Kierkegaard as Poetry (Part 1)

Yes, It Is Nothing

But what does this
mean, what am I to do,
or what is the effort
that can be said to seek,
to aspire to God’s kingdom?

Shall I see about getting
a position commensurate
with my talents and abilities
in order to be effective in it?

No, you shall first seek God’s kingdom.

Shall I give all my possessions to the poor?

No, you shall first seek God’s kingdom.

Shall I then go out and proclaim this doctrine to the world?

No, you shall first seek God’s kingdom.

But then in a certain sense it is nothing I shall do?

Yes, quite true,
in a certain sense
it is nothing.

In the deepest sense
you shall make yourself
nothing,
become nothing
before God,
learn to be silent.

In this silence
is the beginning,
which is to seek first
God’s kingdom.

(From “Look at the Birds, Look at the Lily,” by Kierkegaard, included in Without Authority, translated by Howard & Edna Hong; italics in original.)

Ephemera, 07/27/23

This starts out interesting and ends in complete and total absurdity. Yes: stop whining on your Discord server, go to your local parish, and say, “If everyone is welcome, then welcome me and people like me.” Uh, no: don’t chase people out of the parish and onto the sidewalk while screaming, “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.”

Seriously, people. The return of orthodoxy to the Episcopal Church will depend upon the young gay priests who are right now demanding it, and who know what it actually means to be credally orthodox. (Hint: Leviticus 18 and its admonition against having sex with women while they are menstruating didn’t make the final cut on any of the creeds.)

* * * *

“When I go to a great bookstore, which, to me, is like a cathedral, I feel the need to tithe.” Sigh, me too. (Chris Vognar)

* * * *

“We eggheads used to understand that art is the best hope we have in this low world for a truly autonomous sphere, and that this autonomy is nowhere pushed further than in the productions of the avant-garde. Accordingly, avant-garde artists rejected mass entertainments, or at least did not engage with them as if they were the best thing on offer … In fact the sorry truth is that they may well be the best thing on offer, simply because the forces that produced them have absolutely bulldozed the last surviving hopes for art as a sphere of autonomous creation.” (Justin Smith-Ruiu; used to be Justin E. H. Smith, not exactly sure what happened there) 

Ephemera, 07/26/23

Seems to me that the sort of people who sneer at “old books” are the same sort of people who might find it a reasonable idea to use artificial intelligence to “understand reality.”

* * * *

“Nothing anyone is saying is necessarily wrong; it’s just not interesting.” (Adam Kotsko on moralism in cultural criticism)

* * * *

Finished reading Howards End for a Catherine Project reading group. I’m not sure what I expected when I began, but I don’t think I expected quite so much plot. After barreling through the last third just to see what twists awaited poor Leonard and irritating Helen, I had to go back and reread it more slowly in order to enjoy Forster’s language and brilliantly casual insights. In the end I can’t help but think that the Schlegel sisters are horrible people, but not in any unusual way. They are horrible in the same way most people are: striving to find our own happiness while putting out of our minds the thoughts of any wreckage we leave behind (because what else can we do?); clinging to the things we love while the rest of the world changes around us.

Ephemera, 07/07/23

So now I’m thinking about reading Eric Ambler, because he fits right in with the mild enthusiasm I’ve developed in middle age for 20th century thriller writers. Not only the sublime, like Graham Greene, who I’ve been slowly reading over the last five or six years, but the completely forgotten, like Helen MacInnes, several of whose books I’ve also read over the same time frame. The outdatedness (of both geopolitics and tech) is the point. Nothing helps me relax like a good potboiler from the middle of the last century.

* * * *

“Don’t become one of those people who only reads certain sorts of books.” (Henry Oliver)

* * * *

So now I can look at Threads for a stream of silly shit similar to the stuff I used to view at Instagram before I deleted that app because of the overwhelming advertising and sponsored “reels” or whatever they call them. I can look at Substack Notes (but don’t) to watch relatively smart people talk to each other about their newsletter businesses. I can look at Twitter (but don’t) for … I don’t know anymore, really. Then there’s Facebook, which consists solely of ad bots and Groups, which is a user-hostile sort of bulletin board software. Frankly, I’ll stick with a well-curated RSS feed.

Ephemera, 07/03/23

Yesterday’s Old Testament reading turned out to be the Sacrifice of Isaac, and hearing it read aloud in church for the first time since my experience with Fear & Trembling earlier this year made me realize how much of an impact SK’s book had on me. Murderer, I thought.

* * * *

Six episodes, about fifteen minutes each — I’m not sure I could take much more than 90 minutes a year of Tim Robinson’s brilliantly unsettling I Think You Should Leave. (And I couldn’t possibly watch all 90 minutes at once.) He takes an unpredictable premise, populates it with “normal” people (read: unattractive on the screen, unremarkable in person), and then Just … Keeps … Pushing. The skits almost always last longer than you think they might, to an uncomfortable extent. It’s an existentialist exercise in sketch comedy. You can’t escape the absurdity; it just keeps unspooling.

* * * *

“The post-Christian world is characterized by supercharged morality within a vacuum of meaning.” (Richard Beck)

Ephemera, 07/01/23

I didn’t find the Harrison Ford digital facelift as creepy as the New York Times reviewer; they did a better job with the CGI than I expected. But “generally silly,” “not entirely charmless” — sure. It was a fun, dumb night at the movies. But, my God — so long! Movies do not need to be, and shouldn’t be, as long as they have become. Save money, Hollywood, and end bladder strain. Make shorter films.

* * * *

The Tour de France began this morning. Many Americans assume that it’s the only such race, but if you are married to an avid cyclist and cycling fan, like I am, you learn that there are many. Still, TDF is a big deal and will be consuming about half the mental space in my household over the next few weeks. Also, if you are a newcomer to the sport or merely cycling-curious or even well-versed in it like he is, my husband strongly recommends that you watch the Netflix documentary series Tour de France: Unchained.

* * * *

“The vital powers of Christendom are now entirely spent. Some far rougher beast is on the way just at the moment, and the Integralists and the National Conservatives are simply some of the more pathetic of its idiot accomplices.” (David Bentley Hart)

Sin & Scandal

This entry is part 2 of 24 in the series Presence in the Modern World

Continuing my read-through of Chapter 1 of Jacques Ellul’s Presence in the Modern World. There’s a lot here.

Ellul (perhaps because he was a layperson) is most concerned with the plight of the laity in the modern world, because unlike the clergy, there is no separation between a layperson and the rest of society. “Claiming to be separate becomes more and more difficult, as each person is forced into a world that becomes more intrusive, crushing, and demanding than ever.”

Ellul argues that modern society differs from previous civilizations in the extent to which humans are immersed in the world. “Modern transportation systems, the interconnection of economic institutions, or the rise of democracy” — modern humans are submerged in larger systems from which they cannot easily extricate themselves. (Even moreso now than it was in Ellul’s time, obviously.) For this reason, he says, Christians “cannot consider themselves pure” in comparison to the rest of the world; they are not only individual sinners, but they share in the collective sin of society.

Having just finished reading Kierkegaard’s The Sickness Unto Death I’m pondering the difference between SK’s focus on the individual sinner and Ellul’s definition in this chapter. Ellul says that the reason that there is “none righteous” is not that every individual is wicked, “but because all things are confined under sin.” We are related to others in sin extending back across time and generations to the original sin. So the modern world makes clear (through our global inter-connection) what was always a Biblical truth: we share in the sin of all.

Original (hereditary) sin is a difficult concept to grasp (for me!), and I remember being somewhat confused by SK’s brief discussion of it in TSUD. Conceding my lack of familiarity with both authors, I think that there may be a similarity between these two takes on sin, that they might in fact be one, since they both describe sin as essentially a state of being, as opposed to actions or behaviors. This is definitely oppositional to (for lack of a better term) Americanized Christianity, with its emphasis on individual responsibility for specific actions or behaviors.

Laypeople feel this connection to societal sin most acutely, Ellul says. It makes them uncomfortable; it is scandal to be associated with the world’s sins. So they try to escape, in two ways:

  • Separate the material from the spiritual — eg, This is my personal life, and that is my spiritual life, and never the twain etc. They focus their effort on “spiritual problems” apart from everyday life, which is separate, their dayjob, so to speak. This sort of compartmentalization is hypocrisy. “God became incarnate; it is not our job to disincarnate him.”
  • Or, they try to “Christianize” everything. Let’s create a Christian state, Christian movies, Christian books, Christian psychology, etc. This is taking “the world” (of which we are, as noted earlier, specifically not a part), finding what we think is “good” in it, or glossing it with something we think is “good,” and calling it Christian. You can’t reform the world’s activities by “pronouncing a blessing on them.” On the social/cultural side, this is very reminiscent of the evangelical subculture in which I grew up; on the governmental side, more reminiscent of today’s dark illiberal impulses.

In both of these cases, Christians are attempting to “build a bridge” between themselves and the world. This bridge, Ellul says, is “morality” — and he is clearly not using the term in a favorable sense.

This type of bridge, he says, is the “most anti-Christian position possible.” But he also says that there is, in fact, “no possible solution” to the scandal that exists.

Ephemera, 06/29/23

As William Deresiewicz writes, spitting contempt at “unfuckable hate nerds” isn’t going to change them for the better. Unfortunately, contempt is cathartic, and hatred is fun. I’m starting to think that the very idea of grace must be some kind of proof for the truth of religion, because surely humans didn’t come up with it ourselves.

* * * *

I’ve never read Charles Portis. I’ve wanted for some time to read Charles Portis. I am sure, from what I’ve read about him and his work, that I would love Charles Portis. But I have to admit, I am getting really sick of hearing about Charles Portis. Which is unfortunately delaying my experience of reading Charles Portis.

* * * *

“I don’t believe in trying to turn Westerners into Easterners. People who have failed at Christianity aren’t likely to make great Buddhists.” (Robertson Davies, Murther & Walking Spirits)

Salt, Light, Sheep

This entry is part 1 of 24 in the series Presence in the Modern World

Started reading Jacques Ellul’s Presence in the Modern World a while back and set it aside because I had to read some Kierkegaard for a couple of Catherine Project groups, and I can only take so much. After those months of strenuous mental exercise, I’m returning to the Ellul and it feels a tiny bit lighter, like picking up a 50 lb weight after months of picking up 75 lb weights every day. (Or whatever weight analogy might make sense here, I don’t know.)

I’ll be posting some notes as I make my way through Presence — notes in the broadest and quickest sense possible; I’m not aiming for essays here.

According to the foreword to this edition by Ted Lewis, this is the foundational text in Ellul’s surprisingly large oeuvre. It combines both his sociological insights — the thoughts later expanded in such works as Propaganda and The Technological Society — with his theological vision. He was apparently unhappy that people were not reading these two types of works in dialogue with each other, since that is how he wrote them:

“On the one hand he was unveiling a dark vision of technological totalitarianism that pulls every facet of Western culture (and every person) into its vortex; on the other hand, he was presenting a theological vision where human freedom and responsibility could lead to a hopeful future.” (Ted Lewis, foreword)

According to the first chapter, “The Christian in the World,” that “hopeful future” may depend on your perspective. The world is “heading toward death” and the role of Christians, on a planet not our home, is not to change the world’s trajectory but to serve as signposts for those who still cling to it.

Christians “are not called on to select the human activities that they consider good and then participate in them.” Christians have a “specific function” as Christians that is decisive for the world’s fate.

Ellul locates three images from the Bible — You are the salt of the earth, You are the light of the world, I send you out as sheep among the wolves — and states that these metaphors, despite being actual metaphors, are not “similes or special terms to use when speaking of Christians,” they are “not figures of speech or pretty pictures.”

They are also, he says, not possibilities for Christian life; they are what we are here to do, how we are meant to live.

  • “Salt” is the sign of the Covenant, according to Leviticus. First and foremost, we are here to show the world that there is an alternative to the death toward which it is hurtling. If we are not here to demonstrate and point to God, then the world will not know that there is a God.
  • Christians shine the “light” on history and make sense of it all. Christianity provides the logic of history, which is otherwise just a series of random events. We are a sign of the end toward which all is headed, where God has already won.
  • Christians are not to be wolves, seeking spiritual dominance; they are to be sacrificial “sheep” and accept the domination of others. “They are sheep not because their action or sacrifice has a purifying effect on the world, but because in the world’s midst they are the true, living and ever renewed sign of the sacrifice of the Lamb of God.”

In just these first few pages Ellul has staked out a very counter-cultural claim — counter to not only the broader culture but also certainly to the Christian culture in the U.S. I’m reminded of Kierkegaard (still percolating in my mind) and his scorn for the Christendom of his day. A century later and Ellul was just as derogatory towards the church of his time (which sounds similar to the church of ours).

If Christians do not fulfill their specific function as Salt/Light/Sheep, Ellul says that “they are not fulfilling their role and are betraying Jesus Christ and the world also. Christians can always strive to do good works and exhaust themselves in religious or social activity, but this will signify absolutely nothing if they do not accomplish the one mission that Jesus Christ charges them with specifically — to be, first, a sign.(emphasis added)

Ephemera, 06/27/23

At Marginal Revolution, Alex Tabarrok makes some valid and interesting points as to why the modern “leisure class” feels so “harried.” But I think it’s okay to acknowledge that something has produced both good and bad effects, and to seek to find ways to mitigate the bad. This post sounds like the only response is to “make different choices” (eg, read books instead of multitasking!) without acknowledging that the culture makes this more difficult than it should be. Not that I have any solutions to offer other than, well, make different choices.

* * * *

The split over same-sex marriage in the Episcopal Church was sad and tragic. I wasn’t part of the church at the time and have only read about it. Personally I am glad that I am able to worship in a parish that both supports me in my marriage and remains committed to orthodox faith in the Creeds, but I would have no issue sharing the pews with those who disagree (about my marriage; less so the Creeds). I think that Bishop Daniel Martins, in his ruminating memoir of the 2003 General Convention, is correct to grieve what happened, but his graciousness toward his ideological allies does not seem to extend toward those with whom he disagrees. There was no right “side” in this fight, no victors, no spoils.

* * * *

“It’s time to do justly, and love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.  It’s time to seek the good of the city in which we live as pilgrims. It’s time to preach the Gospel in season and out of season. All these metaphors of disaster are just distractions from our undramatic daily calling. ‘The rest is not our business.’” – Alan Jacobs