “husband”, and pierced her soul the way we sinners would later pierce His side.  We are not told if she went on shacking up with the current dude or with the next one who came along, but if she did, then her “witness” to her neighbors is a witness against herself, regardless of how excited she was in the moment.

But this is never mentioned from the pulpit.  Repentance is hard and the cross is ugly.  Enthusiasm is fun, because enthusiasm can mean whatever each individual wants it to mean.

We can be fed by the sacraments at Mass – but in all other ways we are being starved.

Starved and deprived of water.

For the well – at least the well of self-indulgence – is running dry.

The Two Americas

The sophisticated entertainment of Branson, Missouri

In 1922 (95 years ago), GK Chesterton visited America and wrote that while the people of the American Mid-West grew their own food they did not grow their own culture.  They had their own agriculture, but not their own artistic culture.

“Their culture comes from the great cities; and that is where all the evil comes from,” he said.

Now, of course, this statement of Chesterton’s contains more than a touch of hyperbole.  Rural America is no more Eden than the slums of Detroit.  All the evil does not come from cities.  Eric Hoffer, in fact, used to write about how every innovation came from the city, and every provincial suspicion of an innovation came from the country.

But Chesterton, though exaggerating, was right.  And he was right about what we know to be true today, almost a hundred years later.  There are two Americas.  One is rural and voted for Trump.  The other is metropolitan and voted for Hillary.  (In other words, plenty to blame on both sides, but a radical split nonetheless.)

And these two Americas have two very different tastes in entertainment.  As I wrote a while back in the St. Austin Review about Branson, Missouri (which features entertainment for country bumpkins rather thank city slickers) …

There you’ll find the other America, the older culture, the culture of Families – which is to say the culture of kids. In Branson you’ll find mini-golf, all-you-can-eat buffets, and country music stage shows … Sure, there’s plenty of tacky souvenir shops, and you might find a motel or two shaped like Noah’s Ark, but it’s the other culture. It’s a culture that is what it is because it appeals to adults who live with and travel with children.

Metropolitan culture, by contrast, appeals not in an unsophisticated way to families with kids, but in a faux sophisticated way to the deliberately sterile – singles, gays and the voluntarily childless.

That’s the cause of the great divide in this country.  Generally speaking, if you have kids and care about their future, you will think one way and value certain things.  If you don’t have kids, if you don’t ever intend to have kids, or if you grudgingly have as few kids as possible, you will think another way and value other things.

And, it turns out, I am bi!

That’s right, readers.  I am bi!  I am bi-cultural.  I know these two cultures quite well.  I make my living performing my own comedy shows in rural wineries all over the mid-west.  And though our shows aren’t really kid-friendly, they are unsophisticated and fun: they are not the culture from the cities.  But I was raised in a city and in a suburb, for the most part.  I was raised a metropolitan.  I was as cynical and atheistic and as self-indulgent as they come.  And it wasn’t my Christian conversion that first began to change me and to help me appreciate the rural culture that I used to look down upon.

It was having kids.

In fact, having kids was the key to happiness in my life.  Before Colin and Kerry were born, I was entirely, supremely, naturally, wholly, completely, utterly, and obtusely selfish.  I was transcendentally selfish.  I was infinitely, eternally and ubiquitously selfish.  I was selfish as a matter of course.  I was selfish by choice.  I was selfish without the deliberation of choice.  I was simply (and completely) selfish.  In fact, I was (you might say) selfish.  Perhaps all single guys in their 20’s are selfish, but I was more selfish than most.  Even after I got married I was selfish.  (My wife would tell you I’m still selfish).

But babies – smelly, messy babies – they have a way of changing you.  Especially if you have to change them (their diapers, I mean).

(A picture of a smelly, messy baby)

Once you have babies, you learn two things …


  • Life is chaotic and you are no longer in control of anything any more.
  • There are suddenly creatures in your life that you would die for, without a moment’s hesitation.
And, therefore (thus and ergo), it’s not about you.  
St. Paul, quite simply, puts it this way, addressing both the Corinthians and all Christians, then and now …

No one should seek his own good, but the good of others.  (1 Cor. 10:24)

And then there’s the odd fact that, as they grow older, these babies look up to you.  To you, of all people!  Here you are, a walking idiot, and these trusting and innocent souls think the world of you.  (Ha!  The joke’s on them!)
It is a very humbling experience and, with any luck, it teaches you the great lesson of life: that life is all about love and failurebecause you can’t be a father without daily failure, and you can’t be a husband without a wife pointing that failure out to you.  Love and failure: in other words, the cross.
The great split that runs down our nation and right down the middle of our souls is the split between the part of us that has been “crucified with Christ” (Gal. 2:20), admitting that we are defeated, with all joy and life coming as a gift from without; and the part of us that says that we are sufficient unto ourselves and our artificial reality supreme and self contained: that we are the superman, deified, petit-gods, ever victorious on our own isolated terms.
And so, dear reader, if you’re down in the dumps, get married, make some babies, go to Branson and play some mini-golf.
And give glory to God in the process.

Saints vs Smart Alecks

When the Sadducees ask Jesus about marriage and the resurrection (Luke 20:27-40), they are not asking the question in good faith.  They are being smart alecks.  They are trying to trip Him up.  “So there’s a resurrection, huh?  Well what about a woman who is widowed seven times, whose wife will she be in the resurrection, huh?  Answer us that!”

This very same question could be asked in a genuine way, by a genuine seeker, a true student, asked in humility.  Our Lord’s answer is difficult and mystical, probably for the same reason He spoke in parables, so that those who were approaching Him in bad faith would be stymied.

… but unto them that are without, all these things are done in parables:  That seeing they may see, and not perceive; and hearing they may hear, and not understand; lest at any time they should be converted, and their sins should be forgiven them. (Mark 4:10-12)

Do we then, approach God, or approach anything in life, especially learning, with a know-it-all “eristic” attitude of pride and combativeness, or with the humility that will open our eyes and ears so that even parables and the mysteries of the resurrection may perhaps reveal their secrets to us?

In a similar way, the prideful suitors of Portia in The Merchant of Venice are flummoxed by their own characters, undone by their own wrong approach.

O these deliberate fools! When they do choose,

They have the wisdom by their wit to lose.

We can see this also in humor.  There is the comic who goes for the cheap laugh or the situation comedy that revels in mean sarcasm and vulgarity, in annoying double entendres and in something that, while it may make some people guffaw, does not bring the disarming and delightful insight that something truly funny brings us to.

Therefore St. Paul can condemn “eutrepelia” as being a form of irritating jocularity that always aims to please and to produce a superficial and crass looseness with the world, while others (including Aristotle) can point to eutrepelia as a virtue, a mean between “boorishness and buffoonery”.  The difference is in the spirit with which one approaches humor, or even good-naturedness.  Are we pleasant so as to be men-pleasers and close the sale?  Or are we pleasant because of our joy in the Providence of God?

How many of our bad moods are the result of taking ourselves too seriously?  How many of our good moods are mere masks to curry favor with others?  Do we argue in order to win, or in order to approach the truth or lead others to the truth?  Do we josh around to bring the conversation down, or because the cosmos is, in one sense, tremendously funny and God wants us to get the joke?

The Future Perfection

I have often been troubled by proclaiming that I believe in “one holy Catholic and apostolic Church” which is far from holy here and now.  One holy Church?  Where?  Holy?  How?  Yes, there are some saints I know who are alive and breathing, but the Church as a whole is far from holy.  I myself am far from holy.

Even more disturbing, when St. Paul asks, “How can we who died to sin still live in it?” (Rom 6:2) he’s asking a great question, because by our baptisms, we Christians are all dead to sin, and yet we all continue to live in it.

This has long bothered me, this view of what should be contrasted with the realization of what is.

But yesterday I read one of Bl. John Henry Newman’s Parochial and Plain Sermons that addressed this.

Although he did not use this quotation from St. Paul, it is a quotation that illustrates the point Newman makes.

Purge out therefore the old leaven, that ye may be a new lump, as ye are unleavened. (1 Cor. 5:7)

In other words, you are unleavened bread (not infected with the leaven of insincerity and duplicity, but direct and uninfected, straightforward and uncorrupted), and therefore remove the leaven that is in you.  You are pure, therefore become pure.

But … if we are unleavened, why do we need to become unleavened?  If we are unleavened, why are we puffed up with all this risen dough?  If the Church is holy, why is it filled with sinners?  If “it is no longer I who lives but Christ who lives in me”, then why am I still the same old selfish idiot I was before my baptism or my conversion?

Newman responds thus …


  • First, Our Lord tells us that “This gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations; and then shall the end come.” (Mat. 24:14)  The Gospel is preached, in one sense, as a witness against the nations, who will, in many ways, reject it.  Thus, the lack of faith and fidelity to Christ that we see around us ’twas ever thus.  Sanctification is not a social program but a mystery, and many, even many in the Church, don’t have time for this mystery.
  • But second, and more importantly, Scripture describes what God does from His point of view, from the point of view of the perfected end.  From the Divine perspective, God “hardens Pharaoh’s heart”, but from the human perspective, Pharaoh digs in his heels of his own free will until he reaps the fruit of his stubbornness – a heart of stone.  “Scripture more commonly speaks of the Divine design and substantial work, than of the measure of fulfillment which it receives at this time or that,” Newman writes.  God sees outside of time, His works whole and complete.  We see from within a process, fumbling about in our slow participation in God’s grace.  St. Paul, writing from the Divine perspective, tells his churches that they have “been quickened in Christ” (Eph. 2:5), Christ presenting Himself a “glorious Church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing” (Eph. 5:27) – saying these sorts of things all the while he is upbraiding his churches for their sins and venality (“O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? … After starting in the Spirit, are you now finishing in the flesh?” – Gal. 3:1-3), and at times even saying both things at once, “Your are pure, so make yourself pure” (“get rid of the leaven, since you are already unleavened”).  And therefore, the “elect” and “predestined” are simply those who cooperate with God’s grace, viewed by Him and described by Scripture from the eternal, and not the temporal, point of view: seen as perfect, and not in process.  They are described as “predestined” from the view of their final end; while they themselves, in time, are stumbling and rising again along their imperfect way.
  • Some of us satiric types, especially those poets among us, are pained by how short we fall from the elusive Kingdom that sometimes shows itself among us.  It is this vision of the Kingdom and of the true Church that tantalizes us.  We are granted rare visions of the Kingdom – of the Church as she will be, the spotless bride joined with the Bridegroom at the end of time, a vision of the Church as she actually is, in one sense, as she is in a reality that we strive to participate in.  We often don’t know what to make of such visions: to rejoice in them or to despair at how far off they seem.  But Newman says we are given these as “pledges” – “a pledge of God’s purpose, a witness of man’s depravity”.  In other words, when we see what could be, what should be, and in a way, what already is, albeit outside of time and outside of this world, we are given both a foretaste of heaven and a testimony to man’s depravity and of our own sinful nature, seeing both the light and the dark, the darkness (in a sense) made visible by the light.  For we are to look, we sinners, not merely at the glorious face of God, but at the contemptuous face of man who continues to turn from Him.

Love and Learning

I had the privilege of sharing the stage at the Prairie Troubadour conference two weeks ago with Anthony Esolen, one of the leading Catholic intellectuals of our day.  Rod Dreher quotes Anthony Esolen from his book Out of the Ashes (emphasis mine) … 

I should stipulate, here, that such programs should not be infested with professors who despise the material they are to teach. It is telling that I should have to say such a thing. For great art is human in this regard too: it does not give up its profoundest secrets except to those who love. Hatred clouds the eyes and hardens the heart. I do not like the Enlightenment, and I have my reasons; therefore I am not the ideal person to introduce students to Hume and Kant. Some people seem to believe that the only way to teach about Western civilization is as an exercise in self-loathing. Such people are not really critics—because the true critic still must love. You cannot have anything interesting to say about Racine and classical French tragedy if its severe moral analysis leaves you cold. Doctor Johnson loved Shakespeare immensely, and that makes his criticism of the bard’s pursuit of the “quibble,” the groan-rousing play on words, all the more impressive and revealing. Love reveals. It is an eye, as Richard of Saint Victor says. No love: no vision.

This can be one of the strengths of homeschooling.   The student is allowed, even encouraged, to discover what he or she loves and to study it.  This is one of the reasons I teach at Homeschool Connections.  I can teach what I love, and students who love what I teach can join me in sharing the vision.

By contrast, DC Schindler writes of

the boredom, the self-protectiveness, the banality, the absence of a sense of mystery and adventure, and the general disenchantment, that characterize a “de-eroticized” world such as that of contemporary America.

The cure for this is what takes us out of ourselves.  The cure for this is love.  With love comes hard work, sacrifice, frustration … but also new life, here and now, and a glimpse of a greater and newer life to come.

Why We Can’t Communicate

To explain why we can’t communicate requires some skill in communication.

I’m going to try to paraphrase an essay by Eric Voegelin.  But every time I enthusiastically share Eric Voegelin quotes with a friend, I lose that friend.  There seems to be something intimidating in the way Voegelin writes that makes people’s eyes gloss over.  So here, in essence, is what Voegelin says in his essay “Necessary Moral Bases for Communication in a Democracy”, with as few direct Voegelin quotes as possible.

Voegelin says that there are three types of Communication – Substantive, Pragmatic and Intoxicant.


  • Intoxicant communication is communication used as a drug.  Bad TV shows, most pop music, pornography – any kind of communication that people use not only as diversions, but as pain killers to plug the holes of their misery.
  • Pragmatic communication is any kind of communication that tries to get another person to do something.  Propaganda is the most obvious example of this type of communication, including advertising, but so is basic instruction in skills and techniques.  Unlike intoxicating communication, which is “toxic”, Pragmatic Communication is neutral, as it could encourage someone to do something good or something bad.
  • Substantive communication is “concerned with the right order of the human psyche.”  And the human psyche is only rightly ordered by the Love of God, or the orientation of our intellectual and moral capacity toward the Good, the True and the Beautiful, toward the transcendent reality in which we seek full participation.

Thus, Substantive Communication is good and it is most truly called “education”, but Pragmatic Communication is neutral and is merely indoctrination, while Intoxicant Communication is poisonous and is something worse than a pastime.

And yet, says Voegelin, Substantive Communication has vanished from our society, and all that is left is the Pragmatic and the Intoxicant.
Voegelin illustrates this by giving an overview of modern history.  People hold mere “opinions” these days and argue irrationally (eristically) to defend their “opinions” (see Facebook and any comment box on the internet) because our society is fragmented and we aren’t really trying to communicate, we are fighting an ongoing war.
The war started about five hundred years ago and had three major phases, which look like this …
  • Reformation, Counter-Reformation, Wars, Peace Settlements
  • French Revolution, Reaction, Wars, Peace Settlements
  • Totalitarianism, Liberalism, Wars, Peace Settlements
Voegelin says this is really not three wars, but one long campaign, marked by the removal of “the transcendental order in the community”.  Removing “the transcendental order in the community” means replacing the objective and recognized Good that is Beyond with a subjective and asserted good that is arbitrary and man-made.
Hobbes, Voegelin says, did this explicitly in the 17th century with Leviathan, replacing the community’s strive toward the highest good (summum bonum) with the human desire to avoid the greatest evil (summum malum).  Reason, from Hobbes on, is put at the service at the avoidance of suffering and death, and not at the service of life and higher purpose.
And with a remarkable insight, Voegelin says that the “substance of order” – the reality that once oriented society and was the subject of “Substantive Communication” – has degraded.  It has moved down the scale of Being.  The summum bonum has degenerating from
  • God, to
  • Reason enthroned in the Enlightenment, to
  • The pragmatic intellect (technology), to
  • Utilitarianism (mere usefulness), to
  • Economic equity (Marxism), to
  • The Master Race (Nazism), to
  • Biological Drives (Desire – our Gods are our bellies, as St. Paul describes it in Phil. 3:19)
And if you argue with a Fad Atheist of today, he’ll tell you that the Greatest Good is determined by “evolution” or biochemistry, which is a fancy way of saying “gonads”.
Once Communication is no longer an attempt to build a communion oriented toward Truth, then you have Unreality, or a Secondary Reality, or (as Voegelin calls it in this essay) a Substitute Substance.  It is not the real Substance that we seek to know and to join with, but the artificial one that we have put in its place.
Voegelin calls this the “ontological reduction” and says

A man who is confused about the essentials of his existence is incapable of rational action; and if he is incapable of rational action, he is incapable of moral action. If “opinion” is characterized by the conceptions of the nature of man and the order of society that have arisen in the course of the ontological reduction, the knowledge of the essentials of existence is badly disturbed.

In other words, if the highest good is what comes from our lowest organs … then what is there to communicate?  Substantive Communication is ruled out, and all that remains in Intoxication and Pragmatism – the latter being the forced molding of man into a new and inhuman thing, as expressed in Brave New World, 1984 and The Abolition of Man.

Moreover, the type of pragmatic communication that we have distinguished acquires a new and sinister meaning in this situation, insofar as communication becomes essentially pragmatic when it moves on the level of substitute substance. It cannot function as persuasion in the Platonic sense at all, but only induce conformist states of mind and conforming behavior.

In other words, not so much Communication as Bullying.

Misplaced Enthusiasm

We live in a world in which people think that enthusiasm fixes everything.

When I was a young man, I was enthusiastic, at least about one thing: women.  I wanted a Love Affair that Mattered.  And so I had an intense affair with a young woman who was as enthusiastic as I was and who I later referred to as my “Hitler Youth”.  She was a college student who was keen on Ayn Rand and Nietzsche and that whole “might makes right” crowd.  She had an undisguised contempt for the man in the street, including her chunky bourgeois father who was an utterly worthless human being, and she would have been happy disowning him completely (philistine that he was) except for one small detail: he paid her college tuition.  Daddy was Sugar Daddy, but was Stupid Daddy nonetheless.

And one of the things Daddy got wrong was his lack of passion.  He took it easy.  He didn’t know that, as Nietzsche says, “I say unto you: one must still have chaos in oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star.”  Hitler Youth and I loved that quote.  We didn’t know what it meant, but we loved it.  Her fat father, who worked 40 hours a week to provide for his family, in this woman’s eyes, was beneath contempt; we sensitive artists and readers, we elite, we had chaos in ourselves and we would give birth to a dancing star!  Yes, we would.  You just watch us!

We were obviously mismatched, Hitler Youth and I, but we were both Emphatic, both Intense, both on a deliberate rocket of emotion and “spirituality” – and the rocket was all about the thrust.  We didn’t know where we were going, but we were going there forcefully.  We were going to the dancing star.  But where the hell was the dancing star?

In Devout Catholic circles, you see the tragedy again and again of Misplaced Enthusiasm, of people who really really want their Faith to make a difference.  That’s laudable, especially since the vast majority of Catholics are indistinguishable from the secular bourgeois suburbanites who worship nothing in particular.  These Enthusiastic Catholics don’t want to be the typical parish soccer moms, they want to be Emphatically Christian.

Well, fine.  But of course you can be Christian, even emphatically Christian, and still be a soccer mom, still live in the suburbs, still do all the boring daily things that ordinary people do.

And the problem becomes not so much the rejection of the ordinary, but the strange and fantastic shapes a misplaced enthusiasm takes.

For one thing, there are cults within the Catholic Church, which the bishops and the Vatican refuse to rein in, in any serious way.  The great fraud of Fr. Maciel is the prime example, but there are others.  And yet lots of well-meaning Catholics get sucked into these unregulated movements, including the most damaging of them.

But, beyond that, there seems to be no direction in the Church on practical matters.  There’s lots of talk about the love of God, but not a word about how to put that love into practice, especially in the painful areas of our lives.  People are more than willing to make great sacrifices in areas that are safe – missionary work overseas (Protestants in particular specialize in this), and time and effort set aside for devotions and prayer, while more pressing matters that Christ is calling us to address are ignored.  It’s easier to pray a novena for your neighbor’s lumbago than it is to quit drinking so much and making your wife and kids miserable, for instance.

We are not able to imagine that Christ is willing to get down and dirty with us; that He wants to redeem not the easy stuff that we are willing to give to Him, but the hard stuff that we clutch at and refuse to bring to the light of day, keeping it hidden in the dark closets of our souls.

This is not to say that prayer or missionary work is wrong; what I’m saying is enthusiasm, like any form of love, needs to be channeled, focused, canalized, prioritized, made to work within boundaries, and that religious enthusiasm in particular should be focused on the very things we don’t want to deal with in our lives.  And guidance in this is very hard to find within the Church.  Giving your life for a cause is “sexy”.  Being a faithful husband and changing dirty diapers day in and day out is not “sexy”.  But most of us are called to the latter and not to the former.

The Parochial and Plain Sermons of Bl. John Henry Newman, which I am reading daily, are very good at making us aware of this.  Enthusiasm, like any emotion, has a purpose.  We don’t want to admit this; as with “art for art’s sake” we want “feeling for feeling’s sake”.

But Newman, nearly 200 years ago, told his Christian hearers what we never hear today …

Doubtless it is no sin to feel at times passionately on the subject of religion; it is natural in some men, and under certain circumstances it is praiseworthy in others. But these are accidents. As a general rule, the more religious men become, the calmer they become; and at all times the religious principle, viewed by itself, is calm, sober, and deliberate.

And he concludes, beautifully, solidly, simply …

One secret act of self-denial, one sacrifice of inclination to duty, is worth all the mere good thoughts, warm feelings, passionate prayers, in which idle people indulge themselves. It will give us more comfort on our deathbed to reflect on one deed of self-denying mercy, purity, or humility, than to recollect the shedding of many tears, and the recurrence of frequent transports, and much spiritual exultation. These latter feelings come and go; they may or may not accompany hearty obedience; they are never tests of it; but good actions are the fruits of faith, and assure us that we are Christ’s; they comfort us as an evidence of the Spirit working in us.

A Few Pointed Observations on Vagueness

I’ve been dealing with a challenging situation for the last two weeks, so I have not been posting.  Now  we appear to be past that, but I’ve got a major creative project that I hope to finish by Ash Wednesday, so I’m going to keep this post brief – then I plan on bugging my readers with frequent posts and videos and even podcasts during Lent!

I will be your penance, dear reader!

Meanwhile, a few observations … with bullet points (my favorite).


  • What is all this excitement about lack of boundaries?  Certainly we must take in refugees, but why is it that liberals don’t recognize the basic function of borders and boundaries, not only physical boundaries, but intangible ones?  We live in a world without form, without definition.  Ask someone to define something and you are called judgmental and bigoted.  But the easiest way to be victimized in this world is to blur the edges.  For instance we sinners often tell ourselves things like the following …
    • I won’t look at porn, but these pictures of naked ladies or this lurid story won’t count as porn – why be so judgmental?
    • I won’t have another drink, but I can open the bottle, smell it, taste it, even have a few sips, can’t I?  You wouldn’t call that “having another drink” – unless you were some sort of intransigent bigot!
    • If you cheat on your wife with someone you love, that’s not really “cheating” is it?  I mean, love has to win, doesn’t it?  And pretty much every good feeling is love, and how dare you try to define what love actually is!  Bigot!
    • My god, your god, his god, her god … who cares?  God is beyond definition!
  • One of the great tools of heresies in the past (especially during the first seven or so centuries of Church history) has been using words in a deliberately ambiguous way, so that Party A can say, “I have a dog” and mean a four legged animal that barks, and Party B can say, “I have a dog” and mean a four legged animal that meows.  Both parties can be happy because each party can use the same word in a way that suits them, subjectively.  And in such “fifty shades of intellectual gray”, we can all get along – and get exactly what we want, which is a rose by any other name.  Lack of definition is the great tool of the devil, and the engine that propels the Irrational.  And if our age is anything, it is the Age of the Irrational.
  • The good that John Senior and others did with the Integrated Humanities Program at Kansas University all those years ago continues to bear fruit.  If you meet the former disciples of the program, you can see that education in the True, the Beautiful and the Good can be a life-changing experience and will lead students to God … and to joy.
  • With that in mind, the art of any good education is education toward Form – toward a recognition of where one things ends and another begins: an awareness of boundaries.  This is especially true in Moral Education and in recognizing the built-in limitations of our relationships.  (Or, as Chesterton said, “Art, like morality, consists of drawing the line somewhere.”)  Try to make a friend (or a job or a creative endeavor) something other than what it is and you will be miserable.  Actors learn this lesson again and again.  An acting gig is a great blessing, but it is just an acting gig: it is not the salvation of our souls, our big break, the chance finally to be loved, the thing that will make us permanently happy.  Maturity is, in many ways, simply recognizing the boundaries that are built in to the moral and physical universe and making the requisite sacrifices to live by them.
  • One paragraph from a sermon by Bl. John Henry Newman is worth twenty volumes of theology by Hans Urs von Balthasar (and I like von Balthasar).  Why?  Because Newman knows the simple truth.  Neither knowledge of God nor love of Him means anything without the painful daily self-sacrifices that cooperate with His grace to conform us to His image.
  • Don’t waste your money on a turkey sandwich if it’s that awful processed deli half-water turkey.  The only real turkey is real turkey, sliced from a cooked bird.  Otherwise, just get a hamburger.  At least a hamburger is real beef – or real horse-meat – but at least it’s real something.