Tag Archives: freedom

Heroes on a Train to Paris

flagAs news came of the heroic actions of three Americans aboard an Amsterdam-Paris train last week, many voiced admiration and relief that yes, heroes still exist in today’s world. Granted two of the men were off-duty military. Still, civilians also braved the danger, risking their lives. We are proud to be Americans once again, proud to do the right thing at the right time, proud to be heroic, risking all. We wonder if, after all, virtue does exist and might even be alive and breathing. Virtue might even be something we should teach our children. Are ideals making a comeback?

Perhaps the antihero of the last fifty years is not such a wise role model.

The antihero has formed today’s sensibilities through the arts, literature, and media. In real life he has banded together with other antiheroes to form collectives, grievance groups quick to take offense and to demand entitlements. In stories, these characters are often morose, turned inward, bored with life, and anti-authority on principle. They are narcissistic, nihilistic, without direction. They do not possess moral qualities once called “virtues.” These victims blame the system and society, never themselves. Publishers have promoted the antihero, finding readers desiring validation.

The intent to produce and market antiheroes is actually a noble one, ironically, even perhaps a heroic one, encouraging one to empathize with the least in our society – those hurt by race, crime, drugs, divorce, poverty. We want our children to care (and rightly),  but we give them dark novels with stories of rape, incest, and pederasty. In time, literature’s antiheroes, instead of becoming nobler and overcoming adversity, became darker, more ignoble. Novels must increase the terror and degradation, so that sexual sadism and violence towards women spans fifty shades of grey, with relative degrees of darkness, legitimizing the prurient experience.

Without ideals, standards of virtue, even right and wrong, the bar of civilized culture plummets. Civilization fragments and spills into a bestial world we call barbarism.

I was thinking about heroes and their welcome return to the public square when I came across Bret Stephens’ lovely column this week in the Wall Street Journal, “The Gifts of a Teacher.” In this tribute to Mrs. Amy Kass, his Literature professor at the University of Chicago, he describes how we have too many choices in our modern world. Mrs. Kass could see this and saw her vocation as one giving structure and direction to the chaos of those choices. In the past society supplemented law, adding morality, manners, and tradition. Today, we have no such rules, or few of them, so that students in those formative years of schooling that should move them from adolescence into adulthood often flail about undirected.

It was Mrs. Kass’s role to provide a framework of living through the great stories of an earlier time. As Mr. Stephens writes, “Jane Austen still offers the best advice on dating. Aristotle still has the last word on friendship.” The stories considered how to ennoble life, what and how to dream, how to grow a great heart and soul. Simply pondering how others answered, “What is the good life?”, a question I recall from my own two years of Western Civilization, is a start.

We need to train our children to be heroes in all walks of life, to be self-sacrificial rather than self-aggrandizing. We used to do this, assuming it was a necessary education for adulthood. Perhaps we should return to the old ways.

There is a morning prayer in our Anglican Book of Common Prayer that speaks of God’s service as “perfect freedom.” God gives us rules, a framework in which to live. He provides a recipe for happiness, rules for the road as it were. When we serve him we follow those rules, or try to. Once we learn the rules (like riding a bike perhaps) we have plenty of freedom, many choices within the frame of God’s law (we can ride all over the place). That is what we call free will: God… whose service is perfect freedom.

Just so, a culture (through government, schools, churches, temples), to survive, must provide a framework of ideals in which we can live our best lives, pursue our greatest happiness. Mr. Stephens describes the problem of choices without limit:

“We can satisfy our desires, but we have trouble recognizing our longings. We can do as we please but find it difficult to figure out what truly pleases us, or what we really ought to do. Limitless choice dissipates the possibility of fully realizing the choices we make, whether in our careers or communities or marriages. There’s always the chance that something (or someplace, or someone) better is lurking around the corner.”

The heroes on the train knew immediately what they needed to do and they did it. I pray that America’s teachers embrace the honorable and heroic role with which they are entrusted, just as Mrs. Kass did, giving students a framework for figuring out life, how to choose what’s right and what’s wrong, what to do and what not to do, when and where. Such an education will put our culture back on track.

Thank you, Mrs. Kass, and thank you, Mr. Stephens. Thank you, National Guard Specialist Alek Skarlatos, Airman First Class Spencer Stone, and Mr. Anthony Sadler. It is good to remember who we are and who we can become.

The Road Taken

american-flag-2a2So much depends on the road taken, or not taken. 

The last I read that there were twenty-two Republican candidates for president and two Democrats. The year should prove interesting. Let the debates begin. 

And now that the Supreme Court has clearly usurped the legislative function of government in Obergefell v. Hodges, and our future president may appoint judges to this august bench, the election is one that will change the course of our nation for good or ill. 

It is a time to pay attention, and for voters to consider who will keep our country free, who will protect our people from international and domestic terrorists, who will protect the individual from the state and individuals from each other. Who best will honor American ideals, those perfect standards, those road signs that show us our destination, where we want to go, who we want to be, and the road we must take to get there? 

So much depends on the rule of law, our attitude toward that great body of do’s and don’ts codified and built upon past law. Do we respect the commands of government, the demands of the commons for the common good? Do we respect those who enforce those laws: police and courts, juries and justices, attorneys and jailers? Without common law, and without respect for its ordering and its enforcers, we have no future. Without equality under that law, the law that we the people have legislated, we will collapse from within. Like a rotting apple in a barrel, the cancer of lawlessness will spread and devour us. 

So much depends on our care for the poor, those poor in spirit or flesh, our neighbors in city and country. We are called to look after the least of these, for they are a part of our national body, our e pluribus unum, for from many we are one. We must care for each other by supporting those institutions that build hospitals and schools, that open soup kitchens, those saintly groups that brave inner cities to kiss lepers and teach children and bind wounds of the brokenhearted. Government cannot do these things. Churches and temples, and perhaps other private charities, enterprises of love, can best do these things. 

So much depends on integrity, an integral term rarely used today and nearly forgotten. Integrity comes from the Latin integretas, meaning soundness, wholeness, blamelessness, the quality of practicing what one preaches so that one is integrated, without and within. Actions match words. Integers are whole numbers, and integrity is wholeness, wholesomeness, health. Of course no one is perfect in word or deed, but some care more about trying to live lives of integrity than others. They see the ideal, the road that must be taken to get there, the goal for which we must strive. They pay attention to their conscience. They recognize corruption; they can see it taking root like a fast-growing weed. 

So much depends on natural law, that ancient communal sense of right and wrong governing marriage, family, and children, the unborn and the aged, euthanasia and slavery. Civilizations have known the rights and wrongs of how to get along. They have sensed that certain ways, or paths, are better than others to survive as a species, our humanity considered precious. They have been concerned to identify how such ways affect the common good, affect the human heart, affect the conscience. 

Someone once said that the first time a person steals he feels guilty. The second time he steals he finds an excuse to rationalize the theft; the guilt is lessened. The third time he steals, he feels no guilt. His heart has become inured, hardened and his humanity lessened. Perhaps this is reflected in the recent video of the woman discussing the sale of baby body parts while eating a salad. It is all too easy to no longer react humanely to acts of horror. It is all too easy to be proud of what had once been unthinkable. It is all too easy to send the undesirables to a concentration camp. It is all too easy to dismember babies in utero. 

The presidential debates, one of the glories of our democracy, will show us ourselves, who we are and where we should go. We may glimpse integrity or we may see only bravado and corruption. Where we go from here will make a difference in our lives, in the life of every one of us. Let’s pay attention to our candidates, what they say, how they say it, and the ideals they embody. 

So much depends on the road taken.

Summer Sundays

Sunday SchoolOur children’s Summer Sundays program in our local parish this year, “I Believe,” revolves around the Apostles’ Creed and the Church Year, those “tides” or seasons that teach us the creeds. We sing “Advent Tells Us Christ is Near,” we read a story about the creed, we plant sunflowers in bright pails, we blow big balloons, we color and we craft. We make fridge magnets with the verses of our hymn to take home. 

As we dropped seeds into the dark soil, pushing each one deeper into its loamy home, to one day shoot into the bright light and flower, I thought about belief and faith and the Apostles’ Creed, our statement of belief. Would these children be allowed to practice their beliefs? Would the state intervene and silence them, force them underground? 

american-flag-2a2Some say believers are already underground, for belief in Christianity is not fashionable, even considered radical and strange. We are called bigots, narrow minded, living in a fantasyland, stuck in the past. And yet, for many of us, there is ample historical evidence for the resurrection of Christ and his divinity and the authority of Holy Scripture. We have known the Almighty God through prayer and met him in the Eucharist. We have seen his Holy Spirit working through others, nudging and guiding. We have opened our hearts and experienced the glory of God’s grace. These are no small things. This is good news, worthy to be published and proclaimed and protected, news to give hope to our world, news to tell our children, unafraid, with thanksgiving. This good news, gospel, deserves proclamation – and defense – in the public square. 

And yet such proclamations are increasingly discouraged. To be faithful to traditional marriage and family, clear Scriptural mandates, is considered unfeeling of those who view marriage differently. Rational debate, healthy debate, is pressured into silence.

The recent Supreme Court decision redefining marriage cites the “right to dignity,” a right not found in the Constitution. The judiciary has legislated law, a prerogative of Congress, the people’s representatives. And if we object to this massive assumption of power by five appointed lawyers from elite schools we are branded “bigots” and deemed “intolerant.” And yet, who are the new intolerant? 

The decision itself is based on dubious logic, seemingly seeded in emotion and a desire to restructure society according to personal agenda. Since the argument claims the “right to dignity” of gay and lesbian partners, one must conclude that polygamous unions and incestuous partners also have such a right. Bestiality as well. If the definition of marriage is not limited as it has been since the world began – a committed union of a man and a woman, producers of the next generation, and thus of interest to the state – then any relationship could be deemed marriage as long as it consensual. After all every relationship has “the right to dignity.”

I believe in freedom of religion, and that our nation still believes in this fragile and threatened freedom. We were founded on this principle; it is who we are. I have no desire to impose my beliefs on others, but I have a sincere desire, even a mandate, to live according to those beliefs, and to teach my children those beliefs. Our stars and stripes and our fireworks, our hot dogs and chips and beer, our parades and our picnics every Fourth of July proclaim our diversity of race and religion. Our flags wave proudly reminding us that we are a peaceful people who debate our differences with respect for one another’s beliefs.

And so, this fifth of July I pray for peace within our diverse peoples. I pray that this Supreme Court decision does not give license to the silencing of our conversation. I pray that we may worship in our local churches and temples without fear, that we may keep God’s law, writing it on our hearts and in our deeds. I pray that we will be respected and not slandered for our witness to the truth of God and man and woman.

The Court decision has divided us, not unified us. It has harmed us. It has encouraged a sudden silence across our exceptional land, and lining that silence is fear. 

starThe Bethlehem Star returned last week, not seen since 2-3 A.D. This conjunction of Venus and Jupiter occurred within the constellation Leo and its king star, Regulus, creating the Bethlehem Star. What does this mean? Is Christ returning soon to judge the living and the dead? The appearance in the night sky of this “star” is curious and wondrous. We watch and wait, ever vigilant over our own hearts, ready for Christ’s second coming. And as we watch and wait, we sing with the children about the first Star of Bethlehem. The children twirl, raising their arms in praise. They remind me of the joy of being a Christian and living out the Church Year with other faithful: 

Advent tells us Christ is near: Christmas tells us Christ is here./In Epiphany we trace/All the glory of His grace.

Then three Sundays will prepare/For the time of fast and prayer,/That, with hearts made penitent,/We may keep a faithful Lent.

Holy Week and Easter, then,/Tell who died and rose again:/ O that happy Easter day! “Christ is risen indeed,” we say.

Yes, and Christ ascended, too,/ To prepare a place for you;/ So we give him special praise,/ After those great forty days.

Then he sent the Holy Ghost, /On the day of Pentecost,/ With us ever to abide:/Well may we keep Whitsuntide.

Last of all, we humbly sing/ Glory to our God and king,/ Glory to the One in three,/ On the Feast of Trinity.

(Hymn #235, The Hymnal, 1940. Words by Katherine Hankey,1888, for the Sunday School of St. Peter’s, Eaton Square, London)

Next week in Sunday School life will sprout through the dark soil in the bright pails. We will learn about God the Father and how he created the heavens and earth, the trillions of stars he named, how he made you and me, mothers and fathers and children. 

And God saw everything he had made, and behold, it was very good.

Civilization and other Challenges

703683I’ve had the privilege to help out with the beginnings of a new Center for Western Civilization, located in Berkeley, one block south of the University of California, on the corner of Durant and Bowditch. We hope to enrich the university curriculum with lectures reflecting the traditions of the West, those of ordered liberty, privileged and responsible freedom, elected government, open markets, habeas corpus, rule of law, jury trials. These ideals are our rightful inheritance, principles that reflect John Adams’ “government of laws, and not of men.” Laws protect; men dictate. 

These are principles not always found in required university curricula. It is also true that freedom of speech and religion is not respected on many college campuses, with the most egregious intolerance found in the cloistered halls of the Ivy League and in the lofty liberalism of our public universities, namely U. C. Berkeley.

There is a correlation between this rise of intolerance, with its enforcement by campus bullies, and our increasingly empty churches, according to Mary Eberstadt. In “From Campus Bullies to Empty Churches” (Intercollegiate Review, Spring 2015), she describes the peer and faculty pressure on students to deny their Christian faith, to consider such belief a fairy tale. Christianity is not acceptable in quad or classroom, and students want to fit in. Christians and their beliefs are ridiculed. Parents, beware of paying outrageous sums for such an education! Students, beware of going into debt for a lopsided program, to put it kindly. 

And so it has been of some concern to many of us that the pillars of our society are crumbling and those who might rebuild the foundations – the best and brightest of the next generation – are being stripped of their heritage, our legacy to the young. Today a counter-revolution composed of brave warriors who are unafraid of the bullies, unafraid of the speech police, is challenging faculty and tenure tracks, armed with support networks. These conservative groups, folks that want to conserve our ideals enshrined in the constitution and Bill of Rights, grow stronger each day. They need our support. 

Our Center for Western Civilization hopes to do just that. In these early days, we have connected with the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI), founded by Frank Chodorov in 1953 who saw the need for a fifty-year project to “revive the American ideals of individual freedom and personal responsibility… by implanting these ideals in the minds of the coming generations.” A young William F. Buckley Jr. was ISI’s first president. Since then they have held seminars and summer programs based on six major principles: limited government, individual liberty, personal responsibility, the rule of law, a free-market economy, and traditional values (i.e. Judeo-Christian). 

This past year ISI established a U. C. Berkeley group, the Burke Society, and we hope to work with them as well. We will also network with others on campus concerned about these vital issues. 

God seems to be writing with our crooked lines, hopefully straightening them. While every effort we have made has been fraught with difficulties and impossibilities, doors keep opening. We boldly walk through them, wondering what is on the other side.

In April we will sponsor our first lecture. David Theroux, Founder and President of the C. S. Lewis Society of California, will speak on “C S Lewis on Mere Liberty and the Evils of Statism.” Lewis was keenly aware of the threat of totalitarianism, having lived through two world wars and witnessed the rise of Hitler and Stalin. Our event has outgrown the planned venue and we are moving it to a larger one. 

All the while my little novel-in-progress, The Fire Trail, considers these issues as well: the borders between wilderness and civilization, the effects of the sexual revolution on American culture, the dangers caused by a culture of narcissism and grievance, and the inclusivity that allows barbarians through our gates. It considers what defines us, who we are, for if we don’t know who we are, we don’t know where we are going. Our own history – that of America and the Western world – answers these questions, and it is to our founding fathers and mothers that we must turn. We cannot afford to look away, denying that the pillars are crumbling.

Some take exception to the label, Western civilization. Are we being ethnocentric? Daniel Hannan, a member of the European Parliament representing South East England, calls Western civilization the “Anglosphere,” and this is a useful name, for it avoids the charge that we are speaking only of America and Western Europe. The Anglosphere – the free English-speaking peoples worldwide – has an important story to tell, and tell again and again, for as Hannan says, “the Anglosphere is why Bermuda is not Haiti. It’s why Singapore is not Indonesia. It’s why Hong Kong is not China (for now)… the individual is lifted above the collective. The citizen is exalted over the state; the state is seen as his servant, not his master.” (Intercollegiate Review)

Much has been written denigrating the history of the West. Corruption, crimes, misogyny, slavery, conquest, and many other dark moments are brought to light, judged, and sentenced, both secular and religious. But this has been true of every era; there will always be the good and the bad in human society. And so we make judgments about what is good and worth conserving. We choose the good and reject the bad.

The existence of these dark events and those who perpetrated them does not warrant rejecting the foundations of our culture. And so, for example, we look to Michelangelo, Dante, Shakespeare in the Renaissance. We want to recapture their “mimetic content” as Joseph A. Mazzeo writes, to pass it on to the next generation, and to enrich and fortify our own. Likewise we want to disregard the Medicis, Strozzis, della Roveres, and other dark Renaissance figures. We judge what makes our people great, good and free, and eventually we realize that the artists and writers and statesmen of the “Western Canon” (so abandoned in our schools) looked to their own history, to the Christ story for mimetic content, for they lived in a living tradition. In the story of Christ we find the origin of our ideals, our unique Western worldview. We find the sacredness of each individual regardless of class, gender, race, and religion, a revolutionary concept. And of course Christ lived and breathed within the Jewish tradition of law and faith.

We must not take our Anglosphere inheritance for granted. It is unique, precious, and under attack from within and without. The first battle that must be fought is on our university campuses. The second is in Washington D. C.

Fragile Freedom

Sunday SchoolIt is a truth universally acknowledged that we don’t truly appreciate what we have until we lose it or we are threatened with its loss. Why does it take drastic events to urge us to cherish something or someone?

I was reminded of this truth in recent weeks with the increased threats to our way of life as I learned of the Paris massacres. Suddenly the freedoms we take for granted in the Western world seem so precious, so precarious, so fragile that the wisp of a breeze could blow them away, never to be known again.

I am often reminded of this truth as I age, as time disappears and my future shrinks. Suddenly days, hours, minutes are beautiful, treasured. No two days are alike, no two hours, no two minutes. All time is glorious and beautiful. All time is full of life, God’s life in us, every one of us, regardless of age, race, creed, handicap.

I was reminded of this truth when a friend died. I miss her. Did I appreciate her enough when she was living? And later in the year a young man passed into Heaven, a boy who gave us great joy in church. The texture of the present has changed and become something it wasn’t before; their absence is felt.

So I give thanks more often for time given, friends and family given to me. I give thanks for a great-granddaughter born last spring and for the babies born in our parish this past year.

Freedom of speech and of religion remain precious rights, although precarious ones, and we exercised those freedoms in our church this morning. As I sang with the children “Advent Tells Us Christ is Near,” “I Sing a Song of the Saints of God,” and “All Things Bright and Beautiful” (all verses!) I cherished the time. Natalie, age five, was eager and adept. She knew how to twirl and how to growl like a beast and how to flap her wings. My thanksgivings turned into true happiness as we embarked on “Jesus Loves Me.” We rounded out our concert with a boisterous “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.” By this time I was deep into abundant joy.

In a sense, the taking for granted of these freedoms is part of freedom itself, so that we create a way of life that slips by easily, one we don’t need to think about much. We assume we can elect our officials, choose our laws, select the patterns of life that will enhance our culture and encourage “peace on earth and goodwill among men.” And yet, suddenly, those assumptions are challenged by attacks on our Western world, its very culture of freedom. It appears we may have to fight for these rights if we want our children to grow up in a free society.

My college years landed in the sixties when patriotism was considered plebeian by the academic elite. Since then, civic education has nearly disappeared in our schools. But the beheadings last month, the Paris massacres, the many barbarian attacks on our civilization in the last few years, have prompted reconsideration of patriotism. There is another way to live with one another, a better way than this, we say, and perhaps we had better teach it to our children. Perhaps we had better fly the flag and make value judgments about our culture versus other cultures. Perhaps one purpose of public education is to create an educated electorate, a citizenry that understands how exceptional Western culture, a citizenry that speaks a common language and who flies a common flag, one that encourages uni-culturism over multi-culturism. Perhaps it is time to allow the peoples of our glorious nation to merge so that the melting pot forms a more perfect union.

So as we sang “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” I prayed for the world God holds in his hands. I prayed for our children and their time on this earth, that they would be ever free to clap, to sing, to speak, to dance. And I prayed that they would value that freedom enough to cherish it, to one day pass it on to the next generation in song and speech. For there will come a time when those of us who were shaken by the Paris killings, who mourned the Pakistani children massacred, who were horrified by the Nigerian kidnappings and the bombings, will one day travel home to God.

There will come a time when the children we are teaching in church and in school will need to remember just how fragile freedom really is, so that they can teach their children our heritage, our way of freedom and peace.

Tearing Down the Walls

fallofberlinwall_bundle_576x361Today is the twenty-fifth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Today is also two days before Remembrance Day, which recalls the signing of the World War I armistice, and Veterans Day, honoring all military men and women who have served our country.

Remembering these soldiers and these wars, recalling our defense of freedom and defeat of tyranny reminds us of the fragility of peace. Evil flies in planes across our borders, bombing our cities. It creeps through the jungle into our civilized world. But it is also deep within each of us, lying dormant, or not so dormant, asleep or not so asleep. A wall runs through each heart, a wall not so unlike the one that divided Berlin. On one side, the bestial; on the other, the celestial. One side is self-preserving and tyrannical; the other is self-sacrificing and honorable. Most of us do not see the border, for we are used to it and the territories merge. It is a smudged line at best, and we ignore it.

Similar blurry lines run through cultures. Parts are barbaric and others civil. One side recognizes the law of the jungle, might makes right; the other upholds the law God gave to man, life is precious, love one another, the common good is good. In some countries the boundary is clear, a geographical periphery bordering the nation, defined by democratic institutions. In some communities it is hazy and lazy, as law-abiding neighborhoods slip into law-breaking ones. Inner cities, once “gentrified,” blur into crime-ridden communities, where politically correct policies encourage the criminals.

Other lines are more clear. We can see clearly the border between the Trade Center Towers and the terrorists who destroyed them. We see the border between the peaceful shoppers in a mall and the terrorist who beheaded the coworker. We can see also the border between the innocent runners in a marathon and the terrorists who maimed them.

We fought two World Wars so that free peoples could live freely and peacefully. How ironic and tragic that we must go to war to ensure peace. It seems to be the way of man, that one side of his heart must triumph over the other in order to protect the good from the evil. The free must triumph over those who seek to enslave them. This is a just war.

The Berlin wall was hugely symbolic and terribly effective. Many lives were lost in attempts to flee Eastern Germany and the shackles of the Communist Soviet Union, to the safety of the West. But even with the wall finally down, and even with our rejoicing in its fall, we know there are still five countries imprisoned by Communism. For them the wall has not fallen; they do not remember victory on this day or any day; they mourn for the daily victims.

Hong Kong, back under Communist China’s control since 1997, recently witnessed thousands of protesters demanding the right to vote in honest elections. The protest was quelled by tear gas, pepper spray, beatings, jailings, in an echo of the Tienanmen Square massacre twenty-five years ago. In Laos, the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party, the only party allowed, denies free speech, religious freedom, and property ownership. Like its neighbor Communist Vietnam, the government tortures and imprisons those who disagree. Cuba follows the Communist playbook as well, keeping a tight grip on thought, speech, and freedom. The border between Communist North Korea and Democratic South Korea is a clear geographical boundary, a four-hundred-mile demilitarized zone, separating a people with common language and history. The Communist North tortures and starves its citizens, denies freedom of religion, thought, travel. As Mr. Marion Smith, Executive Director of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, wrote recently in the Wall Street Journal:

“To tear down that wall will require the same moral clarity that brought down the concrete and barbed-wire barrier that divided Berlin 25 years ago. The Cold War may be over, but the battle on behalf of human freedom is still being waged every day. The triumph of liberty we celebrate on this anniversary of the Berlin Wall’s destruction must not be allowed to turn to complacency in the 21st century.”

And so remembrance inspires us to rededicate and re-shore our beliefs, our courage, and yes, our military strength as a free nation in a world of shackled peoples. Recent midterm elections recognized this. I hope we will see more clearly the wall dividing freedom and tyranny, so that we may preserve our own scattered communities of peace.

And we give humble thanks to the brave men and women who have kept us free, fighting and dying for our freedoms. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

The Question of Civilization

703683What is civilization? And more particularly, what is Western Civilization?

I have been pondering this question, particularly in light of the demise of Western Civilization course requirements on university campuses across the nation. We are told that these classes are elitist, that they promote only the West and shun the rest, and we need to be more inclusive, study all civilizations equally. (Perhaps that wouldn’t be a problem if all were actually studied; but in many schools, the student chooses, and often neglects Western histories when left on his own.)

In my reading and unraveling, there appears to be an odd word game at play here. To be sure there are many civilizations throughout the world and in time, and this meaning of the word “civilization,” that is, any society of people and their culture, recognizes this. All are worthy of study.

What is more to the point, however, is how to conserve those aspects of a civilization we find valuable and necessary, i.e. those ideals of the Western world, going back to Athens, that we find crucial to free peoples today. Many of these aspects, these roots and ideals, are found in other cultures in varying degrees, planted by the West through colonialism. This is not being elitist or exclusionary. It is simply true.

Clearly there are aspects of civilizations that we might not want to encourage on our shores. The tyrannies of the Islamic State and of the Communist State come to mind; repressive and corrupt governments come to mind. We are not keen on beheadings and lawlessness and military dictators. We like free elections and freedom to travel and own property. Western democracies are (or should be) favored because liberty, limited and representative government, free speech, the freedom to worship and assemble, the rule of law, are lauded as ideals.

What happens when we fail to teach our children the history of these ideals found in the development of the Western world? What happens to our electorate when we say North Korea and Iran have equally good forms of government and pose no threat?

In my ponderings, I’ve come up with a working definition of civilization, which one of my characters poses in my novel-in-progress, The Fire Trail, a story about the borders of civilization and the wilderness:

A civilized society is a culture in which the common good is desired and advanced, but individual life and liberty protected, in which the natural world is controlled but cultivated and cared for, in which respectful debate is fostered and slander discouraged, in which social charity is promoted, yet private property protected, in which the rule of law and representative government work to provide peace at  home and to defend our borders.

A cousin to the question of civilization is the question of the Christian influence in Western Civilization’s development. They are interwoven, for Christianity’s inherent belief in progress, of bettering oneself and one’s community, as well as the value of the individual, spurred Western Civilization forward. The work ethic was largely a Christian ethos that has become secular through time. Eastern civilizations did not develop in this way, for life was circular and determined by fate; one worshiped one’s ancestors and was not so concerned with one’s descendants; happiness was to deny the real world and retreat into a mystical present.

Christianity, in its theology of the Fall of Man in the Garden of Eden, recognized that at that moment man turned away from God, to make himself godlike. Instead of godlike, however, he became primitive, savage. By recognizing this original sin, Christianity claimed that God saved man from himself, and death, through God’s Incarnation; man was shown sacrificial love. The Judeo-Christian tradition, i.e. the Western tradition, embraced the ideals of honor, sacrifice, communal charity, protection of life, liberty, and yes, claimed a path to happiness, not just its pursuit. The idea of the noble savage, a romantic primitivism embraced since the eighteenth century (from Rousseau, Mead, Marx, and Engels to Karen Armstrong), does not hold up to reality. The natural world is a wild world, one that humans must tame, just as we must tame the wildness within our own hearts.

Aristotle is quoted as saying, “the purpose of politics is not to make living together possible, but to make living well possible.” It is most certainly both. And these are also purposes of Western Civilization, to create a culture that cultivates freedom of expression through word and image, one that encourages our nobler side, our more sacrificial and heroic side, one that teaches us to love. It does this by ensuring peace and prosperity, and by passing on these ideals to the next generation.

Secret Stairs in Berkeley

secret stairs 1I’ve been studying a map of Berkeley and the secret stairs of the Berkeley Hills produced by the Berkeley Path Wanderers Association. The characters in my novel-in-progress, The Fire Trail, follow these steps that bridge roads winding into the forests above the university campus, winding up to the Fire Trails.

It is curious how maps organize a broad range of information and yet at the same time help the eye to focus and pinpoint one spot. Maps are like our brains, full of detail, a network of perception of both the past (memory), the present (observation) and the future (plans). Like this shiny unfolded paper that covers my desk, we too are mapped with broad ranges as well as focal points; our brains are miracles of design, epicenters of will and desire.

Novels are stories that connect the dots, draw the lines between moments of intense focus. These moments are often crises producing turning-points. A main crisis propels the major arc of the novel along, as sub-crises propel the chapters, and sometimes even sub-sub-crises propel the scenes. The process is much like walking through Berkeley, coming upon secret stairs that connect the winding roads; sometimes we rise and sometimes we fall.

History is full of these patterns, and these crises often catalyze action, focusing our attention, the attention of our community, the attention of our country, the attention of the world, upon a single incident. The crisis we remembered this week was the horrific bombing of the World Trade Center thirteen years ago on September 11. Our television screens invaded our homes with the shocking news, and although there had been many smaller crises leading up to this one, it was this one that caught our attention, that became America’s and the Western world’s turning point.

We had not been attacked on our own soil since Pearl Harbor in 1941. Our violence since then had been self-inflicted – shootings, riots, demonstrations. Some of us, in our arrogance, tried to deny it was the work of a foreign enemy. How could anyone do this? Each of us recalls, like the day that President Kennedy was shot, where we were and what we were doing when we found out, when we first saw the plumes rising, heard the rumble of the falling towers. It was as though the jets had sliced a knife into our hearts and minds. Our safe and civilized world crumbled; the map of our culture had been ripped apart and was increasingly incomprehensible. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness were threatened; our freedom of speech – in word, deed, and worship – was attacked.

They say that the West experienced a similar shock as it counted its dead in the aftermath of World War I, a war we memorialize this year, begun one hundred years ago. Then too, the fire trail was breached, and the flames of barbarism crossed into our peaceful lands, threatening to destroy all that the West had built, over thousands of years since Abraham (then Abram) was called to leave the pagan world of Ur. World War I was a turning point, a catalyst that produced nihilism and despair, Lenin and Hitler and Mao, Nietzsche’s superman and the cold liberal arrogance of academic elite reigning from their own towers, these of ivory.

Church and temple imploded, divided on the path to take. Many of the once-faithful claimed God to be dead, or at least sleeping. Many delighted in such a claim, worshiping themselves and contributing to the anarchy of self-gratification now so fashionable. And so, darkness descended upon the Western world, lit here and there by communities of traditional believers, those who held onto their map, saw the way forward clearly in Scripture, Sacrament, and Creed, and who lit their candles, calling all to come and worship.

There have been three beheadings in the last month, at the last count, and I suppose now the world is watching and counting. We are finally focused. The many lines, the many roads, the many intersections where we weren’t sure which way to turn, have all converged in a single place on our map. Like the World Trade Center bombings, these violent images have stabbed our hearts and minds.

Through it all, the lights lit in our churches and temples burn brightly, calling us together, to gather as one heart and one mind before God. And as I knelt in the pew this morning in St. Joseph’s Chapel in Berkeley, my minutes and days of the week, however scattered, were gathered together in that single hour of worship. In that hour of song and praise and penitence and communion, all that was past was brought into the present and redeemed. All that would come in the future lay in God’s palm, cradled.

The connecting stairs were no longer secret passageways, but right there in beautiful bold print in my Book of Common Prayer. The paths led sensibly through the dark and into the light between the onionskin pages of my tattered Bible. Sin was forgiven, death destroyed. I could turn again, re-pent, re-form, in this weekly turning point. I could face the days ahead of me, the chaos of the world, the burning of the good and the beautiful and the true. For here was the essence, the distillation of the good, the beautiful, and the true. Here was life, for me and for each of us. Here was love that passeth all understanding, love that made sense of all maps.

Traditions and Arrangements

Writing ImageIt is Labor Day, a time to honor work, the working man and woman, those who contribute to our world with their time, talent, and the sweat of their brow. It is appropriately also a time to send our children to school to learn how to do this, how to use their lives productively, how to work and to become responsible for their hours and days. So I turn to one of my many labors, my novel-in-progress, hoping to one day carry it to full term and allow it to breathe.

In creating the back-story for one of my characters, I have revisited the huge topic, Western Civilization: what it is and do we want to preserve it, and if we do, how do we go about it?

I am a saver of cogent words, powerful words in print. I snip bits from newspapers and magazines. I file them, where they sleep until resurrected in a moment like this when I am constructing a novel, drawing the blueprint that will become a huge house of many rooms. I am an architect, I suppose, in the planning stages, building inch by inch, word by word, scribble by scribble. Each room is a character, and they meet from time to time in the house, rub shoulders, touch one another’s minds and hearts and souls with their hopes and fears and regrets. Some rooms are dark, some light, some warm, some cold. They are all under the roof of my little novel, linked by halls and doorways and stairs.

The bits and pieces snipped and saved, ideas that will flow into these rooms are expressed by many ponderers from the English-speaking world. They voice concern, and rightly so, that without the Judeo-Christian underpinning of Western culture, the free world will collapse. One doesn’t have to be religious to worry about this… one merely has to face the reality of such a loss and how it would affect, at the very least, our ideas of liberty, law, and democracy.

Thomas Jefferson’s words decorate his memorial in Washington, D.C.:

“God who gave us life gave us liberty. Can the liberties of a nation be secure when we have removed a conviction that these liberties are the gift of God? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that his justice cannot sleep forever.”

Jefferson, a skeptic, is referring to slavery, but these words could have been written today. We all wonder, believers and skeptics, whether our liberties can be secure when we remove the author of the liberties, and when we remove the idea that these freedoms are gifts not rights.

Peggy Noonan writes that there are reasons for traditions and arrangements, some are good, some not so good, ways of doing things learned from experience. These ways have also risen from religious roots. Through the centuries since the birth of Christ, the West, under the influence of the Judeo-Christian social philosophy, has organized life based on the belief that God exists, that he loves and desires us to love, that he made man to be a free, thinking, creative being that would respond to him in turn, freely, thinking, and creatively. Behind the rule of law, behind our institutions of family, church, government, and free press, supporting our right to organize our workers, to gather in peaceful assembly, even behind our table manners and Robert’s Rules of Order, lies the Judeo-Christian definition of man and his purpose. So there are reasons for our traditions and arrangements in the Western world; there are reasons we labor to protect them.

The traditions and arrangements have changed from time to time, tweaked here and there, discarded here and restored there, fought over, around, and within, in word and in deed. Slavery challenges and condemns us, in the Classical world, among African tribes, and on American plantations. Today a child in the womb is seen by some to be owned by the mother, the unborn having no rights. Across the world, children are bought and sold, trafficked for labor, sex, surrogacy. Women are in bondage, jailed, beheaded. Believers are martyred. We see these things, we judge them to be right or wrong, and we labor to change them. So there are times when we need to alter traditions and arrangements to better reflect the Judeo-Christian definition of man and his congress with one another. But without the ideal, the standard by which to judge, how can we decide, act, affect the real world?

It is a conundrum, for our ideals of respect and liberty prevent coerced belief, even if belief may be necessary to uphold that liberty. So folks speak of a public square where we honor these ideals and seek common ground to move forward. They say we must reflect before deserting traditional definitions of marriage and family, that is, a man and a woman raising their own children. These arrangements have held and continue to hold society together. Studies show that the father is more committed, the mother more protected, the child more loved, when this traditional view is encouraged by government representing society. There is less delinquency and fewer single parent households.

I believe in the author of this code of life, this Judeo-Christian God, so it is easy for me to believe in these traditions and arrangements. I believe there will be a judgment (perhaps it’s ongoing) – a reckoning not only I will face but the world as well. We reap what we sow.

But I also pray that those who do not share my belief in that God, consider embracing his traditions and arrangements that have been honed through the centuries. If skeptics value liberty and the rule of law, respect for gender and race, care for the poor and handicapped, the unborn and the aged, if they desire freedom of thought, speech and worship, they would be wise to support the institutions that uphold these Western ideals.

I suppose the world is much like my blueprint for the mansion with the many rooms. Every person is different, unique, but together we have a common humanity. We share the earth and we share a long history. We live under the same roof of suns and moons and stars. We meet in common areas to agree upon traditions and arrangements, but we must build on those of the past, rather than begin anew each time. We nail and we hammer, we add here and pull away there, but we must consider why we do what we do and what we shall lose if we don’t. We must not forget how we arrived at this place, in this time, and why the rooms were decorated and arranged just so, before we tear them down. We must recall, if we are graced with belief, who labored to create this great house, our world, and that he calls us to love one another as he has arranged for us to love.

And it’s good to remember President Jefferson’s words, that our liberties are gifts from God our creator, and be thankful.

Watering Seeds

flowersThe sunflowers that the children planted last Sunday, pressing the seeds into the loamy soil in miniature clay pots, sprouted during the week. This morning we gathered around the shiny yellow table and marveled at the green shoots. Natalie, age four, carried the teapot (our pitcher) to the bathroom next door. She stood on the step-stool and turned the faucet, then watched the water gush into the pot. With great attention and care she grasped it with both hands, balancing her walk back to the yellow table with its new life. Together we tilted the spout and watered some sprouts, then passed the chrome pot to Luisa, age two, to give it a try with another teacher’s helping hand.

Earlier we had tied bright colored balloons to our welcome sign outside. We filled a basket with animal crackers. Soon we would read the story of creation with its many hued watercolors of rainbows and rivers and flowers, yellows and blues and greens and reds, and all things bright and beautiful. I was looking forward to singing this hymn – “All Things Bright and Beautiful” – together. 

As I watched the children and the teachers in this precious hour in the back of our parish church I thought how this scene had become and would become a part of my history. I have been involved in teaching children in church for thirty-seven years now, and as I share with them the creation of the world, I know that even in this small way I am contributing a few drops to the great stream of Western civilization. For the children will grow up believing in a rational God who not only created order out of chaos, life and light out of death and darkness, but loved, and continues to love, his creation. This is marvel-ous news.

There has been much outcry in the last few years about the loss of Western Civilization courses in major universities. How will we understand who we are? How will we move forward, creating and inventing and ordering the chaos around us if we do not understand how we created in the past? As many have written recently, this creating and inventing and ordering – this steady progress, was the product of belief in a rational God. Without the Judeo-Christian civilizing stream none of this would have happened. Progress happens within a linear view of history, not cyclical. When Abraham left Ur, at the command of the One True God, he left the pagan cycles of fatalism and reincarnation. He gathered his people and stepped forward in time to a destination. One action built upon another. Prophecies encouraged the journey, angelic visitors explained the future. He and his tribe were a part of something far greater, even in his old age, something building and progressing, something sacred led by God. Abraham looked up to the stars and found a God who cared, and he looked forward to the path he would follow to his destination.

So as I watched the children, I considered how my own history, my country’s history, my culture’s history, that of the Western world – all the past that has brought me here – is vital to the next generation. And values of freedom, democracy, respect for one another, heroism and sacrifice, personal responsibility, the sacredness of life itself, must all be cultivated just like these Sunday School seeds in order to flower.

This last week I signed up as a contributing “Creator” to a newly launched website, LibertyIslandMag.com, founded by Adam Bellow. Here “conservative, libertarian, and contrarian” authors of fiction may post their pieces and excerpts, blogs and comments, adding to a growing national conversation. I know I’m conservative, probably libertarian to a degree, and most likely considered contrarian by major publishers (and some of my family) so I was glad to find this island of sanity. 

I’ve also recently had the privilege of being part of the first steps taken to establish in Berkeley a Center for Western Civilization – library, faculty residence, lecture hall – one block from the U. C. campus. The St. Joseph of Arimathea Foundation sees this as a means to plant more seeds in the fertile ground of this major university area, to teach founding principles of Western Civilization to this coming generation. Joseph of Arimathea was the trader who provided the tomb for Christ’s burial; he sailed to Glastonbury to plant the seeds of Christianity in Britain. It is said that he planted his staff and the staff flowered. This same thorn tree, replanted over the years, still flowers in winter.

Many folks across our land are cultivating Western ideals, planting seeds for the future generations. They need our support, both financial and spiritual, to rebuild our broken culture and reap a good harvest.