Mouth to Mouth (Report from the War on Xmas)

It is the unilluminated ignorance of those who seek and find offense, and retaliate against the Warriors for Christmas, rarely the content of that retaliation, that indicts the latter as bad missionaries, “blind mouths” of an old type.

They forget and betray their self-assigned objectives in their pre-emptive hostility, like many other would-be “Tyrants of the Kingdom of Heaven,”1, but to say so says nothing for their opponents. Among the latter, Dan Savage dependably offers an exaggeratedly foul and willfully uncomprehending version of self-righteousness. In his review of Sarah Palin’s Christmas book, the result is, predictably, a descent into inane counter-inanity.

In a culminating passage, Savage quotes Palin’s criticism of “secular” holidays. Writes Palin (or her ghost-writer):

The other vision is a secular winter festival, which launches on Black Friday and ends sometime after Kwanzaa. People who hold Christmas in contempt believe the holiday can be ‘saved’ from its religious heritage. The secular vision wants the ‘peace’ and the ‘goodwill toward men’ without the miracle of the Virgin Birth—forgetting, of course, that there is no ultimate peace apart from Christ, and it is Christ who empowers every act of ‘goodwill toward men’ in our otherwise fallen hearts.

After informing us that he “just threw Sarah Palin’s book across the room” – just after writing the above sentences down, we must presume – Savage proceeds to two arguments.

First, he claims that neither he nor his friends have any “contempt” for Christmas. He even has “a crèche for the baby Jesus,” though he also has “strings of lights for the Roman god Saturn.” He asserts that he and his friends “honor Christmas’s religious heritage—[both] the Christian and non-Christian bits.” In his second argument he demonstrates that honor, for him, does not include much apparent interest in understanding what he is honoring – inevitably raising questions about the value or meaning of the gesture. He interprets Palin’s statements about “ultimate peace” and “empower[ment]” of “every act of ‘goodwill toward men’ in our otherwise fallen hearts” as follows:

You read it here first: No Jew—or Muslim or Hindu or Buddhist or atheist—ever performed a kind, loving, or selfless act. Or if a Jew ever did such a thing, that Jew was “empowered” to do so by Christ. Unwittingly inspired. And no human being ever performed a kind, loving, or selfless act before Christ was born.

The two-sided spectacle, taken in its entirety, is of the exclusionary expression by Palin of an all-inclusive belief, and its reception by Savage according to the expression, in other words the pre-emptive rejection of a never-comprehended belief prompted by ardent or possibly distorted testimony offered on its behalf: “The violence of [the] claim takes revenge upon it.” Yet Savage displays and encourages no interest in getting beyond the mode of expression to that which might be worthy of expression. He happily plays along, one blind mouth to another.

I suspect that at some level Savage understands or understood why a Christian cannot help but see Jesus Christ in any “kind, loving, or selfless act,” and why his own statements on “no Jew… or Muslim or Hindu” and so on are so perfectly backward. He may have at some point come to consider a misapplication of the doctrine as effectively the same as the doctrine, or as a necessary result of its dissemination. An alternative is to take the religious or theological questions seriously, or at least to begin to approach them on their own level. To do so will, of course, tend to deprive the polemicist of an easy target.

In regard to Palin’s statement and Savage’s response, we can note that to believe what believing Christians believe, or what believing Christians of a certain type however well or not very well represented by Governor Palin believe, about “Jesus Christ” – in brief, that an historical individual was and, resurrected, can and must be said to be “Lord,” incarnation and being of the loving and incomparable god of the all – would mean to believe that he or He is or embodies or also embodies or embodied an infinite, time-transcendent, and all-encompassing being; or that, as some might say, all plural and inherently lesser beings are “in” him as he he is “in” all beings. Taking this religious discourse as a discourse – an act which always entails the risk of seeming to reduce belief to mere discourse – the proper name “Jesus Christ” becomes or is revealed to be a signifier for the essence of every “kind, loving, or selfless act,” of every possibility and actuality of the truly good, including all events, to use a word that implies the perspective of merely historical time, that occurred “before Christ was born.”

This truth would be a truth regardless of the nominal religion of the particular individual associated with the particular act. This being like no other named or also-named or necessarily named “Jesus Christ,” as universal essence of anything possibly and actually good, can be said to have been, if not the true actor in every such act, then at or comprising its origin, in or entirely its substance, and also at or comprising its destination. The Christian concept, or an aspect of it, is expressed in Catholic doctrine as the “corpus Christi mysticum,” the mystical body of Christ, whose purpose eventually includes us all, regardless of state or statement of belief, or national origin, or date of birth or death, or exposure to and acceptance of the Gospels.

The full implications of such belief will always escape those who propound its doctrine as well as those who reject it, and this universality of such escape or failure, this certainty of having been less or worse than one might have been (or so one must believe), is addressed as another such implication of such belief, centrally within the belief system itself – not merely by tenet and emblematic narrative moment, in prophecy and in realization of prophecy, but as observation of necessity – very much as ever and over again, from Palin to Savage to me to you, and in relation to its overcoming, the last announced to us as Xmas.

Notes:

  1. “The zealot, the sectarian, in short all tyrants of the Kingdom of heaven, instead of accelerating the coming of the Kingdom, sooner delay it…” Franz Rosenzweig, The Star of Redemption, tr. Barbara E Galli, p. 289 []

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12 comments on “Mouth to Mouth (Report from the War on Xmas)

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  1. Well I give as much attention to Dan Savage, as I do to the Westboro Baptists, he does illustrate exactly the type she points out in the book, the litigious McScrooge’s of the world, if such an innocuous sentiment can cause him to go ‘Scanners’ there is no bridging the divide.

    • Not a fan of Savage, I think I’ve made it clear, but surely there’s a better comparison than the Westboros. Maybe Erick Erickson – well-known, but not a celebrity, similar distribution of rational, tiresomely ideological, and self-consciously provocative.

  2. And they might be ‘merely words’ but so were the sentiments expressed in Salon and the Huffington, re an opinion about a referendum, that cause her church to be set ablaze,

  3. No actually it doesn’t, John 3:16 either means something or it doesn’t, we’ve been operating in the last 50 years as if it doesn’t, apres les deluge,

    • Weak, indeed. It doesn’t work unless you can demonstrate, as seems unlikely, that prayer in schools is the sine qua non of John 3:16 Christianity – as if believing in Jesus Christ as the Son of God absolutely requires prayer in schools, or not favoring prayer in schools is some kind of denial of John 3:16. Reasonable, or faithful, minds might disagree. However, I think we can certainly recognize that Engel is one piece of evidence among many that the expansion of the political-administrative state on the national level in the 20th Century was accompanied by a more encompassing negation of religious expression. If we conceive of secularism or church-state separation as requiring the negation of religious expression within the state, and if we conceive of the nation state as implicated in and therefore responsible for expressions within all of its appendages including the public schools, in other words if the local public school is bound to the nation-state (or, as some have proposed perhaps more accurately, the “state-nation”), then the negation adopted on the national level becomes obligatory on the state and local level as well. If the kids are pledging allegiance to the flag of a secular state, then that allegiance displaces the religious allegiance, or, as I have often argued, it occupies the place of a religious allegiance under a different name. The alternatives would be to re-define the requirements of secularism or to re-define the state, but realization of either or both aims would be a complex operation, and bring different elements of the conservative movement especially into conflict with each other.

  4. I don’t think the Catholic doctrine of the MBoC includes all people, but rather is a description of the Church itself. In a sense, the Redemption of Mankind was incomplete and requires the ongoing work of the Church to complete.

    It was possible for Him of Himself to impart these graces to mankind directly; but He willed to do so only through a visible Church made up of men, so that through her all might cooperate with Him in dispensing the graces of Redemption. As the Word of God willed to make use of our nature, when in excruciating agony He would redeem mankind, so in the same way throughout the centuries He makes use of the Church that the work begun might endure. Mystici Corpus Christi (12)

    There is in all this a sense I think of a way of being that is neither just contingent (therefore making God unnecessary), nor in complete mystical union with God, (therefore eliminating the distinction between Man and God).

    While the Church’s “paternal love” embraces all of Mankind, the MBoC is the Church itself, in both its contingent and mystical modes.

    • Voegelin, interpreting Aquinas, would, in my reading, differ – or maybe it’s a matter of perspective. He specifically and very strongly faulted the Catholic Church of his time for accepting a relatively narrow and defensive version of the doctrine, as though the Church really is responsible only or primarily for Catholics, or the German Catholic Church for German Catholics, etc., and can afford to ignore the fate of others – meaning, in fact, that it could eventually become complicit in the Nazi crimes, including by offering justification for complicity in crimes against “humanity” as long as the particular victims were not Catholics as Catholics, or not German Catholics. In the more universalist and “catholic” view, the “Church” aims to encompass all humankind on behalf of all humankind, though the Church itself will be made up of less than the entirety, by the same definition. Or, Christ died for all of us, whether or not we profess to be Christians. So in a material sense, the Church encompasses less than the whole, but in a “mystical” sense, it already encompasses the whole in principle and without exception, just as God would be in truth the God of all, whether or not recognized by those outside the Church.

      • I think the “paternal love” idea is the expression of the universalist impulse, constrained though by the temporal and incomplete nature of Redemption. So the doctrine is a call for evangelical activity to extend the reality of Redemption to all.

        In this sense, Voegelin’s argument is a bit of reductio. In practice, growing up Catholic, it seems entirely called for.

        This aspect of evangelical activity was pretty much completely absent from the popular discussion of Pope Francis’ recent remarks, even though this view is the backbone of his call for social justice. It is this activity that I think is thought to bridge the gap between the presently excluded and the potentially Redeemed. Little comfort for those left out because f the time and place of birth.

    • Still, might be worth amending the argument to observe the distinctions in play more carefully – though even if we accepted the narrower definition, the doctrine still reflects an aspect of the larger idea of God as the god of all and the one and only god, so universal, transcending borders and time, meaning that the essence of love is a godly essence, expressed for Christians as of Christ, wherever it authentically arises. There may be some Christians who interpret the notion in the exclusionary mode that Savage attributes to all Christians, but it’s not a necessary interpretation nor how I believe it’s intended. There does often appear, however, to be a point at which one either would have to accept the idealization and de-literalization of belief (anismism) or accept some version of “essentially-better-to-be-a-Christian-than-not.” I think there is more to it than any simple or generalized binary, but the complexities tend to look esoteric, don’t feed the “hungry sheep.”

  5. The message is meant to be for one and all, would I debate Siddharta Gautama, no of course not, Arguing about some of Mohammed’s preaching, is a very dangerous endeavour as persons from Rushdie to Mahfouz’s translater, have discovered, so it’s open season on Christianity.

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