Identity and Morality in The Americans

What is it about The Americans that kept me glued to a screen for two straight days? And now that it’s over, why can’t I stop thinking about Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, fictional characters both in real life and on the show?

The story is certainly compelling: two KGB spies in 1980’s America struggling to complete their missions without getting killed or blowing their cover. They have to keep their true identities secret from their teenage kids and FBI agent Stan Beeman, who happens to move in across the street. They must also navigate the everyday struggles of parenthood and marriage, all as the threat of nuclear war hangs over America and the world.

The stakes could not be higher. The writing and production-quality of The Americans are both excellent, the “period” of the 1980’s brilliantly evoked through wigs, silk blouses, and retro cars. But in many ways the success of the show is a credit to the incredible acting of Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys. If left in the hands of lesser mortals, I may have been able to sleep more over the past week.

Both actors bring great emotional depth to their roles, and kick some serious butt when the situation demands it. They have an undeniable onscreen chemistry and believability, even in moments of extreme conflict. At times during the show, my attention began to slip, but never when Philip and Elizabeth shared the screen. It was no surprise to learn that Russell and Rhys are a couple in real life (Viva Philip and Elizabeth!).

At its core, The Americans is about much more than Cold War politics; it’s a heightened look at the complex interplay between identity and morality.

What should you do when different aspects of your identity come into conflict? Who is most deserving of your trust and loyalty – your country or your family? Whose good should you prioritize, when protecting one could endanger the other? Finally, what measures are morally acceptable in the pursuit of your ideals? Do the ends justify the means, or are there certain lines that should never be crossed? As viewers, we are rooting for Philip and Elizabeth to succeed somehow. But based on these inherent conflicts, we know their story can only end in tragedy.

Season 1, Episode 1 Spoilers Below (Go ahead and read it, even if you haven’t watched yet):

The conflict between Philip and Elizabeth is initially one of two strangers who must present themselves as the perfect American couple. Even after fifteen years of marriage and two kids together, Elizabeth still considers her relationship with Philip primarily as part of the job. Ironically, it is the intensification of their work together that draws Elizabeth closer to Philip, even as it reveals the second and more pivotal conflict between them.

Elizabeth is a true believer. Though she begins the first season as a devoted mother (if not quite a loving wife), her primary identity is as a KGB officer; her main loyalty is to the cause. She can’t stand American consumerism or religion, and disagrees pointedly with what her daughter is being taught in history class. When Elizabeth refers to “the Americans,” she is speaking of them.

Philip is more of an independent thinker. He mainly wants to do what is best for his family — Elizabeth and their two children. To Philip, America is not so bad: the lights stay on, the food is pretty good, and you don’t have to worry about getting sent to a Siberian prison camp. While Elizabeth’s instinct is to follow orders, Philip questions whether he can trust the KGB or the Soviet government. When it comes to “the Americans,” he could easily see himself as one of them.

The pilot episode introduces this moral conflict in the form of a Russian defector tied up in the trunk of the Jennings’ car. Philip seriously wants to turn him in and defect, something Elizabeth cannot fathom. Then he learns that the defector – a former Russian captain – raped Elizabeth back in the Soviet Union during her KGB training. This revelation is enough to take Philip from wanting to hand the guy over to killing him with his bare hands in a matter of minutes. We learn that Philip is more loyal to Elizabeth than his own comfort or desires. Foreshadowing future developments, we see he will put her good and protection even before that of his own children.

For Philip, it is obvious that their family should come before the KGB or the cause. For Elizabeth, it takes being kidnapped and interrogated by their own people to make her doubt her priorities, but only temporarily. Expressing her outrage at this betrayal, she calls the KGB “the people I’ve trusted the most,” to which Philip replies “and that’s the problem.”

Then there’s the conflict between following orders and following one’s conscience.

Season 2 – 6 Spoilers Below (Stop reading if you have not yet watched and take yourself over to Amazon Prime video where you can stream it):

Philip and Elizabeth’s actions cause untold damage. Through five seasons, their kill count is even at fifteen apiece. Some kills are in self-defense, while many are collateral damage. In the sixth season, Elizabeth’s kill count surges ahead of Philip’s, who is attempting to live life as a travel agent. This includes the most unjustified of all their murders – a couple of Soviet defectors whom Elizabeth slays, (unknowingly) in the presence of their seven-year-old kid.

But to really assess the damage wrought by Philip and Elizabeth, one has also to examine the countless lives destroyed and confidences betrayed. Philip’s biggest betrayal is of Martha, the secretary to the head of FBI counterintelligence whom he seduces and eventually marries, all the while conning her into unwittingly committing treason. Martha’s relationship with Philip, alias “Clark,” costs her everything she has ever had or wanted – love, family, country. Philip is distraught over Martha’s sad fate, but not too distraught to enjoy the company of his wife. At the end of the day Martha is alone, but Philip still has Elizabeth.

Elizabeth’s biggest betrayal is of Young Hee, a Mary Kay saleswoman and mother of three whom Elizabeth befriends in order to gain access to her husband. This betrayal saddens Elizabeth the most, as she genuinely valued Young Hee’s friendship and knows her actions have destroyed her friend’s family and happiness.

A big theme here: it’s wrong to use people. It hurts them, and it hurts you too. But using people – manipulating them, seducing them, threatening them – is what the KGB does.

It’s also what FBI agents do. Stan Beeman’s conscience is not clean, as he sleeps with a source, kills an innocent man in retaliation for the loss of his partner, and refuses to do anything to save his failing marriage even as his desperate wife cries out for his attention. Ultimately, his attempts to do right by the people he has jeopardized fail to pay off.

Which brings me to the Jennings’ betrayal of Stan, a ticking time bomb that finally explodes in the last episode. Speaking in an abandoned parking garage, Philip reassures Stan that their friendship was genuine, and he was just doing his job. Despite the betrayal, Stan cannot bring himself to stop his former friends and neighbors; he lets them go. This decision reveals that Stan values their friendship, and perhaps his relationship as surrogate father to Henry, more than the good of his agency and his country.

But the betrayal that stings the most – the one I still can’t get over – is Philip and Elizabeth’s betrayal of their own children, Paige and Henry.

By Season 6, Elizabeth is no longer a good mother in any sense of the word. She mainly ignores Henry, and doesn’t quite know what to say to him when he is around. Back on a school break, Henry jokingly asks to bum a cigarette. After only a few seconds hesitation, Elizabeth holds out the pack to her son, to which Henry asks if she wants to give him lung cancer.

Things are more complicated with Paige, who plays a much bigger role in the show, as she eventually learns her parent’s true identities. The decision to bring Paige into their world and start grooming her for future espionage is a major point of conflict between Elizabeth and Philip. Philip is against it of course, whereas Elizabeth sees in Paige a kindred spirit in search of a just cause. (Yes, Elizabeth still thinks she is fighting to make the world a better place.)

Elizabeth tries to instruct Paige in the new responsibilities that come with this knowledge, but Paige finds it incredibly isolating – a pretty heavy burden for a sixteen-year-old to bear alone. She feels awkward saying the Pledge of Allegiance. She can’t have normal relationships with boyfriends or peers. Then when she confides her family’s secret to Pastor Tim, Elizabeth forces her to keep up the charade of being a surrogate child to him in order to stay in his good graces. (At least Paige’s honesty with her mother saves Pastor Tim his life.)

By the final season, Paige is no longer just keeping secrets. A college student now, she starts going on missions with her mother, mainly as a lookout. Philip is out of the business; Paige is in. But Elizabeth is clearly cracking under the pressure. It’s hard for us – and Philip – to watch Elizabeth deteriorate into a shell of her former self: either working, sleeping, or chain-smoking like a zombie on the back patio.

Elizabeth’s one remaining joy is teaching Paige about the motherland. She and Claudia give Paige lessons on history, culture, and (of course) vodka. But Elizabeth’s growing influence is hurting Paige – figuratively and even literally, as Elizabeth bloodies her lip in a basement sparring session. Paige has to witness her mother kill two men in self-defense – one a back-alley mugger who was threatening Paige, the other a reluctant source who was about to shoot Elizabeth. But the last straw for Paige is when she learns her mother slept with a twenty-one-year-old intern and ruined his life for a piece of intelligence. She calls her own mother a whore and storms off, declaring that Henry was the wiser Jennings sibling for keeping his distance. Ultimately, the never-ending lies have destroyed their family.

Phillip’s loyalty to Elizabeth is put to the test when he is contacted by Oleg on behalf of Arkady. They want him to spy on Elizabeth and stop her, if necessary, from being used by KGB hardliners to undermine Gorbachev. Philip’s ultimate cooperation with them is more of a decision to see the Soviet Union progress than to hurt Elizabeth personally, though of course she won’t see it that way. Then Philip finds another line he is unwilling to cross — hurting Kimmy, the daughter of a CIA agent whom he has been meeting since she was fifteen. Though he does eventually (and regretfully) sleep with her, he refuses to participate in her kidnapping and gives her a final warning to keep her safe. Philip has sacrificed everything for Elizabeth, including the good of their own children, but he cannot see his country fall for her, nor can he surrender his basic human decency.

Elizabeth’s moment of truth comes when she is ordered to kill a Russian diplomat. But this time (thanks to a certain intern), Elizabeth has heard the tapes and knows he is negotiating in good faith. In the end, she does something she never would have imagined – executing a fellow KGB officer – to protect the diplomat and Gorbachev’s mission to change things in the USSR. But just as both Jennings’ find a line they won’t cross, and themselves back on the same side, their cover is blown and they are forced to run.

In one of the most devastating moments of the finale, Elizabeth comes to grips with the fact that she is leaving Henry for good; the Jennings quartet is down to a trio. (For the record, I don’t think I’ll ever again be able to listen to “Brothers in Arms” by Dire Straits without wanting to burst into tears.) The second moment comes when Philip and Elizabeth see Paige standing on the platform as their train pulls away. The heartbreak is written over their faces as they realize they will be leaving both of their children behind.

In the end, Philip and Elizabeth lose their comfortable existence in suburban America. They lose their friendships with Stan and Young Hee. They lose the integrity of their own consciences, as they have killed innocent strangers and hurt the people who trusted them most. They even lose Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, fake identities that have become real over the past two decades, left to resume (if they can) their lives as Mischa and Nadazhda.

Looking out over the dark Moscow skyline, the one thing they have not lost is each other. We are left to wonder with them if it will be enough.

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Declutter Your Soul with Christian Minimalism

Less is the new more. Marie Kondo is just the latest incarnation of a bigger trend toward living more with less. Yet minimalism is not without its critics. Some have accused it of being a luxury of the upper middle class, a subtle form of virtue-signaling akin to veganism. Others guard their beloved possessions from minimalist scrutiny with a fervor bordering on obsession. Marie Kondo, for all her joyful, pixie-like charm, recently found one group of Americans who weren’t having it  – book lovers. Her crime? Suggesting that you really only need about thirty books.

As an avid reader, I assume she means per subject.

Confession time: I consider myself a minimalist-enthusiast — in theory at least, if not always in practice. I love throwing things away, or better yet not purchasing them to begin with. I’m not particularly fastidious in my cleaning habits, but clutter certainly stresses me out. Part of me dreads each Christmas and kid’s birthday party, anticipating the inevitable tsunami of plastic crap that I will have to accommodate until I can safely donate it to Goodwill.

But for me, minimalism is about more than decluttering, more than tidying up; it’s about taking the time to reflect on what’s truly important, and then making time for it. It’s about rejecting the reflexive materialist consumerism that engulfs our culture. It’s about spending time in nature and investing in human relationships. It’s about eating healthy food made from a few natural ingredients versus fast food and processed snacks. (It’s about failing at all of these occasionally, but trying to keep myself on track.)

I have always felt that my minimalism was highly compatible with my Christian faith, but recently I decided to investigate this further. My motive: I was trying to adapt a lesson I had used with my high school history students for a Sunday school class.

First, let me explain the lesson.

While my reading list is mainly fiction, history, and philosophy, I do listen to a few self-helpy podcasts, including The Minimalists and The Art of Manliness. After both podcasts interviewed James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, I decided to do a goal-setting/ prioritizing lesson with my students on their first day back from winter break.

I started by asking my students why most New Years’ Resolutions fail. They came up with a great list, including lack of willpower, lack of support, bad environment, unrealistic goals, and waning enthusiasm. Then I helped them set monthly goals using a template that allowed them to break their monthly goal into four weekly milestones. We discussed James Clear’s contention that success is more about building good habits than having great willpower. They were with me so far.

Then I decided to make it more concrete, based on a story I remember hearing from another teacher. I brought in a big pitcher, a smaller canister, a bag of lentils, and six bouncy balls of varying size. At the beginning of the demonstration, I placed the lentils and bouncy balls in the pitcher, as shown below.

I asked a pair of student volunteers to attempt to transfer the contents of the pitcher into the smaller canister. Many students chuckled at this, clearly thinking it was impossible. In most of my classes, the first group tried to add a little lentils, then a bouncy ball, then more lentils, then another ball, and so on. They were able to fit four or five of the bouncy balls, but not the sixth. They certainly couldn’t close the lid.

I congratulated the first group on their effort and called up another pair of volunteers. This time I instructed them to fill the canister with lentils first and then see how many bouncy balls fit. The result: only three of the six.

Then I asked my students to predict what would happen if I put the balls in first before pouring in the beans. Many doubted it would work. To the amazement of some, I poured the lentils into the container of bouncy balls, shaking it ever so slightly to allow the beans to slip through the open spaces. It’s not often that high school students are impressed, but this was one of those times.

We then discussed what it all meant. The bouncy balls, I explained, were their priorities: school, family, career. The lentils were the little things – the Netflix shows that turned into all-day binges, the five minutes here or there scrolling through social media accounts that inevitably add up. They had to put the big things – their priorities – first in order to achieve their goals. To paraphrase this Laura Vanderkam TedTalk, “I don’t have time for X” is basically code for “X is not a priority for me right now.”

They got it. They liked it. I patted myself on the back for a good day-one lesson. But then I had to figure out some way to adapt it for my Sunday school students.

My biggest help came in the form of this excellent article by Haley Stewart in Public Discourse. In The Soul-Saving Grace of Christian Detachment, she writes:

If our pursuit of simplicity is not informed by the concept of Christian charity, focusing on mere minimalism will come up short… I can spend weeks decluttering my house, and it will certainly be more pleasant to inhabit our space with fewer items inside. But it will be an empty exercise if it is separated from the spiritual life and our obligations to God and our community. We all can and should take a look at how we view our possessions, but not simply so that our homes can be minimalist dreamlands. We should pursue detachment to “stuff” for a greater purpose: ordering our desires so that we can love God and other people.

To which I say, “Amen, sister!”

In a recent Minimalists podcast, a caller complained that he had followed the rules of minimalism but was still depressed and unhappy. The podcast hosts, Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, tried to explain to the caller that minimalism was not in itself the answer to everything. Of course it’s not. Because secular minimalism looks like this:

It’s an empty canister. Or maybe there’s one ball inside – the one devoted to “me.” That’s like a starving person having one bite of food; it’s not enough to satisfy you. It’s not enough to fill you up.

A Christian minimalist understands that the goal is more than just my individual fulfillment because “I” am more than just an isolated individual. I am a child of God and a member of a larger community, with real obligations to both.

We all need things to survive (food, shelter, clothing), but we can easily fall into the trap of greed and excess. We forget that things are only means to more important ends. We fall in love with our possessions. This can be bad, very bad. As the Minimalists say frequently on their podcast: “Love people and use things, because the opposite never works.”

This insight is not unique to religion in general, nor to Christianity in particular. Buddhism also discourages worldly attachments. Marie Kondo draws upon centuries of Shinto wisdom. But I would say that Christianity offers the best and most complete framework for implementing minimalist practices (though you would never know it by the way most American Christians live).

As a Christian, nothing should come before my faith – not my nationality, not my political ideology, not even my minimalism. But if minimalism is really about putting things in their proper order, then nothing could be more Christian. Consider these verses:

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal; for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. Matthew 6:19

But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. 1 Timothy 6:6–8

Then He said to them, “Take heed and beware of covetousness. For a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” Luke 12:15

We enter the world with nothing. We will all leave the world with nothing. In the meantime, we are to be grateful for what we have and eager to share it with others. Our priorities should be the eternal things – God, our souls, and the souls of others.

Some of the happiest people I know have big families with lots of children. Their houses are cluttered. Their lives are messy. But their treasure is in each other and in heaven, not in their possessions. They may not be living the minimalist dream, but they certainly seem to have their priorities straight.

Personally, I need a little help in ordering my life. This includes staying as clutter-free and tidy as possible. But I don’t judge the mother of eight whose kitchen table is a bit messy. I try not to judge in this sense at all, though I do pity those who let material possessions and the acquisition of status dictate their lives.

Failing to prioritize God and relationships is like eating a diet of only fast food. Your life might seem full, but it is ultimately empty of the things that matter — the nutrients you need to survive.

When I taught my Sunday school lesson, I reminded my students that faith and relationships should be the first bouncy balls in their containers, then their personal goals and ambitions. And really, who needs the lentils? The canister sure looks better without them (although it wouldn’t spell disaster to allow a few beans to trickle in). It is human nature to fear for one’s future security, and to seek refuge in the things we think we need. We should thank God for all He has provided, and trust that He will continue to do so in the future. We should remember to ask only for our daily bread, not a stockpile.

Beauty as a Gateway to Faith in Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited

Imagine two tourists standing in front of Chartres Cathedral in France. The first simply gapes in awe as everything clicks slowly into place: God, the Universe, his own life — microcosm and macrocosm. Transported by its resplendent beauty, his experience transcends human reason.

The second tourist mills about anxiously before pausing to take a selfie. “Nice old building,” he remarks, “but why do you think they had to go and put those funny crosses on top? Ruins the whole vibe.”

This is how I feel, having read Evelyn Waugh’s masterpiece Brideshead Revisited, in comparing my reaction with those of others. Each reader is either the first tourist or the second. Either you get it, or you don’t.

Even in his own time, Waugh’s novel (written in 1944) polarized the critics. It represented a departure from his typical comedic style and evinced his own recent conversion to Catholicism in 1931. If internet reviews, podcasts, and the recent 2008 film are any indication, many people still don’t get it.

Brideshead Revisited is not a homoerotic romance, or a drama about the declining fortunes of the British aristocracy a la Downton Abbey, though it contains aspects of both. It is not primarily about friendship or nostalgia or family, though all three figure prominently into the story. At its core, Brideshead Revisited is a novel about one family’s inability to escape religion, which both entices us with its beauty and frightens us with its demands. To view this novel through any other lens is, to a large extent, to miss the point.

The protagonist of the story is Charles Ryder, an intelligent though not particularly motivated young man of the English middle class. While in his freshman year at Oxford, Charles falls under the charming influence of Sebastian Flyte, a whimsical aristocrat who is everywhere accompanied by his teddy bear, Aloysius. After a drunken night of revelry brings them together (Sebastian vomits through Charles’ first floor window), Charles comes to know Sebastian and his wealthy, carefree friends, including the flamboyant Anthony Blanche.

Charles and Sebastian spend an enchanted summer together: lounging in fields, drinking expensive wine. Charles describes Sebastian as “magically beautiful, with that epicene quality which in extreme youth sings out for live and withers at the first cold wind.” While their relationship is undoubtedly romantic, Waugh’s writing leaves it unclear as to whether it ever becomes sexual. Many readers are certain it does. I think the text supports both readings, but it ultimately doesn’t matter much either way to the plot of the story or its themes. While Anthony Blanche and Sebastian are clearly homosexual, Charles is not. He is attracted to Sebastian’s beauty and intrigued by the prospect of a perpetual adolescence, which Sebastian (forever clinging to his trusty teddy bear) represents.

Observing that Sebastian has “completely captivated” Charles, Anthony Blanche – the great “aesthete par excellence” – warns him of Sebastian’s family:

“I forget if you know his family. Now there, my dear, is a subject for the poet – for the poet of the future who must be also a psychoanalyst – and perhaps a diabolist, too. I don’t suppose he’ll ever let you meet them. He’s far too clever. They’re all charming of course, and quite, quite gruesome. Do you ever feel there is something a teeny bit gruesome about Sebastian? No? Perhaps I imagine it; it’s simply that he looks so much like the rest of them, sometimes.”

Anthony describes Brideshead — Sebastian’s elder, much more serious brother — as “something archaic, out of a cave that’s been sealed for centuries… a learned bigot, a ceremonious barbarian, a snowbound lama,” with a face “as though an Aztec sculptor had attempted a portrait of Sebastian.” He labels Julia — Sebastian’s younger sister and spitting image — a “Renaissance tragedy” with “a face of flawless Florentine Quattrocento beauty.” However, he warns “she’s a fiend – a passionless, acquisitive, intriguing, ruthless killer… all she wants is power. There ought to be an Inquisition especially set up to burn her.”

But Anthony Blanche reserves most of his venom for Sebastian’s mother: the charismatic and pious matriarch, Lady Marchmain. Blanche criticizes her for refusing to grant Lord Marchmain a divorce; after the war, he ran away with a dancer and set up residence in Venice. Now she “keeps a small gang of enslaved and emaciated prisoners for her exclusive enjoyment… like wraiths following her around. They never escape once she’s had her teeth into them.”

Charles eventually does meet the Flyte family for himself. He finds them not quite the monsters of Blanche’s hyperbole, though very charming and intriguing. Sebastian watches in despair as Charles’ interest shifts inevitably from him to his family. This process of transference begins with their first visit to Brideshead Castle, the Flyte’s ornate family home in the English countryside. Brideshead awakens in Charles the longing for a different kind of beauty. He sketches its great fountain and begins painting its panels, inadvertently launching his own career as an artist.

The family watch in anxiety as Sebastian transforms from a fun-loving youth into a hopeless drunkard. It’s as if the estate and the family that inhabit it are driving him to despair. Lady Marchmain enlists everyone in the cause of saving Sebastian from himself, including Charles. After it is discovered that he lent Sebastian money to get drunk, Charles is sent away in disgrace. Sebastian exiles himself to the Middle East, where he predictably flounders. Charles tries to find Sebastian and bring him to his mother’s sickbed, but to no avail. Lady Marchmain dies.

Years pass. Charles goes on to become a moderately successful artist, specializing in architectural paintings. He travels through Latin America, painting ancient ruins and colorful vistas before returning to his loveless marriage and children he doesn’t care to see. On the crossing back to England, he meets Julia, who is just returning from an ill-fated affair in America to her equally hopeless marriage to Rex, an aspiring politician. Seeing her with fresh eyes, Charles is immediately transfixed. The two begin an affair that lasts a couple years, resulting in Charles’ divorce from his wife. Julia is about to divorce Rex to marry Charles when Lord Marchmain returns to Brideshead, himself on the verge of death. His deathbed conversion is the final straw that convinces Julia to end her relationship with Charles, who goes on to enlist in the army.

The entire story is recounted by Charles years later, as he finds himself once again at Brideshead, which has been transformed into a military barracks during World War II. Charles, once an avowed agnostic, is drawn to the stone chapel, where a little light still burns. There he evinces his own conversion, which is not so much a sudden transformation as the gradual acceptance of a beauty and a truth so great it can no longer be denied.

Many secular readers are left confused by Waugh’s tale. After starting off with such promise, why does Waugh feel the need to bring it all around to God? This frustration on the part of some readers perfectly mirrors Charles’ own frustration as the Flyte family manage to turn every conversation around to religion. Lady Marchmain makes no secret of her desire to convert him to Catholicism, an effort Charles resists. In the first part of the book, he describes his initial view of religion thus:

I had no religion… The view implicit in my education was that the basic narrative of Christianity had long been exposed as myth, and that opinion was now divided as to whether its ethical teachings was of present value, a division in which the main weight went against it; religion was a hobby which some people professed and others did not; at the best it was slightly ornamental, at the worst it was the province of “complexes” and “inhibitions” – catchwords of the decade – and of the intolerance, hypocrisy, and sheer stupidity attributed to it for centuries.

What an adept summary of our own age. Yet each character, and indeed the setting itself, symbolizes either some aspect of the Church or people’s reaction to it.

Most obviously, Brideshead (the estate) is a metaphor for the Catholic Church, which is known as the Bride of Christ. All four children are brought up in the Catholic faith, literally in Brideshead. The separation of Lord and Lady Marchmain is accompanied by his giving up the Catholic faith, signaled by his leaving Brideshead. And yet, at his deathbed he returns, as so many do.

Lady Marchmain is like an autocratic pope, or at times a representation of the Church itself. Anthony Blanche tells Charles that both Sebastian and his father hate Lady Marchmain in a manner very similar to way many hate the Catholic Church and its clerics. They hate the demands she places on them, revealing their inadequacies in meeting them. Like a well-meaning but overbearing cleric, Lady Marchmain enlists spies like the tutor Samgrass and conducts “little talks” to try and nudge people in the right direction. She never curses her children or warns them directly of the fires of hell that await their unrepentance; that is not the Catholic way. She merely reminds them of what they themselves know to be true but would rather forget. At one point, Sebastian even quotes St. Augustine’s prayer: “Lord make me holy, but not yet.” Just like Augustine’s mother, Lady Marchmain will not give up on her son. Yet she can be ruthless to those allies who disappoint her, such as Charles when he gives Sebastian drinking money; Lady Marchmain essentially excommunicates him from the estate for this transgression.

Each of the four children represent one reaction of people brought up in the faith to religion.

Brideshead (the heir), described as dull and monkish, represents the response of vocation to the religious life. However, his desire to become a priest is thwarted by the fact that as the eldest, he is expected to marry and produce heirs. Brideshead’s dilemma illustrates how family obligations can both encourage and interfere with religion.

Cordelia, the youngest and plainest of the bunch, has never wavered in her faith. She represents the call to humble service, having served as a wartime nurse and now a homely spinster. But even she confesses upon her mother’s death that she never really loved her. In Cordelia’s words, her mother was “saintly, but she wasn’t a saint. No one could really hate a saint, could they? They can’t really hate God either. When they want to hate Him and His saints they have to find something like themselves and pretend it’s God and hate that.”

Sebastian initially describes himself and Julia as semi-heathens. They have both rejected the Church in their lifestyle choices: Sebastian by refusing to grow up, Julia first by marrying Rex and then having affairs. Yet both find themselves drawn back to the faith, as though by an “invisible thread” that has only to be tugged to send them moving. Sebastian ends up as a sort of caretaker in a Tunisian monastery, while Julia rejects happiness with Charles in favor of loyalty to God and His commands.

Some readers find these conversions, along with Charles’ and Lord Marchmain’s, contrived or unrealistic. How could Waugh have ever accepted the Catholic faith after describing how it “destroyed” everyone in the Flyte family and ruined their happiness? Of course, Waugh knows it is not the Church but sin that destroys, and there is a greater calling than earthly happiness.

Rex (Julia’s husband) and Charles (Julia’s lover) represent two different reactions to those drawn into the world of the Church by their association with the Flyte family. Rex is a thoroughly modern man, embodying the ignorance of the age. He tries to make quick and easy compromises with the Church for the sake of convenience, as symbolized in his attempt to convert to Catholicism leading up to his marriage to Julia. He can not truly appreciate her beauty, nor can he understand her morals. He simply lacks imagination, and depth.

Charles is the modern man who, though he initially holds the Church and its teachings in contempt, has not yet lost his ability to appreciate beauty. This appreciation for beauty ultimately leads him somewhere he would have never expected: faith in God.

Throughout the novel, Charles never engages rationally with the claims of the Catholic Church, except to dismiss them as ludicrous. He even tries to keep the local priest from visiting Lord Marchmain at his deathbed. And yet simply being on the estate works a conversion within him, one that passes first through layers of beauty (Sebastian, the house, Julia) before arriving ultimately at God. Brideshead Revisited is indeed largely biographical of Evelyn Waugh, who describes the book as dealing with “the operation of grace” in people’s lives.

It is no coincidence that Charles becomes a painter of architecture, which he sees as being more real than the people who temporarily inhabit it. He claims to love “buildings that grew silently with the centuries, catching and keeping the best of each generation, while time curbed the artist’s pride and the Philistine’s vulgarity, and repaired the clumsiness of the dull workman.” In the final pages, Charles enters the chapel, observing:

The builders did not know the uses to which their work would descend; they made a new house with the stones of the old castle; year by year, generation after generation, they enriched and extended it; year by year the great harvest of timber in the park grew to ripeness… Something quite remote from anything the builders intended has come out of their work, and out of the fierce little human tragedy in which I played: a small red flame… the flame which the old knights saw from their tombs, which they saw put out; the flame burns again for other soldiers, far from home, farther, in heart, than Acre or Jerusalem. It could not have been lit but for the builders and the tragedians, and there I found it this morning, burning anew among the old stones.

This seems as good a description of the Catholic Church as one can find: an ancient and mysterious building – falling to pieces in places, yet still possessing great charm, nostalgia, and power. Despite its rising and falling fortunes, the Church has managed to keep alight the small red flame of truth that can survive even our post-modern age.

Bishop Robert Barron writes that Brideshead Revisited provides Christians with a model for evangelization through beauty. He observes that buildings like Chartres or paintings like those in the Sistine Chapel “work a sort of alchemy in the soul, and they awaken a desire to participate, to imitate, and finally to share.” He quotes Hans Urs von Balthasar’s claim that “the beautiful claims the viewer, changes him, and then sends him on mission.”

This is exactly the transformation we see in Charles Ryder in Brideshead Revisited. Puritans who would strip religious spaces of their brilliance – or forgo decoration as an unnecessary expense – should remember the value of Beauty as a window to Goodness and gateway to Truth. Agnostics or atheists who reject the claims of the Church would do well to stand for a few silent moments in its great cathedrals, to engage the sculpture of Michelangelo or the poetry of Dante. Perhaps, like Charles Ryder, they will find themselves moved by something they do not entirely understand. Like great art, Christianity is not something that can be simply reasoned; it has to be experienced, so that one might fall in love with it.

Trilobites

Ammonites and trilobites
embedded in this rocky frame
tell the story of a journey
from obscurity to fame.

As we step this mortal pathway,
knowing not which way to go,
birds still spiral up to heaven,
with the valley spread below.

Once a million creatures swimming,
then upon an ocean floor,
trilobites and ammonites
advance amongst us nevermore.

But within their black impressions,
pushed upon this mountain wall,
do their ripples, curves, and ridges
join them to us, one and all?

Within each cell, a signature
evincing power to quash the dark;
every insect, plant, and creature
bears within the maker’s mark.

Jesus, Socrates, and the Problem of Human Blindness

Our whole business in this Life is to restore to health the eye of the heart whereby God may be seen. – St. Augustine

SOCRATES: Imagine this: People live under the earth in a cavelike dwelling. Stretching a long way up toward the daylight is its entrance, toward which the entire cave is gathered. The people have been in this dwelling since childhood, shackled by the legs and neck… because they are shackled, they are unable to turn their heads around. A fire is behind them, and there is a wall between the fire and the prisoners. Some light, of course, is allowed them, namely from a fire that casts its glow toward them from behind them, being above and at some distance. Imagine that a low wall has been built the length of the walkway, like the low curtain that puppeteers put up, over which they show their puppets.
GLAUCON: This is an unusual picture that you are presenting here, and these are unusual prisoners.
SOCRATES: They are very much like us humans, I [Socrates] responded.
– From Book VII of Plato’s Republic

If it is possible for one story to perfectly describe the human condition and the central problem of our existence, Plato’s Allegory of the Cave does just this. The journey from darkness to the light is an obvious metaphor for man’s passage from ignorance to wisdom. But this process is not so straightforward as we might expect. If any one of us were to fall into a deep, black pit, we would surely struggle with all our might to make it back to the light of day. But what if we were born in the pit? What if we have grown up in a cave, and, knowing nothing else, lack the ability to recognize our own blindness? What if we have grown so comfortable in our dimly-lit surroundings that we resist all efforts to be freed from our chains?

If we are honest with ourselves, we all have blind spots. We all lack wisdom. But some of us are so ignorant as to fancy ourselves wise. What made Socrates the wisest man in Athens? This simple insight: “I know that I know nothing.”

In the book Sophie’s World, the philosopher describes three types of people: the rare Socrates aware of his own ignorance, the people who think they already know enough, and the people who simply don’t care to think about anything too deeply. If my newsfeed is any indication, most of us fall into the latter two groups. I certainly have spent a great deal of my life in the know-it-all camp, a genuine cave-dweller.

What do you do when confronted with evidence that contradicts a previously-held belief? Quite simply, you can either modify your belief, or ignore the offending evidence. And so I have attempted to adopt the latter course. I have witnessed enough hypocrisy and lived through enough disappointment to distrust the idea of quick fixes or black-and-white dichotomies.

I believe now more than ever in the need to apply the same strict standards of truthfulness to all claims, regardless of from which “side” they originate. When it comes to matters like taxes and gun control, we should avoid the knee-jerk reaction to defend our existing beliefs and actually consider what others have to say. We don’t have to accept or reject 100% of their position. Perhaps 20% of what they are saying is valid. So let’s agree with that 20%. And while we’re at it, maybe we can admit that we are only 80% sure that our own current position (whether it be stricter gun laws or lower corporate taxes) would yield the desired result. The truth is, no one knows the exact outcome of any proposed policy until it is implemented. We are all trying to do the same thing that weathermen do — predict future outcomes — but with much less scientific rigor and much more personal bias.

When it comes to politics and economics, a healthy dose of humility is warranted. But when it comes to the things that really matter — to how we are to live our lives — what do we do when we cannot trust our own sight? Consider this passage from Matthew’s Gospel:

Why do you observe the splinter in your brother’s eye and never notice the great log in your own? And how dare you say to your brother, “Let me take that splinter out of your eye,” when, look, there is a great log in your own? Hypocrite! Take the log out of your own eye first, and then you will see clearly enough to take the splinter out of your brother’s eye. Matthew 7:3-5

Jesus instructs us to examine our own vision before criticizing that of others. We cannot expect those still living in ignorance to understand, as this is like “casting pearls before swine.” We are to beware false prophets, the “wolves in sheep’s clothing.” Not by their appearances, but by their fruits are we to judge them.

Why does Jesus speak in parables? He answers:

The reason I talk to them in parables is that they look without seeing and listen without hearing or understanding. So in their case what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah is being fulfilled: Listen and listen, but never understand! Look and look, but never perceive! This people’s heart has grown coarse, their ears dulled, they have shut their eyes tight to avoid using their eyes to see, their ears to hear, their heart to understand, changing their ways and being healed by me.
But blessed are your eyes because they see, your ears because they hear! Matthew 13: 13-16

And what about the rich young man who wanted to follow Jesus? When he was told to sell his possessions and give the money to the poor, “he went away sad, for he was a man of great wealth.”

He was like the cave-dwellers who could not part with something of lesser value (material wealth) to gain something greater, though initially more difficult (the chance to be Jesus’ disciple and live with him forever in Heaven). Is this not the very definition of ignorance and blindness?

Jesus healed the blind and restored their sight. But as for the Pharisees, the “blind guides,” he declares:

You hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs that look handsome on the outside, but inside are full of the bones of the dead and every kind of corruption. In just the same way, from the outside you look upright, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness. Matthew 23: 27-28

The Jesus of Matthew’s Gospel is much like the Socrates of Plato’s writings; so much so that the atheist Friedrich Nietzsche famously dismissed Christianity as “Plato for the masses.” But one man was wise enough to reconcile the two traditions in a brilliant synthesis that has served as the foundation of Christianity ever since – St. Augustine.

In his Confessions, Augustine describes his own blindness as it persisted through young adulthood:

What profit was it to me that I, rascally slave of selfish ambitions that I was, read and understood by myself as many books as I could get concerning the so-called liberal arts?…I had turned my back to the light and my face to the things it illuminated, and so no light played upon my own face, or on the eyes that perceived them.

Augustine’s journey out of the cave was long and difficult, and only possible thanks to the constant prayer of his mother, St. Monica. But Augustine never dropped his admiration of Plato. Observe Plato’s influence in Augustine’s description of sin:

Sin is to a nature what blindness is to an eye. The blindness of an evil or defect which is a witness to the fact that the eye was created to see the light and, hence, the very lack of sight is the proof that the eye was meant… to be the one particularly capable of seeing the light. Were it not for this capacity, there would be no reason to think of blindness as a misforture.

Now consider these other famous quotes from St. Augustine:

It is no advantage to be near the light if the eyes are closed.

And I entered and beheld with the eye of my soul… the Light Unchangeable… He that knows the Truth, knows what that Light is; and he that knows It, knows Eternity.

I knew that most people never see this reality because they attach to the material aspect of the world. Illusions of self and other fill their vision. I also realized there are those with little dust limiting their vision.

Jesus and Plato and Augustine seem to be telling us the same thing — that our primary task is to stop viewing the world through the materialist lens and see things as God sees them, down to their true essence.

What happens when one has emerged from the cave long enough to see things as they actually are and discard his past misconceptions? Returning to Plato’s tale, he feels the obligation to return to the cave and free the poor souls still trapped there. But how is he received by those who have not yet gained their vision? Plato knows just what danger awaits this returned exile:

SOCRATES: Now if once again, along with those who had remained shackled there, the freed person had to engage in the business of asserting and maintaining opinions about the shadows… would he not then be exposed to ridicule down there? And would they not let him know that he had gone up but only in order to come back down into the cave with his eyes ruined — and thus it certainly does not pay to go up. And if they can get hold of this person who takes it in hand to free them from their chains and to lead them up, and if they could kill him, will they not actually kill him?
GLAUCON: They certainly will.

Of course, this is exactly what happened to Socrates himself, Plato’s beloved teacher, who was forced to drink hemlock for corrupting the youth of Athens. It is the same fate suffered by Jesus: condemned by the angry crowd, abandoned even by his closest followers; although His death was followed by the glory of the Resurrection.

What does all this say about us? We are so desperate to cling to our illusions that we are willing to condemn an innocent man to death. We like to think of ourselves as loyal Christians, but we are just like the Pharisees, just like the murderous cave-dwellers, just like the crowd that chanted “Crucify him!”

So how about we work on removing that log from our own eye, so that we might help our neighbor with his splinter?

God, grant us the humility to recognize our own blindness and the courage to venture out of this cave of ignorance into the light of your truth.

An Eager Hostess, Awaiting Spring

In Virginia, spring can feel
like a fickle friend,
whose arrival is always being delayed
for reasons you suspect are not
as urgent or inexorable
as her letters make them seem.

You forgive the aggravation,
thinking ahead, surely,
to the good times close at hand;
in your mind, she approaches — finally!
in a whirl of bohemian elegance,
dropping half-told stories and future plans
onto your expectant plate.
You let the crumbs and baggage fall
to the polished floorboards —
to be cleared away at some later date —
then rush off into the evening,
bright as the stars,
and full of promise.

Winter is that uninvited relative who
keeps circling back,
presuming upon your continued hospitality;
you offer it dutifully (if lacking in enthusiasm),
but your freeloading guest
seems not to mind, so long as he has
a captive audience
to hear his timeworn tales
as the minutes trickle by.

Finally, your patience wearing thin,
the guise of civility begins to drop:
you let your eyes wander
and a long, slow yawn escape your lips —
“My, how late the hour!”
“Is it really? I suppose…”
“I’ll get your hat…”
“If you insist…”
A little dance of elation as
you watch the front door close,
determined not to answer
should his knock come once again —
You have gone to bed!
But really dreaming, still, awaiting
your capricious, fickle friend.

The Poet at Sunrise

The poet emerges at sunrise:
alone, as always, and without plan;
when else can he perceive the way
the lark’s sudden departure sends
a crown of halos rippling toward the bank?
His words cast common objects
in an unfamiliar light,
finding sacredness in the profane
and humor even in darkness.
“Yes,” we say,
“it is just like that, isn’t it?
We humans are a funny lot,
and much the same.”

Daylight belongs to the merchants,
the farmers, the tradesmen:
practical men with calloused hands,
theirs is not a life of glamour, but
they keep the world humming along
in good time and good taste
(that is, until the politicians –
who rush forward in late afternoon –
insist to show them all a better way);
busy, busy, is the day –
too busy for an unhurried thought
or unsuspected flash of genius,
too bright its rays.

The philosopher emerges at twilight
to remind the world what it has lost.
“Now we long for the return
of what we once despised…”
His warning is spoken too late, but
he writes the epitaph of the epoch,
understanding in hindsight
what was happening all along.
“We thought ourselves too clever,
building castles out of sand…
Ah! Alack! And what remains?”

The artist appears in the moonlight,
untroubled by the fall of empires;
somehow he knows humanity will survive
this latest apocalypse.
The passing era has left at his disposal
more than enough fragments:
shards of marble and of clay
to be sifted through and studied
till he can fashion a new way:
“Bold! Revolutionary! Daring!” they exclaim,
as skepticism fades to praise.

The poet emerges at sunrise…

The Case against Capitalism (and Socialism)

When teaching my tenth-grade world history students about capitalism, socialism, and communism, I start by giving them a ten-question survey of their views. This includes questions like:

  1. Free trade between countries is: a. Good, because it leads to lower prices for consumers, b. Bad, because it leads to lower wages/ less jobs for workers in your country, or c. Bad, because it leads to the exploitation of the working class around the world
  2. To address economic inequality, we should: a. Give everyone the chance to rise into the middle class through education and hard work, b. Tax the rich to fund programs for the poor, or c. Redistribute land and property from the rich to the poor
  3. Which is the greatest danger to the people? a. Government tyranny infringing upon individual liberty, b. Wealthy elites exercising too much power over the government, or c. Systemic exploitation of the working class by the middle class

Almost no one ever chooses all A’s, B’s, or C’s. Even conservative students will occasionally select the socialist answer, and even liberal students will select the capitalist answer at times.

From there, I try to make the strongest case for each system using the words of Adam Smith and Karl Marx. Then, as a class we pick these arguments apart, identifying their strengths and weaknesses.

For example, Smith and other capitalists claim that allowing individuals to pursue their self-interest in a free market most often benefits society as a whole. This argument works in many cases. Smith is correct in his insistence that “it is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.” One can imagine a range of economic transactions where individuals freely pursuing their self-interest in a competitive market results in win-win scenarios.

However, there can be numerous “market failures,” cases in which businesses acting out of self-interest can harm society as a whole. The easiest example to illustrate this concept is pollution. A company might save money by dumping waste into a river rather than disposing of it more carefully. This is good for the company in the short-term, as it increases profits, but terrible for society in general and even the company in the long-run.

So what do we do? We make rules. We pass laws demanding that industrial waste be disposed of safely. Even the most libertarian of economists will not deny the need for such regulations. In fact, they are necessary for capitalism to function. Capitalism is not so much the natural state of human affairs, but rather owes its existence to the establishment of certain laws, going all the way back to the eighteenth century. Conservative thinkers often (rightly) decry government intervention in the economy, but capitalism cannot exist without a government capable of establishing and enforcing “the rules.” In order to have a basketball or football game, all participants must know the rules, and neutral referees (the government) must enforce them. The teams and individual players cannot be expected to police themselves.

Okay, so the pollution example is handled easily enough. But are there inherent contradictions built into the capitalist system, as Marx claims? Consider big corporations. Their obligation is to maximize profits for shareholders. They can do this in two main ways: either reducing production costs and/or increasing demand. But both strategies can have negative repercussions for society, even endangering the capitalism system itself. If businesses cut production costs too much (for example: automating production, hiring fewer workers, or shipping jobs overseas) then either unemployment increases or wages decrease. Either way, there is not enough demand left to maintain current production levels.

Businesses must therefore innovate or die. But each innovation creates a new problem, essentially kicking the can down the road. For example, you can pass laws encouraging consumers to take on debt (for example, the mortgage interest deduction). This allows them to consume more goods. But what happens when the credit bubble bursts? Answer: another crisis (2008), another short-term solution (bailouts, stimulus).

Efforts to drive up demand are similarly problematic, especially for companies that sell products detrimental to the public good. Big Pharma, Big Tobacco, and Big Fast Food companies can only increase demand by getting the public to consume more drugs, cigarettes, and burgers. Each of these outcomes is demonstrably harmful to society as a whole and the individuals who find themselves addicted to these “products.”

Now, a capitalist might say that consumers are free to choose broccoli over Big Macs, gym memberships over cigarettes, holistic treatments over opioids. But when we look around, we see that the allure of cheaper, more convenient alternatives is too tempting for most people to resist. Even conscientious moms balk at spending twice the amount on grass-fed beef or organic produce. In the case of cigarettes and opioids, addiction negates any claim of consumer choice.

America’s current opioid epidemic is the most insidious example of capitalism run amok. It started back in 1996, when Purdue Pharma began aggressively marketing a new opioid painkiller, OxyContin. This included a bonus system for pharmaceutical reps to increase sales. According to one article,

These efforts succeeded spectacularly… OxyContin prescriptions for non-cancer-related pain went from about 670,000 in 1997 to about 6.2 million by 2002… A small group of physicians, some receiving funding from drug firms… lobbied to have pain recognized as the ‘fifth vital sign’… In 2001, Purdue spent $200 million marketing Oxycontin… by 2002, sales topped the $1.5 billion mark. Between 1991 and 2013, the number of annual opioid prescriptions in the U.S. increased from 76 million to 207 million, with corresponding increases in the number of cases of addiction, overdose, and death… the Department of Justice took notice, and charged Purdue with misbranding the drug’s abuse potential. In 2007, Purdue pled guilty and paid over $600 million in fines.

From a purely economic perspective, Purdue did what they were tasked to do: they made profits for their owners and shareholders. It’s hard to imagine any fines outweighing the billions they have made as America’s largest legal drug dealer. Perhaps they told themselves they were doing good – just helping to ease the pain of those who were suffering. Perhaps the enormous sums of money streaming in helped them sleep at night.

In the last sixteen years, overdose deaths from opioids have risen fivefold. From 2000 to 2016, 600,000 Americans died of opioid overdoses. Today, an average of 115 Americans die each day from overdosing on heroin or prescription opioids. At just 5% of the world’s population, we consume 80% of its opioids.

Addressing Big Pharma’s role in the opioid crisis does not require dismantling the entire capitalist system. But we have to be willing to change the rules to avoid undesirable outcomes. Interestingly, The U.S. and New Zealand are the only countries that allow pharmaceutical companies to advertise drug claims directly to consumers. Banning DTC marketing would not be enough to solve the problem, but it would be one step in the right direction.

If you change the rules of the game, you change how the game is played. Think of how much the addition of the 3-point line has changed basketball; outside shooting is now essential to win games. Within a few years, shooters got so good that the line had to be moved back. Think how much differently soccer would be played if there was no off-sides call. What if baseball went to a five-strikes-and-you’re-out rule, or dropped it to two? Either way, players and teams would respond to the new rules to maximize their chances of success.

To recap: every modern economic system, including capitalism, needs a clear set of rules and a government capable of enforcing them. Altering the rules alters how the game is played. When coming up with the rules, we must put the good of human beings first and foremost in our minds, not abstract concepts – whether they come from the left or the right. Increased government regulation is not a magic wand we can wave over any problem to improve it, and neither is deregulation.

G.K. Chesterton describes the confusion over the “capitalist” and “socialist” labels. Though most would consider him a conservative, Chesterton refused to defend capitalism, which he defined as:

That economic condition in which there is a class of capitalists, roughly recognizable and relatively small, in whose possession so much of the capital is concentrated as to necessitate a very large majority of the citizens serving those capitalists for a wage. If capitalism means private property, I am capitalist. If capitalism means capital, everybody is capitalist. But if capitalism means this particular condition of capital, only paid out to the mass in the form of wages, then it does mean something, even if it ought to mean something else.

G.K. Chesterton and Hillaire Belloc proposed a third option, which they called “distributism.” This system, based largely on Catholic social teaching, seeks to distribute property more evenly than “pure” capitalism (which doesn’t really exist), but without relying on government ownership of the means of production; thus, it is not socialism either. Distributism is based on the Catholic concept of subsidiarity – the idea that a community of a higher order should not interfere in the workings of a community of a lower order. The nation should not try to do what the states can do; the states should not try to do what the localities can do; localities should not try to do what families can do.

Simply put, scale matters. Almost everyone prefers the idea of small businesses to big corporations. Why not restructure our laws to favor the former and impede the latter.

Take this famous exchange from the classic film It’s A Wonderful Life:

George Bailey: Now, hold on, Mr. Potter. You’re right when you say my father was no businessman. I know that. Why he ever started this cheap, penny-ante Building and Loan, I’ll never know. But neither you nor anyone else can say anything against his character, because his whole life was… why, in the 25 years since he and his brother, Uncle Billy, started this thing, he never once thought of himself. Isn’t that right, Uncle Billy? He didn’t save enough money to send Harry away to college, let alone me. But he did help a few people get out of your slums, Mr. Potter, and what’s wrong with that? …is it too much to have them work and pay and live and die in a couple of decent rooms and a bath? Anyway, my father didn’t think so. People were human beings to him. But to you, a warped, frustrated old man, they’re cattle. Well in my book, my father died a much richer man than you’ll ever be!

If we are to be “capitalists,” then let us be capitalists like George Bailey and not Mr. Potter.

How do we encourage the George Bailey’s of the world and keep the Mr. Potter’s at bay? Most of us would rather live in Bedford Falls than Pottersville. So why do we give our money to Mr. Potter? It will be hard to change the rules of the game to favor small businesses, as they cannot afford corporate lobbyists. In the meantime, we can consider the social effects of our daily economic decisions, choosing to spend our dollars supporting small businesses whose goals and business practices align with our values, even if it means spending a few extra dollars for daily items.

Joseph Peace summarizes disributism thus:

In practical terms, the following would all be distributist solutions to current problems: policies that establish a favourable climate for the establishment and subsequent thriving of small businesses; policies that discourage mergers, takeovers and monopolies; policies that allow for the break-up of monopolies or larger companies into smaller businesses; policies that encourage producers’ cooperatives; policies that privatize nationalized industries; policies that bring real political power closer to the family by decentralizing power from central government to local government, from big government to small government. All these are practical examples of applied distributism.

In my son’s 10-year-old boys’ basketball league, the rules are designed to give all players the chance to play and grow. For example, each player must play at least two full periods. If one team is up more than 10 points, they can no longer apply full-court pressure. Now, is this the equivalent of “socialist” basketball? Certainly not. The system still runs on competition. Coaches and players still have the freedom to decide what type of sets to run and shots to take.

It seems like the rules of the game are rigged to disproportionately benefit those who are already wealthy. This is not just a Bernie Sanders talking point. In fact, both Sanders and Trump – the two most popular candidates in the last election cycle – ran against capitalism (recall Trump’s attacks on free trade). The fact that the eight wealthiest people in the world have more money than the bottom half – that’s 3.5 billion men, women, and children – should give us all pause. Most voters – Sanders and Trump supporters alike – want to see the rules changed to create a more fair game. If a rec sports league can do it, why can’t we?

Instead of focusing on labels and ideologies, which often mean different things to different people, we should be focused on real-world solutions that put people – not profits, and not government – back at the center of economic life.

What Our Objections to God Say about Us

Most objections to Christianity, or to religion more broadly, are hardly unique. So, encountering this fairly typical description of six “paths to atheism” seems as good an opportunity as any to address them.

I’ve come to realize that our objections to God’s existence tell us more about ourselves than about Him. Most can be boiled down to three basic realities of our psychology and the human condition:

1. The limits of the human brain to fully comprehend the world,

2. The human inclination to doubt, and

3. The human inclination to sin.

First, the limits of the human brain. The author of this post, blogger Chad Becker, begins with the question of God’s infiniteness. He simply cannot wrap his mind around the idea that God has existed for all of time. It is so obvious as to be cliche. Thus, this is his first path to atheism.

But is it really easier for us to fathom a point in time at which there was no universe and no God? Either way, we cannot comprehend God’s nature in the same sense that we can comprehend the nature of an orange. The part can never grasp the whole, and we are most certainly but a part of the universe we inhabit. Even if my thumbnail possessed consciousness, along with a vague awareness that it was part of something bigger than itself, could my thumbnail ever fully comprehend the human body in all its intricate complexity? Certainly not. But it would make even less sense for my thumbnail to cling to the belief that it was all there was, denying the existence of the greater body.

Becker also admits to being unable to fathom heaven (point six). To which I would respond that neither can anyone else. But saying “I’ve never been to the center of the earth; I just can’t imagine what it would be like there,” is not to admit that the center of the earth does not exist.

Religion is not the only field to offer seemingly incomprehensible conclusions; just look at science. People struggled to accommodate themselves to Copernicus’ heliocentric theory, Newton’s physics, and Einstein’s theory of relativity. When we study the world from a scientific perspective, as from a religious perspective, there exists the same condition of knowing something without fully comprehending it. I know that time and space are relative, but my brain still struggles with what that means. I know that God is infinite, but I am likewise at a loss to articulate all the implications of this concept. Don’t even ask for a precise explanation of the trinity. Likewise, even the best, most brilliant scientists struggle to explain the origins of human life or the exact nature of matter. We are time and again forced to admit that there is much we do not know. Thus, Christianity has always acknowledged the existence of mystery. The fact that we cannot comprehend something does not make it untrue.

Secondly, doubt. It is in many ways a mark of intelligence and maturity to be willing to doubt what one has been taught, especially when one encounters different teachings. The alternative would be to refuse to consider opposing views, insisting that one already possesses all the answers and therefore everyone else must be wrong.

So what are we to make of all the religious diversity we encounter? Becker admits this to be the true source of his doubt (point two). He realizes that if he were born into a Mormon family, he would likely be a Mormon. If he had been born in India, he would likely be a Hindu. Religion, then, is just each unique culture claiming an unfounded monopoly on truth. So what if Christians have a book they use to justify their claims? Islam has a book. Mormonism has a book. In Becker’s words, “Nothing distinguishes one religion’s claims as more valid on an evidence based level.”

While this is certainly a common objection in the modern, globalized age, it is not too difficult to dispense with. One can start by pointing to all the similarities between the world’s great religions. Doesn’t the fact that certain teachings crop up in Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Islam, and Taoism support their validity? Take, for instance, the obligation to care for the weak and needy, the understanding of man as a basically flawed being, the need to cultivate virtue, and the possibility of life after death.

In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis observes:

If anyone will take the trouble to compare the moral teaching of, say, the ancient Egyptians, Babylonians, Hindus, Chinese, Greeks, and Romans, what will really strike him will be how very like they are to each other and to our own… Think of a country where people were admired for running away in battle, or where a man felt proud of doublecrossing all the people who had been kindest to him. You might just as well try to imagine a country where two and two make five.”

The commonality of many belief systems from around the world supports natural law theory — the idea that we can use reason, common sense, and experience to arrive at a set of universal moral norms. Any child who has every screamed “That’s not fair!” has appealed to the idea of a universal code of human behavior that all should be able to recognize (though all don’t always follow). It is as if a moral code had been inscribed upon our hearts, a “conscience” if you will. If there is a universal, natural law (beyond mere human laws, which will vary), then there must be a universal law-giver, and this we know as God.

And yet while the world’s diverse cultures have long subscribed to a set of strikingly similar norms of behavior, they are not all the same, and they are not equal. In Hinduism, widows were once burned to death. Various cultures have practiced some form of human sacrifice. Around the world today, there are certain cultures that continue to victimize women and children. The Gospel of Matthew instructs “by their fruits you shall know them.” It is no coincidence that the very idea of human rights and women’s rights first emerged in a Christian context. Christians were the first to oppose infanticide, establishing the first orphanages to care for unwanted children. While some have perverted scripture to attempt to justify slavery, as Becker notes, Christians were also the first to abolish slavery entirely on the grounds that it was in fact anti-Christian.

While similar to other religions in its basis in natural law, Christianity is also unique. It is the only religion to claim to have been founded by God Himself. Muhammad is to Muslim’s but a prophet; Buddha and Confucius were to their followers but wise teachers. Yet Christians believe that Jesus was and is God, the Word made Flesh. No other religion has anything like the Incarnation or the Resurrection. No other religion can provide as firm a foundation for human rights. By becoming human Himself, God endowed humanity with a unique dignity and worth. This fact should be enough to make us pause and consider Christianity as more than just one of many moral systems from which to choose.

People often criticize Christians for trying to convert people of other faiths, as if such an action was based in a negative judgment of their existing faith. But imagine we are all in a river (life), headed for a great waterfall (death). The end seems inevitable, except there is a narrow stream – partially obscured by branches – leading off to the safety of land. Would we criticize someone for venturing out into the raging waters to help others reach the stream of salvation? Or would we more criticize the one who contents himself with his own salvation, letting others choose their own way though knowing it leads to ruin? The latter course is “tolerant,” the former loving.

Becker’s fourth and fifth paths to atheism stem from a complete misunderstanding of the nature of the Bible, which is not one book but a library of seventy-two books, varying greatly in their authors, contexts, and purposes, collected and compiled over the centuries. A mass of writing such as this cannot be expected to be fully understood without a great deal of careful study. If one is intent to cherry-pick verses, it can be easily misread and misunderstood. (This is why the Catholic Church has always pointed to the need for authority in interpreting scripture, and why Luther’s Reformation wrought so many conflicting interpretations.)

However, it is impossible to consider the Bible as a whole and miss the essential message of God’s love for humanity and the importance of compassion and repentance. In his effort to instruct humanity, God did not begin by unloading the entire truth in one sitting, just as we would not begin instructing a child in Shakespeare and Einstein. We would first prepare a foundation, instilling basic concepts of reading, writing, and arithmetic. A child passes through many teachers in his life to prepare him to for his ultimate career, just as God sent many prophets to prepare the way for His Son. In the Gospel, Jesus clearly states that he is establishing a new covenant, not to replace God’s covenant with Abraham, but to complete and perfect it.

The third human obstacle to understanding God is a big one – sin. Beginning with Adam and Eve in the garden, the very first sin sprang from doubts about God’s ultimate goodness (the idea that He might be selfishly hoarding wisdom) and the desire to be like Him: to possess knowledge of good and evil. At the root of all sin is rebellion against God; specifically the desire to replace His judgment with our own. Returning to natural law, C.S. Lewis states:

These, then, are the two points I want to make. First, that human beings, all over the earth, have this curious desire that they should behave in a certain way, and cannot really get rid of it. Secondly, that they do not in fact behave in that way. They know the Law of Nature; they break it.

A consequence of human sinfulness is that we live in a pretty messed-up world, a world where even professing Christians do terrible things – not because they are Christian, but because they are human beings, and therefore fallen. The schoolyard bully knows full-well that it is wrong to pick on the weaker kids. He does so anyway. But we humans are also masters of self-delusion. Often at the earliest sensation that what we want to do is wrong, we come up with elaborate justifications, even telling ourselves that it is all for the best.

In Becker’s third point, he criticizes Christians as narcissistic for attributing all the good in their lives to God, as if God cared more about them scoring an “A” on that test or landing a new promotion than the welfare of the millions of people in the world left to suffer. Certainly Christians are not immune from the very human vices of narcissism and vanity. All that is good in our lives does ultimately trace back to God, but what the world calls good is not what God calls good. For example, most people long for riches and would thus celebrate an increase in their personal fortunes. But from the perspective of one’s soul, riches may impede the path to heaven and eternal life; thus they can be bad. As Christians, we should perhaps begin to thank God more for the challenges and obstacles in our lives, especially those that provide opportunities for spiritual growth, and get rid of this notion that God just wants us to be happy and comfortable.

All this talk of sin makes atheists like Becker especially uncomfortable, as it leads to the most abhorrent of states – guilt. This is no surprise, as the creed of postmodernism may as well be “always feel good about yourself, no matter what!” How terrible to sense that one may not be as good as one would like to believe! How awful to imagine that one’s sexual desires should sometimes (as in the case of homosexuality and adultery) be suppressed and not indulged! How can man ever be truly happy if he is always obsessed with following rules?!

To Becker, there should really only be one rule – “just be a nice person.” In this very popular line of thinking, we should stop preaching our “thou shalt not’s” and just leave people alone for goodness’-sake. Remove the warning lights and the guardrails. Because the last thing we would ever want is to make someone feel like they are not “just fine the way they are,” like they have the potential to be so much more, like this life is not the end. Becker finds the very concept “gross,” and he is glad to be free of it. But returning to the analogy of the waterfall, is it “nice” to watch as people float by towards the waterfall, oblivious to the impending disaster? Or is it at best moral laziness and cowardice? The path of repentance is uncomfortable to be sure, but the path of sin does not lead to happiness, in this life or the next.

Clocks

As morning light declares the sun’s slow climb —
how now, my dear, will we mark the time?
An hour in your arms alone can be
an eternity that passes, too quickly…

No watch, however cleverly composed, can show
the weight I feel as I watch you go;
nor hourglass, with sinking sands insist
that I depart, or you resist…

Don’t circle me with clocks! their lulling lies —
and I will read my future in your eyes;
don’t speak of evening, or of afternoon;
these pained promises never come too soon…

Just stay with me, and claim our meeting’s powers
to overthrow the tyranny of hours.