Category Archives: Republic of Letters

Advent “is a time for being deeply shaken…”

(Image: Alex Gindin |

Advent is perhaps my favorite season of the liturgical year. One reason is that I knew nothing of Advent while growing up as a Fundamentalist—there was Christmas and Easter, and really nothing else to mark any sort of sacred day or season (that would have been “Romanish” and “pagan”). The irony, I suppose, is that we, as Fundamentalists were quite obsessed with the End Times, readily seeking out signs of impending apocalypse in a world moving from one fatalistic sign of doom to the next. And Advent is a season intimately connected with eschatology, judgment, and apocalypse, even while it is also rooted in the Incarnation, joyful anticipation, and eternal hope. In that way it readily demonstrates the “eschatological tension” reflected upon by St. John Paul II in his final encyclical, Ecclesia de Eucharistia (2003), which delves deeply into the Eucharistic character of the Church and the Kingdom. 

The reflections below were written in 2006, and have been lightly edited for this posting. 

Preparing To Meet the Lord: Reflections on the Readings for Advent

An advent, of course, is a coming; the word means “to come to.” Advent anticipates the coming–or comings–of the Son of Man: in his Incarnation two thousand years ago, in his future return in glory, and in the mystery of the sacraments, especially the Holy Eucharist. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “When the Church celebrates the liturgy of Advent each year, she makes present this ancient expectancy of the Messiah, for by sharing in the long preparation for the Saviour’s first coming, the faithful renew their ardent desire for his second coming” (CCC 524). Simply put, Advent is about being prepared to meet Christ–not on our terms, but on His terms. By preparing us to meet the tiny Incarnate Word of God lying in a manger, Advent also directs our hearts and minds toward the return of that child as glorious King and Lord of all. 

In a book of reflections titled Seek That Which Is Above, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger wrote that the purpose of Advent is “to awaken the most profound and basic emotional memory within us, namely, the memory of God who became a child. This is a healing memory; it brings hope.” Later, he states that Advent is also about shaking off spiritual slumber and sloth: “So Advent means getting up, being awake, emerging out of sleep and darkness.” In Advent of the Heart, a collection of sermons and prison writings, the priest and martyr Fr. Alfred Delp contemplates Advent from a similar perspective. “Advent,” he writes, “is a time for being deeply shaken, so that man will wake up to himself. … It is precisely in the severity of this awakening, in the helplessness of coming to consciousness, in the wretchedness of experiencing our limitations that the golden threads running between Heaven and earth during this season reach us; the threads that give the world a hint of the abundance to which it is called, the abundance of which it is capable.” 

Advent is marked by anticipation, contemplation, joy, conversion, discernment, repentance, hope, faith, and–last but never least–charity. The readings for this Advent (cycle C) aptly reflect all of this, always within the context of historical events and realities involving men and women who face difficulties and struggles similar to those that confront us today. Here, then, are seven themes and/or persons who have stood out to me as I have studied and contemplated the readings for Sunday liturgies during this Advent season. 

Supreme Court & Affirmative Action: Call It Racial Discrimination | National Review

Harvard’s racial and ethnic balancing is the poisonous fruit of the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence on race and affirmative action. And higher education isn’t the only place where racism rears its ugly head. Take the drawing of districts for congressional elections, especially the practice of gerrymandering, whereby legislatures create electoral maps to maximize their party’s advantages. The Supreme Court has injected itself into this most political of activities, one that the Constitution explicitly assigns to state legislatures and whose politically partisan use is as old as the Constitution itself (the word “gerrymander” itself comes from Elbridge Gerry’s drawing of a Massachusetts state-senate district that resembled a salamander; Gerry was a signer of the Declaration of Independence, a delegate to the Constitutional Convention, and a contributor to the first Judiciary Act and the Bill of Rights). Historically, Southern state legislatures used gerrymandering to reduce the voting strength of racial minorities, particularly African Americans. But now the Supreme Court has allowed the federal government and states to consider race in drawing voting districts designed to maximize the voting strengths of racial groups.
— Read on

Questions in candide

“Do you think,” said Candide, “that mankind always massacred one another? Were they always guilty of lies, fraud, treachery, ingratitude, inconstancy, envy, ambition, and cruelty? Were they always thieves, fools, cowards, backbiters, gluttons, drunkards, misers, vilifiers, debauchees, fanatics, and hypocrites?”- Voltaire, in Candide, Ch 21

Economics and the Good: Part I

How does the discipline of economics approach ethical issues?  A standard answer goes something like this.  We can separate economics into two categories.  Positive economics concerns itself solely with explaining the social world.  Normative economics deals with moral concerns in a way that may build upon, but cannot be reduced to, positive economics.  In other words, positive economics deals in statements of is; normative economics, of ought.


An important concept that acts as a bridge from positive to normative economics is economic efficiency.  In reality, economic efficiency can mean several things.  The strictest definition of efficiency is that no individual can be made better off without making at least one individual worse off.  An alternative way of phrasing this is that all potential gains from exchange have been exhausted.  Another definition of efficiency, one not so strict, is that the dollar value of society’s scarce resources has been maximized.  Frequently these criteria go together, but they do not have to.


But we are getting ahead of ourselves.  We still need to explore how efficiency is operationalized.  Positive economics can say whether a given situation is efficient or not.  It cannot recommend efficiency as a value, of course, without losing its purely positive status.  Normative economics frequently invokes efficiency as a standard against which economic outcomes are judged.


However, economists frequently get into trouble when they make statements about efficiency that contain both positive and normative elements without realizing it.  Consider the following thought experiment.  Allan is auctioning off an apple.  Bob and Charlie both bid for the apple.  Bob bids $1, and Charlie bids $2.  Allan gives the apple to Charlie.  Note that this is an efficient result, in both the strict and the loose sense.  (Instead of letting the results of the auction stand, we could take the apple won by Charlie and give it to Bob.  That would make Bob better off, but would make Charlie worse off.)


What if Allan knowingly gives the apple to Bob instead of Charlie, voluntarily accepting $1 instead of $2?  This situation seems inefficient in the looser sense.  But as long as secondary bargains are not forbidden, Bob can always sell the apple to Charlie.  Since Bob bid only $1, whereas Charlie bid $2, at any price for the apple above $1 and below $2 there is room for a mutually beneficial exchange.  Either way, the apple will end up with the person whose valuation of it is highest in dollar terms.


Why is this dangerous territory?  Because economists themselves frequently forget the boundaries of each kind of efficiency.  If Allan gives the apple to Bob, economists will often say something like, “That’s inefficient; the apple should go to Charlie.”  Furthermore, they frequently would support something like a redistributive policy that reallocates the apple from Bob to Charlie.  Even if they don’t support that particular policy, they would endorse efficiency as a valid metric for determining public policy, asserting that such policy “merely helps people get what they want.”  And economists will do so thinking they are still doing purely positive economics.  Clearly any issue pertaining to the distribution of goods and services beyond the purely descriptive is normative, in that it involves value judgments.  The problem is the concepts economists work with, and the way they apply those concepts, makes it hard for even careful economists to know where descriptive economics ends and prescriptive economics begins.


You may have noticed two controversial statements in the above explanation.  The first is that efficiency should be a criterion for crafting public policy.  The second is that promoting efficiency, because it means giving people what they want, is not controversial.  But both of those statements are in fact normatively loaded.  I will explore further how and why economists overlook these issues in subsequent posts.



In Defense of Historical Complexity: A Meditation on the Old South

“Sing me a song of a lass that is gone,” the Outlander theme song begins (“The Skye Boat Song”). The show, based on Diana Gabaldon’s romantic history novels, depicts a lost world of 18th century adventure, Scottish highland clans, and loyalty shaped around various allegiances. The protagonist, Claire, is a 20th century woman who has been cast back in time to the different world of 18th century Scotland; she is the “lass” of the title song. At the same time, “lass” symbolizes the whole world of excitement that Claire finds herself living. The world of the past “is gone,” and Outlander is a song contrasting modernity with a specific moment in the past.

In the midst of such a contrast, what is the person with an active historical imagination called to do? Does the past become an extended store of ethical examples demanding moral judgement? Or is there something more to developing an imaginative vision of an alternative time? I propose that there is something more, and that at a minimum an engagement in a formal study of the past should begin with understanding which moves to love. Rather than asking “Were X-group-of-people right or wrong to do Y-action?” the proper historical question is “Why did X believe they should do Y, and what can we find that is admirable in their choices or convictions?” Permit me to illustrate this approach to history using the antebellum and Civil War eras (roughly 1848-1865).

As a boy growing up in Virginia, I developed a love for the Old South. The remnants of the material culture of the South were all around me – historical signs, the iron factory in Richmond, VA., battlefields of minor victories and substantial losses. But perhaps the most formative encounter I had with a vision of southern culture came from the novel Gone with the Wind. One summer I set myself the goal of reading a novel of more than 1000 pages, and the romance of Scarlett and Rhett, the fate of Tara, and the fight to defend home and live in the aftermath of its loss captivated my imagination. Here was a different world, filled with different values, different reactions, different dreams than my own; here was a way of life people fought to protect.

As I grew older, I began formally studying the events of the Civil War. I learned about sectionalism, the economic systems which enabled both the high plantation lifestyle and the poor white farmer to coexist, the evils of slavery, and division which threatened to wreck the Union. I read sermons from pastors in the North who drew from their theological traditions a deep respect for the dignity of the human person to support the abolitionist cause; and then I read speeches from southerners who saw in their aristocratic hierarchical society the hand of God locating each person within a specific place for the good of the body politic. Reading first hand accounts and scholarly interpretations, I observed the complexities of the moment. Stalwart men of virtue (Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson) fought for their homes, their land, and their way of life. Northern generals (Tecumseh Sherman and Ulysses S. Grant) lacked virtue but delivered victories through their scorched earth, “rape of the south” give-no-quarter tactics. Not only did the North win the war, but in doing so the Union set southern economic activity backwards by over a century.

The complexities of this era fascinated me, and to this day I get passionate when confronted with simplistic understandings of the Civil War. This struggle was about slavery, but that issue represented a constitutional question. Could the states break the Union? Which was primary: the people, or the states? Secondarily, this war was also the struggle of two different economies: agrarianism vs. industrialism, and the life of the farm vs. the life of the city. Wrapped into these political and economic concerns were substantial philosophical questions: do all human beings have dignity? If so, how does that dignity work itself out in political life? What is the nature of governing authority? Is it bound by the Constitution? Can the highest authorities violate the source of their authority for a good purpose? What does it mean to be created “equal?” Paired with philosophy, politics, and economics were the rise of abolitionist rhetoric and the power dynamics of an entrenched 19th century racism. These complexities resist simple answers.

Between 1848 and 1865, the United States engaged in a trial by combat to answer fundamental questions. By the end of the Civil War, several questions received answers sealed in blood: the states were subordinate to the Union, the people were the primary political power in the United States, equality meant equal freedom and self-responsibility before the law, and the American economy was one of increased industrial, urbanized patterns of material production and consumption. The South lost, and in its loss passed a way of life. Rather than settling the conflicts once and for all, Northern victory only deepened the complexities which brought the United States to this point. Studying the Civil War era must be more than a formal engagement in condemning the practice of slavery; such a study should be an opportunity to grow in understanding and love.

Historical study begins with seeking understanding through primary text engagement. Reading the works of John C. Calhoun, Jefferson Davis, Abraham Lincoln, Stephen Douglas, Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant, and the other men of the day emerses the student in the richness of that other moment. For good or ill, these were real men and women seeking to live life well, and in coming to understand their motivations we are moved not to agreement, but to love. It rather resembles a wayward brother – by understanding the choices my brother has made and the circumstances which motivated those choices, I develop a compassion, a desire to suffer alongside him. Were I to teach an American Civil War class, I would not expect students to agree with Southerners (or Northerners necessarily), but I would expect them to search out the motivations which caused hundreds of thousands on both sides to march against each other. And if we reach the level of understanding, a love for fellow human beings is the natural outgrowth of historical study.

Reading of the antebellum South is rather like reading Homer’s Iliad for the first time. One goes to it knowing the Greeks win, but the nobility and grace of Hektor in contrast to the puerile childishness of Achilles forces the reader to sympathize with the doomed city. The South fell, and, for many reasons, rightly so. It’s economic system was untenable: large parts of Southern life were based on a racist anthropology, and failed to align with reality; agrarian life could not keep pace with the technological productivity of an industrialized economy. At the same time, the cultural loss in the post-1865 South was real, and  the costs of that loss merit remembrance. The southern way of life, rooted in the seasons necessary for agriculture and bound up with values of honor, delicacy, and hierarchy contained goods no longer found in American patterns of living. It is only by appreciating the value in what was lost that we see the price of “progress,” and in that sense the history of this period is as tragic as it is victorious in terms of moral or political philosophy.

The tension in how we view the Civil War era and its aftermath came to light in recent years with the publication of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman. Lee tells the story of an adult Scout who returns home to Atticus and learns that her father is more complex than she remembers. The book troubled many who read it, because they expected the simplistic dialectic of To Kill a Mockingbird to return; instead, Lee presents us with a realistic racially minded Atticus Finch, a man who is concerned that African-American progress is happening too fast and causing essential change to the civilization he loves. To Kill a Mockingbird is a beloved classic. Who does not find his heart soaring in Atticus’ defense of Tom Robinson? But when Lee forces us to see that Atticus is a more complex figure, it causes the reader to wrestle with the question of change. How should change occur? At what pace should things change? And when change become the new norm, can we not pause and remember what was?

There is also the opposite danger. The Southern Agrarians (including one of my intellectual heroes Richard Weaver) romanticized the South, and in doing so constructed their critique of modernity on shaky ground. This romanticization is also bad history. Here Aristotle provides sound advice: moderation in all things. We cannot glorify the South or embrace the Myth of the Lost Cause; neither can we reduce the Civil War to a triumphant crusade to liberate the slave. The truth of the period will be found in the heart of its complexities.

“Sing me a song of a lass that is gone” encapsulates the enduring attraction of the South. Indeed, the old South has died, and in its death a greater equality for all Americans has developed. It remains for the historian not to pass on a catechesis ensuring that all students understand that the abolitionists were right, but rather to cultivate a desire to understand why the Civil War occurred, and in that understanding that we might exercise “the love which moves the sun and other stars” towards our benighted past.

By Way of Introduction…

thejoshuatree_gatefold_640.jpgEarlier this year, I was surprised and honored to be asked by the National Recording Registry of the United States Library of Congress to write a short essay to accompany one of the works listed, U2’s landmark 1987 album The Joshua Tree. As a way of breaking the ice on my contributions to Spirit of Cecilia, I thought I would share that essay here. Writing it gave me the opportunity to re-connect, in a somewhat limited and wistful way, with a band that has meant a lot to me over the years. The last couple of U2 albums, despite a few great moments and the occasional flashes of brilliance, have left me cold. I was further disheartened by U2’s glib, corporatist support of the unlimited abortion license, which was deftly (and devastatingly) critiqued by Irish journalist and playwright John Waters over at First Things. This is the kind of terrain I am most likely to cover on this blog, trawling the megahertz  in search of Godly inspiration in the devil’s music.