The Humility, and Glory, of Water: Thoughts on the Baptism of Christ

By Christopher Zehnder

“I need to be baptized by you and do you come to me?” (Matthew 3.14)

Thus, John the Baptist, when Our Lord sought baptism from him. It is no wonder that John should shrink from this act; it so ill accorded with this man, whom John had proclaimed the one “whose sandals I am not worthy to carry.” For John’s ministry had been toward sinners — a mere symbolic washing with water, an earnest of mercy and forgiveness. This One, however, would baptize “with the Holy Spirit and fire.”

“I need to be baptized by you…”

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Pity and Indignation in Dante’s Inferno

By Christopher Zehnder

A profound tension between the movements of the heart and the demands of reason marks Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy. This tension is felt in passages describing the pity Dante feels for the damned in Hell. Should Dante feel such pity? In one passage in Canto XX of the Inferno, the answer to this question seems to be a definite no. Dante has passed into the Fourth Bolgia of the fraudulent, where the shades of fortune tellers and diviners appear to him “hideously distorted,” their faces so twisted on their necks that “the tears that burst from their eyes ran down the cleft of the buttocks.” Seeing “the image of our humanity distorted,” Dante is overcome with weeping, for which Virgil rebukes him.

“Still? Still like the other fools,” says the stern Mantuan poet, the personification of reason:

“… There is no place

for pity here. Who is more arrogant
within his soul, who is more impious
than one who dares to sorrow at God’s judgment?”

To Virgil, Dante’s fault is nothing small. He is not merely guilty of some little weakness but of the impiety of questioning God’s justice. Virgil does not say how Dante should respond to the sufferings of the damned. Should he rejoice at their sufferings or simply look on with indifference? Yet, it seems, for Virgil, pity has no place in Hell.

Virgil’s rebuke  would seem to settle the question of the propriety of feeling pity for the damned. But only a few lines before Virgil’s rebuke, Dante appeals to the reader for understanding:

Reader, so may God grant you to understand
my poem and profit from it, ask yourself
how could I check my tears…

This is not the only place in the Inferno where Dante feels pity for the damned, nor where Virgil at least seems to countenance a more rigorous response. Yet, no where else does Virgil rebuke Dante for his pity; indeed, elsewhere in Hell, the Master not only commends attitudes consonant with pity but himself seemingly acts out of pity for the suffering souls.

That we may profit from Dante’s verse, it behoves us to seek a resolution to the dilemma — whether Dante’s responses of pity toward those suffering justly by God’s will were always or never proper. Or, perhaps they were proper sometimes but, other times, not? The question of pity here, however, resolves itself into a larger question. One may feel other emotions that seemingly suggest a desire contrary to God’s will — sorrow, for instance, when a loved one dies or fear in the face of certain suffering, or a longing to escape it. Thus, we are led to ask a broader question — do we show impiety when, in the face of God’s certain providence, we feel anything else but joy, or, at least, indifference?

To answer this question with the goal, hopefully, of understanding the Divine Comedy better by answering it, we shall examine what Thomas Aquinas teaches about the proper relation of the passions to the will, and of both to reason. We shall ask whether Aquinas’ account resolves the dilemma posed by the Divine Comedy. We shall also look at an account of the relation of the emotions to the intellect and the will given by the 20th century philosopher, Dietrich von Hildebrand, as a possible way of understanding the problem posed by Virgil’s stern “how dare you” and Dante’s plaintive “how could I not?”

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Were Medieval Germans Secret Pagans?

By Christopher Zehnder

Many years ago I read, in a “History of the Holy Roman Empire” (I think it was Friedrich Heer’s work by that name) a startling claim — that medieval Germans of Saxony had never abandoned paganism, and that it was their fidelity to paganism that was the source of their infidelity to the Catholic Church in the 16th century.

According to Heer (if Heer it was), the conversion of the Saxons to the Christian Faith had never really taken. In the centuries after Charlemagne had made them pass through the water, Saxon fathers had passed on to Saxon sons the secret of where the ancient idols lay hidden, deep in the forest. Along with this lore, they had instilled in their boys a profound disdain for the Catholic Church, the religion they had been forced to embrace. So, when Luther came along, they were quite willing to cast off the old religion for the sake of the new.

Thus went the argument.

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The missionary council — what Vatican II was about


By Christopher Zehnder

The following article was first published in New Oxford Review. I republish it here as a response to recent criticisms, leveled by Traditionalists, of Vatican II.  

Many are the opinions about the Second Vatican Council and its effects on the Church – some Catholics praising them and others deploring them. But, while many have discussed and debated what the council did, few seem to take interest in what the council said, and what it intended to accomplish.

Council Fathers

It is commonly said that the council set out to “update” the Church – and this is true, but not in the crude sense it which it sometimes is taken. The intent of the Second Vatican Council was to outfit the Church so that she could better promote and cultivate communion – a more intense communion among the members of Christ’s body, the Church, and between the Church and the world. In seeking communion with the world, the council called for some accommodation on the part of the Church, but not to confound the Church with the world; rather, the council wanted to better equip the Church to draw the world to herself, and through herself, to Christ. The council had an essentially missionary, evangelical thrust. Its inspiration was the Great Commission, not the craven and abject spirit of capitulation. This I shall try to demonstrate in what follows.

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We’re Not in This Alone: The Common Good, Community, and the Image of God: Part 2

By Christopher Zehnder

The following the second part of a talk I gave last fall at the Conference of Imago Dei Politics in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. You may read the first part here.

The Common Good and Community

Thus we arrive at the common good, which we can define as that matrix of goods that is productive of happiness for man as man. In other words, the common good is good for everyone, no matter who he or she is. Yet, there is another sense in which we can speak of the common good as common. The common good is common, not simply because we all seek it, but because we can only achieve it together, in community. Despite the ideal of the self-sufficient, self-made man, the fellow who can pull himself up by his own bootstraps, each of us is really dependent on each other to attain even to the least of the common goods.

The creation of Eve, from a late 15th century miniature by Nicolaus de Lyra Troyes

This becomes apparent when we consider our marvelous weakness as individuals. A naked human is a very vulnerable creature, and we are born naked. We do not come ready-made with any of those tools other animals have: we don’t have fur coats or feathers, the swift feet of a greyhound, wings to fly, claws for digging like a sloth or clawing like a cat, strong jaws for grinding like a goat.  There really is not much to us, on the physical level.  Unlike other animals, we are born into a state of utter weakness. As infants, we require the care of others for our very survival – the food, shelter, and warmth necessary for life, the most basic of the common goods. Young children, too, are very helpless. As we grow, we gain in knowledge, experience, and skills; yet, for all of these, we depend for the most part on others. Everything we learn, we learn from others – our parents, primarily, but other adults as well. By these means, we achieve various perfections in the mastery of our bodies and the education of our minds. Yet, even for that rather natural and, as it were, automatic biological perfection – our ability to reproduce ourselves – we must rely on another.  To reproduce another of our kind, a man needs a woman, a woman needs a man. Without the other, a man cannot be a father or a woman a mother. Continue reading

We’re Not in This Alone: the Common Good, Community, and the Image of God: Part 1

By Christopher Zehnder

The following is the first part of a talk I gave last fall at the Conference of Imago Dei Politics in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. 

The creation of Adam, from the Nürnberg Chronicle

In our concern for a more just and honorable world, we can easily get distracted by details. Week after week, news stories sting us to anger; or, like the gray skies of late November after the leaf-fall, oppress us with a sense of drear and world-weariness. It all never seems to end. Scandal follows scandal; injustice follows injustice. Rage and passion contend with each other like the wrathful in spirits in l’Inferno that, as the Dante says, in the black, muddy River Styx “smote each other not alone with hands, but with the head and with the breast and feet, tearing each other piecemeal with their teeth.”  We long for renewal, for an awakened sense of justice, for the righting of present and past wrongs, and for love. But the world today offers none of this to us. Even the Church has hidden her mother’s face from us. Rather, we are forced to look on what seems utter and irrevocable collapse.

This is a cheerful way to begin a talk, no? Yet, though these are not happy words, they are, I think, a true description of the time. And we cannot hide from the truth. Yet, I don’t think these words are the last word; for, if each of us feels this sorrow and helplessness in the face of events, we can trust there are others who feel it, too. We in this room are not alone in seeking for better things – for justice, goodness, humane compassion, a human-scaled world that responds to human need, beauty in creation and art, a restored Christian devotion: in a word, a renewed creation. That others seek these things with us is a sign of hope. Late November does not have the last word. Spring, we can hope, will come.

Yet, if we are to discover where true hope lies, we must cease, as T. S. Eliot put it, to be distracted from distraction by distraction. We need to step out of the rush of events, at least for a little time, and think about what is constant and enduring, rather than what is passing. Only in what is can we, I think, discover the beginnings of a response to the ills that confront us today.

The root of our malaise today can in part be found in a decayed understanding of who we as human persons are and what our relationship is to society, our earth, and, finally, the cosmos itself. We are all seeking for happiness – in the maelstrom of the news cycle and the swirl of events, this remains a constant. We all want happiness, which we know can only be fulfilled by our appropriating the good – what is good for us – for no one desires evil for its own sake. Yet, if we do not understand ourselves, we cannot know what is good for ourselves and, therefore, what will make us happy. And by “us” here, I do not mean us primarily as individuals, but as members of the human family and, even, the wider community of the natural world. Continue reading

Of the Incarnation and Henry David Thoreau

By Christopher Zehnder

When I was younger, perhaps purer, but certainly more impressionable, I read Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. What I read deeply stirred me, particularly Thoreau’s reasons for retreating to the woods. “I went to the woods,” he wrote, “because I wanted to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” Thoreau said he “wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.” Though I could not fully articulate what it meant to “reduce life to its lowest terms,” I knew it was something I wanted to do. I wanted my small house on Walden Pond. I longed to hoe my patch of beans.

Though a sensualist, I have always been attracted at least to the idea of simplicity. Thoreau thus bespoke my soul with his quest for “life” – by which he meant earthly life; the life which is the “liquid fire” of growing things, the shimmering, crystalline purity of water, the bellowing might of Ocean, the teeming, but silent, fecundity of soil, the driving impetus of autumnal winds. In the waste of our own lives, in the hurry and bustle of the world of men, we miss Life, said Thoreau. “We live meanly, like ants; though the fable tells us that we were long ago changed into men, it is error upon error, and clout upon clout, and our best virtue has for its occasion a superfluous and evitable wretchedness.”

It was my (secret) approval of Thoreau’ castigation of religion that gave me pause. I knew the words were, at least, near-blasphemous, but I gladly grudged the truth of  “most men” are “in a strange uncertainty” whether life is “of the devil or of God.” Such men, said Thoreau, have “somewhat hastily concluded that it is the chief end of man here to ‘glorify God and enjoy him forever.’” Like an impure image in the mind, which, though resisted, allures, this indictment of religion drew me even while I threw up every defense to impede it. Continue reading

More consumer than not: Why we skipped Thanksgiving this year

This year our family did not celebrate Thanksgiving. Why?

The Eucharistic Christ

           It was not to protest the effects of colonization on Native American peoples, for which, some say, Thanksgiving stands as a symbol. Much less was it out of a spirit of ingratitude toward God for his blessings. Nor was it from an ascetical disgust for feasting and drinking. We Zehnders are no ascetics; it does not take much to lure us to the pleasures of the board and barrel. This year, we in no way eschewed the feasting associated with Thanksgiving; we merely held off on it until the Sunday, which, this year, was the Feast of Christ the King. We even had the traditional turkey, with all the usual side dishes, and apple and pumpkin pie. The wine, beer, and port flowed freely.

            But we did not celebrate Thanksgiving.

            This was, in fact, the first Thanksgiving we have sat out. In past years, we would gather with family for the day; this year, too, we planned to do the same, until circumstances of a practical nature prevented it. But, when the occasion permitted it; when we had no one else with whom to celebrate the day, when were effectively free to say yea or nay to Thanksgiving, we said nay. Why?

            One reason is that I have never quite seen the point of Thanksgiving. I know what it’s supposed to be about –giving thanks to God for all his blessings, but that rationale has long struck me as an excuse for the day, not its real meaning. If Thanksgiving has had anything to do with God, it has been reduced to a curt nod to the Big Guy, soon to be forgotten in the fevered amnesia of the Holiday Buying Season. It seems no accident that Black Friday follows Thanksgiving Thursday – and now Cyber Monday, only two days later. Continue reading

The anti-culture of America

By Christopher Zehnder

Peasant Dance, by Albrecht Dürer

It will come as no surprise to those who read the previous two essays, “Of Lager Beer and an Ohio German Catholic Bigot” and “A Visit to a Creole Village,” that I sympathize with those groups in U.S. history who sought to maintain their unique cultural patterns and resisted assimilation into the broader culture. I confess a certain antiquarian and romantic twist of soul that revels in things past; yet, my sympathy is not entirely nostalgic. Rather, I think such groups were guarding truths that our mass culture has forgotten and our mechanized culture of change has no patience for. They, in perhaps an inchoate way, grasped what culture is and why it is so important.

The resistance of such groups as the Germans of Berlin, Ohio and the Creoles of the Mississippi to the prevailing culture of their day sprang, it seems, from different causes. In describing the Creole village, Washington Irving depicts for us a people content with life as they lived it. Indeed, if there was any resistance on their part, it was wholly unconscious. They enjoyed a way of living they found congenial and were not tempted to change it, at least very much. Their common life and its expression was a finished work of art that could be perfected only in detail, not in fundamental form. The Berlin, Ohio, Germans, on the contrary, were quite conscious of their resistance. They too, it seems, lived in a manner congenial to themselves; but they had conceptualized it and so saw it as preservative of two goods: their temporal well-being and their religion.

We, with our modern proclivities, might be tempted to place too firm a division, even an opposition, between these goods – the temporal and the religious – for we have raised a stout wall of separation between religion and everyday life in society. We would tend to call the first good “secular” and think that it could exist apart from the second good, which we have relegated to the realm of the private. This was not how the Berlin Germans and, perhaps, the Creole villagers would have viewed the matter. For them, the temporal and sacred orders are intimately intertwined. Religion informed the customs of everyday life, and these customs had become the necessary soil in which religion throve. Custom and religion, though distinct as principles, were nevertheless united and inseparable in life.

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The Pope shakes things up again: is Francis saying anything “new” on the death penalty?

By Christopher Zehnder

So, Pope Francis has struck again! For a time, he was rather quiescent, seeming to settle down into a more traditional papal routine. But, he has leaped into the news again. He has, so we are told, changed the Church’s teaching on the death penalty.

A 17th-century depiction of St. Bernard liberating a thief from the gallows: the subscript reads: Liberat latronem a suspendio et deducit ad monasterium: “he frees a thief from the gallows and leads him to the monastery.”

This alleged change in teaching has come about through a revision of section 2267 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, dealing with the morality of the death penalty. Francis’ revision is the second revision of this section, for John Paul II had it rewritten after his 1995 encyclical, Evangelium Vitae, questioned the legitimacy of the death penalty in our day. In light of the firestorm that erupted over John Paul’s statements on the death penalty, I wondered what Francis’ revision said, if it could work up what seems an even more vehement reaction. Yet, when I read the new, revised section 2267 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, I was struck by how little there seemed to be struck by. The language was far more emphatic than the previous language; opposition to the death penalty is expressed without the much nuance. Still, I did not think Francis’ revision fundamentally different from Pope John Paul’s revision. I wondered what the outrage over it was all about. Continue reading