We’re Not in This Alone: The Common Good, Community, and the Image of God: Part 2

By Christopher Zehnder

The following the second part of a talk I gave last fall at the Conference of Imago Dei Politics in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. You may read the first part here.

The Common Good and Community

Thus we arrive at the common good, which we can define as that matrix of goods that is productive of happiness for man as man. In other words, the common good is good for everyone, no matter who he or she is. Yet, there is another sense in which we can speak of the common good as common. The common good is common, not simply because we all seek it, but because we can only achieve it together, in community. Despite the ideal of the self-sufficient, self-made man, the fellow who can pull himself up by his own bootstraps, each of us is really dependent on each other to attain even to the least of the common goods.

The creation of Eve, from a late 15th century miniature by Nicolaus de Lyra Troyes

This becomes apparent when we consider our marvelous weakness as individuals. A naked human is a very vulnerable creature, and we are born naked. We do not come ready-made with any of those tools other animals have: we don’t have fur coats or feathers, the swift feet of a greyhound, wings to fly, claws for digging like a sloth or clawing like a cat, strong jaws for grinding like a goat.  There really is not much to us, on the physical level.  Unlike other animals, we are born into a state of utter weakness. As infants, we require the care of others for our very survival – the food, shelter, and warmth necessary for life, the most basic of the common goods. Young children, too, are very helpless. As we grow, we gain in knowledge, experience, and skills; yet, for all of these, we depend for the most part on others. Everything we learn, we learn from others – our parents, primarily, but other adults as well. By these means, we achieve various perfections in the mastery of our bodies and the education of our minds. Yet, even for that rather natural and, as it were, automatic biological perfection – our ability to reproduce ourselves – we must rely on another.  To reproduce another of our kind, a man needs a woman, a woman needs a man. Without the other, a man cannot be a father or a woman a mother. Continue reading

We’re Not in This Alone: the Common Good, Community, and the Image of God: Part 1

By Christopher Zehnder

The following is the first part of a talk I gave last fall at the Conference of Imago Dei Politics in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. 

The creation of Adam, from the Nürnberg Chronicle

In our concern for a more just and honorable world, we can easily get distracted by details. Week after week, news stories sting us to anger; or, like the gray skies of late November after the leaf-fall, oppress us with a sense of drear and world-weariness. It all never seems to end. Scandal follows scandal; injustice follows injustice. Rage and passion contend with each other like the wrathful in spirits in l’Inferno that, as the Dante says, in the black, muddy River Styx “smote each other not alone with hands, but with the head and with the breast and feet, tearing each other piecemeal with their teeth.”  We long for renewal, for an awakened sense of justice, for the righting of present and past wrongs, and for love. But the world today offers none of this to us. Even the Church has hidden her mother’s face from us. Rather, we are forced to look on what seems utter and irrevocable collapse.

This is a cheerful way to begin a talk, no? Yet, though these are not happy words, they are, I think, a true description of the time. And we cannot hide from the truth. Yet, I don’t think these words are the last word; for, if each of us feels this sorrow and helplessness in the face of events, we can trust there are others who feel it, too. We in this room are not alone in seeking for better things – for justice, goodness, humane compassion, a human-scaled world that responds to human need, beauty in creation and art, a restored Christian devotion: in a word, a renewed creation. That others seek these things with us is a sign of hope. Late November does not have the last word. Spring, we can hope, will come.

Yet, if we are to discover where true hope lies, we must cease, as T. S. Eliot put it, to be distracted from distraction by distraction. We need to step out of the rush of events, at least for a little time, and think about what is constant and enduring, rather than what is passing. Only in what is can we, I think, discover the beginnings of a response to the ills that confront us today.

The root of our malaise today can in part be found in a decayed understanding of who we as human persons are and what our relationship is to society, our earth, and, finally, the cosmos itself. We are all seeking for happiness – in the maelstrom of the news cycle and the swirl of events, this remains a constant. We all want happiness, which we know can only be fulfilled by our appropriating the good – what is good for us – for no one desires evil for its own sake. Yet, if we do not understand ourselves, we cannot know what is good for ourselves and, therefore, what will make us happy. And by “us” here, I do not mean us primarily as individuals, but as members of the human family and, even, the wider community of the natural world. Continue reading

Of the Incarnation and Henry David Thoreau

By Christopher Zehnder

When I was younger, perhaps purer, but certainly more impressionable, I read Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. What I read deeply stirred me, particularly Thoreau’s reasons for retreating to the woods. “I went to the woods,” he wrote, “because I wanted to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” Thoreau said he “wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.” Though I could not fully articulate what it meant to “reduce life to its lowest terms,” I knew it was something I wanted to do. I wanted my small house on Walden Pond. I longed to hoe my patch of beans.

Though a sensualist, I have always been attracted at least to the idea of simplicity. Thoreau thus bespoke my soul with his quest for “life” – by which he meant earthly life; the life which is the “liquid fire” of growing things, the shimmering, crystalline purity of water, the bellowing might of Ocean, the teeming, but silent, fecundity of soil, the driving impetus of autumnal winds. In the waste of our own lives, in the hurry and bustle of the world of men, we miss Life, said Thoreau. “We live meanly, like ants; though the fable tells us that we were long ago changed into men, it is error upon error, and clout upon clout, and our best virtue has for its occasion a superfluous and evitable wretchedness.”

It was my (secret) approval of Thoreau’ castigation of religion that gave me pause. I knew the words were, at least, near-blasphemous, but I gladly grudged the truth of  “most men” are “in a strange uncertainty” whether life is “of the devil or of God.” Such men, said Thoreau, have “somewhat hastily concluded that it is the chief end of man here to ‘glorify God and enjoy him forever.’” Like an impure image in the mind, which, though resisted, allures, this indictment of religion drew me even while I threw up every defense to impede it. Continue reading

More consumer than not: Why we skipped Thanksgiving this year

This year our family did not celebrate Thanksgiving. Why?

The Eucharistic Christ

           It was not to protest the effects of colonization on Native American peoples, for which, some say, Thanksgiving stands as a symbol. Much less was it out of a spirit of ingratitude toward God for his blessings. Nor was it from an ascetical disgust for feasting and drinking. We Zehnders are no ascetics; it does not take much to lure to us to the pleasures of the board and barrel. This year, we in no way eschewed the feasting associated with Thanksgiving; we merely held off on it until the Sunday, which, this year, was the Feast of Christ the King. We even had the traditional turkey, with all the usual side dishes, and apple and pumpkin pie. The wine, beer, and port flowed freely.

            But we did not celebrate Thanksgiving.

            This was, in fact, the first Thanksgiving we have sat out. In past years, we would gather with family for the day; this year, too, we planned to do the same, until circumstances of a practical nature prevented it. But, when the occasion permitted it; when we had no one else with whom to celebrate the day, when were effectively free to say yea or nay to Thanksgiving, we said nay. Why?

            One reason is that I have never quite seen the point of Thanksgiving. I know what it’s supposed to be about –giving thanks to God for all his blessings, but that rationale has long struck me as an excuse for the day, not its real meaning. If Thanksgiving has had anything to do with God, it has been reduced to a curt nod to the Big Guy, soon to be forgotten in the fevered amnesia of the Holiday Buying Season. It seems no accident that Black Friday follows Thanksgiving Thursday – and now Cyber Monday, only two days later. Continue reading

The anti-culture of America

By Christopher Zehnder

Peasant Dance, by Albrecht Dürer

It will come as no surprise to those who read the previous two essays, “Of Lager Beer and an Ohio German Catholic Bigot” and “A Visit to a Creole Village,” that I sympathize with those groups in U.S. history who sought to maintain their unique cultural patterns and resisted assimilation into the broader culture. I confess a certain antiquarian and romantic twist of soul that revels in things past; yet, my sympathy is not entirely nostalgic. Rather, I think such groups were guarding truths that our mass culture has forgotten and our mechanized culture of change has no patience for. They, in perhaps an inchoate way, grasped what culture is and why it is so important.

The resistance of such groups as the Germans of Berlin, Ohio and the Creoles of the Mississippi to the prevailing culture of their day sprang, it seems, from different causes. In describing the Creole village, Washington Irving depicts for us a people content with life as they lived it. Indeed, if there was any resistance on their part, it was wholly unconscious. They enjoyed a way of living they found congenial and were not tempted to change it, at least very much. Their common life and its expression was a finished work of art that could be perfected only in detail, not in fundamental form. The Berlin, Ohio, Germans, on the contrary, were quite conscious of their resistance. They too, it seems, lived in a manner congenial to themselves; but they had conceptualized it and so saw it as preservative of two goods: their temporal well-being and their religion.

We, with our modern proclivities, might be tempted to place too firm a division, even an opposition, between these goods – the temporal and the religious – for we have raised a stout wall of separation between religion and everyday life in society. We would tend to call the first good “secular” and think that it could exist apart from the second good, which we have relegated to the realm of the private. This was not how the Berlin Germans and, perhaps, the Creole villagers would have viewed the matter. For them, the temporal and sacred orders are intimately intertwined. Religion informed the customs of everyday life, and these customs had become the necessary soil in which religion throve. Custom and religion, though distinct as principles, were nevertheless united and inseparable in life.

Continue reading

The Pope shakes things up again: is Francis saying anything “new” on the death penalty?

By Christopher Zehnder

So, Pope Francis has struck again! For a time, he was rather quiescent, seeming to settle down into a more traditional papal routine. But, he has leaped into the news again. He has, so we are told, changed the Church’s teaching on the death penalty.

A 17th-century depiction of St. Bernard liberating a thief from the gallows: the subscript reads: Liberat latronem a suspendio et deducit ad monasterium: “he frees a thief from the gallows and leads him to the monastery.”

This alleged change in teaching has come about through a revision of section 2267 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, dealing with the morality of the death penalty. Francis’ revision is the second revision of this section, for John Paul II had it rewritten after his 1995 encyclical, Evangelium Vitae, questioned the legitimacy of the death penalty in our day. In light of the firestorm that erupted over John Paul’s statements on the death penalty, I wondered what Francis’ revision said, if it could work up what seems an even more vehement reaction. Yet, when I read the new, revised section 2267 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, I was struck by how little there seemed to be struck by. The language was far more emphatic than the previous language; opposition to the death penalty is expressed without the much nuance. Still, I did not think Francis’ revision fundamentally different from Pope John Paul’s revision. I wondered what the outrage over it was all about. Continue reading

A visit to a Creole village: more musings on culture

This essay continues the reflections begun in the previous post, “Of lager beer and an Ohio German Catholic Bigot”.

By Christopher Zehnder

Washington Irving

In traveling about our motley country, I am often reminded of Ariosto’s account of the moon, in which the good paladin Astolpho found everything garnered up that had been lost on earth. So I am apt to imagine, that many things lost in the old world are treasured up in the new; having been handed down from generation to generation, since the early days of the colonies. A European antiquary, therefore, curious in his researches after the ancient and almost obliterated customs and usages of his country, would do well to put himself upon the track of some early band of emigrants, follow them across the Atlantic, and rummage among their descendants on our shores.

So wrote the 19th-century American author, Washington Irving, in a short essay, “The Creole Village.” When I first read this essay over 25 years ago, I was intrigued. I had been raised with the metaphor of America as a melting pot in which national cultural distinctions were boiled down into a homogeneous brew that hardly savored of any of the original ingredients. One could detect trace elements of them to be sure – borrowed foreign words and phrases, for instance, or remnants of ethnic styles in our plastic art, music, and cookery. Yet, such elements merely made our national cultural stew a bit more interesting than it would otherwise have been; they do not make it discernibly French, German, Jewish, Italian, African, or Japanese. It remains peculiarly American soup – rather bland. We are a mixture of these cultures, and yet none of them. Continue reading

Of lager beer and an Ohio German Catholic Bigot

By Christopher Zehnder

“Almost fit for the abode of personal gods”: St. Michael’s Church, Fort Loramie, Ohio

In studying history, it is important to pay attention not only to major themes and players but to the places, communities, and individuals most people never hear about. This is why I like to read local histories – they offer details that fill out general historical accounts and provide a more articulated understanding of historical periods. Local histories give us a more nuanced taste; they develop the palate of historical imagination. They fill out the important human details that get lost in the reading of general history.

Recently, while wandering through an antique store in Powell, Ohio, I came across just such a local history, Historical Collections of Ohio, by one Henry Howe, LL.D. Published in 1908, Historical Collections describes what Mr. Howe learned of Ohio’s communities during two periods of travel through the state: the first in 1846 and the second in 1886-90. Thus far, I have discovered several interesting details about my new home state. One in particular I found arresting. In discussing Shelby County, in western Ohio between Lima (the birthplace of my maternal grandfather, Ernest Anderegg, incidentally) and Dayton to the south, Howe quotes a description in “Sutton’s County History” of a German Catholic settlement, the “village of Berlin,” in what is now the Fort Loramie, Ohio. Continue reading

An antidote to despair: Tradition, reason, and the Church

By Christopher Zehnder

Here I continue with the theme of last week’s essay, “Traditionalists are Right, Sort of…”

Henry David Thoreau, an anti-traditionalist

One of the most compelling arguments against a reverence for tradition is that traditions are often wrong. Henry David Thoreau stated the matter in words that still resonate. He wrote in Walden, “What everybody echoes or in silence passes as true today may turn out to be falsehood tomorrow, mere smoke of opinion, which some had trusted for a cloud that would sprinkle fertilizing rain on their fields.”

Throughout history, men have discovered that what their ancestors passed down to them as true was merely false. One could point to many examples of false traditions – polygamy, for instance, or chattel slavery. Throughout most of human history, both of these institutions, especially slavery, were considered simply part of the order of things. One did not question them, because they were woven into the traditional – handed down – fabric of life.

The fact, too, of the diverse human traditions, holding to contrary propositions as true or enjoining clashing customs and modes of behavior, underlines the fact that tradition and truth are not necessarily synonymous. Even so great a mind as Aristotle saw the exposing to death of weak or disabled infants as part of the order of things, while our Christian tradition sees this as murder. American native peoples thought it perfectly acceptable to torture and mutilate their enemies, while Europeans thought the practice barbaric – even if, at times, they indulged in it. Hindus hold cows as sacred, while we treat them as provender. Continue reading

Traditionalists are right, sort of … Beyond reaction to radicalism

By Christopher Zehnder

Since the French Revolution, we in Western culture have tended to look on all political and social thought as lying along a continuum. We stretch the world of men on a rack that is marked “left,” “right,” and “center.” The “left” we call “liberal,” fond of change and oriented to that non-existence we call the “future.” The “right” is “conservative,” skeptical (leftists say “fearful”) of change, zealous to maintain the status quo, and preservative of the past. At least, so go the common stereotypes of both groups – which, like a lot of stereotypes, has in them a good deal of truth mixed with a fair amount of caricature.

Along this continuum, the traditionalist is thought to fall to the right of center, even to the right of right, if this were possible. If the garden-variety rightist does not like change, the traditionalist (it is thought) positively hates it. If the typical rightist wants to preserve the past, the traditionalist wants to resurrect it. To this way of thinking, the traditionalist is basically an antiquarian, but not the congenial sort that collects Ming vases or favors period instruments in the performance of Bach. No, this sort of traditionalist is political and so a dangerous fellow, a social Luddite who would take a brickbat to the machinery of progress. He is the enemy of life, a devotee of a static reality that no longer even exits, for it is past. Even his fellow rightists – the “conservatives” – don’t often like the traditionalist. Continue reading