1. First up, the Angelic Doctor. Aquinas’s body of work has always been daunting to me, but I’d never realized just how prolific he was–an average of 4,000 words a day, by one reckoning. And one of the great unsung heroes of theology was his poor scribe Reginald, who faithfully took dictation almost continuously–imagine trying to scrawl out hundreds of words on the back of a donkey, traveling some unkempt road in thirteenth-century Europe, while your era’s leading theologian painstakingly uses Aristotelian metaphysics and encyclopedic scriptural knowledge to deduce the approximate size and weight of an angel. That’s how I imagine it, at least.
Aquinas, too, may have found this pace daunting, or at least suffered under it, suggests Jonathan Malesic at Commonweal. He starts with perhaps the most celebrated moment of Aquinas’s life, when he has a mystical experience of God and stops writing altogether, telling Reginald that all he’s written seems like “straw.” It’s a classic story of the ultimate, fundamental, and extreme inadequacy of even the best of our theology. But when Thomas continued his silence, Malesic speculates that something extra is going on–a possible case of what today we call burnout. Part of the problem, if it was a problem for Aquinas, is how empathy-intensive his style of theology (at least in the Summa) was:
Response is at the center of Aquinas’s work. The disputed question, which was his mode of classroom teaching and the format of the Summa Theologiae, is built on responding to others’ ideas. There are thousands of “articles,” or points of controversy, in the Summa. In each of them, Aquinas poses a question, entertains several proposed (wrong) answers, gives his (correct) answer, and then responds critically to each of the wrong answers.
It is sound pedagogy, but I cannot think of a more exhausting way to teach. There is a good reason why our image of the burned-out professor is someone lecturing from yellowed notes. That pedagogy demands the least response, the least investment of oneself in another’s performance, and the greatest sense of control and efficacy: I made my points, so it must have been a good class.
It’s an interesting case to make for Aquinas, but I actually liked the article’s more general observations on burnout:
Limiting your responsiveness—in [psychologist Christina] Maslach’s terms, cynically “depersonalizing” others—is a means to cope with the limitlessness of human need. Even if your job is not a Sisyphean battle against ignorance or illness, then you may have a manager who wants to see “continuous improvement” in performance metrics. If you internalize the norms of the productivity regime but do not have people, rules, or systems that keep your work within reasonable bounds, then in comparison with the ideal, it will always seem [weak].
Perhaps a bit too immanentized for my taste re Aquinas, but it gets to a core difficulty with ministry. To be effective requires extreme empathy and responsiveness, but the pastor faces so many emotional and relational demands that it is almost impossible not to limit oneself. Even for preaching, I’ve heard it said that good sermon is the art of having a public nervous breakdown every Sunday; that is, the preacher’s sermon cannot be convincing unless it is coming from a place of subjective engagement, of experience. At least that’s what most of my favorite pastors say. Week after week, it’s a tall order–and that’s to say nothing of pastoral care. High-responsiveness jobs often lead to burnout or depersonalization, and perhaps high-reponsiveness theology can create something like that, too. (This is presumably one reason why the otherwise brilliant Karl Barth never seemed at much risk for that.)
2. At Reason, Jonathan Haidt wrote a nice piece trying to draw a connection between our coddling of children and university students’ newfound need for coddling:
In Waynesboro, Georgia, “trick or treaters” must be 12 or younger; they must be in a costume; and they must be accompanied by an adult at least 21 years of age. So if you have kids who are 15, 10, and 8, you can’t send them out together. The 15-year-old is not allowed to dress up, yet she won’t be considered old enough to supervise her siblings for another six years. And this is on the one night of the entire year we traditionally let children pretend to be adults.
Other schools and community centers now send letters home asking parents not to let their children wear scary costumes. Some even organize “trunk or treats”—cars parked in a circle, trunks open and filled with candy, thus saving the kids from having to walk around the neighborhood or knock on doors. (That would be tiring and terrifying.) If this is childhood, is it any wonder college kids also expect to be micromanaged on Halloween?
At Yale in 2015, after 13 college administrators signed a letter outlining appropriate vs. inappropriate costume choices for students, the childhood development expert and campus lecturer Erika Christakis suggested that it would be better to allow kids to think for themselves. After all, Halloween is supposed to be about pushing boundaries. “Is there no room anymore for a child or young person to be a little obnoxious…or, yes, offensive?” she wrote. “Have we lost faith in young people’s capacity—your capacity—to ignore or reject things that trouble you?”
Apparently, yes. Angry students mobbed her husband, the professor Nicholas Christakis, surrounding him in the courtyard of the residential college where he served as master. They screamed obscenities and demanded he apologize for believing, along with his wife, that college students are in fact capable of handling offensive costumes on Halloween. “Be quiet!” a student shouted at him at one point. “As master, it is your job to create a place of comfort and home for the students!” She did not take kindly to his response that, to the contrary, he sees it as his job to create a space where students can grow intellectually.
As it turns out, Halloween is the perfect Petri dish for observing what we have done to childhood. We didn’t think anything was safe enough for young people. And now we are witnessing the results.
To backpedal a second, it’s a very apt Petri dish, indeed. Halloween is the sort of spiritual successor to the medieval Carnival. I didn’t want to pore back through my copy of Charles Taylor, but this is a good summary of his view of Carnival, where profanity, revelry, irreverence, taboo-breaking, and chaos were given one day a year to reign in medieval communities:
Taylor describes the enchanted world of medieval Catholicism as embodying an equilibrium based on a hierarchical complementarity which encoded a marked division between spiritual and temporal sections of society. Likewise life was lived within the ebb and flow of higher and ordinary times, punctuated by the riot of carnival, with religious commitment preserved through continual focussing and dissipation. Disrupting this equilibrium and disturbing the enchanted view of self and society was the movement of Reform [a term Taylor coins to describe social and theological movements of the time], which had its roots in the early centuries of the Church but accelerated markedly in the late medieval period. Reformers, both Catholic and Protestant, sought to remake the whole of society after the pattern of the higher, spiritual vocations.
The idea is that with Reform, there is only one “speed” of life, one right way to do things, and everyone must “level up” spiritually to get there. On this view, Carnival no longer makes sense; rather, there is one right mode of living for all people, in all places, and at all times. So whereas medieval society, at least at the village level, found ways to incorporate what was threatening, what was other, and what negated the moral foundations of society in that one day, later Christian Europe would banish it, repress it. Savonarola, for instance, notoriously held the first alternative Christian event (Friday night root-beer pong, anyone?) in history, as far as I know, when he spent 1495’s Carnival hosting a bonfire–into which pagan books and sensuous art were thrown.
I’d be tempted to speculate we’re living in a new intensification of Reform, but Haidt is right to talk about this as a generational problem: most of the Reform here is instigated by kids aged 18-24. I’m not totally sure if I buy his causal narrative–I think college-student fragility is more a product of growing up with the new media (prolific ‘Net, smartphones, social media), since our generation has gotten used to “filter bubbles”–to only hearing precisely what we wish to. Maybe we’ve always been averse to unpleasantness, but with cell phones, after-school programs, etc, parents have more means to effectuate that aversion than before. Although if Mr. Haidt ever watches Season 2 of Stranger Things, he’d perhaps be more sympathetic to Waynesboro.
3. On the Christmas front, Fr. Stephen Freeman contributes a wonderful Advent reflection on smallness:
Children today are raised with dreams of greatness. Cultural affirmations of our limitless potential, well-intentioned, have not produced a generation of over-achievers, but have indeed brought forth hordes of great dreams. This is nothing new in American culture. We are the world’s longest sustained pep-talk. Ronald Reagan loved to quote the 1945 Johnny Mercer hit:
You’ve got to accentuate the positive
Eliminate the negative
Latch on to the affirmative
Don’t mess with Mister In-Between
We sing the songs of progress in the gospel of an ever-improving world. Today, this is the purpose that motivates almost every undertaking, both public and private. However, the cult of progress is the repudiation of grace.
He describes the modern idea of progress, tracing its origins back to what Taylor would’ve called later-period “Reform”:
“Progress,” as a word with its present meaning, only goes back to the 19th century. It describes a sort of eschatology, the Christian doctrine of the end of all things. . . . The 19th century notion, however, was that the Kingdom was something given to humanity to build. Guided by the blueprint of justice described in the Scriptures, it was for us to bring forth the Kingdom in this world . . .
This initially Christian belief has long since shed its outward religious trappings and assumed the shape of modern secularism. However, we should not underestimate the religious nature of modernity. No religion has ever felt more certain of its correctness nor its applicability for all people everywhere and at all times than the adherents and practitioners of modern progress. . . . [ed. note: for more on this, look no further than John Gray.]
There are habits of the heart worth pondering in this context. The train of thought geared towards progress and the greatness of our achievements is rooted in discursive reasoning’s efforts to judge, weigh, measure and compare. It becomes a habit that blinds us to many things. Of note, the faculty that judges, weighs, measures and compares is not the same faculty that sees beauty. It is the faculty of utility, made for tools. . . .
The commandments of Christ always point towards the particular and the small. It is not that the aggregate, the “larger picture,” has no standing, but that we do not live in the “larger picture.” That picture is the product of modern practices of surveys, measurements, forecasts and statistics. The assumptions behind that practice are not those of the Christian faith. They offer (or pretend to offer) a “God’s eye-view” of the world and suggest that we can manage the world towards a desired end. . . .
The drive of God Himself, however, is towards the small and the particular, the “insignificant” and the forgotten. In the incarnate work of Christ, God enters our world in weakness and in a constant action of self-emptying. He identifies people by name and engages them as persons.
The contrast there isn’t just social, but material. Television and especially the Internet have magnified all of our abilities to be engaged in “the national debate” on X and made it easier to channel our caring into abstract and depersonalized means. Christmas reminds us of God’s orientation toward the personal, the particular, and the power of seemingly insignificant gestures of love to avulsively re-calibrate history.
4. In humor, McSweeney’s takes a different angle on Christmas in “Earnest Hemingway’s ‘Gifts Like White Elephants“–great fodder for the lit nerds out there. BabylonBee had a couple of hits, below, on its “Top Ten Books of 2017.”
9.) The Eggs Benedict Option — Rod Dreher: How should a Christian engage the world? With an egg attractively served atop an English muffin and slice of ham, of course. In one of the most stimulating reads of the year, Dreher calls on believers to retreat to their kitchens in order to prepare the classic American breakfast dish while pondering what in the world we might do about this post-protein and post-Christian debacle we find ourselves in.
6.) Under an Amish Blood Moon — John Hagee and Beverly Lewis: When two electrifying authors like Hagee and Lewis team up, the result can’t be anything but spectacular. A thrilling tale of impending premillennial doom is the backdrop for a love story between unassuming Amish boy Eli and his forbidden love Sarah.
Strays: A couple other stories of interest: The Guardian recaps some of the recent news about former social-media executives repenting of their creations. Apparently, many of them try pretty hard to keep their kids away from it. In music, The Living Church published a piece on Bob Dylan as Advent songwriter. Also, be sure to check out Fleming Rutledge’s talk at Calvary St. George (just below). Merry Christmas!