this is the meaning of all created things

I’m reading Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain for the first time, and enjoying it so far immensely. I imagine I’ll have a lot to say about it in the future, but for now, I just wanted to share this wonderful passage that stood to me, from early in the book. Merton here is describing the French town he and his father settled in during the late 1920s, Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val:

Here, in this amazing, ancient town, the very pattern of the place, of the houses and streets and of nature itself, the circling hills, the cliffs and trees, all focused my attention upon the one, important central fact of the church and what it contained. Here, everywhere I went, I was forced, by the dispostition of everything around me, to be always at least virtually conscious of the church. Every street pointed more or less inward to the center of the town, to the church. Every view of the town, from the exterior hills, centered upon the long grey building with it high spire.

The church had been fitted into the landscape in such a way as to become the keystone of it intelligibility. Its presence imparted a special form, a particular significance to everything else that the eye beheld, to the hills, the forests, the fields, the white cliff of the Rocher d’Anglars and to the red bastion of the Roc Rogue, to the winding river, and the green valley of the Bonnette, the town and the bridge, and even to the white stucco villas of the modern bourgeois that dotted the fields and orchards outside the precinct of the vanished ramparts: and the significance that was thus imparted was a supernatural one.

The whole landscape, unified by the church and its heavenward spire, seemed to say: this is the meaning of all created things: we have been made for no other purpose than that men may use us in raising themselves to God, or in proclaiming the glory of God. We have been fashioned, in all our perfection, each according to his own nature, and all our natures ordered and harmonized together, that man’s reason and his love might fit in this one last element, this God-given key to the meaning of the whole

Oh, what a thing it is, to live in a place that is so constructed that you are forced, in spite of yourself, to be at least a virtual contemplative! Where all day long your eyes must turn, again and again, to the House that hides the Sacramental Christ!

What a thing indeed! May we all be blessed to dwell in such a coherent landscape, of both the world and the mind.

“Christians are not fundamentally concerned about living”

Whenever the idea of being “pro-life” or the concept of the “sanctity of life” are being bandied about, as they are now in the wake of Dobbs, I often think of this passage from Stanley Hauerwas’ Suffering Presence:

It is a mistake to assume that “sanctity of life” is a sufficient criterion for an appropriate concept of death. Appeals to the sanctity of life beg exactly the question at issue, namely, that you know what kind of life it is that should be treated as sacred. More troubling for me, however, is how the phrase “sanctity of life,” when separated from its theological context, became an ideological slogan for a narrow individualism antithetical to the Christian way of life. Put starkly, Christians are not fundamentally concerned about living. Rather, their concern is to die for the right thing. Appeals to the sanctity of life as an ideology make it appear that Christians are committed to the proposition that there is nothing in life worth dying for.

I come back to this passage a lot in my head: the words “Christians are not fundamentally concerned about living” have really stuck with me since I first read them. They are challenging words, especially for those who are called to lead churches today. I don’t think a lot of Christians today want to hear that Christianity isn’t about how to find some little piece of comfort in a difficult world, but is instead about how to prepare yourself to die for something you believe in. I don’t envy pastors who have to try to thread this needle. But I think Hauerwas is right; after all, we follow a Savior who died, and we are called in Scripture to be willing to do the same. The Christian life is one that is different from the culture around it, not in a contrarian sort of way, but because we understand life to mean something more than just existing.

The problem with pro-life rhetoric is that it doesn’t seem to have a firm foundation of what it is we are preserving life for. It mirrors the common American conversation about liberty in this way; freedom is always from something, and very rarely for anything. Life appears to be the same for American Christians. We are standing for life, not because we then want to declare that that life needs to serve the needs of others, but because we want to be able to do with life whatever we please. Its just another way that American Christianity has become wrapped up in the worst kind of Enlightenment liberalism, the kind that takes it deepest cues from capitalism and the market, a kind amoral permissiveness that says if you can afford to do it, then it is good to do. Ethics are a function of financial and social capital. Life isn’t about the good, in a philosophical sense; its about gratifying an immediate desire. In this understanding, life perversely comes to mean not dying, because I have more things that I want to do, to buy, to consume. Life is just the avoidance of death long enough to take another hit of whichever drug consumes us.

It becomes hard then to take pro-life arguments seriously, because they seem to have such a casual disregard for life and its purpose beyond just being born and thus existing. This is why I have such a problem with the pro-life movement, despite my own moral qualms about abortion. If we are going to work so damn hard to force women to carry to term any and all pregnancies no matter the cost, shouldn’t we have some idea of what kind of life we want people to lead? It isn’t good enough to say “live and let live.” Christians can’t be laissez faire about these kinds of things; we are too committed to following a risen Lord who lived life in a very specific way, and even more importantly, was willing to give up his life for the sake of his friends and his God.

Because, in the end, that is the “something” for which life exists: to love and to serve your Lord God and your neighbor. Those words mean something, something more than just “get yours while you can.” Death is not to be feared, and life is not to be revered, because neither are absolutes; only God is, and as Scripture tells us, God is love. Hauerwas goes on in the same vein:

Therefore life for Christians is not sacred in the strict sense. Christians view life as a gift, but a gift for which they must care. Thus the claim that life is sacred is not really so much a statement about ourselves as it is an indication of the kind of respect we owe our neighbor. Our life and the lives of our neighbors are to be protected, since they are not ours to dispose of. For our dying as much as our living should be determined by our conviction that we are not our own.

Christian illiberalism

While I’m on the topic of labels…

Over the past few years, I’ve found myself largely disillusioned by classical liberalism, especially as it finds itself being practiced today, in a world where rampant individualism and capitalism have collided in a way that I think is doing significant damage to people, culture, politics and the earth. Nonetheless, I keep finding myself drawn back to classical liberalism, especially at intersects with democracy and pluralistic Western society. I’m steeped in this liberal tradition, and I don’t anticipate ever being fully free of it.

That said, I just want to lay down a marker to say, I find the Christian illiberalism of Leah Libresco Sargeant (click that link and read that article, don’t pass it by) very attractive and powerful, and I keep at least a toe in that camp. Stanley Hauerwas, John Howard Yoder and Alasdair Macintyre all influence me the same way, and remind me that, inevitably, Christianity in its best forms finds itself at odds with classical liberalism. This is a tension I will always have to live with.