"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Saturday, April 20, 2019

Notre Dame–Tragedy And Political Shamelessness

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Notre Dame de Paris is not just a church, nor just a cathedral although it stands as the greatest of all those in France.   It is a religious, national, and cultural icon, a symbol of the power and authority of Christian civilization, a monument to the Catholic Church and, like France itself, representing both secular and religious traditions.  France has always thought of itself as ‘La fille ainée de l’Eglise’ – the eldest daughter of the Church, the savior of Europe from the Saracens, and the religious and cultural center of Europe; and Notre Dame built less than a hundred years after Charlemagne’s famous battle at Roncesvalles, stands as witness.  It was not a church that was burned; it was the history of France, Europe, and Christianity.

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Not surprisingly but shamelessly, the burning of Notre Dame has become a political issue.  Not long after wealthy French businessmen pledged almost $1bn to restore the cathedral, progressives were condemning the gift.  How was it, they said, that these spectacularly wealthy men had kept their wealth quietly secure in Swiss banks, and only thought to spend it for white privilege?  Where was their generosity when poverty, disease, and misfortune afflict the most vulnerable?  For these progressive activists, the response to billionaires Arnault and Pinault, was nothing but an example of white on white – white, privileged, unconscionably wealthy men spending a fortune on the image of European Christian hegemony, a church built on the backs of oppressed feudal peasants, and funded by colonialism and the exploitation of Africa.  The rush to save France’s and Europe’s cultural and artistic heritage for these critics was an example of white Europe’s continued self-centered arrogance.

When Mike Pence, American Vice-President expressed his sorrow at the burning of the cathedral, progressives were quick to flood social media about his hypocrisy, white privilege, and ignorant religious fundamentalism.  Where was his voice when black churches burned?

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For the very reason that Notre Dame holds such a special place in Europe’s religious and cultural history – a history of high civilization, empire, and religious pre-eminence – it is considered by progressives as unworthy and sordid as a Southern plantation.  Millions have suffered under the yoke of French kings and for over a thousand years until the Bourbons got their due at the guillotine, French Christian history was one of oppression and enforced misery.  The Crusades, led by the French were armed assaults against Islam, the first wave of anti-Muslim sentiment which has only increased in the centuries since.

The nature of today’s politics is polemical, distorted, one-sided, and ignorant.  Of course the great civilizations of Europe, Persia, Rome, India, and China were aggressively ambitious empires, socially unequal, quick to war, and self-aggrandizing.  Power, wealth, intelligence, and ruthlessness were the rule.  There was no room for social justice, imperial compassion, or sympathy.  The accumulation of wealth was key to the development of civilization – art, architecture, science, literature, and philosophy were all outgrowths of societies wealthy and secure enough to invest in those enterprises unrelated to survival.  Without the desire, wealth, and vision of kings, queens, and popes, European civilization would never have risen from its tribal origins.

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Why then, despite the irrevocable and absolute value of high civilization, cannot it be given its due?  Why should the inevitable ‘injustices’ of cultural growth override its value if not its majesty? Historical revisionism is bad enough.  Historical amnesia is even worse; but a criticism of history – an ineluctable, predestined cycle of human nature – is ignorance, purely and simply. 

It is all well and good to question the way great wealth is invested; and while some may prefer the investments of Gates and Buffett in public health; or that of George Soros to promote democracy, others are quite happy that the Rockefellers, Fords, Carnegies, and Mellons have given to the arts.  The East Wing of the National Gallery in Washington, was made possible by a grant from the Mellon family.  The question is not why these philanthropists chose to give their money the way they did, but to appreciate the investment as such.  The arts, perhaps the most sophisticated expression of man’s intelligence, creativity, inspiration, and insight, deserve support perhaps more than anything else.  While social and political systems come and go, and while wealth and poverty emerge in repetitive cycles, art is permanent, absolute, and ennobling.

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It is only human tragedy which upsets today’s progressives; and especially that tragedy observed through the lens of race-gender-ethnicity.  There can be no tragedy in the loss of a building, regardless of its cultural and religious significance, say progressives; but such a sentiment can only be venal, temporal, and self-serving.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

In Praise Of December-May Love Affairs

Robert Allen had no idea that he was unhappy in his marriage until he met Daniela, a 24-year old Romanian medical student who found him attractive and potentially worthwhile.  Although she was from a modest family from Timisoara which had known nothing but difficult times, and which after Ceausescu's overthrow had to rely on the generosity of rural relatives, ingenuity, will, and resourcefulness to survive, she was not for sale, but simply a woman who understood the weakness of men, especially European men, and took advantage of their interest.

Daniela was dyed blonde (she had heard, correctly, how blonde hair gives a woman at least a 10 percent advantage with men), short (‘diminutive’ she preferred, again correctly understanding men’s preference for women who literally look up to them), busty (all men were attracted to women’s breasts and hers were round, full, and inviting), and intelligent. 

She met Robert at a public health conference on the Black Sea; and despite their quite different professional levels (he a PhD from Hopkins, expert in preventable ‘environmental’ diseases; and she a third-year medical student in a Romanian program which required little more than lasting out the three-year Soviet-style curriculum), they began an affair which was to last three years – intermittent only because of his wife, family, New York residence, and infrequent trips to Eastern Europe.  As far as she was concerned, he was a potential husband – handsome, wealthy, professional pedigree, virile, and respectful – and if marriage had to wait years of international courtship, divorce, and relocation, she – only in her early twenties – felt she had plenty of time.

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It would be wrong to call her a gold-digger.  Although there was no doubt of her interest in leaving Romania, Ceausescu, and enforced penury behind, she would not settle for just any wealthy American or European.  She had correctly valued her charms, the weakness of older men, and the romance of her poor, benighted, but alluring country; and knew that she would never have to settle but would marry someone of merit who would appreciate her for her beauty, talent, and ability.

It would equally be a mistake to assume that Robert was naïve sexual prey – nose open, immature, desperate for some sexual lifeline.  On the contrary he was prudent in his affairs, careful to protect his wife and children, and while looking for the romantic love that had escaped him, was not ignorant of the perils of December-May relationships.

On the contrary, he overestimated her ambitions, cached her in a wrongfully-ascribed category of manipulative women, and lost much of the spontaneity that should have been part of the rejuvenating experience of young sex.  He was always on his guard.

Daniela, on the other hand, was young enough to have no such secular concerns.  If Robert didn’t work out, there would be plenty of others.  Men were so predictable, childlike, and incredibly innocent when it came to women; and older men were so sorrowfully predictable, so desperate for young love, sexual redemption, and  Lawrentian epiphany, that they could be had in great numbers.

Marc Antony, member of the ruling triumvirate of Rome, naval hero, wealthy aristocrat of the Roman Empire fell completely for Cleopatra, a younger woman of beauty, charm, sexual allure, and power.  So much so that he let her lead him to defeat at Actium, a key battle which would determine the extent and strength of Roman rule in Egypt.  Cleopatra toyed with Antony, made fun of him with her minions, and was confident enough of her sexual allure – after all she had bedded Julius Caesar and had his children and had a dalliance with Pompey, another powerful member of the Roman ruling elite – that she had no fear of losing him.  Despite his military acumen, his civil savvy, and his universal respect as one of Rome’s greatest leaders, he threw caution, sagacity, and common sense to the wind when it came to Cleopatra.

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That’s what older men do, after all, give up worldly profit for the chance to regain their youth – or at least the most important semblance of it, sex – and Antony willingly, nose and eyes open, let Cleopatra take him in.

Coleman Silk, the main character in Phillip Roth’s novel, The Human Stain, a widowed college professor in his sixties, resigned to a life alone, meets a woman thirty years his junior, a janitor and farm worker who has survived an abusive marriage and the death of her two children, and for whom, in her depression and anomie any mutual companionship will do; and begins an affair.  Despite the difference in age, the threat of violence from her psychotic first husband, and the opprobrium of his academic society, he persists, and comes to love her.

“Granted, she is not my first love nor my best love”, Silk tells a confidant, “but she certainly is my last love.  Doesn’t that count for something?”.

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Of  course it does, as any older man in a relationship with a younger woman will attest.  An affirmation of potency and sexual allure, a pure and complete abandonment to sexual pleasure, not known since the days of youth.   The lucky older man who has it will never willingly give it up, and the many unlucky men who have only known one kind of abandonment – giving up sex with wives who are as old, dry, wrinkled, and tired as they are – can only dream about the sex that Robert enjoyed.

When Robert left Romania and took a long-term assignment in Moldova, Daniela wrote to him for advice.  She was pregnant, wanted the child, but still had hopes that he would return.  He wished her well with her pregnancy, and her life, and deleted her from all files, accounts, and chats. 

Robert felt no responsibility for Daniela (the child was not his) and because he had never trusted her, was glad that she now had responsibilities that would keep her in Romania and distant from him.  Yet that particular December-May love – in the Novotel, on hard, musty, Soviet-era beds in the cement-and-cinder block spas of the Carpathians, on the Black Sea, and in her childhood bedroom – was unforgettable.

D.H.Lawrence described ‘perfect’ sex as well as anyone, but even he went overboard when writing of the mystical coming together of two sexually kindred souls, the expression of mutually independent but dependent male-female wills.  Sex for Lawrence was never just copulation, procreation, or even mutual assurance of love.   When done right it was epiphanic.

The sex that Robert had with Daniela was nothing like that between Connie and Mellors, no such epiphanic expression of sexual wills; but it was far more than gratification.  Rejuvenating, redemptive, life-affirming…words that Lawrence never used… but how else to describe the sudden, unexpected release from sexual tedium and abstinence?

After Daniela, Robert had a number of love affairs, many with women younger than he; but never did he approach that forty-year difference – a  décalage of rare proportion for a middle-age, middle-class, ordinary professional American.  His affair with a young economist from the Cato Institute, 30 years younger than he, was particularly complicated by her desire to get pregnant – a desire which was all the more sexually stimulating because she conflated love with pregnancy.  Getting pregnant was a matter of affection not physiology; and her lovemaking – protected or not – took on a profoundly female nature. 

Yet it was nothing compared to forty years – a relationship which bordered on innocence and for which even Lawrence had no description.  He was interested in mature sexuality – the consonance of adult wills which had to evolve individually and very personally.  Both men and women could be either dominant or submissive, and the true sexual epiphany was when the two were balanced.  Youthful innocence held not interest for him.

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For an older, ordinary man, however, the sweetness of youth was the only epiphany.  The battle of wills fought out in Women in Love had no relevance whatsoever to Robert Allen or any men like him.
While younger women are often the prey of wealthy, predatory men; neither Daniela nor the Cato economist fell into that category.  Daniela who did expect a way out of post-gulag Romania certainly had her financial antennae up, and while the relationship did not end up in Oyster Bay, it was a feeder relationship well worth the investment and the sex.  Older men satisfy younger women thanks to their patience and self-restraint, and the Daniela-Robert affair was no different   The Cato-Robert affair was complicated by too many feminine expectations to ever have been fully satisfactory, but neither party was exploited.

So, the December-May love affair will outlast any of the more traditional, age-bound ones.  It has too much father-daughter, hope-expectation, rejuvenation-redemption elements to be innocuous nor forgettable.  In fact, when the stage is set right, it rivals anything Lawrence could ever have invented.

Saturday, April 13, 2019

Transgenderism And Paul’s Epistles–Returning To An Originalist Interpretation Of The Bible

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them (Genesis 1:27)

That verse from the Bible would seem clear, unambiguous, and straightforward; and for centuries it was never questioned.  It has been taken as a matter of faith and secular common sense for the 2500 years since it was written by Hebrew scholars during the Babylonian exile and codified after their safe return to Jerusalem.  Only recently has it been questioned.   The Bible, say post-modern deconstructionists, is nothing but text, equal to all others and valid only for its cultural markers.  Genesis, like all other books of the Old and New Testaments are simply reflections of the current cosmology, myth, psychology, and the socio-political environment.   The words of the Bible are not God’s nor received wisdom.  They are only relevant in light of the culture, society, politics, and beliefs of the time in which they were written.

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All well and good, except that modern Christians and Jews cannot so easily dismiss the Bible as relative text.  Even if it is not to be taken literally, it is divinely inspired.  Interpretation – exegesis – has its limits.  While religious scholars study the books of New and Old Testaments using linguistic, social, textual, literary, and source criticism – modern tools of the trade – they do so only to explicate the Word of God, not to challenge it. 

At the same time, the Bible’s many references to sex, sexuality, and the roles of men, women, slaves, and children are disturbing to all but the most fundamentalist reader.  The Epistles of Paul are especially troubling, for there are many passages through his letters which are unequivocal about the proper configurations of society.  For the new Church to grow, Paul knew, there could be no doctrinal dissension in the ranks, no squabbling over position and authority, and no disruptive anti-social behavior.  Paul’s words were meant both to illuminate the Gospels and the word of Christ but to assure obedience, order, and unity; and he was at his rationalization of the two.  One’s social rank, sex, or position in family and society mean nothing.   Patriarchy, servitude, and secular markers of class, status, and power are irrelevant since only obedience to and faith in God matter.

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This thought is not dissimilar from Hindu theology.  Since the world is only maya, illusion, the constructs of society have no permanence nor any purpose other than to provide the social order necessary to free the individual to follow the one and only true purpose to existence – spiritual evolution.  While some of these social constructs may seem unfair or unjust to the secularist, the devout Hindu or Christian will see them as only random rules of order, neither good nor bad, but only to provide a useful context within which the individual pursues his own particular path to God.  Introducing social disorder into a well-established, orderly philosophical system can only distract from life’s only purpose.

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The brilliance of Paul was to anticipate this tension between God’s word and secular issues.  He takes great pains in his letters to show how the configurations of society reflect God’s vision. The nuclear family, for example, was a microcosm of the Trinity, God the Father, God the Son, and the Holy Spirit of both.  Procreation was a human Genesis, divinely conceived and absolute.  Adultery, sexual promiscuity, and homosexuality were not only against the moral code (designed to keep social order) but against God’s original creation.

Paul went further, suggesting that the new covenant promised by Christ represented ‘a new Creation’ – a final dismissal of the aberrant ways of secular society and the establishment of a new, more productive relationship between God and Man.

Herbert Marcuse, influential Marxist philosopher of the 40s and 50s and one of the founders of Deconstructionism was eloquent in his denial of any such divine codification, received wisdom, or absolute faith.  He was particularly clear in his views about sexuality. 

For Marcuse, the engine of liberation, political as well as personal, is the embrace of “primary narcissism,” the repudiation of the “repressive order of procreative sexuality,” and the triumph of “polymorphous perversity.” Eros and Civilization, the curious book in which Marcuse formulated this gospel of apocalyptic infantilization, was published in 1955. It could have been published yesterday (New Criterion April 2019)

The current transgender movement in the United States and elsewhere is the logical outgrowth of Marcuse’s vision.  Not only should individuals reject the oppressiveness of marriage and conventional sexuality but embrace the most outrageously non-conventional forms of it.  Marcuse would have been delighted at today’s gender spectrum where anything goes, his ‘polymorphous perversity’ the new normal.   Paul would have been appalled – not because he was bound by the conservative traditions of the 1st century, but because of this ‘apocalyptic infantilization’ and hyper-individualism which counter the very principles of singular, spiritual purpose.

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Professors at many divinity schools are at great pains to rationalize Paul’s epistles and the verses of both Old and New Testaments with modern, secularist concerns.  Not only are divinity students forced to question the intent of Paul and the writers of the Gospels, but to view the New Testament first through a 21st century lens and then to explain away the obvious contradictions found in the Bible.  This is the exact reverse of traditional Christian teaching which attempted to explain why the homilies, parables, and discourses of Paul and the writers of the Gospels had particular relevance to today.

Rather than discuss Paul’s references to female obedience, dress, and behavior within the larger theological context intended by the Apostle; these newly politicized professors insist that students should simply ignore them as culturally-bound and irrelevant.  An instructor at a well-known Methodist seminary asked her students to look at the story of the Samaritan woman at the well first and foremost through the lens of social justice.  The fable was not about ‘the water of life’, Jesus’ offering of eternal salvation, but about the socio-political implications of the encounter between a Jew (Jesus) and a low-class, inferior, unclean Samaritan woman.  While the lesson of Jesus’ tolerance, acceptance, and generosity is essential to interpreting the story, it is only a  subtheme to the more important, essential theological issues.

But  whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life (John 4:14)

Such secular readings not only divert attention from Christ’s far more important messages of salvation, but suggest that secularism should always be a ‘virtuous rival’ to theology.  Slowly, surely, and progressively the Bible becomes less a book of theology and moral instruction and more a text of relative value.  Given its iconic, central importance to Western thought and culture, it cannot be dismissed entirely; but the more its principles are configured to justify current, temporal political convictions, the less influential it becomes; which, of course, was the whole intent of Marcuse – to marginalize, de-mythologize, and dismiss the Bible itself.

Arguments for a more conservative, originalist interpretation of the Bible are not meant to be apologia for the oppression of women or the dismissal of alternative gender realities; but a return to fundamental interpretation.  When stripped of socio-political and cultural wrappings, what are the essential principles and lessons taught by Jesus Christ and his Apostles?  Why was the heterosexual, procreative family so important to Christ’s teachings and so central to Paul’s reiteration and interpretation of them? What is the underlying, fundamental instruction about the theological nature of human reproductivity that should not be ignored?

Looked at this way, the seeming contradictions within the Bible become more understandable.  Individuals, particular societal configurations, and specific behaviors are integral parts of Creation; but not necessarily indicative of any implicit good, higher value, or permanence.  While transgender activists may legitimately promote social inclusion and tolerance, a movement to promote a universal and absolute recasting of sexuality has its consequences – not only in creating social division, doubt, and hostility; but further eroding foundational religious principles.

Antonin Scalia, former conservative Justice of the Supreme Court, called himself an ‘originalist’.  He believed in reading the words of the Constitution and extracting their central, philosophical, and judicial meaning – i.e. universal principles enunciated by the Founding Fathers to persist over time and be resistant to historical influences.  Man’s rights were God-given and ineradicable; and it was the job of the Supreme Court to judge on essentiality, not temporality.  His liberal colleagues on the Court strongly differed. Although the Constitution espouses fundamental principles, there is no such thing as universal values, universally applied.  One has to interpret given the times.

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Originalist interpreters of the Bible attempt to do what Scalia did with the Constitution – remove cultural overlays to get to the essential, spiritual or theological message of the text; to get as closely as possible to the original intent of the work.  Whether one agrees with that intent is another story altogether but the attempt to do justice to nearly 3000 year-old seminal piece of human culture and discourse on human nature is necessary.