Stagger onward rejoicing

Tag: institutions (page 1 of 1)

Jahan Ganesh

The controversies of the day expose a problem with the right and it isn’t corruption. It isn’t “sleaze”. It is the impossibility of chasing money and fighting the culture wars. [Nadhim] Zahawi is one person, but stands for millions of a conservative temper in each generation. They are entitled to choose lucrative work over a life in the institutions that set the cultural weather. They are entitled to deplore the success of the left in bending those institutions to their dogma. What is neither honest nor becoming is to do both: to forfeit terrain and then seethe at its capture by hostile elements. […] 

Some conservatives have rationalised this discrepancy between electoral triumph and cultural retreat as a kind of leftwing swindle. Or, worse, as proof of democracy’s futility. Their own complicity is lost on them. There are Republicans who can’t believe how leftwing universities are and also can’t believe that anyone would ever choose the unlucrative life of an academic. At some point, you’d hope, the irony will dawn on them. 

(Via Andrew Wilson) 

the post-literate academy and this blog

The Post-Literate Academy – by Mary Harrington:

When it’s so difficult to imagine the academy as we know it surviving the demise of ‘deep literacy’, the prospect of a post-literate academy leaves me wondering: what will be the character of the ‘knowledge’ such an institution produces?

It’s too early to be sure, but my bet is that such ‘knowledge’ will be (indeed, already is) much more directly moral in character than the abstract, analytical, and (aspirationally at least) objectively factual ideal of ‘knowledge’ produced by the print-era university. I also think we can connect this to the profoundly religious flavour of the ‘no debate’ activism now commonplace on universities. In [an essay since paywalled], Eliza Mondegreen describes being on the receiving end of such ‘knowledge’ at a heavily protested at McGill University talk by human rights professer Robert Wintemute — a talk eventually shut down, seemingly with if not the support at least zero objection from university administrators. And it’s my contention that we should get used to it. [Here is a description of the event.] 

That is: I don’t wish to add to the usual chorus of tutting at student activist mobs here, as though these could be fixed with more ‘free speech’. On the contrary: it is my gloomy contention that the more post-literate academia becomes, the more such aggressive and intransigent mob morality will become not the exception but the norm. And there will be no fixing it, because ‘free speech’ was a print-era ideal, and that’s indisputably not where we are any more. 

I think this is right — it rhymes with my argument about the resurgence of what Kołakowski calls the “mythical core” of the social order. 

In some ways the trend Harrington describes here, however otherwise regrettable, is a corrective to a pinched, narrow, and wholly inadequate understanding of “rational” inquiry based on principles thought by such advocates to arise from the Enlightenment. (There were several Enlightenments, no one of which is wholly reconcilable with the others.) Consider this recent essay by Steven Pinker — or, for now, just one brief passage from it: 

Though each of us is blind to the flaws in our own thinking, we tend to be better at spotting the flaws in other people’s thinking, and that is a talent that institutions can put to use. An arena in which one person broaches a hypothesis and others can evaluate it makes us more rational collectively than any of us is individually. 

Examples of these rationality-promoting institutions include science, with its demands for empirical testing and peer review; democratic governance, with its checks and balances and freedom of speech and the press; journalism, with its demands for editing and fact-checking; and the judiciary, with its adversarial proceedings. 

This all sounds lovely, but the peer-review system is fundamentally broken; the only thing that any journalistic outlet does reliably well is to point to the ways that other journalistic outlets don’t edit or fact-check; many institutions of representative democracy (the U.S. Congress, the U.K. Parliament) have effectively abandoned their responsibilities; and the Federal judiciary is widely believed to be made up of politicians in robes.

Whether things are quite as bad as the linked stories indicate may be debated, but that the public doesn’t trust any of these institutions is unquestionable. That’s at least in part because the public knows the truth one of the great maxims of the Enlightenment (that movement that Pinker claims to be a spokesman for): “Of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.” You don’t have to be a fully-paid-up member of the Critical Theory Brigade to suspect that appeals to disinterested rational inquiry are often thinly disguised schemes by certain people to retain institutional and cultural power. 

But then, so also are the campaigns of what I call Left Purity Culture. I don’t know how you would decide whether our institutions — and especially our academic institutions, which I’m especially concerned with in this post and elsewhere — are worse when they adopt (a) a simplistic model of rational truth-seeking or (b) a simplistic model of myth-driven advocacy for supposed social justice. I certainly can’t decide. But my task here, on this blog, seems to me the same either way. If you don’t know what that is, I’ve described it in the following posts: 

And these posts also explain why this blog’s motto is “More lighting of candles, less cursing the darkness”: While some self-appointed instruments of Justice are hard at work extinguishing the candles of culture and art, while self-appointed custodians of Reason are screaming their denunciations of the destroyers, it often seems to be that there aren’t enough people cupping their hands around the candles that remain to keep them lit. So that’s my job here. 

And it’s worth remembering another point. In two of those posts I quote a passage from one of Tom Stoppard’s plays commending a certain kind of trust: trust that those who come after us will pick up and carry further what we have left behind. Most of our institutions, and above all the great majority of our academic institutions, have rejected the very idea of cultural preservation and transmission. They are occupied and dominated by consumers and destroyers; and precisely the same is true of the shouting, slavering haters who call themselves conservatives. They conserve nothing; none of these people, putatively Left or putatively Right, preserve anything, nor do they build and repair.

But we have so, so many artists — writers, musicians, painters, sculptors, architects — who have left us a wonderful inheritance; and many who even today are adding to that inheritance. At the very least we have to be sure that that inheritance doesn’t stop with us. Perhaps our circumstances militate against greatness in art; but we can do our part to make greatness possible again when the times are less craven.  

building what looks right

Eboo Patel:

When I was in college in the mid-1990s—an era that feels quite similar to today—a lot of my activism was around diversity issues. It wasn’t called “wokeness” then, but there was a very heightened consciousness around race and gender and sexuality. I think there is a very positive story to tell about bell hooks and Cornel West being read everywhere. But towards the end of college, I realized that religious diversity is never a part of the conversation. I had become, at this point, more inspired by faith-based activists, particularly Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement. The way I put it is that they loved people more than they hated the system. And it seemed to me that a lot of activists I knew hated the system more than they loved people. 

I started going to interfaith conferences looking for the next generation of these great faith-based activists like Bayard Rustin, Dorothy Day, Pauli Murray and Martin Luther King Jr. What I found instead was old theologians talking. So I did what I was taught to do as an activist in college: I stood up, I raised my fist, and I called them out. This was June of 1988. I was probably 22, the firebrand young person on the floor, shouting people down. And a striking thing happened. This woman named Yolanda Trevino walked up to me, and she said, “What you’re talking about — a movement of young people from diverse religious traditions, engaging in social action together — is powerful. You should build that.” The scales fell from my eyes. She presented to me two paths: one was to continue yelling at other people for what they were doing wrong; the other was to build what I thought looked right.

Patel, who runs an interfaith organization, reminds us just how often people from various faith traditions have done just that — have built what they thought looked right and needed to be built. “If every institution founded by a faith community in your city disappeared overnight, preschools, hospitals, and universities would be gone. YMCAs would be gone, places where AA groups meet would be gone. Half of your social services would probably be gone. It feels to me that religious identity diversity should be at the center of our national conversation, and I’m curious as to why it’s not.” 


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Story here. See also my essay on the need to recover the virtue of piety in order to restore institutions. But we have a really bad feedback loop here: as our institutions become more explicitly committed to leftish values, or what pass for leftish values these days, then Republicans and conservatives grow more alienated from them; but it’s also true that those institutions became more committed to leftish values because Republicans and conservatives were already disinclined to invest trust and energy in them. So we’re in a kind of death spiral here and I don’t see a way out of it.

Also: the fact that Republicans have a positive opinion of churches doesn’t mean that they are willing to serve and strengthen churches. Opinions are cheap, service is costly.

Denethor the impious

Long-time readers of this blog will know that I am a proponent of what I call the Gandalf Option. Such readers will also know how often I look to The Lord of the Rings for images and analogies: it is my handbook for discernment in our difficult times.

I want to return to the very scene from which I take my understanding of the Gandalf Option, just before the passage I quote in that linked post. The moment I want to call attention to is one in which Denethor, Steward of Gondor, is snapping back at what he believes to be the unnecessary intervention of Gandalf in the affairs of Gondor:

‘The Lord of Gondor is not to be made the tool of other men’s purposes, however worthy. And to him there is no purpose higher in the world as it now stands than the good of Gondor; and the rule of Gondor, my lord, is mine and no other man’s, unless the king should come again.’

‘Unless the king should come again?’ said Gandalf. ‘Well, my lord Steward, it is your task to keep some kingdom still against that event, which few now look to see. In that task you shall have all the aid that you are pleased to ask for.’

Gandalf goes on — as I explain in that post linked above — to describe the nature of his stewardship, but in this post I want to focus on something else: “it is your task to keep some kingdom still against that event.”

Denethor’s mind is wholly occupied by what he fears and what he hates; there is no room left in it for constructive work — for conservation, preservation, restoration. Denethor is the Steward of Gondor and he isn’t stewarding anything; he merely steeps in his own resentments. He thinks hating the right things and the right people is enough. It ain’t.

This is the theme of my recent essay in Comment, “Recovering Piety.” “Renewal of trust in institutions will not happen unless the institutions recover their integrity, and that will not happen unless the people who work within them become pious — devoted, faithful, committed not to their own personal flourishing but to the flourishing of that which they serve.” I hope you’ll read it.

My concern there is primarily with institutions, and especially with the institution called the Church, but Denethors are everywhere these days. People who know how to fear and hate but don’t love anything, don’t care for anything, can’t be bothered to take positive care for anything good. It’s especially sad to me when I see so many “Christian conservatives” who don’t conserve one single solitary thing and never speak of Christ — indeed show no evidence that they are aware of anything that Christ has commanded of us — and evidently assume that if they hate the right people hard enough the Earthly Paradise will miraculously emerge. It won’t.

The people who will repair the world are the truly pious. We should keep our eyes peeled for them, and encourage and strengthen them wherever we find them.

seeds and means of renewal

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In a recent column, David Brooks writes extensively and thoughtfully about the prospects for the renewal of the moribund evangelical movement. He cites some reasons for hope — though the signals are weak at the moment — but also points to some concerns:

Over the past few years, I’ve joined and observed a few of the conferences and gatherings organized by Christians who are trying to figure out how to start this renewal. Inevitably there were a few sessions diagnosing the problems, then a final one in which people were supposed to suggest solutions. I would summarize the final sessions this way: “Mumble, mumble, mumble. Well, it was nice to see y’all!”

Yeah. I think the primary reason for this confusion is that evangelical leaders are the products of the institutions of that movement — colleges, seminaries, various parachurch organizations — and those institutions either have failed to provide serious intellectual equipment or, when they done their jobs well, their voices have been drowned out by the entrepreneurial/marketing noisemakers who insist that the building of churches is exactly like the building of businesses.

If the evangelical church, or the church more generally, is going to be renewed, it will need to find leaders who are (a) deeply grounded in Christian theology and practice, (b) attentive to the contours and demands of our ambient culture, and (c) able to think imaginatively about the complex ways that (a) and (b) interact.

For the last several years, I have, on this blog and elsewhere, tried to create a framework for how to do just this kind of work and in the process begin to renew Christ’s church. As far as I can tell, this project has had absolutely no impact on anyone. I am not sure why. I just know that my writing has always been much better received by non-Christians than by my fellow believers; the latter seem not to know what to make of my ideas — perhaps because they don’t obviously belong to any particular school or tradition? I dunno. Maybe I just don’t have anything useful to say. But I keep trying anyway.

Let me gather together links to some of my thinking on these topics, in what I think is a useful order:

There’s much more if you follow the tags on this post.


From a brilliant essay by Matt Crawford:

One of the most striking features of the present, for anyone alert to politics, is that we are increasingly governed through the device of panics that give every appearance of being contrived to generate acquiescence in a public that has grown skeptical of institutions built on claims of expertise. And this is happening across many domains. Policy challenges from outsiders presented through fact and argument, offering some picture of what is going on in the world that is rival to the prevailing one, are not answered in kind, but are met rather with denunciation. In this way, epistemic threats to institutional authority are resolved into moral conflicts between good people and bad people.

the breaking of the inherited vessels

But the Enlightenment has for us a strange form of continuing life: everything about it seems alien, and yet everything about it seems familiar; it is simultaneously dead, undead, and full of life. The reason for this, I will suggest, is that we still live within institutions and practices created in the eighteenth century, the institutions and practices of the free market, of free speech and freedom of religion, and of the written constitution. These institutions and practices embody ideas, and the ideas they embody are those of the Enlightenment paradigm. The institutions, the practices, and the ideas are intertwined and inseparable. The Enlightenment lives on in us, even as we attack it or deny that it ever really existed, because Enlightenment forms of life (to adopt a phrase from Ludwig Wittgenstein) continue to be our forms of life. Those forms of life are certainly under strain, and it would be wrong to assume they will survive indefinitely. Indeed their life may be coming to an end. In a postindustrial, digital world, a world of artificial intelligence and of boundless supplies of energy, new categories of thought and new institutions may supplant them; and perhaps we can see more clearly now what the Enlightenment paradigm was precisely because we are beginning to emerge from it. As G. W. F. Hegel said, “the owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk.” 

— David Wootton, from Power, Pleasure, and Profit (p. 13). This insight seems to me relevant to Christian life also. There is a kind of mismatch between the forms we have inherited and what we believe — what we believe because we are being catechized in certain beliefs by a culture of ambient propaganda. This tension between the ancient vessels of culture and what they contain is not indefinitely sustainable: in the long run, either we will adjust our thinking and feeling to match the shapes of our familiar institutions, or we will reshape those institutions so that they suit our thoughts and feelings. The latter is quite obviously what’s happening, because new institutions — the catechizing and propagandizing ones, which cunningly present themselves as non- or trans-institutional — are co-opting the old ones. “The media creates us in its image” — but the existing institutions are incompatible with the shape in which we are being remade. So they must either be transformed or destroyed. 

three lessons

I’ve known Erin Kissane virtually for around a decade now — our IRL paths almost crossed a few years ago when she was still living in New York City and I gave a talk at Vassar, but that’s as close as we’ve come — and I have always had enormous admiration for her kind heart and steel spine. I was reminded of that admiration when I read her summing-up post for her year as the managing editor of the Covid Tracking Project. I strongly encourage you to read it all, and pay particular attention to these three sentences:

I suspect that intentional constraints on scope and scale allow for deeper, more satisfying, and ultimately more useful work. I suspect that a disciplined commitment to messy truths over smooth narratives would also breathe life into technology, journalism, and public health efforts that too frequently paper over the complex, many-voiced nature of the world. And I suspect that treating people like humans who are intrinsically motivated to do useful work in the world, and who deserve genuine care, allows far more people to do their best work without destroying themselves in the process.

I would love to see more institutions, whether in crisis time or in “normal” time, think long and hard about those three lessons, so beautifully articulated by Erin. Now I hope she can get some rest!


Careful writers of narrative, whether that narrative is fictional or historical or journalistic, will, like composers, work with themes and variations on those themes. For example, consider Edward Gibbon: reading his account of Rome’s decline and fall a few years ago, I noticed his fondness for a particular adverb: insensibly. “It was by such institutions that the nations of the empire insensibly melted away into the Roman name and people.” “We have already seen that the active and successful zeal of the Christians had insensibly diffused them through every province and almost every city of the empire.” “The heart of Theodosius was softened by the tears of beauty; his affections were insensibly engaged by the graces of youth and innocence: the art of Justina managed and directed the impulse of passion; and the celebration of the royal nuptials was the assurance and signal of the civil war.”

Why does Gibbon like this word so much? Is it just a verbal quirk? I think not: rather, it embodies a key theme of the whole history, which is that major transformations in the life of the Roman empire happened slowly, gradually, and without anyone noticing them: people were insensible to the changes, and by the time anyone figured out what had happened, it was too late for a reversal of course. And this insensibility affects political structures, social and religious developments, military cultures, and the hearts of emperors alike; this particular theme has many and wide-ranging variations.

The reader who notices this word, then, notices a vital, not a trivial, point about the story Gibbon tells. 

— Me, in The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction 

the threefold order of ministry

This is a topic I find myself thinking about surprisingly often — surprisingly because it’s so far beyond the scope of my expertise and experience. But hey, if you can’t bloviate on your personal blog, where can you bloviate? 

I believe that the classic threefold order of Christian ministry (bishop, priest, deacon) is indeed embedded in the earliest Christian communities. You can see these roles beginning to form by noting how the letters of the New Testament employ the terms (episkopos, presbyteros, diakonos) — but the evidence is sketchy, and there are few details. The threefold order could have taken different forms that it did, and I’m inclined to think that, as the saying goes, mistakes were made. 

The most lasting and consequential of those mistakes was the decision to model episcopal governance on the administrative structures of the Roman Empire. I say “decision” but I suspect it was an unconscious inclination to mimic the dominant social organization of time, in much the same way that churches today mimic the broader culture’s entertainment and business models. In any case, just as the Roman Empire came to be divided into provincia, each of which contained several or many municipia, so ecclesiastical systems gradually emerged which followed this general practice. These have always differed from place to place, and a Metropolitan in the East may not be precisely the same as an Archbishop in the West, but there are strong family resemblances, and they all follow from the territorial structure of Rome’s Empire. 

An ecclesiastical organization modeled on an administrative organization will inevitably take on an administrative character, and that is what has happened to the episcopacy. Thoughtful and prayerful churchmen have always been aware of the dangers involved in this modeling: for instance, the informal papal title of servus servorum Dei is an attempt at correction and redefinition. But organizational structures exhibit powerful affordances; they constantly press the people who inhabit them into certain practices, into a certain habitus. The pre-existing layout of the Empire may have seemed to the early Church a wonderful gift; but I cannot help seeing it as a poisoned chalice. 

The long, slow, but ultimately irresistible process by which bishops became managers is one of the largest contributing factors in the sex-abuse crisis in the Church today. Very few bishops are wickedly predatory like Uncle Ted McCarrick; but men who have been raised to the episcopacy because they were thought to have managerial competency, and men who clearly lack managerial competency but understand that their job demands that they acquire it, are equally unlikely to think that it’s any of their business to exercise fraternal discipline of someone managing a different department in the same organization. The affordances of the episcopacy as it is currently constituted (more or less throughout the world) strongly dispose it to disciplinary ineffectuality. 

Some Christians will agree with much of this and see it as evidence that the threefold order of ministry needs to be abandoned, or at least to become twofold through the amputation of bishops. I don’t think so. But I think the Church of Jesus Christ needs a thoroughgoing reconstruction of the office of bishop. 

More thoughts about that (and related matters) in another post. 

the future of Christian educational institutions

Carl Trueman writes about the future of Christian higher education:

Thus, for Christian educational institutions, the way ahead may be very hard. It will not simply be a matter of budgeting without federal loans. It could easily become a matter of budgeting without not-for-profit status. That double whammy is likely to annihilate many of those institutions which refuse to accommodate themselves to the dominant sexual culture. And that means that educators may need to look to new models of pursuing their callings.

The current struggle probably cannot be won in the law courts — certainly not until there are deeper changes in the ethos of society. Laws that may be used to dismantle Christian educational institutions are already on the books. How they are to be applied will be determined by the dominant taste or cultural sentiment.

Therefore every Christian institution of higher education needs to be pursuing “financial planning for the worst-case scenario, where not only federal money but also tax-exempt status is revoked.” Trueman has other things to say as well, but I want to focus on this point, and to indicate another dimension that he does not address.

As I have noted in another venue, calls are already being made for Christian institutions to lose their accreditation also. Many Christian colleges will be unable to survive losing federal aid for their faculty and students alike; those that can survive that may not be able to afford their taxes once they lose their traditional exemption; but a loss of accreditation is likely to be the death knell for all of them, because that will dramatically reduce the number of students who apply for admission. Students with degrees from unaccredited institutions are deemed ineligible for almost all graduate education, and for many jobs as well. How many parents, even devoutly Christian parents, even those few who can afford it (given the lack of federal student aid), will be willing to pay to send their children to institutions if that narrows their future horizons so dramatically? Almost none, I suspect.

The people who argue that Christian institutions should support the modern left’s model of sexual ethics or else suffer a comprehensive shunning do not think of themselves as opponents of religion. And they are not, given their definition of religion, which is “a disembodied, Gnostic realm of private worship and thought.” But that is not what Christianity is. Christianity intrinsically, necessarily involves embodied action in the public world. And this the secular left cannot and will not tolerate, if it can help it, because it rightly understands that Christianity stands opposed to the secular left’s own gospel, which, popular opinion notwithstanding, is not essentially about sex but rather may be summed up as: “I am my own.”

All this to say that while I agree with Trueman that Christian institutions need to plan for a dark financial future, I also believe that the Christian community as a whole needs to plan for a future in which most or all of its educational institutions have been forced either to close or to accommodate themselves to Gnostic disembodiment. What does Christian formation — paideia and catechesis — look like in a world in which many of the institutions that have long supported that formation have been shut down or substantively eviscerated? In relation to these issues, that is the question that Christian need to be asking. Because, I am convinced, that moment is coming: maybe not in the next decade, maybe not even in my lifetime, but certainly within the lifetimes of many reading this blog post.