Monday, 2/9/15

  1. God’s Will and the Nature of Things
  2. Left reckless, Right reckless
  3. Speaking of religion
  4. Sworn to uproot the constitution
  5. A bad omen

1

Writing Sunday’s blog, I had a little epiphany: that what I’ve long called legalism is, in many cases, a theological kind of Nominalism.

I’ll leave it to others to go into the philosophical background of the dispute between Realism and Nominalism. It has something to do with Aristotle’s idea of universals and the denial of universals by guys like Ockham.

Where I entered the stream is at the theological outworking of the dispute:

God’s will for a thing corresponds to what the nature of that thing already is. Those within this [realistic] tradition were thus able to assert a rational and ordered universe in which everything had its own natural perfection. As Charles Taylor remarked, “The Aristotelian notion of nature seems to define for each thing its natural perfection, its proper good. This would be independent of God’s will, except that he it is who has created the thing thus. But once created, it would appear that God cannot further redefine what the good is for the thing.

The idea that God cannot redefine the nature of things was central to the realism of the Thomistic approach and had profound implications in the field of ethics. Just as God cannot redefine a thing’s natural perfection or telos, neither is He able to change the continuum of virtues and vices. Indeed, when God wills something or issues a command, He is not arbitrarily assigning ethical valuations to particular actions or states of being that might equally have been given an alternative valuation. Rather, the divine will is an expression of the divine intellect, while both the divine intellect and the divine will are expressions of God’s perfectly good nature.

Behind Ockham’s [nominalist] concern to preserve the divine freedom was a particular way of understanding God’s relationship to the world that would later capture the imagination of the Protestant reformers, even those who officially repudiated an explicitly nominalist framework. For a nominalist, nature exists in an inverse relationship with God’s sovereignty, so that whatever fixity or autonomy is granted to the former is that much less left over for the latter. Since God must have all the pieces of the pie, nature must have none. In fact, grace and nature had such an uneasy relationship for Ockham that the only solution was to eliminate the latter. He did this through denying that things shared a universal nature.

(Robin Phillips, whose series on Nominalism taught me quite a lot.)

The person whose only resort in moral decisions is “God’s command” makes it sounds as if he thinks that when God wills something or issues a command, He is “arbitrarily assigning ethical valuations that might equally have been given an alternative valuation.” 

I was going to wrap that up and tie it in a bow, but couldn’t think how to do it in a way any more convincing than better tutored realists than I have found.

2

What’s the difference between “Liberals” and “Conservatives” (i.e., Left Liberals and Right Liberals)? Well, “Liberals” don’t care about the havoc wrought by feel-good domestic policies while “Conservatives” are similarly reckless … well, I’ll let one speak for himself:

Lindsey Graham made a revealing comment at the Munich security conference over the weekend:

I don’t know how this will end if you give [Ukraine] defensive capability, but I know this: I will feel better [bold mine-DL] because when my nation was needed to stand up to the garbage and to stand by freedom I stood by freedom. (quote starts at 33:42)

There wasn’t much else to Graham’s “analysis” beyond this. The comments were revealing in a few ways. First, Graham admits that he doesn’t know what sending arms to Ukraine will do, but this doesn’t discourage him from insisting on this course of action. Ultimately, what matters to him here is that it makes him feel better that he took what he thinks is the right side. There is no serious thought given to the consequences of what could go wrong, and it doesn’t concern Graham if things do go wrong, because he will feel better. Nothing could better express the hawks’ self-indulgent, arrogant, and irresponsible approach to foreign policy.

(Daniel Larison) Larison’s top stories of last Friday were top-heavy on why we should not arm Ukraine, too.

Meanwhile, at the Wall Street Journal Weekend Interview:

As a member of the military, Gen Hodges won’t weigh in directly in the Washington policy debate. “What’s more important is this,” he says. “We have to have a strategy. Just military aid is not a strategy.” Western leaders should first determine what outcome they’d like to see emerge in the region, he says, and then apply a “whole-of-government” approach, including a military dimension, to achieve it.

3

The problem with claiming that “Religion has wrought untold misery” is that we can’t speak about “religion” in any useful way. The word “religion” covers a great diversity of systems of belief and practice that don’t have much to do with each other, besides a belief in some sort of higher power, which is a very general idea, too general to make of everyone who holds it a single thing, so that one can be blamed for the sins of another.

 …

The secular idea of “religion” is more than a little unfair. It’s more or less the same as holding you responsible for the murderer who lives six blocks away because you both live in the same town, or have the same ethnic heritage, or both have two legs and two arms. You’d expect much more evidence of a real connection before being sentenced to jail for conspiracy in his crime.

(David Mills) I don’t know whether Mill’s little piece was prompted by the President’s comments at the National Prayer Breakfast, but this Wall Street Journal Video is, and it cuts through the fog surprisingly well. I’m unfamiliar with Bari Weiss, and the interview is far from flawless, but she keeps her focus, and makes some very good points, awfully well. The best, I think, is that the remarks were a gratuitous distraction from the real threat at hand, which is a radicalized strain of Islam that commits terrorist atrocities and does things like throwing gays off buildings and then gleefully stoning them if they have the bad luck of surviving the landing.

In the face of that, why did the President spout shallow stuff about the Crusades? I suggest because he has a militantly secularist base that lovess the conflation of all “religion” that Mills writes about.

4

President Obama’s odd invocation of the Crusades (invoked in the mythical and largely unhistoric way, no less) was matched by an ominous deprecation of free speech:

But part of humility is also recognizing in modern, complicated, diverse societies, the functioning of these rights, the concern for the protection of these rights calls for each of us to exercise civility and restraint and judgment. And if, in fact, we defend the legal right of a person to insult another’s religion, we’re equally obligated to use our free speech to condemn such insults and stand shoulder-to-shoulder with religious communities, particularly religious minorities who are the targets of such attacks. Just because you have the right to say something doesn’t mean the rest of us shouldnt question those who would insult others in the name of free speech. Because we know that our nations are stronger when people of all faiths feel that they are welcome, that they, too, are full and equal members of our countries.

David Berntein hands him his head for the bolded platitude:

[I]t’s appalling that Obama used the “equally obligated” language, because he has an actual legal obligation to defend the “legal right of a person to insult another’s religion.” It’s called the First Amendment of the Constitution, part of the law the president must “faithfully execute.” On the other hand, not only does the POTUS have no obligation to condemn attacks on religious belief, the First Amendment, both in its speech and religion clauses, suggests that it’s inappropriate, albeit not actually illegal, for the head of the U.S. government to get involved in religious disputations.

5

I found myself today behind something of a muscle car with a vanity plate “Jon Galt,” affixed by a license plate fashioned of barbed wire. I don’t want to prejudge or anything, but I don’t think he and I would get along very well.

Assuming the owner was “he,” of course.

* * * * *

“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.