Trump and incommensurability

Dismayed by the recently announced list of “scholars and writers” supporting Trump for President, I sat down this morning to write a brief post explaining why I think supporting Trump is a very bad decision. But where to begin?

And then I thought: You all know who Trump is. You know that he’s a preening, vaunting, compulsively dishonest ignoramus with a mean streak a mile wide, whose only criterion for evaluating other human beings is: Do they like me? You are intelligent and well-informed. You can be under no illusions in these matters. And yet you not only will vote for Trump, you are warmly encouraging others to do the same.

Long ago Thomas Kuhn introduced into the history of science the concept of incommensurability: theories whose premises are so radically divergent that adherents of one theory simply cannot speak coherently and usefully with adherents of another. Alasdair MacIntyre would later, in After Virtue, apply this concept to debates in moral philosophy: “Every one of the arguments is logically valid or can be easily expanded so as to be made so; the conclusions do indeed follow from the premises. But the rival premises are such that we possess no rational way of weighing the claims of one as against another…. It is precisely because there is in our society no established way of deciding between these claims that moral argument appears to be necessarily interminable.”

If an intelligent and well-informed person is not only voting for Trump but also advocating for him as someone who can “restore the promise of America,” then it is clear that our premises about politics — about what politics does, what politics is for — are so radically different as to be incommensurable. (Ditto our notions  of what “the promise of America” is.) It was MacIntyre’s hope in After Virtue and the books that succeeded it to find a way around or through the impasse of incommensurability in moral philosophy. Until someone can do the same for the politics of this current election, there is no possibility of my even having a meaningful conversation with the people who signed that document. And as another philosopher has sagely counseled, What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.


My friend Wesley Hill recently posted a wonderfully concise and elegant outline of what we might call first steps in theological anthropology. I’m wondering if for those of us living in the Anthropocene — so obsessed with everything we humans do and are, for ill and for good — theological anthropology might have to be first theology, the place from which we need to begin, for rhetorical if not principial reasons. Something like that seems to be the driving impulse behind Sarah Coakley’s God, Sexuality, and the Self, a first volume of a systematic theology that is an “essay on the Trinity” but that begins by trying to situate and make sense of human sexual desire.

There are dangers in this way of going about things. (Theology is always dangerous, of course.) A theology that begins with us may never really achieve escape velocity, may remain within the gravitational pull of the merely human. Certainly that’s a risk. So then we might turn to the also ongoing systematic theology of Katherine Sonderegger, who begins with the doctrine of God — with particular emphasis on the oneness of God, before getting to Trinitarian considerations.

One way to be theologically coherent and sensible at this moment is to cultivate this binocular vision: for example, to read Coakley, but read her towards Sonderegger; to read Sonderegger, but read her towards Coakley. A doubled reading, starting perhaps necessarily with our human self-understanding, but then moving quickly to occupy the other pole of theological awareness, with the God who is One, not even, yet, the God of Israel, but the God who constitutes and manifests Being, Consciousness, Bliss. And then we read and think and pray our way towards the convergence of the paths, which is Jesus Christ. To read in this doubled way is one aspect of the imitation of Christ. After all, in Augustine’s words, “As God he is our goal; as man he is our way.”


Whenever you suggest that history is a matter of losses as well as gains, whenever you call attention to what we’ve lost along the way, whether it’s something we deliberately set aside or something we just forgot to pack, a great chorus starts shouting “Nostalgia!” You may not even want to have packed it; you may think that we chose as well as we could have in the circumstances; but you need only hint that something of value, even of some tiny tiny value, that we once held we hold no longer, and it starts: “always the loud angry crowd, / Very angry and very loud,” crying: “Nostalgia!”

It’s a bullying cry, but they’re not bullying you, at least not primarily. They’re bullying that little voice within them that wonders whether there might be more to the future than “everyone young going down the long slide / To happiness, endlessly.” Nothing could be more essential than to silence that quiet, that ever-so-gently skeptical voice.

excerpts from my Sent folder: execution

I’m absolutist about these matters, I guess. I think universal rules for police should be:

  • If someone is unarmed, you can’t execute him.
  • If someone is behaving strangely, even extremely strangely, you can’t execute him.
  • If you think that someone might possibly be armed, you can’t execute him.
  • If someone refuses to obey your orders, you can’t execute him.
  • If someone runs away from you, you can’t execute him.
  • If you shoot at anyone in any of the above circumstances, you will be fired. (Maybe prosecuted too, but that’s outside the scope of a police department.)
  • If you find the above rules unfair, or are unable to follow them, you need to go into another line of work.


One of the most frequent comments I’ve heard in response to my essay in Harper’s is that it’s self-refuting: If a Christian intellectual is writing for such a prominent magazine then the problem Jacobs seeks to identify is either non-existent or minor. To that I have two answers, one short and one longish:

Short: A handful of swallows do not a summer make.

Longish: What was Jacobs allowed to write, as a Christian, about in Harper’s? Answer: Christians. I could have written about other things for the magazine — and indeed I have, at least for the website. (That was originally going to be a piece for the magazine, but it got bumped.) But I was not writing there in Christian terms. And in general I think that’s how it goes: consider, for instance, my friend Ross Douthat, who is welcome to write (even in the New York Times!) as a Christian, as long as he is writing about the Pope or the church more generally. When he writes about politics he’s expected to write as a conservative. I don’t say that he keeps always to his pigeonholes; but usually he does, and I suspect that that’s an unspoken condition of his employment. The notion that the intellectual resources of Christianity might be useful in reflecting on politics — or technology, or the arts, or engineering, or war, or climate change — and useful not only to Christians but to everyone — that’s a long-lost notion indeed. We generally assume that on any given issue of social import there might be a socialist take, or a feminist take, or a take rooted in the experience of a particular ethnic identity, that we’d benefit from hearing; but a Christian take? Not typically one of the options. There are no prominent Christian intellectuals addressing whatever happens to concern the body politic in a distinctively Christian way and for a general audience.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. As Stanley Fish commented (a passage I cite in my article): “If you persuade liberalism that its dismissive marginalizing of religious discourse is a violation of its own chief principle, all you will gain is the right to sit down at liberalism’s table where before you were denied an invitation; but it will still be liberalism’s table that you are sitting at, and the etiquette of the conversation will still be hers.” A good warning, and the history of Christianity is littered with examples of Christians editing out the prophetic elements of their faith in order to meet the etiquette of various tables of power. But it’s also true that only those who have a seat at the table can hope to shape, gently and patiently, its etiquette.

So it seems to me that Christians can either look for ways to get back to that table or accept their exile from it and make the best of the possibilities that exile affords. (Learning to be dissidents rather than intellectuals.) But the claim that Christians really are comfortably seated at liberalism’s table seems to be an unsustainable one.

humility, shame, etc.

I want to follow up, briefly, on yesterday’s post.

The presiding spirit of the ESV, from its beginning to its conclusion, is J. I. Packer. Packer just turned 90, and, as a result of macular degeneration, can no longer read. Since he has always written at least his early drafts by hand, and since travel can be extremely difficult for people who can’t see, he has called a halt to his career in ministry — or rather, he feels that God has called a halt to it. This of course means also an end to his work on the ESV.

Given Packer’s strong leadership at every stage of the project, it is difficult to imagine how he might be replaced — especially since several other members of the translation committee are near or beyond retirement age.

Yet Stanley E. Porter and David I. Yoon insist, repeatedly, in their original post and in the comments, that the only possible explanation for cessation of work on the ESV is that the translators believe “there is no room to improve or change their product” and that “they think of themselves as infallible translators.” The behavior of Packer and his colleagues is therefore “inappropriate,” “hubristic,” “manipulative”; the “whole enterprise smacks of incredible arrogance”; they need “lessons in … humility.” To sum up: “Shame on them”!

In response, I want to say two things. First, I hope that, should Porter and Yoon serve the church as well and as long as Packer has, even if they have made mistakes — in translation, for instance —, they’ll be granted more charity. (Any charity at all would, of course, be more.) And second, I hope that if they are so blessed, they’ll pause for a moment to remember how they treated Jim Packer.

The Frozen Standard Version

Beginning in the summer of 2016, the text of the ESV Bible will remain unchanged in all future editions printed and published by Crossway—in much the same way that the King James Version (KJV) has remained unchanged ever since the final KJV text was established almost 250 years ago (in 1769). This decision was made unanimously by the Crossway Board of Directors and the ESV Translation Oversight Committee. All future Crossway editions of the ESV, therefore, will contain the Permanent Text of the ESV Bible—unchanged throughout the life of the copyright, in perpetuity.

— ESV BibleA good many people seem to be freaking out over this — here’s a hysterical and factually challenged example — but I am at loss to understand why. Contrary to what the just-linked screed claims, Crossway and the ESV committee haven’t said that their translation is perfect. They’ve hardly insisted that no further English translations of the Bible be made. The committee has merely said that they’re not going to revise their work in the future, and they hope people will continue to use what they’ve produced for a long time. Given that the founding leader of the committee, Jim Packer, is 90 years old, and some of the other committee members are also getting up in years, isn’t that decision understandable? Maybe they’re just tired.

But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t reasonable criticisms to be made of the ESV, and especially of some of the most recent changes to it. Scot McKnight makes some of those reasonable criticisms here, and comments: “It is profoundly unwise for a translation to alter this kind of text to this kind of reading without public discussion of it, and then to pronounce it Permanent.” Unwise seems a fair enough judgment (though only because of those as it were last-minute changes).

[UPDATE: Here’s a response to the McKnight post that I’ll want to reflect on.]

On almost all of the points at which serious scholars disagree with particular decisions made by the ESV committee, I side with the scholars. It really does seem to me that a particular theological agenda (sexual complementarianism) has guided the ESV’s translations of certain passages, and that’s very unfortunate; perhaps for many a flaw that renders the translation unusable. But to say that the ceasing of work on the project,  the committee’s choosing not to continue working on it until they drop dead at their desks, “smacks of incredible arrogance” — that’s just crazy talk.

P.S. I don’t use a single translation: depending on circumstances I might use the KJV, the RSV, the NRSV, or an interlinear New Testament (I don’t have enough Greek to move confidently through a standalone Greek text). Sometimes I’m moved by delight in books that I have owned for a long time: both my KJV and my RSV are more than thirty years old, and they keep me connected with a long personal history of encountering and meditating on Scripture.


I don’t use the ESV as enthusiastically as I did when it first came out, largely because I have listened to the scholars who’ve been critical of some of its decisions, but it still has a place in my rotation. There are two reasons for this.

The first is that the ESV committee’s Prime Directive — defer to the RSV whenever possible — means that the translation retains much of the linguistic and poetic excellence that the RSV had inherited from the KJV. For someone who has devoted much of his life to teaching and writing about poetry, this can’t not be a consideration. By contrast, the utter stylistic incompetence manifest in all versions of the NIV makes it simply unreadable to me. Indeed, all translations not directly in the Tyndale line of succession suffer from one or another disease of the English language, and even the NRSV translators were often deaf to the music of what they had inherited. (N.B. People who say that translators of the Bible — which is comprised largely of poetry and narrative! — should focus only on accuracy and ignore aesthetic questions simply do not understand the concept of accuracy in translation. Beauty matters, and not in “merely” aesthetic ways.)

My second reason for keeping the ESV in my rotation is not unlike the first: Crossway has devoted far, far more time and energy and skill into quality book-making than any other Bible publisher. Look, for instance, at this gorgeous edition of the Psalms — and it is but one example among several. Crossway has lavished similar attention on their smartphone apps; in this area they have only one real competitor, Neubible, which is still very much a work in progress and in fact could take a few lessons from Crossway’s apps. Why doesn’t any other Bible publisher care about these matters as much as a little conservative evangelical press in Wheaton, Illinois does?

Sometimes I want to sit down to read the Bible in well-wrought English, within a book that is well-made, and on pages that are admirably formatted and presented. Those are all features that help me concentrate on what I believe to be the Word of God. And that’s why the ESV, for all its flaws, is still in my reading rotation.

excerpts from my Sent folder: liturgy

I only attended low-church evangelical congregations for a few years after I became a Christian, but those were tough times for me, and more than once along the way I wondered if I had made a big mistake by trying to follow Jesus — at least, through trying to follow him alongside other people, in church. It wasn’t that I thought I was better than them — in fact, I usually thought I was worse. I especially felt I was too emotionally incompetent to be an evangelical. I mean, the pastor would tell me how happy I ought to be that Jesus had saved me from my sins, so I tried to be super-happy, but I could never quite get where he thought I needed to be. And then five minutes later he’d tell me how grieved I should be when I realized how deeply sinful I am, and I’d try to make myself appropriately sad at what I, through my rebellion, had done to God — but if I couldn’t climb the mountain of happiness I also couldn’t make my way down into the depths of the pit of sadness. Again: emotionally incompetent.

It was only when I began to worship in the Anglican tradition that I felt the burden lift. Because that tradition gave me the right words to say — words that Christians had prayed (in one language or another) for two thousand years, words that had stood the test of time, that had been crafted by people whose walk with Jesus was longer and stronger than mine would ever be. Instead of trying to feel a certain way, I just needed to focus on saying the right words, and in that way training myself to live inside them.

Even more important, the tradition was so wonderfully patient with me! It didn’t ask me to comprehend the tragedy of my sinfulness immediately. Instead, it said “Here you go, we’re starting this season called Lent now. You’ll have forty days to meditate on these matters, and we the Church will help you at every step.” And then when Easter came the liturgy said to me, “You can’t celebrate this in an instant — in fact, we’re going to take fifty days to live into the miracle of the Resurrection and the new life we have in Christ.”

I cannot possibly overstate what a gift the ancient liturgies and the ancient calendar of the Church have been to me. They have quite literally made it possible for me to be a follower of Jesus. Now, I am sure that if I had never come across the ancient faith God would have found ways to nourish and bless me, but how much smoother my path has been thanks to these old and well-trodden ways. I cannot begin to express my gratitude for them.

12 Romans walk into a bar…

I’ve been thinking a good bit lately about this passage from Julian Baggini’s review of Martha Nussbaum’s new book:

Unconditional forgiveness, in which repentance is not required, is not much better. It too sometimes “channels the wish for payback,” following revenge’s road of status by elevating the pardoner to the moral high ground. It is perhaps telling that Christianity often “juxtaposes an ethic of forgiveness with an ethic of spectacular retribution.” Nussbaum points to a fascinating passage in Paul’s “Twelfth Letter to the Romans” which makes this link explicit. Paul advises against revenge, not because it is wrong, but because we should “leave it to the wrath of God.” You should treat your enemy kindly, not to reward him, but to compound his punishment. “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.”

Bold text my own. I checked Nussbaum’s text, and I think I see what happened. On page 77, Nussbaum introduces the relevant chapter by writing, “In Romans 12….” My suspicion is that Baggini had seen references to, for example, “2 Corinthians” or “1 Kings,” and knew that those numbers indicated separate “books,” and so assumed that Nussbaum was doing the same thing, with the number in a different place. Perhaps he assumed that Brits put the number at the beginning (12 Romans) and Americans at the end (Romans 12).

To be sure, the error might not be Baggini’s: he could have written “Romans 12” and had it changed by a copyeditor, and didn’t notice. Or noticed but thought the editor knew something he didn’t. Whose error it is doesn’t matter to me — though it’s interesting that nobody at the Prospect caught this — so much as the kind of error it is. It catches my attention because it’s the error of a person who isn’t afflicted by the kind of biblical illiteracy that people often comment on (failing to catch a biblical allusion in one of Abraham Lincoln’s speeches) but something deeper: an ignorance of even the basic shape of the Bible.

If you think that Paul wrote at least twelve letters to the Romans, how many letters do you think he wrote overall? How many books do you think are in the New Testament, assuming you know that the Christian Bible has two testaments? More generally, when you think about the Bible, what images and ideas present themselves to you?

Please understand, in asking these questions I am not in any way playing a gotcha game or reveling in the ignorance of wicked infidels. I am genuinely and deeply curious, in an anthropological kind of way, about how the Bible is imagined by people who just don’t have any clear idea what’s in it.

dissidents, not intellectuals

These and other trends have made me sensible of how different our circumstances are from those in which Neuhaus learned to speak as both a Christian and an intellectual, circumstances that were still to some degree in force when First Things was founded in 1990. As Christians, we have a place to stand—in the Church. But in this cultural moment our churches are anxious, ambivalent, and unsure (unlike mainline Protestantism in its heyday). Which means that as intellectuals, we have no solid ground.

Neuhaus always thought of himself as speaking from the center of what he liked to call the “American experiment.” I’m certainly patriotic, but I see myself speaking from the periphery. We are dissidents, not “intellectuals.”

Speaking from the Peripheries | R. R. Reno | First Things. The distinction between intellectual and dissident strikes me as a very important one. So maybe the key question is not “How might Christian intellectuals become truly ‘public’ once again?” but rather “How might intelligent Christians faithfully and effectively play their role as dissidents — as something like the not-wholly-loyal opposition to the current power-knowledge regime?”