VP Debate, Young Atheists, Former Atheists, Dying Republics, and New Tunes

A new and sparkling edition of "Carl’s Cuts", the sporadic and always scattered collection of observations, opinions, and non-magisterial musings of the Editor of CWR

• If I see any more headlines about Kaine and “Able” or “Unable”, I’m going to go dwell in the land of Nod.

• I didn’t watch the Vice-Presidential debate last night—I took my horse-obsessed daughter shopping for some new spurs—but I gather that it featured a rapid-talking, smirking guy defending abortion while a far more sober, straight-arrow guy sat shaking his head and chastising the other for being played by an untrustworthy woman.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but didn’t “Two and a Half Men” go off the air last year?
• Not to belabor what should be an obvious point, but when one’s “deeply held” and “devout” faith is sacrificed on the gory altar of abortion, how deep and devout can your faith really be? Or, better, what is the ultimate source and highest summit for one’s beliefs? If I say that I am “personally opposed” to adultery, but publicly support adultery (and perhaps even practice it on occasion), should I be considered a profound man of faith, or a complete cad and scoundrel? Or just a politician?

• But, of course, Gov. Kaine is called a “Pope Francis Catholic” and is lauded for his “argument” for the Church’s inevitable acceptance of “gay marriage”—something impossible to accept since there is no “marriage” there—despite an embarrassing lack of knowledge about Scripture, logic, and other essentials.

• From the depressing to the divine. Or, first, the rejection of the divine. This past week, I happened to read three different texts that coalesced in a rather interesting way. The first was this letter by a Notre Dame student about how she lost her faith while at the University. The student, named Grace, wrote:

I thought a Catholic university would bring me closer to God, but the freedom of college is what originally made me turn away. Being on my own schedule meant that I could pick when I had to go to Mass, if I wanted to go at all. I no longer felt obligated to go, even though so many of my friends invited me to a dorm mass every Sunday. Instead, I spent my Sunday’s focusing on my classes, some of which made me question God in new ways.

One of the most influential classes I took my freshmen year was my “Foundations of Theology” class. The more I read about God, the less I believed in Him. I questioned why God would even care about humanity when there was so much more to the universe than us. Being at Notre Dame gave me the opportunity to really question the things I believed in. Notre Dame shaped my faith in an ironic way. By requiring that I study the Catholic Church, it has made me realize I do not truly believe in its beliefs or teachings.

It’s curious, I think, that the one reason she gives for no longer believing in God is because she “questioned why God would even care about humanity when there was so much more to the universe than us.” It’s curious for several reasons, not least because it is hardly compelling at all and it has been address it many different ways. Which brings me to the second text, which is Fulton J. Sheen’s 1931 book Old Errors and New Labels. Early on, in the chapter titled “Cosmic Intimidation”, Sheen states:

The modern man is humble, not with the old humility which made a man doubt his power, but with the new humility makes a man doubt his humanity. The old humility was grounded on truth: man is what he really is. The new humility is grounded on insignificance: man is only a speck in the cosmos.

After recounting some of the many huge distances and incomprehensible numbers revealed by modern astronomy, Sheen notes that for some people these recent discoveries awaken “a greater understanding of the Majesty and the Power of God” while in “other minds they have developed an awe of the immensity of the cosmos … which insists that man is nothing.” After providing some examples of the latter, Sheen argues that “such cosmic intimidation is built upon, first, an ignorance of the imagery of greatness, and secondly, two false assumptions: namely, that greatness is value, and that man is considered great in the old cosmology because he lived presumably in the center of the universe.”

The point, in part, is that making physical size the gauge of what is good or valuable is a reflexively materialist reaction, which puts quantity above quality when it comes to “greatness”. This “cult of magnitude”, writes Sheen,

is driving the modern mind mad; it has so obscured its mental vision as to blind it to other dimensions than those of length, breadth, and thickness. It is well to remember that the contained is generally worth far more than the container, even though the contained rattle around in the container like a diamond in a cracker-box. The really great things of the world are not always the immense things; great men are always little men in the sense that they are humble …

There is much more—Sheen’s book is as timely now as it was in the 1930s—but I would simply note that here we encounter a common problem with those who would decry belief in the Incarnation because the proposition that God became man is deemed “outrageous” or “ridiculous”: an insistence that man, supposedly having no worth at all in the face of the vast and impersonal universe, is capable of making final and authoritative claims about what is valuable, meaningful, and worthy of praise. “I am nothing,” says the supposedly humble university student, “and thus I am empowered to say that God is also nothing.” Not only is it a false humility, it’s a false pride. In the meantime, as Sheen points out, Aristotle—prior to modern telescopes and university students—had addressed this whole matter of man’s worth and dignity, calling “man a microcosm or a little universe, because he contained the cosmos within himself.”

• Which brings me to the third text. Full disclosure: I work for Ignatius Press, and so some readers might think it’s my job to promote Ignatius Press books. They are correct in thinking so, but I have never uttered any false praise for any Ignatius Press books. And my praise for Night’s Bright Darkness: A Modern Conversion Story by Sally Read is neither feigned nor faint. This is a must read; it is powerful, riveting, startling, and beautiful. It is one of the most elegant and clear-eyed stories of conversion I’ve ever read. Read is highly regarded poet, now in her mid-forties, who grew up in England in a left-wing, atheist family in the 1970s and ’80s. She is also, I think, a mystic, despite that descriptive being often misunderstood or misused. In the opening chapter, “The Father”, Read describes the how she began to recognize the presence of God:

My desperate yearning to write the line, to make the poem, to nail the truth was illuminated. It wasn’t for editors, prizes, readers or myself that I sought so earnestly to harness reality. It was for communion with God, who knows already, who has the metaphor, the poem, already in hand. It was to try to touch that poem.

That night, I barely apprehended this. What I thought was just one thought: possibility, and the sibilance of that word seemed like the distant yet all-encompassing black sea that I perceived God to be. A sound like the amniotic roar of traffic in London or the simmer of sea in Santa Marinella that natives unlearn how to hear. I had begun to learn how to listen.

This amorphous feeling of God was the “inconceivable, invisible” God of the Byzantine Liturgy and his ineffable love. But I still did not know what liturgy was, and I had not apprehended that love. I only knew that reality extended far beyond what I had ever known or expected.

This God, the God that I sensed that night, was faceless and without attribute. … I hazarded that it was not evil—I knew that from the intimation of peace and joy I felt straining inside me. Looking for consolation, communication or answers did not occur to me. Only the fact of God penetrated me like the fact of my own existence.

For this rawness and utter lack of expectation, I thank my father. He prepared me to know God. In his atheism, he stripped me of all pretense and selfishness and false worship and rights with regard to God. he taught me to kneel to nothing false, to have no false master. For a long while it would not occur to me to ask God for anything at all. I was only at the point of invocation, like an infant’s first cry.

In the words of the Psalmist: “Be still, and know that I am God” (Psa 46:10). To read some of Sally Read’s poetry, visit the website of The Hermitage of the Three Holy Hierarchs (of which she is poet in residence).

• Speaking of being still, if you haven’t read this recent interview with Cardinal Robert Sarah, here is part of what you’ve missed:

Let us not fool ourselves. This is the truly urgent thing: to rediscover the sense of God. Now the Father allows Himself to be approached only in silence. What the Church needs most today is not an administrative reform, another pastoral program, a structural change. The program already exists: it is the one we have always had, drawn from the Gospel and from living Tradition. It is centered on Christ Himself, whom we must know, love and imitate in order to live in Him and through Him, to transform our world which is being degraded because human beings live as though God did not exist. As a priest, as a pastor, as a Prefect, as a Cardinal, my priority is to say that God alone can satisfy the human heart. 

I think that we are the victims of the superficiality, selfishness and worldly spirit that are spread by our media-driven society. We get lost in struggles for influence, in conflicts between persons, in a narcissistic, vain activism. We swell with pride and pretention, prisoners of a will to power. For the sake of titles, professional or ecclesiastical duties, we accept vile compromises. But all that passes away like smoke. In my new book I wanted to invite Christians and people of good will to enter into silence; without it, we are in illusion. The only reality that deserves our attention is God Himself, and God is silent. He waits for our silence to reveal Himself. 

Regaining the sense of silence is therefore a priority, an urgent necessity. 

Read the entire interview.

“After the Republic” (Claremont Review of Books, Sept. 27th) by Dr. Angelo Codevilla is, I think, one of the best pieces of political punditry of the season. An excerpt:

This arbitrary power, whose rabid guard-dog growls and barks: “Racist! Sexist! Homophobic!” has transformed our lives by removing restraints on government. The American Bar Association’s new professional guidelines expose lawyers to penalties for insufficient political correctness. Performing abortions or at least training to perform them may be imposed as a requirement for licensing doctors, nurses, and hospitals that offer services to the general public.

Addressing what it would take to reestablish the primacy of fundamental rights would have required Republican candidates to reset the Civil Rights movement on sound constitutional roots. Surprised they didn’t do it?

No one running for the GOP nomination discussed the greatest violation of popular government’s norms—never mind the Constitution—to have occurred in two hundred years, namely, the practice, agreed upon by mainstream Republicans and Democrats, of rolling all of the government’s expenditures into a single bill. This eliminates elected officials’ responsibility for any of the government’s actions, and reduces them either to approving all that the government does without reservation, or the allegedly revolutionary, disloyal act of “shutting down the government.”

Rather than talk about how to restrain or shrink government, Republican candidates talked about how to do more with government. The Wall Street Journal called that “having a positive agenda.” Hence, Republicans by and large joined the Democrats in relegating the U.S. Constitution to history’s dustbin.

Because Republicans largely agree with Democrats that they need not take seriously the founders’ Constitution, today’s American regime is now what Max Weber had called the Tsarist regime on the eve of the Revolution: “fake constitutionalism.” Because such fakery is self-discrediting and removes anyone’s obligation to restrain his passions, it is a harbinger of revolution and of imperial power.

Agree or disagree, it’s worth the read. Back in May, I interviewed Dr. Codevilla: “Politics, Religion, and the Ruling Class”.

• A few of you (yes, you know who you are) might be wondering: “What new music is Carl listening to these days?” Some new favorites include the stunning “Sting Variations” by the Tierney Sutton Band, the gorgeous “Mary Star of the Sea” by Gothic Voices, Dwight Yoakam’s bluegrassed “Swimmin’ Pools, Movie Stars…”, the lovely “Field: Complete Nocturnes” by Elizabeth Joy Roe, “The Second” by jazz bassist and composer Derrick Hodge, and “The Prelude Implicit”, the first studio album by American prog-gers Kansas in sixteen years. From my Progarchy.com review of that latter:

“The Prelude Implicit” is the first studio album from Kansas since “Somewhere to Elsewhere”, which featured all of the original members as well as songs composed entirely by Livgren. It was a very good album, with some stellar moments—”The Coming Dawn (Thanatopsis)” and “Myriad” are powerful back-to-back cuts. So, where to go with the new album? In short, the band has found a commendable and impressive balance between old and new, with plenty of prog-heavy, classic Kansas-like passages, but with an emphasis on ensemble playing over solos. New guitarist Zak Rizvi (4Front), who has a background in production—he co-produced and co-mixed the album—brings a bigger and heavier guitar sound that is very much up to date (again, think Spock’s Beard, or Mystery). There are plenty of nifty progressions and chord changes, but it’s clear the group spent time working on a cohesive set of songs. This is An Album. Avoiding Livgren’s specific lyrical focus on overtly Christian themes, the songs are a bit more general in nature, touching on inner fights and fears (“With This Heart”, “Rhythm in the Spirit”), social tensions (“Visibility Zero”, “Crowded Isolation”), and spiritual growth (“The Voyage of Eight Eighteen”, “Camouflage”). The final song, “Second 60”, is a lovely, haunting instrumental, which is dedicated to U.S. military personnel who died in Iraq and Afghanistan.

I’m loathe to say “The Prelude Implicit” is a “return to form” as I don’t believe the members of Kansas would view it in such a way, or would want it seen as such. Yes, there is a lot of musical history under the bridge of time, and there is no escaping it. But Kansas is to be commended for embracing their past while clearly moving forward with a confident and often exceptional collection of songs. Highly recommended for both longtime Kansas fans and for those who like melodic, well-crafted prog that puts the emphasis on memorable songs and musical cohesion over theatrics and solos.

• Finally, more Venerable Sheen:

Those who refuse to unify the cosmos in terms of Pure Intelligence but content themselves with secondary causes may be likened to an all-wise mouse in a grand piano who laid the flattering unction to his soul that he had explained music by the play of hammers on the strings, the action of which he could see in his own narrow little world. “Scientists catch the tune but not the player.”

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About Carl E. Olson 1201 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.