Christmas and the divine proximity

In October 2001 I had a long conversation with Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. It was but weeks after 9/11; a new century and millennium were opening before us; and I wanted to get Ratzinger’s view on the main issues for the Church and for theology in the twenty-first century.

The man who would become Pope Benedict XVI was deeply concerned about the moral relativism he thought was corroding the West, and located its roots in western high culture’s refusal to say that anything was “the truth,” full stop. This was a serious problem. For when there is only “your truth” and “my truth,” there is no firm cultural foundation for society, for democracy, or for living nobly and happily.

Then Ratzinger turned to Christology, the Church’s reflection on the person and mission of Jesus Christ. Both the Church and the world were suffering from a “diminishing Christ,” he suggested. Some wanted a less assertive Christology to avoid conflict with other world religions. Some wanted to make Jesus “one of the illuminators of God,” but not the unique, saving Son of God. Both these interpretations were deeply problematic, the cardinal continued, because they pushed God farther and farther away from humanity.

“If Jesus is not the Son of God,” Cardinal Ratzinger said, “then God really is at a great distance from us.” So perhaps the chilling sense of the absence of God evident throughout much of the western world was “a product of the absence of Jesus Christ,” who is not just moral exemplar but Savior, Lord, and God-with-us – “Emmanuel.” On the other hand, “if we see this Jesus” born for us and crucified for us, “then we have a much more precise idea of God, who God is, and what God does.”

Then the cardinal connected the dots to 9/11. A “more precise” idea of God, gained through an experience of God-with-us, was not only important for the Church and its evangelical mission. It was also “crucial for the dialogue with the Islamic world, which really is about the question, who is God?”

Fifteen years later, that typically brilliant Ratzingerian analysis seems even more salient – and not just in terms of whatever dialogue may be possible with Islam, but in terms of us.

Loneliness is the modern predicament and it’s getting worse. I was recently in New York, and as walking is the only way get around traffic-choked Manhattan, I hoofed it. And what powerfully struck me is how isolated the denizens of the Concrete Jungle are – and are by choice. For the vast majority of people you bump into (sometimes literally) on the sidewalks of New York are living inside their own reality: Pod World, I started calling it when the iPod was all the rage. Today, there are very few New York pedestrians to be found without ear buds of some sort stuck into their heads. The iPod is ancient history, but the buds are still there, and so is the isolation.

Social media is no antidote to this isolation, for tweets or Facebook postings (not to mention comment threads beneath online articles) are not substitutes for real conversation. In many cases, I fear, they intensify the loneliness and the self-absorption from which it often springs.

Christmas reminds us what Christians have to say to this pervasive loneliness. We say “God is with us,” as throughout the Christmas season we celebrate the divine answer to the Advent plea, “O come, o come Emmanuel.” That plea did not go unrequited. We see the answer to it in the crèches in our homes. God is with us, not in awe and majesty, but in that most accessible of human forms, the baby who reaches out for our embrace.

God is Emmanuel, God-with-us, in the midst of our lives, not outside them. A few years ago I began collecting Fontanini crèche figures, and while the display is now as big as it’s going to get, there’s a reason why the manger in our crèche is surrounded by dozens of figures: decoratively speaking, that’s the best way to express my conviction that the Lord of history came into history to redeem history in the midst of history.

He is Emmanuel. He is God-with-us. We are not alone.

Merry Christmas.

COMING UP: The Persecution of Professor Esolen

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(Image courtesy of Province of Saint Joseph via Flickr)

Professor Anthony Esolen is a bright jewel in the crown of Catholic higher education in the United States, a scholar whose brilliant translation of, and commentary on, Dante’s Divine Comedy is appreciated far beyond the boundaries of Catholic literary and intellectual life. Tony Esolen is also a wonderful man, a scintillating spiritual writer, and a teacher who takes character formation as seriously as intellectual formation because he wants his students to be virtuous and happy, not just smart and employable. If I were drafting a university-level Dream Team of instructors for my grandchildren, Tony Esolen would be a very high first-round pick.

So why is Professor Esolen being persecuted at the school where he’s taught for twenty-five years, Providence College?

Because he spoke his mind plainly on questions of great consequence for the future of Catholic higher learning and got the PC Stormtroopers into an uproar. To make matters worse, the college’s administration has shown more sympathy to those determined to bully Esolen into silence than to one of Providence’s star professors.

The offenses? Two articles that Professor Esolen wrote, which proposed that “diversity” (which the professor welcomed) be located within a biblical vision of the ultimate unity of all humanity in God: a vision that would, he suggested, deepen Providence College’s Catholic identity and distinguish it from competitors. Absent that purifying vision, he warned, making a fetish of diversity risks creating a coercive campus ethos inimical to true learning.

Anyone paying attention to campus life in recent years knows that America’s colleges and universities are filled with pampered millennials who require “trigger warnings” if their tender sensibilities might be offended by this, that, or the other idea or text. Well, Tony Esolen provided no trigger warning, only robust and bracing argument. And certain students and faculty at Providence College reacted with fits of rage more befitting a day-care center than an institution of higher education. Which, of course, perfectly illustrated one point Esolen made in his articles.

This is sad beyond words. I’ve long been happy to point parents, students, and donors to Providence College as a school that takes the classic liberal arts tradition seriously, and does so with a distinctively Catholic flavor. It will be much harder to do that in the future unless the college administration reverses its present course, calls the faculty and students who have been brutalizing Professor Esolen to order, and reaffirms Providence College’s commitment to genuine academic freedom and to a Catholic vision of the human person that challenges the tribalism and identity politics eroding our culture and our politics.

As for that erosion, recent data from the World Values Survey tells us that only 30% of U.S. millennials (i.e., those born after 1980) think it “essential” to live in a democracy; 24% of those same millennials think democracy a “bad” or “very bad” way to run a country; and only 19% judge it “illegitimate” for the military to take over when the government is incompetent or failing to do its job. Those numbers might seem appalling. But what should we expect when other survey data tells us that something like 50 percent of recent colleges graduates are historical illiterates who (as George Will recently pointed out) don’t know that George Washington led the Continental Army at Yorktown, or that Theodore Roosevelt had a role in building the Panama Canal, or that FDR designed the New Deal? When almost half of recent college graduates don’t know the length of terms served by members of the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate, is it really surprising that so many in their age cohort claim to value efficient autocracy over the often-messy business of democratic self-governance?

Catholic higher education is uniquely positioned to do something about these twinned problems of historical amnesia and political-cultural corruption. The Church invented the university and its ethos of open inquiry, which was rooted in the conviction that human beings can, with effort, get at the truth of things. Anthony Esolen stands firmly in that great Catholic tradition of liberal learning. A college whose leadership is committed to that tradition, and to Catholic leadership in the reform of an increasingly incoherent and authoritarian American intellectual and educational culture, would celebrate Tony Esolen’s contributions. It certainly wouldn’t coddle his persecutors.