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Friday, May 18, 2012

Interleague Baseball or What's Wrong with the World

"What?  You don't like interleague basebal?"
In 1997, under the leadership of commissioner Bud Selig, Major League baseball introduced interleague baseball.  Up until that point, teams from the American League and the National League did not play each other until the World Series, a wonderful tradition.

But Major League baseball dumped tradition in 1997, and Selig plans to expand interleague baseball in the coming years (see Keith Olbermann's lament about this here).  Interleague baseball commences again today for the 2012 season, and I will watch my beloved Blue Jays play the New York Mets, but I will do so begrudgingly only because a baseball game of any sort (interleague or otherwise) is still more wonderful than almost anything else in the world.  I am, I know, in the minority in vocalizing my opposition to interleague baseball (most baseball fans like it and most people in general don't care).  I dislike interleague baseball for a myriad of reasons. It creates uneven schedules for teams, even teams within the same division; it leads to pitchers hitting who never hit otherwise (and therefore to a lower quality of baseball); and it takes some of the magic out of the World Series, which used to be the only time one would see a National League team and an American League team play.

But the presence of interleague baseball is even more troubling to me, because I think it points to something endemic to our society.  And that is, the willingness and even desire to break the 'bondage' of tradition.  Of course, I am a Roman Catholic historical theologian, and as such, my reference to tradition should be hardly surprising.  But I find that I'm in the minority when it comes to valuing the witness of those before us.

I should note that I'm not opposed to change, whether that change be theological, liturgical, moral, or structural.  But I am opposed to change that doesn't take seriously what our mothers, fathers, grandmothers, grandfathers, and beyond have had to say about whatever it is that we want to change.  There seems to me to be a certain arrogance that characterizes so much of our political, theological, and moral discourse.  We seem to believe that we necessarily know more than our forebears, that we're progressing past them, and therefore that we can and should easily dismiss whatever they may have valued for the sake of something supposedly better.  There are, of course, times when change must occur.  But all change needs to occur in conversation with our ancestors, not by speaking over them so as to shut them out.

This picture was, sadly, not taken in October.
In the case of interleague baseball, there was a long tradition of a separate American League and National League, both of which emerged and developed for different historical reasons.  And the tradition of having those teams from each league meet only in the World Series was one that made the World Series something special and exciting.

Did baseball's violation of these traditions make the game markedly better?  It did allow for some regional rivalries that supposedly bring more gate receipts than other games might.  But did it make the game better?  Is baseball better off with interleague play?

I don't think it is, and the expansion of interleague play appears further to diminish a game that thankfully is so beautiful and profound that it can withstand the meddling of troublesome owners and a commissioner who doesn't appear to understand the game he oversees.  Tradition serves a central purpose culturally, theologically, politically, morally, and even athletically.  It frequently preserves that which is worthwhile and beautiful in a manner that is frequently intangible.  Our predecessors need to be given more of the benefit of the doubt.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Wendell Berry and the Meaning of Higher Education

Bellarmine University 2012 Graduates
This past weekend I attended the graduation exercises for our students here at Bellarmine University.  I always find graduation somewhat bittersweet.  Although I'm excited for my students and proud of them, many of them have become more than students during their four years here.  They have become colleagues and friends, and it is often difficult to say good-bye.

Graduation is also a time to think about the purpose of higher education.  So often I hear students and parents talk about education as being merely a stepping stone to a career; they see education to be pointless unless there's a job at the end.  I don't want to discount this viewpoint altogether.  It is, after all, necessary to make a living, and one would hope that you can use what you learn in school to make such a living.  But education is not only utilitarian.  It should be transformative.

A number of years ago, before I arrived at Bellarmine, Wendell Berry gave the commencement address.  Berry is a farmer and writer (he would probably put them in that order) from Kentucky whose poetry, essays, and novels have profoundly influenced me and others.  He recently delivered the 2012 Jefferson Lecture, a prestigious honour.  You can see his biography and read his lecture here.  Berry's commencement address at Bellarmine focused specifically on the purpose of higher education, and on the week after graduation, it seems entirely fitting to revisit his thoughts.
In all the history of teaching and learning, our own time may be the oddest. We seem to be obsessed with education. Newspapers spend an enormous flow of ink on articles, editorials, and letters about education. Presidents of public universities appear on the op-ed pages, prophesying the death of American civilization as the inevitable result of fiscal caution. Our governmental hallways are hardly passable because of university lobbyists kneeling and pleading for public dollars. One might conclude that we are panic-stricken at the thought of any educational inadequacy measurable in unappropriated funds.
And yet by all this fuss we are promoting a debased commodity paid for by the people, sanctioned by the government, for the benefit of the corporations. For the most part, its purpose is now defined by the great and the would-be-great “research universities.” These gigantic institutions, increasingly formed upon the “industrial model,” no longer make even the pretense of preparing their students for responsible membership in a family, a community, or a polity. They have repudiated their old obligation to pass on to students at least something of their cultural inheritance. The ideal graduate no longer is to have a mind well-equipped to serve others, or to judge competently the purposes for which it may be used.
Now, according to those institutions of the “cutting edge,” the purpose of education is unabashedly utilitarian. Their interest is almost exclusively centered in the technical courses called, with typical ostentation of corporate jargon, STEM: science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. The American civilization so ardently promoted by these institutions is to be a civilization entirety determined by technology, and not encumbered by any thought of what is good or worthy or neighborly or humane.
The course of study called STEM is in reality only a sort of job training for upward (and lateral) mobility. It is also a subsidy granted to the corporations, which in a system of free enterprise might reasonably be expected to do their own job training. And in the great universities even this higher job training is obstructed by the hustle and anxiety of “research,” often involving yet another corporate raid on the public domain.
I do not mean to say that it is impossible to get something like an education in even the most ambitious university. After all, if you have a library, classrooms, laboratories, and an assemblage of doctors diversely learned, you have the makings of an actual school. And in such a place a young person might still pursue a respectable course of study. But that possibility seems less and less probable.
Actual education seems now to be far more probable in the smaller schools, and I think you graduates are fortunate to have been students at Bellarmine. A school the size of this one still can function as a community of teachers and students, with responsible community life as its unifying aim. But you must not forget that the purposes and standards of the world into which you are graduating have not been set by institutions such as this one, but rather by the proponents of STEM, who would like you to have a well-paying job as an unconscious expert with Jesus Christ Munitions Incorporated, or Cleanstream Water Polluters, or the Henry Thoreau Noise Factory, or the John Muir Forest Reduction Corporation, or the Promised Land Mountain Removal Service.
You are not going to discover that the STEM project recognizes the standards of ecological and community health, or that it proposes the real national security of coherent local economies or sustainable methods of land use. You will be told instead that you and your community are now ruled by a global corporate empire, to which all the earth is a “third world,” against which you have no power of resistance or self-determination, and within which you have no vocational choice except a technical and servile job which will give you a small share of the plunder.
You will be told also – ignoring our permanent dependence on food, clothing, and shelter – that you live in a “knowledge-based economy,” which in fact is deeply prejudiced against all knowledge that does not produce the quickest possible return on investment. Even as the ecologists (who manifestly are excluded from STEM) have greatly enlarged our knowledge of ecosystems, their complexity and fragility and their need for care, our knowledge of our own species has been radically simplified. STEM’s definition of humanity includes no suggestion of reverence or neighborliness or stewardship. Instead, people are encouraged to think of themselves as individuals, self-interested and greedy by nature, violent by economic predestination, and members of nothing except their careers. The lives of these “autonomous” individuals will be “successful” insofar as they subserve the purposes of the corporate-political powers, who will regard them merely as consumers, votes, and units of “human capital.”
At commencement exercises it is customary to invite a speaker to exhort the graduates not to think of the end of their formal education as the end of their education, but rather to continue to learn and to grow in consciousness as they go forth to the duties and trials of responsible citizenship. As the designated speaker of this ceremony, I am serious about this duty. I do hereby exhort the graduates to continue to learn and to grow in consciousness as responsible citizens. And I do so knowing that no exhortation could be more subversive in the world as defined by the proponents of STEM.
To urge you toward responsible citizenship is to say that I do not accept either the technological determinism or the conventional greed or the thoughtless individualism of that world. Nor do I accept the global corporate empire and its economic totalitarianism as an irresistible force. I am here to say that if you love your family, your neighbors, your community, and your place, you are going to have to resist. Or I should say instead that you are going to have to join the many others, all over our country and the world, who already are resisting – those who believe, in spite of the obstacles and the odds, that a reasonable measure of self-determination, for persons and communities, is both desirable and necessary. Of the possibility of effective resistance there is a large, ever-growing catalogue of proofs: of projects undertaken by local people, without official permission or instruction, that work to reduce the toxicity, the violence, and the self-destructiveness of our present civilization. The resistance I am recommending will involve you endlessly in out-of-school learning, the curriculum of which will be defined by questions such as these:
What more than you have so far learned will you need to know in order to live at home? (I don’t mean “home” as a house for sale.) If you decide, or if you are required by circumstances, to live all your life in one place, what will you need to know about it and about yourself? At present our economy and society are founded on the assumption that energy will always be unlimited and cheap; but what will you have to learn to live in a world in which energy is limited and expensive? What will you have to know – and know how to do – when your community can no longer be supplied by cheap transportation? Will you be satisfied to live in a world owned or controlled by a few great corporations? If not, would you consider the alternative: self-employment in a small local enterprise owned by you, offering honest goods or services to your neighbors and responsible stewardship to your community?
Even to ask such questions, let alone answer them, you will have to refuse certain assumptions that the proponents of STEM and the predestinarians of the global economy wish you to take for granted.
You will have to avoid thinking of yourselves as employable minds equipped with a few digits useful for pushing buttons. You will have to recover for yourselves the old understanding that you are whole beings inextricably and mysteriously compounded of minds and bodies.
You will have to understand that the logic of success is radically different from the logic of vocation. The logic of what our society means by “success” supposedly leads you ever upward to any higher-paying job that can be done sitting down. The logic of vocation holds that there is an indispensable justice, to yourself and to others, in doing well the work that you are “called” or prepared by your talents to do.
And so you must refuse to accept the common delusion that a career is an adequate context for a life. The logic of success insinuates that self-enlargement is your only responsibility, and that any job, any career will be satisfying if you succeed in it. But I can tell you, on the authority of much evidence, that a lot of people highly successful by that logic are painfully dissatisfied. I can tell you further that you cannot live in a career, and that satisfaction can come only from your life. To give satisfaction, your life will have to be lived in a family, a neighborhood, a community, an ecosystem, a watershed, a place, meeting your responsibilities to all those things to which you belong.
I am sure that you are going to come face to face with the questions and issues I have mentioned, and I am sure that I don’t know how you will answer. People who speak at commencements speak in hope, but also in ignorance. However you may answer, I join the rest of your elders in worrying about you and in wishing you well.

Monday, May 7, 2012

An Afternoon at Gethsemani

Merton's Hermitage (Photo: Justin Klassen)


Br. Paul Quenon (Photo: Justin Klassen)
I was at the Abbey of Gethsemani a little over a week ago with two good friends visiting Br. Paul Quenon, an accomplished poet and photographer (see some of his work here) who has been a monk at the Abbey for over 50 years.  For those who may not be familiar with the Abbey of Gethsemani, it is a Cistercian monastery founded in 1848 just south of Bardstown, Kentucky.  Monks have been praying and working continually here since 1848, and my understanding is that it is the oldest continuously inhabited monastery in the United States.  It was also the monastic home of Thomas Merton (Fr. Louis), and has become a pilgrimage site for the millions who have read, studied, and prayed with Merton (at some point I'll write more about Merton, and about what Merton has meant to me).

We had a wonderful afternoon with Br. Paul out at Merton's hermitage.  We wrote poems, read some Merton, and even climbed a few trees.  When we returned to the Abbey, we stopped in briefly at the gift shop, where one can buy books, pottery, and, of course, cheese.  On the wall I noticed a copy of a letter written by a retreatant to the monks of Gethsemani.  I'd noticed this letter before, and have always been struck by it.  Here it is:

Photo: Justin Klassen (the letter is on the wall of the Abbey's Visitor Center)

I love this letter because it so beautifully addresses something Rowan Williams writes about in Tokens of Trust: An Introduction to Christian Belief.  Williams writes about why and how people come to believe (and therefore trust) God.  He remarks that the 'proofs' for the existence of God articulated by St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Anselm of Canterbury are fine for what they are, but that very few people actually come to any kind of trust in God as a result of their arguments.  Rather, Williams argues that most come to trust and believe in God through "conduits" of God, women and men who "become responsible for God" and who make "a connection that argument and speculation cannot make" (26).

The writer of the above letter saw God in the monks of Gethsemani, experienced something about God's presence and love to which no amount of theological argument could have brought him.  The monks were and are, in Rowan Williams' terms, "conduits" of God.


Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Baptism and Indoctrination

I'm currently grading student essays, in which my students were to provide critical analyses of Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion.  What is most interesting to me is the almost universal agreement among my students regarding Dawkins' argument regarding 'indoctrinating' children.  Almost all of my students were baptized as infants, yet many of them appear to be deeply troubled by this fact, expressing the idea that their parents should have waited until they were old enough to make their own decision.  They felt indoctrinated.

Obviously, this is not a picture of us.
Kim and I have brought all three of our children forward for baptism as infants in the Anglican church (although I'm Catholic, I became Catholic later in life.  Kim remains Anglican, and part of the 'deal' Kim and I made when I became Catholic was that we would baptize our children in the Anglican church).  At two of their baptisms, I was given the honour of delivering the homily .  I last preached at my youngest son's baptism at the Easter Vigil in 2011.  I wrote the homily as an open letter to my son, wanting to explain why we chose to have him and his brothers baptized (hint: it has nothing to do with indoctrination, and everything to do with divine beauty).  Here it is:
Shortly after this homily is completed, the priest will pour water over your head three times while invoking the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit in obedience to Christ’s command, after which you will then be anointed with oil.  You will almost surely not remember this your baptism, yet it is something that will remain one of the most significant events in your entire life.  For on this holy night [Easter Vigil], you are to be baptized a Christian, a child of God, remade and regenerated through the transforming love of the Father through the Son in the Holy Spirit.  Just as Jesus Christ said, “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of God” (Luke 18.15-17), so the body of Christ, the Church, fully welcomes infants such as yourself into the community of faith, and the Church has done so from very early on in its history
El Greco - The Baptism of Jesus
But at some point in your life you might ask us why we brought you to the parish this night to have a priest pour water on your head?  What is the point of it all?  Put simply, on this night, you are transformed to become a child of God.  Scripture and tradition teach that, by baptism, you are actually adopted to be a child of God through the gift of the Holy Spirit who comes upon the waters of baptism just as it came upon the waters at the creation of the world.  You will receive the Holy Spirit just as Jesus Christ himself, God made man, received the Spirit at his baptism, receiving it as a human for our sake.  I want to be clear about what this means for you.  A little over two months ago you came into the world.  Your mother and I became parents for the third time that day, and we were and always will be proud to call you our son.  Tonight, however, you become a child of God.  By bringing you to your baptism, your mother and I are taking the step of recognizing that, although you are our son and always will be our son, you belong first and foremost to God who has given you to us.  Your identity is wrapped up in God, and tonight you are to be born of water and the Spirit, and through this birth you gain new life as a child of God.  As such, your mom and I are pledging today to raise you as one who is a child of God, as one who has been adopted by God to serve him for the rest of your life.  You do not, and will never, cease being the son of Kim and Greg.  But this identity, after your baptism, is no longer the most important.  You are, first and foremost, from this moment on, by the grace of God in the Holy Spirit, a member of the Church and a son of God.
This comes with responsibilities for your mother and I, and also, one day, for you.  You see, just as your birth two months ago was the beginning of your life here on earth, so the new birth that comes through baptism today is the beginning of your life as a Christian.  By bringing you here for baptism, your mom and I are committing to our family and friends, to this congregation, and through them to both the worldwide church and to the saints who make up the church above, that we will raise you as a Christian, that we will take primary responsibility for your religious education, that we will do everything within our power, by the grace of God, to be examples to you of what the Christian life means.  We are to be examples for you Christ-likeness, of humility and of selfless love, in the hopes that you will learn what it is to be a follower of Christ from us.  I’m not going to lie to you, and tell you that this is an easy thing to do.  It isn’t.  You will, unfortunately, learn that your mother and I are not perfect, and indeed, you’ll learn, if you haven’t already, that there are some things about your old man that are downright ugly.  At times we are going to fail you in being examples to you.  But St Paul tells us that God works through our weaknesses, and this your mom and I both cling to in the hopes that you will be able to see past and through the faults of your parents in order rather to see the transforming love of God working in us.
For there will come a time in which you will be asked to confirm the faith which you have received here today.  At this time, should you so choose, you will, of your own volition and power and by the grace of God, grab hold of everything that you have been taught, by word and example, by your mom and I, and by the Church; you will grab hold of the gift of grace that God has joyously given to you through Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit.  Confirmation, as the sacrament is known today, is inseparable from baptism for this reason.  Of course, you are a free person, and you may decide not to take the faith of your parents.  That is your prerogative.  We cannot force you to be a Christian, and indeed, we do not want to force you to do so.  Your mom and I are going to raise you as a Christian, not because we want to shove the faith down your throat.  Rather, both your mother and I have come to recognize in Christianity truth, goodness, and last, but certainly not least – not least by any stretch of the imagination – beauty. 
Modern Orthodox icon of Christ's Baptism
The beauty of Christianity is made so very clear in the act of baptism itself.  You will be baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  This is very significant!  We as Christians believe that God exists as Trinity, and this understanding of God as three and yet one is extremely important.  There is no easy explanation of the Trinity, but the best I can do is simply to say that Christians have, through revelation and experience, come to an understanding that God exists as community, that God exists, most significantly, as an eternal embrace of selfless love where each person of the Trinity gives the totality of themselves to one another in a dance of love so profound, so complete, so giving, so unifying, that threeness comes to equal oneness.  This is what it means to believe, as 1 John 4.8 reads, that “God is love.”  Love – self-giving, totally gratuitous, all-consuming love – is at the very heart of God’s essence.  This Trinitarian love, this notion that God exists eternally and completely as love, is at the heart of the beauty that is essential to the Christian faith.  It is the idea that God is love that makes sense of why the created order ever came into existence.  It is the idea that God is love that explains the gift of God’s very self to us in the Incarnation, when God became human.  And Jesus Christ’s example of selfless love, love that led him to the cross, reveals to us that God is love, that God exists as love.  It is through the Resurrection that we learn that love triumphs over evil, that love conquers death, that love is the way of God in the face of oppression and injustice
God’s love is made abundantly clear in the sacrament of baptism.  For baptized in the name of the Trinity that is and exists as love, you receive God’s very own Spirit who lovingly and selflessly descends upon you and lifts you up to become part of the dance of love that is the life of God.  Through the gift of God’s very self to you in baptism, you are drawn into communion and intimacy with God.  Through God’s Spirit, God ceases to be merely your creator.  God now becomes, through God’s Spirit, your Father and Mother.  Through the Spirit of Christ, Jesus becomes more than your Lord and Saviour.  He becomes your brother and your friend.   And, dare I say it, he becomes your lover.
Such divine love is, to my mind, at the heart of the Christian message, and this message is profoundly beautiful.  Moreover, it is this love that is to shape all of us who have been baptized into the Trinity.  God’s Church, the body of Christ, is to imitate the community of selfless love that God is.  We are to exist as communities of love.  Unfortunately, God’s Church frequently falls short in this regard.  The beauty that is God is frequently marred by the ugliness that was and is done in the name of God and by the disunity that now characterizes what was to be the one Body of Christ.  You need to be prepared for that.  But none of this compromises the fact that at the heart of our faith is an understanding of God, of humanity, of the Church that is, frankly, remarkably beautiful and profound, and nothing we do can compromise the love that God is.
It is this love that you will experience this night.  It is this love that your mother and I will, through God’s grace, manifest to you in our marriage and as parents.  This faith in the God who is love is the faith into which you are being baptized; this is the life to which you are being called.  And just as Jesus welcomed with open arms the children who were brought to him 2000 years ago, so he opens his arms to you, pouring forth his grace and his Spirit to you to draw you to him.  Your mother and I, this community, the Blessed Virgin and all the saints, pray that you will find rest, comfort, and love in his embrace.  Amen.