Thursday, 11/5/13

    1. Knowable but ineffable
    2. Conservative Radicals
    3. A home run followed by a cheap trick
    4. Corporate religion


If you’re really busy today, and can’t read my whole blog with the close attention it doesn’t really deserve, then at least read this item and the article it links to, and read that article carefully. It’s important.

We’ve all had the conversation. “No one can really know who God is.”
Yes. And we can change the word “God” to almost anything else. There is a seemingly impenetrable wall of ignorance between us and whatever we confront. And it is precisely at the point of ignorance that the mischief begins.
The point of ignorance, which should provide a signal to stop, frequently becomes a green light for intellectual nonsense: “Since we can’t really know, we can just make it up!”

(Fr. Stephen Freeman, I Really Can’t Say) Fr. Stephen, who touches my heart more consistently than any other living podcaster or blogger, goes on to draw an important distinction that I don’t think I’d noted:

Christian theology, particularly in the East, has long championed the use of an “apophatic” approach to theology. The word “apophatic” literally means, “what cannot be spoken.” It is a recognition that “what cannot be spoken” is not the same thing as “what cannot be known.” Apophaticism is a mystical approach to theology (and even to the world), in which participation becomes the primary means of cognition. We come to know something or someone because we have a share in its existence. Rationality is not dismissed, but is made to serve the primary life of participation.
One of my favorite apophatic statements comes from Fr. Thomas Hopko: “You cannot know God. But you have to know Him to know that.” Just this sort of “brain-teaser” is typical of apophaticism.

So note: we can know God by participation, but that doesn’t mean that we can blather about Him or “just make it up.”

Fr. Stephen goes on to draw out some ramifications of ineffability for discourse, including a deserved swipe at inclusive language (some of which, like “Godself,” drives me to near-frenzy), and how dialectic polarizes discourse about things about which, by implication, you may not really be able to say much that’s true in the first place.


Contemporary American conservatism is is radical, not Burkean. That’s Yuval Levin’s thesis (via William Galston of the Wall Street Journal – paywalled), and I’d say he’s clearly correct — at least if Ronald Reagan is the prototype contemporary American conservative.

… Paine famously proclaimed that “we have it in our power to begin the world over again.” Burke, whom Mr. Levin regards as the progenitor of conservatism, saw the future as inextricably linked to the past and present. Abrupt or revolutionary change begins with social destruction and ends in self-destruction. Change that improves the world is rooted in respect for the tacit wisdom of the present. A true patriot and wise politician, Burke wrote, “always considers how he shall make the most of the existing materials of his country,” a thought that Mr. Levin summarizes as “we do not have it in our power to begin the world over again.”
This brings us to Ronald Reagan, whose attitude toward change was more like Paine’s than Burke’s. Reagan often quoted Paine’s “we have it in our power” affirmation and did so in one of the most systematic statements of his creed—his acceptance speech at the 1980 Republican convention.
This detail is symptomatic of a larger truth: In its politically relevant form, modern American conservatism does not embody a theory of incremental change. On the contrary, conservatives from Reagan to the present day have been moved by the belief that America is headed in the wrong direction and needs to reverse course ….

Burke didn’t believe in natural rights, though, and it’s hard to get through the first two sentences of the Declaration of Independence without them. That’s a challenge to my claim to being a Birkenstocked Burkean.

Scott Galupo says Levin’s book is a must-read primer on America’s ideological fault-line. I found his article after Galston’s and it’s so irresistably target-rich for quotes that I don’t dare start quoting it. Suffice that the book just went on my Christmas list after reading Galupo.

(Sometimes I think a fitting epitaph would be “Darn! Just when I almost had it all figured out!”)


Behind all of this is my utter bewilderment, hardly a new feeling, as to how it is that Christians can so often get poverty wrong. I’m not talking about the socio-economic causes and effects of poverty, or the demographic definition of poverty, or the psychology of poverty, or liberal or conservative approaches to alleviating poverty.
I’m talking about contempt. Unapologetic, deep-seated contempt.
The contempt that says people are poor because they are lazy, or lack virtue, or are unintelligent, or uninformed, nor not using their money “Biblically.” (Which seems to essentially mean “White and middle-class and male.” A deep irony.) It is the contempt that says we don’t need to worry about the poor when there are GAYS out there trying to get MARRIED! People could be using condoms! Health insurance could be covering pap tests! The wealthy are the real victims! If we pay people a living wage, the economy will collapse!

(Doug Hagler; H/T The Slacktivist)

I quote this for three reasons:

  1. To express 100% agreement with the first two paragraphs and the first sentence of the third paragraph. (And after a bit more pre-publication web-surfing, to link this.)
  2. To say that Hagler should have stopped there.
  3. To alert people to a common rhetorical ploy, exemplified by Hagler shamelessly setting up straw men, after the point where he should have stopped, to poison the well on
    • SSM,
    • the employer abortifacient mandate, and
    • the minimum wage — precisely the sort of or quibble over “liberal or conservative approaches to alleviating poverty” that he started off saying that he wasn’t talking about. Liar, liar, pants on fire!

Oh. And a fourth one. If you catch me pulling this kind of cheap rhetorical stunt, which is a beguilement for people who get too enamored of the stuff that goes out to screens all over the world after their fingers noodle around on the keyboard a while, call me out on it. Really. Please.


I awakened this morning to an NPR story (5:30 am) about the lighting of the capital Christmas tree. Some Democrat said something about it being an inspiration to look after orphans and widows in their distress.

That’s James 1:27 on the meaning of “true and undefiled religion.” So does our national government have more right to practice religion than private corporations do? (Wish I could find that quote to make sure I didn’t miss some important qualification that I missed in my morning stupor.)

UPDATE: From Religion Clause:

Washington Congressman Jim McDermott said Christmas is about a “child that came into the world and changed the world.” He added, “I hope this tree will remind us of Jesus’ call to feed the hungry, to welcome the stranger, to clothe the naked and to take care of the sick.”

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“The remarks made in this essay do not represent scholarly research. They are intended as topical stimulations for conversation among intelligent and informed people.” (Gerhart Niemeyer)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.