Wednesday, 10/1/14

  1. What about Truth?
  2. Cherry picking science
  3. Sticking to academics
  4. Profitable versus Pillar
  5. More about poverty than sex
  6. “You want something you ought not to want”


New Republic published a provocative essay about elite education by ­William Deresiewicz, which has indeed provoked much reaction. From a longish essay about “The New New Left” by First Thing’s R.R. Reno:

The narrow gate of admission—seen as the life-­defining moment by many young people (and their parents)—also encourages conformity and discourages risk-taking. Kids at fancy prep schools and public schools in well-off neighborhoods are surrounded by an industry devoted to credential-burnishing. There are college essay consultants and summer programs that promise to provide “special experiences” around which to build a winning college essay. All of this creates a carefully scripted life for elite teenagers. The right extracurriculars + stellar grades + eye-popping SAT scores = Harvard = success.

And do the kids ever perform! Like Deresiewicz, I’ve been impressed by the extraordinary talent, discipline, and skill of our new meritocrats. They’re thoroughbreds. But there’s a price: “Our system of elite education manufactures young people who are smart and talented and driven, yes, but also anxious, timid, and lost, with little intellectual curiosity and a stunted sense of purpose: trapped in a bubble of privilege, heading meekly in the same direction, great at what they’re doing but with no idea why they’re doing it.”

So it would seem that what we need to do is give 18- to 22-year-olds some ideas about why they’re investing so much of themselves in academic success. Which would entail clarity about what learning is for—the ends or goals of the life of the mind. But that’s exactly what Deresiewicz can’t provide. Instead, he gives us the usual empty phrases about critical thinking: “College is an opportunity to stand outside the world for a few years, between the orthodoxy of your family and the exigencies of career, and contemplate things from a distance.” To this he adds empty abstractions about “building a self” and becoming an individual.

What’s missing here is truth, which is of course the proper end or goal of learning. Deresiewicz is vaguely aware of this, observing that religious colleges—“even obscure, regional schools that no one has ever heard of on the coasts”—do a better job of keeping the “higher” in higher education. But he can’t bring himself to use the T-word, which is why he ends up yet another would-be outsider who is in fact an insider. It’s one thing to posture as a critic of elite education. It’s another to sin against the spirit of secular liberal culture. For that culture, “truth”—soul-defining moral and metaphysical truth—is taboo, because truth enlivens the soul by commanding its allegiance. Truth demands assent. The self does not build “the self”—truth does, as St. Augustine says over and over again in many different ways in his Confessions.


An old friend, who is an estimable human being and no science slouch (though science has not been his career), exults in his very “conservative” Evangelicalism at this article:

The Bible proves it right again. Look at 2 Peter 3:5, “long ago by God’s word the heavens existed and the earth was formed out of water and by water.”

It seems that the first commenter out of the box on this article jumped on it as proof of his religious views, then others piled on, then it got ugly. That’s sad.

Still, I must agree with the view (which nobody in the comments expressed) that it is would be, to say the least, vastly more impressive to predict from 2 Peter 3:5 that “up to half of [the water in our solar system was] formed before the sun itself was born” than to find 2 Peter 3:5 after science makes its discovery.

[* Scare quotes around “conservative” not only because I no longer know what the term means, but also because I’m skeptical that even 5% of Evangelicals are conservative other than in today’s political terms.]


Despite hysterical propaganda about our “rape culture,” the majority of campus incidents being carelessly described as sexual assault are not felonious rape (involving force or drugs) but oafish hookup melodramas, arising from mixed signals and imprudence on both sides.

Colleges should stick to academics and stop their infantilizing supervision of students’ dating lives, an authoritarian intrusion that borders on violation of civil liberties. Real crimes should be reported to the police, not to haphazard and ill-trained campus grievance committees.

Liberalism lacks a profound sense of evil — but so does conservatism these days, when evil is facilely projected onto a foreign host of rising political forces united only in their rejection of Western values. Nothing is more simplistic than the now rote use by politicians and pundits of the cartoonish label “bad guys” for jihadists, as if American foreign policy is a slapdash script for a cowboy movie.

(Camille Paglia, The Modern Campus Cannot Comprehend Evil)

I have little doubt that Ms. Paglia would be a formidable friend, but it’s always a delight when she picks up a topic of mutual interest and agrees with one –  or is it the other way around?


The creation of a “canon” of Scripture was never more than a declaration of what a general consensus within the Church treated as authoritative. The Scriptures as a place for creating and proving formal doctrine is something of a fiction. 2 Timothy 3:16-17 is the primary verse trotted out in defense of Scriptural authority:

All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.  (2 Ti 3:16-17 NKJ)

But this is a very troublesome and questionable translation. In Protestant usage, the key phrase is “all Scripture is given by inspiration of God.” But, in fact, the phrase “given by inspiration of God” is a single word (θεόπνευστος), just as accurately translated, “all Scripture that is inspired of God,” thus being a limiting phrase and not one that serves as an authoritative licensing of something later described as “the Bible.”

What we actually have in 2 Timothy is a very homely, parenetic expression in which the author suggests that reading the Scriptures is a good thing. It is not, despite its use as such, a foundational proclamation of the Bible as sole authority. For it is the Church that is described as the “Pillar and Ground of Truth.” (1 Tim. 3:15).

(Fr. Stephen Freeman)


For years, critics of the Church’s teaching on marriage have noted that Jesus said a lot more about poverty than he did about sex, and that was a fair point. Much conservative thinking was unbalanced. But the same criticism could be made in return. And when following Francis Catholics and other Christians begin to redress the balance, moral liberalism remains unbalanced.

(David Mills, noting the implication of a Frank Bruni column in the NYT: gay rights trump the rights of the poor.)

Just the other day, I noted the same implication about (1) “progressive” Christians and (2) the Democrat Party. But Mills “hoist by their own petard” is especially delicious.

The original application of the criticism – to silence opponents of the sexual revolution – could be directed at me. But I think I tend to dwell on the social, not the Christian religious, quarrel, not the religious issues. But if I ever start talking as if “gay people shouldn’t have sex” is the Gospel, I grant plenary indulgence to any reader who smacks me up side of my rhetorical head.


Intrinsically disordered , like objectively disordered a few lines further down, has probably caused more anguish than the rest of the [Roman Catholic] Church’s [Catechism] language [regarding homosexual conduct] put together. To clarify: intrinsically is being opposed to accidentally ; so, on Catholic premises, a man lusting for a woman who is not his wife is accidentally misdirected, because there’s nothing perverse about wanting a woman, but that desire is supposed to be fulfilled between husband and wife only. In principle, the woman our theoretical man is lusting after might have been his wife, and that circumstance would be relevant. Conversely, there aren’t any circumstances (according to the Church’s teaching) in which the desire of a man for a man could be morally fulfilled, and so the misdirection lies in the desire as such.

Likewise, objectively is frequently taken to mean “as any sane person can see,” perhaps influenced by frequent Christian talk about objective truth. That isn’t what the Church is driving at here at all. It has, rather, to do with what the Church says is misdirected about the desire: its object. Wanting to have sex, just as such, isn’t wrong (it is, indeed, too amorphous to be wrong, or right). It is the specific object (someone of the same sex, either in general or in particular) that the Church considers problematic.

Lastly, disordered. This single word has probably been the worst element in the Church’s PR on the subject of homosexuality; I don’t know whether it can be avoided, for philosophical reasons, but those philosophical reason bear explaining. The Church speaks of desires as being ordered to an end; the language derives, I think, from Aristotle. A synonymous phrase would be that desires are directed to a goal. That is why, in the preceding paragraphs, I spoke of direction and misdirection, rather than of order and disorder. In theological language, the word disordered does not have the psychiatric associations it does in the English vernacular.

None of this is an argument. And none of it makes the Catechism palatable — certainly not to me. However, it does explain the difference between the Church saying (or meaning to say), “You want something you ought not to want,” and the world hearing (or thinking it hears), “You’re a sick lunatic.”

As for LGBT people being called to chastity, that isn’t necessarily incompatible with marriage. It is quite true that the Catholic Church will only recognize a marriage between a man and a woman (and there are further modifiers which need not detain us just now), but, if they freely choose to do so, a gay person is just as welcome to enter such a marriage as anybody else. They may not be much consoled by this, and I can’t blame them (us, really); I am concerned only to indicate that the thing being required is the same for everyone — not that some of the people of whom it’s being required haven’t got a pretty raw deal.

Mudblood Catholic (emphasis added). This is a pathetic little snippet from a long and thoughtful piece from one who is, apparently, well known and respected for grappling with this issues from within. Please don’t think I’m weaponizing it; read the whole thing (which I encountered during a Facebook exchange).

* * * * *

“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.