Stuffing the church into the closet of gnosticism

In his collection of essays “What are people for?” Wendell Berry makes some really good comments about the church, especially the modern American church. I am paraphrasing here and mixing in my own thoughts.

Bowing to economics is a driver of gnosticism. If the church is prevented from ever talking about economics and politics, then the only thing left are “spiritual” topics. We must be able to talk about money, commerce, etc. We can’t just leave this stuff to the central banks and the capitalists to handle. Nor can we leave it to the state to handle. We, the ecclesia, must deal with these things head on. They are a huge part of the world we live in. To ignore them or only discuss them on a small personal level is to marginalize ourselves and stuff the gospel into a very small box.

A lot of people are critical of “feeling-oriented” churches – ones that focus too much on emotional music, impassioned preaching, or hugs and not so much on theology, responsibility or the “meat” of the word. Interestingly, Berry doesn’t see this as directly church leader’s fault. They are just responding naturally to a demand that has presented itself. It is tied to deeper problems. For these churches to even be around we all must have first kowtowed to the dominant economic engine of science and technology. With the bulk of the tangible things out of the way, the only thing the church has left to be there for are people’s personal existential needs and individual’s salvation. Those things are indeed very important still, but we’ve bitten off a rather small piece of the whole of life.

The worth of the humanities

This is a splendid passage:

The scientific ideals of objectivity and specialization have now crept into the humanities and made themselves at home. This has happened, I think, because the humanities have come to be infected with a suspicion of their uselessness or worthlessness in the face of the provability or workability or profitability of the applied science. The conviction is now widespread, for instance, that “a work of art” has no purpose but to be itself. Or if it allowed that a poem, for instance, has a meaning, then it is a meaning peculiar to its author, its time, or it’s convention. A poem, in short, is a relic as soon as it is composed; it can be taught, but it cannot teach. The issue of its truth and pertinence is not raised because literary study is conducted with about the same anxiety for “control” as is scientific study.

-Wendell Berry, What are people for?, p.117

Yes, yes, yes. I can’t agree more. Especially with the sentence I highlighted.


Memory and community

“Conversation’s got to have some root in the past, or else you’ve got to explain every remark you make, and it wears a person out.

-S.O Jewitt

Berry quotes this and further comments:

The conversation wells up out of memory, and in a sense IS the community, the presence of its past and its hope, speaking in the dumb abyss.

-Wendell Berry, What are people for?, p.87

I love that line. This is why building communities takes time. Lots of it. They cannot be fashioned out of thin air or invented online effectively. To be substantial, they must draw from the well of shared memory and that well is rather a cistern that takes many thunderstorms to fill with rain.


The purpose of tragic drama

I’ve always hated tragedy (the story variety) and have never understood, from a classical standpoint, lacking education in that area, what it’s real wholesome purpose ever was.

Reading this comment from Wendell Berry recently made it click though:

The community wisdom of tragic drama is in the implicit understanding that no community can survive that cannot survive the worst. Tragic drama attests to the community’s need to survive the worst that it knows or imagines can happen.

What is wanting [today?], apparently, is the tragic imagination that, through communal form or ceremony, permits great loss to be recognized, suffered, and borne, and that makes possible some sort of consolation and renewal. Without that return we may know innocence and horror and grief, but not tragedy and joy. Not consolation or forgiveness or redemption.

-Wendell Berry, What are people for?, p.77

It seems the value of tragedy is that we are able to be “acquainted with grief” (to borrow the phrase from Isaiah 53) by proxy and then be more capable of imagining how live could go on after it. This is the sort of imagination we need developed to get past really terrible things when they DO come along. This sort of drama can give us something no preaching or theology proper can deliver.

Berry continues,

The community is happy in that it has survived its remembered tragedies, has reshaped itself coherently around its known losses, has included kindly it’s eccentrics, invalids, oddities, and even its one would-be exile.

Holy smokes. I can’t believe he wrote that. The Rene Girard alarms are all going off. Berry’s defined purpose of tragic drama is deeply, essentially Christian. Why? Because the people of Jesus can kindly absorb the “one would-be exile” into the community. The pagan community will always, always make a scapegoat of this person and cast them out. That is how they are able to artificially restore order after tragedy. We could imagine nothing else until Jesus Christ came along (though it was hinted earlier). He short-circuits the power of the scapegoat and enables us to respond to tragedy with joy, healing, and love. Still, we need to flex this muscle so it will be strong when the time comes.

A bit on feeling depressed

A couple of weeks back, I had a really bad day and was feeling quite down. However, I was cheered up by this somewhere tounge-in-cheek depressing section of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn that Wendell Berry quoted in one of his essays:

Then I set down in a chair by the window and tried to think of something cheerful, but it warn’t no use. I felt so lonesome I most wished I was dead. The stars were shining, and the leaves rustled in the woods ever so mournful; and I heard an owl, away off, who-whooing about somebody that was dead, and a whippowill and a dog crying about somebody that was going to die; and the wind was trying to whisper something to me, and I couldn’t make out what it was, and so it made the cold shivers run over me.

It just made me laugh to think that there wasn’t anything particularly depressing about the circumstances. It was all in my head, just like it was in Huck’s. Who knows what that owl and dog were really talking about!

Another drive-by comment on work and education

I know I’ve probably talked about this topic too much already, but it won’t go away just yet.

Can you include your children in your work?

The way to do this is obvious for homemakers. Daughters do house work, cooking, caring for children, etc. in the home, right along side their mothers. For the farmer, this was also quite straight forward. Just read Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Farmer Boy” to see this perfectly in action. Does anyone in their right mind propose that Almanzo would have learned more about life and manhood if he were carted away to school each day? That is exactly what we have done though, and even enforced it as law.

How can the natural way of raising (especially) sons to work be recovered for the office worker? I don’t know, but we need to try. We need to use our imaginations.


A drive-by comment on feminism

Just on NPR yesterday I heard that at a recent summit of Asian leaders, they concluded that women were “a great untapped resource” and they would do more to promote them entering the workforce, for the betterment of the economy and the nation. Abandon their children to submit to the same dehumanization that men have bowed to themselves? What a terrible idea.

To the degree that the feminist movement has fought against the oppression of women, it has been highly beneficial and valuable. However, to the degree that feminism has demanded to become a “resource” and enter into the same dehumanization that men have endured during the modern age, it is lot liberating women but rather putting them in newly forged chains. They have traded their subjectivity to their husbands for the subjectivity of a host of men who care not about them even one bit.

If I were Pope for a day

What would I do if I were the pope for a day and could only make one change?

I would make it far easier for Protestants to formally convert to Catholicism. Right now, as many have pointed out, the process is terribly long, complicated and incredibly theologically nitpicky. This nitpickyness would not seem so out of place if it were regularly demanded of all members. Instead, it stands out starkly because it is NOT demanded of nearly anyone else in the dioceses. They were born into it, catechized at a young age, (before any of their more lasting beliefs were hammered out in the teenage years or twenties), and then left to receive mass for the rest of their years without second thought. The result is that, on the ground, the church of Rome is the most theologically diverse of all Christian denominations. On paper, the magisterium has everything pinned and labelled meticulously. Apparently though, the only ones who get beat over the head with reams of the Vatican’s paper are Bishop candidates and…new Protestant converts. Few of the billion plus faithful even know what’s all in there, or care and there is little care whether they do or not.

Oh! But you would not dare water down the holy catechism! Well, too late. It’s already been cut with gallons of folk religion and diversity of thought, as all faiths have. It is a noble cause for church renewal movements to strive to bring folks back toward the center of orthodoxy. That’s good, but reserve your hottest refining fires for your priests and bishops. The poor in the narthex, pounding on the door with their fists, crying out to the Triune God, need not strive so hard. For Christ’s sake (and I mean that not as a swear phrase) do not make them jump through five-flaming hoops while peddling a unicycle just to get in the door. There is plenty of bread at the table of the Lord.

Don’t make your people lie

It seems completely and utterly necessary to push past your own cognitive dissonance to officially belong to ANY organization as a member of the clergy. With something of such minute and speculative diversity as theology, how could it not? I encourage a move toward relatively short statements of faith so as to minimize the degree to which members are required to lie about their beliefs. Maintaining “doctrinal purity” is just but has quickly diminishing returns.

On the discrete nature of coffee bean blends

In which I wax scientific while reading Newton’s biography:

Blending coffee beans does not a homogeneous mixture make. Unlike much cooking and mixing, such as the incorporation of water into flour, the small dosages of coffee used when making espresso actually serve to highlight discrete nature of the mixture. Remember that “discrete” is the opposite of continuous. When you graph it, it moves in stair-steps instead of a smooth curve. The probability of the mixture being dramatically “heavy” on a certain variety of bean increases as the sample size decreases.

Say that your “espresso blend” is a combination of 4 different bean types, 25% of each: a deep dark Sumatra, a couple of medium-bodied central American batches, and one bright and floral African. Assume they are mixed as evenly as possible, but that nothing mechanical enforces this ratio. Say that a shot contains the grounds produced from 32 beans. Ideally, there will be 8 beans of each type in that shot (8+8+8+8=32).

What is the chance that the mixture will be off a bit? Ex:(8+6+10+8) Pretty high, but no big deal. What is the chance that it will be really screwed up? Ex:(15+0+1+16) Pretty unlikely but it’s got to happen every once in a while. Now say your blend is more complicated: (8+8+8+4+4). Now the chance that one of your types will be missing completely skyrockets. You can’t make subtle changes and have them “take” in the real world. The discrete nature of the mixture resists that subtlety. Sure, it will be there across the mean of 1000 doses, but the distribution will be all over the place. This kind of variation can be frequently blamed for inconsistently tasting shots, I am certain.

This is a quality control challenge that, as far as I can tell, nobody is dealing with directly. It seems to me that there are some relatively simple mechanical solutions that could be devised to keep the mixture stable across dosages. An array of single-bean dispensing hoppers feeding into a buffer would be the most obvious solution. This would be versus a traditional single conical hopper feeding directly into the grinder. Is anyone building these? Why not?

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