From Brussels with love

November 5, 2009

From Brussels the verdict comes down:
No crucifix is to be shown
In schools of a public domain;
That’s something that Europe’s outgrown.

To buildings of private address
It’s well that your faith be confined.
With symbols you there may obsess,
And if you pray there, we don’t mind.

In Europe’s academied halls
Grave tutors cough mildly and nod
And say: “It is right that our youth
Be freed of this baggage of God.

A crucified God is a sign
That we are not fully our own.
It says we have lost the divine.
It says that our hearts are as stone.

We don’t want young people to think
There’s a flaw in this world we have built.
Let them go see a film, or a shrink,
If they’re plagued with despair, or with guilt.”

From Brussels the verdict comes nigh,
And here in my home I must weep
That those who have birthright so high
Should sell it for pottage so cheap.


7 Responses to “From Brussels with love”

  1. Ben Mann Says:

    So I had been trying to figure out why this incident didn’t push my “outrage buttons” the way it seemed to for many other Christians who were bringing it up online. And then I read these couple of responses in the Italian press (via Mark Shea’s blog)…

    1. “The Italian bishops’ conference denounced the court as ‘partial and ideological’. Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said the Church reacted ‘with astonishment and regret’. ‘The crucifix has always been a sign of God’s love, unity and hospitality to all humanity. It is unpleasant that it is considered a sign of division, exclusion or a restriction of freedom,’ he said.”

    2. “Education Minister Mariastella Gelmini said the cross was part of Italian tradition. ‘No one, and certainly not an ideological European court, will succeed in erasing our identity,’ the Education Minister said.’The presence of the crucifix in classrooms is not a sign of belief in Catholicism, rather it is a symbol of our tradition’.”

    In other words:

    “There’s no scandal of the Cross! He brings only peace, love and freedom, not strife or division or enslavement! Who could take offense at that?”

    Or, more hilariously and tellingly:

    “You misunderstand! We don’t believe in a cruficied god. We merely believe in conserving the heritage of Western Civilization, and its traditional symbols!”

    …both of which suggests to me that the “liberals” really might understand the meaning of the Cross better than the “conservatives” in this instance.

    The secularists are right: the Cross is offensive, it has power, it is a yoke of slavery, it is a sign of contradiction. It is the sharpest sword in God’s armory. And the conservatives are terribly wrong: The Cross is not inoffensive and easily welcoming; it is not our banner of heritage and culture.

    If “we” are astonished when “they” want to put it away, I think it is because “we” do not understand it, and they do.

    Who has really sold their birthright here? I think it is the man who thinks there is nothing offensive or enslaving about the Cross– and the woman who looks upon God cruficied and sees only the banner of Roman Catholicism.

  2. bekkos Says:

    Just a note: I realized today that the verdict came down from Strasbourg, not from Brussels. Oh well…

    Dear Mr. Mann,

    I don’t think in my poem you will find it said anywhere that the cross is not offensive. If anything, the response to it of the grave tutors is precisely one of being offended: they don’t want to have to think about God, or about the Church for that matter. On the other hand, I do think the Italian bishops have a point. The ruling from Strasbourg (not Brussels) is basically a message that the traditional form of Church-State coexistence in Italy is no longer to be tolerated in a unified Europe. That has implications also for other countries in the European Union; one thinks of the omnipresence of icons in Greece, in government buildings, military posts, etc. That the significance of the cross and of icons is sometimes thereby abused I would not deny. But I do think that the alternative that is being put forward, a completely secularized society in which religion plays merely a private role, is a mess of pottage, and the selling of a birthright.


  3. Ben Mann Says:

    “But I do think that the alternative that is being put forward, a completely secularized society in which religion plays merely a private role, is a mess of pottage, and the selling of a birthright.”

    I don’t disagree. We’re making, I think, complimentary points and not contradictory ones. I think the secularists are wrong, but for the right reasons; and the conservatives are right, but for the wrong reasons.

    My thinking on Church/state questions is an odd blend of –very specifically— Soren Kierkegaard and St. Pius X. With the latter, I concur that the State is something authentically human and therefore something potentially (and ideally) Christian. But I also tend to protest, along with the former, a post-Constantinian tendency to “establish” Christianity –governmentally or otherwise– as the “official religion” in an almost pagan way.

    At the point where the “establishment” can plausibly argue that a Crucifix isn’t offensive, or merely signifies the majority culture, I have to wonder whether a forced and external secularization is really the main problem, or whether it is merely a kind of scourge intended to call back the People of God from their adulteries– which, if this is true, would be the real problem.

    If we empty the Cross of its power, we lose our right to complain when someone more honest and self-consistent (though certainly not more objectively correct) insists that it be taken down altogether as irrelevant and offensive. The person who does that, even if they serve a lie, is signifying the truth for use on two levels: they force us to admit that we are living _etsi Deus non daretur_; and they remind us that the ultimate sign of contradiction cannot be drafted into the service of the status quo.

    Consider Christmas, something that might more readily signify the same issues for us. Certainly it’s not good at all that certain groups of Hasidic Jews should regard that Holiday as “Nitel Night”, the least holy night of the year, when Torah study is not permitted and one is encouraged rather to pay one’s bills and play chess as a gesture of disdain for “that man” (as I read in a 2004 Haaretz article). But is this really worse than what the Gentiles have made of the Messiah’s birth? Sometimes I think not. Making the truth meaningless can be as bad as believing a lie, as St. James makes clear.

    Contemporary Europeans, by all indications, don’t need bureaucrats to tell them to go to the movies and the psychiatrist rather than to Confession and the Eucharist. They make that choice quite readily and willingly on their own. Under the circumstances, I don’t much care about propping up the weight of the “two-thousand years” (to paraphrase SK), which really can’t compete with the exigencies of the present moment; but I do care, immensely, about opening the windows and doors to eternity, so that the present can be drawn into it.

    If a Crucifix or an Icon is going to signify only the “two-thousand years”, rather than being a window or door to eternity, then perhaps the “iconfiscator” –not really an iconoclast, exactly– is something God thinks we need, as a consequently-willed remedy to our museumizing and bannerizing of the Faith. How else are we going to remember that we are God’s created image of Himself, and not the other way around as “public religion” often seems to imply?

  4. Ben Mann Says:

    That should say “signifying the truth for us,” not “for use”.

  5. bekkos Says:

    Dear Mr. Mann,

    You seem to hold that a crucifix or an icon, by being placed in a civic space, automatically signifies “two-thousand years,” i.e., it indicates the Constantinian settlement, and it ceases to be “a window or door to eternity.” The dichotomy you thus draw between eternal significance and concrete historical reality seems to me a bogus one, I sadly must say. Much as I like Kierkegaard, I think his views about the Church are largely anhistoric and, to that extent, false; he fails to acknowledge that, if it weren’t for Christendom, which preserved the faith and passed it down to him, the opportunity for him to be a Christian wouldn’t have been presented to him. As an Orthodox Christian, I honor people like Constantine, Vladimir, and so on as saints of the Church. I don’t see such men as having inaugurated a “pagan corruption of Christianity”; rather, I see the choice of these men to embrace the Christian faith as having helped, in a profound and lasting way, to make Christian society possible. That is why the Church honors them, and I prefer the Church’s reading of history to Kierkegaard’s.

    I do not doubt that a negative significance can be attached to a Christian image; negative significance can be attached to almost anything, if one sets one’s mind to it. Nevertheless, the Church venerates images, and it does so, I think, in part out of an understanding that human beings are not, on the whole, such ultra-sophisticated post-modern beings as you make them out to be; little children, by and large, do not spend their time anguishing over the hidden political meanings of religious symbols; the image has a content and message which transcends the framework into which self-interested people might set it, and that content and message speaks to people. I would like to see that message continue to have the chance to speak to whoever is willing to listen to it.

    Since I know that you attended St. John’s College for some time, I will tell you something that happened some years ago in a faculty meeting in Santa Fe. It was formerly the custom at St. John’s College that students who were graduating would be invited to a commencement ceremony at a local church. This was almost always, both in Annapolis and Santa Fe, the local Episcopalian church. (Although now, if memory now serves me correctly, when I was a student in Annapolis it occurred in the college’s Great Hall. And perhaps, in Santa Fe, they tried for awhile rotating the services among different churches on different years.) In any case, it was a religious service, of a very generic content. At one faculty meeting, the proposal was raised to drop the service entirely. One or two tutors professed to be offended by it, on the grounds that it seemed to favor Christianity. What I found quite remarkable was how many of the college’s Christian faculty, including some notable converts to Russian Orthodoxy, supported this proposal. For at least some of them, the issue was not that this ceremony favored Christianity (to that, they had no inherent objection), but that it presented Christianity in the form of a kind of generic religiosity. (The more ardent among them seemed to regard stepping into an Episcopalian church to attend a religious service to be akin to frequenting an assembly of Baal-worshipers.) I take your criticism of the crucifix-party to amount to something much along the same lines: your view is that, if crucifixes are to be kept in Italian schools on cultural grounds alone, then it would be better not to have them; it amounts to a voiding of their meaning.

    In that faculty meeting, I spoke in favor of keeping the ceremony. I pointed out that, when I was a student, Mr. Littleton, a very humble man and a fervent Protestant, spoke at this convocation, that is, gave the sermon, and that this had meant a great deal to me as someone about to leave the college. I in no way argued in favor of the ceremony on the grounds of it being religiously nondescript. To the extent that I was able to frame a case for it, it was that it was good for the students’ souls. I still think that that is true: that is, it is an inherent good for students, who are about to leave the college and begin their life in the world, to have an opportunity to pray, and for tutors to have an opportunity to pray for them. In the end, I was the only tutor who voted against dropping the ceremony. It seems to me that, in dropping it, the college became perhaps a more rationally self-consistent secular institution, but it lost something of its soul.

    So, yes, it does bother me a bit when I see Christians, in their will not to compromise the purity of their own principles, sectarian or otherwise, acquiescing with the policies of those who, on the whole, would like to see Christianity disappear. In short, I prefer the position of the Italian bishops in this matter, however nonsensical the grounds upon which they choose to defend it, to your heroic self-consistency.


  6. Ben Mann Says:

    “You seem to hold that a crucifix or an icon, by being placed in a civic space, automatically signifies “two-thousand years,” i.e., it indicates the Constantinian settlement, and it ceases to be “a window or door to eternity.” The dichotomy you thus draw between eternal significance and concrete historical reality seems to me a bogus one, I sadly must say.”

    No, this isn’t my view at all. (I’d have to be protestant if it were.) Let me be clearer about this: I think public religion _can_ constitute an assumption of the greater into the lesser rather than vice versa, but I would never hold that it does so automatically. That position is a reflexively anti-incarnational and anti-authoritarian one, not mine. Kierkegaard, like Luther, went too far, and on the basis of wrong anthropological premises.

    The establishment of the Church is not inherently pagan at all; as I acknowledged, it is actually the ideal. I venerate Saints Constantine and Vladimir just as you do; I even accept everything in the realm of Theology that the 19th century popes had to say on this question. (That is the background against which I make my statements; I assumed it was assumed.)

    But the corruption of the best, the ideal, is often the worst– here as elsewhere. I know that you’re familiar enough with instances of “the worst” –in the Balkan states, for instance, or among some American religious conservatives (who aren’t in favor of “establishment” yet in many ways epitomize what I am criticizing)– to understand why I make the point that I do about “the corruption of the best.”

    I don’t hold, with Kierkegaard, to the Lutheran-nominalist error that there cannot be a Christian society. There can be, there have been, there should be– because society is human and therefore can be Divinized. The points I made above should not be understood as a counterargument to this view, but as a commentary on the terms on which I actually do endorse the idea of a Christian society and state.

  7. bekkos Says:

    Well, perhaps, as you say, we aren’t contradicting each other, but are merely talking about completely different things. My own concern is that what remains of Christian culture in a secularized world should not be completely lost; your concern seems to be to establish an ideal Christian society and state, and anything less than that seems to you to risk devolving into blasphemous mockery. For my own part, the issue of how Christian tradition can be maintained within the framework of a democratic state and society is a living question; but, as I am an Orthodox Christian and not Roman Catholic, the statements of nineteenth-century popes on this issue (by which I take you to mean particularly Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Testem Benevolentiae Nostrae, on the “Americanist heresy”) have not had any preponderant influence upon how I think about it. (Also the whole question of whether, and to what extent, the teaching of Testem Benevolentiae was modified by the Second Vatican Council is something I have hardly thought about; it is foreign to my experience.) I am, by and large, still persuaded that democracy is a good thing. But whether, in the long term, Christian orthodoxy can survive under the conditions of a democratic, pluralistic society is to me an open question. I’d like to think that it can; the ruling of the Strasbourg court makes me wonder.

    With that, I must arbitrarily close this discussion, because I need to get some writing done on a lecture.

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