Once upon a time there was a man who was alive.

Location: Hattiesburg, Mississippi, United States
St. Cuthbert and Disciples in a Boat



1. I have been using the internet since I was in grade school. It was rather primitive and slow back then, but was still captivating. The scope of information that I could access was staggering, even back in those early days before blogging, wikis, and Google News (I was excited by pages that had pictures, even though our computer took ages to load one). I guess I was in my early or mid teens (I make it sound like it was a long time ago!) when I first published my own material online. It's still out there somewhere. Then I moved on to Blogger, three and a half years ago. All of which is to say I've been using and contributing to, in a very small and insignificant way, this thing we call the internet. It's an endlessly useful thing, whether in terms of communication, information-gathering, or just sheer entertainment.

2. Gore Vidal has suggested that the internet is a means for a sort of renewal of literacy, particularly among the younger generations. There is, I think, a great deal of truth in this idea. The internet remains, in many ways, a text-based or at least text-intensive place. Granted, one can now cruise it all day and read very little text at all and instead use various other sorts of media. But a great deal of internet use surely must still involve a good deal of text. It is the experience, at any rate, of the denziens of blog-land (though some apparently see a decline in blogdom approaching), and a good deal other people, myself included. I read a lot of text online, from blogs to news to whole books in the public domain. I still read lots of tradtional text; I even read old fashioned newspapers sometimes. But most of the news I read is in digital newsprint.

So yes, people are reading a lot of text on the internet. But what is the quality of our reading online? I suspect that it leaves a lot to be desired, and that the ease of obtaining information, of viewing different texts so quickly, has some significant problems, in addition to the virtues it possesses. For one thing, the sheer amont of information I can access tends to encourage me to skip about from one source to another. In fact, at this very moment, I have three browser windows open, and have already flipped back to them while writing this. It's so easy to do; if I grow bored, however briefly, of one thing I am doing or reading, I can switch over to something. Needless to say, this does not encourage good analysis or comprehension of the text being read. I am not fixed to a specific text; I can go from one text to another entirely different and unrelated one in a single moment. A hyperlink in the text can carry me off to something unrelated and divert my previous focus entirely. However, I should note, this same thing can also be good, by relating one text to another relevant one; hyperlinks can serve as expanded footnotes.

3. In the same vein the nature of online reading tends to encourage a skimming of the material. I find this particularly true in reading blogs; I am tempted to read through a given text very quickly and then examine the comments- I am reluctant to tackle a large block of text in many cases. What material I often read I read very quickly, without good apprehension of what is being said. As my attention is diverted by the aforementioned plethora of choices in text I am less likely to actually digest and assimilate what I am reading, except in a rather superficial manner.

4. Finally, switching from reading to writing, while the internet can encourage writing, it can also encourage bad writing. This seems particularly true with e-mail and such; the rapidity of the medium seems to encourage it. But this can also be true in the realm of online publishing, whether through blogs or 'conventional' web sites. One can write something and immediately publish it, bringing it to the reading public. Not only is it fast, but one can write about anything and make it public. Again, this is one of the good features of the internet, but it can also be abused badly.

All of this is to suggest closer attention to our usage of the internet- and in saying it, I am very much preaching to myself! The internet is an excellent tool, but like any other tool it can be abused (and I have barely mentioned matters of content- that would be a whole other post). The internet is by nature fast-paced, but we can, through disciplined and thoughtful use of it, employ it for good.


Some Thoughts on the Clash of Civilizations

It is in vogue today to discuss- or deny or modify- the idea of a looming, or ongoing, clash of civilizations, between the Western world on the one hand and the Islamic world on the other. Now, I am neither an expert on Western civilization or Islamic civilization, though both are of great interest to me, particularly regarding the interaction and conflict of the two. The following then are a few thoughts bearing upon this question.

There are a number of things that make speaking of a clash of civilizations problematic. One of these is the nature of the two civilizations supposed to be in confrontation; I would argue that they are both diminished and are not entirely the object of confrontation. This is particularly accute with regards to the Islamic world, and is in fact one of the primary reasons for radical Islamic militancy.

The dar al-Islam, the realm of Islam, saw an absolutely incredible rise from its humble beginnings in a small group of followers around Mohammed in Medina, to a point in which a single, more or less cohesive Islamic culture stretched from northern India to Spain. Within fifty years of the Prophet's death his follower had taken vast swaths of the Byzantine Empire and nearly all of the Sasanid; the rest of the Sasanid would quickly fall and Persian culture become deeply imbedded with Islam (though never losing its own identity, it should be noted). In 710-711 Muslim forces had crossed into Hispania, which they would largely control for centuries, the final Muslim rulers of Granada not being expelled until 1492. By 1453 the Byzantine Empire would be completely extinguished by the Ottoman Turks; they in turn were pounding at the gates of Vienna in 1529. Mighty Egypt was one of the early gains of Islam, and out of it various great empires would arise from the Fatamids to Saladin to the Mulmuks; the later wielded enough power to turn back the seemingly unstoppable Mongols. The Crusader incursions never amounted to a particularly great threat to Islam; their kingdom never extended beyond a rather narrow strip of Syria and Palestine and the short-lived County of Eddessa. By 1291 the last Crusader city was gone, and the Crusades faded from the Islamic memory- they were seen as rather insignificant in the face of a seemingly overwhelming Muslim superiority. In short, from the inception of Islam on it was able to expand and conquer at an incredible speed and over great distances.

In so doing it also developed uniquely Islamic cultures; cultures which cultivated high learning. It is almost cliche these days to mention, but a good bit of the West's knowledge of Aristotle would come via the Islamic world (assisted by the Jewish and Christian communities which remained within that realm). Cities were born and flourished; trade routes brought the wealth of the Far East into Islamic lands and contributed to great prosperity. It would not be unfair to say that in, say, the twelfth century, the heart of civilization in the western half of the known world lay in the Islamic lands.

But this all changed. The Ottomans, the great power of the Near East and Eastern Europe in the 14th through 16th centuries, gradually declined. They were unable, or unwilling, to keep up with the technological advancements of the West. Trade routes maintained through the Middle East were eclipsed by discoveries of a new world by the West; new forms of government and thinking were developed in Europe, and prosperity boomed there. The Islamic world largely remained in a sort of a stasis. This only grew worse with the advent of European empiralism, as Western powers- particularly in the aftermath of WWI and the final collapse of the Ottoman Empire- divided up the Islamic world into spheres of control.

It is out of this great shift in experience that modern Islamic radicalism operates. The Islamic world, over the past few centuries, underwent a fragmentation it had never experienced before; the once largely cohesive Islamic civilization was broken into pieces, something only excaberated by modern nationalism (often fueled by a perverse mix of jihad and various brews of Marxist thought). Various groups and regimes operate out of their own ideas and tendencies which are often markedly different from each other, more than would appear on the surface. Some of these differences follow fault lines laid down in the first century of Islam; others are of a more recent appearance. They all reflect a general experience of fragmentation in the Islamic world, one which is unlikely to change anytime soon. A good example of this can be found in the cycle of Sunni and Shia violence in Iraq that has been gripping headlines over the past few days. Such divisions date back a very long time, but they have been made even more accute with the rise of nationalism.

All of this is to say that there is less a clash of Islamic civilization- which is broken and fragmented- than a clash of certain tendencies within Islam against 'the West' (what exactly is meant by that could entail a great deal of discussion!). What does this mean practically? I think that one aspect is that there is no great Islamic power that can threaten the West in the way that, say, the Ottomans were doing in the 15th and 16th centuries, except perhaps Iran, but in a much more limited way. There simply is no unified Islamic force capable of massive overt acts of agression. There are, however, undercurrents in the Islamic world that can work violence both within the Islamic world and in the West. They tend to be very populist (with some exceptions- some of the elite of Saudi Arabia being one of them), which can prove very dangerous, though perhaps negating their longevity- but not erasing it, to be sure. Radical Islam does not represent the majority of Muslims or Islamic states- another rather cliche thing to say. However, it remains a potent force, precisely for the reasons of Islamic fragmentation and diminishing of civilization. The danger lies in such movements continuing to expand and inflame more and more of the Muslim world, with a goal of undoing that fragmentation and expanding the dar al-Islam once again. They would very much like to have a clash of civilizations, and the rebuilding of Islamic civilization is certainly on their to-do list. Unfortunately, its conception of Islamic civilization is unlikely to include much of Aristotle or Jewish scholars or fine art.

What then is going to happen in the Islamic world? I won't offer a prediction- one should always be wary of historians trying to predict the future; they haven't a very good record usually. However, I can say that the situation within Islam is very complex and hence very uncertain. The present day Islamic experience is in many ways novel; it is made all the more so by the ongoing influx of Muslim immigrants into the West, where they are often poor and marginalized. At any rate, if current trends continue, the next several years and probably decades will remain very interesting.


Joseph Cardinal Zen of Hong Kong

Pope Benedict has proclaimed a number of new cardinals, including Joseph Zen of Hong Kong. The following are a couple of excerpts from a recent interview with Zen. He sounds pretty straightup legit; this is not someone who plays around with the reality of the Church in mainland China.

"For some time the Church has had a social doctrine, and especially since the Second Vatican Council, the Church has taken a great deal of interest in social issues. We have a great treasury of social teachings that shed light on Hong Kong’s new political situation. Consequently, almost without having planned, I have on various occasions expressed my critical opinion on local and central government matters that I felt required my intervention.

"As a result I have become something of a symbol of the freedom of speech that must be preserved in Hong Kong. We must make a balance sheet of my critical involvement in society and towards politics. I must say that we have done well to intervene. It was opportune and necessary. We have simply acted in line with the doctrine of the Church according to the wishes of the Holy See and in perfect accord with the Cardinal and Bishop John Tong. I do not regret my interventions. Also the Diocesan Synod has sanctioned our duty to speak out, to intervene critically in social issues, to express a prophetic role in society. I must say that this is not a pleasant thing, because when one intervenes to defend freedom and human rights, there are polemics, and this does not please some people. This is something that we take into account ahead of time. The criticisms that we have received do not scare me; what we have said publicly in criticism of those in power we had to say, and I think that the majority of the faithful agree with me."


"Above all, the Holy See must not forget to be firm. Beijing perhaps has a few illusions that the Holy See sooner or later might surrender and yield on some principles. But the Holy See cannot surrender; it is not possible to "sell" the rights of the Church. In this historical phase, Beijing is not showing much interest in having a treaty with the Roman Church."

St. Milburga of Wenlock

Died c. 700 or 722; feast of the translation of her relics, June 25. The ruins of Wenlock Abbey in Shropshire, dating from the 11th century, remind us of Saint Milburga, whose name still lingers in that area. She was one of a family of eminent saints and belonged to the royal house of Mercia.

How often a good mother is blessed in her children! Her mother Domneva Domna Ebba or Ermenburga; f.d. November 19), princess of Kent, had three daughters: Milburga, Mildred (f.d. July 13), and Mildgytha (f.d. today), each of whom grew up to follow the pattern of her mother's faith, and each, after a life wholly devoted to Christ, was glorified as a saint.

Those were the days when the daughters of kings were proud and eager to dedicate their wealth and talents in Christian leadership and to pour out their youth and strength in the service of the Church. They founded and ruled great abbeys, taught the young, cared for the sick, and relieved the poor.

Milburga, like her mother before her, surrendered her high estate, forsook the luxury and comfort of her home, and counted it her highest privilege to serve God in a consecrated Christian life. Helped by her father, Merewald, an Anglian chieftain, and her uncle Wulfhere, king of Mercia, she founded the monastery of Wenlock, which was placed under the direction of Saint Botulf of East Anglia (f.d. June 17). Its first abbess was Liobsynde, a French nun from Chelles. Its second was Milburga, who was consecrated abbess by the Greek Archbishop Saint Theodore (f.d. September 19). It was no ordinary monastery; everything about it reflected the grace and fragrance of her own pure spirit. The gardens were full of the choicest flowers, the orchards bore the sweetest fruits, and within its walls was found, we are told, the very
peace of heaven.

By her sheer goodness Milburga converted many to the Christian faith, and this in a dark and primitive age when, outside the monastery walls, the countryside was wild and remote, and full of unknown dangers. One day, for example, on one of her errands of mercy, she was terrified by a neighbouring princeling who, wishing to marry her, intercepted her with a band of soldiers, but she providentially escaped. In her flight she crossed a small stream called the Corve, and he, following, found when he reached it that the waters had risen and his plan was thwarted. The place where it happened it called to this day Stoke Saint Milburgh.

She loved flowers, birds (over which she had a mysterious power), country life, and country people, to sit and work in the sun and tend the herbs in her garden, and to visit in the villages around. People came to her with their troubles and ailments and ascribed to her miraculous cures. Milburga was venerated for her humility, holiness, the miracles she performed, and for the gift of levitation she possessed.

According to Boniface, the famous Vision of the Monk of Wenlock occurred during Milburga's abbacy. Goscelin also preserved her testament, which is a long, apparently authentic list of lands that belonged to her at her death.

When she was on her deathbed, she said to her followers, "I have beenmother to you. I have watched over you like a mother, with pious care. And in mercy, I go the way of all flesh. A higher call invites me." One by one they said farewell, gave her the sacraments, and after her death buried her body near the altar of the abbey.

{Via Celt-Saints List}


Life in Exile

'Nevertheless, many even of the authorities believed in him, but for fear of the Pharisees they did not confess it, so that they would not be put out of the synagogue; for they loved the glory that comes from man more than the glory that comes from God.'

St. John 12:42-43

1. The ancient and medieval world was one in which a person's role and place in society, within the structure of the community, was everything. Personal identity was wedded to social and communal structure in a manner we really cannot begin to appreciate. To be outside of the community in which someone was born into and lived was to lose one's identity, to be deprived of being in a manner. Human life was deeply bound to the social structure, be it the polis or family-group or synagogue. For Aristotle, true virtue was impossible outside of the polis. In the medieval age one was identified by feudal obligations and ties of kinship, established in a specific place. To detach oneself from that place and ties and obligations was to enter a no-man's land devoid of personal identity. This was the place of the peregrinati, the monks who embraced a voluntary exile, often on the Continent, either as penance or for missions or both. While this action in some ways, through the monastic structure, came to be an avenue of identity in itself, it remained throughout a radical detachment from normal means of identity and role.

2. In St. John's Gospel this theme of exile, of being separated from one's community and hence role and identity, is particularly important. It demonstrates in a concrete manner what is described elsewhere in the New Testament as the life of exile, of pilgrimage, in pursuit of the heavenly city, following Christ Himself, Who had 'no place to lay His head.' In St. John, the danger is one of being put out of the synagogue: entailing a severance from not only the religious community but also from the fullness of society and community in general. It was to be cast out of the proper parameters of society, to become a refugee and exile.

3. The danger, or rather, the call, of exile, is repeated throughout the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament. It is foreshadowed in the wandering of Abraham, and the exodus of the children of Israel from Egypt; in the flight of prophets from angry monarchs; and in a way the voluntary exile of St. John the Forerunner into the desert, outside the bounds of ordinary society. These were all literal flights, phyisical peregrinations from one place and its community to another. The citizen of the new Christian polis, however, often continues to exist within his old polis, within the old community, but his role in it is fundamentally transformed. He is henceforth a pilgrim, a wander, whose true role and identity is bound up in Christ and the community insituted in Him, the Church. His old identities, his old status within his 'natural' community, is radically reconfigured as a result. We can no longer see ourselves as citizens of whatever order we happen to be in, who just happen to be Christian. To be an exile, in Scriptural terms, means a radical relalignment and understanding of role and identity.

4. The reconfiguration of the Christian's role and identity, against his continued life in 'the world,' introduces one of the great tensions of Christian life. Now, it may result that this state of exile is very tangiably manifested, as in the man cast out after his healing by Christ, into a very literal exile. It may mean a voluntary exile like the missionary-saints of old like St. Colum Cille or St. Boniface. It could mean martyrdom, as the order of the social structures resists the existence of this new Kingdom and its citizens. For the Kingdom of Heaven can be very subversive to the structure of the world; Christ came to 'destroy the works of the devil,' and the manifestations of those works may well resist violently against His Body. Yet whatever the tensions that arise, the Christian is called to an ongoing life of exile, of citizenship in a Heavenly City not yet fully attained to. One of our great tasks comes in finding how to work this out in our present lives, in situations as varied as the people embraced by this new and radically-different Kingdom of God.


Thoughts on War and Peace

Lately I have been thinking about war, peace, interventionism, and such things. Obviously they are difficult to avoid in light of the ongoing conflict in Iraq, and the spectre of conflict with Iran. In Moral Philosophy we engaged in a rousing discussion on Tuesday, which prompted me to write down a few thoughts relevant to the issue. The following are quite disjointed; I make no claims to possessing a systematic Christian ethic of war and peace, or of government for that matter. Views I once felt quite settled in I have lately begun to reconsider.

1. War is never "good." There are perhaps "just" wars in that the reasons for war were just; but the prosecution of war is always dogged by ethical fuzziness and outright evil acts, no matter how just the cause may be. Passions run extremely hot in warfare, and decisions cannot be mulled over, theologians are ethicists consulted, in the midst of combat. Further, the very fact that humans slay humans in warfare runs counter to the ontology of man as created by God. Man is not intended to kill other men; the provision of war is economia for a fallen world. But war and killing, even if justified, still have a serious impact upon the human person. In the ancient Church this was recognized in the canons that temporarily barred from the Eucharist those who had taken human life in war. Likewise, other canons prohibit the giving of holy orders to any who have taken a human life, whether it was justified or not. There is a basic ontological problem encountered in the act of killing; while it may be "allowable" in God's economia for a fallen world, it never becomes a "good," properly speaking.

2. Perhaps the greatest concern I have with the so-called “war on terror” is the extreme broadness of the term’s possible definitions. When does a “war on terror” end? It is an extremely open-ended term, capable of justifying war for an undetermined and essentially unlimited period: war without end. This is deeply problematic for a number of reasons. One of these is the danger posed to the national consciousness when the state of war becomes daily business. The enormity of war is reduced to merely another item in the twenty-four hour news cycle; it has its slot alongside run-away brides and stock prices. Waging war becomes just another category on the national agenda. Military violence becomes internalized; it is everyday policy, not the occasional necessary exception. This internalization of violence goes alongside the normalization of violence and sexual depravity so prevalent in modern American society. As many have noted, the prisoner abuse scandals in Iraq were in many ways manifestations of the dark undercurrents of American life: undercurrents not very far at all from the “mainstream.”

3. One of the problems with the so-called "good wars" is that upon examination they almost always are found to have had either issues of justification, or issues with their opperation and results. For example, one grows up in America hearing about World War II as being a "good war." However, not only were some of the tactics of the Allies arguably deeply unethical (such as the mass bombing of civilian centres), but the war ended with Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, the immiment fall of China and eventually much of Southeast Asia to Communism; not to mention the extreme problems involved with having a state as brutal as the Soviet Empire as a principal ally. Certainly, one may argue that these things were unavoidable for the winning of the war; however, they remain as examples of the dirtiness and nastiness of war, and hence the extreme caution upon which a nation should approach it with.

4. Humanitarian interventionism has become rather vogue in recent years. It would seem to present a particularly altruistic justification for war. But there are problems with the idea. One of these is a problem that bedevils act-utilitarianism: one cannot know the results of an action until after those results have transpired. One may be able to predict certain results with a near absolute certainty, but with “human events” it is a much more difficult matter. History can provide a guide, to be sure, but history does not repeat itself. History is a matter of contingency, of almost inumerable variables, for it is acted out by often unstable and uncertain actors. No bureaucratic prophet can foresee with any true certainty the results of his nation’s action. This is particularly true concerning long-term results. We cannot safely predict at the present what sort of course the fledgling Iraqi republic will take: will it devolve into ethnic conflict, into a Sharia-dominated Islamic state a la Iran, or into a nation along the lines of modern Turkey- or something else entirely? We cannot know. We cannot know before taking the military action whether we will merely increase the misery and oppresion felt by the people of the subject nation.

5. Further, we cannot truly know whether or not the people of said nation desire our military intervention. Let us suppose that they truly are oppressed, and desire liberation. Would they wish for a bloody and perhaps protracted conflict to come upon them through outside intervention? Is there not a serious moral dilemna in introducing violence and turmoil through an outside force for the stated goal of uninvited liberation? This is not to question the altruistic motives of the interventionist force, but instead to confront the problems inherent in such intervention. Another problem is the simple fact that military might is often an inadequate resolution to deeply complicated issues, particularly ones in which faith, ideology, or ethnicity- or all three!- are strongly entwined into the problem.

6. This should lead us to consider what the Christian knows to be the truth about the world: the complications and evils of it find their ultimate resolution only in Christ. War is an imperfect measure wielded by imperfect governments whose operations will always carry difficulties and contradictions, as a result of existing in a fallen world. The ultimate Christian response must always be the presenting of the Gospel of Christ as the way to the true peace and healing of the world. The Church must offer into every human conflict the strange paradigm of the forgiving God, the Savior Who saves by giving up His life to the violent. While the Church need not embrace pacificism, it must strenuously avoid viewing the State and its means as ultimate or as a means of man’s salvation.