Friday, January 09, 2009

Above the Sceptred Sway

Lord have mercy upon us.
Christ have mercy upon us.
Lord have mercy upon us.

I’m more familiar with the Roman Catholic tradition than I am with the Protestant or Orthodox traditions, so I chose a Roman Catholic priest for the following interview. But I don’t think the other Christian churches are devoid of their own Father Trendies. What I see in all the Christian churches is a battle between polytheistic atheists and halfway house Christians. The halfway house Christians don’t like all the radical conclusions the Father Trendy types draw from the premises of halfway house Christianity, but once you go halfway down a slippery slope it is only a matter of time before you go all the way down. The antique European stays away from the slopes altogether.

This interview is a composite of actual opinions and statements of liberals that I’ve known and had inflicted on me over the years. Only the names have been changed, etc.

Father Trendy is 63 years old. He was ordained a priest in 1973. Five of his most famous books are: 1) Vatican II: The Hope, the Promise, and the Call (1980), 2) I Jogged with God (1983), 3) Beyond Christianity: A Syncretistic Look at Buddhism and Christianity (1990), 4) Sodomy and the Catholic Tradition (2001), and 5) The Emerging Black Church (2007)

Interviewer: In a recent article for Radical Catholic magazine, you stated that a spirit of conservatism was sweeping the Church. I do not see that spirit. Would you explain what you mean by ‘a spirit of conservatism’?

Fr. Trendy: Pope Benedict still speaks in the language of what I call patriarchal Christianity. He still uses anarchic terms like ‘God the Father’ and ‘Christ the Lord’. Those are tribal terms, not universal terms for modern man.

Int: I don’t quite understand your meaning.

FT: The Bible, particularly the Old Testament, but also the New, is a reflection of a particular time period and a particular people’s – a tribal, nomadic people – concept of god. It is not a magic book that is relevant, without modification, to modern man.

Int: So you reject the notion that the Bible is divinely inspired?

FT: I reject the traditional notion of divinely inspired scripture. I do not reject the notion that a life force inspires works of creative literature.

Int: And that is how you view the Bible, as a work of creative literature?

FT: Yes.

Int: If you reject the authority of the Bible, what is your touchstone of reality? Is it the Pope?

FT: No, of course not. Benedict is the head of an organization called the Roman Catholic Church, but he is not the head of the evolving church of the holy spirit.

Int: Who is the head of that church?

FT: There is no head of that church. We are all evolving to our own omega points. No bogeyman authority figure from the Dark Ages can guide an evolving human being. Pope John Paul II was beginning, at the time of his death, to understand that concept. The present Pope doesn’t seem to grasp it.

Int: I must say that I don’t grasp it either. The faith you describe sounds less substantial than Casper the Friendly Ghost.

FT: I’m afraid you just don’t understand things of the spirit.

Int: Well, we’ll let that alone for the present. Let me ask another question. Don’t you ever get tired of trying to keep up with the latest trends in liturgy, theology, and sexual practices?

FT: It is difficult, but if one is to stay in touch with humanity, one must stay in touch with the times.

Int: I don’t agree. There can be no humanity if there are no concrete men of flesh, blood, and spirit. The integral, true man does not drink from the well of modernity. He takes his life-sustaining drink from a well that is not subject to the ever-changing water of the ever-changing times.

FT: All things change. That is the law of life.

Int: I would call it a law of death. And didn’t Christ conquer death?

FT: Evolve, evolve, evolve – that is our sublime mission.

Int: I refuse to evolve.

FT: Then you are doomed to extinction.

Int: If nature is supreme, as you seem to imply, then yes, I am doomed to extinction. But you are also doomed, aren’t you? If Christ be not risen... You know the implication, don’t you?

FT: No man will become extinct who is part of nature. He doesn’t die, he simply returns to his source.

Int: Not to his Maker?

FT: No, that is a primitive, out-dated concept.

Int: What is the significance of Jesus Christ to the Catholic Church?

FT: He was our founder. He taught us how to evolve.

Int: But you have evolved beyond Him now?

FT: You put it rather crudely, but yes, we have evolved beyond Christ. We still respect him for having shown us the way. But these concepts are probably new to you and therefore hard to grasp.

Int: No, they are not new. I’ve been through the university system. But while at the university, I also came across the European poets. And in their works, I saw the reflection of a face. Do you have any idea whose face I saw?

FT: You saw the face of a tribal god of one particular group of people who occupied a geographical region called Europe.

Int: No, I saw the face of the one true God. And having seen that face in European culture, I looked for confirmation of the truth I had seen. I went to a priest who was teaching at the university, and I asked him how I could verify the vision. The priest said something very interesting. He did not drag out the party line and tell me to read the Baltimore Catechism and the latest papal encyclical. He told me to read the Gospels. It was good advice, because the Christ of the Gospels and the Christ of the European people are one and the same. I don’t think it is possible to evolve beyond that vision. That vision is reality.

FT: I would say that it is one man’s fantasy.

Int: It is not just my vision.

FT: All right, I’ll grant you that. It is a fantasy of a whole group of people who used to occupy the continent of Europe. They were a distinctly insular and cruel people.

Int: I know your views on the Europeans. But before we discuss your book, The Emerging Black Church, let me go back to a book you wrote in 2001 called Sodomy and the Catholic Tradition.

FT: All right.

Int: You stated in the book that sodomy could be very beneficial for one’s soul under the right circumstances. Could you elaborate on that statement?

FT: I would be happy to. Sodomy is an expression of love. Love is from the divine essence. Love between consenting adults is always life-enhancing and, therefore, holy.

Int: That’s a rather disgusting syllogism. Do you really believe it?

FT: Of course I do. It is the essence of the true Christianity.

Int: Sodomy?

FT: No, love.

Int: Then any physical act between two consenting adults is a life-enhancing, loving act, and therefore the act is Christian?

FT: Yes.

Int: Suppose a man decides he loves his neighbor’s wife. And suppose that love is reciprocated. If they act on their mutual attraction, is that interaction life-enhancing and therefore Christian?

FT: Yes.

Int: But what if the woman’s husband does not think his neighbor and wife have participated in a life-enhancing act? Suppose he thinks his neighbor is a scoundrel and his wife is a slut?

FT: The husband would be wrong. He would be looking at the whole thing from the antiquated prism of conventional non-evolutionary Christian morality. If he had a properly evolving Christian perspective, he would understand that the truly loving relationship does not entail the stifling of another’s life-enhancing acts.

Int: But isn’t the husband suffering when his neighbor sleeps with his wife? Can something be life-enhancing if it destroys the life of another human being?

FT: The husband only suffers when he sees life through a false prism.

Int: So it’s his own fault if he suffers, because he doesn’t see the world properly?

FT: I wouldn’t put it quite like that, but, yes, that is essentially correct.

Int: How about rape, then? If a man rapes a woman, is that a life-enhancing act and therefore a Christian act?

FT: Most definitely not.

Int: But it is life-enhancing, is it not? Let’s suppose the man loves the woman he raped.

FT: No, the act cannot be life-enhancing because the man did not get the woman’s consent.

Int: But in the case of the adulterous couple, they did not get the husband’s consent.

FT: That’s different; the husband was not looking at life through the proper window.

Int: Well, couldn’t we say that about the hypothetical rape victim, she was just not looking at life through the proper window?

FT: No, we couldn’t; you’re making a mockery of my words. I don’t believe you really want to have a serious discussion.

Int: Is it possible to have a serious discussion with a man who could write this passage. I quote from a book you wrote called Language and the Objective Correlative: “There is no real connection between the words we use and objective reality, because there is no such thing as objective reality. All reality is relative. The spiritual principle of life is that the spirit is a relative concept. Words as they have been traditionally used are jailers, used to keep us prisoners in charnel houses of objectivity.” End quote.

FT: I stand by those words. But I don’t think that passage is relevant to the issue of sodomy, which is what you said you wanted to discuss.

Int: I wouldn’t think you would see the relevance of the passage. But it is relevant to everything we have been discussing. If we cannot know anything but our own ever-evolving minds, then we become shadows that simply pass over the earth like an evening mist. We are without a god, without an identity, and without human fellowship. But as a consolation, we can be sodomites and adulterers because in the land of pure, evolving mind, there is no such thing as sin.

FT: You have twisted everything I’ve said. The evolving minds that you deprecate have given us mercy. For the first time in the history of mankind, man, at least the evolving man, knows what it feels like to be free of guilt and free of a vengeful god that sees evil in every life-enhancing act.

Inter: You have no right to use the term ‘mercy’. Mercy is only given to those who believe in the Christian God. What we always come up against is the essential question: Is Christ the Son of God? If He is, then far from being a vengeful, cruel, antiquated faith, orthodox Christianity is man’s only hope to actually know what it is like to be loved by a merciful God. In your scheme of things, there can be no mercy because there is no God to extend mercy. But you do keep the concept of sin.

FT: That I categorically deny.

Int: Yes, you do. The sinners are the recalcitrant Christians, like the husband of the unfaithful wife, who still hold on to a belief in God, sin, and redemption.

FT: You’re not going to try to justify the story of Adam and Eve and original sin?

Int: I don’t have to justify it; the reality of life confirms it. Melville once remarked that modern man, in rejecting original sin, was rejecting the one tenet of Christianity that was most obviously true.

FT: Don’t quote a white European to me.

Int: The white Europeans whom you deplore showed us the face of Jesus Christ. And that face is a merciful face. To whom can we turn for mercy if not to Christ? And to what people can we look, if not to the white Europeans, to see the mercy of God embodied in a culture? The barbarians have no mercy and the post-Christian rationalists like you have eliminated the divine source of mercy.

FT: I must stop you there. The white Europeans have defiled the earth. Our only hope is to embrace the black race and...

Int: I’ve read your book, you needn’t go any further. But I wonder if you have ever looked at the Gospels with an open heart, or looked at the Western cultural heritage from any vantage point other than a hate-filled, Olympian vantage point. There is a remarkable synergy between the Gospels and the European poets who were inspired by His presence in their civilization. You claim that you and like-minded, evolving men invented mercy. The European tradition gives the lie to that blasphemous claim.

FT: Again, I must protest.

Int: No, you’ve had your say, in countless lectures which I’ve had to sit through.

FT: You’ve never attended one of my classes.

Int: Yes, I have, for you and your ilk are legion. You exist in every university throughout the Western world and you haunt the airwaves and print mediums of the world. So just this once, you’re going to be lectured to.

In the deceptively simple parable of the prodigal son, we have all the elements of Christian drama. The drama of the Greeks was the drama of fate. Oedipus’s triumph consisted of the way he played the cruel hand which fate dealt him. In Christian drama, the triumph and tragedy consist not in the drama of fate, but in the drama of free will. There are no Grecian goddesses of the fates spinning our destinies; our wills are free, and we can send ourselves to perdition or be astounded into heaven. Such is the substance of Christian drama.

The prodigal son has lived all his life in his father’s house but has never really known his father. If he had, he would never have left him. It is only when he is completely outside of his father’s house that the prodigal son appreciates what he had but never knew. The prodigal’s plight illustrates a point Chesterton made in his book, The Everlasting Man: “Now the best relation to our spiritual home is to be near enough to love it. But the next best is to be far enough away not to hate it.”

So, the prodigal son returns. His father is not content to simply wait for his son to get to the house. When he sees him, “yet a great way off,” the father runs to his son and showers him with kisses. The father is like our Lord, who is just waiting for us to make the slightest move in His direction, and He will pursue us as an ardent lover pursues his beloved. One can hear the father using the words Francis Thompson ascribes to Christ:
"All which thy child’s mistake
Fancies as lost, I have stored for thee at home:
Rise, clasp My hand, and come!"
The prodigal son returns to his father’s house with the love that “casteth out fear,” and on bended knee with true contrition says, “I have sinned against heaven and before thee, I am not worthy to be called thy son.” The father, much to the chagrin of animal rights' advocates, kills the fatted calf.

Our joy in the return of the prodigal son is mitigated by our sadness at the spiritual state of his brother. On merely face value, the brother seems in good shape. He, unlike his prodigal brother, has stayed in his father’s house. He has not “devoured his substance with harlots,” and he has kept the commandments. Yet his soul is a knot of vipers. He is angry with his father for celebrating his brother’s return. His anger reveals that he does not love God or his neighbor. If he loved God, represented by the father, he would not think to have been separated from the father was a great joy for his brother ; and if he had loved his neighbor, represented by his brother, he would rejoice that his brother was once more united with the father. I would not venture to say that the prodigal’s brother is damned, but I do think we are meant to see that the brother’s soul is in dire straits.

The prodigal’s brother has been practicing only the externals of the Faith. There is nothing in his heart. It is a great error to sneer at any mention of the heart, as many traditionalist groups do, and falsely label the heart as an invention of the liberals. The liberals have hardened their hearts to Christ more thoroughly than any of the formalist religious sects that the liberals are so fond of caricaturing. But it is clear from the parable of the prodigal son and so many of Christ’s other parables, that the heart, the interior soul, is central to a man’s faith. If a man’s heart is right, the externals will generally be there too. But all of the externals can be in place, and a man’s heart can still be a knot of vipers. A house, no matter how beautiful its outside walls, is an empty shell without a hearth fire.

Let us proceed from the prodigal son to that heroic knight of charity: Mr. Samuel Pickwick, Esquire, the founder and President of the Pickwick Club. Mr. Pickwick, as we know, wandered throughout England accompanied by his trusty manservant, Sam Weller, and by his fellow Pickwickians, trying to extend the reign of charity throughout England. Mr. Pickwick’s greatest adversary is Mr. Jingle. Jingle wanders throughout England cheating widows and fleecing the poor. Mr. Pickwick repeatedly tries to bring Mr. Jingle to justice and is repeatedly thwarted in his attempts. Toward the end of the book, Mr. Pickwick, who has been unjustly cast into prison by the law firm of Dodson and Fogg, meets Mr. Jingle; Jingle is a fellow prisoner. Mr. Pickwick has quite rightly sought to bring Jingle to justice, but when Pickwick perceives that Jingle has had more justice than even Jingle deserves, he forgives Jingle and saves him from starvation. Their meeting is worth witnessing:

‘Come here, sir,’ said Mr Pickwick, trying to look stern, with four large tears running down his waistcoat. ‘Take that, sir.’

Take what? In the ordinary acceptation of such language, it should have been a blow. As the world runs, it ought to have been a sound, hearty cuff; for Mr Pickwick had been duped, deceived, and wronged by the destitute outcast who was now wholly in his power. Must we tell the truth? It was something from Mr Pickwick’s waistcoat-pocket, which clinked as it was given into Job’s hand, and the giving of which, somehow or other imparted a sparkle to the eye, and a swelling to the heart, of our excellent old friend, as he hurried away.

-- from Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens

Mr. Pickwick, upon his own release from prison, facilitates Jingle’s release, and procures a job for Jingle. Those of us who know Mr. Pickwick are not surprised, but it is an act of mercy that only a man of Pickwick’s nobility would have performed. Just as Quixote rides on that lonely road in Spain, so does Mr. Pickwick ride the lonely roads of England; however, the roads are not as lonely because of Mr. Pickwick.

From England and Mr. Pickwick, we go to France and Jean Valjean. You know the story: Valjean serves nineteen years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread. When he gets out, he is an embittered, vengeful man. He stays the night at the home of a saintly cleric (there were a few back then) named Bishop Bienvenu. After dinner, he steals the bishop’s silver plate and flees the house. A couple of gendarmes bring the captured Jean Valjean back to the bishop’s house in the morning. The bishop, instead of renouncing Jean as a thief, asks him why he forgot to take the silver candlesticks, since he, the bishop, had given him both the plate and the candlesticks the night before. The gendarmes leave, and the bishop speaks to Jean Valjean:

“Forget not, never forget that you have promisted me to use this silver to become an honest man.”

Jean Valjean, who had no recollection of this promise, stood confounded. The bishop had laid much stress upon those words as he uttered them. He continued, solemnly:

“Jean Valjean, my brother; you belong no longer to evil, but to good. It is your soul that I am buying for you. I withdraw it from dark thoughts and from the spirit of
perdition, and I give it to God.”

-- from Les Misérables by Victor Hugo
The bishop is a truly remarkable man. But Jean Valjean proves to be an equally remarkable man. He responds to the mercy shown to him, by becoming, during the next forty years of his life, a dispenser of mercy. The transformation that takes place in Jean Valjean’s soul illustrates a profound truth of the Christian Faith. In theory, it should be enough for all of us that our Lord, in the ultimate act of mercy, gave up his person to suffering and death to atone for our sins. But if one of the heirs of the apostles does not, at some time, show us mercy, we will never believe in the author of mercy. “See how they love one another,” used to be said about the early Christians. It will always be a sign of a sect when the opposite is said, “See how they hate one another.”

In the encounter between Bishop Bienvenu and Jean Valjean, the grace of God is triumphant because there is a willing dispenser of mercy and a repentant sinner. In the parable of the unmerciful servant (Matthew 18: 21-35), the grace of God is not triumphant because the servant who receives mercy -- “And the Lord of that servant being moved with pity, let him go and forgave him the debt” -- is not truly repentant. He thinks his master is a fool for forgiving him his debt. How do we know this? Because the servant goes out and demands a pitiful sum, in comparison to what he owed his master, from his fellow servant.

And his fellow servant, falling down, besought him, saying: Have patience with me, and I will pay thee all.
And he would not: but went and cast him into prison, till he paid the debt.
Now his fellow servants seeing what was done, were very much grieved, and they came and told their lord all that was done.
The unmerciful servant has nothing in his heart. He knows only the externals of the Faith. He knows how to go on bended knee to his lord to ask for a favor, but he has no idea of the meaning of a bended knee. As a result:

Then the lord called him; and said to him: Thou wicked servant, I forgave thee all the debt, because thou besoughtest me:
Shouldst not thou then have had compassion also on thy fellow servant, even as I had compassion on thee?
And his lord being angry, delivered him to the torturers until he paid all the debt.
So also shall my heavenly Father do to you, if you forgive not every one his brother from your hearts.
There is a danger, in secular times like our own when the idea of God’s judgment is laughable to most people, of over-emphasizing God’s wrathful nature in order to compensate for the rampant secularism. One can see this overcompensating tendency in many of the traditionalist sects around today. Mere reaction, however, is never the answer to rampant secularism. The answer is always integral Christianity. The greatest act of mercy, especially in times of persecution, that our pastors can perform is to preach the pure and unmitigated Gospel of Christ. This point is illustrated for us in Henryk Sienkiewicz’s magnificent novel, Quo Vadis.

The setting of the novel is Nero’s Rome. Late in the book we witness the Christians, who have been herded together by Roman soldiers, about to face death in the arena. A precursor of the Jansenists, a priest named Crispus, speaks to the Christians.

“Bewail your sins for the hour has come. Behold, the Lord has sent down flames to destroy Babylon, the city of crime and shame. The hour of judgment has struck; the hour of wrath and disaster is here. The Lord promised to come, and He will soon be here. He will not come as a meek Lamb Who offered His blood for our sins, but He will come as a Judge Who in justice will hurl sinners and unbelievers into the pit. Woe to the world! Woe to sinners! There will be no mercy for them. I see You, Lord Christ! Stars are falling upon the earth, the sun is darkened, the earth opens its gaping maw, the dead rise from the graves but You are triumphant amid sounds of trumpet and legions of angels, amidst thunder and lightning. I see You, O lord, O Christ!”
Understandably, Crispus’s words do not comfort the Christians. The ungodliness of the godly Crispus leads the Christians to despair. But suddenly the voice of Peter is heard.

At that moment a calm and reassuring voice was heard. “Peace be with you!”

It was the voice of Peter the Apostle who had entered the cave a moment earlier. At the sound of his voice terror dissipated as if by a miracle. People rose from the crowd. Those who were near the Apostle fell on their knees before him as if seeking protection. He stretched out his hands over them and cried, “Why are you troubled? Who can say when the final hour will strike. The Lord punished Babylon with fire but His mercy will be on those whom baptism has purified and you, whose sins are redeemed by the blood of the Lamb, will die with His name on your lips and peace in your hearts. Peace be with you!”

After the merciless words of Crispus, the words of Peter feel like a balm on all present. Not the fear of God but the love of God was more important to them now. These people loved Christ about Whom they had learned from the Apostle’s narratives. Not a merciless judge but a mild and patient Lamb was their God. A God Whose mercy surpasses all understanding, surpasses all wickedness that man can perpetuate. This was great comfort to them all. A great solace and thankfulness filled their hearts.

In the exchange between Crispus and St. Peter, we can see vividly illustrated the difference between heresy and Christianity. The Christian preaches mercy to the repentant sinner, but the heretic preaches wrath and judgment for all but himself.

Closely allied to the Jansenist mentality which preaches hell with such joy, is the Feeneyite mentality. God’s grace must work through the channels they demand or else He is no God. Christ’s promise to the thief on the cross, “This day thou shalt be with me in paradise,” stuffs the lie down the Feeneyites’ throats. Christ cuts through all the red tape and takes the good thief to heaven with him. This does not negate the sacramental system, nor does it mean we should all plan on a deathbed conversion; it simply means that the ways of God are not the ways of man, and that one cannot put “love in a golden bowl.”

If one looked only at the externals of the good thief’s life, one certainly would never have known him. But Christ did know him. He knew of the titanic struggle that took place in the thief’s heart. He knew of the subterranean current of grace that was hidden from the rest of mankind. The current was so strong that our Lord decided that the good thief belonged in heaven. Who are we, and who are the Feeneyites, that presume to judge our Lord? “This day thou shalt be with me in paradise.”

I have refrained from using any images of mercy from the works of Shakespeare because that task would demand a separate book. But I would be remiss if I didn’t quote Portia’s immortal speech from the Merchant of Venice. She confronts the unrepentant Shylock with these words:

The quality of mercy is not strain'd,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
'Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown;
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway;
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God's
When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew,
Though justice be thy plea, consider this,
That, in the course of justice, none of us
Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy.
What Portia so eloquently explains, my poor, soul-dead Father Trendy, is that we see God most clearly when we practice the virtues that His only begotten Son taught us to practice. Tom Brown might have become a Viking-type pagan, or worse, a post-Christian rationalist, if he had not extended mercy and protection to a poor fatherless boy who was placed in the same dormitory with him. When Arthur’s mother expresses her thanks to Tom, he understands the link between God, mercy, and the civilization of the white man, which you, Father Trendy, and your ilk have done so much to destroy.

Arthur’s mother got up and walked with him to the door, and there gave him her hand again, and again his eyes met that deep, loving look, which was like a spell upon him. Her voice trembled slightly as she said, “Good night – You are one who knows what our Father has promised to the friend of the widow and the fatherless. May He deal with you as you have dealt with me and mine!”

-- from Tom Brown’s Schooldays
I read that work once a year with my children, so I always know that passage is coming, yet still I can’t hold back the tears.

And that, Father Trendy, to paraphrase Linus, is what Christianity and Western culture are all about.

FT: I’m not impressed by reactionary drivel... You struck me!

Int: There is no such thing as striking another person. You are trying to place me in a “charnel house of objectivity.”

FT: It hurt!

Int: It was life enhancing for me; maybe you are not looking at life through the proper prism.

FT: I think I’ll need dental work!

Int: Then, I guess the interview is over.

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