Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Ideology as Law

In our era of polarized disputes, partisans on the left and on the right tend to develop their arguments using conceptual frameworks premised on social justice versus free enterprise; personal autonomy versus the right to life or biologically normative form; the global economy and open borders versus the nation-state and rational self interest.

Advocates for social justice support government regulation of the economy and redistribution of wealth against people whose ideology is based on axioms about private property that are as old as Thomas Paine's 1776 pamphlet Common Sense.  Paine's ideological framework posits freedom of conscience that clashes with the current reading of Thomas Jefferson's statements about separation of church and state.

Is there any way out of the culture war these frameworks provoke and through which we interpret the issues?  For people of faith an analogy can be drawn between ideologically based thinking and St. Paul's discussion of justification of the law versus salvation by faith.
Romans 4: 13-16
The promise to Abraham and his descendants, that they should inherit the world, did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith.  If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void.  That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants--not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham, for he is the father of us all.
Early Christians contended with Judiazers who insisted that their coreligionists follow the Law of Moses. Paul distinguishes adherence to the legal code from comprehension of a more profound ethic of the heart and conscience.
Romans 2: 13-16
For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified.  When Gentiles who have not the law do by nature what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law.  They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or perhaps excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus. 
For this this analog to be of use, it helps to acknowledge that ideology can be rigid and intolerant on both sides of the cultural/political divide.  Advocates use ideology to simplify issues into false dichotomies and create stereotypes of their opponents.  The religious right vilifies the politically correct dogmatists in academe and academics return the "compliment".  From either perspective the stereotype seems justifiable, and the culture war becomes a religious war. It should help to acknowledge that thinking in dichotomies and stereotyping groups of people are the methods of propaganda.  Stereotypes are the hard core of prejudice.

We started by quoting St. Paul.  It is interesting to mention a couple of ideas from Saul Alinsky's book, Rules for Radicals:
5. "Ridicule is man's most potent weapon. There is no defense. It's irrational. It's infuriating. It also works as a key pressure point to force the enemy into concessions." 
13. "Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it. Cut off the support network and isolate the target from sympathy. Go after people and not institutions; people hurt faster than institutions."
The terminology of these tactics--weapon, enemy, target--leaves no doubt that the objective isn't truth but inflicting damage on opponents.  It doesn't take much imagination to find examples of this strategy in contemporary politics.  Broadsides attacking Mitch McConnell or Nancy Pelosi come readily to mind.  For Donald Trump these methods are stock in trade.  To be clear, St. Paul also talks about spiritual warfare, but Christians have applied the metaphor literally to opponents whose differences were doctrinal or demographic.

The first thing to note about Alinsky's rules is that they reduce to the logical fallacy known as ad hominem argumentation.  Attacking or discrediting the person instead of the concept or position they hold doesn't prove anything. Illustrating the ways that Trump can be a jerk doesn't mean his campaign was wrong about trade policy, immigration, or foreign wars.  Even if corrupt politically connected investors made Solyndra into a crony capitalist scam on taxpayers' money, it doesn't prove that government funding for research and development is destructive of free enterprise.

We all want to win arguments, but what is it that disposes some people to believe Trump in spite of his character flaws?  Many of these people see corruption in every government program regardless of evidence that is contrary to their expectations?  The ideological framework of our thinking includes premises that can determine the conclusions that we will reach and how the evidence will be interpreted.

Lest we neglect the obvious, some people refuse to see corruption in government programs even when it is indisputable: drugmakers led by Pfizer agreed to run a very significant public campaign bankrolling political support for the 2010 health-care law, while the Obama administration promised to block provisions opposed by drugmakers worth 80 billion in tax savings and discounts.  The administration's stated, noble intent to provide health care for uninsured people has been sufficient to keep millions of people in support of the Affordable Care Act, continuously assuming any opposition is irrational if not immoral.

Vested interest is surely one of the reasons people's thinking tends to be constrained by ideological preconceptions.  Upton Sinclair, who advocated socialist views, is credited with the statement, "It's difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it." This quote comes from Sinclair's 1935 book about his campaign for governor of California, subtitled, How I got Licked.  Now, eighty years later, California has armies of people vested in jobs represented by public employees unions, who understand the arguments for socialism very well.

Another way to dissect the monstrous stereotypes created by the culture war is to ask not "who is harmed by the problem?", but rather, "who benefits from the problem?"  Many advocates make careers of controversy.  The writer's dilemma is getting readers past the first paragraph.  Selling out to one faction in a dispute can be good for ratings. Maybe in the process you create fake news. Speaking one language in the political tower of Babel may be widely unintelligible, but those who understand can make a polemicist's career.  Ask Rush Limbaugh or Ann Coulter about anything in the news and you know what kind of answer you'll get, but they're doing very well financially.  Ask CNN executives how their attacks on Donald Trump have been for the bottom line, but don't ask whether they think Russia-gate is anything more than a "Nothing burger", as Van Jones put it in a moment of candor.  Jones' point was not necessarily that the Russian collusion narrative is false, but that it is a distraction from substantive issues such as joblessness, drug addiction, and crime, and not likely to lead to impeachment of a President, even if he is insufferable to progressives.

All this is a prelude to saying that ideology is inadequate to understanding, much less solving, the kinds of problems that evoke our bitter disputes.  St. Paul's discourses distinguish between the letter of the law and the spirit of the law.  The law can be helpful, but in the difficult cases, that is to say, the important ones, the rules don't fit the game.  Paul goes as far as saying, "the written code kills, but the Spirit gives life."  [2nd Corinthians 3:6]

Another familiar passage from Paul's first letter to the Corinthians includes this gem: "Our knowledge is imperfect and our prophecy is imperfect."  [1st Corinthians 13:9]  This is a startling admonition from the man whose epistles are read authoritatively every Sunday.  The church has historically relied on scripture, tradition, and reason to establish doctrine and polity.  Paul had all these and a personal encounter with a man risen from the dead, yet he conceded that his knowledge was imperfect.  An honest appraisal of our disputes and our failures should lead to acknowledgement that the law and, for people faith, even prophecy can't eliminate uncertainty in our encounters with other people's minds.  For Christians, whose prayers affirm faith in the Holy Spirit and providence, it's theologically incoherent to assert that the formulations of socialism or laissez-faire capitalism can resolve our arguments about economic policy and its effects on business, labor, or the poor. 

Pope John Paul II made frequent references to "a preferential option for the poor".  And social justice is a fine metaphor.  But historical evidence indicates that capitalism has lifted more people from poverty than any other economic system.  Ideals, metaphors, and facts comprise our thinking and our discussions. They motivate and mobilize advocates and adversaries.  Eventually these cultural artifacts become the foundation for ideologies and institutions.  Human rights and constitutional government are built on ideas that took centuries to develop in civilized society.  We ignore the ideas that generated them at our peril. But ideas are not absolute.  We need all the perspectives on the issues, especially on those that lead to conflict, because, as St. Paul wrote, quoting an earlier prophet, "None is righteous, no, not one".

Monday, June 12, 2017

The Progressive Ethos of the Episcopal Church USA

This morning, Trinity Sunday, as I waited with other choir members for the processional hymn, a man, whom we heard was today celebrating his ninetieth birthday, walked past us with his wife on their way into the sanctuary.  The woman next to me, grey-haired, grandmotherly, a veteran choir member asked me if I had attended the talk by Father Antonio Illas about immigration, and if I had heard “Dean’s rant”.  Ninety-year-old Dean is one of a few conservatives in the parish who have ever come out of the closet.  I was not too surprised by this question, but I wasn’t expecting it from this woman.  Of course I had heard Dean’s question about the legitimacy of the immigration restrictions attempted by the Trump administration.  I have some opinions about how Dean’s suggestion that immigration restrictions might be legitimate was disallowed in the discussion.  It was anything but a rant, more a question, very tentatively asked.


It’s difficult not to notice how the Episcopal church ethos empowers a monotonous perspective on certain issues.   Compassion for undocumented people and assistance in their dilemma is a fine Christian impulse.  The politics of sanctuary cities and open immigration are other matters entirely.  An aristocracy of shepherds in all the mainline churches indoctrinates people in the reigning ideology of the Democratic Party.  Wolves in bishops’ clothing, they conflate personal ethics and government, and advocate policy that transmits a blight already covering the wider culture. Their high sounding rhetoric about “social justice” and “structural evil” maligns Republicans and the “privileged”.

My own rhetorical ire is peevish today because yesterday, and for most of last week, members of our parish have been assisting a church member in good standing, active on several committees, choir member, and organizer of blood-bank events at the church, who found herself overwhelmed by events following the sale of her house.  She, her daughter, and her son lived in the house for about fifteen years, the daughter now in her late twenties, her son a few years younger.  He recently enlisted in the army and is in boot camp.  The girl, young woman, must be wondering about her options for the long term.  Boot camp might be preferable to continuing to live with Mom.  I had some idea of what to expect moving this household because I used to be the guy in the church with a truck.  In this case several women of the parish scheduled a moving company to get our friend from the house, which is actually a double-wide modular home in a reasonably nice subdivision, to an apartment a few miles away.  But, when the movers arrived, they looked around and flatly refused to attempt the job.  The boss said being in the place for any length of time would be hazardous to his employees’ health.  None of us who were there last week would disagree.   

Today I talked with another church member, who had also volunteered.  She had worked as a caseworker in social services and confirmed my opinion that it is not uncommon to find women living in houses without functioning plumbing and with garbage rotting in every room.  Our priest and the choir director, God bless them, were there with the rest of us, trying to salvage enough furniture to get this parishioner out of her corner of hell.  The Rev purchased masks to keep all of us from inhaling fecal matter floating in the air from cat boxes and a bird cage.  Everything was covered with suffocating dust and filth.  I killed spiders on nearly everything I touched.  It was a nauseating environment, but people worked, paid for truck rentals, and offered emotional support to a woman who was trying to maintain self respect and remain in denial about her plight.

Like Christians who voluntarily walked into suffering during a medieval plague, churches are on the front lines in these situations.   We meet people where they are and help as much as we can, attempting to blunt the effects of years of dysfunction and decline.  But this isn’t the Bubonic plague.  It isn’t poverty!  How do people descend into seemingly needless misery?  Without any visible means of support, this woman had leisure to spend her days and nights, when she wasn’t in church, watching thrillers on a widescreen TV.  We moved out boxes of DVDs and romance novels.  She has a car, computers, a cell phone, an iPad.  Her malnutrition is not that of deprivation.  What is the source of her paralysis?  

My opinions are partly born of experiences growing up in the now derided 1950s.  I knew women with children who struggled.  My aunt lived with an alcoholic husband and had six children.  Her husband, Scotty, was a bricklayer.  In the early years of the marriage the growing family lived in a mobile home, a trailer thirty feet long and ten feet wide.  The location I remember was in the backyard of a house along a highway, surrounded by weeds.  

As I recall, when there were five or six children, the family rented several rooms on the upper floor or an old house adjacent to a parking lot.  The inevitable divorce was stormy.  Scotty showed up at our house and assailed us with language that was then shocking.  Now twelve year old girls spew the F-word as liberally.  Irma and the younger children moved in with my widowed grandmother, into a house of maybe 800 square feet.  There was room for a garden in the back yard and Grandma made good use of it.  Grandma didn’t have much either because my grandfather spent much of his paycheck buying drinks for railroad officials, and he often didn’t come home.  Dad remembered finding him sleeping off his drunken binges in somebody’s garage or at the train station. He died in his early fifties. Grandma kept votive candles burning under bleeding-heart paintings of the saints.  The church excommunicated Aunt Irma.  She voiced her criticism of the holy fathers when the thalidomide babies began creating an early controversy about abortion.  I recall the wounded tone of her voice when she held up the pictures in Life magazine of deformed children born with the blessing of the church.

Irma lived with Grandma until several of the children were out of high school.  She worked at a beauty salon and other low-skills jobs.  I have a friend, who on his first job as a teenager, worked with her in a supermarket bakery.  He remembers her fondly, especially her cynical sense of humor.  After a while she remarried.  The man had a ranch and money, but he was no prize.  When Grandma died, he ransacked the little house, looking for money or jewelry, tearing apart the frames of family pictures, dumping things on the floor that had intangible value to the rest of the family.  Irma survived another divorce.  She never had a house that amounted to anything.  But she took out the garbage.  She ended her days in a small rental where she could invite us to dinner without embarrassment.  She read, with amusement, magazines featuring Elizabeth Taylor beyond her prime.  But her children did well.  They worked. Their marriages succeeded. They didn't forget their mother.

What is the contemporary plague that puts women, and often enough, men, into a downward spiral that eviscerates their chances for a life of self respect?  I don’t think it is unrealistic to assert that what is missing in the current scenario is community.  Without connection to family and/or community, the infection that takes hold, after some years, is so virulent that love, compassion, practical assistance, and subsidized health care can’t remedy it.  

But, community is motivated by economic interdependence.  Dysfunctional behavior is dysfunctional.  Subsidize it and it continues.  It metastasizes.  The community of the church can provide companionship and moral support, but the global economy has cut people off from the sources of their basic needs.  It’s bad enough that Walmart has supplanted local businesses in Great Falls, Montana, Boston, and Seattle.  Add a welfare check to this already pervasive alienation and you have a drug that is fatal to motivation and human ecology.  People used to rely on one another to build and plant.  Not anymore.

The statistics about poverty and dependency are not ambiguous.  There are more fatherless children and hopelessly dependent women than there have ever been in America, this in an era of unparalleled affluence and after fifty years of the “War on Poverty”, the “Great Society”, AFDC, and now the “War on Drugs”, which is a fire fueled by money poured into the others. The truth about fatherless children is also indisputable.  They have more problems getting an education, making successful families, staying off drugs, and out of jail.  The difference in Irma’s case was community and family support, which she had to find to simply survive.  The plague destroys incentive and obliterates the resourcefulness that makes us human.  There have been times when the church has provided assistance without unconditional financial support.  Now the church has become another megaphone for demagogues shaming people into continuing trillions of dollars in government subsidies.  

The last time I saw Irma, I didn’t even have to know her address to find her.  Then in her sixties, she was working as a waitress in a small town coffee shop.  I started to ask around town, but the first person I talked with could tell me where she lived.  We had a pleasant afternoon together in her small, threadbare house.  

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

René Girard; Scapegoats and Sacrifice

Here's an excerpt from a good article on Girard in the Stanford University News:

People are social creatures, and their behavior is based on imitation to a much greater degree than generally supposed. How else to explain why a generation decides at once to pierce their tongues, or why stocks rise and fall? How to explain how a child learns language? Even our desires are not our own; we learn them from others.

"We don't even know what our desire is. We ask other people to tell us our desires," Girard said during a lecture at Stanford's Old Union in February. "We would like our desires to come from our deepest selves, our personal depths—but if it did, it would not be desire. Desire is always for something we feel we lack."

Envy and resentment are the inevitable consequences of this drive toward mimesis. These emotions, in turn, fuel conflict; it occurs whenever two or more "mimetic rivals" want the same thing, which can go to only one. It might be a woman, a presidency or a research grant. Many religious prohibitions are meant to regulate and control such conflict.

"When we describe human relations, we lie," Girard said. "We describe them as normally good, peaceful and so forth, whereas in reality they are competitive, in a war-like fashion."

In literature, such mimetic desire can create comic masterpieces: A Midsummer Night's Dream is a classic he frequently cites. Or it can inspire the novels of Balzac, in which the characters strive to outdo each other in snobbery and imitative social values. Such imitation can even be totally imaginary. Don Quixote wishes to be a knight errant, because he is imitating the heroes in the books he has read.

On a societal level, such conflict seeks a release, and the outlet is a scapegoat. A third party—often an outsider, a foreigner, a woman, someone who is disabled, the king or president—is blamed and demonized for having caused the conflict. Scapegoats are not seen as innocent victims; they are seen as the guilty cause of the disorder. The calls mount for the sacrificial victim, and the mob itself creates a sense of harmony.

http://news.stanford.edu/news/2008/june11/girard-061108.html

See also: René Girard at Microsoft

Monday, August 29, 2011

Is there Justice in the World?

"If the death penalty can be given to a man for buying two ordinary 9 volt battery cells, if 20 years of his youth can be robbed, I sincerely doubt there is justice in the world."
-- the plea from death row – A.G. PERARIVALAN

As conveyed by the following report by an Indian friend, a country in protest now can't find justice in the world:
This is the sentence of truth by the person Perarivalan who got death hanging punishment for getting a 9 volt battery for the Rajiv's assassination. Many truths and realities were hidden in this case. Not only in this case in many things our country is going very down in politics. The person who is richer rules in the govt, and also supports only more like this.

The forgoing perspective from rural India contrasts with the news as reported by The Times of India.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Contrasting Jesus and St. Paul on the Work Ethic

The Protestant Work Ethic is not in the Bible.  Max Weber may have understood Calvinists of a certain era, who in their anxiety about being among the elect, led lives of drudgery like that apparent in the faces of the Puritans in Grant Wood's famous painting American Gothic. The self-denial and thrift evident in those faces did have the effect of increasing the worldly goods of many Calvinists.  At a certain stage, the wealth they didn't spend may have been capital for the industrial revolution, but technology and capitalism were well underway, long before there were Protestants, in Italian city states of the medieval period.  Wealth accumulated by deferred gratification may have given some Calvinists assurance of God's favor.  John D. Rockefeller comes to mind.

But assurance of God's favor is not necessarily God's favor.  It is interesting to contemplate the difference between the sayings and parables of Jesus and the work ethic of St. Paul.  Jesus is noted for a disturbing parable about workers, some of whom worked all day, only to find out at quitting time that guys who came online at four in the afternoon would get the same wages as early risers. So much for early to rise... .  Of course, most working people find out sooner or later that life isn't fair, but why did Jesus have to rub it in?  Perhaps it was in accord with his other hard sayings about "the ruler of this world."  Jesus seems to have had a different perspective on how power and authority are allocated in the world than did St. Paul who says all authority is given by God, and therefore by resisting authority one might be resisting the will of God. Now we're getting into matters of perspective that could account for St. Paul's relatively long life under Roman authority as contrasted with the horrific demise of Jesus.

In an era when slavery was common, St. Paul recommended serving wholeheartedly regardless weather one served a benevolent tyrant or an evil and oppressive one.  St. Paul's injunctions were historically invoked to justify the Divine Right of Kings.  Fortunately or unfortunately many Christians eventually reasoned that revolt against unjust oppression was justifiable, especially where oppression made it impossible for them to practice their faith as they understood it. In this, as in so many areas, the light that shines in the darkness can seem like sunrise in American or the twilight of the Gods.  Is Satan the ruler of this world who gives success to whomever he finds to collaborate in his nefarious business?  Or is all authority given by God? The choice of perspective between that of Jesus and St. Paul, on problems one encounters working for the man, seems to hinge on whether one prefers a swift, heroic martyrdom or a long conflicted career.  Either way it does help to maintain the perspective that Jesus recommended for troubled times. Be wise as serpents, harmless as doves.

Another way is grudge writing.  Turn the other cheek long enough and you'll have some excellent material with which to lampoon oppressive authority.  Jesus seems to have been pretty good at this too.  Another paraphrase is in order:

"As it was before Noah went into the ark, so it will be before the revelation of the Son of Man. In the days before the flood there were drunk drivers and sexy matinee idols as well as ambitious managers and preachers of the prosperty gospel. They were all swept away. So it will be with God's revolution. Two women will be vying for top positions in their professions. One will be saved, the other left to go on with the mindless competition. Two men will be grinding away at their desks, and one will be rescued, the other left.   Be vigilant. You don't know the day or the hour. If the homeowner had known what time of night the thief was coming, he wouldn't have allowed his place to be broken into. Be ready. The Son of Man will come at an hour you do not expect.

 "Who then is the manager who minds well his own business? The one God finds doing something that is worth doing, who feeds the soul as well as the body. I tell you, God will give him more to manage in a similarly responsible fashion. But the manager who spends his time in drunkenness and excess at the expense of others will be fired.  He will grind his teeth with transients and hookers out in the street."

Musing on how Jesus and Paul dealt with with authority, I searched the indexes of Gary North's commentaries. North is an economist and businessman who formerly worked as a research assistant for Ron Paul. By a little research I gained new perspective on attempts at risk-free living, which is in North's commentary on the stories of Jesus' temptation in the wilderness. Satan says, "Throw yourself down from the pinnacle of the temple" or "Turn stones into bread" in ploys that would make Jesus dependent on magical intervention beyond the limits he had accepted by emptying himself to live as a man in this world. Next, Satan says, "I can give you power greater than Caesar", and again Jesus refuses. This is power of a different kind that also abrogates risk.

On the matter of Paul's injunction to obey human authority, I found North's idea of competing authorities: God ordained that some should have authority, but he didn't ordain that any human authority should not have competition. There are governmental authorities and business entities and the various jurisdictions within government and business. There are also voluntary organizations. The Catholic principle of subsidiarity is important in this regard: people's lives and communities should be ordered on the lowest level by which an area of interest can be managed.

I think that it is true that there is no way to live without risk. And this is as good an answer to my question as is possible: whether one should criticize management practices that are counter-productive and unjust. In this, one risks offending powers that can damage or destroy one's career. Or rather to serve as Paul advises slaves to work for their masters, regardless whether the master is a benevolent tyrant or evil. In a sense we're back to where we started: one can criticize management, and take the risks involved, or let things ride and make the best of the status quo. Progress--and I agree with North that kingdom jurisdiction applies to every area of life, not to some continually receding horizon of the eschaton--comes about both through heroic challenges to unjust authority and through self-effacing endurance under authority, unenlightened and oppressive as it may be.

But, Jesus did work wonders, and, in his resurrection, he overcame oppression more horrific than most men suffer. In this, one can find hope, both literal and metaphorical. I've seen metaphorical resurrections after defeat that provide some impetus toward taking new risks to oppose counterproductive authority.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The Protestant Work Ethic

Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about earning your living, not even for the shirt on your back. Isn't life more than the chore of sustaining it? Look at the birds. Do they have careers? Yet they are fed. Don't we belong in the world as much as they do? And who can add years to his life by being driven?

As for clothing, think of the wild flowers on the plains. They weren't manufactured in a sweat shop in the garment district.  Jack Welch doesn't dress as well. If God so clothes the prairie grasses which flourish for a single spring then burn, will you not fare as well, oh ye of little faith?

What shall we eat? What shall we drink? What shall we wear? Grinding out your days to secure these things is known as the Protestant work ethic. They didn't get it from me!

Monday, August 15, 2011

Faust and the Devil

The opera Faust had its premier at the Paris Opera in 1859. In a coincidence that now seems a hellish juxtaposition, 1859 is also the year Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species. The opera made Charles Gounod the most famous musician in Paris. Since then Charles Darwin has been on the ascendant. The demonology of Faust’s bargain with the devil clangs uproariously against modern materialism, and where scientific reductionism waxes philosophical, The Origin of Species has the status of dogma. Evidence for a cosmology richer than we find in Darwin includes grand opera. Can the theory of evolution account for the moral conflict, human nobility, and ignobility found in the plots of musical drama of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries? The character Faust in the title role of Gounod’s opera is presumed to be a man well versed in natural philosophy—science of the era of the Faust legend—as well as medicine and jurisprudence. After a lifetime of study in these fields Faust despairs of finding satisfaction in the Western cultural legacy. Satan offers to disencumber him of his rational and metaphysical inhibitions, and Faust consummates a transaction.


Faust’s search, simply put, is for the satisfaction of a moment that he would wish to sustain. An abbreviated treatment of Goethe’s version of the Faust legend, the opera centers on Faust’s seduction of Marguerite, a peasant girl who soon finds her life in ruins. Faust’s conquest can be seen as an upshot of the materialistic world view. There are many versions of the legend, and several operas based on it. In some versions of the odyssey the philosopher’s quest becomes the life of a sensual athlete, including romps with courtesans of legendary reputations—Helen of Troy, Cleopatra, Thäis. In the opera by Gounod Satan serves Faust’s inclinations while amusing himself baiting the bourgeoisie. Using the power Satan puts at his disposal, Faust enraptures Marguerite with jewelry and his transitory affections and then deserts her. But this story resolves on Marguerite’s redemption. Her apotheosis and translation to heaven is musically exultant, ascending chromatically and aimed at an experience of transcendence. (audio-7) It concludes with a chorus of angels singing, “Christ has triumphed over sin and death; there is now no condemnation for those who put their trust in him.”


This traditional Christian cosmology evidently played very well in Paris in 1859. The opera was an immediate success, revitalized French opera, and remains a standard of the repertoire. It is remarkable that the French responded in droves a hundred years before their existentialists and atheists—Sartre, Derrida, Foucaut et al.—took center stage. The hell of it—as if Satan is collecting on Faust’s agreement and taking his due—is that Darwin’s materialism supplants metaphysics for ensuing generations. Dialectical materialism, that presumed-inevitable liberation of the underclass, becomes an obsession among the intelligentsia. Marxists, and the nihilists who follow them, are a thousand times more predacious than the bourgeoisie they depose. Blind to atrocities by regimes claiming to redistribute material resources—for what other resources are there?—they abet or incite revolts against every civilized institution. Western Civilization is, of course, an obstacle to those who would take back territory lost by oligarchies of earlier eras. If it can be deconstructed, deconstructionists or their minions will march in to fill the void.

Excerpted from Civilization and the Sublime

Audio-7. Faust; Gounod; excerpted from EMI recording 79-750462; 1979; Domingo/Freni/ Ghiaurov/Pretre.