This is just a placeholder for a future, more-properly-thought-out reflection: since last November’s election I’ve noticed, in posts and articles trying to understand and explain the current American social disorder, two figures assuming a prominence in our public discourse that they haven’t had in a while (if ever). One, invoked mainly but not exclusively on the right, is René Girard; the other, invoked mainly but not exclusively on the left, is Hannah Arendt. Now, for what it’s worth, I’m #TeamArendt all the way — I think Girard’s work is almost totally worthless, having, as Joshua Landy has demonstrated, roughly the same evidentiary foundation as Scientology — but what I’m really interested in is the rise of these two figures, among all that people could invoke, to explain the American scene today. That’s fascinating in itself.
Many typos and missed auto-errors now fixed; sorry about those
I find myself thinking often about this 2014 essay by Pat Deneen, one of the smartest political thinkers I know and one of the most incisive commentators on matters Catholic. The core distinction the essay makes seems to me vital. It concerns two rival models of Catholicism that have emerged to replace the old distinction between “liberal” and “conservative” Catholicism.
On the one side one finds an older American tradition of orthodox Catholicism as it has developed in the nation since the mid-twentieth century…. Its basic positions align closely to the arguments developed by John Courtney Murray and others. Essentially, there is no fundamental contradiction between liberal democracy and Catholicism. Liberal democracy is, or at its best can be, a tolerant home for Catholics, one that acknowledges contributions of the Catholic tradition and is leavened by its moral commitments. While liberalism alone can be brittle and thin — its stated neutrality can leave it awash in relativism and indifferentism — it is deepened and rendered more sustainable by the Catholic presence….
On the other side is arrayed what might be characterized as a more radical Catholicism…. The “radical” school rejects the view that Catholicism and liberal democracy are fundamentally compatible. Rather, liberalism cannot be understood to be merely neutral and ultimately tolerant toward (and even potentially benefitting from) Catholicism. Rather, liberalism is premised on a contrary view of human nature (and even a competing theology) to Catholicism. Liberalism holds that human beings are essentially separate, sovereign selves who will cooperate based upon grounds of utility. According to this view, liberalism is not a “shell” philosophy that allows a thousand flowers to bloom. Rather, liberalism is constituted by a substantive set of philosophical commitments that are deeply contrary to the basic beliefs of Catholicism.
In the four-and-a-half years since this essay appeared, two significant developments have occurred that alter, but only to some extent, the story Deneen tells.
First, the collapse of liberal Catholicism — which Deneen in the essay takes as a given — has, it’s safe to say, been postponed. I doubt Deneen would see any substantive reason to question his belief that “Liberal Catholicism has no future — like liberal Protestantism, it is fated to become liberalism simpliciter within a generation”; but that leaves unanswered the question of whether “liberalism simpliciter” could come to run the Catholic Church, at least for a while. In any event, that’s an intra-Catholic issue and not one that I’m concerned with here. (Though I have my preferences about how it all falls out.)
Second, though: his “radical Catholics” — rad-trads, tradinistas (the latter being, I think, a subset of the former) — have grown in power and have taken over some territory that once belonged to that older conservative tradition. In 2014 Deneen could confidently identify First Things as a magazine exemplifying the older tradition, but in the intervening years the rad-trads have become much more vocal there, to the point that the older conservatism is certainly a minority position in the magazine and may eventually disappear altogether. And in at least one sense that is a welcome development: as I have noted several times over the years, my primary disagreement with Father Neuhaus, the founding editor of First Things, centered on what I felt was his too-great comfort with the American project and his consequent reluctance to subject it to as thorough a critique as it has often deserved.
But though I admire the rad-trad willingness to subject the liberal order to comprehensive critical scrutiny, there’s another feature of the movement that I’m not so happy with: its general lack of interest in, and in many cases even disdain for, for non-Catholics. This is an old theme with me, but re-reading Deneen’s essay has given me a new understanding of the phenomenon.
If I were writing an essay instead of a brief blog post, I’d spell this out with examples, and maybe some day I’ll do that, but for now I’ll just say this: I’ve had many conversations with rad-trads and have had no success in persuading them that any non-Catholic thinker has anything meaningful to contribute to their project. If you want to tell them that you agree wth them, they’re happy enough with that, but they’re not interested in finding intellectual resources outside the Catholic tradition (narrowly conceived) or in hearing commentary from outside the Catholic tradition. In other words, though the rad-trads in my experience rarely have anything good to say about Vatican II, they are the children (or grandchildren) of ressourcement.
More power to them, I guess — but I say that with a bit of sadness, because that older conservative tradition which they repudiate (and may be supplanting) had an interest not just in strengthening the liberal order but also in strengthening ecumenical ties among all Christians, but especially those of the small-o orthodox variety. And it now strikes me that those two projects were closely related: that is, one of the key ways to strengthen the liberal order was through drawing Christians together towards a more unified front, and one of the key ways to pursue ecumenism was through claiming a shared role for all Christians in the liberal order. So I guess the rad-trads have decided that if you want to get rid of the one you have to ditch the other as well.
There may be other factors as well: for instance, many of the rad-trads are converts to Catholicism, and continuing to value anything from the Reformation traditions might feel like a less-than-complete submission to Mother Church. (Dunno. Can’t read minds.) But in any case, I hope that in the next few years they’ll rethink their approach.
Just a couple of examples: Can the pro-life cause really thrive if Catholics and evangelicals don’t work together? Is it really the case that, as the aforelinked Tradinista Manifesto suggests, contemporary Western militarism can only be challenged by “the traditional requirements of the Church’s just war theory”? Might not the Mennonite tradition have something to say to Catholics — even rad-trad Catholics?
All this to say: I continue to think that, given what we’re collectively facing in this dark time, we Christians need one another — and need one another in intellectual collaboration as well as in common prayer. It would make me very happy if more of my Catholic friends agreed.
For me, his great gift – on the page and in person – was visual generosity. He made you see different things and look at things differently. It was not works of art in galleries that interested him so much as objects, particularly those from which a story could be extracted. On the wall of his attic room in Albany, the apartment block in Piccadilly, was the king of Hawaii’s bedsheet: apricot-coloured, patterned with a shoal of jumping fish, looking like a Matisse. Chatwin had turned up at Christie’s on his bike to buy it in the 1960s. In the small Eaton Place flat designed by John Pawson – pleated like origami to hide his books – he hung pictures he had made by cutting coloured drawings from the catalogue of a broom manufacturer: rows of pinky-red-and-white toothbrushes, elegant and comic. In all his houses, he kept a prayer inscribed in Latin by the artist-poet David Jones: “May the blessed Archangel Michael defend us in battle lest we perish in the terrible judgment.” When he fell ill he took it with him in and out of hospitals.
Between 1968 and 1974 Ursula K. Le Guin published
• A Wizard of Earthsea
• The Left Hand of Darkness
• The Tombs of Atuan
• The Lathe of Heaven
• The Farthest Shore
• The Disposessed
— along with a series of classic stories, including “Vaster than Empires and More Slow,” “Winter’s King,” and “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” That would be quite a literary career. She did it in six years.
There are various methods applied to translate hapaxes that aren’t conventional words. In the case of “apoculamus” from the Satyricon, classicists can use context and precedent to define the term. At this point in the story, the narrator is describing how he and his companion departed from their house. From the ending “-mus,” we know that this word is a first-person plural, present, active, indicative verb. Therefore, “apoculamus” can be interpreted as a form of movement. Given the influence of ancient Greek on Latin, scholars have also relied on etymology for translation hints. The prefix “apo” means “away from” and the noun “culum” refers to a person’s buttocks. Hence, “apoculamus” might be defined as “hauling your posterior away from” something.
Dear Jenny: The way to do a piece of writing is three or four times over, never once. For me, the hardest part comes first, getting something — anything — out in front of me. Sometimes in a nervous frenzy I just fling words as if I were flinging mud at a wall. Blurt out, heave out, babble out something — anything — as a first draft. With that, you have achieved a sort of nucleus. Then, as you work it over and alter it, you begin to shape sentences that score higher with the ear and eye. Edit it again — top to bottom. The chances are that about now you’ll be seeing something that you are sort of eager for others to see. And all that takes time. What I have left out is the interstitial time. You finish that first awful blurting, and then you put the thing aside. You get in your car and drive home. On the way, your mind is still knitting at the words. You think of a better way to say something, a good phrase to correct a certain problem. Without the drafted version — if it did not exist — you obviously would not be thinking of things that would improve it. In short , you may be actually writing only two or three hours a day, but your mind, in one way or another, is working on it twenty-four hours a day — yes , while you sleep — but only if some sort of draft or earlier version already exists. Until it exists, writing has not really begun.
— John McPhee’s letter to his daughter, in Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process
Twitter [is] not actually a company, it’s a dysfunctional non-profit that accidentally provides a valuable service. — Tim Bray
A brief follow-up to yesterday’s post: Another interesting element of Kevin Kelly’s rhetoric is his use of “we.” This is something I have written about before: the assumption on the part of those writing about technology that they will be among the cadre of decision-makers. It’s always, for them, what “we” will decide about technology, what “we” will do with technology. And Saruman uses that rhetoric too: “We may join with that Power” etc. But Gandalf knows just how empty and deceptive the first-person plural can be: “‘Saruman,’ I said, standing away from him, ‘only one hand at a time can wield the One, and you know that well, so do not trouble to say we!’”
A vigilant, eyes-wide-open embrace works much better. My intent in this book is to uncover the roots of digital change so that we can embrace them. Once seen, we can work with their nature, rather than struggle against it. Massive copying is here to stay. Massive tracking and total surveillance is here to stay. Ownership is shifting away. Virtual reality is becoming real. We can’t stop artificial intelligences and robots from improving, creating new businesses, and taking our current jobs. It may be against our initial impulse, but we should embrace the perpetual remixing of these technologies. Only by working with these technologies, rather than trying to thwart them, can we gain the best of what they have to offer. I don’t mean to keep our hands off. We need to manage these emerging inventions to prevent actual (versus hypothetical) harms, both by legal and technological means. We need to civilize and tame new inventions in their particulars. But we can do that only with deep engagement, firsthand experience, and a vigilant acceptance.
— Kevin Kelly, The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future
“A new Power is rising. Against it the old allies and policies will not avail us at all. There is no hope left in Elves or dying Númenor. This then is one choice before you, before us. We may join with that Power. It would be wise, Gandalf. There is hope that way. Its victory is at hand; and there will be rich reward for those that aided it. As the Power grows, its proved friends will also grow; and the Wise, such as you and I, may with patience come at last to direct its courses, to control it. We can bide our time, we can keep our thoughts in our hearts, deploring maybe evils done by the way, but approving the high and ultimate purpose: Knowledge, Rule, Order; all the things that we have so far striven in vain to accomplish, hindered rather than helped by our weak or idle friends. There need not be, there would not be, any real change in our designs, only in our means.”
— Saruman, in J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings
Meaning comes not from systems of thought but from stories, and the Jewish story is among the most unusual of all. It tells us that God sought to make us His partners in the work of creation, but we repeatedly disappointed Him. Yet He never gives up. He forgives us time and again. The real religious mystery for Judaism is not our faith in God but God’s faith in us.
This is going to sound terrible, but Dr. Dinosaur always reminds me of David Bentley Hart. They have similar levels of self-confidence, they often make people think that they’re crazy, and just when you’ve decided to write them off they do something strangely brilliant.
I realize that The Venn diagram of (a) people who read D B Hart and (b) people who read Atomic Robo comics has an infinitesimal intersection. But still.
In trying to explain to National Review why she doesn’t apply a religious litmus test to judicial nominees, Sen. Dianne Feinstein in fact revealed that she does indeed have a litmus test. She says, “I have never and will never apply a religious litmus test to nominees — nominees of all religious faiths are capable of setting aside their religious beliefs while on the bench and applying the Constitution, laws and Supreme Court precedents.” But she is worried about an article Prof. Amy Barrett in which she acknowledged that situations might arise in which a Catholic judge’s faith commitments were at odds with what the law declares.
So Feinstein’s litmus test for nominees like Amy Barrett is this: Are your religious beliefs weak enough that you can effortlessly “set them aside”? The same logic was at work when Sen. Dick Durbin denounced Barrett for using the term “orthodox Catholic”: “Do you consider yourself an orthodox Catholic?” he demanded. (“Are you now or have you ever been … ) And again when, a few months ago, Bernie Sanders challenged Russell Vought, President Trump’s nominee for deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget, about his views on soteriology — a branch of doctrine that has no possible bearing on public service.
What all these lines of senatorial questioning have in common is an open revulsion towards people for whom religious belief is consequential. It doesn’t really matter what you think the consequences are, or whether they bear on your job in any way: if you simply think that your religious beliefs matter, that is sufficient to bring you under suspicion.
And again, the form the suspicion takes is that of revulsion, revulsion tending towards outrage. It is hard to tell how much of the revulsion is performative and how much heartfelt, but of course the performative eventually becomes heartfelt. As Bertolt Brecht teaches us, “weeping arises from sorrow, but sorrow also arises from weeping.” And in any case the claim, explicit or implicit, that religion matters is easily perceived as a challenge to those who don’t think it matters, or (more likely) who have never really thought about whether it does, and that is provocative. So look for much more of this kind of response in the years to come.
Many years ago now John Updike noted his response to much modern art: “we feel in each act not only a plenitude (ambition, intuition, expertise, delight, etc.) but an absence — a void that belongs to these creative acts: Nothing is preventing them.” Art thrives, Updike believed, on resistance, on something pushing back hard against the artistic impulse. So, for Updike, this is what the city of Dublin as it was in 1904 did for James Joyce: it resisted him, it demanded to be accounted for and respected. And the greatness of Ulysses derives at least in part from Joyce’s willingness to reckon honestly with that resistance.
You can see this principle at work in big ways and small, in famous artists and less-famous ones. I’ve often told the story — for instance, here — about how Miles Davis’s beautiful and influential style of playing the trumpet arose largely from his simple inability to compete with the brilliant virtuosity of Dizzy Gillespie.
But here’s a story I haven’t told before. One of the most sadly neglected of singer-songwriters, I think, is Richard Thompson, who first came to public attention fifty years ago (!) as the leader of Fairport Convention. Thompson has never been a really big name, and whole he has continued performing all these years, he has typically done it as a solo act. And that of course limits the kinds of sounds you can produce — it offers resistance to what you imagine your songs sounding like. Thompson has responded to this challenge by developing one of the most distinctive guitar styles I’ve ever heard, one that couples rhythmic propulsion and a clear bass line with articulate melodies on the high strings. He’s become sort of a one-man band, though not in a flamboyant way (that would obscure the character of his beautifully crafted songs).
There are many examples online — look for performances of “Dimming of the Day” or “I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight” — but my favorite song of Thompson’s is “Keep Your Distance.” The best version of the song I know is on his new release, Acoustic Classics II, but you can get a close-up look at him at work in this fine performance:
If one reads through the mass of versified trash inspired by, for instance, the Lidice massacre, one cannot avoid the conclusion that what was really bothering the versifiers was a feeling of guilt at not feeling horrorstruck enough. Could a good poem have been written on such a subject? Possibly. One that revealed this lack of feeling, that told how when he read the news, the poet, like you and I, dear reader, went on thinking about his fame or his lunch, and how glad he was that he was not one of the victims.
— W. H. Auden (1947)
I write, as a university president and a constitutional scholar with expertise on religious freedom and judicial appointments, to express concern about questions addressed to Professor Amy Barrett during her confirmation hearings and to urge that the Committee on the Judiciary refrain from interrogating nominees about the religious or spiritual foundations of their jurisprudential views. Article VI of the United States Constitution provides explicitly that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” This bold endorsement of religious freedom was among the original Constitution’s most pathbreaking provisions. The Supreme Court’s unanimous decision in Torcaso v. Watkins (1961), holding that the First and Fourteenth Amendments render this principle applicable to state offices and that it protects non-believers along with believers of all kinds, is among the greatest landmarks in America’s jurisprudence of religious freedom. Article VI’s prohibition of religious tests is a critical guarantee of equality and liberty, and it is part of what should make all of us proud to be Americans.
By prohibiting religious tests, the Constitution makes it impermissible to deny any person a national, state, or local office on the basis of their religious convictions or lack thereof. Because religious belief is constitutionally irrelevant to the qualifications for a federal judgeship, the Senate should not interrogate any nominee about those beliefs. I believe, more specifically, that the questions directed to Professor Barrett about her faith were not consistent with the principle set forth in the Constitution’s “no religious test” clause.
— Christopher Eisgruber, President of Princeton University. Given that Senators Feinstein and Franken are, in this regard, following the pattern established earlier this year by Senator Sanders, it seems that it is rapidly becoming SOP among Senate Democrats to impose religious tests on candidates for public service, with the idea that those who hold traditionalist religious beliefs are ipso facto unfit for office. I would like to think that responses like that of President Eisgruber will restrain the explicitness of the Dems’ bias against commonly held religious beliefs, but I doubt that any such pressure will be effective. Who would ever hold Feinstein, Franken, Sanders et al. accountable? But even if the more vocal Senatorial opponents of traditional religious beliefs learn to hold their tongues, they won’t soften their bigotry. They’ll just learn to disguise it a bit.
It’s a very odd experience to hold precisely the same theological positions that I have held for thirty years and be increasingly perceived by people on the left as a fundamentalist and by people on the right as a wishy-washy liberal.
A crack reporter for the Los Angeles Times will later write that they were arrested for charging the police, which couldn’t be less true. A Berkeley cop tells me they were arrested for their own safety (and weren’t charged). When I catch up and reach the police line, the cops won’t let me past to follow my subjects. My reportorial dispassion has worn thin. I yell at the police for doing nothing, for standing by while two men could’ve been killed. One cop tells me there’s a thin line between solving one problem and being the cause of more, as though they’re afraid to offend antifa. I am sick at what I just witnessed. Angry, even. I wheel around on some protesters, asking them if they think it’s right to beat people down in the street. “Hell yeah,” says one. I ask them to cite anything Joey has said that offends them, as though being offended justifies this. A coward in a black mask says: “They’re f—ing Nazis. There’s nothing they have to say to offend us.”
All around me, good non-antifa liberals go about their business, pretending none of this has happened, carrying “Stand Against Hate” signs. There’s the sound truck with preachers in clerical garb, leading a “Whose streets/our streets” chant. There’s the gray-haired interdenominational “Choral Majority” singing peace songs: “There’s no hatred in my land / Where I’m bound.” I want to vomit on the Berkeley Peace Wall.
— Matt Labash. You know the fable that when some European explorer (in some versions it’s Columbus, in others Magellan or Captain Cook) arrived on strange shores the natives simply could not see the ship — it was so far outside their engraved world that it was invisible to them? That’s how many leftists behave when sefl-styled “antifa” thugs assault people they falsely claim to be Nazis. Those good liberal folk may just lift their “Stand Against Hate” signs imperceptibly higher but otherwise march right along as though absolutely nothing is happening.
I’ve spent many unedifying hours reading books by biblical scholars in ways that have not been … ideal for my purposes. Today I’m going to share with you all some important lessons I’ve learned through my suffering.
1) The first part of the book will explain in mind-numbing detail how the author situates himself or herself in relation to several hundred other biblical critics. (Maybe only several dozen, but it will feel like several hundred.) The author will insist on explaining to you at, frankly, shocking length that there are
(a) scholars whose position he or she doesn’t agree with at all but whose work, in the cause of fairness, must be described thoroughly;
(b) scholars whose position he or she has partial sympathy with and whose work therefore must be described even more thoroughly; and
(c) scholars whose position he or she largely agrees with, though hopes to extend, and whose work must therefore be described until you are old and gray and full of sleep.
Skip all this. Seriously, don’t read any of it. If you’re not a member of the guild it will be neither interesting nor valuable. (All scholars interact with previous scholars in their chosen subject, but biblical scholars are in my experience unique in their devotion to “literature reviews” and “methodological introductions.” One gets the sense that they would write nothing but literature reviews and methodological introductions if they could get away with it.)
2) Next, read the last chapter, or conclusion. This is the place where you’ll find out what the author actually believes and get at least an outline of why he or she believes it. You should scrutinize the conclusion with great attentiveness, because almost all the good stuff is there.
3) As I say, the conclusion will give you at least an outline of why the author holds his or her views, but sometimes you won’t get as much detail as you need. No worries! The author will sometimes say things like “As I argued in Chapter 3” or “As noted above (pp. 173–79)” — so follow those bread crumbs and see the complete argument about whatever you’re interested in. And don’t bother with what you’re not interested in.
And that’s it! Three easy steps to getting great benefit from biblical scholarship at the least cost to your health and sanity.
Yesterday afternoon I was listening to Fresh Air with Terry Gross, an episode featuring a replay of part of a 1988 interview with Otis Williams of the Temptations. Williams described in fascinating detail what it was like to work for — definitely for, not with — Berry Gordy, Jr., the brilliant and obsessively disciplined mastermind of Motown Records. Gordy developed an incredibly complex system for coaxing great pop songs from his stable of songwriters, matching those songs with the right artists, and then arranging and producing the performances in ways that would — in theory and usually in practice — produce hits.
One element of Williams’s story really stood out to me. He explained that Gordy would instruct his musicians to record songs in keys that made the singers uncomfortable — that made them sing right at the limit of their range. Gordy believed that this gave a special urgency to vocal performances. Williams remembered with particular vividness the day the Temptations recorded “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” because, he said, it was one miserable day for David Ruffin. Williams described Ruffin going through take after take, pouring with sweat, his famous glasses sliding down his nose. Eventually he had to have some time to rest between takes. But eventually, this is what that frustration produced. One of Ruffin’s best vocals — maybe his very best, though if I had to pick just one I’d probably go with “I Wish It Would Rain”.
I’m not a singer, or an artist of any kind, but in my own little realm of work I’ve tried to follow this principle: work at the edge of your range. A couple of times in my career I’ve tried to make myself write books based on what I already knew, and I just couldn’t do it. I have to be discovering something, trying something I haven’t tried before — finding out where my range as a thinker and writer stops. The down side of this habit is that sometimes I have written (and even published) things I didn’t know enough about. That has been embarrassing. But I really can’t seem to do things any other way, and in general I think it’s a good principle. I mean, after all, isn’t that how you extend your range? Unless, of course, you ruin your voice … but let’s not think about that possibility.
Well, for starters, I am (we are) still very much dealing with the local fallout. I’m referring to the incredibly kind teaching aide at my son’s elementary school who was jumped and beaten because of his skin color, and wondering if he’s going to be able to make it to the first day of class next week.
I’m thinking of my friend’s daughter who is still in the hospital down the road after being hit by that car and is waiting for a bed to free up at the facility closer to where she lives before she can be transferred. I’m thinking about her hospital bills.
I’m thinking of my Jewish bartender friend who never in a million years dreamed he’d be waking up to shouts of “First stop Charlottesville, last stop Auschwitz”. I’m hoping he doesn’t move away.
I’m thinking about the battering ram-barricade device that the antifa so kindly left on our church property for us to dispose of. You know, the one with the graffiti of the bloodied, beheaded frog.
I’m still trying to wrap my head around the fact that we had to inform the police chief that placing snipers on the church roof might not send the right message.
And I’m wondering how on Earth I’m going to preach a sermon this Sunday — and how much more impossible that would be were the lectionary readings not so miraculously pertinent.
Given that I’ve written a book about reading, and a book about thinking, maybe I should write a book about writing? I don’t think so. Writing has always seemed to me such a strange act, and one that can be pursued in so many different ways, that it’s extremely difficult to make useful generalizations about it. If you were to read all the Paris Review interviews with writers, I bet the primary lesson to take away from the whole experience would be: Writers are different — different from one another.
But insofar as I do have any general advice for writers, it boils down to this:
- Find the time of day when you do your best thinking — when your intellectual energy is at its highest — and set that time aside for writing. (If that’s impossible because of work or other responsibilities, then find the best time that’s available to you.) Then preserve that time. Be flexible and generous all the other hours of the day, but be rigid and ruthless about your writing time.
- Write to think. Don’t try to know where you’re going before you start writing, but write to find out what you think, or find the story you need to tell. Never expect that a particular time-unit of writing will produce a given number of publishable words. You must learn to think of your writing time as a period of discovery, in which you find out what you think, or what images and rhythms tend to emerge from your mind, or where a story seems to want to go. If you focus on discovery, then something worth sharing with others will emerge, in its own way and on its own schedule. But that’s not the kind of thing that can be forced. Allow yourself the freedom to explore.
Of course, these rules can be, and by some should be, broken. Anthony Trollope’s time for writing was determined by his work day at the Post Office — he had to get the writing in before heading off for work — and in order to get the most out of the limited time he had, he always thought out, in the hours after work, what he would write the next morning. But I think most people who want to write will benefit from following the two suggestions I make above.
Reflecting on all the social and political chaos of the past week, journalists are asking — I see many of them asking — what effect the anger about his comments on Charlottesville, his alienation from the GOP congressional leadership, the departure from his employ of Steve Bannon, have on Trump’s agenda. Will he be able to carry out his agenda? — the assumption being that such trivialities as repealing Obamacare and building a wall along the Mexican border are somehow intrinsic to the President’s agenda. Donald Trump’s actual agenda is to own our mindspace, so the answer to the question is Yes. Trump wants to be the face before all eyes, the name on all lips. That is all. There is nothing else, there has never been anything else, there never will be anything else. His agenda is going wonderfully, thank you so much for asking.
Mermaid Avenue is a curious and delightful musical collaboration featuring Billy Bragg, Wilco, Natalie Merchant, and others playing the music of Woody Guthrie — well, actually, playing the lyrics of Woody Guthrie, to which they had to write the music. It started out as a single album, then became a documentary film, then added two more albums — you can get a nice overview of the whole project here. I mention it because it has held up extremely well over the years and still bears repeated listening. Wilco used Guthrie’s lyrics basically to write Wilco songs, and some damned fine Wilco songs, for instance “California Stars”:
Bragg made more of an effort to channel Guthrie — his belief that they all ought to be doing that was a point of tension during the sessions — but sometimes he writes Billy Bragg songs, as in the luminous “Birds and Ships,” sung hauntingly by Natalie Merchant:
One of the songs that knocked me out when the record first came out was “Aginst th’ Law,” sung by the young bluesman Corey Harris:
Harris is a major, major talent, and sadly little-known. I love all his stuff, but am especially fond of his early record Fish Ain’t Bitin’, with its delightfully weird instrumentation. Check the title tune, featuring acoustic guitar, two trumpets, and a bass line played on a tuba:
Damn, that’s good stuff. I have a real weakness for oddball combinations of instruments. Here’s one more example — unrelated to the Mermaid Avenue sessions — from my longtime guitar hero Martin Simpson, here playing the banjo, accompanied by slide guitar and bass:
As a new school year is about to begin, I’m going over the things I want to say to my first-year students — the ones I’m welcoming not just to Baylor’s Honors College but also to collegiate life. Here are my standard recommendations:
(1) Be religious … about washing your hands. (And not with hand sanitizers: use soap. Soap is much better at killing the critters that need to be killed.)
(2) Buy some earplugs, minimum NRR 32, and get used to wearing them. You might need to try several different brands before you find a variety that’s comfortable for you. But none of them will be comfortable at first, if you’re not a regular earplug-user, so try any given pair for at least a week before you move along to another. And then put the dang earplugs in your ears when it’s a good time to go to sleep.
If you don’t do anything else on this list, do these two things. In November, when all the other people in your dorm are exhausted, sick, and full of hatred for one another, you’ll be smooth-skinned, energetic, and cheerful.
(3) Find community outside the university. For those of us here at Baylor, a church community makes the most sense — and not just for “practical” reasons — but even if you’re not planning to be a regular church-goer, find ways to connect with people who are not your age. Old people, middle-aged people, children, it doesn’t matter — though if you can help those who are poor or in other ways needy that would be ideal. It is vital for you to be reminded regularly that there’s a whole world out there of people who are not in college and who, consequently, have very different troubles than yours.
(4) Spend time outdoors. In the Texas summer, that might need to be first thing in the morning, but stroll around under the live-oaks on campus, or walk up the Brazos and Bosque in Cameron Park, or drive a few miles west to see the really remarkable Lake Waco Wetlands. And when the cooler weather comes you’ll be able to be outdoors all the time, if you so desire.
(5) During the school day, keep your smartphone in your bag. Seriously: don’t take it out. Look around you, talk to friends, practice your breathing, pray. Just ignore the phone.
(6) Find a system of organization and stick with it. You need to be always aware of what your responsibilities and what the key due dates are. If you keep careful track of such matters, then when other people are “pulling all-nighters” you’ll be restoring your bodily strength in sleep (protected by your earplugs). There are many wonderful digital tools, but don’t overlook the amazing power and flexibility of pen and paper.
(7) If you’re not one of the extremely fortunate students taking my first-year seminar, read the syllabus and follow some of the links on it. You could learn a lot.
(8) School won’t kill you — least of all through putting challenges in your path you can’t surmount. Nobody’s perfect; nobody’s invariably excellent. Remember Pascal’s warning against the error of Stoicism, which is to believe that you can do always what you can really only do sometimes. Don’t be afraid.
In the preface to his great — and I do mean great — book Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels, Richard Hays comments on the peculiar and difficult circumstance of the book’s completion: the immediate aftermath of his being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Mindful of the speed with which that particular form of cancer tends to do its evil work, Hays and the staff of Baylor University Press worked very quickly to get the book ready for publication. Hays:
If it had been possible for me to devote a year, rather than just a few weeks, to completing the writing of this book, I would have developed a much fuller theoretical account of my methodology. I would have engaged in more extended critical discussions with other studies of intertextuality and figural exegesis. But perhaps it is a mercy to the reader not to be subjected to too many pages of secondary theoretical discourse. The thing that matters in the end is the actual reading and interpretation of the primary texts. That is where my interpretation will stand or fall.
(By the way, or not at all by the way, I’m pleased to report that two years after his diagnosis Hays is still with us. Long may he thrive.) Speaking as a layperson, someone wholly outside Hays’s scholarly guild, I am inclined to accept the “mercy” hypothesis.
Last year I read John Barclay’s Paul and the Gift — a book I had eagerly anticipated. But Barclay’s meticulous accounts and assessments of (it often seemed) everyone who has ever written about Paul simply wore me out. In all the discussion of whether the work of Scholar C did or did not amount to a successful resolution of the conflict between Scholar A and Scholar B, I could not keep track of the main line of ther book’s argument, and I longed to return to the text of the Apostle’s writing. I hope I need not say that I would wish illness on nobody, but I do wonder what Barclay’s book would have been like if he had had to work under conditions of great urgency, so that it had to be written quickly or not at all. What if we scholars couldn’t elaborate, couldn’t pay our guild dues, couldn’t carefully situate our argument within the context of all the other arguments that have been made on our subject? What kinds of books might we then produce?
In that preface Hays (perhaps inevitably) cites Samuel Johnson’s famous remark about the power of the prospect of being hanged in two weeks to concentrate the mind. Well, you can’t do much in two weeks. But what if the hanging were scheduled for a year from now? I’d like to spend the rest of my career writing as though whatever I had to say had to be said by a year from … NOW.
This Vulture profile of Michiko Kakutani is a little too inside-baseball for me — perhaps because Kakutani was never going to review one of my books — but there’s one thing I want to call attention to:
You won’t find the word I in a Kakutani review, just an omniscient “reader.” “She became the official voice of the Times,” says a book editor. “She stopped writing what felt to me like criticism and started making pronunciamentos.”
The implication here is that the tendency towards pronunciamento is a personal trait of Kakutani’s, and I’m sure it is, but it is also a function of the self-image of the Times as the official arbiter of all that is good and right — which means that the paper is happy to allow that tone to manifest itself in all sorts of ways throughout the paper.
Take for instance this review by Beverly Gage of Mark Lilla’s new book on liberalism. At one point Gage writes, “He disparages Black Lives Matter as ‘a textbook example of how not to build solidarity,’ … This is a shame, because he identifies some truly important questions that liberals and leftists of all stripes will have to face together.” Note that Gage does not ask whether the political strategy of Black Lives Matter is flawed, or even inform us why Lilla thinks it is. Such things simply are not said: to note that he said it is sufficient for refutation.
This is the classic voice of the NYT, its serene rhetoric of unquestioned, unquestioning, and unquestionable authority. And if you hold the right views, as Gage appears to, then the making of pronunciamentos (even pronunciamentos by implication or suggestion) is actually preferred to the making of arguments.
Very soon after Exile, so much technology came in that even the smartest engineer in the world didn’t know what was really going on. How come I could get a drum sound back in Denmark Street with one microphone, and now with fifteen microphones I get a drum sound that’s like someone shitting on a tin roof? Everybody got carried away with technology and slowly they’re swimming back. In classical music, they’re rerecording everything they rerecorded digitally in the ’80s and ’90s because it just doesn’t come up to scratch. I always felt that I was actually fighting technology, that it was no help at all. And that’s why it would take so long to do things. Fraboni has been though all of that, that notion that if you didn’t have fifteen microphones on a drum kit, you didn’t know what you were doing. Then the bass player would be battened off, so they were all in their little pigeonholes and cubicles. And you’re playing this enormous room and not using any of it. This idea of separation is the total antithesis of rock and roll, which is a bunch of guys in a room making a sound and just capturing it. It’s the sound they make together, not separated. This mythical bullshit about stereo and high tech and Dolby, it’s just totally against the whole grain of what music should be.
Nobody had the balls to dismantle it. And I started to think, what was it that turned me on to doing this? It was these guys that made records in one room with three microphones. They weren’t recording every little snitch of the drums or bass. They were recording the room. You can’t get these indefinable things by stripping it apart. The enthusiasm, the spirit, the soul, whatever you want to call it, where’s the microphone for that? The records could have been a lot better in the ’80s if we’d cottoned on to that earlier and not been led by the nose of technology.
— Keith Richards, from Life (I saw a shorter version of the passage in this post by Doug Hill). It’s noteworthy that Keef rails against “technology” but what he’s actually doing is making the case for one kind of technology rather than another. After all, if you’re recording a live performance in a room using three microphones, you’re no less technological than the people with fifteen mikes, Dolby, a giant sound board, etc. The real issue here is appropriate technology. When David Rawlings and company play music before three simple microphones, moving towards and then away from them according to need, they’re using a technology that they think produces a better, cooler sound than multiple mics do. And they have a point:
Freddie deBoer is pretty tired of the freelance-writing merry-go-round:
I just find, at this point, that the process of pitching, composing, shepherding through edits, promoting, and trying to get paid sucks the life out of me. The commercial interests of publications require editors to ask for things that are tied to the news cycle in the most facile way imaginable. I get it, and I don’t blame them personally. But I’m opting out. And it’s increasingly hard for me to explain to editors what I want a piece to do and say without writing the piece. I’m just really not interested in the “beats” of a piece of nonfiction anymore; the argument, in the sense that people traditionally mean, is just about the least interesting aspect of nonfiction writing. So when asked to reduce my own prospective writing to a series of explicit moves, I’m forced to fixate on the parts that I find least interesting or valuable. What I want is to write in a way that is free of precisely the kind of paint-by-numbers literalism that editors require. Again, not a knock on them. It’s just not in my interests anymore.
Meanwhile, the money generally sucks. I am very grateful for the LAT [Los Angeles Times] publishing me in their print edition, for example, and I knew what the rate was going in. But writing and editing a thousand-plus word piece for one of the biggest newspapers in the country got me $200.
Twice as much as I made the one time I wrote for the LAT! Though that was some years ago.
Here’s the way the game works: You should write newspaper pieces for peanuts because that will bring you to the attention of the monthlies, where you should write for peanuts because that will bring you to the attention of the trade publishing houses, who will give you a contract that over the course of your book’s life will pay you, if you calculate the hours you spend writing, well short of minimum wage — but that’s okay, because your book will bring you to the attention of the newspapers.
It’s not always like that, of course. Harper’s pays very well, and I have had two or three pretty significant book advances in my time. But all too often, yes, it’s like that. And this is writing for print! — the lucrative side of the business!
In his great book God’s Long Summer, Charles Marsh demonstrates that the Civil Rights struggle in the Deep South was largely an intra-Christian dispute. From the sainted Fannie Lou Hamer to Sam Bowers, the Imperial Wizard of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan of Mississippi, to the “white moderates” Martin Luther King, Jr. warned us about his his “Letter from the Birmingham Jail,” all parties involved articulated their positions in reference to Christian scriptures and some broader account of the Christian Gospel.
How far we have come. As Joe Carter explains,
As many conservative Christians on social media can attest, the alt-right seems to have a particular disdain for gospel-centered Christianity. (For examples see here, here, here, and here.) Some on the alt-right (such as Vox Day) claim that Christianity is a “foundational pillar” of the movement. But what they mean by Christianity is often a heretical form (Day rejects the Trinity) a racialized version of the faith (e.g., the Kinist movement), or “religion as culture” (Spencer says he is both an atheist and a “culture Christian.”). The true religion of the alt-right is white identitarianism, which is why the SBC accurately considers it an “anti-gospel” movement.
Meanwhile, at the other end of the political spectrum, it’s pretty clear — see for instance this excellent report by Emma Green — the the Black Lives Matter movement is also largely post-Christian, with little interest in and occasional hostility to the African-American church, which BLM activists often see as weak and ineffective — or simply irrelevant.
It wasn’t that long ago that Andrew Sullivan was denouncing “Christianist” movements as a threat to our republic — something I debated with him here and here, even getting him to admit that Martin Luther King, Jr. was a “left Christianist” and to that extent problematic. (Andrew’s response has been moved here.) For Andrew in 2011, the “Christianist takeover” of the GOP was complete.
Again: how far we have come. And in a very short time.
Ross Douthat once said to people on the left that if they hated the Religious Right, they should just wait to see the Post-Religious Right. We all saw it in Charlottesville yesterday. When political movements paid even lip service to the Christian Gospel, they had something to remind them of commandments to forgive, to make peace, to love. There were stable moral standards to appeal to, even if activists often squirmed desperately to evade their force. I am far more worried about neo-Nazis than BLM — as you should be too — but when people confront one another, or confront us, who don’t know those commandments, or have contempt for them, the prospects for the healing of this nation don’t look very good. I don’t know what language to use to persuade a white nationalist that those people over there are their neighbors, not vermin to be crushed with an automobile.
On the current debate among “small-o orthodox” Christians about sexuality and orthodoxy, I warmly recommend this post by Matthew Lee Anderson. It’s longish but really thoughtful about the key issues. I don’t think I agree with Matthew’s use of the idea of the “grammar” of credal theology, a use he shares with Alastair Roberts, because I fear that it can make Scripture and creed alike into an infinitely reshapeable wax nose: you can quickly move past what it says to focus on what you claim is entailed by its grammar. (Another way to put it: I am made uneasy by this mode of theology for the same reasons I am made uneasy by Newman’s view of “development of doctrine.”) But the argument is well-made and worth considering.
Anyway, I just want to make one brief comment about my participation in this whole business. I have had almost nothing to say about the substantive theological and moral issues at stake because my primary concern here is not the “what” but the “how”: how we handle disagreement. There’s an important sense in which our means need to be upstream of our ends.
One of the major themes of my forthcoming book How to Think is the fruitlessness of arguments badly conducted. When we treat those we disagree with as necessarily wicked or stupid, when we forbid to “their side” practices that we cheerfully allow to “our side,” when we recklessly (and sometimes quite intentionally) misconstrue those who disagree with us, then genuine argument never happens: we descend into shouted recriminations.
Of course, many people are perfectly happy with shouted recriminations. But Christians are forbidden that. As I have reflected on these matters in the past couple of years — and I’ve spent a lot of time in such reflection — I have been struck by just how consistently concerned the New Testament is with proper responses to conflict. We are told, by Jesus in the Gospels and by the apostles in their letters, how to respond when we are attacked and vilified by those outside the “household of faith” and how to deal with various kinds of conflict within that household. Almost all of what I’ve written in the last year or so about the current disputes has been focused on the need to be obedient to these teachings.
One of the most famous passages in the whole of Scripture, but one that almost no one seems to find relevant to the current debates, is this: “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.” I just wish that before leaping into any fray — especially if it’s conducted on social media, given the online disinhibition effect — my fellow Christians would just spend just five minutes meditating on that passage.
We live in an era in which the overwhelming majority of filmgoers will have no experience of military life whatsoever, either as veterans or relatives thereof. “Dunkirk,” a visually stunning film—overwhelming in IMAX— will not give those audience members the illusion that by having watched the film they understand what war is. They will be moved, I’m sure; this particular story cannot be anything but. But its very distance from the communal character of military experience marks it as a film of our time trying to reach back to another era, when military culture was more generally understood, and show us: see, this is what you no longer understand.
Google’s position could be:
- All studies suggesting that men-taken-as-a-group and women-taken-as-a-group have measurably different interests or abilities are so evidently wrong that any attempt to invoke them can only be indicative of malice, bad faith, gross insensitivity, or other moral flaws so severe that the person invoking them must be fired.
- At least some of those studies are sound, but the suggestion that such differences could even partly account for gender imbalance in tech companies like Google is so evidently wrong that any attempt to invoke them can only be etc. etc.
- At least some of those studies are sound, and very well may help to account for gender imbalance in tech companies like Google, but saying so inflicts so much emotional harm on some employees, and creates so much internal dissension, that any attempt to invoke them can only be etc. etc.
- We take no position on any of those studies, but fired James Damore because of other things he said.
I think those are the chief options. Sundar Pichai’s memo emphasizes emotional harm inflicted — “The memo has clearly impacted our co-workers, some of whom are hurting and feel judged based on their gender” — without ever weighing in on the validity of any of the studies Damore’s memo cites. And Pichai says that “much of what was in that memo is fair to debate, regardless of whether a vast majority of Googlers disagree with it” — but he doesn’t spell out what he thinks was fair and what unfair.
I think the third option above is the most likely, with the fourth the next-best candidate, but I seriously doubt that Google will get much more specific. Their goal will be to create a climate of maximal fear-of-offending, and that is best done by never allowing employees to know where the uncrossable lines are. That is, after all, corporate SOP.
It’s going to be really, really difficult to get reliable information about what happened here and why it happened, not just because Google will want to be evasive, and will be encouraged by its lawyers to be evasive, but also because, as Conor Friedersdorf pointed out, the misrepresentations of and straightforward lies about Damore’s memo are pervasive: “I cannot remember the last time so many outlets and observers mischaracterized so many aspects of a text everyone possessed.”
Maybe this will help to clarify some matters concerning the definition of “orthodoxy.” Jamie Smith aroused a lot of outrage when he asked, “Do you really want to claim that Christians who affirm all of the historic markers of orthodoxy but disagree with you on matters of sexual morality or nonviolence or women in office are heretics?” And I aroused the same outrage when I said he had made a good point. Both of us were accused of having demoted sexual ethics to the realm of adiaphora by saying that people who are wrong about controversial matters of sexual ethics are not ipso facto heretics (though they could of course be heretics for other reasons) — even though we both insisted that we were not saying that sexuality is a matter of theological and moral indifference.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that heresy is a particular kind of sin: it is one of the sins against faith:
There are various ways of sinning against faith:
Voluntary doubt about the faith disregards or refuses to hold as true what God has revealed and the Church proposes for belief. Involuntary doubt refers to hesitation in believing, difficulty in overcoming objections connected with the faith, or also anxiety aroused by its obscurity. If deliberately cultivated doubt can lead to spiritual blindness.
“Incredulity is the neglect of revealed truth or the willful refusal to assent to it. Heresy is the obstinate post-baptismal denial of some truth which must be believed with divine and catholic faith, or it is likewise an obstinate doubt concerning the same; apostasy is the total repudiation of the Christian faith; schism is the refusal of submission to the Roman Pontiff or of communion with the members of the Church subject to him.”
One of the things that should be immediately clear from reading this is that people often use the term heresy in contexts where incredulity would be far more appropriate. But I want to make a more general point here. Various people commented, in reply to Jamie and me, that since the credal orthodoxy we emphasize doesn’t say anything about genocide or necrophilia then I guess those are totally compatible with orthodoxy, huh?
To which I reply: I think you’re making a category error. Genocide and necrophilia are indeed sins but they aren’t sins against faith — they belong in different categories, as the Catechism suggests. Orthodoxy is “right belief,” right doxa, and people can be disciplined by or excluded from the community of Christians for holding wrong beliefs; but they can also be disciplined and excluded for committing sins that aren’t about wrong belief at all. They may simply be, as the old prayer book has it, “notorious evil livers.”
You can redefine orthodoxy to mean “Everything that a Christian is supposed to believe and do, and nothing that a Christian is not supposed to believe and do,” and if you redefine it that way then all sin is indeed heresy; but I think that disables you from making some very useful distinctions, the sorts of distinctions that the Catechism frequently makes. And in light of those distinctions a person could indeed commit genocide without being a heretic. He would just be a great and terrible sinner.
Now, to be sure, you could also create an elaborate theory justifying genocide or necrophilia, and hold to it in defiance of the biblical witness or church teaching, and in that case you really would be a heretic. But most people who sin (whether against faith or against charity or against anything else) don’t have such elaborate theories: they’re simply wrong.
But, and this is something I’ve complained about before, nobody is just wrong any more. Everyone you disagree with is a heretic, an infidel, a false teacher, not a Christian at all!! I really think we could make a lot of progress in our debates if we we recovered the category of plain old wrongness. But, failing that, let’s at least recognize the differences betweens sins against faith and other kinds of sin.
Quick addendum to this morning’s posts: I’ve already heard from several Catholic friends and emailers that my comments and caveats and recommendations have no force because the Church has spoken on these matters. Yeah, I know. But I’m not Catholic, so that’s not dispositive for me. Odd that this needs to be said, but apparently it does. Those of us who don’t have a Magisterium have to approach these matters in a different way: there’s nothing that we can point to and say: That settles it. People try to do that with Scripture, of course, but, as my earlier posts demonstrate, without achieving consensus. So my argument about who should or should not be excommunicated is directed to those of us who have already been excommunicated by Rome.* I’ll try to be more explicit about such matters in the future.
*Note to Catholic friends who will say, “You mean ‘who have excommunicated themselves by their disobedience to the Magisterium’”: I know about that too. What I have written I have written.**
**Note to Catholic friends who think it’s ironic that I use that phrase: I’m still one step ahead of you.
Imagine a pacifist to a just-war theorist: “Jesus says, ‘Blessed are the peacemakers.’ Jesus says, ‘Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.’ Why is this even a question?”
Imagine a certain kind of gender-traditionalist when his pastor assigns women to read Scripture in services: “Paul says ‘Women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak.’ Why is this even a question?”
Imagine someone with a very different view of, for example, the ordination of women: “Paul says that in Christ there is no longer male and female.’ Why is this even a question?”
I have had such thoughts many times: Why are we even debating this? Why is this even a point of contention? How can any Christian be confused or uncertain about this? Why is this even a question? We might be tempted to say, “I wish this question hadn’t arisen in my time.” To which a wise man might reply, “So do I, and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
For some there are no puzzles about what to do with the time that is given us: “Paul says, Do not ‘associate with anyone who bears the name of brother or sister who is sexually immoral.’ Why is this even a question?” The best answer I can give is that it’s a question because Christians now disagree about what in fact constitutes “sexual immorality.” (And not just about homosexuality: consider the debates about polygamy and masturbation that have persisted in various parts of the Christian world.) In the face of such disagreement, one might reply, Paul says we’re supposed to be, “with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”
There are always questions. Which ones arise — that’s not for us to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the questions that are presented to us. My one consistent position in all these matters is to resist taking the nuclear option of excommunication. It is the strongest censure we have, and therefore one not to be invoked except with the greatest reluctance. Further, I don’t think the patience that St. Paul commands is to be exhausted in a few years, or even a few decades. We need to learn to think in larger chunks of time, and to consider the worldwide, not just the local American and Western European, context. Many of us tend to think that if we haven’t convinced someone after a few tweets and blog posts that we can be done with them and the questions they bring. But the time-frame of social media is not the time-frame of Christ’s Church.
In addition to the matter of time, there is also the matter of scale to consider. As I have argued before — see here for example — the notion that our sexual preferences must be respected and affirmed is simply an instance of the larger claim that each of us is, as Milton’s Satan puts it, “self-begot.” That claim is the wellspring of what has become a comprehensive ideology: a framework of belief and practice so obvious that no argument need ever be made for it. And in my judgment that ideology is so powerful and living — organic, growing, having a mind of its own — that it should rightly be designated one of the Powers, the archas, the kosmokratoras, about which I have written a bit here. Some of the people who support the Christian legitimacy of same-sex unions have actual theological and biblical arguments to make, which should be responded to in kind; but for many others that legitimacy is guaranteed simply by the theos tou aiōnos, the god of this age. They believe in sexual self-determination because that is what is believed.
The god of this age, like all Powers, is not easily dislodged from its throne, and Christians should expect the battle to be a long one. This calls for patience in more than one venue: patience in awaiting the vindication of the saints, but also patience with those who have spent their whole lives in thrall to that Power whose proper name is I-am-my-own. And we should be especially cautious in casting out those whom we see to be so in thrall because there is a very great chance that that Power exerts far greater sway over us than we are able to realize. When we focus on disciplining the errors of individuals, we are often — not always, but often — considering neither the scope (in time and space) of the issues under debate nor the beams that, in this present darkness, have made their way into our own eyes.
As Ephraim Radner has pointed out somewhere, one thing that Christians have in common is that we’ve all been excommunicated by other Christians. Given the repeated commands throughout the New Testament to seek oneness in Christ, I don’t see how we can be complacent about that shared condition, or eager to continue the practices that led to it. In the long war with the god of this world, oneness is our greatest strength, and we must always be seeking it. Divisions will inevitably come, and some of them will be necessary; but woe be unto us through whom unnecessary divisions come.
We must look for every possible way to remain in communion with one another, to work together for the cause of the Gospel; we must separate from one another only with great reluctance, and after the long exercise of Christ-like patience: we must imitate the God who is lastingly patient with us. And when we decide that must separate, basic obedience demands that we immediately begin seeking ways to restore our fellowship. These are among the marks of the true Church, I believe.
Alastair Roberts says that Jamie Smith “den[ies] the place of the creed in teaching us Christian morality”; what Smith actually says is that “that conciliar standards of orthodoxy do not articulate” the traditional understanding of sexual morality, which is incontestably true, isn’t it? I seriously doubt that Smith would in any way dissent from Roberts’s claim that “the creed is the touchstone of Christian ethics, the document disclosing its true grammar.” Roberts seems to have fundamentally misconstrued Smith’s post as being about the sources of Christian ethics, when in fact it is about the way we use the term “orthodoxy.”
I believe that Roberts is absolutely right to suggest that the grammar of credal orthodoxy is a generative one, from which the whole of Christian ethics emerges. But it does not inevitably do this in obvious ways, ways that Christians are generally agreed about. Smith’s example of pacifism is a telling one. For the Christian pacifist, the very heart of the credal grammar is that in Christ God is at work reconciling the world to himself, and that therefore the whole life of the Church is to participate in that reconciliation, which enjoins a steadfast refusal of armed conflict. For the Christian pacifist, the Christian who believes that wars can be just has simply failed to grasp that credal grammar. And yet most Christian pacifists do not say that just-war Christians fall outside the scope of orthodoxy. And I think they don’t say this because they recognize the difference between grammatical rules that are explicitly stated and the consequences that implicitly follow from those rules.
The argument about whether Christians are permitted to participate in war can therefore be conducted within the ecclesia, within the koinonia of those who belong to Christ. But this does not in any way imply or suggest that the questions at stake are adiaphora, matters about which we can simply “agree to disagree.” They must be worked out with fear and trembling, and we must face the fact that some people in the debate are seriously and consequentially wrong.
This example shows that by noting that a particular issue does not fall within the boundaries of credal orthodoxy one is not thereby condemning it to insignificance. Smith makes this point explicitly. But I think that many of the people who want to say that sexuality is a “first-order issue” for the church are afraid that that’s what’s going on — and in many cases they’re exactly right. Many, many people really do want to claim that since sexuality is not addressed in the creeds it’s something about which we can expect and tolerate a virtually infinite range of opinions. But to deem questions of sexuality adiaphora, no less than dumping questions of war and peace in the same class, would be a tragic error and a complete abdication of Christian ethics.
That said, I just don’t think we can avoid that tragic error by claiming credal status for traditional (what I would call biblical) sexual ethics. I say this for three reasons:
1) We cannot logically and consistently elevate sexual ethics in this way without doing the same for other positions (on war and peace, on slavery, on usury, etc.) which have similarly been claimed by many Christians as being necessarily generated by the grammar of the creeds.
2) To say that sexual ethics is a “first-order issue” on a par with the creeds themselves is inevitably to decenter the creeds themselves: to see them as having failed to specify, to make explicit, absolutely essential matters. They then become creatures of their time and place, products of the disputes that just happened to dominate their moment in history, rather than documents of permanent, binding validity for later Christians. This implies a lower pneumatology and a lower ecclesiology than I believe is healthy.
3) The flip side of the previous point is this: by declaring the issues that most occupy us at the moment, and most occupy us at the moment thanks largely to our mass media, as “first-order issues” for the whole of Christ’s Church in all times and places, we are courting parochialism and presentism. We should, instead, have the humility to wait to see if the whole of Christ’s Church, acting in conciliar unity, agrees with us. Perhaps we can argue that it should: perhaps we can call for a new Ecumenical Council. (And if our disputes over sexuality have the effect of bringing about the kind of unity in Christ that would make a new Ecumenical Council possible, it will have been a blessing in disguise.)
But as it stands we are living through in-between times, what Auden calls “the Time Being,” and as he notes, “To those who have seen / The Child, however dimly, however incredulously, / The Time Being is, in a sense, the most trying time of all.” When we believe our brothers and sisters in Christ are wrong, terribly wrong, about sexuality, let us borrow a strategy from so many Christian pacifists over the centuries and tell them they’re wrong — without telling them that they’re not our brothers and sisters — without casting them out of the koinonia. That would be the easy path, the simple path, but not, I am convinced, the Christ-like path.
John Stuart Mill once wrote of the English, “It appears to them unnatural and unsafe, either to do the thing which they profess, or to profess the thing which they do.” A perfect description of American evangelicals today.
God appeared very early to me. His hair was parted down the middle. I understood that we were related because he had made Adam in his own image, breathed life into him. My eldest brother also combed his hair in the same style. Between the senior brother and me there was another brother. Senior to all of us was our sister. Anyway… This was the world. I had never seen it before. Its first gift was the gift of itself. Objects gathered you to themselves and held you buy a magnetic imperative that was simply there. It was a privilege to be permitted to see – to see, touch, hear. This would not have been impossible to describe to Ravelstein. But he would have answered dismissively that Rousseau had already covered the same turf in his Confessions or his Reveries of a Solitary Walker. I didn’t feel like having these first epistemological impressions anticipated or dismissed. For seventy-odd years I had seen reality under the same signs. I had the feeling, too, that I had to wait for thousands of years to see, hear, smell, and touch these mysterious phenomena – to take my turn in life before disappearing again when my time was up. I might have said to Ravelstein, “It was my one turn to live.” But he was too close to death to be spoken to in such terms and I had to surrender my wish to make myself fully known to him by describing my intimate metaphysics. Only a small number of special souls have ever found a way to receive such revelations.
— Saul Bellow, Ravelstein