The distinction between Hitchens or Dawkins and those like myself comes down in the end to one between liberal humanism and tragic humanism. There are those who hold that if we can only shake off a poisonous legacy of myth and superstition, we can be free. Such a hope in my own view is itself a myth, though a generous-spirited one. Tragic humanism shares liberal humanism’s vision of the free flourishing of humanity, but holds that attaining it is possible only by confronting the very worst. The only affirmation of humanity ultimately worth having is one that, like the disillusioned post-Restoration Milton, seriously wonders whether humanity is worth saving in the first place, and understands Swift’s king of Brobdingnag with his vision of the human species as an odious race of vermin. Tragic humanism, whether in its socialist, Christian, or psychoanalytic varieties, holds that only by a process of self-dispossession and radical remaking can humanity come into its own. There are no guarantees that such a transfigured future will ever be born. But it might arrive a little earlier if liberal dogmatists, doctrinaire flag-wavers for Progress, and Islamophobic intellectuals got out of its way.
The modern human assumption that trees, plants and all other wildlife are “just property” is, to Powers, the root of our much greater species problem. “Every form of mental despair and terror and incapacity in modern life seems to be related in some way to this complete alienation from everything else alive. We’re deeply, existentially lonely.
“Until it’s exciting and fun and ecstatic to think that everything else has agency and is reciprocally connected we’re going to be terrified and afraid of death, and it’s mastery or nothing.” To that end, Powers hopes his book will be part of the restoration of a tradition that has all but ceased to exist in modern literature. “We are incredibly good at psychological and political dramas, but there’s another kind of drama – between the humans and the non-humans – that disappeared in the late 19th century, once we thought we had dominion over the Earth. Because we won that battle.
“But now we know we didn’t, actually. And until you resolve that question, how do we live coherently at home on this planet, the other two kinds of stories are luxuries.”
The Overstory is next on my reading list.
Two comments about my essay in the Guardian today, both of them regarding points that had to be cut in editing:
1) There’s no sense in which a Hillary Clinton administration could have mean “death” to Christians and conservatives, but, as I’ve argued often, the next time Democrats control the federal government they’ll make life much harder for all Christian institutions. In relation to all this, the question that has arisen in my mind in the past year or is this: If a Trump administration makes life easier for me and my fellow Christians but harder for many of the most vulnerable people in American society, do I not have an obligation to support my neighbor in preference to myself? (I still don’t expect to vote for either of our two major parties, though.)
2) I have of course known for many years about the great “temporal bandwidth” passage in Gravity’s Rainbow, a book I have taught several times, but the relevance of that passage to our present moment was brought to my attention by my friend Edward Mendelson in this essay. That debt was registered in my own essay but didn’t make it through the editing process. (My excellent editor, Amana Fontanella-Khan, had to curb some of my loquaciousness.)
Also, I have to admit to taking some pleasure in the fact that in the past 24 hours my writing has been published in the Guardian and the Weekly Standard.
Earlier this week I drove from my home in Waco to West Texas: first to the little town of Goldthwaite, then South through San Saba, Llano, Fredericksburg, Kerrville; then a long westward haul on I-10. On such a drive you start in mostly flat farm country — corn, soybeans — and move gradually into the Hill Country, with its limestone escarpments and ridges mostly covered in junipers. (People in Texas call those trees cedars but they aren’t.) Gradually the trees become smaller and sparser until, eventually, you find yourself in the Chihuahuan desert.
There’s a nice new rest area on I-10 between Fort Stockton and Balmorhea that looks like this:
The temperature when I took the photo was 106°. I got back in the car and resumed my journey. I took the Balmorhea exit and started headed up into the Davis Mountains. About half an hour later, here’s what I saw:
That’s the McDonald Observatory, on Mount Locke. But just look at that grass! — a veritable greensward. And all those trees! (Also, the temperature was 87°.) All this just half an hour from sheer desert. What’s the deal?
The deal is that the Davis Mountains constitute a sky island. Far above the desert that surrounds them, the mountains, the tallest of which is Mount Livermore at 8200 feet, have their own distinct climate. They get far more rain than the desert does, and as a result support quite different species of flora and fauna. Sometimes those species can evolve in distinctive ways, just as they do on actual islands, because of their isolation from other communities of their kind.
It’s a fascinating phenomenon — and the transition is really something to experience.
Sanders comments on family separations at the border: “It is very biblical to enforce the law” https://t.co/5DiL1C4FHt — CNN Politics (@CNNPolitics)
Attorney General Jeff Sessions makes a similar argument: “Persons who violate the law of our nation are subject to prosecution. I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13, to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order.”
But when Obama was president the relevant biblical passage wasn’t Romans 13:1, it was Acts 5:29. The goalposts have moved — and when there’s a another Democratic president and/or Congress, they’ll move again. Conservative Christians would never have countenanced electing a president who has been divorced — until Reagan came along. When Bill Clinton was president, character in the occupant of the Oval Office was everything; now it’s nothing, or, really, less than nothing.
The lesson to be drawn here is this: the great majority of Christians in America who call themselves evangelical are simply not formed by Christian teaching or the Christian scriptures. They are, rather, formed by the media they consume — or, more precisely, by the media that consume them. The Bible is just too difficult, and when it’s not difficult it is terrifying. So many Christians simply act tribally, and when challenged to offer a Christian justification for their positions typically grope for a Bible verse or two, with no regard for its context or even its explicit meaning. Or summarize a Sunday-school story that they clearly don’t understand, as when they compare Trump to King David because both sinned without even noticing that David’s penitence was even more extravagant than his sins while Trump doesn’t think he needs to repent of anything. But hey, as a Trump supporter once wrote to me: “Now we are fused with him.”
But I think Jeff Sessions actually knows that the position he and Sanders articulate is inadequate. In his statement he lets slip one dangerous word: “I do not believe scripture or church history or reason condemns a secular nation state for having reasonable immigration laws. If we have them, then they should be enforced.”
Ah, you shouldn’t have let that word sneak in there, Mr. Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III. It might lead people to ask questions, to wit:
- Are our immigration laws reasonable?
- What do you mean by “reasonable,” anyway? In different contexts the word might mean “appropriate” or “in accordance with reason.” Which is the right one here?
- If it is reasonable to separate asylum-seeking parents from their children, perhaps even forcibly taking a baby from a breast-feeding mother, would it also be reasonable to turn fire-hoses and police dogs on them?
- If not, why not?
Start going down this road and you could end up sitting at your kitchen table trying to parse the way Martin Luther King Jr. distinguishes just and unjust laws in his “Letter from the Birmingham Jail.” And we wouldn’t want that, would we? Better simply to say “Romans 13:1 says it, I believe it, and that settles it” — at least until the Democrats get back in power.
“How to Become a Writer” begins with the urge to write and ends in the desert to which such a desire may deliver the writer — not once, as ending or punishment, but daily, as a kind of side trip, between sentences. (Among the reader’s final instructions: “Quit classes. Quit jobs. Cash in old savings bonds. Now you have time like warts on your hands.”)
Every time I see this well-known line by Lorrie Moore I wonder what it must be like to live in a world where people who want to be writers have savings bonds to cash in.
Now imagine reading a nonfiction book packed with stories such as this—true tales soberly related—just before setting off alone on a camping trip of your own into the North American wilderness. The book to which I refer is Bear Attacks: Their Cause and Avoidance, by a Canadian academic named Stephen Herrero. If it is not the last word on the subject, then I really, really, really do not wish to hear the last word. Through long winter nights in New Hampshire, while snow piled up outdoors and my wife slumbered peacefully beside me, I lay saucer-eyed in bed reading clinically precise accounts of people gnawed pulpy in their sleeping bags, plucked whimpering from trees, even noiselessly stalked (I didn’t know this happened!) as they sauntered unawares down leafy paths or cooled their feet in mountain streams….
Black bears rarely attack. But here’s the thing. Sometimes they do. All bears are agile, cunning, and immensely strong, and they are always hungry. If they want to kill you and eat you, they can, and pretty much whenever they want. That doesn’t happen often, but — and here is the absolutely salient point — once would be enough.
No worries, though! VR to the rescue!
The Law not only prohibited interest on loans, but mandated that every seventh year should be a Sabbatical, a shmita, a fallow year, during which debts between Israelites were to be remitted; and then went even further in imposing the Sabbath of Sabbath-Years, the Year of Jubilee, in which all debts were excused and all slaves granted their liberty, so that everyone might begin again, as it were, with a clear ledger. In this way, the difference between creditors and debtors could be (at least, for a time) erased, and a kind of equitable balance restored. At the same time, needless to say, the unremitting denunciation of those who exploit the poor or ignore their plight is a radiant leitmotif running through the proclamations of the prophets of Israel (Isa 3:13-15; 5:8; 10:1-2; Jer 5:27-28: Amos 4:1; etc.).
So it should be unsurprising to learn that a very great many of Christ’s teachings concerned debtors and creditors, and the legal coercion of the former by the latter, and the need for debt relief; but somehow we do find it surprising—when, of course, we notice. As a rule, however, it is rare that we do notice, in part because we often fail to recognize the social and legal practices to which his parables and moral exhortations so often referred, and in part because our traditions have so successfully “spiritualized” the texts—both through translation and through habits of interpretation—that the economic and political provocations they contain are scarcely imaginable to us at all.
When a famous person commits suicide, there are roughly ten million words of sympathy and pity for that person to every one word of sympathy and pity for the family, friends, and lovers left behind. It would be nice if that proportion could be adjusted just a little. Even if you think (as I do not) that our lives are our own to dispose of as we wish, and even if you believe (as I do) that people who take their own lives are often in a state of horrific agony, suicide is very rarely a victimless act.
This is a typically rich Adam Roberts post, bubbling over with a range of wonderful ideas, any one of which blazes a trail that it would be delightful to follow and extend. I just want to take up one theme here.
This is the passage I’m especially interested in:
This is part of a much larger project for Tolkien. He saw the world as broken, but his interest was in trying to making it whole again. He believed healing is possible (specifically, he believed healing is possible through Christ, because his Catholic faith was a central part of who he was) and he wrote his fantasy to explore that conviction. This is the core thing that separates his art, and therefore the promiscuous body of commercial fantasy written in imitation of his art, from the High Modernist stream. And it’s this that brings me back to Greek tragedy, and the reason why it so captured my spirit back when I was young: an individual broken, in my various unexceptional if painful ways, as I was and am; living in a society fragmented in a larger and more dangerous manner as we all are. The thought that healing might be possible evidently spoke to me profoundly, as it continues to do.
I would say that healing is not only possible for Tolkien but inevitable — and yet inevitable in a very curious way. That magnificent moment in The Lord of the Rings when Sam, having expected to die on Mount Doom, awakens to find that he is alive and so is Frodo and so is Gandalf and so cries, “Is everything sad going to come untrue?” — surely this is the most perfect embodiment in his writings of what Tolkien calls “eucatastrophe”:
The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous “turn” (for there is no true end to any fairy-tale): this joy, which is one of the things which fairy-stories can produce supremely well, is not essentially “escapist,” nor “fugitive.” In its fairy-tale — or otherworld — setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.
I think the key phrase here is “fleeting glimpse” — fleeting, not lasting. The Prologue of LOTR, “Concerning Hobbits,” tells us that hobbit were “more numerous formerly than they are today,” and that they “avoid us with dismay and are becoming hard to find.” Then, in the second chapter, after the description of Bilbo’s disappearance, we’re told that “eventually Mad Baggins, who used to vanish with a bang and a flash and reappear with bags of jewels and gold, became a favourite character of legend and lived on long after all the true events were forgotten.” So right from the beginning Tolkien is emphasizing that he is telling a story about a world long-forgotten and cultures long in decline, that even the people most affected by the titanic events he’s about to relate eventually lost all memory of them.
Then, near the end of the book, Gandalf reminds his colleagues that, should Sauron triumph, his rule will be “so complete that none can foresee the end of it while the world lasts.” Yet, should they manage to defeat him, their triumph cannot possibly be so permanent:
Other evils there are that may come; for Sauron is himself but a servant or emissary. Yet it is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succour of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till. What weather they shall have is not ours to rule.
That all victories over evil are contingent and limited and temporary is a strong theme here — and the forgetfulness of all the races of Middle Earth tends to reinforce those limits, and makes the return of evil more likely even among those who start out with “clean earth to till.” This is why Galadriel says of herself and Celeborn that “together through ages of the world we have fought the long defeat” — a phrase that Tolkien adopted for himself, as in this letter: “I am a Christian, and indeed a Roman Catholic, so that I do not expect ‘history’ to be anything but a ‘long defeat’ — though it contains (and in a legend may contain more clearly and movingly) some samples or glimpses of final victory.”
There will be, then, a “final victory,” but that will be (to return to the quotation from “On Fairy Stories”) “beyond the walls of the world.” Within the walls of the world all victories, all healing, will be temporary and imperfect — eucatastrophic only in the short term. In the longer term the effects of even the most heroic and righteous deeds will seem so narrow and brief that they will scarcely seem worth doing.
Which is why, for Tolkien, the best impetus to heroic and righteous deeds comes from some intuition of a final victory not in history but beyond history. To lack that intuition while clearly seeing the “long defeat” of history clearly is the curse of Denethor — not a person, for all his wisdom, to envy. For Tolkien, the suspicion that there is some perfect righteousness “beyond the walls of the world” is what prompts righteousness and generosity in the here and now. It’s what might make some of us strive to “uproot evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after might have clean earth to till.” It’s what might make someone pity Gollum and be kind to him, an act which, as Tolkien says in another letter, can be seen only as “a piece of folly, or a mystical belief in the ultimate value-in-itself of pity and generosity even if disastrous in the world of time.”
It’s a tricky thing that Tolkien is asking: neither to succumb to despair (like Denethor) nor indulge the presumptuous delusion that one’s victories can be everlasting, but rather to live, simply, in hope.
She had written troubling accounts of the Nuremberg trials, spoken up about repression under communist regimes (and had done the same for fascist ones in the decades before the second world war) and taken to the streets with suffragettes (later falling out with many of their leaders). She had set down hundreds of thousands of sparkling words in novels, non-fiction books, reviews and journalism. And throughout it all she had demonstrated an enviable ability to set fire to everything.
The WWDC will start in less than a day at this point, and I have no wishlist to share. I used to get excited before this kind of Apple event; now I’m just trepidatious. Once I used to look forward to the next thing Apple would introduce, I used to wonder What are they going to show us? Now I anxiously wonder, What are they going to break this time? The list of things I wish Apple would fix is getting longer and I won’t bore you once again with my complaints, so I’ll condense everything into a single wish — I would like for Apple to reassure me as a long-time user and customer. Reassure me that they have a plan, that they have the most important things under control, that they’re not like one of those motorised toy cars that keep crashing against obstacles at maximum speed, then change direction randomly until they hit the next obstacle, and so forth.
Freddie deBoer sent me this:
In Roman times, “belief” in the gods, as we understand it, was irrelevant. An atheist was not someone who didn’t “believe”, but someone who refused to take part in the civic rituals which kept the city and republic healthy. Someone (maybe Cicero?) might privately be as skeptical as they wished, as long as they performed the rites; failing to do so, regardless of private belief, would be to put the community in danger for no reason. In the American liberal bourgeois civic religion, there are two central rites the neglect of which makes you an “atheist” in that sense, someone letting down the side: voting, and awareness. Many, even some of the most self-righteous about voting, do not believe that it changes anything, but not to vote is unthinkable. The rage expressed about the man in the NYT who, unable to deal with the constant outrages of the age of Trump, refused to read or watch the news media, shows that awareness, too, is a civic sacrament. Despite the fact that he was doing some physical action to improve the world, his refusal to perform the holy rite of awareness was endangering the community out of some perverse selfishness, like a Roman sitting out an imperial triumph. “I don’t do enough,” they say, “But at least I know what’s going on in the world.”
Which put me in mind of a passage from Paul Kingsnorth’s fascinating book Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist:
After years of living in cities with barely any contact with the ground, fuelled by anger and righteousness, driving myself into the ground, I decided to exchange activism for action. I decided to dig in, to use my limited powers to improve at least one small square of Earth, and to write, sometimes, about what I discovered by doing so.
Not everyone has been impressed with this approach. Some environmental activists in particular have reacted with anger. All this talk of grief and acceptance has sounded to them like a dangerous abdication of responsibility. It’s all very well for you to run away from the ‘fight’, I have been told, but this is the fate of the Earth we’re talking about. Forests are falling; the climate is changing. Millions of people are going to die, and you are advocating doing nothing. Are you depressed? Are you burned out? Whatever is wrong with you, you need to stop talking, because you are getting in the way of the necessary work.
My first reaction to responses like these was to defend myself, but when I got past that, I found I could easily understand their perspective. But I still thought there was something missing. Only two ways of reacting to the current crisis of nature were offered. On the one hand, there was ‘fighting’. This fighting was to be aimed at the ‘elite’ that was destroying the planet – oil companies, politicians, corporate leaders, the rich. On the other hand, there was ‘giving up’. Giving up meant not fighting. It meant running away from a necessary battle. It meant being selfish. It meant ‘doing nothing’, and letting the planet go to hell.
All of this hinged on a narrow definition of what doing something involved, and what action meant. It seemed to suggest that action must be something grand and global and gestural. Small actions were not actions at all: if you couldn’t ‘change the world’ there seemed little point in changing anything.
The real problem with the modern meritocracy can be found in the ideology of meritocracy itself. Meritocracy is a system built on the maximization of individual talent, and that system unwittingly encourages several ruinous beliefs:
Exaggerated faith in intelligence. Today’s educated establishment is still basically selected on the basis of I.Q. High I.Q. correlates with career success but is not the crucial quality required for civic leadership. Many of the great failures of the last 50 years, from Vietnam to Watergate to the financial crisis, were caused by extremely intelligent people who didn’t care about the civic consequences of their actions.
All his other points are excellent also, but I have been thinking a lot lately about the damage done to our culture by the trust we place in people simply because they score very high on texts designed to measure g. That’s how you end up with a world run by functionally sociopathic technocrats.
And if you want to know what I mean by “functionally sociopathic,” here you go.
This morning after church we stopped at Milo All Day to pick up kolaches, a cinnamon roll, a pain au chocolat, and, of course, biscuits. I told Teri to try the biscuits first, and after about three bites she said, ‘That may be the best thing I have ever put in my mouth.” If not, it’s pretty darn close. (Also, we have now eaten our week’s quota of carbs.)
Wesley Hill posted this recently. It’s a brilliant letter, and below I am going to put in bold the most important passages — and the ones that are most relevant to an age of social-media boundary-policing.
Dear Dr. Bromiley,
Please excuse me and please try to understand that I cannot and will not answer the questions these people put.
To do so in the time requested would in any case be impossible for me. The claims of work in my last semester as an academic teacher (preparation of lectures and seminars, doctoral dissertations, etc.) are too great. But even if I had the time and strength I would not enter into a discussion of the questions proposed.
Such a discussion would have to rest on the primary presupposition that those who ask the questions have read, learned, and pondered the many things I have already said and written about these matters. They have obviously not done this, but have ignored the many hundreds of pages in the Church Dogmatics where they might at least have found out—not necessarily under the headings of history, universalism, etc. —where I really stand and do not stand. From that point they could have gone on to pose further questions.
I sincerely respect the seriousness with which a man like [G.C.] Berkouwer studies me and then makes his criticisms. I can then answer him in detail. But I cannot respect the questions of these people from Christianity Today, for they do not focus on the reasons for my statements but on certain foolishly drawn deductions from them. Their questions are thus superficial.
The decisive point, however, is this. The second presupposition of a fruitful discussion between them and me would have to be that we are able to talk on a common plane. But these people have already had their so-called orthodoxy for a long time. They are closed to anything else, they will cling to it at all costs, and they can adopt toward me only the role of prosecuting attorneys, trying to establish whether what I represent agrees or disagrees with their orthodoxy, in which I for my part have no interest! None of their questions leaves me with the impression that they want to seek with me the truth that is greater than us all. They take the stance of those who happily possess it already and who hope to enhance their happiness by succeeding in proving to themselves and the world that I do not share this happiness. Indeed they have long since decided and publicly proclaimed that I am a heretic, possibly (van Til) the worst heretic of all time. So be it! But they should not expect me to take the trouble to give them the satisfaction of offering explanations which they will simply use to confirm the judgment they have already passed on me.
Dear Dr. Bromiley, you will no doubt remember what I said in the preface to Church Dogmatics IV/2 in the words of an eighteenth-century poem on those who eat up men. The continuation of the poem is as follows: “… for there is no true love where one man eats another.” These fundamentalists want to eat me up. They have not yet come to a “better mind and attitude” as I once hoped. I can thus give them neither an angry nor a gentle answer but instead no answer at all.
With friendly greetings,
P.S. I ask you to convey what I have said in a suitable manner to the people at Christianity Today
It seems to me that far, far too many disputes among Christians — especially (God help us) on social media — resemble the approach American fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals took to Barth. What seem to be questions are usually veiled accusations (though often enough the accusations are explicit); the questioners have not worked to discover what the person they suspect really thinks; they (therefore) neglect actual quotation in favor of tendentious and inaccurate summaries in the form of what I call “in-other-wordsing”; and they show no signs of “seeking the truth that is greater than us all,” but rather seem merely to want to declare other people wrong in the name of doctrinal boundary-policing. There is no way to have a conversation under such terms, and no one should even try.
C. S. Lewis, from “Membership”:
The very word membership is of Christian origin, but it has been taken over by the world and emptied of all meaning. In any book on logic you may see the expression “members of a class.” It must be most emphatically stated that the items of particulars included in a homogeneous class are almost the reverse of what St. Paul meant by members. By members he meant what we should call organs, things essentially different from, and complementary to, one another, things differing not only in structure and function but also in dignity. Thus, in a club, the committee as a whole and the servants as a whole may both properly be regarded as “members”; what we should call the members of the club are merely units. A row of identically dressed and identically trained soldiers set side by side, or a number of citizens listed as voters in a constituency are not members of anything in the Pauline sense. I am afraid that when we describe a man as “a member of the Church” we usually mean nothing Pauline; we mean only that he is a unit – that he is one more specimen of some kind of things as X and Y and Z. How true membership in a body differs from inclusion in a collective may be seen in the structure of a family. The grandfather, the parents, the grown-up son, the child, the dog, and the cat are true members (in the organic sense), precisely because they are not members or units of a homogeneous class. They are not interchangeable. Each person is almost a species in himself. The mother is not simply a different person from the daughter; she is a different kind of person. The grown-up brother is not simply one unit in the class children; he is a separate estate of the realm. The father and grandfather are almost as different as the cat and the dog. If you subtract any one member, you have not simply reduced the family in number; you have inflicted an injury on its structure. Its unity is a unity of unlikes, almost of incomensurables.
It’s worth bearing in mind that dog ownership — when done right — gets you out of the house. Dog ownership is also very often a social lubricant. When I lived in Adams Morgan one of the most small-d democratic and civic-minded activities in my life involved going to the local dog park with Cosmo, the late, great, wonderdog and former It Dog of the American Right®. I made friends with people I might never have said a word to otherwise. We self-organized to clean up the park from time to time and we watched out for each other’s dogs. My generally shy father loved to take our basset hound, Norman, around the neighborhood in part because of all the attention Norman got (the ladies loved Norman). He was a walking conversation piece.
I agree with Clay that many people today — and in every generation — get dogs in part to deal with loneliness. But the malady is the loneliness; the dogs are a partial cure. There are better cures, but that’s not the dogs’ fault.
Exactly. Dogs are great. Period. I know so, so many people whose dogs have given them peace and comfort and entertainment and affection when those needs couldn’t be met in other ways. I think especially of my mother, whose dog Ansel was a life-saver for her when my father died. No one should ever say a bad word about (a) dogs and (b) the love people have for their dogs. That love doesn’t interfere with the love of other humans, but rather (as Jonah says) is often conducive to friendship and affection with people. One of the best events in the history of humanity occurred when dogs began seeking us out.
The two greatest campaign slogans in history are:
Jimmie Davis, songwriter (“You Are My Sunshine”) and (successful) candidate for Governor of Louisiana: “I Never Done Nobody No Harm.”
Kinky Friedman, songwriter (“They Don’t Make Jews Like Jesus Any More”) and (unsuccessful) candidate for Governor of Texas: “How Hard Could It Be?”
(I had a great time last month speaking at the Mockingbird conference in Noo Yawk City. What follows is an excerpt from the second of the two talks I gave there.)
The world really does seem different now; there are, in many Western nations, legal as well as social impediments to active religious belief and practice; it is hard to see a way back to some earlier state of affairs at which (supposedly) it was easier to believe and easier to display one’s belief in the public square. The point might be argued; but let’s not argue it. Let’s assume that there really isn’t a way back for religious believers in the West and especially in America. Might there, though, be a way forward? And if so, what would it look like?
We’re not going to be able to do this unless we are the kind of people who can do this kind of thing. But what does that mean? To answer, I’m going to read you a Gospel lesson and preach you a sermon. (Just think of it as the Revenge of the Laity.) My text comes from Luke 9 — plus the cognate passages in the other synoptics — where Jesus commissions the twelve. Our predecessors, that is. Let’s look at the basic structure of the narrative at this key transitional moment in the Gospels.
- Jesus commissions his followers, explaining to them what their job is
- Jesus does great miracles (feeding the five thousand)
- Jesus is glorified on the Mount of Transfiguration
- Jesus returns from the mountain and “sets his face towards Jerusalem,” warning his followers what is to come
So that’s what Jesus does. What do his disciples do?
- The leader of them gets really excited about being on the mountain and wants to stay there
- Later he “takes Jesus aside and rebukes him” for all this talk about going to his death
- They argue about which of them is coolest and best
- They don’t understand his talk about death and are afraid to ask him what he means
- They get really mad when they see someone else healing people in Jesus’s name and want to stop that bad person
- They also get really mad when people in a town won’t listen to Jesus and want to call down fire from heaven and blast those chumps to cinders because isn’t that what prophets do (Elijah did it, after all) and we’re, like, way better than Elijah now, right?
So basically Jesus has chosen as his followers a bunch of seven-year-olds. He wants them to preach, heal, and embrace patiently the suffering that accompanies following Him. They, by contrast, want to be victorious, receive praise, and smack down people they feel disrespect them or want to muscle in on their territory. (In the next chapter they want to destroy a Samaritan village because the inhabitants wouldn’t listen to Jesus, but he again “rebukes them.”) The contrast between what He wants and what they want could scarcely be more dramatic.
I especially want to zero in on the the Twelve’s love of policing the people they think of as their enemies, because, as my friend Freddie de Boer says, these days everyone’s a cop. In my talk yesterday I explained why I think the characteristic sin of our moment is not lust or anything else sexual but rather wrath, and the Twelve exemplify that. Rather than doing what they’re told to do, which requires being loving towards others and the conquest of their own fear and pride, they are continually attentive to what they think everyone else is doing wrong, whether it’s ignoring Jesus or following Him from the wrong social location.
This is a problem throughout the Gospels. Disciples and lookers-on alike are far more interested in other people and what God is going to do to those other people than to the state of their own souls.
- People ask whether many will be saved or only a few, and Jesus replies, Why don’t you work on entering through that narrow gate?
- They ask whether those people the Tower of Siloam fell are were especially bad sinners and Jesus says, They were no worse than you.
- When Jesus tells Peter how he will die, Peter says, “Well, okay, but what about John?” — to which Jesus replies, What is that to you? How is that any of your business?
- And, to cover the whole general phenomenon, Jesus ask, Why are you worried about the specks in other people’s eyes when you have logs in your own?
And the answer is clear: we really and truly believe that we’re the ones with the specks and they’re the ones with the logs. But Jesus tells us otherwise. Why don’t we try believing him and see how that works? How about if we
- train ourselves to bear patiently whatever suffering comes our way as followers of Jesus
- pray for the logs to be removed from our eyes
- and then, if we have any time left over but not otherwise, worry about policing other people. How about that? Can we agree to that?
I am absolutely convinced that unless we get this matter straightened out, until we learn to get beyond the pre-adolescent attitudes of the Twelve, we will not be able to plant the seeds of spiritual renewal.
Peterson is virtually always more nuanced than the straw target his detractors have built out of his ideas. He uses the fact that the moods of both lobsters and humans are regulated by serotonin, a neurotransmitter that waxes and wanes in accordance with both creatures’ place in a dominance hierarchy to illustrate the point that the “problem of hierarchy is much deeper” than capitalism or any other set of human institutions. The claim is not that the continuity between our mental architecture and that of much older organisms does or should determine the way we organize society, but rather that it necessarily exerts a degree of influence on it, and constrains the set of viable ways of organizing our society. This modest claim should be self-evident to all but the most insistent denialist. Peterson acknowledges that inequality is a problem in that it causes society to destabilize when it moves past a certain threshold, and acknowledges the necessity of left-wing redistributive political movements — but is wary of left-wing doctrines that call for mandated equality, for the simple and very good reason that the grand experiments in mandated equality of the 20th century tended to be catastrophic. This does not mean that Peterson is a libertarian radical but a moderate conservative. He accepts nearly every facet of the status quo of 2014: he is on video explaining his acceptance of legal abortion, gay marriage, progressive taxation, the welfare state, and the Canadian socialistic healthcare system.
Anyone who listens to Peterson’s actual words without the intent of discovering in them the horrors they already believe that they will find there — i.e., without letting confirmation bias guide them by the nose — will discover that, in fact, his thinking on most discrete problems nearly always bends toward moderation.
According to a recent Pew Research Center poll, white evangelical Protestants are the least likely group in America to affirm an American responsibility to accept refugees. Evangelicals insist on the centrality and inerrancy of scripture and condemn society for refusing to follow biblical norms — and yet, when it comes to verse after verse requiring care for the stranger, they don’t merely ignore this mandate; they oppose it.
This represents the failure of Christian political leadership — not only from the speaker but from most other elected religious conservatives, too. Even more, it indicates the failure of the Christian church in the moral formation of its members, who remain largely untutored in the most important teachings of their own faith.
This is very good by Philip Kitcher on Errol Morris’s rather misguided attack on Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions. When I teach Kuhn I always try to show my students that there is a big difference between (a) epistemology and (b) the sociology of knowledge, and what people think about Kuhn largely depends on which of those two genres Structure belongs to.
Recently a historian of philosophy named Wolfgang Mann wrote a book called The Discovery of Things. He argues, just as the title of his book suggests, that Aristotle discovered things. It’s a bookabout the distinction between subject and predicate in Aristotle’s Categories—between what is and how it is. You may not have realized this but: someone had to come up with that! Many of the things that seem obvious to you—that human beings have basic rights, that knowledge requires justification, that modus ponens is a valid syllogistic form, that the world is filled with things—people had to come up with those ideas. And the people who came up with them were philosophers.
So you are pretty much constantly thinking thoughts that, in one way or another, you inherited from philosophers. You don’t see it, because philosophical exports are the kinds of thing that, once you internalize them, just seem like the way things are. So the reason to read Aristotle isn’t (just) that he’s a great philosopher, but that he’s colonized large parts of your mind.
Ross Douthat, in this interview with David Moore, sums up his hopes for his new book concisely and cogently:
I suppose there are three levels in what I’m trying to do. First, tell the story of the Francis era well enough to make it come alive as the great, gripping narrative that it is – a fascinating story about a charismatic leader trying to change an officially unchanging church, with all the theological complexity and human drama that entails. Second, persuade the reader of this story’s importance – that not only is the Francis era fascinating in its own right, but that in its drama the trajectory and ultimate fate of the world’s largest Christian body may be decided, and with it the trajectory of all traditional religion in the modern world. Finally, persuade the reader that I’m right not only about the stakes, but that I’m right about the merits – that the liberalization Francis is pursuing really does risk breaking faith with something essential to Catholic Christianity, to the words of Jesus Christ
Here’s a typical passage from Jordan Peterson:
We have two general principles of discipline. The first: limit the rules. The second: Use the least force necessary to enforce those rules.
About the first principle, you might ask, “Limit the rules to what, exactly?” Here are some suggestions. Do not bite, kick or hit, except in self-defence. Do not torture and bully other children, so you don’t end up in jail. Eat in a civilized and thankful manner, so that people are happy to have you at their house, and pleased to feed you. Learn to share, so other kids will play with you. Pay attention when spoken to by adults, so they don’t hate you and might therefore deign to teach you something. Go to sleep properly, and peaceably, so that your parents can have a private life and not resent your existence. Take care of your belongings, because you need to learn how and because you’re lucky to have them. Be good company when something fun is happening, so that you’re invited for the fun. Act so that other people are happy you’re around, so that people will want you around. A child who knows these rules will be welcome everywhere.
On the one hand, Peterson teaches children to be generous, polite, thoughtful, caring of others, responsible for others, and so on. On the other hand, he tells them to behave in these ways because it is in their own interest to do so. The consistent theme is: act generously to others not because those others will benefit but because you will benefit.
There are, it seems to me, several possible ways to evaluate this theme in Peterson’s writing. One could say that Peterson is simply counseling selfishness and that that’s wrong. Or one could say that Peterson knows that people in general and children in particular won’t accept any rule that commands discipline and sacrifice of personal desire unless they see what’s in it for them, so he starts there. Or one could say — this is the view that I think I prefer — that Peterson believes in a kind of higher selfishness, that if we all act not in a narrowly and stupidly self-interested way but in the kind of self-interested way he sketches here, where my self-interest coincides with generosity towards others, then everybody wins. Or, anyway, more people win. And Peterson is deeply committed to winning. He especially disdains “victimizing yourself in the service of others,” and believes that if you stand up for yourself against unfairness and (petty or grand) tyranny you are reducing the scope of unfairness and tyranny in the world and therefore helping others too. He’s trying really hard to imagine a social situation in which each individual is trying to win but somehow in the process makes more winning possible for everyone.
Maybe this makes a kind of sense, I don’t know. I just know that in this context I find myself thinking of what Paul Farmer, the co-founder of Partners in Health, says to Tracy Kidder in Mountains Beyond Mountains: “WLs [White Liberals] think all the world’s problems can be fixed without any cost to themselves. We don’t believe that. There’s a lot to be said for sacrifice, remorse, even pity. It’s what separates us from roaches.” And then, late in the book, borrowing a line from Tolkien:
I have fought the long defeat and brought other people on to fight the long defeat, and I’m not going to stop because we keep losing. Now I actually think sometimes we may win. I don’t dislike victory…. You know, people from our background — like you, like most PIH-ers, like me — we’re used to being on a victory team, and actually what we’re really trying to do in PIH is to make common cause with the losers. Those are two very different things. We want to be on the winning team, but at the risk of turning our backs on the losers, no, it’s not worth it. So you fight the long defeat.
I’m hanging out this morning at a new local place, Milo All Day. Corey MacIntyre, the chef/owner, has been foodtrucking and catering and cooking around here for a few years — he did this amazing dinner a while back — but an actual restaurant is new for him. It opened while I was in London, so this is my first time to visit, and it’s awesome. First of all, it’s a lovely space:
(Lots of outdoor seating too.) I decided to carb it up this time, which is not what I should be doing, but look at the cream-cheese kolache and the buttermilk biscuit:
Corey says his grandmama’s biscuit recipe is the best, and I am prepared to agree. I had it with an amazing house-made peach jam.
I’m looking forward to lunch and dinner at Milo All Day. It’s a great addition to Waco’s downtown.
For each movement of modernity, there has developed a comprehensive counternarrative. The idea that modernity is associated with the secularization of our institutions has given rise to fears about the rationalization and “disenchantment” of the world; the rise of a market economy and the commercial republic gave way in turn to an antibourgeois mentality that would find expression in politics, literature, art, and philosophy; the idea of modernity as the locus of individuality and free subjectivity gave rise to concerns about homelessness, anomie, and alienation; the achievements of democracy went together with fears about conformism, the loss of independence, and the rise of the “lonely crowd”; even the idea of progress itself gave rise to a counterthesis about the role of decadence, degeneration, and decline.
— Steven Smith, Modernity and Its Discontents
That fantastic has always borrowed enthusiastically from premodern folklore, fairy tales, and myth, of course. Fantasy as a genre is a modern literature, however, born primarily out of Gothic, a kind of bad conscience of the burgeoning ‘instrumental rationality’ of capitalist modernity. ‘The dream of reason,’ as José Monléon persuasively points out (quoting the title of Goya’s famous picture), ‘brings forth monsters.’ In essence, for fantasy to be fantasy, to break down the barriers that were keeping the irrational at bay, society first had to construct those barriers and thoroughly embrace the supposedly ‘rational.’”
— China Miéville, from his introduction to H. P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness
This is a great statement, and I agree with every word of it. But how I wish it were possible for Christians to speak prophetically to the abortion regime in this country in the same way they can speak — so confidently, with such unity — to the evils of racism and sexism. I wonder if the subject even came up during the Ash Wednesday gathering that led to this statement. I suspect it did not, because I suspect that everyone there understood that abortion was an issue that would threaten their agreement on other points.
This Toryism, comparable to that of Swift and Johnson and Coleridge, is based on a belief in hierarchy, established order and obedience to inherited authority. He detested both liberty and equality, blaming them, more than privilege, for the injustices he condemned. Only those who held power by right, as he saw it, could be moved by a sense of duty to serve and protect the weak. This is a side of Ruskin that is likely to confuse and even repel the modern reader, in particular the radical who finds his apparent socialism attractive. But in the nineteenth century political attitudes were not so neatly shared out between left and right as they are — or seem to be — today. Modern capitalist economics were then thought progressive, being associated with the expansion of personal liberty. A radical liberal like John Stuart Mill, who championed democracy and the extension of personal rights and liberties, was also an advocate of doctrines which can be blamed for the degradations of the workhouse (Utilitarianism) and the extremes of Victorian poverty (laissez-faire). By contrast, Shaftesbury and Wilberforce, famous respectively for the Factory Acts and the abolition of slavery, were high Tories. State intervention in the economy and social welfare policies belonged to the right, for the right believed in the duty of government to govern — to secure social order and administer justice impartially.
No political label quite fits Ruskin’s politics. Though he detested the Liberals, he was far from being a supporter of the Conservatives. His ‘Toryism’ was such that it could, in his own lifetime, inspire the socialism of William Morris and the founders of the Labour Party; and when he called himself a ‘conservative’, he usually meant a preserver of the environment — what we should call a ‘conservationist’. The truth is that, despite an exceptional consistency of view, throughout his life, on most matters of principle, his specific opinions changed and developed as he grew older. His attitudes to war and imperialism and the rights of women, for instance, oscillate wildly between reaction and radicalism; and he in effect concedes the ambiguity of his position when, in Fors Clavigera, he calls himself, with conscious irony, both a Communist and a Tory.
To engage in inventive thinking during those idle hours spent at an airport requires silence. But other people’s minds, over in the peon section, can be treated as a resource — a standing reserve of purchasing power to be steered according to the innovative marketing schemes hatched by those enjoying silence in the business lounge. When some people treat the minds of others as a resource, this is not “creating wealth” — it is a transfer.
There are many causes for the increasing concentration of wealth in a shrinking elite, but let us throw one more into the mix: the ever more aggressive appropriations of the attentional commons that we have allowed to take place.
I think we need to sharpen the conceptually murky right to privacy by supplementing it with a right not to be addressed. This would apply not, of course, to those who address me face to face as individuals, but to those who never show their faces, and treat my mind as a resource to be harvested.
Contemplation is not simply one possible form among others of the act of knowing. Its special character does not flow from its being a particular aspect of the process of knowing. What distinguishes — in both senses of that word — contemplation is rather this: it is a knowing which is inspired by love. “Without love there would be no contemplation.”
Contemplation is a loving attainment of awareness. It is intuition of the beloved object.
— Josef Pieper, Happiness and Contemplation
The [David Bowie Is] exhibition itself is designed thoughtfully and executed with a fair amount of technologically forward-leaning imagination, especially the audio component. Each visitor is issued a pair of over-the-ear headphones (Sennheiser is a prominent sponsor of the show) attached to a Bluetooth receiver that automatically plays audio based on your specific location within the exhibition halls at any given time. Step towards one artifact and you might hear one of Bowie’s many immortal songs; step towards a different one and you might hear an excerpt from his appearance on an old TV show synced with a video projected on the wall. Everything changes automatically; all you need to do is walk and look.
I would’ve loved having a set-up like this when I visited, as I did recently, the National Museum of African-American History and Culture (NMAAHC seems to be the official acronym, but wow that’s ugly). The museum has an astonishingly rich and varied soundscape: music of all kinds, interviews, speeches. But often the sounds conflict with one another: it can be difficult to position yourself in such a way that the clip you want to hear is clearly audible above the other clips that are playing nearby.
Contemporary politics is polarized between multiculturalists and (for lack of a better term) populists, and the problem of language, as practice and symbol, often takes center stage. Many Christians have allied themselves with the populists. It’s an understandable alliance. Lovers of the local, Christians want to protect their nations from Babelic fragmentation.
At bottom, though, the church must regard monolingual populism with deep ambivalence. The Spirit forms the church as a polyglot polity in the midst of existing polities. When we defend the church’s rights as a public institution, we are necessarily defending a form of multiculturalism. Alt-rightists see this, and find the “foreign tongue” of, say, immigrant churches profoundly threatening.
The policy and cultural import of Pentecost isn’t straightforward. Nations, after all, aren’t churches. But Christians labor in hope that Spirit will make his presence felt among the nations. While acting and speaking in and to the cities of men, we must act and speak as citizens of a Pentecostal society.
If I had followed the great man’s advice and never burdened myself with the gift of my children, or if I had never written any novels at all, in the long run the result would have been the same as the result will be for me here, having made the choice I made: I will die; and the world in its violence and serenity will roll on, through the endless indifference of space, and it will take only 100 of its circuits around the sun to turn the six of us, who loved each other, to dust, and consign to oblivion all but a scant few of the thousands upon thousands of novels and short stories written and published during our lifetimes. If none of my books turns out to be among that bright remnant because I allowed my children to steal my time, narrow my compass, and curtail my freedom, I’m all right with that. Once they’re written, my books, unlike my children, hold no wonder for me; no mystery resides in them. Unlike my children, my books are cruelly unforgiving of my weaknesses, failings, and flaws of character. Most of all, my books, unlike my children, do not love me back. Anyway, if, 100 years hence, those books lie moldering and forgotten, I’ll never know. That’s the problem, in the end, with putting all your chips on posterity: You never stick around long enough to enjoy it.
I hate Twitter threads and really wish people would turn them into blog posts instead, and I’m never gonna stop saying that, but this thread by Corinne McConnaughy speaks to my experience in powerful ways. I’ve said all this before, but let me put it succinctly: There is no question that being white was enormously important in my social rise — but there is also no question that I had a long and not always easy climb. A black man who, like me, was raised largely by his grandmother because his mother worked long hours to make ends meet while his father was in prison, and who, when his father returned home, spent years dodging the old man’s drunken rages, and who could only go to college because he paid his own way – well, it’s almost unimaginable, especially in the South in the 1970s. There can’t have been more than a handful of black people of my place and time who did what I did. But that doesn’t mean it was a picnic for me, and nothing tries my patience more than being lectured about my white privilege by people whose way was paved by well-off and well-educated parents.
More than once already in the preceding pages mention has been made of the obliteration of English villages. The process is notorious and inevitable. Expostulation is futile, lament tedious. This is part of the grand cyclorama of spoliation which surrounded all English experience in this century and any understanding of the immediate past … must be incomplete unless this huge deprivation of the quiet pleasures of the eye is accepted as a dominant condition, sometimes making for impotent resentment, sometimes for mere sentimental apathy, sometimes poisoning a love of country and of neighbours. To have been born into a world of beauty, to die amid ugliness, is the common fate of all us exiles.
— Evelyn Waugh, A Little Learning