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dark-journey

Ash Wednesday, 2017, Lent has begun. Some people have not yet decided what they are doing for Lent. To people in this situation, I heard someone say, “Don’t worry about preparing for Lent because Lent is a preparation.” The implication being that one does not prepare for preparing. This way of looking at Lent – a preparation – is rather common today. The thought is that as we progress through Lent we are preparing for Easter. So ingrained has this thought become that some are genuinely puzzled by the idea of preparing for Lent. This was once expressed to me by a priest when I had mentioned to him that Lent is preceded by weeks of preparation (both liturgical and practical) in the Byzantine churches. It sounded strange to the priest that there would be a preparation for the preparation.

Is Lent a preparation? Is being a preparation the best way to think about Lent?

It’s not wrong to think about Lent as a preparation, but it is important to recognize that there are different kinds of preparing. Context is everything. Lent is a preparatory movement. It is a journey, and it is this which gives the context and proper understanding for Lent being preparatory.

Rock climber on the edge.

The long arduous journey of Lent is not too dissimilar from the above picture. The women in this picture didn’t just begin her journey up the face of the mountain. No, her journey was preceded by a lot of preparation. She had to live a certain way, abstain from certain things. She does not become disciplined, strong, and persevering by climbing the mountain. She had to be all of that before she began her journey.

There is a significant difference between the journey of Lent and the journey of the woman above: she climbs the mountain because it is there to be climbed and she experiences a pleasure and satisfaction that she would not otherwise get, she takes the journey for its own sake. Not so with Lent. Let us imagine that this woman comes to the top of the mountain and takes in the grandeur and beauty of the view from the mountaintop. She then turns her back to the view and faces away from cliff’s edge. Before her lies a new country and new life, a country and life only accessible by climbing the mountain. The climb prepared and enabled her to live this new life well and to enter into it fully. But so did the preparation prior to the climb; in fact, the prior preparation was necessary.

So many people speak of Lent as being successful or unsuccessful. They express wanting a successful Lent, which is why it is typical for people to spend so much time weighing what they will or will not do. At the end of this season of Lent, there will be many people who will look back with dissatisfaction. Many will think they did not journey well, that they did not prepare well for new life in the Resurrection. Contra popular opinion, perhaps one of the reasons is because we no longer practice a preparation for the preparation in the Roman church.

It wasn’t always this way. Up until the new calendar of Bl. Paul VI was introduced, the Church celebrated pre-Lenten Sundays, the purpose of which was to prepare the faithful for the arduous journey of Lent. This is still done by those communities and orders who use the extraordinary calendar. The Byzantine churches also maintain their own particular tradition of pre-Lenten Sundays. One may reasonably ask, however, if the Church of Rome actually needs these pre-Lenten Sundays. After all, Lent isn’t exactly difficult in the Latin rite anymore. It doesn’t really seem like there is much to prepare for. Considering the current state of the practice of Lent in the West, could this point not only to our needing pre-Lenten Sundays again, but also to our needing a return to a more traditional practice of Lent? I am hopeful for the return of both in my lifetime.

A blessed Lent to you all. +

 

Last year for the beginning of Lent I wrote a post, “The Deconstruction of Lent”, on the need to have a greater awareness of the communal character of Lent in the life of the Church rather than making Lent an individualized affair: HERE. A couple of weeks after that I wrote another Lenten post, “Combatting Porn During Lent”, the main point of which was to draw attention to our need to allow ourselves to be formed by God rather than thinking of Lent as an opportunity to form ourselves: HERE.

Lent is fast approaching – Wednesday, March 1. I don’t know about you, but I can often drive myself crazy trying to figure out what I should give up for Lent or what additional practices I should take on. But what if the answer is nothing? Lent and its disciplines are not something we put on ourselves. It is part of the Life in which we live. What if God simply calls us to live that life: to be faithful in our participation at Sunday Mass, our fasting, and our Friday abstentions. What if He simply wants us to be formed by Lent by participating in the various Lenten traditions of our parish: Stations of the Cross, Lenten missions, soup dinners and fish fries. God doesn’t wait until Lent to call us nearer to Him. Lent is strengthening for that journey already begun. Perhaps there are disciplines He has called you to and Lent is simply a time to persevere in those disciplines, disciplines which may fall away if we cover them with others. If you are still considering what it is God is calling you to do in the coming week, remember, Lent isn’t meant to be complicated; it just needs to be lived. May God bestow His grace upon you abundantly and may you have a blessed and holy Lent.

Recent conversation has brought to mind the question of knowledge, particularly of knowing with certainty. There are a lot of people who fall under agnosticism because they hold that one cannot have any real certainty that there is a God, or, if there is, that we cannot have any certain knowledge about this God. There is such an intense focus on whether or not one can be certain that it has become an all-or-nothing question. This is because the question of certainty is directly connected to the question of reasonability. The question of having certain knowledge has become equivalent in the minds of many (unconsciously so) with the question of said knowledge being reasonable.

Among the pop-philosophy intelligentsia, it is no more or less reasonable to believe in God than to believe in magical unicorns or that we are all brains in vats. We cannot disprove that we are brains in vats, that there are magical unicorns, and we cannot disprove the existence of God. The argument for God is seen as a self-enclosed argument. But this is not actually the case. If we ask if it is reasonable to believe that there are magical unicorns or that we are brains in vats, we must emphatically answer “no”. If we ask if it is reasonable to believe that God exists, we must emphatically answer “yes”. Why? To hold to either of the former beliefs is to hold to something for which we have no evidence. To hold to the latter is to hold to something for which there is evidence. It is reasonable to believe that God exists because there is evidence that God exists. It is unreasonable to believe that we are brains in vats because there is no evidence that we are. One should be able to easily distinguish this.

However, the problem here is not simply of intelligence. There is also the problem of virtue. There are many who can see the difference between these questions if they listen. But then they will still hold that they cannot be certain, and, in their uncertainty, they will freeze in cowardice. It takes courage to follow the evidence. To how many in modern society can the words of the psalmist be applied: “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God'”?

Coheirs

DarylMadden

Word so incredulous
Which my soul did hear
That along with Christ
We are co-heirs

Unbelievable
That we of sinners great
Heavens treasure offered
So much to contemplate

Only possible
By sacrifice of One
An unblemished Lamb
God’s begotten Son

Let not us take for granted
This great gift He imparts
To be our source of joy!
To radiate from heart

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Fr. Aidan Kimel has a good post on the vice of acedia over at Eclectic Orthodoxy. I first learned of this particular vice about 1 1/2 years ago. My attention had been directed to a book from Ignatius Press: The Noonday Devil: Acedia, the Unnamed Evil of Our Times.

the-noonday-devil

This is an excellent book which outlines the development of thought and approaches to acedia. It is very readable and quite interesting. The author, Jean-Charles Nault, O.S.B., begins by stating how he had somewhat taken knowledge of acedia for granted. This was due to it being part of his formation as a Benedictine via St. John Cassian and others. He wrote the above book as a response to no one outside of religious formation knowing anything about it, as well as seeing how prevalent it is in our day.

Recently, I have been starting to see more material being promoted on this subject. Last month my attention was brought to Acedia and Its Discontents: Metaphysical Boredom in an Empire of Desire.

acedia-and-its-discontents

Now Fr. Aidan introduces yet another book on this vice: Despondency: The Spiritual Teaching of Evagrius of Pontus.

despondency

It is good to see an increase in books and articles concerning acedia. It truly is one of the greatest plagues of modern man, as well as a subtle, potent, and tenacious destructive force in society. In addition to the Noonday Devil, which I have already had the pleasure of reading, I will be reading the other two books. It is something I encourage everyone to learn more about and to use these tools for serious self-examination.

Those Catholic Men has decided to publish an astoundingly awful article by Mr. Doyle Baxter: Why We Must Overcome Catholic Political Apathy. The view expressed concerning man and politics is so negative that it makes me think Jansenism just might be returning. In fact, I have never read such an alarming theology and its political application by a Catholic. You’ll have to read it for yourself. I am so dumbfounded that I am not quite sure how to address it in a comprehensive way. Perhaps the best place to start is with the fundamentally stupid.

We need to remember that the State’s sole purpose, in St. Augustine’s analysis, is to keep the peace: government isn’t about justice or even about virtue.

I wonder just how Mr. Baxter expects the State to strive for, attain, and maintain a true peace when justice and virtue are not part of its equation. Perhaps he wouldn’t say that justice and virtue are not part of the equation.

The State is not meant to be an arbiter of justice, social or otherwise, but rather to be a bulwark of law, order, and peace.

In Mr. Baxter’s view, justice comes from another source and not from the State. In this, I wholeheartedly agree with him. However, I wonder how Mr. Baxter thinks the State is supposed to act as a bulwark of law, order, and peace in our particular circumstances of a modern, western, secularized, materialistic country permeated by an extreme individualist pop-philosophy and a strong divide between religion and government. When our government and laws (of which the government is supposed to be a bulwark) have drifted so far from the One who is Justice and the fount of justice, we are dealing with a system that is not just flawed, for that is inescapable, but broken.

Alistair MacIntyre in 2004 said, “in this situation a vote cast is not only a vote for a particular candidate, it is also a vote cast for a system that presents us only with unacceptable alternatives. The way to vote against the system is not to vote.” Mr. Baxter understands these words to mean “not being politically involved” and, in the context of his title, to be politically apathetic. He says, “He is basically arguing that when there are no good options, the best choice is not to choose. As Catholics, this is unacceptable: both our faith and indeed our fallen nature call us to political involvement.” The problem is that this essentially reduces political involvement to voting. Mr. Baxter makes an even greater reduction by later rejecting not just choosing not to vote, but also rejecting voting 3rd party. If a Catholic does not vote or if they vote 3rd party then they are not politically involved in any real way despite anything else they may be doing to work for truth, justice, and peace in our society.

One of the problems (and, oh, there are so many) with his response to Mr. MacIntyre is that he fails to address that the problem isn’t just the choice of candidates but more fundamentally the system itself. He fails to adequately address this because he believes the system doesn’t really matter (I assume he would say it does, but following his line of thought such an assertion really is not tenable). According to him, politics are imposed on us by God as a punishment for Original Sin. Ergo, as faithful Catholics, we do not have the option to abstain or give our vote to someone who has no chance of winning because this is tantamount to rejecting God’s just punishments as well as to run from “redemptive suffering.” The practical applications of such thought as Mr. Baxter puts forth are incredible in their foolishness – being neither wise in the eyes of the world nor in the eyes of God. He speaks of being in the world, but not of the world, and then says that we have to bow to whatever the world gives us because… punishment from God. Let’s take a look at one practical application.

Armchair, self-righteous political philosophizing neglects a fundamental aspect of the life that the Church calls us to. It’s not enough to preach about subsidiarity or solidarity or any other social principle without explaining what they mean for me right now in these political circumstances.

As Mr. Baxter would have it, though, what those principles mean for him and all of us right now in these political circumstances is not one darn blasted thing. If I preach about subsidiarity, solidarity, or any other social principle and then am presented with two candidates who will both work against those principles, then by Mr. Baxter’s view I am morally obligated as a Catholic to vote for one of those candidates and so take an active part in working against the very principles I profess as founded on the apostolic faith. If I work politically to strive for a particular economic and social system and then vote for someone who will work against those very things then my work is for nothing. Yet, it must be this way because… punishment from God.

Perhaps, I will write a post later to address the decrepit theology behind Mr. Baxter’s political ideas, but for now I would like to address one more glaring flaw in his presentation. Above he said that “the State is not meant to be an arbiter of justice.” This is patently false. Two examples will serve to illustrate this. The judges and later the kings of Israel were the arbiters of justice for the Israelites. They were not the heads of the Jewish religion. The judges participated in the government of the people and the kings were the heads of State. The disputes that were brought before them were not always spelled out in the Law. It was for them to make the just decision, not the priests. In Christian medieval Europe, there were ecclesiastical courts and secular courts, the arbiters of justice for each were maintained in each sphere. When a dispute arose that did not pertain to ecclesiastical law, the kings and their judges did not bring it to ecclesiastics and wait for their official judgment in the matter. They handled it themselves as was proper to their sphere of government.

It’s one thing to dispute about the merits and demerits of a particular candidate and whether or not one should vote for them. It is quite another matter, however, to insist that one must vote for one of two particular candidates. I truly hope we never find ourselves in a situation in which Mr. Baxter comes to realize that, and I wonder just how bad it would have to get for him to come to that realization. As for those Catholics who chose not to vote or to vote 3rd party, it is a mistake to assume that they have not been politically active or have been doing a great deal of work to promote truth, justice, and peace in our society.

tolkien-beowulf

I have never read Beowulf. Happily, my first reading of it will be Tolkien’s prose translation. It has been magnificent, another fine example of how beautiful and rhythmic prose can be in the hands of a true master. In addition to his translation, this edition (pictured above) also has commentary by Tolkien.

In the poem, Grendel is called “a fiend of hell” (lines 82-3; unless preceded by an asterisk all line numbers refer to Tolkien’s translation), in Old English, féond on helle. This phrase raises serious questions for Tolkien. He comments:

The Old English féond on helle is a very curious expression. It implies, of course, that Grendel is a ‘hell-fiend’, a creature dammed irretrievably. It remains, nonetheless, remarkable, for Grendel is not ‘in hell’, but very physically in Denmark, and he is not even yet a damned spirit, for he is mortal and has to be slain before he goes to Hell. There is evidently a confusion or twilight in the thought of the poet (and his age) about these monsters, hostile to mankind. They remain physical monsters, with blood, able to be slain (with the right sword). Yet already they are described in terms applicable to evil spirits, so here (*102) gæst. (pp. 158-159)

This being a problem for Tolkien has raised many questions for myself. I was at first rather taken aback by the literalness with which Tolkien here approaches the text. Beowulf is, what we generally would call today, fantasy. Is it really such a concern that in this type of work a physical creature, a being not of the spirit world would be called “a fiend of hell” and, therefore, be identified as irretrievably damned before actually having died? Tolkien’s concern is curious in itself. However, it is not so curious as it might first seem. There are two important details, easily overlooked by us of the secular modern age, that Tolkien has given right significance. First, the author of Beowulf was a Christian who told his story within a Christian framework. Second, the setting of the story makes this question more urgent.

Beowulf is not set in a fantastical world. It is set in our world (which goes to show just how fantastic ours’ really is). Beowulf involves real peoples: Danes and Geats. The action of the story begins in a real place: Heorot. It refers to real political divisions and to actual customs and practices of the people. While the poet set the story in the past, it was not too distantly past. There would have been an air of familiarity for that first audience. Finally, the culture of the people in the poem as well as in actuality was not pagan, but Christian. The author was a Christian, his audience was Christian, and the world in which he set the events of Beowulf was Christian. Taking all of this into account, Tolkien’s literalness on this issue is quite appropriate. He is giving the poet and his work the critical thoughtfulness which is its due. In this context, the question of identifying a physical monster of the world as irretrievably damned is, indeed, quite serious.

In lines 86-92, Grendel is placed among the wicked and extraordinary beings descended from the line of Cain. After introducing him, “that grim creature” (gæst) and “the ill-famed haunter of the marches of the land,” the poet says of him,

for the Maker had proscribed him with the race of Cain. That bloodshed, for that Cain slew Abel, the Eternal Lord avenged: no joy had he of that violent deed, but God drove him for that crime far from mankind. Of him all evil broods were born, ogres and goblins and haunting shapes of hell, and the giants too, that long time warred with God – for that he gave them their reward.

There is here a Scriptural bookending of northern myth. One may be tempted to think that Scripture has been subjected to myth; using Cain to replace whatever is the origins of evil creatures in northern mythology. But this is not the case. It is the myth which has been subjected to Scripture. This is evidenced by the reference to giants, the Nephilim of Gen 6:4. Through the inclusion of lines 86-92, the poet has given the myths of old a new framework and with that framework a different understanding.

What does this mean for the phrase, “a fiend of hell”, though? Tolkien speaks of two possibilities (p. 159). The first is that the poet uses this phrase to identify Grendel “due to a kind of half-theological notion” and a mistaken one concerning “accursed things”. The second is “due to taking over a ‘Christian’ phrase carelessly.” For the second possibility, Tolkien refers to Wycliff as an example, who called a still living friar a fend in helle. I think that it is impossible to know which of these possibilities is true, to know what the poet actually meant by féond on helle. I propose, however, that whether the poet meant the phrase merely as a descriptive or as an actuality, he was not using it carelessly, and it can be used in this context soundly.

In addition to féond on helle, Grendel is also called gæst. This is significant and Christopher Tolkien provides an important detail concerning this word which is also essential for answering our question. (p. 159, n. 1) Christopher notes that “in all the texts of the translation [gæst] is rendered ‘creature’.” He goes on to say that his father had said that gæst could not be translated as “ghost” or “spirit”. In modern English, the closest we can get to the meaning of gæst is “creature”.

The translation of gæst is significant because it gives us an opening into the mind of the poet. Grendel is not simply a twisted, deformed creature descending from Cain’s corrupted line. Grendel does not randomly come on the scene; there is a purpose in his coming. Prior to his introduction, the poet tells of the establishment and glory of Heorot (53-65). Twelve lines before Grendel is introduced, we are told of “the fierce spirit that abode in darkness.” (70) Seeing as Tolkien would not translate gæst as “spirit”, it can be safely assumed that a different word was here used in the original Old English. Also, judging by Tolkien’s comments above concerning Grendel not being a spirit, it is fairly safe to assume that gæst and whichever word is used for “spirit” in the original are not synonymous.* This “fierce spirit that abode in darkness” is obviously a devil in the truest sense of the word, a true hell-fiend who is irretrievably damned. The poet says that this spirit “endured a time of torment” (71) and then goes on to say what was tormenting it. The poet mentions the revelry of men, the sound of their music, and later their not knowing sorrow. This alone, however, is not what causes the torment nor the greatest part. We’re not talking about the Grinch; we’re speaking of a damned spirit dwelling in darkness. The greatest torment was the telling of God Almighty, His creating the world, giving life, and creating man. The action of Beowulf is not a mere opposition of man against corrupt and murderous creatures; it is a part of the great battle that the evil one, the murderer from the beginning, wages against man. Whether Grendel was directly ordered by this spirit to attack Heorot or was unconsciously influenced to do so, he is representative of the darkness and the damnation that accompanies that darkness. And the poet strengthens this identification as the poem progresses. He calls Grendel a “demon cursed” (106) and “accursed” (97); he does not grieve over “his deeds of enmity and wrong.” (109-110) The reason he does not grieve is due to his being wholly enveloped in darkness. The word “enmity” (possibly a reference to Gen 3:15) also may be a marker of his being so thoroughly bound to the hatred of hell. The poet goes on to show this enmity between Grendel and men:

So it was made known to men and revealed to the children of mankind sadly in songs that Grendel strove a while with Hrothgar, wrought hate and malice, evil deeds and enmity, for many a year, a strife unceasing; truce would he not have with any man of the Danish host, nor would withhold his deadly cruelty, nor accept terms of payment; and there no cause had any of the counsellors to look for golden recompense from the slayer’s hands; nay, the fierce killer pursued them still, both  knights and young, a dark shadow of death, lurking, lying in wait, in long night keeping the misty moors. (119-129)

If the action of Beowulf is part of the great battle, could it not be said that this enmity between Grendel and the Danes is part of the enmity between Satan and the woman? Yes, Grendel is a physical creature and, yes, Beowulf is set in a Christian world and imbued with a Christian ethos, but it is still mythic. It gives expression through myth of a reality often forgotten and not seen: the great battle that Lucifer wages upon us, and our need to fight valiantly, ceaselessly, and with a humble ferocity.

Perhaps there is a Chestertonian solution here. Chesterton said that fairy tales are meant to remind us of the wonder of our own world, of that which actually is. A river flowing with wine in a fairy tale should make us take note and wonder at the fact that rivers actually run with water. I may feel a pleasant little happiness while listening to “The Big Rock Candy Mountains”, but much more importantly it reminds me of all the wonderful things of the earth God has given us for our delight. Does not Grendel being a physical creature who is a fiend of hell remind us that there really are spiritual creatures who are true fiends of hell? We read the horror that Grendel brings upon the Danes and his utter relentlessness in doing so. Yet, Grendel sleeps; the real devils do not. We cannot fathom the completeness of malevolence and hatred demons hold for us, nor do they ever grieve one iota because in a truer sense than for Grendel too deep are they therein. (cf. 110) Demons and the way they work are rather foreign and abstract to us today. We are, however, quite familiar with their work such as the spread of vices, the plethora of addictions, the divisions among peoples, the senseless acts of violence heard in the news every day, and the animosity, rage, and desolation that has infected so many people’s hearts. While we identify demons as actual fiends of hell, I think we can properly speak of some things such as vices as fiends of hell in a descriptive way. Grendel, in the dark of night, silently snatched 30 sleeping knights on his first attack upon Heorot. Not until morning did King Hrothgar and the rest of that house become aware of what had happened, and they wailed grievously. What of ourselves? How many times in our lives did we do something or arrive at a certain state of mind and wonder where so many good things in our life had gone? Virtues, friends, family, hobbies and interests, memories, and all the other varied blessings of God, how many times were they silently snatched away only for us to become conscious of the fact later and have to figure out in retrospect by what means it had happened? How great were our sorrow and the pain of loss when we realized what had happened?

Taking all of the above, I think, yes, Grendel can be properly called a fiend of hell even though he is not so in the truest sense. More important than attempting to resolve the issue of Grendel’s identity, though, we are reminded by the blessed Chesterton to ask ourselves the question: What is the Grendel in my life? And as I now go to ponder that question, I will be doing so with the help of my own Big Rock Candy Mountain: i.e. the cabinet in the kitchen where the cognac is kept.

And just for a little fun…

*If the two words are synonymous, and, therefore, Grendel is the fierce spirit, the argument made here still generally holds due to the overall context and most especially the motivation that draws him out.

What I will remember most about Carrie Fisher:

  1. She was no snowflake.
  2. She was blunt, straightforward, and told it how it was.

That’s what I’ll remember most. She touched a lot of people. Some in a deeply personal way through the intimacy of family, friendship, and working together. Others, who she never knew about, were influenced by her words and the way she lived her life. Most people, however, simply knew her as Princess Leia and recognized her as the cultural icon that her character is. Her death is the beginning of the end of an era. Different people will pay tribute in different ways depending on how they knew her and in what way she affected them.

And, yes, she did have the best buns in the galaxy; in fact, they were iconic. And, yes, she was beautiful, witty, and bright.

carrie-fisher

The physical experience of the cross is a grace that is absolutely necessary for our growth in the Christian faith and a provindential opportunity to conform ourselves to Christ so as to enter into the depths of the ineffable. We understand, therefore, that in piercing the Heart of Jesus, the soldier’s spear revealed a great mystery, for it went farther than the Heart of Christ. It revealed God; it passed, so to speak, through the very center of the Trinity. (Robert Cardinal Sarah, p. 25)

 

In a recent interview, Dean Baquet, The New York Times’ executive editor, admitted that media powerhouses including himself and other journalists at the New York Times do not understand religion and the role it plays in people’s lives.

I want to make sure that we are much more creative about beats out in the country so that we understand that anger and disconnectedness that people feel. And I think I use religion as an example because I was raised Catholic in New Orleans. I think that the New York-based and Washington-based too probably, media powerhouses don’t quite get religion. We have a fabulous religion writer, but she’s all alone. We don’t get religion. We don’t get the role of religion in people’s lives. And I think we can do much, much better. And I think there are things that we can be more creative about to understand the country.

While some have used this as just another excuse to poke at the liberal MSM, I think that we can perhaps be a little more constructive. These words were said in the context of discussing reporting in a Trump presidency. While secularists such as Mr. Baquet have typically been dismissive of religion, they now see it as a key factor in Trump’s being elected. Whether this is a good thing or bad, it is recognized as a reality by the secularist elite and possibly is acting as a wake-up call for them. Mr. Baquet not only says that they don’t get it, but that they “can do much, much better.” In other words, he isn’t simply acknowledging a lack of comprehension regarding religion, but is also acknowledging that this lack forms a deficiency in his ability (and the ability of the MSM in general) to understand and accurately report on this country. It is a recognition that a lack of comprehension concerning religion also affects our understanding of the non-religious. Perhaps, just maybe, this is the beginning of Mr. Baquet and – please God – the rest of the MSM coming to realize what Benedict XVI said in the Regensburg lecture: that the secular understanding of reason, that being reason divorced from faith, is not sufficient for engaging with non-secular cultures. It actually works against a true multiculturalism and dialogue between peoples. In a country such as the United States, this creates a split personality; we are a country incapable of dialoguing with its self. Let us pray that Mr. Baquet does not falter in the face of such a soul-changing challenge and that other secularists will follow his lead.