Archive for December, 2008

Chesterton & The Jews (Part II)

Continuing on from my previous post in defense of Chesterton…

chestertonSo what about the double-standard of which I spoke earlier? It is well known in our culture that there is a double-standard when it comes to the treatment of minority groups vs. the majority. Thus, in America prejudice against whites and Christians is generally tolerated, while prejudice against minority races (e.g. blacks and Hispanics) and minority religions (e.g. Hinduism and Judaism) is – rightly – cut down with a righteous indignation.

Perhaps, this double-standard is understandable, but that does not make it right. And certainly Chesterton was far too honest and good natured to play along. Dale Ahlquist credits this aspect of misunderstanding Chesterton to people not being able to recognize a joke.

Those who accuse Chesterton of anti-Semitism often overlook his enormous humor. He did not take himself seriously and in his lightness, his playfulness, his charitableness and good nature, he could point out human foibles and the sublime silliness of his fellow man without condemnation. If he stereotyped the Jews in some of his generalizations, it was because he had a great gift for generalization which was not limited to the Jews. He did the same thing with Cockneys, Irish, Germans, Americans, Moslems, Mormons, Puritans, Prohibitionists, Parliamentarians, Vegetarians, Christian Scientists, Quakers, and all the rest of us who march comically along in the grand human parade. He did not single out Jews when he made fun of their noses or their love of money, but neither did he spare them, because he did not spare anyone else, especially himself. What we love we can laugh at with impunity, which is why a husband and wife can laugh at each other, because, as Chesterton said, they both know they are fools. We need to laugh at ourselves when we are silly (instead of being offended) and we need to repent when we are wrong (instead of rationalizing or defending ourselves).

Right on. As Ahlquist said elsewhere in a different essay, “it seems that the only people who are obsessed with Chesterton’s views on the Jews are those who haven’t bothered to read him. This goes to a point I made in Part I of this blog entry. For those who have read Chesterton, even a fair amount, they will know that this charge of anti-Semitism is very out of place with what else we know about him (and what others, those he knew, said about him).

Speaking of those who knew Chesterton, it turns out that Chesterton was a good friend to many Jews. Now, the “I’m not racist, I have ______ (black, Jewish, Latino, etc.) friends” defense seems rather tired and rather lame. But if it is, in fact, true it is a perfectly legitimate defense. It’s hard to imagine a person who is actually racist against blacks being a good friend with a black guy. Try to imagine a skin-head, card carrying member of the KKK being friends with a black person. It just ain’t going to happen. So when someone is accused of such bigoted feelings, but then it turns out they have good friends that represent the object of the supposed bigotry, the accusation is undercut at the knees.

Chesterton is, famously, an alumnus of the renowned St. Paul’s School in London. The school’s famous graduates include John Milton and Edmond Halley. While at St. Paul’s Chesterton was very involved in the Junior Debating Club. It was in this club that Chesterton befriended several members, many of which became life long friends, and several of which happened to be Jewish. Quoting Ahlquist once again,

And it is significant that fully one-third of the dozen members of the Junior Debating Club were Jewish. The two sets of brothers – Maurice and Lawrence Solomon, and Waldo and Digby D’Avigdor – would not have belonged to the club had it not been for the insistence of that raging anti-Semite, G.K. Chesterton…

Lawrence Solomon (1876-1940) became one of Chesterton’s closest friends. He was a professor of history at the University of London, but when Chesterton moved to Beaconsfield, Lawrence left London and bought a home in Beaconsfield so that he could be close to Chesterton.

Waldo D’Avigdor (1877-1947) became an executive at a large life insurance company. Chesterton dedicated The Innocence of Father Brown to Waldo and his wife, Mildred.

Ahlquist goes on to comment on Chesterton’s relationship with Maurice Solomon and Digby D’Avigdor as well, but I don’t need to go on. You get the idea. Chesterton was not the bigot he is portrayed to be – or he was incredibly coy about his true feelings around his Jewish friends. Not to mention these friends would have to have been wholly unaware of the obvious bigotry that was coming from the pen of Chesterton. Something just doesn’t add up. Either those who accuse Chesterton of anti-Semitism have no idea what they are talking about, and never knew Chesterton personally, or the charge is bogus. I think the evidence I’ve outlined above (and gratefully stolen from the ACS) speaks for itself.

In yet another essay by Dale Ahlquist, he gets into more specifics on the three passages that are “almost always used in the case against Chesterton”. Perhaps, if I find some time I will do a Part III and get into the real refutation of what Ahlquist calls, the “mean and wretched lie” that Chesterton was an anti-Semite.

Of course, it goes without saying that I am enjoying my first issue of Gilbert Magazine. I’ve always enjoyed the work of the ACS, and I heartily recommend joining them in their honorable mission. You can do so at their website, http://chesterton.org/. Click the “Join!” tab at the top.

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Chesterton & The Jews (Part I)

gm_2008-nov-decWell, I went and did it. After years of donating to the American Chesterton Society (ACS), I finally joined as a member. I figure the only thing better than charitable donations is charitable donations with benefits; a 20% discount on merchandise at the ACS website and a subscription to Gilbert Magazine, in this case. Yes, I know. A little quid pro quo in your charitable giving is not exactly the Christian ideal, but let’s not quibble about theological distinctions.

As stated above, one of the benefits of joining the ACS is a subscription to their (somewhat) bi-monthly publication, Gilbert Magazine. I was happy to see that my first issue arrived in the mail yesterday, just in time before I head back to North Carolina to spend Christmas with my family. The issue’s title instantly grabbed my attention: “Chesterton & The Jews.” I have heard echos of the charge before, that Chesterton was an “anti-Semite.” I must admit, it’s a charge I’ve always had a hard time believing. Given Chesterton’s good nature, and the fact that he was so greatly loved by his intellectual antagonists, it is hard to see how Chesterton could act so “out of character” toward this one group of people. Nonetheless, all things are possible with human nature, so I was anxious to read the ACS defense of the amiable G.K. Chesterton.

One of the first articles in the magazine is an essay – or rather, a compilation essay – by Chesterton himself wherein he defends himself against the charge of anti-Semitism. But Chesterton is quick to point out that the term “anti-Semitism” is itself misleading – “a feeble and frightened euphemism.” When someone is accused of being an anti-Semite, they are really being accused of hating Jews. Semites are not necessarily Jews, in that a Semite is (according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary) “a member of any of a number of peoples of ancient southwestern Asia including the Akkadians, Phoenicians, Hebrews, and Arabs.” So the very term anti-Semite is a euphemism, as Chesterton rightly points out. He goes on:

One of the ninety-nine reasons for not calling oneself an Anti-Semite is that it is so wretchedly polite and apologetic a thing to be. A man implies that he dislikes the Semite race, he dares not admit that he dislikes the Jewish people… There are people who dislike Jews; though I am not one of them. But I doubt if there are people who dislike Semites.

The main issue that Chesterton takes with the charge of anti-Semitism, is that it is based on a misunderstanding of what he terms “The Jewish Problem”, or worse yet, a blatant double standard of which he will have no part.

When Chesterton says “The Jewish Problem”, this sounds to modern ears a terrible bigotry. But this is only so because the term is sitting there all alone, completely out of context and without proper definition. We infer a bigoted meaning. As Dale Ahlquist (founder and president of the ACS) points out in one of his several essays, this misunderstanding is “even more complicated now because we have to try to discuss it from the opposite side of the event which is the flashpoint for all discussions of anti-Semitism: the Holocaust.” But what Chesterton meant by “The Jewish Problem” was a very real problem indeed. The Jews (prior to 1948) were a nation without a nation. So much for the problem being the mere existence of those “immoral Jews”, which is apparently what is inferred from Chesterton’s “bigoted” term.

To be more specific, “The Jewish Problem”, as Chesterton meant it, was (to quote Ahlquist again):

The “Wandering Jew” was not merely an image of literature but a fact of history. Their settlement throughout Europe was unsettled. Though they often developed a loyalty to their adopted homeland, it was different from the natural loyalty of a native. Complete assimilation was problematic for one of two reasons: Jews would either have to give up their distinctiveness, which would be unfair to Jews, or the nation assimilating the Jews would have to give up its own distinctiveness, which would be unfair and uncomfortable and probably cause resentment in that country. Chesterton said, “Jews must be free to be Jews.” In order for that to happen, he argued, they must have their own homeland, and Palestine was the logical choice.

For Chesterton, a nation was an organic unity, a people who shared the same homeland, the same culture, the same language and literature, the same religion, the same race, the same heritage, and last and least, the same government.

So “The Jewish Problem”, was in fact a real problem, and Chesterton was one of the few who was fearless enough to discuss it with all of his characteristic honesty.

A Change of Opinion

snow-shovel2In between spending some enjoyable time reading over at the Fides Quaerens Intellectum blog, I’ve spent the vast majority of my morning shoveling snow. Now, I am originally from the South and have only within the last 5 years moved to the upper Midwest; so what I am about to say, I say with all of my heart. I hate the snow.

It was not always this way. I used to think the snow was beautiful, and perhaps I still do to some extent. But it’s hard to see beauty in something that causes you so much pain. My hat goes off to you Northern folk; having to shovel like this winter after winter, with nary a note of discontent in your demeanor.  It is no wonder you be of hearty stock; true men who know the simple pleasures of stout beer. In this Northern clime of yours, you have learned that a “pale ale” just doesn’t cut it after going toe to toe with 10 inches of snow in sub-zero degree temperatures. Real men need real beer in times like these. I think I shall learn from you men of the North and enjoy me some stout beer, and perhaps some beef jerky.

Or maybe I should just buy a snow blower…. but dang, those things are expensive! But on the other hand, if I continue to shovel, I will have more money for beer. It is settled then. Beer before blower.

FIRST THINGS Moments of 2008

Moving on from the previous post into the current Year of Our Lord, 2008, here are few of the moments that stood out to me from the pages of FIRST THINGS this past year. Feel free to add any of your own fond memories.

Regarding FT in 2008, there are three things that stand out to me – Joseph Pearce, N. T. Wright, and the death of the Oldline Mainline Protestants here in America.

ft_2008-08First, my dear Joseph Pearce. Back in July I did a post on the shellacking Joseph Pearce took in the pages of the August/September issue of FT. What made this so surprising is FT is a journal that would otherwise be friendly to someone like Pearce. So what did Pearce do to get such sour treatment from a friendly source? It has to do with that all too entangled question of Shakespeare’s religion. I personally don’t think Shakespeare’s religion matters, but there are many (apparently) who do.

In his much publicized book, The Quest for Shakespeare, Pearce clearly wanting to discredit himself right from the start, begins by touting his “Bellocian bellicosity” and distancing himself from the “asses of academe.” Translation: Pearce thinks all those scholars in their ivory towers are arrogant nitwits. Unlike himself, of course.

Robert Miola, professor of English at Loyola College (Maryland), is the culprit behind the aforementioned shellacking. Actually, a careful reading of Miola’s writings in FT regarding the issue of Shakespeare’s religion (see the May 2008 issue of FT) shows that he is somewhat sympathetic to the view that the great Bard of Avon may have been a Catholic (Pearce’s thesis). But if there is one thing Miola can’t stand, it’s arrogant grandstanding by an unproven scholar, such as Pearce, who clearly has no idea what he is talking about. And the way I word it is much nicer than the way Miola does. No kidding. The book review by Miola is really quite stunning – I had my mouth open almost the entire time I was reading it. If you have not read the review, do yourself a favor and read it: Thy Canonized Bones.

And as is the way with peer review journals, Pearce was given the opportunity to defend himself, which he did on the FT blog, On The Square. The rebuttal by Pearce with a response by Miola was included in the latest issue of FT (December 2008). Unfortunately, I can’t link to it since it hasn’t been made public online. However, you can still read Pearce’s rebuttal here.

Second is the “out of nowhere” N. T. Wright / Fr. Neuhaus skirmish that began in April. From what I understand Fr. Neuhaus and N. T. Wright are fairly acquainted with each other and even consider the other to be a friend. So when Neuhaus took to taking cheap shots at Wright in his featured Public Square essay of April 2008, I was taken aback. Now, I say cheap shots, but I am quite sure Fr. Neuhaus doesn’t see it that way. However that may be, I thought the attacks were unfair and so did Wright, understandably.

I call this a skirmish because it didn’t last but for a single follow up exchange in subsequent issue of FT. Thankfully, the whole nasty – and very odd – exchange was quickly dropped, and I can only assume/hope Neuhaus and Wright have since made nice and will continue their good work for the Church, each in their own way.

You can read the original essay by Fr. Neuhaus here: The Possibilities and Perils in Being a Really Smart Bishop. As much as I say Fr. Neuhuas’ attacks were unfair, he does, not surprisingly, make some good points; but the whole seems to be tainted by the way in which he treats Wright. Wright’s rebuttal and Neuhaus’ response can be found in the June/July 2008 Correspondence section.

And last, but not least, is Joseph Bottum’s lengthy essay entitled The Death of Protestant America: A Political Theory of the Protestant Mainline – also from the August/September issue of FT. The article generated much discussion with the great majority of the correspondence agreeing with general outline Bottum presents of the death of the Mainline Protestant Churches in America.

You can read this interesting essay by Bottum, here: The Death of Protestant America: A Political Theory of the Protestant Mainline. The follow up correspondence letters are in the December 2008 issue of FT. As I noted earlier, this issue is not publically available online yet. Give it a couple of months.

So that does it for FT in 2008. I eagerly await the memorable moments that are sure to be in store for 2009.

In the meantime, have a happy Advent!

Gloria in excelsis Deo!

FIRST THINGS Moment of 2007

Or Is Balthasar a Heretic? This Crazy Lady Thinks So…

ft_2007-01Now that 2008 is winding down, I got to thinking about the year that was. In that I am eagerly awaiting the next issue of FIRST THINGS (should be arriving soon), I began to ponder the journal’s memorable moments of this past year and years past. It seems that every year there are at least a few exchanges or essays that stand out and tend to be talked about for quite some time. One such exchange occurred in 2007 between Alyssa Lyra Pitstick and Edward T. Oakes, S.J. For those who follow the journal you are well aware of what I speak. Here you had this upstart theologian – Pitstick – who in her doctoral dissertation decided to question the orthodoxy of the great Hans Urs von Balthasar. Oh, the nerve! I tell you…. kids these days!

The controversy in question surrounded Balthasar’s theology of Christ’s decent into Hell wherin he believed Christ’s passion was continued after his death on the cross, which thereby made his descent into Hell an instrument of our salvation, part of the propitiatory sacrifice. (I’ll let anyone more studied in the thought of Balthasar clarify my description of his theology if needed). Pitstick, I think fairly, questioned if this aspect of Balthasar’s thought squared with what has always been the orthodox Catholic understanding that Christ’s descent into hell was a victorious one, not a suffering and salvific one. As I say, I think the question is a fair one, but Oakes didn’t seem so sure. In fact, he was in some ways credulous that one of the Church’s greatest theologians and a Cardinal, mind you, was questioned in such a way. Now, you must understand, Oakes is a distinguished scholar in his own right, and widely considered to be an expert in the theology of Balthasar. That is precisely what made it so astonishing that he defended Balthasar so poorly, or so I (and many others) thought. The exchange is well worth reading, and is highly entertaining…. Well, entertaining if like theology a little too much :)

It actually all started in December of 2006 with an initial exchange between Pitstick and Oakes entitled Balthasar, Hell, and Heresy: An Exchange.

The exchange was continued in the next issue of FT, January 2007, with a follow up exchange: More On Balthasar, Hell, and Heresy.

Then in March 2007, a special correspondence section was dedicated entirely to the exchanges, with the first letter coming from the late Cardinal Dulles: Responses to Balthasar, Hell, and Heresy.

The exchange was then left off and we duly moved onto other topics in FT. But for those 4 months, “The Pitstickian Wars©”, as I like to call them (yes, I have copyright), were front and center. They caused quite a stir, and that is precisely why reading FT can be so darn enjoyable.

In the next post I’ll cover a few of the items that I thought were memorable from the pages of FT in 2008.

Avery Cardinal Dulles, 1918-2008

Now this is certainly a sad loss for the Catholic Church in America. Cardinal Dulles, S.J. passed away early this morning at Fordham University in New York. I have recently gotten to know the work of Cardinal Dulles, mostly through FIRST THINGS and Church and Society, a book I have commented on several times on this blog.  Even though I am not well read in the theology of Cardinal Dulles, I have greatly enjoyed what I have read. If you want to understand Catholic theology in simple terms from one of the Church’s serious scholars, Cardinal Dulles is a good place to start. He is easy to understand, straight-forward, and intellectually honest with his subject matter. In short, he his a scholar of the first rate. Now perhaps he is not as intellectually stimulating or creative as a Hans Urs von Balthasar or a Henri de Lubac, but Cardinal Dulles never intended to be either. He was found of saying that the last thing he wanted to be was “original”. Cardinal Dulles was a theologian who wanted to pass down to others what was handed down to him. And he did this well.

FIRST THINGS has a nice collection of writings from Cardinal Dulles that have appeared in their fine journal. You can view the list, put together by the journal’s editor, Joseph Bottum, over at their On the Square blog.

The Church will obviously miss Avery Cardinal Dulles, and the Society of Jesus has lost one of its shining stars.

Cardinal Dulles, 1918-2008. Resquiat in Pace.

The Survival of Religion

It’s been said before that quoting Chesterton can become a bad habit, or even worse, an addiction that is nearly impossible to overcome. As he is so darn quotable, I have not been able to overcome the dreaded temptation, and I fear I may spend the rest of my life as an addict. Are there support groups for this sort of thing? Apologies aside, here is more G. K. Chesterton, this time on the proper understanding of Darwin’s theory of “survival of the fittest” and how it relates to religion. I just couldn’t help myself.

From The Well and the Shallows:

Among the innumerable muddles, which mere materialistic fashion made out of the famous theory, there was in many quarters a queer idea that the Struggle for Existence was of necessity an actual struggle between the candidates for survival; literally a cut-throat competition. There was a vague idea that the strongest creature violently crushed the others. And the notion that this was the one method of improvement came everywhere as good news to bad men; to bad rulers, to bad employers, to swindlers and sweaters and the rest… The great Jefferson, when he reluctantly legalized slavery, said he trembled for his country, knowing God is just. The profiteer of later times, when he legalized usury or financial trickery, was satisfied with himself;  knowing that Nature is unjust.

But, however that may be (and of course the moral malady survived the scientific mistake) the people who talked thus of cannibal horses and competitive oysters, did not understand what Darwin’s thesis was. If later biologists have condemned it, it should not be condemned without being understood, widely as it has been accepted without being understood. The point of Darwinism was not that a bird with a longer beak (let us say) thrust it into other birds, and had the advantage of a duelist with a longer sword. The point of Darwinism was that the bird with the longer beak could reach worms (let us say) at the bottom of a deeper hole; that the birds who could not do so would die; and he alone would remain to found a race of long-beaked birds. Darwinism suggested that if this happened a vast number of times, in a vast series of ages, it might account for the difference between the beaks of a sparrow and a stork. But the point was that the fittest did not need to struggle against the unfit. The survivor had nothing to do except to survive, when the others could not survive. He survived because he alone had the features and organs necessary for survival. And, whatever be the truth about mammoths or monkeys, that is the exact truth about the present survival of religion. It is surviving because nothing else can survive.

Religion has returned; because all the various forms of scepticism that tried to take its place, and do its work, have by this time tied themselves into such knots that they cannot do anything. That chain of causation of which they were found of talking seems really to have served them after the fashion of the proverbial rope; and when modern discussion gave them rope enough, they quite rapidly hanged themselves. For there is not a single one of the fashionable forms of scientific scepticism, or determinism, that does not end in stark paralysis, touching the practical conduct of human life.


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