The Devil May Be Winning

This New York Times commentary on Pope Benedict’s visit troubles me in so many ways I’m having a hard time counting them. There’s one particular diabolical strategy in Lewis’ Screwtape Letters that I always found particularly compelling. Screwtape reminds Wormwood that one of the tools in the Tempter’s box is to warn the people of every age of a particular vice that is presently threatening them, when in fact it is the vice polar opposite to the one being shouted from the rooftops which threatens to overwhelm them. Lewis puts it this way:

“The use of Fashions is thought to distract the attention of men from their real dangers. We direct the fashionable outcry of each generation against those vices of which it is least in danger and fix its approval on the virtue nearest to that vice which we are trying to make endemic. The game is to have them all running about with fire extinguishers when there is a flood, and all crowding to that side of the boat which is already near gunwale under. Thus we make it fashionable to expose the dangers of enthusiasm at the very moment when they are all really becoming worldly and lukewarm; a century later, when we are really making them all Byronic and drunk with emotion, the fashionable outcry is directed against the dangers of the mere ‘understanding’. Cruel ages are put on their guard against Sentimentality, feckless and idle ones against Respectability, lecherous ones against Puritanism; and whenever all men are really hastening to be slaves or tyrants we make Liberalism the prime bogey.”

I will do the Holy Father the courtesy of presuming that Mr. Bermudez has quoted him out of context. I do commend Mr. Bermudez for his honesty, though. At least we now know where the bogey lies. Mr. Bermudez’s image of the church, in my view, calls to mind every bad guy in Jesus’ parables, the Pharisee who prays in the Temple with the tax collector, the hirelings who worked all day and wanted to deny the late arrivals a full wage and, my personal favorite (because we are so much alike) the unnamed Elder Brother.

Contrast Mr. Bermudez’s understanding of the church with Jesus’ view of the Kingdom. Note that it is the Pharisees, the caste apart, those who said “we see” who are threatened by Jesus’ message.

There has been much bleating that this age is “too tolerant”, that we no longer have any standards, that we no longer understand and appreciate what it means to be a “Catholic”, “an American”, “a Muslim”, “a [fill in the blank]”. When I hear that, I try to keep in mind who Screwtape is and his strategy. It seems to me the real trouble comes from those who say, “‘O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity…”


10 Responses to “The Devil May Be Winning”

  1. Timothy Peach Says:

    David, I really like the Screwtape angle, but I confess I’m lost on the hookup. Could you elucidate a bit more on the specifics? Who is who in your analogies?

  2. David Fitzgerald Says:

    Mr. Bermudez has conjured an image of the Church Universal which I find shocking, even disturbing. He seems to long positively for a pure, committed band, rigidly orthodox and holed up somewhere. It is against such a church that the “gates of hell” will not prevail. I find this image very close to the image I have of, say, Osama bin Laden or the those apostate Mormons the government just rounded up. That similarity, again, in my own imagination, is troubling and I think instructive, especially when those images are contrasted with the image of the Kingdom in Matthew’s Gospel, where the king sends out his servants into the highways and hedgerows and invites everyone “good and bad” to the feast.

    Its an image of radical exclusivity contrasted with an image of radical inclusiveness. As so often happens, Jesus twists the parable at the end, somebody gets thrown out. Why? Because he is improperly dressed, he doesn’t have on a wedding garment. Could this be a metaphor for not getting just what kind of party this is? It is a party where everyone is included, where all judgments of status and worth have been set aside. How would one have to dress (another way of saying it is what attitude would one have to assume) to be kicked out of such a party?

    Which brings me back to what all this says about our times. Muslim kills Muslim over dubious historical interpretations of 7th century dynastic squabbles, the Anglican communion splits into ever smaller geographical and esoteric factions over doctrinal disputes, a Catholic writer (and many supporters if the comments I linked are any indication) longs for a purer church that excludes “cafeteria Catholics” and imagines that the Holy Father himself endorses that view. In the face of this, we here a chorus that the troubles which plague our times stem from our lack of intellectual, religious or national orthodoxy. It seems that we may be running to fight the flood with fire extinguishers

  3. Timothy Peach Says:

    Thanks for elucidating…. got you now.

    Maybe it’s just a matter of attitude. It’s perfectly consistent for the Pontiff to believe that the headcount on salvation will be relatively small, a la “Eye of the Needle”, but that it is not his job to enforce the bright line zealously. He certainly took a gentle tone at Yankee Stadium, and everything I read about his other events was in the same spirit.

    Lowering moral standings doesn’t suddenly make people more pious any more than lower academic standards makes them smarter, or lowering the bar makes someone a better high jumper. Inclusiveness, from my standpoint, isn’t about what the goal is — it’s the attitude of the folks trying to help you reach that goal (the point Fr. Walsh just made, I think, on the other thread).

    Jesus spent a lot of time with the wayward, but he never gave them the impression he was interested in defining away their transgressions. He was the original “lover of the person and hater of the disease” — in his case, he loved the sinner and hated the sin, and he encouraged the sinner to do the same.

    Screwtape’s musings on the Pharisees and others of their ilk are poignant, and those grand sinners were certainly his favorite fare, but let’s not forget what he had to say in “Screwtape Proposes a Toast” about the benefits, to his ravenous clan, of the lowering of standards in general.

  4. Mark Grannis Says:

    It’s a shame the Hollywood writers’ strike never spawned a reality show called “Spot the Pharisee.” People play it in real life all the time, but the advantage of watching others play is that you can remain free from the delusion that the Pharisee is not you. The Pharisee is, of course, the one who self-righteously criticizes others for their failings. He knows he is not perfect, but he takes pride in the fact that, whatever his other failings are, at least he is not a Pharisee. And for this, he is of course grateful — grateful that he is not like those other people. Oops.

    Father Walsh has a great couple of paragraphs on this paradox in his terrific book, “The Mighty from Their Thrones: Power in the Biblical Tradition.” I don’t quote the passage to people as often as I think of it because it uses three Hebrew words without perfect English equivalents — concepts that are unpacked at some length in the book. But with apologies for the simplistic English substitutes in brackets below, it goes like this:

    “The problem is that there *are* wicked people, and they do deserve [God’s vengeance, or the vindication of God’s authority]. But for us to say this of any one person or any group of people is to ‘judge’: to exercise [God’s authority]. It is to arrogate to ourselves a divine prerogative (‘”[vengeance] is mine,” says the Lord’). And that is rebellion against Yahweh. This is the great irony of it all. To point the finger of accusation at those who violate the [moral order] of Yahweh is to violate the [moral order] of Yahweh.”

    “For his [moral order] means ‘going beyond.’ It means identification-with, not separation-from. His [“vengeance”] takes the form of unconditional fidelity. He loves his enemies. ” (p. 176)

  5. David Fitzgerald Says:

    Excellent safety tip, Mark. You quite rightly identify the key move which causes those with an eye on their own self-righteousness to stumble, “He knows he is not perfect, but he takes pride in the fact that, whatever his other failings are, at least he is not a Pharisee.” As always, pride goeth before the fall. I am bound to get into trouble once I turn my attention away from a radical identification with “my neighbor” and start to focus on myself. It is that turning of concern inward (which of course is the opposite of love, which is completely other directed) and with it the natural desire to keep score, to ask, “how am I doin?”, that separates us from the path God has set for us.

    That is one of the myriad of things that troubles me about Bermudez’ blog and much of the coverage of Pope Benedict’s visit. In my view, far too much attention is being paid to understanding how pure we are, far too little on the needs of the other. The extreme, but natural, result of that habit of mind is to view the other as less worthy and then as beneath my concern, and finally, as a means for me to achieve my own ends, at which point we no longer view them as human at all.

    The really big evils, like the ones that cause people to fly planes into buildings, it seems to me likely start with that one move which asks, “how am I doin’?”

  6. Timothy Peach Says:

    I couldn’t possibly agree more how dangerous and counterproductive it is for your focus to be an “inny”.

    The worst times in my life, when I was most useless to myself and others around me, was when I was neurotically focused inward.

    By contrast, my best and most productive moments have always been accompanied by an outward focus, ideally to the point of loss of self-awareness.

    The conversation we have with ourselves, all day long and without point or merit, is unnatural and damaging, and we should work to minimize it. The world, and our mission, is out there.

  7. Brian Freeman Says:

    Dave (or any others) – What’s your take on the passage from Gedeon in light of this discussion? (This is not a set-up – just curious.)

  8. David Fitzgerald Says:

    Mr. Bermudez has an “interesting” take on this story,

    With apologies to Fr. Walsh, Professor Mitchell and Mr. Beck of Fordham Prep, the Book of Judges, from which this narrative comes, is part of a much larger work of biblical “historical” writing known as the deuteronomic history. This block of texts consists of the books of Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings. If I remember rightly, the dtr history was finally redacted after the liberation of the Jewish people by Cyrus the Persian in the late sixth century BC, was intended as a moral history to answer why the Babylonian exile happened and, of course, draws on narrative sources that are much more ancient than the redacted work itself.

    There flows throughout the dtr history a basic tension between two different ways to imagine how the “people of Yahweh” should be governed. On the one hand, there is a celebration of Davidic kingship and a hearkening back to a united kingdom, with its cult center in Jerusalem, governed by David, a man “after [Yahweh’s] own heart” and whose “house” would be established forever by Yahweh.

    Over and against this image, the returning exiles were confronted with the obvious failure of Davidic kingship and a need to explain that failure coherently. That need is addressed by a subversive (from the Davidic point of view) tradition within the dtr history which consistently points out how dangerous a centralized monarchy is to a people who are to be radically and exclusively reliant on Yahweh for their success. The most explicit example of this tradition is the speech of Samuel to the elders of Israel who are requesting a king to judge them, like the nations around them,

    In that request for a king, the elders of Israel are rejecting the tradition of charismatic leadership, guided exclusively by Yahweh, that is the narrative backbone of the entire Book of Judges. Israel doesn’t need a human king because they already have one, namely Yahweh. Note verse 2 of the 7th chapter of Judges which Bermudez cites as an example of human rectitude, “The LORD said to Gideon, ‘You have too many soldiers with you for me to deliver Midian into their power, lest Israel vaunt itself against me and say, ‘My own power brought me the victory.’ ” The narrative goes on from there to discuss how Yahweh winnows the Israelite army down to 300. First, he offers an out to those who are scared, but not enough take it. Then Yahweh, ironically, comes up with the plan which is most likely to result in the Israelite army having the fewest soldiers, only those men who don’t greedily lap up water in the desert will remain to fight. Why? So that it will be clear to everyone exactly whose vistory this is, “The LORD said to Gideon, ‘By means of the three hundred who lapped up the water I will save you and will deliver Midian into your power. So let all the other soldiers go home.'” The point is that “self-mastery” by the Israelites seems to have very little to do with it. The Israelites and their rectitude, or lack of it, is of negligble importance in the face of the saving will of Yahweh.

    As a matter of literary form, the narratives in Judges strike me as very closely akin to other ancient narratives coming together at the same time, recall Athena helping Telemachus escape the suitors and ultimately, giving Odysseus and Telemachus alone the victory over them or Achilles’ mother, or Hera aiding Hector or Zeus Perseus. The list is endless. The point of these narratives was to glorify the hero, but also to show that the hero’s victory was ultimately dependent on the favor of the gods.

    So…I find it “interesting” that Bermudez would use this type of story as an illustration of the importance of human faithfulness and rectitude. It seems to me he’s turned the meaning of the Gideon story exactly on its head.

  9. Brian Freeman Says:

    This is a terrific exegis, unfolding the grander portent of the Gideon passage. But doesn’t it push things in the direction of an “either/or” (or, as it has been termed, the “grand seductive either/or”)? Why was it that Yahweh told Gideon to keep those soldiers who demonstrated rectitude and alertness and to dismiss the rest, rather than the other way around? Or rather than discriminating on the basis of some other criterion?

    You indicate concern that Bermudez is turning the story on it head by using it as “an illustration of the importance of human faithfulness and rectitude” — but isn’t that hitting both points? That is, “human faithfulness” is another way of saying “faith in Yahweh’s absolute saving power,” and human rectitude can be fully compatible with such faith, or even more to the point, the fruit of such faith?

    I suppose the rub here is that human rectitude “can be” a fruit of such faith, but isn’t necessarily so. And a further rub, that Bermudez’ rendition of the Gideon story, at least as published in a short newspaper essay, seems to focus more on the human aspect without making clear its source in the divine.

    Even so, there’s a whiff of “either/or” here — cf. the faith-vs.-works debate — theological categorization taken too far.

    More pragmatically, this discussion may illustrate the value of another potential fruit of faithfulness, joyfulness, and also the ability to communicate it. It’s a rare gift. John Paul II, particularly in his younger years, had it like few others. Maybe we now have very high expectations in that regard.

  10. Mark Grannis Says:

    Fitz, as it happens my book club is discussing The Screwtape Letters this month, and in rereading it I noticed the following advice from Screwtape to Wormwood:

    “We want the Church to be small not only that fewer men may know the Enemy but also that those who do may acquire the uneasy intensity and the defensive self-righteousness of a secret society or a clique. The Church herself is, of course, heavily defended and we have never yet quite succeeded in giving her *all* the characteristics of a faction; but subordinate factions within her have often produced admirable results, from the parties of Paul and of Apollos at Corinth down to the High and Low parties in the Church of England.”

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