It also made me feel really old.

It also made me feel really old. March 13, 2022

 

Fighting in Afghanistan
A U.S. military unit in Kunar Province, Afghanistan during the American military campaign there
(Wikimedia Commons public domain photograph)

 

***

 

We spent our afternoon and early evening in a way that we don’t typically do on Sundays — or, for that matter, on any other day of the week.  We attended the promotion of a friend, the son of friends, from the rank of Colonel in the United States Army to the rank of Brigadier General.  The event also featured the change-of-command ceremony whereby he assumed the position of Assistant Adjutant General-Army for the Utah National Guard, a position that is being vacated because of the retirement of his predecessor.  It was an impressive afternoon.  The new general’s father, Arnold H. Green, was a professor of Middle Eastern history at the American University in Cairo when my wife and I arrived in Egypt for me to begin graduate work in Arabic and Middle Eastern studies.  Brother Green was also the president of the Cairo Branch of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  He and his wife, Lani, became dear lifelong friends.  We have known Brigadier General Joseph W. Green — to us, “Joey” — since he was a little boy, playing on the floor of his parents’ home, which is where the branch met at the time.  (Arnie Green later joined the faculty at Brigham Young University, where he eventually chaired the Department of History and served for several years as the director of BYU’s Jerusalem Center for Near Eastern Studies.)

 

I suspect that General Green’s brief speech at the ceremony was more literary than most such military addresses.  It included a witty allusion to Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, a quotation from the Irish poet William Butler Yeats, and another quotation from “What I Have Learned So Far,” by the American poet Mary Oliver (1935-2019), a winner of the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize:

 

Can one be passionate about the just, the
ideal, the sublime, and the holy, and yet commit
to no labor in its cause? I don’t think so.

 

He also quoted that poem’s final line, so I think that I’ll just give the entire poem here, in order that you can understand the context:

 

Meditation is old and honorable, so why should I
not sit, every morning of my life, on the hillside,
looking into the shining world? Because, properly
attended to, delight, as well as havoc, is suggestion.
Can one be passionate about the just, the
ideal, the sublime, and the holy, and yet commit
to no labor in its cause? I don’t think so.

All summations have a beginning, all effect has a
story, all kindness begins with the sown seed.
Thought buds toward radiance. The gospel of
light is the crossroads of — indolence, or action.

Be ignited, or be gone.

 

The one literary thing that did surprise me about General Green’s remarks was the absence from them of any allusion to Jane Austen.  He’s a huge Austen fan — which surely can’t quite be typical of a soldier who has been deployed to both Afghanistan and Iraq and whose speciality is linguistics and (very serious, classified) intelligence.

 

Afterwards, a few of us old Middle East types, former BYU colleagues of his father as well as veterans of  the Cairo Branch, gathered with our wives and with members of his immediate and extended family at his mother’s home in Orem, for food and conversation.  But we missed his father Arnie, who died in 2019 and who would have been very, very proud of his son today.  Joey and his wife both commented that they regarded us, the Cairo contingent, as representing his Dad.  I hope so.  We were honored at the thought.

 

***

 

Three passages from a response to Richard Dawkins by the distinguished British writer and Cambridge University academic John Cornwell, editor of such volumes as Nature’s Imagination, Explanations, and Consciousness and Human Identity and author of such books as Coleridge: A Critical Biography, Hitler’s Pope, Power to HarmHitler’s Scientists, and The Pope in Winter:

 

I want to write to you now about your Utopia.  You have issued a glowing promise of ultimate happiness, if only your readers will trust in you.  You want them to believe in a paradise that will be theirs when religion is finally wiped from the face of the Earth.  You sing to them a version of John Lennon’s famous song “Imagine”.

“Imagine . . . a world with no religion.  Imagine no suicide bombers, no 9/11, no  7/7, no Crusades, no witch-hunts . . . no Israeli/Palestinian wars, no Serb /Croat/Muslim massacres, no persecution of Jews as ‘Christ-killers’, no Northern Ireland ‘troubles; . . . no Taliban to blow up ancient statues”.

Your list has quite a ring to it (although some of your instances might well have been the result of secular tensions), but it omits two catastrophic eras in recent history: Stalin’s Soviet Union and Hitler’s Germany.  Should we be concerned that Stalinism and Nazism revealed the kind of world that emerges when religion acquiesces not to just anything, but to science as ideology combined with militant atheism? . . .

Have you read the Table Talk ramblings of Hitler on religion’s capitulation to science?  Just listen to him!  “The dogma of Christianity gets worn away before the advances of science.  Religion will have to make more and more concessions.  Gradually, the myths crumble.  When understanding of the universe has become widespread . . . then the Christian doctrine will be convicted of absurdity.” . . . 

Religion does not necessarily lead to evil.  Human wickedness, persecutions, massacres, torture, ethnic cleansing arise from a complexity of human motivations — fear, insecurity, idealism, paranoia — in a mix of political, social, ideological, scientific, and yes, at time religious contexts.  When religion appears to be a factor in conflicts — take Ireland, or the Balkans, or the Arab-Israeli conflict — it may be just one marker of difference, in association with others, reinforcing a variety of tensions that in turn represent a wider ambit of antagonisms — geographical, historical, tribal.  But I can quite see that to accept this point would not suit your thesis.

John Cornwell, Darwin’s Angel: An Angelic Riposte to The God Delusion (London: Profile Books, 2007), 85-86, 88-89, 90-91.

 

Finally, a passage from the great and heroic Russian Nobel-laureate writer Aleksander Solzhenitsyn:

 

It is not because the truth is too difficult to see that we make mistakes. . . .  We make mistakes because the easiest and most comfortable course for us is to seek insight where it accords with our emotions — especially selfish ones.

 

 


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