Month: December 2012

"Make Room at the Inn"

Inevitably the question arises, what would happen if Mary and Joseph were to knock at my door. Would there be room for them? And then it occurs to us that Saint John takes up this seemingly chance comment about the lack of room at the inn, which drove the Holy Family into the stable; he explores it more deeply and arrives at the heart of the matter when he writes: “he came to his own home, and his own people received him not” (Jn 1:11).

The great moral question of our attitude towards the homeless, towards refugees and migrants, takes on a deeper dimension: do we really have room for God when he seeks to enter under our roof? Do we have time and space for him? Do we not actually turn away God himself?

We begin to do so when we have no time for him. The faster we can move, the more efficient our time-saving appliances become, the less time we have. And God? The question of God never seems urgent. Our time is already completely full. But matters go deeper still.

Does God actually have a place in our thinking? Our process of thinking is structured in such a way that he simply ought not to exist. Even if he seems to knock at the door of our thinking, he has to be explained away. If thinking is to be taken seriously, it must be structured in such a way that the “God hypothesis” becomes superfluous. There is no room for him. Not even in our feelings and desires is there any room for him. We want ourselves. We want what we can seize hold of, we want happiness that is within our reach, we want our plans and purposes to succeed. We are so “full” of ourselves that there is no room left for God. And that means there is no room for others either, for children, for the poor, for the stranger.

By reflecting on that one simple saying about the lack of room at the inn, we have come to see how much we need to listen to Saint Paul’s exhortation: “Be transformed by the renewal of your mind” (Rom 12:2). Paul speaks of renewal, the opening up of our intellect (nous), of the whole way we view the world and ourselves. The conversion that we need must truly reach into the depths of our relationship with reality. Let us ask the Lord that we may become vigilant for his presence, that we may hear how softly yet insistently he knocks at the door of our being and willing.

Let us ask that we may make room for him within ourselves, that we may recognize him also in those through whom he speaks to us: children, the suffering, the abandoned, those who are excluded and the poor of this world.

Pope Benedict XVI, Christmas 2012.

Fr. Schall’s last lecture: "The Final Gladness"

The legendary Father James Schall, SJ delivers his last lecture entitled, “The Final Gladness” before retiring from teaching at Georgetown University.

Sponsored by the Tocqueville Forum on the Roots of American Democracy in collaboration with the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs.

Father James V. Schall, S.J. was Professor of Government at Georgetown University. He entered the Society of Jesus in 1948 and was ordained a Roman Catholic priest in 1963. After obtaining his Ph.D. in political philosophy from Georgetown in 1960, he taught there for 34 years before retiring in 2012. He is the author of over thirty books, including Another Sort of Learning and The Modern Age.

[Blogger’s note: Although I’m certain for a priest as prolific as Fr. Schall, he’ll still be publishing an essay, or two, or twenty. “Retirement” simply affords more time to read and write].

Related

  • Kan Masugi’s annual advent conversation with Fr. Schall – Since 2002 Ken Masugi, a senior fellow of the Claremont Institute and lecturer in Government at Johns Hopkins University, Washington DC, has conducted Advent interviews with James V. Schall, S.J. (Claremont Review of Books)

On the Newtown Massacre

The senseless massacre of innocents at Newtown provokes not only cries of mourning but the age-old exercise in theodicy theodicy — the theological attempt to reconcile belief in a just and loving God with the evidential evil, whether manifested in often-incomprehensible acts of human violence (as witnessed in Newtown) or “acts of nature” with an even greater capacity for destruction.

Whether it be earthquakes in the Middle East, tsunamis in Japan, tornadoes in the American Midwest, hurricanes in New Orleans, New York and New Jersey . . . or the occasional mass shooting or bus bombing or drone-attack or terrorist incident, the same questions reassert themselves from the surviving members of the victims: why?

Looking back at prior reflections, I discovered a post from 2003, after the BAM earthquake in Iran (puzzling my way through an “act of nature” that resulted in a death toll amounting to 26,271 people and injuring an additional 30,000).

At the time I cited the Catechism, which remains a concise compilation of Catholic teaching on the question of evil:

[309] If God the Father almighty, the Creator of the ordered and good world, cares for all his creatures, why does evil exist? To this question, as pressing as it is unavoidable and as painful as it is mysterious, no quick answer will suffice. Only Christian faith as a whole constitutes the answer to this question: the goodness of creation, the drama of sin and the patient love of God who comes to meet man by his covenants, the redemptive Incarnation of his Son, his gift of the Spirit, his gathering of the Church, the power of the sacraments and his call to a blessed life to which free creatures are invited to consent in advance, but from which, by a terrible mystery, they can also turn away in advance. There is not a single aspect of the Christian message that is not in part an answer to the question of evil.

310 But why did God not create a world so perfect that no evil could exist in it? With infinite power God could always create something better. 174 But with infinite wisdom and goodness God freely willed to create a world “in a state of journeying” towards its ultimate perfection. In God’s plan this process of becoming involves the appearance of certain beings and the disappearance of others, the existence of the more perfect alongside the less perfect, both constructive and destructive forces of nature. With physical good there exists also physical evil as long as creation has not reached perfection.

[311] Angels and men, as intelligent and free creatures, have to journey toward their ultimate destinies by their free choice and preferential love. They can therefore go astray. Indeed, they have sinned. Thus has moral evil, incommensurably more harmful than physical evil, entered the world. God is in no way, directly or indirectly, the cause of moral evil. 176 He permits it, however, because he respects the freedom of his creatures and, mysteriously, knows how to derive good from it:

For almighty God. . ., because he is supremely good, would never allow any evil whatsoever to exist in his works if he were not so all-powerful and good as to cause good to emerge from evil itself.

[312] In time we can discover that God in his almighty providence can bring a good from the consequences of an evil, even a moral evil, caused by his creatures: “It was not you”, said Joseph to his brothers, “who sent me here, but God. . . You meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive.” From the greatest moral evil ever committed – the rejection and murder of God’s only Son, caused by the sins of all men – God, by his grace that “abounded all the more”, brought the greatest of goods: the glorification of Christ and our redemption. But for all that, evil never becomes a good. […]

[314] We firmly believe that God is master of the world and of its history. But the ways of his providence are often unknown to us. Only at the end, when our partial knowledge ceases, when we see God “face to face”, will we fully know the ways by which – even through the dramas of evil and sin – God has guided his creation to that definitive sabbath rest for which he created heaven and earth.

It’s hard to believe that post was written nine years ago. If it is a sign of progress in Christian faith “as a whole” that that passage acquires greater and personal meaning, then I confess I have not progressed very far.

What can you say to a mother whose son goes missing on his walk home from school, only to receive the news that the police have recovered his dismembered body?

What can you say to a mother trapped in rising floodwaters, whose toddlers were ripped from her arms by the current and swept away?

What can you say when a killer walks into a classroom of an elementary school and systematically leaves a pile of bodies on the floor?

The talk that this was in some way “God’s plan” or, in other evangelical circles, “God’s judgement” is offensive to the ear. To say that God is at once “master of the world”, omniscient and omnipotent, and to say that he in some manner limits himself and permits this to happen . . .

It is just that: incomprehensible.

And as a parent, the impact of reading the news is so much greater, the realization that it could have been your child; the urge to reach out and console, fighting for words when no words can be said.

Of all the posts out there, nothing rings as true to me right now as Matt Spotts, SJ: “Damn this.”

The Cold War: A New History, by John Lewis Gaddis

Finished reading The Cold War: A New History by John Lewis Gaddis (Penguin Books, 2005).

As Gaddis notes, the students he now teaches at Yale were only five years old when the Berlin Wall came down. “Stalin and Truman, Reagan and Gorbachev, could as easily have been Napoleon or Caesar or Alexander the Great.” I could relate in part as, being rather young myself, the significance of December 22, 1989 and other momentous events in that era failed to register. One of the best Cold-War memories I took from childhood was the incredible experience of watching a collective of high-schoolers fend off the Russian invasion of America in Red Dawn (1984) (a nostalgic cinematic pleasure which, incidentally, should never have re-made).

At any rate, it was with the intent of repairing my personal ignorance of those decades that I set out to acquire greater knowledge, and Gaddis being “the dean of Cold War historians” seemed a good place to start as any.

Gaddis’ work is populated with some great insights — for example how the Russian’s anticipation of victory upon signing the Helsinki Accords (resolving postward boundaries) turned into dismay with the recognition that their signatures also committed them (if on paper) to certain standards of human rights:

Helsinki became, in short, a legal and moral trap. Having pressed the United States and its allies to commit themselves in writing to recognizing existing boundaries in Eastern Europe, Brezhnev could hardly repudiate what he had agreed to in the same document – also in writing – with respect to human rights. Without realizing the implications, he thereby handed his critics a standard, based on the universal principles of justice, rooted in international law, independent of Marxist-Leninist ideology, against which they could evaluate the behavior of his and other communist regimes. What this meant was that the people who lived under these systems — at least the more courageous — could claim official permission to say what they thought.

Or of the seldom-recognized role Ronald Reagan played to ending the arms race:

“[Reagan] was the only nuclear abolitionist ever to have been President of the United States. He made no secret of this, but the possibility that a right-wing Republican anti-communist pro-military chief executive could also be an anti-nuclear activist defies so many stereotypes that hardly anyone noticed Reagan’s repeated promises, as he put it in the “evil empire” speech, “to keep America strong and free, while we negotiate real and verifiable reductions in the world’s nuclear arsenals and one day, with God’s help, their total elimination.”

Or how the collapse of the Berlin Wall was instigated in part by a botched press conference:

After returning from Moscow [Egon] Krenze consulted his colleagues, and on November 9th they decided to try and relieve the mounting tension in East Germany by relaxing — NOT eliminating — the rules restricting travel to the West. The hastily drafted decree was handed to Gunger Schabowski, a Politburo member who had not been at the meeting but was about to brief the press. Schabowski glanced at it, also hastily , and then announced that citizens of the G.D.R. were free to leave “through any of the border crossings.” The surprised reporters asked when the new ruling went into effect. Shuffling through his papers, Schabowski replied: “[A]ccording ot my new information, immediately.” Were the rules valid for travel to West Berlin? Schabowski frowned, shrugged his shoulders, shuffled some more papers, and then replied: “Permanent exist can take place via all border crossings from the G.D.R. to [West Germany] and West Berlin, respectively. The next question was: “What is going to happen to the Berlin Wall now?” Schabowski mumbled an incoherent response, and closed the press conference. Within minutes, the word went out that the wall was open.

The final chapter, with the implosion of the Communist Empire under the weight of its own rule, the grudging recognition of its leaders of the hypocrisy and futility of the socialist dream in the face of one citizen uprising after another, and the cascading surrender of governments with a helpless shrug of from the party’s leadership (Ceasescu complaining to Gorbachev about ‘grave danger not just to socialism . . . but also the very existence of communist parties everywhere.” Gorbachev: “You seem concerned about this.”) makes for a thrilling and fast-paced conclusion after the plodding detente of the Nixon and Ford administrations.

Gaddis eschews a strictly chronological linear approach to history, highlighting the major events to bolster his personal reflections on why events unfolded. So it’s helpful to come to the book with a preliminary knowledge of the timeline, and be attentive to Gaddis’ jumping around.

He also indulges in some unique creative license, which took me by surprise: beginning chapter 2 with a straightforward account of the nuking of Korea . . . revealing in subsequent pages his indulgence in speculation of what MIGHT have happened had MacArthur actually gone forward with the President’s promise to “employ every weapon we have” [including the atomic bomb] at a 1950 Presidential press conference. Which is entertaining perhaps, but not what I expected from a historian.

Still, with the voluminous amount of writing on the subject I wanted a concise, readable introduction to the subject which I could digest on my commute to work, and Gaddis delivers. (I am, as always, open to the additional recommendations from my readers).