A visit to a Creole village: more musings on culture

This essay continues the reflections begun in the previous post, “Of lager beer and an Ohio German Catholic Bigot”.

By Christopher Zehnder

Washington Irving

In traveling about our motley country, I am often reminded of Ariosto’s account of the moon, in which the good paladin Astolpho found everything garnered up that had been lost on earth. So I am apt to imagine, that many things lost in the old world are treasured up in the new; having been handed down from generation to generation, since the early days of the colonies. A European antiquary, therefore, curious in his researches after the ancient and almost obliterated customs and usages of his country, would do well to put himself upon the track of some early band of emigrants, follow them across the Atlantic, and rummage among their descendants on our shores.

So wrote the 19th-century American author, Washington Irving, in a short essay, “The Creole Village.” When I first read this essay over 25 years ago, I was intrigued. I had been raised with the metaphor of America as a melting pot in which national cultural distinctions were boiled down into a homogeneous brew that hardly savored of any of the original ingredients. One could detect trace elements of them to be sure – borrowed foreign words and phrases, for instance, or remnants of ethnic styles in our plastic art, music, and cookery. Yet, such elements merely made our national cultural stew a bit more interesting than it would otherwise have been; they do not make it discernibly French, German, Jewish, Italian, African, or Japanese. It remains peculiarly American soup – rather bland. We are a mixture of these cultures, and yet none of them. Continue reading

Of lager beer and an Ohio German Catholic Bigot

By Christopher Zehnder

“Almost fit for the abode of personal gods”: St. Michael’s Church, Fort Loramie, Ohio

In studying history, it is important to pay attention not only to major themes and players but to the places, communities, and individuals most people never hear about. This is why I like to read local histories – they offer details that fill out general historical accounts and provide a more articulated understanding of historical periods. Local histories give us a more nuanced taste; they develop the palate of historical imagination. They fill out the important human details that get lost in the reading of general history.

Recently, while wandering through an antique store in Powell, Ohio, I came across just such a local history, Historical Collections of Ohio, by one Henry Howe, LL.D. Published in 1908, Historical Collections describes what Mr. Howe learned of Ohio’s communities during two periods of travel through the state: the first in 1846 and the second in 1886-90. Thus far, I have discovered several interesting details about my new home state. One in particular I found arresting. In discussing Shelby County, in western Ohio between Lima (the birthplace of my maternal grandfather, Ernest Anderegg, incidentally) and Dayton to the south, Howe quotes a description in “Sutton’s County History” of a German Catholic settlement, the “village of Berlin,” in what is now the Fort Loramie, Ohio. Continue reading

An antidote to despair: Tradition, reason, and the Church

By Christopher Zehnder

Here I continue with the theme of last week’s essay, “Traditionalists are Right, Sort of…”

Henry David Thoreau, an anti-traditionalist

One of the most compelling arguments against a reverence for tradition is that traditions are often wrong. Henry David Thoreau stated the matter in words that still resonate. He wrote in Walden, “What everybody echoes or in silence passes as true today may turn out to be falsehood tomorrow, mere smoke of opinion, which some had trusted for a cloud that would sprinkle fertilizing rain on their fields.”

Throughout history, men have discovered that what their ancestors passed down to them as true was merely false. One could point to many examples of false traditions – polygamy, for instance, or chattel slavery. Throughout most of human history, both of these institutions, especially slavery, were considered simply part of the order of things. One did not question them, because they were woven into the traditional – handed down – fabric of life.

The fact, too, of the diverse human traditions, holding to contrary propositions as true or enjoining clashing customs and modes of behavior, underlines the fact that tradition and truth are not necessarily synonymous. Even so great a mind as Aristotle saw the exposing to death of weak or disabled infants as part of the order of things, while our Christian tradition sees this as murder. American native peoples thought it perfectly acceptable to torture and mutilate their enemies, while Europeans thought the practice barbaric – even if, at times, they indulged in it. Hindus hold cows as sacred, while we treat them as provender. Continue reading

Traditionalists are right, sort of … Beyond reaction to radicalism

By Christopher Zehnder

Since the French Revolution, we in Western culture have tended to look on all political and social thought as lying along a continuum. We stretch the world of men on a rack that is marked “left,” “right,” and “center.” The “left” we call “liberal,” fond of change and oriented to that non-existence we call the “future.” The “right” is “conservative,” skeptical (leftists say “fearful”) of change, zealous to maintain the status quo, and preservative of the past. At least, so go the common stereotypes of both groups – which, like a lot of stereotypes, has in them a good deal of truth mixed with a fair amount of caricature.

Along this continuum, the traditionalist is thought to fall to the right of center, even to the right of right, if this were possible. If the garden-variety rightist does not like change, the traditionalist (it is thought) positively hates it. If the typical rightist wants to preserve the past, the traditionalist wants to resurrect it. To this way of thinking, the traditionalist is basically an antiquarian, but not the congenial sort that collects Ming vases or favors period instruments in the performance of Bach. No, this sort of traditionalist is political and so a dangerous fellow, a social Luddite who would take a brickbat to the machinery of progress. He is the enemy of life, a devotee of a static reality that no longer even exits, for it is past. Even his fellow rightists – the “conservatives” – don’t often like the traditionalist. Continue reading

Back to Nature: the Antidote to the Post-Modern Mind


By Christopher Zehnder

St. Jerome in his study, by Albrecht Dürer

In a recent article published in the journal Commonweal (“The Dead End of the Left? Augusto Del Noce’s Critique of Modern Politics”), author Carlo Lancelotti makes this observation. “The experience,” he says, “of politically engaged Catholics, both in Europe and in the United States, during the past fifty years” has been “a long series of rear-guard battles on ethical issues (divorce, abortion, same-sex marriage, euthanasia, etc.) in a cultural context in which the philosophical and religious images (of human life, of marriage, love) that underpinned those ethical values has faded. As a consequence, little can be gained by producing more comprehensive ethical lists, such as ‘consistent ethics of life.’” The reason for the insufficiency of such lists simply is, says Lancelotti, that “[e]thical appeals not backed by ‘Being’ are destined either to fall on deaf ears, as expressions of personal religious preferences, or to develop into moralistic ideologies (think of ‘political correctness’) backed by the will to power.”

Lancelotti aptly summarizes the condition of social and political conflict today. We are experiencing the flowering of the “post-modern mind,” a phenomenon that those of us who came of age in the last two decades of the 20th century can only view with incomprehension. For whatever the confusions of our youth, we at least suffered the illusion that we and our ideological opponents spoke a common moral language. Terms such as “human rights,” “justice,” and “freedom” were rooted (so we thought) in a worldview founded on a kind of moral consensus that, if vague, was nevertheless consistent across ideological divides. For us, the thing we called “western civilization” provided a common ground for discussion and debate. We needed only to find the right arguments to awaken our opponents to the better angels of our commonly held suppositions. Indeed, the only hindrance to success in this endeavor was the perversity arising from our opponents’ bad will, their unwillingness to draw logical conclusions from commonly held premises. Or so we thought.

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The Creative Historian: The Role of Imagination, Sacred and Profane, in Understanding the Past

By Christopher Zehnder

The following is the text of  a talk I delivered at the June 2016 conference of the Institute for Catholic Liberal Education in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Herodotus of Halicarnassus, a very creative historian

The creative historian” – who will not deny that the phrase implies a contradiction, a lie, a heresy? Even I who conceived it dread to utter it, and not least for fear that some of you may feel compelled to denounce me to the authorities for my impertinence for even making such a connexion between creativity and history. To suggest, too, as I do, that creative imagination plays any part in so seemingly an objective study as history – is that not some spawn of postmodern despair that concludes that all claims to truth are naught but lunges at power? For the creative imagination is a mighty power and, in its own realm, divine in its efficacy. It can take the events and personalities of bygone times and by a deft manipulation arrange them into a tableau that accords with its own preconceptions and pleasures. If anything – far from being an aid to the historian, creative imagination would seem to threaten him with his greatest peril and pitfall.

Moreover, when we consider where the creative imagination has most free play, we will be more than justified to reject any tie between it and the historical discipline. I refer here to what J.R.R. Tolkien called “sub-creation,” the realm of myth and fable. It was Tolkien himself that gave us the best modern example of sub-creation, especially in his magnum opus, the Silmarilien, where he creates nothing less than a mythical history of the early ages of the world. Speaking of the concept of sub-creation, Tolkien wrote:

“We have come from God, and inevitably the myths woven by us, though they contain error, will also reflect a splintered fragment of the true light, the eternal truth that is with God. Indeed only by myth-making, only by becoming “sub-creator” and inventing stories, can Man aspire to the state of perfection that he knew before the Fall.”

Here it is clear that, for Tolkien, sub-creation does not equate with falsehood. It will contain “error,” but it will shine with the light of truth. Let this be so. Still, who will deny that the truth for which a Tolkien will strive in his sub-creation is not entirely the same truth the historian seeks in his attempts to reconstruct the past? Continue reading

An Aristocrat Who Stood for Labor: Bishop Wilhelm Emmanuel von Ketteler

By Christopher Zehnder

What follows comes from my book, Light to the Nations II: The Making of the Modern World. For more information on this book, please visit the site of the Catholic Textbook Project.


Clemens August von Droste-Vischering

It was silent night, November 20, 1837. By order of the Prussian king, Friedrich Wilhelm III, troops surrounded the archiepiscopal palace in Köln, on the lower Rhine in Germany. Escorted by police, the governor of the province entered the palace and arrested the 64-year-old archbishop, Clemens August von Droste-Vischering. After being taken from his diocese, the archbishop was imprisoned at the fortress of Minden, about 147 miles northeast of Köln. Such was the price Clemens August had to pay for defending the rights of the Church against the Prussian government.

Archbishop Droste-Vischering had insisted that children of mixed marriages (between Catholics and Protestants) had to be raised Catholic. The Prussians, who had taken control of the very Catholic Rhineland in 1815, insisted that in such marriages some children had to be raised Catholic and others, Protestant. This had been the custom in Prussia. The Catholic Church in the Rhineland, said the Prussians, also had to go along with this custom. But, no matter how long-standing the custom was, it violated the law of the Catholic Church—and in a contest between the king and the Church, Archbishop Droste-Vischering knew whom he had to obey.

The imprisonment of Archbishop Droste-Vischering was an inspiration to many German Catholics. It even influenced one young nobleman to change his career plans. The 26-year-old Baron Wilhelm Emmanuel von Ketteler had been preparing to enter the service of the Prussian government; but with the archbishop’s arrest and imprisonment, Ketteler decided he could not serve a government that committed such injustices. Instead, he ended up studying theology; and in 1844, he was ordained a priest.

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Pope Gregory XVI: A 19th Century Environmentalist

By Christopher Zehnder

Well, I’ll admit that the title of this essay is not just a little inaccurate – if we take “environmentalist” in the narrow sense we understand it today. But if we understand “environment” more broadly – as those conditions that surround us and influence us – then, I think, calling Pope Gregory XVI an “environmentalist” is not too far off the mark.

Gregory XVI.jpg

Pope Gregory XVI

Indeed, Gregory took the “environment” of his day very seriously; some might say, too seriously. One might think, in fact, that he fit well the stereotype of the modern environmentalist – that he lacked balance and perspective, confusing the essential with what is merely external and contingent. For, he vehemently opposed republican government and would accept no lay participation in the government of his Papal States. His 1832 encyclical, Mirari Vos condemned liberty of conscience and the freedom to publish any and all opinions. He stood resolutely against every revolution in his time – even the rebellion of the Catholic Poles against their persecutor, the Orthodox tsar of Russia. Why, Gregory XVI was so reactionary that he even forbade the building of a railroad and the installing of gas lights in the the Papal States! He despised railroads. He called them chemins d’enfer (“roads to hell”) – a pun on the French chemin de fer, “iron road.” (This, of course, suggests that Gregory had a sense of humor, which he did. Those close to him knew him to be jovial, friendly, and a lover of good conversation – thus demonstrating that even reactionaries can be fun.) Continue reading

The Supreme Court and Laudato Si’

By Christopher Zehnder

When I first learned of the Supreme Court’s decision striking down statutes forbidding same-sex marriage, I felt neither surprise nor dismay. No surprise, for it was just what I had expected. No dismay, for I did not expect anything other from our society, or its government.

I did feel annoyed, however – for, like a vamp coming late to a party, the Supreme Court has drawn all eyes from the one who had been the belle of the ball: Pope Francis and his encyclical, Laudato Si’.

Yet, it is fitting, in a way, that the Supreme Court’s decision should so closely follow the pope’s encyclical, for the former brings into focus the major theme of the latter. That theme is not the threat of climate change, whatever those who want either to dismiss the encyclical or coöpt it say. A major – if not the major – theme of Laudato Si’ is that, both in the moral order and the natural order, everything is connected. How we treat the “environment” is how we will treat ourselves, and how we treat ourselves is how we will treat the natural world outside ourselves.

This point may not seem immediately obvious. After all, an industrialist who pours sludge into a river is not going to mix it into his coffee. And people will take the most assiduous care of their pets even while they ruin their constitutions with unhealthy eating. Everyone probably knows someone who lives with such contradictions in their souls – but this is merely to point out that human beings tend to be self-divided in a profound inconsistency between ideals and actions – or, even, between one ideal and another ideal.

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A Little Paganism for the Feast of St. John the Baptist….

By Christopher Zehnder

I have long been fascinated by folk customs arising out Christian Europe — in part, because their origins often were not Christian, but pagan. The genius of evangelization (I think) was how the Faith could take pagan practices and incorporate them into a Christian ethos. Of course, all elements of pagan superstition were not expunged, for the process of Christianization of whole culture was never complete — how could it be?

An example of such a pagan remnant was the customs surrounding the Feast of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist (June 24). The Church, it seems, placed the feast near the spring equinox, when the days reach the apogee of their lengthening. A most fitting moment for the one who said, of Christ, “He must increase, but I must decrease.”

In my novel, A Song for Else, I describe the protagonist’s memories of the bonfires ignited on the feast. Here is the excerpt from the book:

Lorenz took the bottle and moved just outside the firelight. He sat down on the cool ground. He drank. He could hear the students wrangling, but he paid them no heed. The wine that now warmed his body was withdrawing it from everything around him. He was there but not there, hovering as it were in a sphere of air that his spirit filled with its own life, forcing out all that was not its own.

       He cared nothing for what happened to Holzhaupt. Instead of the tawdry drama working itself out only a few feet from him, Lorenz found himself considering the fire. Its strength was declining; it was beginning to settle itself down in its coals. The orb of light about it was contracting. The fire was losing its battle against the night.

       It had only been a fortnight since Lorenz saw fires – far larger than this – burning on the hills that rose above Erfurt. It had been Sankt Johannes’ Eve. The Thuringian peasants danced about the fires, he knew, just as his own people did.

         The fire kindled memory. He recalled a Sankt Johannes’ Eve now, it seemed, so many years ago. Inge had placed a purple-flowered garland of verbena and mugwort about his neck; he recalled his delight in the sweet scented blossoms. She handed him a sprig of larkspur. “When you stand before the fire, look at it with this flower before your eyes. It will keep them from failing.” The verbena, he knew, would protect him from witches.

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