Authorayjay

guidance for my students (& others)

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.

animated Pelicans

More Covers from Henning M. Lederer on Vimeo.

writing with the prospect of being hanged

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.

the NYT’s rhetoric of authority

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.

appropriate musical technology

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:

the freelancers’ merry-go-round

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!

the post-Christian culture wars

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.

ways and means of debate

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.

“this is what you no longer understand”

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.

Noah Millman

the mystery of Google’s position

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.”

orthodoxy, heresy, and definitions

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. 

“Why is this even a question?”

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.

on sexuality and the grammar of orthodoxy

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.

life among the crackheads

Damon Linker:

After six months of unremitting chaos, lies, ignorance, trash-talking vulgarity, legislative failure, and credible evidence of a desire to collude with a hostile foreign government to subvert an American election, President Trump’s approval rating is astonishingly high — with something between one-third and two-fifths of the American people apparently liking what they see and hear from the White House. They approve of the constant ignoble churn and presumably want it to continue. This is the kind of politics they prefer.

Damon is precisely right about this, and of all the elements of Trumpworld that might make a sane person worry, this is right at the top of the list. I have no quarrel here with those who supported Trump reluctantly, out of the belief that however bad he might be, Hillary would’ve been worse; I want to talk about people who like a demeaned and diminished public sphere, who enjoy taking to social media to spread contempt and mockery and hatred, and who applaud when others of their political tribe do the same (even if they cry out in outrage when people of the Other Tribe do the same thing).

There’s been a great deal of discussion over the past eight months or so about who’s most to blame for this situation, but I want to waive all such questions. I want instead to look forward.

In order to do that, I believe we need to look right past the gleeful haters. Basically, they’re crackheads: wholly addicted to their cheap and nasty drug of choice. They’re not hopeless — I’m a Christian, I don’t do hopeless — but you can’t count on them for anything constructive. If there’s a crack house in your neighborhood and you’re trying to build some kind of community, you don’t go out of your way to invite the crackheads to your meetings. You don’t hate or reject them; if they happen to show up, you welcome them in, and you gently encourage them to note and heed the rules of polite discourse; but you don’t try to drag them to the meetings.

You don’t try to drag them because you’re practicing containment: you may not be able to eliminate the crack house, or turn it back into a decent family home, but you want to do everything you can to make sure that no more houses in your neighborhood become refuges for crackheads, because crackheads can do a lot of damage to the houses they inhabit. In fact, you’re holding these meetings to help the families in the neighborhood take care of the place, take care of each other, keep the neighborhood an actual neighborhood rather than a row of crack houses. And the healthier your neighborhood, the better you’ll be able to help the crackheads, show them a better way to live; because they’re sad figures, after all, far more to be pitied than despised. They just can’t be allowed to dictate the condition of the neighborhood.

Our public sphere is an old neighborhood with a few social-media crack houses in it. And if you’re spending a significant amount of your time fighting with people on Twitter or Facebook or even in the comments sections of websites that still have comments sections, then you’re a crackhead, which means that you’re a danger to yourself and to your neighbors. Sorry, but the first step to getting better is always to admit that you have a problem.

Anyway, we’re going to move ahead with our neighborhood improvement project without you. And here’s how we’re going to do it:

1) We have to make sure that we ourselves avoid crack like the plague that it is. So, Don’t fight on social media. Ever. It spreads the addiction to more and more of the community, so that you get situations like the one Scott Alexander imagines in this thought experiment:

Alice writes a blog post excoriating Bob’s opinion on tax reforming, calling him a “total idiot” who “should be laughed out of the room”. Bob feels so offended that he tries to turn everyone against Alice, pointing out every bad thing she’s ever done to anyone who will listen. Carol considers this a “sexist harassment campaign” and sends a dossier of all of Bob’s messages to his boss, trying to get him fired. Dan decides this proves Carol is anti-free speech, and tells the listeners of his radio show to “give Carol a piece of their mind”, leading to her getting hundreds of harassing and threatening email messages. Eric snitches on Dan to the police.

As Freddie deBoer recently wrote, we’re living on a planet of cops — or, if I may stick with my metaphor, we’re in a crack house of cops. So let’s sneak out quietly and leave the crackheads to their mutual recriminations.

2) We have to teach our children. No matter how commonplace, how normal, smoking crack may seem to them, we have to work firmly, consistently, and patiently to make sure they understand what it really is. The same goes for the many other drugs they might use that don’t show their effects so publicly: porn may be more like certain of the mellower opioids rather than crack, but it can make messes of lives too, just in different ways.

I emphasize educating the young because I don’t see how you can draw people away from the crack of social media if they’re long-habituated to it. Again, I don’t say that they’re hopeless, but rather that you can’t count on them. You have to proceed without them. And you have to focus your attention passionately on the next generation, to do everything possible to keep them away from the Bad Thing. Even if it means taking away their smartphones — and I really mean that.

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.

Hommage à Bernanos

Sainte Anne instruisant Marie

the supper at Emmaus

“first epistemological impressions”

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

Perugino

London’s “nightmare scenario“

Before Britain voted last summer to leave the European Union, Crossrail was conceived for a London open to the world and speeding into the future. Now, with Brexit, the nightmare scenario is that this massive project, to provide more trains moving more people more quickly through a growing city, ends up moving fewer people more quickly through a shrinking city.

– The New York Times. A lightly-trafficked London train system strikes me as the least likely ”nightmare scenario” ever (also, from a visitor’s point of view, one of the least nightmarish).

Karma Police, arrest … well, pretty much everybody 

The woke world is a world of snitches, informants, rats. Go to any space concerned with social justice and what will you find? Endless surveillance. Everybody is to be judged. Everyone is under suspicion. Everything you say is to be scoured, picked over, analyzed for any possible offense. Everyone’s a detective in the Division of Problematics, and they walk the beat 24/7. You search and search for someone Bad doing Bad Things, finding ways to indict writers and artists and ordinary people for something, anything. That movie that got popular? Give me a few hours and 800 words. I’ll get you your indictments. That’s what liberalism is, now — the search for baddies doing bad things, like little offense archaeologists, digging deeper and deeper to find out who’s Good and who’s Bad. I wonder why people run away from establishment progressivism in droves.

Planet of Cops – Freddie deBoer. (Freddie notes the omnipresent conservative cops too.) I’d suggest one slight correction, and I think it’s consistent with what Freddie says elsewhere in the essay: It’s not so much about finding out who’s Good and who’s Bad, but rather finding out who’s Bad and who has not yet been demonstrated to be Bad. Sooner or later everyone commits thoughtcrime and has to pay for it. This is the opposite of the Caucus-Race in Alice in Wonderland: there “All have won and all must have prizes”; on social media all have sinned and all must be punished.

bad academic writing? Inconceivable!

This very essay gets published, with only slight variations, every year. I always wonder whether the people who publish them know how long precisely the same complaints have been appearing, or whether they think they’re the first to notice the phenomenon. Yes, we know, such writing is awkward, ugly, and opaque. But it is meant to be so — these are essential features of the speech act. If such traits bother you, then that particular variety of academic prose isn’t for you: you should therefore go on your way comforted that you don’t have to read it. That’s what I do.

how being rich wrecks your soul

As stratospheric salaries became increasingly common, and as the stigma of wildly disproportionate pay faded, the moral hazards of wealth were largely forgotten. But it’s time to put the apologists for plutocracy back on the defensive, where they belong — not least for their own sake. After all, the Buddha, Aristotle, Jesus, the Koran, Jimmy Stewart, Pope Francis and now even science all agree: If you are wealthy and are reading this, give away your money as fast as you can.

Chuck Mathewes and Evan Sandsmark. I think I’m gonna say that I have enough money that my soul is just kinda sooty.

murdered by the sky

I have a screenplay to write, several issues of comics, three lectures and a handful of other things. And it won’t stop raining. I’m trapped in this idiot country under Brexit Austerity Weather until autumn, at which point I will go to Norway and probably freeze my tits off and then go to Amsterdam and probably get rained on some more and then go to York where it will probably be sleeting and then go back to the Netherlands by which time there will be hailstones the size of a chimp’s fist and then it will be practically Xmas and I dunno flash floods and new kinds of weather that we’ll have to make up names for like Subzero Voids and Skin-Rippers and Homicide Storms and Eternal Maximum Darknesses.

My producers are going to be really surprised when this true-crime screenplay arrives as a monologue by a man in a crater talking about all the ways in which everyone he knew was murdered by the sky.

Warren Ellis 

the Lego offices in London 

impairment

Trump hasn’t had a stroke or suffered a neurological disaster, and his behavior in the White House is no different from the behavior he manifested consistently while winning enough votes to take the presidency.

But he is nonetheless clearly impaired, gravely deficient somewhere at the intersection of reason and judgment and conscience and self-control. Pointing this out is wearying and repetitive, but still it must be pointed out.

You can be as loyal as Jeff Sessions and still suffer the consequences of that plain and inescapable truth: This president should not be the president, and the sooner he is not, the better.

Ross Douthat. The point could hardly be put more neatly, more accurately, and more depressingly.

“an expression of what we are”

“The pseudo-Gothic was much ridiculed, and nobody builds like that anymore. It is not authentic, not an expression of what we are, so it was said. To me it was and remains an expression of what we are. One wonders whether the culture critics had as good an instinct about our spiritual needs as the vulgar rich who paid for the buildings.” — Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind. Reading the book again after so many years I find it deeply wrong-headed, and yet also full of wonderful passages, as for example this one about how as a fifteen-year-old freshman he fell in love with the University of Chicago. 

The Shadow knows

I’ve already had some people asking me what I think about this review. The answer is: Not very much. Levinovitz says that Dreher’s and Esolen’s books share a central premise which he deems a “lie,” though without providing evidence: he chiefly quotes them with the expectation that their claims will be evidently self-refuting. His chief interest is not in Dreher’s and Esolen’s arguments but in their diseased personalities: they are “sadomasochistic” “holy pornographers” — in short, “madmen.” Unlike Levinovitz (and The Shadow), I don’t know what evil lurks in the hearts of men: I can only read and evaluate their arguments. That’s why I don’t have much to say about this review.

the Old South and the New Left

The influence, which has not been sufficiently noted, of Southern writers and historians on the American view of their history has been powerful. They were remarkably successful in characterizing their “peculiar institution” as part of a charming diversity and individuality of culture to which the Constitution was worse than indifferent. The ideal of openness, lack of ethnocentricity, is just what they needed for a modern defense of their way of life against all the intrusions of outsiders who claimed equal rights with the folks back home. The Southerners’ romantic characterization of the alleged failings of the Constitution, and their hostility to “mass society” with its technology, its money-grubbing way of life, egoistic individuals and concomitant destruction of community, organic and rooted, appealed to malcontents of all political colorations. The New Left in the sixties expressed exactly the same ideology that had been developed to protect the South from the threat to its practices posed by the Constitutional rights and the Federal Government’s power to enforce them. It is the old alliance of Right and Left against liberal democracy, parodied as “bourgeois society.” 

— Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind. This particular beat goes on, and on, and on, just in slightly different forms. 

FastMail update

A quick follow-up to my previous post on ditching FastMail: After telling tech support that I had scheduled my account for deletion — FastMail doesn’t allow instant deletion, reasonably enough — I did hear from someone higher up the chain who looked into what happened. The suggestion from the engineers at FastMail was that, while using their web client, I went into my Archive folder, accidentally selected a message, then accidentally command-selected another message 68,000 conversations further down (which selected all the intervening messages), then accidentally issued the delete command. Later, when (after installing iOS 11) I opened Mail in iPad, either I accidentally emptied the trash of the 68,000 conversations (comprised of 95,000 messages) or the app did it for me.

This does not strike me as a plausible sequence of events.

Now, as I’ve noted, I could restore the deleted items — either from my own backups or (if I caught the problem within a week) from FastMail’s own restore option — and indeed the last person I talked with encouraged me to keep my account open and let them look into the matter further. But at that point I was spooked, and had already moved my mail elsewhere. Maybe if I had gotten a more constructive response early in the process I would have given it another try, and devoted the time to trying to figure out what happened. But I only got that kind of involvement after I had moved my mail and asked them to delete my account.

I truly do appreciate the willingness of the last person I talked to at FastMail to address the problem. But that didn’t make me change my mind about moving on, and I think that’s because our communications technologies today are dependent on trust — trust, above all, that the data you’ve put somewhere will remain where you’ve put it. And because we rely so much on these technologies to get essential work done, when you lose that trust you tend to get anxious, and who needs more anxiety? When I put on my Objectivity Hat, I don’t think that FastMail is any less secure and reliable than other email services I do or might use. But it now feels insecure to me, and that is enough to take me elsewhere.

a homily to remember by Jessica Martin

The preacher in most Anglican traditions works under strict time constraints: what one has to offer must be given in just a few minutes. When anything of substance gets said in such a brief compass, it is a great blessing. Also: when a sermon of any length works from poems or stories in ways that are richly theological and deeply biblical, that too is a great blessing. And when a single briefly sermon uses literature imaginatively, unexpectedly, and profoundly … Well. The following homily was preached a few days ago by Jessica Martin, residentiary canon at Ely Cathedral. I am posting it here with her permission. 


Southern Cathedrals Festival Eucharist: Feast of Mary Magdalene, 22nd July 2017

1st lesson:  2 Cor. 5.14-17 

Gospel: John 20.1-2,11-18

 

But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. Jn.20.11 

 

May I speak in the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

She turned her eyes towards him for the first time… — & he was looking at her with all the Power & Keenness, which she beleived no other eyes than his, possessed…. — It was a silent, but a very powerful Dialogue; — on his side, Supplication, on her’s acceptance . — Still, a little nearer  — and a hand taken and pressed — [and her name, spoken] — bursting forth in the fullness of exquisite feeling — and all Suspense & Indecision were over. — They were re-united.   They were restored to all that had been lost.

Only — it wasn’t like that, quite, — was it? Perfect happiness, the same writer observed, even in memory, is not common.  Yet how the soul yearns for that moment, for the overplus of bliss that comes when you turn, blinded by tears, and your beloved that you thought lost for ever is there before you speaking your name, and you say, ‘How could it ever have been otherwise?  My life has been a dream until now. How was it that I did not know that you were there all the time?’

The dying woman who, in Winchester, in the relentlessly rainy spring of 1817, wrote that scene of fulfilment beyond loss, was of course Jane Austen.  We mark the bicentenary of her death this year at the time and place of her dying. Some among you will recognise the encounter as being from the close of her last novel Persuasion, but some will not know it — because she discarded the draft. She was unhappy with the ending she had written and replaced it instead with one of more indirection, where a letter stands in for the ‘silent, but very powerful Dialogue’ and the fulfilment of the plot upon words only overheard. Neither touch, nor voice is retained in the moment of reconciliation as it went to press, months after Jane Austen herself was dead and buried. The body was absent. Clear-eyed and unsparing to the last, she would not allow herself even the dream of so impossible a meeting. The most she would allow us to see of immediate, passionate felicity was the sensation of an ‘overpowering happiness’ in solitude as her character, Anne Elliott, read to herself words of love.

Yet the prospect of fulfilment beyond absolute loss stands like a promise and we cannot look away. The novel, a literary form which has dominated our cultural imaginations for the two-and-a-half centuries since Austen’s lifetime, offers that fulfilment in terms of marriage.  On the last pages of novel after novel, the apparently impossible union — whether for emotional, or family, or even more often economic reasons — proves miraculously possible after all.  Jane Eyre and Mr Rochester. Anne Elliott and Captain Wentworth.

The marriage plot’s satisfactions are so potent that readers across those centuries have been outraged when, exceptionally, such human fulfilment is withheld by the author — by Charlotte Bronte in Villette, for example, where the marriage between M. Heger and Lucy Snowe is frustrated by a probably-fatal storm at sea, or in Anthony Trollope’s The Small House at Allington, where Lily’s constancy to her Adolphus survives her discovery that he is selfish and shallow, and brings her to remain single even though she is passionately loved by another decent man she will never accept. In making that choice to be single, Lily allows herself to subsist beyond the fleeting moment of fulfilled desire, beyond that vision of youth and beauty and pleasure, into tiredness, old age and mortality. She stops being a cipher of promise and becomes fully human. Marriage can only be guaranteed to be absolute fulfilment if you stop time on the wedding day.

So it is that marriage is only ever a metaphor — though a powerful one — for fulfilment, pointing beyond itself to a love which is both more elusive and more durable. When Mary stands weeping in the garden she is more like the single Jane, dying in discomfort during a rain-filled summer on the three chairs she allowed herself in order to leave the sofa for her grandmother to lie upon, alone in the contemplation of her mortality and keeping others at a distance with stoical letter-writing. Anne Elliott and Captain Wentworth are pleasant fantasies, not part of the realities of life. It is death, not love, which beckons at the end of the long vista of patient endurance.

That, at any rate, is the human point of view.

But — from now on, we regard no one from a human point of view. We cannot avoid being the one who stands weeping outside the tomb; Christ has died for all; therefore all have died. Mary Magdalene, associated traditionally with all the betrayals and bad faith that go with an over-reliance upon human desire, yearns beyond it to a love which seems extinguished by death. She stands by a tomb puzzlingly empty yet peopled by angels who ask the crazy question, ‘Why are you weeping?’ For Mary, the absence of the beloved body, marred by death and empty of its spirit, is not a sign of resurrection but a final cruelty. She had hoped to care for that body, to wrap it in linen and honour it with spices — not because it would do any good, but because love is like that. ‘They have taken away my Lord and I do not know where they have laid him’.  She has been cheated of any direct encounter, and cannot hope even for a love-letter.

But then she turns around. She turns away from the tomb, and towards a living presence she cannot as yet name, and which has not as yet named her. This is, for a moment, a ‘silent, but very powerful Dialogue’. The person before her asks her the same question as the angels; she gives him the same answer; nothing new has yet happened. The point of recognition is when he calls her by name — and all Suspense & Indecision were over. They were reunited. They were restored to all that had been lost.

Yet this Now, this joy, is also ‘not yet’.  It is not only fulfilment — it is promise, it is something still happening and still growing.  ‘Do not hold on to me’, says the risen Jesus, ‘…go to my brothers and say to them, I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’  And Mary  Magdalene becomes transformed from weeping woman to messenger and witness: she went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’.  If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation; everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!

In our human point of view, we cannot avoid standing with Mary. Loss is real, and death is the certain vista for every life, the standing condition for every hope.  But look at your life carefully. Study the tomb by which you mourn and wonder why it is empty, full not of corruption but of animated light which asks you the question, why are you weeping? Someone in your life is standing behind you, waiting for you to turn.  When you look away from the tomb and towards the presence, what might happen next?  What could happen? On his side, Supplication, on her’s acceptance.  Somebody is speaking your name.  And you think, amazed: How could it ever have been otherwise?  My life has been a dream until now. How was it that I did not know that you were there all the time?

Amen.

the wisdom of Xún Zǐ

On his blog this morning, Rod Dreher publishes a fascinating letter from a reader in China, who suggests that the work of Xún Zǐ might be a good entryway into Chinese culture.

As it happens, I wrote about Xún Zǐ in my book on original sin. I introduce him after briefly describing the thought of Confucius’s disciple Mencius, who believed that human beings are intrinsically good. Here’s the relevant passage:

But some generations later there came along another great sage, one who also considered himself a faithful disciple of Confucius, who believed that Mencius had gotten it all wrong. His name was Xún Zǐ (310-237 BCE), and it is probably not coincidental that he lived in what has long been called the Warring States Period, when the unifying power of the Zhou dynasty was weakening and the social order crumbling. “The nature of man is evil,” Xún Zǐ wrote; “man’s inborn nature is to seek for gain. If this tendency is followed, strife and rapacity result and deference and compliance disappear. By inborn nature one is envious and hates others. If these tendencies are followed, injury and destruction result and loyalty and faithfulness disappear.” If we feel a pang of compassion or anxiety for a child falling into a well, that is because the life or death of that child does not affect our interests — we do not gain by it. If we knew that we would gain by that child’s death, then not only would we feel no anxiety, we’d give the kid a good push.

But then, someone might say, people often, or at least sometimes, do virtuous deeds. If our nature is evil, where does goodness come from? Xún Zǐ has a ready reply: “I answer that all propriety and righteousness are results of the activity” — this word carries connotations of creativity and artifice — “of sages and not originally produced from man’s nature…. The sages gathered together their ideas and thoughts and became familiar with activity, facts, and principles, and thus produced propriety and righteousness and instituted laws and systems.”

So it would seem that the news from Xún Zǐ is not so bad after all, and not so different from the model of Mencius. Yes, we have an innately evil nature, and come into this world predisposed to greed and strife; however, these tendencies are correctable by the judicious enforcement of well-made laws. The one thing needful is that the sages, who have “gathered together their ideas and thoughts and became familiar with activity, facts, and principles,” are the ones given charge of “laws and systems.” Philosophers rule — or should.

So for Xún Zǐ inborn evil is not so much a curse as an annoyance. Thanks to basic human intelligence, which allows us to see when things aren’t working properly and then take the necessary steps to address the problems, we can find sages (“sage-kings,” he later says) to establish laws and social structures that mitigate evil and build up good. And, not incidentally, Xún Zǐ believes that “Every man in the street possesses the faculty to know [humanity, righteousness, laws, and correct principles] and the capacity to practice them.” Therefore, almost anyone can become a sage; there is no reason why there should ever be a shortage of them.

It’s Xún Zǐ’s matter-of-factness that’s noteworthy here, and really rather attractive. What his philosophy indicates is that one can have a very low view of human nature without being what William James, in his classic Varieties of Religious Experience (1902) calls a “sick soul”: a person tormented by consciousness of sin and helpless in the face of temptation. James spoke of such people as “these children of wrath and cravers of a second birth,” and it was almost axiomatic to him that their personality is antithetical to the confidence and assurance and warmth of what he calls “the religion of healthy-mindedness.” But Xún Zǐ, for all his insistence on the depths of our innate sinfulness, seems the very embodiment of healthy-mindedness. How is this possible? It turns out that what matters more than your view of “human nature” is your view of the relative importance of nature and nurture. For Xún Zǐ human nature is evil, but nature is also easily controllable and eminently improvable. All you have to do is put the philosophers in charge.

London Bridge 


Imagined reconstruction of old London Bridge; pencil drawing by Paul Stroud

There’s an argument on the Wikipedia page for the story of Dick Whittington and his cat about whether young Whittington could have heard the ringing of the Bow bells from Holloway. Sometimes I love Wikipedia. Also, that delightful story is a rare example of a genuine folktale arising almost in modern times – possibly as late as the early 17th century – and based on a well-known historical figure. 

“I have Calculated and the time is nigh”

— Brenna Bychowski, via John Overholt on Twitter

Gog and Magog, Guildhall, London

faith

We’re in a society that thinks entirely about faith, because of our sense of encroachment by Islam, and our defiance against that because we have our own way of being, which of course is based in Christianity. But no one is Christian. So we’re trying to defend an ideal which we can’t really define ourselves, which we almost entirely don’t believe in. And we’re coming up against something which is quite overwhelming and encroaching and dictatorial – some aspects of Islam – and yet at another level, there’s something so beautiful and glorious about it. And so I feel as if this conflict is entirely about faith, and yet the one thing no one wants to talk about is faith.

Nicola Barker

conservatives and health care

In his influential “The Road to Serfdom,” the economist Friedrich Hayek argued that the state should “assist the individual in providing for those common hazards of life” — among them poor health and unexpected accidents. And in his illuminating analysis of Ronald Reagan’s legacy, “The Working Class Republican: Ronald Reagan and the Return of Blue-Collar Conservatism,the political scientist Henry Olsen uncovered some timely insights. “Any person in the United States,” Reagan said in 1961, “who requires medical attention and cannot provide it for himself should have it provided for him.”

These sentiments conflict with recent iterations of Republican health care reform. The “full repeal” bill is nothing of the sort — it preserves the regulatory structure of Obamacare, but withdraws its supports for the poor. The House version of replacement would transfer many from Medicaid to the private market, but it doesn’t ensure that those transferred can meaningfully purchase care in that market. The Senate bill offers a bit more to the needy, but still leaves many unable to pay for basic services. In the rosiest projections of each version, millions will be unable to pay for basic health care. This wasn’t acceptable to Reagan in 1961, and it shouldn’t be acceptable to his political heirs.

J. D. Vance

Everybody knows there is no fineness or accuracy of suppression; if you hold down one thing, you hold down the adjoining.

— Saul Bellow, The Adventures of Augie March

writing by the always-wrong 

Please read the whole of this beautiful post by Sara Hendren — and then I want to reflect on its conclusion:

I want a world full of disabled voices, people telling their stories in their own ways, with their own voices intact. But I also want a world of people to read about the collective stakes inherent in disability — and not just the rights issues that are being ignored, urgent as they are. I want people to see that spending time thinking about disability is an invitation to see the world differently, and to locate one’s own experiences differently. Not to erase the particularity of any one person’s very material experiences, but to help remedy the invisibility of disabled experience outside the inner circle of people who talk to one another, who know that these issues are important. And some audiences will need some interpretation, some cognitive-linguistic bridges to understand the import of disability — its wonder, its overlooked importance, and yes, even its lessons, if we may call them such. Lessons without moralizing, lessons without abstractions.

Sara has a history of thinking wisely and humanely about these matters, and in ways that grow organically out of her own humanity, her own path through the world. In that regard, I very strongly recommend — I don’t like to say insist, but … I exhort you all, let me put it that way, to watch this talk that Sara gave in 2015. And if you’re a young smart person trying to make you way in the world, trying to discern your calling, then yeah, I insist that you watch it. Absolutely.

Anyway, I want to respond to the conclusion of Sara’s post because I think it leads to some vital stuff. And I want to start by disagreeing with this: “Lessons without moralizing, lessons without abstractions” — disagreeing because I think that all lessons are both moralizing and abstracting. Moralizing because if you haven’t come to believe that some decisions are better than others, or some clearly worse than others, then you haven’t learned a lesson; and abstracting because if you don’t in some way and to some degree generalize from (abstract from) someone else’s story or experience, than you also haven’t learned a lesson. The real question, then, I think, is to learn how to be genuinely moral without being moralistic, that is to say, without dictating the terms on which a lesson must be learned; and how to abstract only to the degree necessary, and without losing awareness of the specific textures of another life. The goal, I think, to borrow a phrase from Henry James that the philosopher Martha Nussbaum has made much of, is to be “finely aware and richly responsible.”

But I also think part of being “richly responsible” is to be willing to take the chance of telling the story wrong, of drawing something other than the perfect lesson, of abstracting too much or too little according to some (abstract!) universal ideal. And that’s why I applaud this statement by Sara, which comes just before the passage that I’ve already quoted: “Lately I’m thinking that I can only write what I can write, knowing that it will be incomplete and partial in its rendering.” Exactly. Riffing on Emily Dickinson: Tell the truth that you can tell, even if you can’t help telling it slant.

But it takes courage to do this because there are always critical panthers tensed and ready to pounce. Sara quotes Tom Shakespeare’s dismissal of Oliver Sacks’s whole career of writing about his patients as a “high-brow freak show,” a charge that it is hard to see how Sacks could have avoided except by refraining from writing at all about his clinical encounters. What I want to say to Tom Shakespeare is this: Wave your wand and eliminate Sacks’s books from the world. Now, tell me: How is the world better?

“But,” the answer will come back, at least from some, “Sacks should have done things differently. He should have included this and excluded that,” etc. etc. But perhaps he couldn’t have. Perhaps he wrote the books he was capable of writing. This is a real and important possibility. (I speak with some authority here, as a person who has written a good many books, not one of which turned out to be precisely what I had imagined and wanted when I set out.)

I feel much the same about Alex Tizon’s much-maligned account of his family’s slave. He shouldn’t have presumed to tell anything about Lola’s story, people said; He should have denounced his parents more explicitly; he shouldn’t have … he should have … The story is so incomplete! Indeed it is. As are all stories. But it was moving and shocking and disturbing, and I suspect it cost Tizon a good deal to write it. I’m glad it’s in the world, whatever its errors, whatever its limitations of perspective.

In one of his most powerful poems, Auden writes,

Beloved, we are always in the wrong,
Handling so clumsily our stupid lives,
Suffering too little or too long,
Too careful even in our selfish loves …

We are always in the wrong. It’s the human condition. If people remembered it, remembered that it’s their condition too, they might be a little more forgiving of the limitations of others.

Though many don’t acknowledge their own always-in-the-wrongness, they know, they can’t help knowing, that if they speak from their fund of knowledge and experience, others will censure them in the way they have censured. (“By what measure ye mete….”) And so it becomes ever easier to take refuge in the tweet-sized dismissal of what others venture, and in the bogus rectitude of silence. That’s why Auden notes that we respond to our always-in-the-wrongness by becoming “too careful” — “Too careful even in our selfish loves.” But if you’re always wrong already, why not sin boldly? Why not risk greatly?

I hope Sara writes her book boldly, and without a qualm. I hope for many books written boldly and without qualms, even books I don’t end up liking. Let even a thousand weeds bloom. Haters gonna hate, and the pathologically scrupulous gonna scruple. Defy them.

Goodbye FastMail 

For several years now I’ve enjoyed using FastMail, a paid email service. Email is sufficiently important that I don’t mind paying for it, especially if that delivers me from having my emails scanned and the data therefrom sold. I’ve recommended FastMail to a number of people, but I’m not going to be doing that any more.

A few days ago I took a look in my Archive mailbox, which is where I stash almost every email I’ve dealt with (I’m a search-rather-than-sort person), and noticed, to my great surprise, that it only had seven messages in it. I refreshed the mailbox a couple of times: still just seven messages. I use the FastMail web interface, because it’s very quick and has excellent keyboard shortcuts, and hadn’t opened an email client in at last a week — maybe considerably longer. So I decided to check my email client to see what things looked like there – but first, I turned off my wi-fi. When I opened the email client I discovered that the Archive mailbox had 68,000 messages in it. Which was what it should have had.

Now perhaps you will see why I turned off the wi-fi – I didn’t want to give the email client a opportunity to synchronize the mailboxes, or I could have lost everything from my hard drive as well. To be sure, I’m an obsessive backer-up, and I have plenty of earlier versions that I could have restored from … but still: the sudden disappearance of 68,000 messages is discomfiting.

When I contacted FastMail I had the kind of exchange you might expect: they told me that I must have deleted them without knowing about it — though how I would have done that, since it would have involved moving them to the trash and then deleting the trash, while carefully preserving seven messages, I have no idea — or that my mail client must have done it — though I explained (several times) that I wasn’t using a mail client.

In the end they basically just shrugged and said they didn’t know what happened. And  I get that: the great majority of the time the client is at fault for this kind of thing, and any attempt to figure out what happened probably would be time-consuming and unlikely to yield a clear result. But in the absence of any effort to find out what went wrong, and in the absence of 68,000 messages, I don’t have a great deal of trust in the service. And under the circumstances, paying for it doesn’t make much sense.

Unfortunately, though, I have paid for the next 18 months of service. FastMail won’t give me a pro-rated refund, or any refund at all, but I’m deleting my account anyway — it’s not worth the uncertainty.

the healing to come

The fact that the body, and locality and locomotion and time, now feel irrelevant to the highest reaches of the spiritual life is (like the fact that we can think of our bodies as ‘coarse’) a symptom. Spirit and Nature have quarrelled in us; that is our disease. Nothing we can yet do enables us to imagine its complete healing. Some glimpses and faint hints we have: in the Sacraments, in the use made of sensuous imagery by the great poets, in the best instances of sexual love, in our experiences of the earth’s beauty. But the full healing is utterly beyond our present conceptions. Mystics have got as far in contemplation of God as the point at which the senses are banished: the further point, at which they will be put back again, has (to the best of my knowledge) been reached by no one.

– C. S. Lewis, Miracles

two minutes

The horrible thing about the Two Minutes Hate was not that one was obliged to act a part, but, on the contrary, that it was impossible to avoid joining in. Within thirty seconds any pretence was always unnecessary. A hideous ecstasy of fear and vindictiveness, a desire to kill, to torture, to smash faces in with a sledge-hammer, seemed to flow through the whole group of people like an electric current, turning one even against one’s will into a grimacing, screaming lunatic. And yet the rage that one felt was an abstract, undirected emotion which could be switched from one object to another like the flame of a blowlamp.

— George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four

free speech ≠ chronic stress

The articles Barrett links to are mostly about chronic stress — the stress elicited by, for example, spending one’s childhood in an impoverished environment of serious neglect and violence. Growing up in a dangerous neighborhood with a poor single mother who has to work so much she doesn’t have time to nurture you is not the same as being a college student at a campus where [Milo] Yiannopoulos is coming to speak, and where you are free to ignore him or to protest his presence there. One situation involves a level of chronic stress that is inflicted on you against your will and which really could harm you in the long run; the other doesn’t. Nowhere does Barrett fully explain how the presence on campus of a speaker like Yiannopoulos for a couple of hours is going to lead to students being afflicted with the sort of serious, chronic stress correlated with health difficulties. It’s simply disingenuous to compare the two types of situations — in a way, it’s an insult both to people who do deal with chronic stress and to student activists.

Jesse Singal

Quentin Blake’s birds

Cheri Smith, The Art Room Stone (2016); watercolour on paper, 504 × 666 mm

I often think I’m the only person in the world who cares about this, but … here’s a very nice piece on dystopian fiction that uses the terms “sacrament” and “sacramental” far too loosely. It’s an unfortunately common trope (especially but not only among Christians) to use “sacramental” as a synonym for “meaningful” or “comforting” or “reassuring.” Experience or objects can be deeply meaningful, even life-transforming, without being sacramental. Sacrament requires not just meaning but the divine promise of meaning: the Eucharist is a sacrament because God promises to be present in it. And the same is true of the other sacraments. Where there is no promise, there is no sacrament, though for the attentive person there will often be deep meaning.

Claremont-McKenna statement

In the aftermath of the blockade on April 6, the College learned important lessons that must further strengthen our resolve. Our Athenaeum must continue to invite the broadest array of speakers on the most pressing issues of the day. Our faculty must help us understand how to mitigate the forces that divide our society. Our students must master the skills of respectful dialogue across all barriers. Our community must protect the right to learn from others, especially those with whom we strongly disagree. And Claremont McKenna College must take every step necessary to uphold these vital commitments.

here

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