Tag Archives: responsibility

Imaginary versions of the good.

In the spring of 2018 Father Stephen Freeman wrote on “The Inherent Violence of Modernity,” and at that time his thoughts prompted me to browse definitions of violence. Many of them are along the lines of “causing or intending to cause damage,” but the most succinct was “extreme force.”  Father Stephen’s use of the word is based on the idea of us trying to “make it so,” improving society, changing other people, making the world a better place. I offer a few selected paragraphs from his article, and from his replies to comments on it:

“The philosophy that governs our culture is rooted in violence, the ability to make things happen and to control the outcome. It is a deeply factual belief. We can indeed make things happen, and, in a limited way, control their outcome. But we soon discover (and have proven it time and again) that our ability to control is quite limited. Many, many unforeseeable consequences flow from every action.”

“Modernity has as its goal the creation of a better world with no particular reference to God – it is a secular concept. As such, that which constitutes ‘better’ is, or can be, a shifting definition. In Soviet Russia it was one thing, in Nazi Germany another, in Consumer-Capitalist societies yet another still. Indeed, that which is ‘better’ is often the subject of the political sphere. But there is no inherent content to the ‘better,’ nor any inherent limits on the measures taken to achieve it. The pursuit of the better (‘progress’) becomes its own morality.”

“Keeping the commandments of Christ is not doing nothing. It is, however, the refusal to use violence to force the world into ever-changing imaginary versions of the good.”

“We do not have ‘responsibility as citizens.’ That is the rhetoric of the modern state. We have responsibility to God, to keep His commandments. That might very well exceed anything we think of under citizenship. Frankly, we need to quit thinking like ‘Americans’ and think as Christians. Most people’s idea of engaging politically is nothing more than the cheap, never-ending notion of having opinions and occasionally yapping about them. There is no commandment to have opinions and express them. There is no commandment to take political action. Modernity suggests that the political realm is that actual definition of ‘reality.’ It is where we do things. This is false and makes an idol of the state. The political realm is the place of violence.”

“Do not ask, ‘How can we fix the world?’ Instead, ask, ‘How should Christians live?’ and give the outcome of history back to God.”

What is the answer to “How should Christians live?” At the end of his article Fr. Stephen gives a few ideas, which are very appropriate for Christmastime, as the first of them all is:

“Live as though in the coming of Jesus Christ, the Kingdom of God has been inaugurated into the world and the outcome of history has already been determined.”

I think my favorite on his short but broadly useful list is: “Love people as the very image of God and resist the temptation to improve them.” I know that each of us has our own unique set of circumstances to deal with, including people who want to change us or who obviously “need improvement” and are not fun to be with. May God give us grace to be thankful for even them, and to love them “as the very image of God.”

 

What must lonely leaders read?

“The loneliness of leaders. Sometimes I try to imagine what they read, what books the great political leaders might pick up. I don’t mean the abhorrent dictators… but genuinely great leaders. I’m not sure such leaders even exist at this historical moment, probably not, but they did exist, fortunately enough, not so long ago, during the Second World War. Poets and novelists are reluctant to remember this….”

“So what should those extraordinary individuals, the real leaders, read? I was raised on literary culture, which has its bona fide heroes, truly remarkable, in which Kierkegaard and Kafka, Dostoevsky and Celan, receive their due. But if I try to think myself into the minds of those who bear the responsibility for a whole nation, if I imagine the nightly vigils of someone facing the monumental challenges of, say, a Churchill, would I really recommend Fear and Trembling, The Sickness unto Death, Notes from Underground, Metamorphosis, wonderful texts, books, categories, images that are our hymns, the hymns of our introspection, articulating our uncertainties, our mistrust of all authority? I wouldn’t dare. For the time being, these great leaders — do they exist? — must reach for Thucydides, Plutarch, Livy. And of course Homer and Shakespeare.”

Adam Zagajewski in Slight Exaggeration, © 2011