The Bible suggests even God gets lonely. Why don’t religious people talk more about it? (Dwight Lee Wolter, 1/18/24, RNS)

Yet rarely is loneliness mentioned explicitly in the Bible or in our churches. It is implied, but not declared. The often dire consequences of loneliness are seen, felt and heard but not acknowledged.

Did you ever wonder if Eve and Adam, after their banishment, were lonely for the Garden of Eden? I would have been. Were Eve and Adam lonely for their son, Abel, who was killed by his brother Cain? Was anyone on the ark, including Noah, lonely for home as they drifted on an endless sea of darkness and uncertainty? Was it out of loneliness that Jesus cried from the cross, “Why have you forsaken me?” I cannot imagine a lonelier place or a lonelier question on the lips of a lonelier person.


Plato’s Big Mistake (Louis Markos, January 31st, 2024, Imaginative Conservative)

Every time I reread the Protagoras or Meno, I am surprised anew that a man of Plato’s towering intellect and searing insight into human nature could have been so mistaken about the human propensity to sin and rebellion. Luckily for the development of Europe, the dangers inherent in Plato’s big mistake were neutralized for two millennia, partially by the corrections by Aristotle and then fully by the Christian doctrine of original sin, especially as it is developed in the writings of Augustine, Aquinas, and Dante.

As the late Renaissance gave way to the Enlightenment, however, a rather unlikely character arose who gave new life to Plato’s belief that knowledge is virtue: Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Rousseau’s motivation, of course, for adopting his view of human evil arose from quite a different source than that of Plato. As a pre-Christian thinker, Plato did not place himself in knowing opposition to the doctrine of original sin. Rousseau, on the other hand, as a post-Christian writer, was both conscious and intentional in his rejection of the biblical belief than man is by nature fallen and that his “problem”—that which keeps him from perfecting himself and building a perfect world—is his inborn propensity for sin and disobedience.

For Rousseau, man in his natural state was both free and innocent. It was external social corruption—not an internal state of rebellion—that was holding man back from his full potential. Man is born free, he cried out in the famous opening sentence of The Social Contract, but is everywhere in chains. It is only by throwing off the chains of convention and false hierarchy that man can return to his original state of purity: a state which Rousseau fancied he would find amongst the “noble savages” who lived on distant South Sea Islands and were thus isolated from the corruption of Western civilization. For Rousseau and his heirs the vehicle for freeing humanity from its chains was not so much spiritual as educational. Rousseau, though he would have disagreed with Plato in most other areas, agreed wholeheartedly that ignorance was the cause of most evil and that education was therefore the key to reforming the world.

Beginning with the French Revolution, an event which was inspired in great part by the writings of Rousseau, those who believed that the trouble with man was sin and rebellion would be labeled “conservative,” while those who countered that the problem was ignorance would be labeled “liberals.” What this meant in the practical political sphere is that conservatives were “law and order” rulers who felt the best way to deal with the sinful side of man was to establish social, political, legal, and religious barriers to contain and hem in that sinfulness. Liberals, on the other hand, nurtured a very different vision of government as an engine for the reforming and reshaping of man and society.

Up to this point, Rousseau, and Plato behind him, sounds like the teacher’s best friend. Can there be any nobler goal than that of eradicating ignorance? I know that I was motivated to pursue a career in education by the promise that I could use my gifts to help draw students up to higher levels of understanding and, by so doing, empower them to live lives of greater purpose and virtue. But then, I also knew that this promise was as exciting as it was illusory—that a man with a sixth grade education can be a saint, while a PhD can be both self-centered and immoral. And I knew—or learned—a third thing: that the promise and the illusion can be reconciled. As long as education is viewed within a realistic context of man’s natural propensity to sin, we can pledge ourselves with full gusto to the idealistic goal of moderating (rather than eliminating) the ignorance of that part of humanity which comes within our sphere.

But when the two views—the realistic and the idealistic—are cut off from one another, when society’s “planners” come to believe that they can reeducate all people in accordance with some national or global program, then is the lid of Pandora’s box thrown open wide and the world left prey to the egalitarian demons lurking therein.

It is the great tragedy of the Continent that the French led them into this mass murderous dead end.


“God’s Own Descent”: Dante, the Incarnation, & Frost’s “The Trial by Existence” (Myah Gebhard, February 6th, 2024, Imaginative Conservative)

However, Frost introduces his own poetic shift in these braided traditions by suddenly plunging into an incarnational focus at the end of the poem with the Christological figure of the brave soul. In the sixth stanza, he writes, “Nor is there wanting in the press / Some spirit to stand simply forth / Heroic in its nakedness, / Against the uttermost of earth…./ And the mind whirls and the heart sings, / And a shout greets the daring one…. / And the awe passes wonder then, / and a hush falls for all acclaim.”25 Frost’s previous reference to the daring souls as those “that are slain” and the description of this choice as a “sacrifice” is strongly reminiscent of the thirteenth chapter of Revelation, where silence falls in heaven before Christ appears as the Lamb “slain before the foundation of the world.”26 Scholar Cai Pei-Lin has noted that, besides the biblical resonances, Frost also appears to allude here to Milton’s figure of the Son of God.27 In Book III of Paradise Lost, God asks if anyone in heaven is willing to descend to earth to “redeem / Man’s mortal crime, and just the unjust to save.” The angels stand “mute / And silence was in heaven,” until the Son stands forth to become mortal flesh for man’s sake, telling the Father: “Behold me then: me for him, life for life / I offer…. / Account me Man; I for his sake will leave / Thy bosom, and this glory next to thee / Freely put off.”28

Frost’s allusion to Milton indicates that the sacrifice of this soul that all the other spirits behold at the top of the mountain is, in fact, the sacrifice of the Son of God in becoming flesh. Pei-Lin has also noted that Frost’s later description in “The Trial by Existence” of this event as God breaking “a flower of gold” is another reference to Milton. Further on in Book III, after the Son has declared his intention to become incarnate, Milton moves into a description of amaranth and gold as flowers connected with the Tree of Life and divinity itself: “Their crowns inwove with amaranth and gold / Immortal amaranth, a flower which once / In Paradise, fast by the tree of life / Began to bloom, but soon for man’s offence / To Heaven removed where first it grew, there grows / And flowers aloft shading the fount of life.”29 The association of this golden flower with the Son means that its “breaking” in the final stanzas points to a certain cruciform move inherent in the Incarnation itself. Thus, Frost pushes past Dante’s reticence by emphasizing that the vision at the top of this purgatorial-type mountain is Christ: in other words, the beatific vision is God-in-the-flesh. The human souls in his poem ascend the cliffs in order to look with “awe [passing] wonder” on Christ as the “brave soul” that chose to become flesh and broken for our binding together.30

From this turn towards the Incarnation, Frost moves into a deeply sacramental view of the world, one in which spirit and matter are irrevocably knitted together and purified by Christ’s presence. After describing the Son of God as a broken flower of gold, Frost continues to explain that God has used this broken flower as “the mystic link to bind and hold / Spirit to matter until death come.”31 Christ is portrayed here as ultimately fulfilling what Frost sees as the essential poetic vocation: to unite spirit and matter. The Incarnation is the final word, there will never be a future in which the spiritual is disconnected from the material. For Frost, paradise cannot be the place where one beholds pure spirit; instead, it is the place where one is finally able to experience their full unification in a divine affirmation of creation and matter.

In the last stanza, Frost turns to the experience of earthly life. Although spirit and matter are bound together in Christ as the broken flower, this does not mean that persons have this perception during their life. In fact, forgetfulness and lack of perception are a key aspect of earthly suffering. Frost draws attention to this in his recognition that “the essence of life here” is “still to lack / The lasting memory at all clear, / That life has for us on the wrack / Nothing but what we somehow chose.”32 These lines express how earthly life is often characterized by an inability to perceive meaning or freedom within suffering; Frost thinks this is because we cannot remember our own will to become enfleshed. However, he finds comfort in the fact that we are not alone in the suffering of earthly experience: “in the pain” there is “one close, / Bearing it crushed and mystified.”33

The description of this “one” as “crushed” and “bearing” human pain immediately recalls the image of Christ as the crushed flower in the previous stanza. His sharing in human flesh means that he is capable of being “close” in human suffering, and this proximity of divine presence is capable of transforming that experience. Frost’s grammar here is creatively ambiguous: one can read “crushed and mystified” as applying both to Christ himself and to the pain that is borne. This connection reinforces the idea of transformation. The descriptor “crushed” alludes to the breaking of the flower and also likely to Isaiah’s prophecy of Christ as “crushed” for man’s healing.34 The description “mystified” likewise contains a multilayered significance. Its more modern and common meaning of confusion echoes the forgetfulness of human experience that Frost attended to earlier in the poem. However, it also has the etymological source and older meaning of “full of mystery,” “mystical… of secret rites,” and mystic as “one who has been initiated.”35 This reading of the word in Frost’s final line emphasizes the sacramental significance of human experience and all of physical creation. Finally, Frost says that it is through this union that we are “wholly stripped of pride.”36 The binding together of spirit and matter allows for a process of purification that is a creative reworking of Dante’s Purgatorio, closely linking purgation as well as paradise closely to earth.

“The Trial by Existence” is an example of Frost’s strong and brilliant reworking of Dante’s poetic tradition in his own work. He incorporates many of Dante’s images, but he also pushes past the ending silence of Paradiso by making the incarnate Christ the sight at the top of the mountain. For Frost, the Incarnation is the religious pinnacle and affirmation of his poetic vocation to unite spirit and matter. It means that no matter how deeply one may enter into the spiritual, one never gets beyond the physical: they always mutually reveal one another. The religious concept of a sacrament or mystery expresses this very thing and is thus deeply incorporated into the ending of Frost’s poem. These theological themes make sense of the way that Frost continually uses his poetry to ascend to the highest spiritual places and yet always return with the conviction that “Earth’s the right place for love,” for Christ is the one in both these movements come together: in which divine descent and human ascent are united.37

It required Christ’s despair for the unification to occur.


Why Liberalism Needs Piety (Lee Trepanier, 2/13/24, Public Discourse)

[T]here has been little discussion of Aristotle’s view of piety and how it could enrich liberal politics. Mary P. Nichols, professor emerita of political science at Baylor University, fills in this gap with her book, Aristotle’s Discovery of the Human: Piety and Politics in the “Nicomachean Ethics.”

Beginning with Aristotle’s famous statement in his Politics—“Anyone who either cannot lead the common life or is so self-sufficient as not to need to, and therefore does not partake of society, is either a beast or a god”—Nichols argues that Aristotle believes human flourishing occupies a middle ground between these two extremes. People need one another to flourish. By rising above our bestial natures, that is, learning how to live with others, we discover what is most akin to the divine in ourselves. But this also requires us to accept our limitations. We are not, and cannot become, gods. “A good human life, which reflects both the virtues and the limitations of the human,” writes Nichols, “would therefore neither deny the human connection to the divine nor try to eliminate the distance between the two.”

According to Nichols, Aristotelian human flourishing requires piety, the acknowledgment that humans are akin to the divine but cannot be divine themselves. The task of the political community is to support the life of piety. Aristotle refers to the works of the statesman, in securing the good of his community, as divine, including the honors we assign to the gods. Because we can wonder at the divine, we are elevated above the beasts and consequently can deliberate, make choices, and act in forming a political community that aims at the common good. And because we do not receive our ethical virtues from nature, we must be educated and acquire them through our efforts. As Nichols writes, it is, paradoxically, our piety that leads us to discover what is truly human within us, allowing us to cultivate life-giving community.

Whereas the moderns aspire to become gods, Aristotle’s piety limits human ambitions. He claims that we can become “blessed”—a state attributed to the gods—but only as human beings. We can think “divine thoughts,” but recognize that the source of those thoughts is outside of ourselves. The piety that emerges from Aristotle’s philosophy is “a source at the same time of confidence, on the one hand, and moderation, on the other.” Human flourishing occurs in a middle place between beasts and gods.


A Knife Forged in Fire: The author wanted a Japanese-style kitchen blade made for him by hand. What he witnessed was a combination of artistry and atomic magic. (LAURENCE GONZALES, JANUARY 9, 2024,Chicago)

Sam brought out what looked like a deck of tarot cards with nothing on them. No Hermit. No Hanged Man. No Fool. They were gray, thicker than ordinary cards, and clearly heavy in his hands. Inside of them a message waited. He had a long ritual to perform to release it.

As he shuffled the cards, they clattered together, revealing the first hint of their message: They were made of steel. He stacked them and squared up the edges so that all of the cards were nice and straight, nothing sticking out or crooked. Everything neat. The alchemical precision favored by Newton in his dim laboratories.

He clamped them in an industrial vise. Now the cards made a block about the size of a thick paperback book. They would never be individual cards again, these 12 pounds of two different kinds of steel, arranged in alternating layers.

The vise was mounted on a large metal table in the shop that Sam shares with his two brothers, who are fine woodworkers. The shop is in Skokie, which means “marsh” in the Potawatomi language, for these environs were once rich and populous wetlands before they were drained and turned into rows of low industrial buildings like this one and sturdy, modest residential homes. But the brothers have transformed this space into a marvelous cabinet of wonders in which to create whatever they might dream. Much of what is inside could have come from the 19th or early 20th century, great cast-iron machines of fabulous design, embossed with symbols no longer thought necessary to display on slick modern devices. In addition, some of the things in this sprawling realm of clutter might have come from another galaxy, like the ballistic cartridge for the table saw. If you accidentally touch the blade, it senses electrical conductivity and retracts. It’s gone so fast that it can’t cut you. It’s all part of the magic of this place of transformations.

Sam lowered his black face shield and picked up the MIG welder and pulled the trigger. The room lit up to an intensity such that Sam was cast as a silhouetted troupe of antic spiders dancing on the walls and floor and ceiling, sparks flying around him like a cracked nest of hornets and in his hands a burning blue hole at the center of things. All this to the roar of the forge’s fire across the room, heating up toward 2,400 degrees, and the insect chattering of the welder chewing away at liquid metal.

Sam bent over the light, his body curved around it like some sorcerer who’d caught a star and had it pinned there on the bench and was leaning over to examine it and chip away the edges. The bits were falling all around him and bouncing up in little arcs off the diamond floor of heaven. It was positively spooky the way that light stole the glory of the crisp and sunny autumn day outside the open roll-up door.

When he was done and I could look more closely without safety glasses, I saw that he had tacked the cards together with a misshapen bead of melted metal at each end of the stack. As a 12-pound solid oblong block of steel with runes inside, the stack would now be called a billet. To finish it off, he welded a two-foot length of steel rebar to one end to make a handle so that he could hold it.

Sam is afraid of some of his machines in the way that the lion tamer is afraid of his cats. You are confident. You know your skills. You have been doing this a long time. But you know that wild animals are always wild animals, and a false gesture, perhaps an unexpected noise, could set in motion events that could not be stopped. This pact requires utter honesty, complete truth. Sam is harnessing powers that few of us ever encounter in our lives. He’s directing them in order to reach down inside of this deck of tarot cards and transform the very atomic nature of its being. He’s doing what sorcerers do: magic.

John Maynard Keynes, a British economist, owned some of Isaac Newton’s papers. They were about alchemy, which was Newton’s lifelong obsession. Keynes gradually came to the conclusion that Newton “was not the first of the age of reason.” No, Keynes said, “he was the last of the magicians.”

Not the last. We have some right here in Chicago.

Sam Goldbroch is a knife maker. He was getting ready to make me a traditional Japanese-style kitchen knife.

Dieterich Buxtehude, Music, & the Experience of Life (Michael De Sapio, February 5th, 2024, Imaginative Conservative)

“Classical music” is itself a fairly recent concept, going back no further than the early Romantic period, and the formation of a distinct canon of works associated with the term was the work of the 19th and 20th centuries. “Classical music” would have been an entirely foreign concept to, say, Johann Sebastian Bach. For him, music was now, and he had to supply a constant demand of it for the functions of everyday life. The idea of creating art for posterity was characteristic of Romanticism. In Bach’s era the idea was for an artist to do a good job, to be a faithful servant, in the here and now.

And in Bach’s day, music was something to be done, not thought about. Music lovers did not spend hours debating how violinist X and violinist Y played executed a trill differently. They were too busy actually making music.

And music was everywhere. In church, in the village square, in elegant salons of the noblemen. Music for courtly dancing; music for theatrical performances: opera, plays, ballets. Real music, performed by live human beings. Music was experiential to a degree we can scarcely imagine today, when recordings have “frozen” the art form, making it something more like painting or architecture. (And yet recording has its own virtues, allowing us to preserve ideals of performance for reference, enjoyment, and study, to diffuse music widely and allow it to “last longer”—to some extent overcoming its limited and ephemeral nature. This too is a great good.)

We see Bach as the beginning of the Common Practice Period. This is the period that constitutes the mainstream “classical music” repertoire, and it includes the great Germanic line of composers from Bach and Handel through Bach’s sons, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven (the Viennese Classicists), and on through Schubert and the German Romantics.

Anything before Bach is typically classed as “early music” and is a somewhat specialized field of interest. This is unfortunate, because there are many musical riches before Bach. Music is a continuing tradition, with each generation building upon the last. Bach’s genius and accomplishments were enormous, but they did not come out of a vacuum. He had an important early inspiration and mentor. His name was Dieterich Buxtehude.

What follows is a brief sketch of this pivotal yet all-too-little-known composer and musician. I wish to highlight in particular how he (like other artists of his day) made music a part of life. In this sense Buxtehude is an illustration of how music used to be enjoyed in a world very different from our own.