Dear Family and Friends,
I keep hearing what Jefferson called in 1820 “an alarm bell in the night.” The bell he heard was over the growing potential for civil war because of the unresolved slavery issue. The bell I hear is for destructive civil strife and the potential for a complete breakdown in our body politic. As I imaged the matter several months ago: America is encamped on the slopes of a giant volcano. We feel and hear the rumbles; in reality, the mountain may blow up.
Hence, what I am hearing is far more than an alarm bell. Our civilization is on the verge of an enormous eruption. How long can a people endure in history when they betray themselves and their own founding? How long can western civilization endure when it disowns the two spiritual forces which engendered our civilization: the Greek discovery of divine reason as the constituent of our common humanity, and the Judaeo-Christian response to the living God? The Enlightenment perverted reason from divine-human mutual participation into a natural possession, a world-immanent power for “changing the world;” and the same self-styled “enlightened intellectuals” threw out the God of Christianity. We are reaping the consequences. Nietzsche’s terrifying vision of a civilization which has murdered God hurling into an empty abyss is coming to pass in our midst.
I may have to dedicate more of my time and energy to diagnosing and writing on the political upheavals in the midst of which we are living. Such is the work of political philosophy: to diagnose the spiritual-political problems, and to serve in some small way in their therapy. As my brother Andy has said repeatedly, “Pearl Harbor is my calling.” My calling is and seems to be the different kind of Pearl Harbor in which we are now living. I cannot ignore it.
That I must use whatever skills I have to analyze, diagnose, and perhaps in some very small way help heal these divisions, is evident to me. Although I do not know this to be the case, it is possible that it is now too late to preserve the United States of America. Political communities come into being and perish. They die either from internal forces ripping them apart, or because they are overcome by a greater power from abroad. The greatest danger threatening us is not terrorism, Russia, or China, but ourselves: we are dissolving from within as a sizable part of our body politic has lost its grounding in divine reality and in common sense (reason). In a word, millions of us are out of control. Without internal order, either we must be controlled by force, or we perish. Control by force is, in effect, political slavery, and nothing that we should allow to come to pass. But if we will not control ourselves, what or who else will control us? This is one of the central themes of millennial political philosophy: control from within (rational self-control), or dominance from without (power, force, or drugs). It was a major concern of our Founding Fathers, who left spiritual-rational formation to families, churches, local communities, not to the government (nor to the newly established Federal government).
A brief note in response to a question one of you raised: It is conceivable that a human being may be self-consciously agnostic, and still be grounded in reality; and one can “believe in God,” and be swirling in illusions. Truth lies at the level of experience, not verbal formulations. Those who do good are grounded in the Good, however it is symbolized or expressed; those who do evil do not have that grounding. Jesus’ words are the measure: “A tree is known by its fruits.” The human responsibility is to engage in the search for truth and to seek to do what is right, and not to think that one has arrived at truth, or is doing right without checking one’s own destructive or lower tendencies. Where there is hatred, violence, ill-will, drug abuse, illusions, and so on, they are not from God, and they are forces tearing us apart. Any adult can see and understand that our American political society has become rife with hatred, violence, drug abuse, mindless entertainment, disordering music, intellectual-mental drugs (ideologies), and godlessness.
In short: What shall we do? What must each of us do to serve God (as we understand Him) and country? How is one to live in the midst of a society that is breaking apart, and seems to be intent upon killing itself? What is your responsibility? What is mine? Asking the right questions is ever a good beginning.
I have given some thought to your claim: “You seem to be absolutely gaga over the Trump. I think you are in love with him! Either that, or you are in love with the fact that you sagely (I admit) predicted his winning the election. If the latter is the case, I urge you to get over him. Trump is not a decent human being.”
No, I am not in love with Trump. My support of him, and that of those with whom I have spoken, is not based on the man at all. That is why “the Deplorables” were not unnerved by the personal attacks against him. It has been far less about Trump the man, and far more about the movement for which he has been the loudest and most prominent voice in the past year and a half. I will not write many details, because nearly everything that I would include you would take as a personal or an ideological insult against “Progressives,” as you style yourselves. I will sketch briefly in more general terms lest you think that I am personally attacking you or people you admire, and that is not my intention at all.
As I see it, our country is dying. We have been dying for decades, at least since the 1950’s, but with signs of decadence and decay extending far back in time. Our Founding had its flaws, and some of them showed up quickly, and contributed to the horrific “Civil War.” By roughly 1900, despite much goodness in our people, real problems were evident and increasing.
The sense I have had for decades is that our political elites, our rulers, and the main institutions of our country—government, churches, large businesses, educators, entertainment, mass media, and so on—have largely betrayed our country, often without even knowing it. To use a simple phrase, “We have been sold a bill of goods.” Or to put the blame back on us, the body politic, “we chose poorly.” Yes, we Americans have made some bad choices.
If you were to sit and listen to many of folks who have favored the election of Donald Trump, you would find that he has been accepted as an act of rebellion against “the establishment” which has been destroying us. Again, to give details means that you will take offense, so I must be silent. Trump has been seen as a protest vote against our political elites, the mass media, the educational establishment, internationalism, “free trade” ideology, and so on. Trump gives voice to a popular uprising against what we have done to ourselves, and allowed our leaders to exacerbate.
If you think that I or others who like Trump are “in love with him,” you are not seeing the larger issues that motivate us at all. And that failure to see the real problems is precisely one of the foremost problems. Indeed, the problems facing our country are enormous. Not only are we dying, but we as a people in history have been blind to many of the real problems. Trump takes over in a country which is decaying from within, and in a world which has become enormously dangerous. Policies over the past decades have been disastrous, or not truly beneficial at best. And these policies are far larger than Obama or Democrats or Progressives, etc. Both political parties have failed us, leaders from both parties have been sleep-walking and mislead and damaged our country. As one example that may not hurt you, I cite the libertarian ideology of “absolute free trade,” and the internationalist belief in “open borders.” Both parties have advanced these causes at our national expense. Trump voices a strong reaction against such policies. That is why many of us have supported him. He is not a panacea, but promises at least a slowing down of our national dissolution. Hence, his simple, understandable slogans and promises struck a chord in our hearts: “We will build the wall,” “free trade must be fair,” and in a nutshell, “America first.” Such are the words we have been longing to hear from our elected leaders.And even his bluntness and rejection of “political correctness” has appealed to us, because we have seen in Trump not a politician who can dance and skate, but a leader who will take incoming hits for his truthfulness—signs of courageous leadership. Trump promises to be a real leader, and not a man who wishes to “lead from behind.”
As for Trump “not being a decent human being,” it is typically American to portray political leaders we do not like as bad, evil, decadent, authoritarian, and so on. Every human being has flaws—you and I included. What is needed in a good leader is sound political insight and judgment, prudence, courage to act, energy. If he or she is a good human being, so much the better. But as James Madison wrote in the Federalist, “Enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm.” That is why our Founders put so much effort into constructing a system of “checks and balances,” and would never have envisioned or promoted the enormous massing of power in the Presidency that has emerged, especially since Lincoln. This undue concentration of power in political leaders and in enormous institutions is one of the major problems facing our badly wounded body politic.
The foremost problems in our body politic, however, are not political.They are spiritual, intellectual, and moral. But I know that you, as well as most of our “elites,” are very uncomfortable in hearing about these matters, so I omit them for now. Suffice it simply to note this: It does not go well for a country which untethers itself from its grounding. And I quote the Russian spiritualist and novelist, Dostoyevsky, who wrote in the 1880’s: “The West has lost Christ; that is why it is dying; that is the only reason it is dying.” Our civilization has forsaken its roots and its grounding in divine reality, and we see the consequences of this rebellion everywhere.
What is your calling? How do you seek to live Christ? How do you understand your discipleship to Jesus Christ? One’s “call to discipleship,” one’s entire life in Christ, is and must be a major ongoing concern in the life of every Christian. The call to follow Christ is not something that happens once, nor is it something to be safely encased in sacraments, such as baptism and Eucharist. Nor is it something for priests and religious only. One either lives one’s vocation daily, ever seeking to be more faithful to God in Christ, or one does not.
Sacramentalism would take form in such beliefs as: “I was baptized as an infant; I was confirmed; I attend Mass fairly regularly.” Sharing in these sacramental actions is a beginning, and part of the foundation for your life in Christ. But it is far from sufficient. Ultimately, your calling from God is to be true to yourself, to be true to the human being God creates you to be day in, day out. But again, that does not mean you just “do your own thing,” and sing out, “I did it my way.” That will not do, for it would be a godless existence, like that lived by many in our society. To be the human being God created you to be, and continually recreates you to be, you and I must be ever attentive to the Spirit, ever listening, ever obeying. Fidelity to one’s vocation is not a one-time affair, but an ever-ongoing response to the Spirit—to God’s presence in you and with you.
The beginning of your calling, your vocation, reaches into the mind of God, into which we cannot peer. All of human history, in which we share, is relevant for your calling. All that has unfolded in Christ, and surely in the People of God, Israel, and in the Catholic Church, is part of your vocation. You are not an isolated individual, even though each of us must ever answer personally and directly to God, whose Judgment is Now. No one can escape the searching eye of Heaven, which constantly searches us, tests us, challenges us, transforms us with our free cooperation. Your entire existence, from the moment of your creation-conception, is part of your calling—of the human being you are in God.
And yet, there are certain occasions in our life—often when the bottom seems to drop out, or “the rug is pulled out from under us”—when we get shaken to the core, and either wholeheartedly surrender ourselves to God in love, or we run away and hide. There are moments when God breaks into your consciousness in some powerful way, and you must respond wholeheartedly. To do less than give all to God would be a subtle and perhaps unknown form of betrayal. “You cannot serve God and wealth,” as Jesus says. You cannot serve God and self, as in “I will do as I wish—it’s my life.” No, it is not simply yours. “You were bought with a price,” and now belong to Christ. Your life is to allow Christ to live in you, with you, through you. That is your essential vocation.
Do not think about flying to Indonesia to “concert the unbelievers.” Do not engage in mindless talk about “changing the world.” Have you not yet discovered that you are nearly powerless to change yourself? The best that anyone can do is to cooperate with the wisdom and love of God, who is ever at work reforming us, molding us from within—to the extent that we freely cooperate. God does not treat us as puppets, or playthings, or as things that He can do with as He wills. The LORD Almighty respects our unique freedom, and constantly demands us freely to surrender, freely to love, and “freely give, for freely you have received.”
Living in complete and unreserved response and obedience to God is your vocation and mine. That is what it means to be a man or woman in Christ, and a child of Abraham, “our father in faith.”
What is joined in consciousness is separated in physical reality. And what is joined in consciousness is separated in stories to communicate meaning. The reality of Christ, deﬁnitive presence of God-in-man, is the truth of humanity. We celebrate this reality in every Eucharist. But for the sake of our limited understanding, what is truly one is separated into parts. And so at Christmastide, the mystery of God in us, of incarnation, is separated into the birth of Jesus Christ, and then the Epiphany of Christ to the Gentiles, symbolized in the traveling Magi. Even children can appreciate the parts; our adult task is to bring the parts back together in the truth of consciousness and action.
You may have noticed over the years that the evangelist Luke has no need for the feast of the Epiphany, because he has the equivalent experience take place in the scene he sets for Jesus’ birth. No Magi or astrologers are mentioned coming to see what God has done for humankind, but lowly shepherds, the “poorest of the poor,” representing all those who are open to what God is doing here and now, with minds not limited to beliefs about past events. The shepherds live in the present of God, under God, and so are moved by God to ﬁnd His Presence in the new-born Christ. Open to God, we behold God by faith. The evangelist Matthew has a different tale to tell, and wants to emphasize that Christ has come for all peoples (as the angels announce in Luke’s Gospel), and so has the Gentiles represented by three men, attuned to heavenly signs, journeying from the East. That the Magi recognize the divine Presence in the baby Jesus is artfully symbolized by their gifts, as described in our familiar Christmas carol: incense pointing to divinity present; gold witnessing to the true ruler of humankind; myrrh foreshadowing the saving death of Christ for all.
From beautiful stories and rich symbolic meanings one needs to return again and again to the truth of spiritual experience. For our foremost goal is not to tell stories or even to think about their meaning, but to grow into a deeper and lasting union with the God present to the consciousness of every human being open to receive him. Genuine openness is a demanding spiritual work, requiring prayer, study, recollection, action, love. That many refuse God’s gift of presence is symbolized by Matthew’s bloody story of the slaughter of infants in Bethlehem, ordered by the wicked Herod, a shrunken soul jealous for his own power. We may have obstacles in our hearts and lives that prevent us from living in the presence of the presence of God. And so our task includes reﬂecting on habitual and actual ways in which we fail to respond wholeheartedly, or let our awareness of God shining into our minds be obscured by the smoke of worldly preoccupations. The task of openness to the divine light shining into consciousness is endless.
The reality of Epiphany is now—for you, for me. Our Christian and human duty is to enkindle in our hearts a ﬂame of the ﬁre of God’s love, which means allowing his love to ﬂood in. What good is it for us to celebrate the birth of the baby Jesus, as we did on Christmas, and refuse to live in the light shining in? If God is not here, then where could he be sought? The stable and the manger in Bethlehem are gone, or just rebuilt monuments to what God has done. But God is here and now; living in his light, love, peace is indeed the constant gift and burden of our lives.
Blessed New Year to each and to all.