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 had found 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 were 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

Back to Nature: the Antidote to the Post-Modern Mind

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By Christopher Zehnder

St. Jerome in his study, by Albrecht Dürer

In a recent article published in the journal Commonweal (“The Dead End of the Left? Augusto Del Noce’s Critique of Modern Politics”), author Carlo Lancelotti makes this observation. “The experience,” he says, “of politically engaged Catholics, both in Europe and in the United States, during the past fifty years” has been “a long series of rear-guard battles on ethical issues (divorce, abortion, same-sex marriage, euthanasia, etc.) in a cultural context in which the philosophical and religious images (of human life, of marriage, love) that underpinned those ethical values has faded. As a consequence, little can be gained by producing more comprehensive ethical lists, such as ‘consistent ethics of life.’” The reason for the insufficiency of such lists simply is, says Lancelotti, that “[e]thical appeals not backed by ‘Being’ are destined either to fall on deaf ears, as expressions of personal religious preferences, or to develop into moralistic ideologies (think of ‘political correctness’) backed by the will to power.”

Lancelotti aptly summarizes the condition of social and political conflict today. We are experiencing the flowering of the “post-modern mind,” a phenomenon that those of us who came of age in the last two decades of the 20th century can only view with incomprehension. For whatever the confusions of our youth, we at least suffered the illusion that we and our ideological opponents spoke a common moral language. Terms such as “human rights,” “justice,” and “freedom” were rooted (so we thought) in a worldview founded on a kind of moral consensus that, if vague, was nevertheless consistent across ideological divides. For us, the thing we called “western civilization” provided a common ground for discussion and debate. We needed only to find the right arguments to awaken our opponents to the better angels of our commonly held suppositions. Indeed, the only hindrance to success in this endeavor was the perversity arising from our opponents’ bad will, their unwillingness to draw logical conclusions from commonly held premises. Or so we thought.

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The Creative Historian: The Role of Imagination, Sacred and Profane, in Understanding the Past

By Christopher Zehnder

The following is the text of  a talk I delivered at the June 2016 conference of the Institute for Catholic Liberal Education in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Herodotus of Halicarnassus, a very creative historian

The creative historian” – who will not deny that the phrase implies a contradiction, a lie, a heresy? Even I who conceived it dread to utter it, and not least for fear that some of you may feel compelled to denounce me to the authorities for my impertinence for even making such a connexion between creativity and history. To suggest, too, as I do, that creative imagination plays any part in so seemingly an objective study as history – is that not some spawn of postmodern despair that concludes that all claims to truth are naught but lunges at power? For the creative imagination is a mighty power and, in its own realm, divine in its efficacy. It can take the events and personalities of bygone times and by a deft manipulation arrange them into a tableau that accords with its own preconceptions and pleasures. If anything – far from being an aid to the historian, creative imagination would seem to threaten him with his greatest peril and pitfall.

Moreover, when we consider where the creative imagination has most free play, we will be more than justified to reject any tie between it and the historical discipline. I refer here to what J.R.R. Tolkien called “sub-creation,” the realm of myth and fable. It was Tolkien himself that gave us the best modern example of sub-creation, especially in his magnum opus, the Silmarilien, where he creates nothing less than a mythical history of the early ages of the world. Speaking of the concept of sub-creation, Tolkien wrote:

“We have come from God, and inevitably the myths woven by us, though they contain error, will also reflect a splintered fragment of the true light, the eternal truth that is with God. Indeed only by myth-making, only by becoming “sub-creator” and inventing stories, can Man aspire to the state of perfection that he knew before the Fall.”

Here it is clear that, for Tolkien, sub-creation does not equate with falsehood. It will contain “error,” but it will shine with the light of truth. Let this be so. Still, who will deny that the truth for which a Tolkien will strive in his sub-creation is not entirely the same truth the historian seeks in his attempts to reconstruct the past? Continue reading

An Aristocrat Who Stood for Labor: Bishop Wilhelm Emmanuel von Ketteler

By Christopher Zehnder

What follows comes from my book, Light to the Nations II: The Making of the Modern World. For more information on this book, please visit the site of the Catholic Textbook Project.

File:Droste-vischering.jpg

Clemens August von Droste-Vischering

It was silent night, November 20, 1837. By order of the Prussian king, Friedrich Wilhelm III, troops surrounded the archiepiscopal palace in Köln, on the lower Rhine in Germany. Escorted by police, the governor of the province entered the palace and arrested the 64-year-old archbishop, Clemens August von Droste-Vischering. After being taken from his diocese, the archbishop was imprisoned at the fortress of Minden, about 147 miles northeast of Köln. Such was the price Clemens August had to pay for defending the rights of the Church against the Prussian government.

Archbishop Droste-Vischering had insisted that children of mixed marriages (between Catholics and Protestants) had to be raised Catholic. The Prussians, who had taken control of the very Catholic Rhineland in 1815, insisted that in such marriages some children had to be raised Catholic and others, Protestant. This had been the custom in Prussia. The Catholic Church in the Rhineland, said the Prussians, also had to go along with this custom. But, no matter how long-standing the custom was, it violated the law of the Catholic Church—and in a contest between the king and the Church, Archbishop Droste-Vischering knew whom he had to obey.

The imprisonment of Archbishop Droste-Vischering was an inspiration to many German Catholics. It even influenced one young nobleman to change his career plans. The 26-year-old Baron Wilhelm Emmanuel von Ketteler had been preparing to enter the service of the Prussian government; but with the archbishop’s arrest and imprisonment, Ketteler decided he could not serve a government that committed such injustices. Instead, he ended up studying theology; and in 1844, he was ordained a priest.

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The missionary council — what Vatican II was about

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By Christopher Zehnder

The following article, which I wrote a few years ago, was first published in New Oxford Review

Many are the opinions about the Second Vatican Council and its effects on the Church – some Catholics praising them and others deploring them. But, while many have discussed and debated what the council did, few seem to take interest in what the council said, and what it intended to accomplish.

Council Fathers

It is generally thought that the council set out to “update” the Church – and this is true, but not in the crude sense it which it sometimes is taken. The intent of the Second Vatican Council was to outfit the Church so that she could better promote and cultivate communion – a more intense communion among the members of Christ’s body, the Church, and between the Church and the world. In seeking communion with the world, the council called for some accommodation on the part of the Church, but not to confound the Church with the world; rather, the council wanted to better equip the Church to draw the world to herself, and through herself, to Christ. The council had an essentially missionary, evangelical thrust. Its inspiration was the Great Commission, not the craven and abject spirit of capitulation.

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