Author: John Brenkman


How do I know there is no afterlife? Because the inmates of paradise do not read. The promise of afterlife is the promise of transcending the knowledge of good and evil and of death that Adam and Eve brought into the world thanks to their disobedience of God in Eden. It is the promise of utter fulfillment, eternal bliss, uninterrupted pleasure. Eternal life eliminates knowledge, good and evil, death, and disobedience. Therefore, it eliminates reading. No Dostoevsky. No Shakespeare. No Racine. No Baudelaire, Whitman, Mallarmé. No Divine Comedy! No Iliad, no Odyssey, no Aeneid. No Aeschylus. No Sophocles. No Montaigne, Pascal, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche. No Goethe, Wordsworth, Dickinson, Keats, Rimbaud. No Hurston, Faulkner, Ellison, Morrison, Roth. The pearly gates open and Saint Peter, even as popes are still chanting and imbibing over his bones in the Basilica, rips the books from your arms and douses you with some celestial narcotic that leaves you to come unceasingly before the image of God, blinding your eyes to prose and poetry. How frightful, how destitute, how horrifying, to be bereft of books for all eternity.

papal equinox

Pope Francis visited Philadelphia, the District of Columbia, and New York City in 2015, September 22-27. Speaking to the General Assembly during the UN’s annual gathering of heads of state, he sounded three themes: poverty, climate, and migration. The coincidence of the equinox gave those themes the aura of a planetary-solar convergence which I’ve recalled every autumn since.

As I write today, the equinox has been crossed. Twice a year sunrise and sunset divide the day equally at every spot on the earth, from the polar caps through the equator, north to south, south to north. Prehistoric peoples built tombs, temples, and chronometers to capture the two moments. At no other moment during the year is the dance of the sun and the earth the same for every living being on the planet. As soon as the moment passes days grow shorter and nights longer above the equator and days longer and nights shorter below it, and vice versa six months later. Already today sunset has gained two minutes on sunrise in New York City. The farther north one is the faster the distance grows. In Paris it is four minutes and in Stockholm it is already nine! In Oaxaca, Mumbai, and Saigon the equinox crawls toward the solstice, in Reykjavik it races. The equinoctial is a fleeting, scarcely perceptible condition that occurs, with miniscule inexactness, but twice a year. Only at those two moments is the earth the same for all its inhabitants.

Poverty, climate, migration: Pope Francis’s genius lay in the fact that the universality of these three themes  requires a perspective uniquely focused on all of humankind’s sojourn on earth. These most secular of questions how to protect and lift the poor, how to preserve the earth as bountiful dwelling, how to honor every individual’s and every family’s search for a safe and viable place to live—these questions require a universalizing perspective on the human condition, a perspective that states and statesmen are hard-pressed to express or sustain even as intractable crises of poverty, climate, and migration impinge upon them with increasing intensity. The Church attains the universal perspective on humanity and earth not only because of its traditions, doctrines, and symbols but also because, unlike states and statesmen, it does not have the responsibility to sustain a body politic and protect the symbolico-institutional integrity of some historically particular ethnic or national group and its territory. Conversely, the states and statesmen who have that responsibility cannot ignore but neither can they embody the universalizing perspective that was articulated so forcefully that September by the head of the deeply undemocratic, illiberal, dogmatic institution which is the Catholic Church.

Another cluster of complexities in the folds of the ordeal of universalism.