Althouse | category: religion



an endless succession of beans and nuts.

"The via about recognizing that when you don’t know the right way forward, you might succeed by focusing on what you know to be wrong...."

"For example, after a weekend at the beach with your family, you can probably list the irritations far more easily than the pleasant aspects, even if on balance the trip was all right.... When you get home, you’ll have a list of things you experienced, and you can easily name the ones you didn’t like and don’t want to repeat next time (for example, bringing your brother-in-law). In contrast, the things you might add (such as a different guest, who, you hope, won’t get arrested) are hypothetical. Subtractive knowledge is practically guaranteed to lead to improvement, but additive knowledge is often just a guess. "

This is consistent with my adage Better than nothing is a high standard. And the famous saying Less is more

Brooks assures us that following the negative way does not make you a "negative person." I feel sorry for anyone who's governed by the fear of negativity. How cluttered your world must be!  

I'm excerpting from this article, so let me assure you that Brooks covers the religious aspect of the via negativa, which is fantastically important. Get more info about that at "Apophatic theology" (Wikipedia). 

To continue excerpting:
Write down the things you do out of habit or obligation, even though they lower your spirits. Perhaps you’ll resolve to avoid a few toxic friends.... After a relationship ends, write down a list of all the dimensions of your romance that were problematic, and that you should avoid in the future if possible. 
Be very specific, such as “Do not get a pet together” or “Do not move into his van.”...

Ha ha ha. I hope your list is that funny.

The via negativa is also useful for reviving an existing romance that isn’t going so well. If that’s the case for you and your beloved, sit down together and ask yourselves, “What are we doing that is making us unhappy?” Then resolve together to chip away the detritus harming your relationship and find a much better one within the old shell.

This sounds like the old story of how Michelangelo made a sculpture: "You Just Chip Away Everything That Doesn’t Look Like David" (Quote Investigator).

And it reminds me of an old expression that I haven't heard in a long time: Let's not and say we did.


"It honestly seems like it was written by a teenage Tumblr user who, having come into contact with some new and exciting ideas about social justice, seeks to impose them widely and lecture perceived wrongdoers gleefully."

Writes Jill Filipovic, in "Hamline University’s Controversial Firing Is a Warning/Insistence that others follow one’s strict religion is authoritarian and illiberal no matter what the religion is" (Slate). She's talking about a statement written by Hamlin University President Dr. Fayneese S. Miller. 

Filipovic continues:

[Miller] writes that “when we harm, we should listen rather than debate the merits of or extent of that harm” and that “the classroom incident is only one of several instances in which their religious beliefs have been challenged.” (God forbid a college student have their beliefs challenged.) But this is where it goes really off the rails:

As a caring community, there are times when a healthy examination of expression is not only prudent, but necessary. This is particularly the case when we know that our expression has potential to cause harm. When that happens, we must care enough to find other ways to make our voices and viewpoints heard. Perspectives should be informed, mindful and critical, as befits an education steeped in the tenets of a liberal arts education. We believe in academic freedom, but it should not and cannot be used to excuse away behavior that harms others.

I realize I sound like a crotchety old conservative here, but college classrooms should not be “safe spaces.” They can’t be safe spaces. They should be respectful spaces, and professors and students alike should treat each other with consideration, but “cause no emotional harm” is not, in fact, a value to which academic institutions should aspire, or an ideal they can ever realistically reach—especially when “this is harmful” has become an easy cudgel to use in order to get one’s way.

Much more at the link. It's interesting to see a person who wants to maintain her status as a left-winger struggle with all of this:

This incident is making headlines because conservatives have latched onto it as another example of left-wing “cancel culture.” But how a conservative interpretation of Islam that gets a sensitive and thoughtful art history lecturer fired is “left-wing” is beyond me.

I've bold-faced what is the second-to-last sentence. The light bulb comes on! 

But there's one more sentence. It's not a snapping off of the light — more of an adjustment of the dimmer switch:

It is true, though, that many people on the left have stayed quiet about this one, because, well, one doesn’t want to aid a perceived enemy, and perhaps because we want to be sensitive to Muslims who are undeniably often mistreated in the United States. 

We'll see where Filopovic goes from here. I said I found it interesting when someone who wants to be left wing struggles with issues conservatives care about, but that's an understatement. It is the strongest interest that has powered my blogging over the years.

I'm sure I had some dispute with Filipovic long ago, but I can't remember what it was, and I think at the time she was a law student while I was a law professor. Anyway, she graduated from law school in 2008, and she's turning 40 this year (the same year my younger son turns 40), so there's no reason to shrink from challenging her, and apparently she's in favor of the intellectual challenge. 

So I'll go ahead and wonder out loud whether Filipovic intended to be so transgressive as to compare a black woman — Hamlin University President Dr. Fayneese S. Miller — to naive teenager — "a teenage Tumblr user who [has just] come into contact with some new and exciting ideas about social justice."

I'm not saying that's racist or sexist, but I think a typical left-winger would say it is. I think it's anti-racist to apply the same vigorous criticism to a black woman that you'd apply to a white man.

But that's another one of these ideas that seem like something a "crotchety old conservative" would say.

"At a personal level, every morning, I get up at such a time that I can spend an hour in prayer, followed by an hour of reading before I let myself look at my phone."

"At a more family level, we practice Sabbath together. The whole 24-hour period, we put all of our phones away. We gather around the table with close friends. We celebrate a huge meal. We practice gratitude, rest; we sleep, we play. And that is a major part of our rule of life that we kind of anchor our weekly rhythm as a family around...."

Writes Tish Harrison Warren, in "This Year, Try Organizing Your Life Like a Monk" (NYT). 

"Do you think nonreligious people or people who are not Christians should have a rule of life? Well, I would say that all people have a rule of life. You likely have a morning routine, you have a way that you spend your free time, you probably have a job. Hopefully you have a budget. For a lot of people, the problem in their life is not that they don’t have a rule of life, it’s that they do. The problem is not that it’s not working. It’s that it is working, but it’s poorly designed. It’s giving them outcomes — emotional outcomes, relational outcomes, vocational outcomes — different than the ones they actually desire.... [C]larify in your mind and heart a vision of the kind of person you want to be and the kind of life you want to live — what you most deeply value — and then work backward and very slowly. Don’t try to go hard core...."

The author is influenced by the Rule of St. Benedict, and here's the Wikipedia article:

[I]n about the year 500, Benedict became so upset by the immorality of society in Rome that he gave up his studies there, at age fourteen, and chose the life of an ascetic monk in the pursuit of personal holiness, living as a hermit in a cave.... [H]e eventually founded the monastery...where he wrote his Rule near the end of his life....

The "Rule" seems like many rules. Chapter 7 alone has 12 rules — 12 steps in a ladder to Heaven — just on the topic of humility:

(1) Fear God; (2) Subordinate one's will to the will of God; (3) Be obedient to one's superior; (4) Be patient amid hardships; (5) Confess one's sins; (6) Accept the meanest of tasks, and hold oneself as a "worthless workman"; (7) Consider oneself "inferior to all"; (8) Follow examples set by superiors; (9) Do not speak until spoken to; (10) Do not readily laugh; (11) Speak simply and modestly; and (12) Express one's inward humility through bodily posture.

It's interesting to see Step 10,  "Do not readily laugh" right after blogging about the intern at the "best restaurant in the world," who, assembling "fruit-leather beetles," was "forbidden to laugh." Forbidden! St. Benedict's humility rule was only do not readily laugh. The rule against laughing too easily was for the purpose of humility. The rule against all laughter, at the pretentious restaurant, was for the opposite purpose: hauteur. 

So, yeah, I don't think things are as bad today as they were in the year 500, but the NYT author seems to think we're in a similar predicament. Whether we are or not, it is a good idea to look at what you are doing — what rule you are following — and figure out what end you are pursuing. If that's not the end you want, maybe you could think in terms of writing a new "rule" for yourself or, like the author, for your whole family.

"[S]he disappeared from public life, in 1980, leaving London for the small seaside town of Bournemouth, where she was known as Mrs. Lightband..."

"... she made anonymous appearances in the city to pass out Bibles at Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park. She felt a calling to protect the public from the sinfulness of her own writing by burning her manuscripts, actively preventing republication in her lifetime, and destroying evidence of her career. There are tales of her systematically checking out her own books from libraries across England in order to burn them in her back garden.... Of course, most writers hate their own writing.... Many writers stop writing entirely....  Tonks... became allergic to all books, not only her own, refusing to read anything but the Bible...."

From "The Writer Who Burned Her Own Books/Rosemary Tonks achieved success among the bohemian literati of Swinging London—then spent the rest of her life destroying the evidence of her career" by Audrey Wollen (The New Yorker).

"Tonks’s conversion marked a change in her direction and use of idiom, but her reverence for the power of language never faltered. Mrs. Lightband lived comfortably, avoiding evil forces and writing in her journals, until her death at the age of eighty-five. In her solitude, she found alternate forms of communication.... [S]he listened to the birds... 'she would interpret soft calls or harsh caws or cries from crows and seagulls in particular as comforting messages or warnings from the Lord, and would base decisions on what to do, whom to trust, whether to go out, how to deal with a problem, on how these bird sounds made her feel.'"

"I never watch anything foul smelling or evil. Nothing disgusting; nothing dog ass. I’m a religious person."

"I read the scriptures a lot, meditate and pray, light candles in church. I believe in damnation and salvation, as well as predestination. The Five Books of Moses, Pauline Epistles, Invocation of the Saints, all of it."

Said Bob Dylan, asked if he streams movies on Netflix to relax.

But that word "relax" did not resonate with him. He's already relaxed — "too relaxed... like a flat tire; totally unmotivated, positively lifeless." So he says. But that doesn't mean he's looking for things to stimulate him, because it "takes a lot to get me stimulated" and he's "excessively sensitive," so he's liable to go from totally inert to "restless and fidgety." There's no "middle ground." 

On or off. One extreme or the other. Maybe that works for someone who performs on stage and then must spend so much time in a travel routine. He can fall asleep "at any time." He also says "I can write songs anywhere at any time."

He muses — comically — about songwriters who have a routine: "I heard Tom Paxton has one. I’ve wondered sometimes about going to visit Don McLean, see how he does it."

"By 1532, Giulio Camillo, a professor at Bologna, suggested a means for transforming the mind through a uniquely powerful memory system of his own creation."

"The Memory Theater of Giulo Camillo, as it came to be known throughout sixteenth-century Europe, consisted of a wooden memory palace shaped in the form of a Roman amphitheater."

Writes Richard Restak in "The Complete Guide to Memory: The Science of Strengthening Your Mind," pointing to this visualization:

Restak continues:
In Camillo’s theatre, the spectator—representing the practitioner of the art of memory—stands on a stage facing the seats that are arranged as a seven-tiered structure with seven aisles extending from top to bottom. On each of the seven aisles are doors representing the seven planets. These doors are decorated with images of Cabalistic, Hermetic, and astral figures. 
On the underside of each of the seats in the theatre are drawers containing cards that detail everything that was known at that time or even potentially knowable. Camillo wrote of his theatre that “by means of the doctrine of loci and images, we can hold in the mind and master human concepts and all things that are in the entire world.” 
In describing his memory theatre, Camillo compares the process of achieving wisdom via the cultivation of memory to the experience of being immersed in a dense forest. At first, the desire to see the whole extent of the forest is frustrated by the surrounding trees. But if a way can be found of ascending along the slope, it becomes possible to see a large part of the forest’s form. When the top of the hill is reached, the entire forest can be seen. Camillo suggests that “the wood is our inferior world; the slope is the super celestial world.”... 
In this process, images drawn from religion are imprinted on the mind with sufficient strength, that when a person bearing this imprint returns to the everyday world, the external appearances of that world became spiritually unified through the power of memory.

"But I’m also getting more obsessive about human beings over huge swaths of time. Part of that came out of being on the Isle of Skye..."

"... during the serious U.K. lockdown. On Skye, if there’s a rock somewhere, it’s probably because somebody put it there. I realized that the rock that I was using to keep the lid on my dustbin was a stone that had been dragged around. People have been in this place for thousands and thousands of years, and in this bay I’m living in, they’ve left behind rocks!"

Said Neil Gaiman, quoted in "Neil Gaiman Knows What Happens When You Dream" (NYT).

Realizing that about the rocks makes you take the long view. Which is that the human race is mostly people just trying to live their lives, and that bad [expletive] is going to happen. That then moves you into other territory. Which is what? The territory of Rudyard Kipling, a very unfashionable writer. 

The British writer, born in 1865 and perhaps best remembered for “The Jungle Book,” has been criticized for, among other things, espousing racism and colonialism. An incredibly good writer, not always somebody I agree with, but thank God I’m allowed to read him. 

He wrote a poem called “Natural Theology,” which begins, “I ate my fill of a whale that died/And stranded after a month at sea/There is a pain in my inside/Why have the Gods afflicted me?” Then a verse goes, “My privy and well drain into each other/After the custom of Christendie …/Fevers and fluxes are wasting my mother/Why has the Lord afflicted me?” And after several more verses, it goes, “We had a kettle, we let it leak/Our not repairing it made it worse/We haven’t had any tea for a week …/The bottom is out of the universe!” 

That poem is Kipling going, We blame the gods — the stories — for the [expletive] that we do, and we don’t always understand it. I would love to think that we are living in a world in which the story of progress, as in the original “Star Trek” series, is always upwards and onwards, and even if there will be mad times, eventually we get to the bridge of the Enterprise where all the problems of Earth have been sorted out. But I don’t know that we ever will. We are humans, and we do collective insanity really well.

Here's the whole poem, "Natural Theology":


I ate my fill of a whale that died
And stranded after a month at sea. . . .
There is a pain in my inside.
Why have the Gods afflicted me?
Ow! I am purged till I am a wraith!
Wow! I am sick till I cannot see!
What is the sense of Religion and Faith :
Look how the Gods have afflicted me!


How can the skin of rat or mouse hold
Anything more than a harmless flea?. . .
The burning plague has taken my household.
Why have my Gods afflicted me?
All my kith and kin are deceased,
Though they were as good as good could be,
I will out and batter the family priest,
Because my Gods have afflicted me!


My privy and well drain into each other
After the custom of Christendie. . . .
Fevers and fluxes are wasting my mother.
Why has the Lord afflicted me?
The Saints are helpless for all I offer--
So are the clergy I used to fee.
Henceforward I keep my cash in my coffer,
Because the Lord has afflicted me.


I run eight hundred hens to the acre
They die by dozens mysteriously. . . .
I am more than doubtful concerning my Maker,
Why has the Lord afflicted me?
What a return for all my endeavour--
Not to mention the L. S. D!*
I am an atheist now and for ever,
Because this God has afflicted me!


Money spent on an Army or Fleet
Is homicidal lunacy. . . .
My son has been killed in the Mons retreat,
Why is the Lord afflicting me?
Why are murder, pillage and arson
And rape allowed by the Deity?
I will write to the Times, deriding our parson
Because my God has afflicted me.


We had a kettle: we let it leak:
Our not repairing it made it worse.
We haven't had any tea for a week. . .
The bottom is out of the Universe!


This was none of the good Lord's pleasure,
For the Spirit He breathed in Man is free;
But what comes after is measure for measure,
And not a God that afflicteth thee.
As was the sowing so the reaping
Is now and evermore shall be.
Thou art delivered to thine own keeping. 

  Only Thyself hath afflicted thee!


*I got tripped up on "Not to mention the L. S. D!" But this helped:

L. S. D.: the abbreviation for the Latin Libræ solidi denarii ‘Pounds, shillings and pence

"[T]he early Christians believed that both the bodies that created life and the world that sustained it were proof of the 'continual creative activity of God.'"

"Women and nature were aligned, in this view, as the material sources of God’s plan. 'The word nature is derived from nascitura, which means "birthing," and nature is imagined and felt to be like a pregnant womb, a matrix, a mother,' [writes historian Barbara Duden]. But, in recent decades, she notes, the natural world has begun to show its irreparable damage. The fetus has been left as a singular totem of life and divinity, to be protected, no matter the costs, even if everything else might fall. The scholar Katie Gentile argues that, in times of cultural crisis and upheaval, the fetus functions as a 'site of projected and displaced anxieties,' a 'fantasy of wholeness in the face of overwhelming anxiety and an inability to have faith in a progressive, better future.' The more degraded actual life becomes on earth, the more fervently conservatives will fight to protect potential life in utero. We are locked into the destruction of the world that birthed all of us; we turn our attention, now, to the worlds—the wombs—we think we can still control."

"Patients were typically confused when presented with a clinic that looked mostly like a house and a little like a church."

"They described to me how anti-choice protesters would prolong and exploit this confusion to keep patients away from medical care for as long as possible, employing medical misinformation or simple guilt. When a car did make it into the clinic parking lot, the protesters could not physically approach whomever got out of it without trespassing, so they just yelled at them. They had an elevated platform for this purpose, built right up against the clinic’s property line...."  

They chose to talk about sex a lot. They tended to be opposed to birth control and were fond of explaining 'God’s plan for human sexuality.' One woman illustrated this plan with unasked-for details about her virtuous married sex life. She felt that abortion and hormonal birth control were murder, and that condoms were undignified. Her husband learned to suppress his sexual urges, she said, and they now had sex only for procreation.... 
I was confused by some protesters’ opposition to birth control and focus on virtuous motherhood. Because I was raised by blunt and truthful people, I first assumed the weekly standoff at the clinic was caused by an honest difference in opinion about abortion. This didn’t jibe with the protesters’ hatred of contraception.... 
All of society was telling me I was part of a cultural conflict over the question of when human life begins, but my experience was showing me the conflict was broader. The protesters appeared to want sexual expression and gender roles to be governed by conservative Christianity.... 
Publicly they claim the goal of saving unborn children. I sense that just below the surface there is a more ambitious dream: conservative Christian dominion over human sexuality and gender."

These are important questions: Is opposition to abortion really about saving the lives of the unborn? Or does opposition to abortion really come from a different place, a desire to control sexuality? Everyone can see the problem of killing the unborn, even those who want abortion to be available. The argument Skinner makes — and I've seen it before — is that what really puts you on one side or the other on this issue is whether you believe that society should channel people into expressing their sexuality within traditional marriage.


And WaPo, get the word editing right: It's not "the protesters could not physically approach whomever got out of it." It should be "the protesters could not physically approach whoever got out of it." Isolate the phrase that begins with the who/whom word — "whomever got out" — and the mistake is easy to see.

"The via about recognizing that when you don’t know the right way forward, you might succeed by focusing on what you know to be wrong....""By 1532, Giulio Camillo, a professor at Bologna, suggested a means for transforming the mind through a uniquely powerful memory system of his own creation."

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