A quickies post for November.
A low-key quickies post for September & October.
Some personal history, as brief as seems to fit: In 1996, age 25 and intending to study architecture, I was an undergrad at the University of Maryland, just outside Washington DC, where I’d started after four preceding full-time undergrad years at community colleges and the University of Baltimore (and some years in construction before that). I’d begun attending a conservative Presbyterian church around the Beltway in Fairfax, VA, soon after the move — and in short succession had started dating there, my first girlfriend, a young lawyer a few years older than I, toiling in DC’s corporate trenches. I was a half-hour drive from suburban Baltimore home territory and only taking the next steps in a really pretty straightforward progression on all fronts, but it all felt momentous and transformative, a great turn. That was partly because I’d left behind another small church, my family’s, one where I’d been in roles of some importance.
I was kind of reeling, frankly. Intellectually, personally, the intensity was a good deal more than I really had a foundation for handling. Eager to get this phase of my education to a point of completion but intimidated in encounter with so much that was indeed new, mid-way into the Arch program’s preliminary term I decided that, grad school being ultimately needed to enter the profession, I’d do better to finish my undergrad with some sort of continued rounding-out rather than be confined to studio discipline at Maryland, struggling as I was with ideas and the sense of my own backwardness. I considered the School of Art, but settled on the English major for those final two years of college, with the intention of applying for MArch studies somewhere else in the country (or beyond) afterward.
This is sounding a little like it’s shaping up to be a career-journey story. It’s not. It’s mostly about religion — troublesome word! The biggest thing I was dealing with at the time, by far, was new identity as a Presbyterian. A bunch of us twenty-somethings of various Evangelical backgrounds had been drawn to this little congregation in Fairfax to sit under the teaching of a fellow rising to synodal prominence in the Presbyterian Church in America, David Coffin (captured nicely in this quickie Washington Examiner interview on a favorite topic a few years back). Dave’s wife, Jennie, was an artist of some accomplishment (as were her mother and his). It was church as a setting where the things I wanted to pursue had a place — in some sense theologically, certainly historically. I would continue as a member there well into my thirties, even driving to Fairfax on Sundays for a period of years living back up around Baltimore.
But I met somebody just as important, in a way, to my religious journey — and, as things turn out, to much besides — in the English dept. at Maryland. This was the instructor for my 100-level ‘Intro to Criticism’ course, Roberta Maguire, then about 40 and finishing a Ph.D. (with dissertation on novelist and theorist of blues and American experience Albert Murray). In another low-level course, I’d had a first exposure to Jacques Maritain, whom Roberta had done work on for an earlier degree. She picked up on my mention of him at some point, and we became friends, quite in spite of my having nothing remotely intelligent to say on that or just about any other subject. She got me reading Faulkner and introduced me to Walker Percy, who’d remain completely opaque to me for a long time to come, whose character nevertheless is gradually penetrating my consciousness still. And, in short, she planted a seed, though I can’t imagine she had the slightest thought to, that would contribute to my Calvinism falling in on itself — not through arguments but through friendship. She wasn’t the first Catholic friend I’d had, but she’s the first I can remember, certainly, whose Christian identity registered for me as something not simply defective — which is something, where I was coming from.
When I later got around to really considering Catholicism, though, it was first of all as a once Presbyterian convert (a usage foreign in this context, chances are, to non-Evangelical ears, I appreciate) recently unmoored. I thought about it in the language of doctrinal claims and counter-claims. I had a sense that it was about historical claims, too, underneath. Eventually I would stop thinking of it as very important to distinguish these categories. What it wasn’t about, anyhow, was friendship or conversation, apart from the conversations — mainly in my head — with people I no longer felt I saw eye-to-eye with about Christianity. By then, the context of conversation, or rather its absence for me, extended in a big way to the blogosphere, where I’d initially latched onto a ‘Christ and culture’ scene around S. African transplant to the N. Americas Gideon Strauss, and then further to emerging social platforms. I’d made some wonderful online friends via this religion-blogging connection — some of you reading (I hope) this — but whatever limited capacity I may have had at a younger stage to build positively in religious conversation (it was never much!) was well in decline, in some way correspondingly, at the same time. That decline isn’t the subject of this post. Relationships, however, are, it seems clear — a good part of the subject, anyway — and figuring how that’s so as I go along is not as simple a matter as you might feel like it ought to be. The picture I’m trying to pull some useful detail out of here gets blendy.
I’d long since returned to working on houses. With the old plan to do grad school I’d stumbled repeatedly, but I still wanted to work in architecture somehow, and suffered deepening frustration in knowing I’d come far too slowly to understand what one has to navigate to get there (well, reasonably sanely). It was a ‘Christ and culture’ problem I’d taken up in my time as a student and a Presbyterian convert, and I still (even if from a vocationalism sensibility then increasingly, to my mind, doubtfully founded) wanted these things, my working life and this problem-idea my Christian commitment had grown so much to reflect, to meet somehow, at least to touch. The political dimensions of ‘Christ and culture’ seemed much more approachable to me in a Catholic than a Protestant frame. (That still seems so, though not perhaps with the same distinctness it did.) ’Round about here I really began to think I wanted to revive conversation with Roberta, and here through a few connections stemming back to Gideon Strauss’s blogging milieu I also found the folks who were starting to form Solidarity Hall.
Solidarity Hall’s been a good thing, on the whole, for my view of Christianity. I want to affirm that. It’s also true that I have difficulty these days pinning down just what my view of Christianity is, something really without precedent in my own journey. Solidarity Hall figures in this context more as a marker by which to observe the transition it looks like I’ve made, there, than as a concern of its own. But it should be clear already that this is no comprehensive discussion of anything — just a sketch.
With finding Solidarity Hall came friendship with Susannah and, very soon, intention to marry. Susannah was one of the original SH group, and through her I learned of needs they had that I could help with. I would find in the course of things that from her perspective I was sort of an interloper, a third wheel maybe, rather than a companion in the project. In any case, in time, places switched; I was more involved with SH and Susannah was less.
Neither Solidarity Hall nor Susannah is my subject, but of all the connections in my life I might bring into play to talk about the things that are, SH and Susannah, you could say, stand at this point in my personal history considerably to the fore. I note in the preceding post SH’s appeal to ‘the more or less politically disaffected, third-way types and so on.’ This was a broad space of common ground for Susannah and me, and it became, in many ways, battlefield. Just what happened between us is complex, in total, and goes in great part to things — personal failings and immaturities, errors of judgment, issues of mental health, &c., on both our parts (in all respects) — that don’t belong in this sketch. Putting those factors aside as far as possible, then: at bottom, what I say became battlefield for us you can just call faith, of course, and Solidarity Hall you can see as one occasion, merely, for familiar old opening to conflict.
Familiar in terms more particular to me, here, since I’d grown up in church, a ‘cradle’ believer in the fullest way, as Susannah hadn’t. One thing that fascinates and troubles me now — on one level very much the subject of this post — is that I could reach this stage of my life, critically attentive to religious experience as in so many ways I’d long been, without anticipating in some degree the conflict common ground would mean in our case. Now, there’s a dimension of my obtuseness in this regard that you can attribute to something like personality-type or relational ‘style’ sort of predispositions, but here what interests me is how I was, and I would say (with somewhat less definiteness) she and I together were, in a different sense predisposed to see — or to hold — the significance of shared religion. I’m interested in what it took conflict with Susannah to reveal about my own inability to examine and interpret things I was raised with and have had lifelong commitment to. Demarcating and dividing from one another on principle — the basis of denominational narrative (or mythology), of church splits and the threat and expectation of them, in some way of the very practice of substantiating one’s enjoying or losing the internal sense of Christian identity in confession and testimony — had been the religious life from my earliest memory, after all. It’s the unspoken weaponizable content of practical faith I would turn, in a sense, on my own family when I jettisoned crude literalism and Dispensationalism and so on to become a coastal-elite Presbyterian, and again, with grimmer face still, when I started looking seriously at going Catholic. (Conversely, of course, a hope for respite from this relatively transparently characteristic acidic side of Protestant life certainly had a part to play in the impulse positively toward Catholicism.) It’s not that I didn’t see any of this or couldn’t talk about it (or failed, with Susannah, to try to) that strikes me now. I mean, I could, did — up to a point.
A great reason for, or anyway fitting accompaniment to, failing to see what was brewing in conflict between us, undoubtedly, was what Solidarity Hall’s ecumenically generous catholic Catholicness stood for for me in what I’ve been referring to as ‘journey’ and have tended for so much of my life — as should be apparent — to think of in terms of advance, of progress. In Susannah’s life and mine alike, this being on an approach to Christian faith’s fullness was, and I think remains, fundamental idea, and we both felt (however bad we proved at getting in sync with each other about it) that it would be the shape of our life together. It bears observing that for each of us this way of experiencing our religion was heavily intellectualized from long before we met. That both plays a role in our relationship story and perhaps has relevance to a sort of culture critique fuzzily implicit at some layer of depth in my sketch here, but I’m not going to linger with it. I want to notice too, again without lingering, that pilgrimage as the shape of Christian life is a very old image, filtered through to us in many forms, and that though destination is basic to it somehow, the image doesn’t inherently entail in a strong way the sense of progression as pattern.
Possibly the weirdest thing about my five years with Susannah was being disapproved of by the charming fellow who was pastor (assistant pastor, officially, but the regular pulpit guy, their lead man and founder having had to return to Australia) at her church in the Village when I began travelling to NY to see her. She had a very understandable crush on him, which never bothered me in itself. I liked him a lot, was sure he meant me no ill, thought we might gradually be friends. Bernard and Susannah had in common that they’d grown up with strong Jewish family identities and been drawn to varieties of low-church Evangelicalism in adolescent years. They’ve diverged a bit since I was around, but they continue to match and reflect each other’s commitment to contemporary — by which I mean post-Holocaust — Jewish-Christian public identity. In one way of speaking, certainly distasteful to both, the significant gap between them is a matter of class (and of their ways of dealing with it, something with religious and spiritual dimensions I’m sorry to be able here to acknowledge only in passing, and in respect to which I don’t mean to slight either). Susannah comes into a place among the U.S. northeastern well-to-do on both sides of the family, familiar from childhood with movie stars and celebrity writers; but Bernard’s dad is a Peer, not long ago Leader of the Conservative Party and contender for Britain’s top seat. Bernard (Bernard, not Bernard) — Nick, elsewhere — has withstood some heat in the name of religious commitment. All kind of wild, yes, but the truly wacky thing from my perspective was to find myself receiving from him exactly the solicitous opposition that at another stage in my life I would have shown the Catholic boyfriend (especially a leftish-leaning one) of someone I’d regarded, in the exclusionary terms of straight-ahead Evangelicalism, as a believer, my sister in Christ. He found me flipping through an awful little Australian-published anti-papist paperback on the book table once during their after-service coffee hour, the kind of thing my childhood was awash in (from sources like Bob Jones Press), and insisted I take it as a gift — a moment I can only recall with warmth and a smile and roll my eyes at at once. I know my pleasure in annoyance with the situation he presented for me never came through much to Susannah, though I tried to communicate it. In a funhouse-mirror twist too perfect not to mention, while I was still in New York Bernard accomplished a minor splintering of Susannah’s already tiny Anglican mission congregation on grounds of some matter of principle and went on — under episcopal auspices, all in good order as things go for Anglicans these days — to start his own church in Manhattan.
I’d reconnected with Roberta around the time Susannah and I started dating. I told them a bit about each other and learned there from Roberta that she too was Jewish on her father’s side. That was agreeable surprise, heartening as I saw my situation and ours then, and I looked forward to the chance to introduce them to each other (though in truth Susannah never found the idea very interesting). Less than heartening was what I was gradually coming to understand about some of the not-very-distant antecedents of Christian third-wayism Solidarity Hall had tapped and the corners it was attracting interest from. Krier’s canted anti-modernism as I introduce it in the last post is a glancing indication toward the kind of thing you begin to discover that way. We needn’t here start into Chesterton, say.
This post is a sketch, I’ve said. The timeline I’ve been brushing the more prominent peaks of is coming up on 2015 / 16 here. I’ve written before, a little bit, of the Christian Zionism of my upbringing and its permanent stamp on my view of the world. It’s something I’ve never simply put behind me, contorted a thing though today I can see it to be. There’s a degree of saving grace in it — difficult to identify, but there. What I don’t hesitate to say that it is not, and that it must not be mistaken for, is the marker of a Christian turn of some historically significant scope from ancient hostility to the Jew. That should be clear enough now, as a crop of Christian-right politicians rises, pushing at once to intensify Israel’s position of conflict and the idea of Western dependency on it and to harden, in the Anglo-dominated world at least, a now multi-generational studied forgetting of our potent popular antisemitism pre-Holocaust, with much that lies behind it. But the undoing of Zionism’s momentary fixity in the Western Christian political mind won’t bring that turn from Jew-hatred with it either, obviously. And the turning from, or the possibility of it, really is the thing I care about.
This caring about the turn springs in a fairly definite (not to say necessarily an ultimate) way from Christian sensibility, as I see it, and I want to highlight that as I try to bring this exploration back around to the shift I say I’m observing in myself. I’m deeply interested (I mean it in multiple senses, as I think what precedes in this post suggests well enough) in the theme of Christianity’s having remade the world for the good — and for good, in any case, whatever the good may be — as taken up e.g. in a new book by Tom Holland (h/t Darrell) I’m waiting to get hold of now from CPL. The theme, of course, is nothing new. In modernity it’s the heart of the Christ-and-culture problem. Or it’s the heart, acknowledged or unacknowledged, of liberalism and Enlightenment (and various counter-developments too, sure!) — as liberalism’s best antagonists and defenders alike understand. Christians are beset, not uniquely but still in a peculiar way, by a tension between the hard-to-pin character of the events — gift and reception — of their faith’s origin and the hard-to-pin character of the bond between those events and the things that proceed from them. One thing I think I might be starting to get, dimly, is that something about the tension itself — not the events and the figures and concepts continually drawn and redrawn around them only — is the extraordinarily generative or transformative thing in history. I don’t know. But increasingly I wonder about how bounds are ever firmly plotted between Christianity and the currents it meets — the first and most important of which we understand to be Jewishness and Judaism — and that it’s bound by something in its nature to set itself in contrast to; and this seems to have something to do with that.
Anyway, I can’t see around Christianity’s — our — violence anymore. I can’t see Christianity, more fundamentally in a way, apart from antisemitism anymore. That historically there’s no antisemitism apart from Christianity is plain enough, but you can, and of course in all sorts of ways we do, explain such a thing as antisemitism by its contrast with a reality or unity that Christianity is only ever to be understood as representing the necessary pointer to, and then in practical terms as deviation from Christian rule by definition, always potentially correctible by the communion’s discipline. But this is to begin down the dead-end road, reducing by implication the religion to an ethics, isn’t it? I have trouble now thinking of explanations that work this way as capable of avoiding some fatal trap of circularity. You find eventually that you’re trying to divide the thing from itself. Does it horrify me that I can’t think of Christianity without antisemitism? Yes, but it doesn’t unnerve me, if that’s not too incoherent a thing to say. Unnerved or not, I do feel myself tractionless, somewhere outside Rome, in a more serious way than I’d have reckoned a couple of years ago. I don’t mean, in case it’s unclear, to say that it’s the end of Christianity for me. (Still less, an end of belief in God, say.) Not remotely. What I suppose it could mean an end to for me — though if so perhaps also a new way into somehow — is the ‘Judeo-Christianity’ (an expression you’re unlikely to find me using more freely than I do now, regardless) concocted for our power-mad times.
Another way at this might be to say that I think of religion in thoroughly organic terms — which I think is to say, possibly perversely, that I think of religion very Christianly. Hmm now, you put it that way, the fascists of a century ago kind of thought likewise, right? Yes, this is a can of worms. No, there’s no relief for me in any such shift of angle. But I’m not looking for relief — not relief of the kind a construction of Christianity that I take to be dominant in a way I need to give a lot more thought to than I have yet seems set to offer, anyway.
I have in mind here something recent from a guy I’ve almost met ‘IRL’ around the neighborhood a couple of times, a former boyfriend of Tara’s, whom I’ve been a fan of for a while on Twitter (and hope to connect with properly one way or other one of these days):
To say you can quibble about Trump’s Christianity is sort of trite, really. A lot of Trump’s Christian supporters, Protestant and Catholic both, perform impressive feats of simultaneous claim and denial regarding his place in relation to the fold. There’s something like a Heisenberg principle involved. But we have a lot of practice at this — the Protestants especially, and the Catholics of course are fast learners.
I joke, but there is something in this that I am trying to get closer to, to pull in tighter on. Jews too, Matt obviously appreciates, are caught, revealed, in all sorts of very strange attitudes in respect of faith and each other in the moment we can’t help but name (for the moment) for Trump. I’m too historically ignorant to be sure how new this really is, but lately the sort of thing we’re seeing includes some apparent uptick in Jews publicly charging other Jews with antisemitism, and no great probability of that trend subsiding back toward sanity. But Matt’s words: We don’t get to wash our hands. A peculiar choice of a thing to find wisdom in in a bit of Jewish venting, yeah, and maybe not something he’d wish to have cemented to him, it being after all just a tweet. I don’t want to get stuck on the image. What I’m concerned with though, what I return to, is that possibility of the turn — a possibility Christians identify (albeit not of course without a lot of funny overlayering and mixing around through the centuries) with an early appropriation of a Jewish practice of washing — or rather than possibility its very necessity, and the strange closure I much too slowly grasp it has to find for itself, in religion and religious experience, with the problem of coming to embrace what in fact you are. What I am, let’s be clear, a white Christian in America at the beginning of the twenty-first century, is murderer and thief, by inheritance, on the grandest scale I care to be asked to imagine. Hello, I am Donald fucking Trump if you want — or figures from deeper in the dark.
(I’ve stepped now into a pile of issues to do with sin, guilt, redemption, and so on — a cluster of topics that for a lot of Christians are the effective core of the religion proper, so to speak. I’m going to let them be, here. Maybe another time.)
Solidarity Hall isn’t much, Lord knows, but it was a lucky find for me. I would be losing my mind maybe. I’m not. I have people. I have Dorothy and Peter if there were nobody else — SH brought me them, and I hope yet them me in some fashion. (Susannah and I are still friends, though, for that matter. I remain too frequently a self-righteous argumentative prick toward her, she condescending and unkind to me, but we’ve managed some reciprocal apologies on those and other points, a sign of hope in each of our not so healthy cases. She’s dating an Englishman, a theologian! We talk but, wisely, not often.)
So, right, I’ve wound up in a relationship with Roberta’s daughter, Tara. (And moved to Chicago.) That was quite a development. It happened, as much as anything, through my being sure that there was no danger of it happening. It wasn’t Roberta’s idea, anyway, I can assure you. I got some gentle nudges in the other direction from her as Tara and I were becoming closer. I had the presence of mind in those instances not to say so and make a discussion of it, but I really felt confident that once Tara and I met in person, a natural easing-off would follow and all such instinctive and rightly-ordered motherly concern prove beside the question. The friendship was good, I thought; I wanted this to find its settled level over a little time, and I wanted to keep the help she’d become, at a distance, in my unsteady descent from New York. All reasonable enough, but of course Roberta saw the situation in some of its aspects better than I. Two years on, Tara and I are remarkably happy, and I’m accustoming myself — not without some bumps — to the prospect of being at close quarters with Roberta’s good sense for many years, God willing, to come.
In Chicago, in part from the SH connection, there’s new proximity for me to the Church’s spectacle of self-exaltation and disfigurement and new opportunity to do something to bring to it a mirror, looking to Dorothy and those like her. I’m under no real illusion anymore about how this goes, I don’t think.