They have all been men (so far), flawed men; everyone who has ever held the office has been flawed. Some have had heroic attributes, but all of them have had craven moments.
There have only been forty-six them, and we have just lived through the chaotic and criminal presidency of the 45th, ending with his second impeachment after a failed and hapless insurrection that he waged in a desperate and feeble bid to retain power, or simply to assuage his mad vanity…
Today the occupant of the oval office is a long serving government official, former Senator and former Vice President, the oldest man ever elected to the office, Joseph R. Biden, and it seems like he wants to do some good for the people of this country, which would be nice for a change since the government is meant to be there to work for us…all of us.
We are in the middle of a global pandemic, a catastrophe that we have been struggling through for over a year; nearly half a million Americans have died from it, in large part do to the rank incompetence of the 45th President.
There is a lot of work ahead of us, and I do not know if we are up to it, but at least we have a President who understands that it is his task to hold us all-together while we try to get the work done.
We have a President who seems interested in doing more than simply manage the moment in front of us; his team, which includes the first woman to hold the office of Vice President, his team is looking past the pandemic, they are looking forward to the job of rebuilding our country, of redefining the American experience, of making the American Dream a reality that includes everyone, lifts the spirits of everyone, distributes what is just and good to everyone, cares for everyone, and leaves no-one behind.
We can do this; we can do it if we have the political will to push our elected representatives to do the right thing.
I for one am grateful that we have a new President, a hopeful President, but our problems go well beyond the ability of one man to fix, just as they go well beyond the scope of one man’s depravity.
I was fifteen years old the first time I read Dune. I had been an avid since I was eight years old when I began reading novels in the third grade, and I read the books that inspired me over and over again.
I read all kinds of things, but at the age of fifteen I read mostly fiction, and that age when I first read Dune in 1984, I found it to be somewhat dense and challenging.
I had taken that first copy from the carousel of the library at the alternative high-school I was attending, and which I dropped out of a few month later. I read that copy, perhaps not as carefully as I should, but as carefully as I could, and I went to see the motion picture when it came out in 1985.
Needless to say, I found David Lynch’s adaptation to be one of the worst movies ever made, and with that Dune passed from my thoughts for a time.
However, in the summer of 1988 I was visiting a friend in Montana, and I picked up a copy of Dune from the bookstore in Bigfork. I needed something to read on the bus ride home to Minneapolis.
Four years had passed since my first go at it, and my window on the world had opened wide enough for me to be able to engage the book in a completely different way. I was hooked. I was nineteen years old.
Dune changed my life.
Since then I have read Dune and all six books in the original Dune series, eight times over, as well as everything else Frank Herbert wrote.
He was a giant.
I have given away dozens of copies of Dune throughout my life, and recommended it to more people than I can count, always with the words this book will change your life.
Many of them came back to me to tell me that it did.
Frank Herbert wrote science fiction, but the science he wrote into his fiction had less to do with spaceships and laser beams (though it had those things), and more to do with the science of politics, religion, ecology and psychology, with the human person at the center of his imagination.
Through his insight Herbert challenges the reader to explore what it means to be human, and he asks open-ended questions about the range of human potential in a way that allows the reader to believe in those possibilities for themselves, and his own view of the range of human potential is inspiring. He believe that we can do more, be more, see more of the world than our senses allow…if we are disciplined he believes we can do it; if we are attentive to the world around us, and if we cultivate within ourselves the desire to live a life without fear we will secure a future for humanity beyond our solar system and spread through the galaxy.
He died thirty-nine years ago today, and when he passed a heroic light left the world.
When I was still a teenager, when I was beginning to move away from the various worlds of science fiction and fantasy that occupied my imagination, when I began to leave the acid washed pages of my comic books behind, as I was moving past the authors I had been introduced to in school, the so-called American novelists, such as Lewis, Fitzgerald and Steinbeck, it was then that I discovered Dostoyevsky, and a whole new dimension of literature became open to me.
This was the crossroads where literature became philosophy, and the human condition was laid bare.
Through the great Russian novelist I came to understand the power of narrative, its effectiveness at conveying certain truths that no human being can escape the grip of, and for whatever reason there are no authors more adept at this function than the Russian’s, with Fyodor Dostoyevsky being the foremost practitioner of this craft.
His influence on me was profound.
From Crime and Punishment and Notes from the Underground, to The Idiot and the Brothers Karamozov, which are perhaps his most famous works in English, I spent years reading his corpus, all the way through my twenties and into my thirties I tracked down his cannon, until I was left with translations of his notebooks to read…which I did.
I purchased the notebook for A Raw Youth at a used bookstore in Minneapolis (Majors and Quinn), one summer when I was on leave from the Navy. It was the first of these that I discovered; in those pages I could see the way Dostoyevsky constructed the arc of his stories, how he developed his characters from ego to id, from false-self to true-self, from, privilege to despair.
I also found an Imperial Ruble, tucked into its pages, a bookmark left behind by whoever was last to read to it.
The note was wrinkled and faded but still a treasure to me.
When I discovered Dostoyevsky I came to consider him as the father of existentialism, and through him I learned to love Dickens, who Dostoyevsky considered to be the greatest author of all time.
It has been one hundred and forty years since Dostoyevsky went down into the dirt, his influence has not waned, and we have not changed, his insight into the dilemma of human existence remains, I think it is even more pertinent in this—the digital age.
There are no prophets, there is no prophecy, there are only human beings. Human beings have the innate ability to perceive and recognize what is true. But we are all, each of us compromised; every expression of the truth coming from a human being is conditioned by that compromise, and therefore it is necessarily flawed, and yet despite these flaws we sometimes do good work, but because of these flaws all human works are suspect.
Listen to the psalmist!
It is God who makes us well, who creates in us the possibility of wellbeing. God is our wellbeing, but God is not a king, and there are no other gods.
All of creation belongs to God, all that is good and all that frightens us; everything, no matter how distressing or troubling, everything comes from God and will redound to the good.
It is good to show our respect for the creator and to sing songs in praise of God, remember! Always remember that God is our loving parent, and has prepared each of us for the divine blessing.
Even the apostle is liable to asserting his personal beliefs and foibles into the rubrics of the Church. Not everything he says should be accepted on its face as wise and good.
Paul believed that people should withdraw from public life, stop procreation and wait on God to deliver humanity from the miseries of the world. If he could have, he would have had all of us living chaste and celibate lives behind the walls of the cloister, men living with men and women living with women.
The apostle errs, but the church is not obligated to follow him in this error, the more humble thing would be to acknowledge the truth and move on.
This is the truth:
It is the desire of God, the creator of the universe, it is the desire of God that we follow the way that Jesus taught, to be merciful, love justice and walk humbly all the days of our life, to prosper and multiply.
The teachings of Jesus cannot be treated like a shell game, though they are, and have been since the beginning, as Matthew’s illustrates.
The way of Jesus is not a long con, it is not a bait and switch, it is a simple teaching that cannot be controlled or owned by any one group of people.
God, the creator of the universe, God has hidden nothing from us. The truth is in the open for anyone to see. The wise and the powerful, the learned and the clever, the weak and the meek, everyone has access to the same truth, to the knowledge of God, of justice, of hope and love.
Who are the wise and powerful, who are the learned and the clever, who are the faithful and childlike? In every generation, you will see a new group labeling the elder group as out of touch, blind, privileged, in the dark, corrupt. It is an endless cycle, and the truth remains the same; love justice, be merciful, do good, serve God through the loving service you provide to one another: your family, your friend, your neighbor, the stranger, even your enemy.
Just because a person may be wise and powerful, learned and clever, or a child of the Church, does not mean they recognize the truth when they see it, or act upon it when they do.
It is not your station in society, it is not how other people regard you, it is not the titles you have earned or the ways that you have been marginalized that give us the tell on how you will fulfill the calling to follow Jesus. What matters is what is in your heart and your willingness to trust in the content of your hope.
When you speak from the scriptures be careful.
When you observe the authors attempting to fit their narrative of the life of Jesus into a picture that makes it look as if he is fulfilling a prediction about the future, be wary; this is always a falsehood.
Even if a prediction had been made, and even if Jesus did the thing that was predicted, it is a false narrative to suggest that Jesus’ actions were in fulfillment of prophecy.
Prophets only speak of the future for two reasons; to engender hope and to warn of danger.
The words of a prophet are always addressed to the people in their own time, in their own place. Prophecy is never meant to guide the lives of future generations, except in the cases when the prophet is addressing an issue of universal truth, such as the nature of justice, which is itself unchanging.
The Gospel writers were propagandists; they fabricated many of the details of Jesus’ life. They fabricated those details to suit their narrative about who Jesus was, why he was necessary, and what his life and death meant for the early church.
In this narrative the Gospel writers place Jesus directly in the tradition of John the Baptist, with the words “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand.”
This is a continuation of that narrative, meant to harness the energy of John’s movement, after his arrest and murder.
Consider the Gospel for today, it is packed with nuance.
Begin by unpacking:
This is the first record of Jesus in his ministry as a public teacher.
He is still in Palestine but he has travelled to the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee. He is beyond the borders of Judea, half-way between Jerusalem and Damascus.
He gives his teaching in a synagogue, indicating his status as a Rabbi. The synagogues belong to the diaspora, Jewish communities outside of the Holy Land. Synagogues are the seat of the Pharisaic sect of Judaism, and Rabbis are teachers in that movement. Pharisees are a distinct group of teachers; they promulgate the law. They are different from the Scribes, and the priests of the temple. All of these distinctions are communicated in the opening paragraph:
Jesus the Pharisee, Jesus the Rabbi is teaching with authority, unlike the Scribes in Jerusalem.
One man calls him out. Not because he is possessed by demons, but because he afraid of what Jesus’ teaching represents.
He asks a good question, “What do you have to do with us?” This indicates that Jesus is an outsider.
He asks, “Are you here to destroy us?” This indicates that he perceives Jesus’ teaching to be a threat to the established order, and therefore quite possibly to his entire community.
He addresses the claim that Jesus’ followers are promoting, that he is the “Holy One of God.” He asserts this in an unfriendly manner, quite possibly as a charge against Jesus: a charge of hubris at the least, though it is potentially a charge of blasphemy.
By raising this charge he intends to undermine Jesus’ authority in the synagogue. Jesus commands the man to silence, and Jesus prevails. This scene is depicted dramatically in the gospel, as if Jesus were commanding an unclean spirit to come out of the man, a spirit of disobedience and falsehood. It is presented as Jesus casting out a demon or demons, and healing a man who was possessed. Though it should be presented as Jesus commanding his authority to convert a dissident into a believer.
The narrative does not depict a supernatural challenge to Jesus’ authority, but an ordinary challenge from a member of the community. It was not easy for Jesus to convince the man, it was a convulsive struggle, but Jesus prevailed; he prevailed because the community had been ready to receive Jesus’ teaching at the outset, and his victory in the disputation with the man who argued with him, how he managed the situation as a healer bolstered his authority all the more.
Be like Jesus in your ministry, be a healer; it is the best way to serve the interests of the divine.
I Will Raise Up a Prophet and Put My Words into His Mouth
Moses said to the people: ‘The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like myself, from among yourselves, from your own brothers; to him you must listen. This is what you yourselves asked of the Lord your God at Horeb on the day of the Assembly. “Do not let me hear again” you said “the voice of the Lord my God, nor look any longer on this great fire, or I shall die”; and the Lord said to me, “All they have spoken is well said. I will raise up a prophet like yourself for them from their own brothers; I will put my words into his mouth and he shall tell them all I command him. The man who does not listen to my words that he speaks in my name, shall be held answerable to me for it. But the prophet who presumes to say in my name a thing I have not commanded him to say, or who speaks in the name of other gods, that prophet shall die.”’
I would like to see you free from all worry. An unmarried man can devote himself to the Lord’s affairs, all he need worry about is pleasing the Lord; but a married man has to bother about the world’s affairs and devote himself to pleasing his wife: he is torn two ways. In the same way an unmarried woman, like a young girl, can devote herself to the Lord’s affairs; all she need worry about is being holy in body and spirit. The married woman, on the other hand, has to worry about the world’s affairs and devote herself to pleasing her husband. I say this only to help you, not to put a halter round your necks, but simply to make sure that everything is as it should be, and that you give your undivided attention to the Lord.
Gospel Acclamation – Matthew 11:25
Blessed are you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for revealing the mysteries of the kingdom to mere children.
Alternative Acclamation – Matthew 4:16
The people that lived in darkness has seen a great light; on those who dwell in the land and shadow of death a light has dawned.
Jesus and his disciples went as far as Capernaum, and as soon as the sabbath came he went to the synagogue and began to teach. And his teaching made a deep impression on them because, unlike the scribes, he taught them with authority.
In their synagogue just then there was a man possessed by an unclean spirit and it shouted, ‘What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are: the Holy One of God.’ But Jesus said sharply, ‘Be quiet! Come out of him!’ And the unclean spirit threw the man into convulsions and with a loud cry went out of him. The people were so astonished that they started asking each other what it all meant. ‘Here is a teaching that is new’ they said ‘and with authority behind it: he gives orders even to unclean spirits and they obey him.’ And his reputation rapidly spread everywhere, through all the surrounding Galilean countryside.
When I finally made it to the university, I went to a school named for this man, The University of Saint Thomas, in Saint Paul, Minnesota, named for Saint Thomas Aquinas; I studied philosophy there, as well as theology and the classics.
It was a grand place, it felt like a university, with its tall stately buildings made from massive blacks of light tan stone, Minnesota sandstone quarried from the river bluffs nearby. The moment I passed through the arches into the quad I felt like I had arrived.
My time at this school was reasonably well spent. Saint Thomas prepared me for advanced studies elsewhere, and I continued my theological work, though not as exhaustively as our Patron Saint, his Summa Theologica remains a unique achievement in the history of Western thought, more important for the mode of thinking he transmitted his ideas in than for the conclusions that he made.
Saint Thomas bridged the gap between the ancient philosophers: Socrates, Plato, Aristotle et al, and the proto-renaissance period of Western Europe, re-discovering the use of intellectual tools like such as formal logic and discursive reasoning, and re-employing them in a way that allowed Europeans to leave the Dark Ages, clearing the way for the Renaissance, the Enlightenment and the Age of Reason that followed.
Saint Thomas died on March 7th, 1274. In 1969 the Church moved the day we celebrate his feast to January 28th, we celebrate his sainthood today.
Saint Thomas was Italian by birth and a member of the Dominican order, a scholastic, and he was famous in his day. He died while making a pilgrimage on the Appian Way, death took him at the Cistercian abbey of Fossanova, and the monks there, fully cognizant of his fame, knowing that he would become a saint of great renown, they coveted the relics of his body.
They boiled his carcass down and polished his bones, preserving all of the water for distribution in the relic-trade, they refused for years to turn his body over to his Dominican brothers, parceling out his bones and the water bit by bit over time, keeping his skull until the very end.
The University of Saint Thomas has a vial of that water in its collection of sacred artifacts, a silly business, really, and beneath the dignity of the intellectual giant that Aquinas was known to be.
On his death bed it is reported that he gave an estimation of the value of his own contribution to the doctrine and dogma of the church, of which he said: everything is just straw.
There is a prayer that Thomas wrote carved into a column of the main entrance to the school grounds, the same arches that I first walked through my first day on campus, two stories below the offices of the Philosophy Department. I recited it aloud every day that I attended classes on the campus in Saint Paul.
It is a prayer that I carry with me still, as if it were written in my heart:
Grant, O Merciful God
That I may ardently desire,
And perfectly accomplish
What is pleasing to thee
For the praise and glory
Of thy name
In the year 2021 CE, seven hundred and forty-seven after the death of Saint Thomas, the world has become enmired in another kind of dark ages, which is odd and sadly ironic because the current tide of anti-rational, anti-intellectual sentiment that has griped the world has been seeded through the prevalence of digital media platforms that are in themselves a function of our mastery of light, as a means of communication.
We now find ourselves leaving in a cultural milieu that disdains the truth, scientia, science and knowledge, which undermines place of reason in public discourse.
In Western Europe the so-called dark ages are considered to have begun around the year 500 CE, with the reign of the emperor Justinian, roughly the same length of time seven hundred and fifty years after the golden age of the philosophers, and roughly seven hundred and fifty years before Saint Thomas wrote his Summa.
Let me be clear, I am not suggesting that there is anything inherently ominous in the pattern I have articulated, the numbers themselves are arbitrary and it would be unreasonable to suppose otherwise. However, we would be wise to acknowledge this, the descent of darkness has a cycle all of its own. We have fallen into this before and we are susceptible to falling into it again, once we have fallen, it could take centuries to emerge back into the light.