A museum for which to be thankful

George Weigel

On September 29, 1952, the publication of the complete Revised Standard Version of the Bible was celebrated at the National Guard Armory in Washington, D.C., and the principle speaker was the U.S. Secretary of State, Dean Acheson. The son of the Episcopal bishop of Connecticut, Acheson movingly described the ways in which the King James Bible, which the new RSV was to supplant, had once shaped American culture and our national life:

“In the earliest days in the Northeast, the Book was All. The settlers came here to live their own reading of it. It was the spiritual guide, the moral and legal code, the political system, the sustenance of life, whether that meant endurance of hardship, the endless struggle against nature, battle with enemies, or the inevitable processes of life and death. And it meant to those who cast the mold of this country something very specific and very clear. It meant that the purpose of man’s journey through this life was to learn and identify his life and effort with the purpose and will of God…”

That biblical vision helped form the bedrock convictions of the American idea: that government stood under the judgment of divine and natural law; that government was limited in its reach into human affairs, especially the realm of conscience; that national greatness was measured by fidelity to the moral truths taught by revelation and inscribed in the world by a demanding yet merciful God; that only a virtuous people could be truly free.

“But this… did not exhaust the teachings of this Bible,” Secretary Acheson continued. “For it taught also that the fear of God was the love of God and that the love of God was the love of man and the service of man.”

At this perilous moment in our national history, when contempt and hatred seem far more characteristic of our civic life than charity and solidarity, it’s worth pondering how far we have come, and why. To claim that “the Book is All” today would be risible. On the contrary: As Cardinal Donald Wuerl, archbishop of Washington, remarked at a pre-opening celebration of the splendid new Museum of the Bible in the nation’s capital, the Bible has been systematically “bleached out” of our national life over the past several decades. And that bleaching has not produced a more tolerant people, but a far more intolerant civic life, of which the recent awfulness in Charlottesville, Virginia, may stand as a vile symbol.

At Thanksgiving-2017, too many voices in America seem to suggest that some of us must hate others of us if America is to flourish, even survive. But the great Dean Acheson had an answer for that essentially totalitarian claim, too: “In order to love our country we do not have to hate anyone. There is enough to inspire love here…Out of many, [Americans] are one. [Ours] is a unity [amidst a] great and vigorous diversity based on respect for man, the individual…And this, indeed, is the source of our strength, and of the lasting power of our society. For the solidarity which is built, not upon servility, but upon the common loyalty of free men, is resilient and enduring.”

We may, and should hope, that Secretary Acheson’s confidence in the resilience of America has not been falsified by the secularist “bleaching” of which Cardinal Wuerl spoke. That hope has been strengthened by the opening of the Museum of the Bible on November 17. Three blocks from the U.S. Capitol, we now have a striking witness, in architecture, art, and artifact, to the enduring power of the Word of God. The museum is thoroughly ecumenical and interreligious; all of the people of the Book, be they Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, or Jewish, will find much to learn there, in a series of both classic and interactive displays that nourish the mind and soul. Anyone who cares about the Bible owes the donors who made this striking facility possible, and the men and women who designed it with evident care, an enormous vote of thanks.

For if it succeeds in its mission, the Museum of the Bible will help reverse the bleaching out from our culture of what is arguably its deepest, noblest, and most important wellspring: the Word of God, molding the lives of the readers of the Book.

Featured image by Alex Wong | Getty Images

COMING UP: As the Bard might say….

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Four centuries after his death, Shakespeare remains a peerless playwright because of his remarkable insight into the human condition. Love, ambition, fear, guilt, nobility, pomposity, patriotism, absurdity, sheer wickedness – you name it, Will grasped something of its essence. His work continues to help us understand ourselves better because, whatever the changing of times and seasons, human nature changes very little.

Take, for example, the human propensity to dodge disagreeable arguments by way of evasion.

In As You Like It, the Bard neatly dissected the anatomy of evasion through the words of a clown, Touchstone, who outlines “the degrees of the lie:”

“The first, the Retort Courteous; the second, the Quip Modest; the third, the Reply Churlish; the fourth, the Reproof Valiant; the fifth, the Countercheck Quarrelsome; the sixth, the Lie with Circumstance; the seventh, the Lie Direct.”

Some twenty years ago, Fr. David Beauregard, a literarily-inclined Oblate of the Virgin Mary, used Touchstone’s taxonomy to challenge critics of John Paul II’s 1993 encyclical on the reform of Catholic moral theology, Veritatis Splendor. Reading Father Beauregard’s Shakespearean take on theological controversy recently, I was struck by how closely Touchstone’s catalogue of evasion tracks the dodgeball played by those who criticize the critics of Pope Francis’s apostolic exhortation on marriage, Amoris Laetitia, but who never engage the substance of the critics’ criticisms.

The Retort Courteous has come a little late to the game, but we now hear it from some of the shrewder and less edgy protagonists of Amoris Laetitia: The critics of the exhortation are well-meaning people, but a tad behind the curve theologically and pastorally.

As for the Quip Modest, well, that’s been in play for months: The critics, or so the line goes, misrepresent what the Holy Father was actually saying and what we, his defenders, have been saying the Holy Father’s been saying; there’s nobody here but us doctrinally solid, pastorally sensitive folk.

The Reply Churlish has not been lacking, as evidenced by several recent academic seminars: Why should we proponents of Amoris Laetitia engage its critics? We’re the future; the wind is in our sails; get used to it.
As for the Reproof Valiant, it comes in the familiar form of academic snark: Amoris Laetitia, its protagonists insist, is the Catholic tradition, and anyone who even suggests that elements of the exhortation may be in conflict with seemingly-settled matters in the tradition, or in conflict with revelation itself, is a dolt who doesn’t understand how to interpret Scripture or tradition.

The Countercheck Quarrelsome is rare in Rome, where bella figura remains prized. But one senior Vatican official, in an unguarded moment, has let it be known that there are those who agree with and understand Pope Francis, and there are those who are stupid. Quarrelsome, indeed.

Then there are protagonists of the exhortation, including bishops, who claim that Amoris Laetitia leads the Catholic Church into a bright future because it jettisons the notion of intrinsically evil acts: actions that are always wrong, irrespective of the circumstances. How would Touchstone categorize them? Here we are through the looking glass, for the claim itself might seem a defense, however porous, against the suggestion of an indulgence here in the Lie Circumstantial or the Lie Direct. Perhaps Shakespeare fails us at this point. I certainly hope so.

No doubt some criticisms of Amoris Laetitia have been crude and ill-tempered, assuming a malign intention on the Pope’s part that no serious Catholic should assume. But to hint, suggest, or assert that virtually all criticisms of the exhortation are stupid, or malicious, or pastorally insensitive is a very strange position for the Party of Dialogue in the Church to take. In the debate over Amoris Laetitia, we are dealing with matters of considerable doctrinal and pastoral importance. And what is at stake are not just arguments and academic egos but the happiness and beatitude that are the goal of the moral life. Surely sorting that out requires a spirit of tolerance.

Tolerance comes from the Latin verb tolerare, which means “to bear with.” So genuine tolerance does not avoid or evade or dismiss differences; it engages differences with charity and civility. Perhaps revisiting As You Like It will encourage those protagonists of Amoris Laetitia who’ve been avoiding a real debate to reconsider.

Featured image by Bruno Girin from London, United Kingdom – Bard, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3697682