Tuesday, 9/26/17

    1. Devotional: Wrathful God?
    2. The Fraud of Moral Neutrality
    3. Achieving disagreement
    4. Proverbial wisdom
    5. John Courtney Murray’s Mistake
    6. Sheer silliness


I continue in a state of mind where “blogging about current events is unpalatable,” so what follows is not current events. With one moment of concluding levity, it’s just stuff I read on a day devoted to unusually purposeful surfing-and-gleaning (to mix a metaphor).


“And you, who were dead (ὄντας νεκροὺς) in trespasses and sins, in which you once walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit who now works in the sons of disobedience, among whom also we all once conducted ourselves in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath/anger (τέκνα φύσει ὀργῆς), just as the others, – God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, made us alive together with Christ (συνεζωοποίησεν τῷ Χριστῷ), even when we were dead in trespasses. By grace you have been saved…” (Eph 2: 1-5)

Here St. Paul is telling us about a choice we have made, not to be the stillborn or dead “children of wrath/anger,” but children of the living God, “Who is rich in mercy,” and Who, “because of His great love…made us alive together with Christ.”

Very differently from what the Apostle says to us here, however, we often associate “wrath/anger” with God, don’t we? According to this heretical notion in many of our minds, we suppose He has “anger issues” with us, which we, supposedly, are tasked with softening, in our efforts to “bring Him around.” But this notion brings us death, rather than life, because it is a death-bringing lie, rather than a life-giving truth.

(Sr. Vassa Larin)


A wide variety of ideologies hold that one never has to take sides – in effect, that one can make a decision without making a decision.  This is always fallacious, and usually a fraud.

Libertarians … often claim that they take no ethical position about what to do, but want people to make their own choices.  But of course they do not think people should have the right to make every sort of choice; for example, I don’t know any libertarians or relativists who think people should have the right to shoot convenience store clerks.  Usually, though, they do think people should have the right to enter any sort of sexual arrangement they wish.  Obviously, then, they are making a moral distinction between shooting people and sleeping with them, but the language of liberty obscures this decision.  Notice that I am not saying that people do not have any rights.  However, to recognize which rights are real and which rights are not, one needs a moral philosophy.  There is no way to make this decision neutrally or relativistically.

Not just libertarians, but many political theorists, mostly liberals, sometimes conservatives, say that the law should be neutral among different “conceptions of the good.”   This is absurd.  To pass a law is to hold that the law is good.  To hold that the law is good, one must hold a view of what is good and what is not.  So the law is never neutral among different conceptions of the good.

Whenever someone touts neutrality, what is usually happening is that he is condemning the other fellow’s moral opinion by pointing out that it is a moral opinion, and smuggling his own moral opinion into law by pretending that it is not a moral opinion.  This is why I call neutrality a fraud.

Of course, it is not a fallacy to choose a third alternative if there really is a third alternative.  For example, one may choose to vote for candidate A, choose to vote for candidate B, or choose not to vote as a protest.  But if the alternatives are logical contraries, such as “permit” and “don’t permit,” there is no third alternative, and pretending that there is one is evasive.

Some people mistakenly think that if they admit that the law inevitably involves moral judgments, then everything we judge wrong or untrue will have to be illegal.  Surprisingly, this is not the case.  However, the good reasons for not prohibiting everything wrong or untrue are not neutralist; they are themselves moral in nature.

To mention just one:  Truth is good, and promoting truth is right.  However, even when we think we know something true, the best way to promote it, to clarify it, and to discover whether we have made a mistake about it is often to debate, and obviously, one cannot have a debate if the very act of expressing the other opinion is illegal.  In such a case, prohibiting the expression of the opinion we believe to be false would injure the noble cause of truth itself.

(J Budziszewski)


We quarrel, but we rarely disagree, because disagreement is a difficult achievement.

Disagreement is dear to me … because it is the most vital ingredient of any decent society.

To say the words, “I agree” — whether it’s agreeing to join an organization, or submit to a political authority, or subscribe to a religious faith — may be the basis of every community.

But to say, I disagree; I refuse; you’re wrong; etiam si omnes — ego non— these are the words that define our individuality, give us our freedom, enjoin our tolerance, enlarge our perspectives, seize our attention, energize our progress, make our democracies real, and give hope and courage to oppressed people everywhere. Galileo and Darwin; Mandela, Havel, and Liu Xiaobo; Rosa Parks and Natan Sharansky — such are the ranks of those who disagree.

And the problem, as I see it, is that we’re failing at the task.

Thirty years ago, in 1987, a philosophy professor at the University of Chicago named Allan Bloom — at the time best known for his graceful translations of Plato’s “Republic” and Rousseau’s “Emile” — published a learned polemic about the state of higher education in the United States. It was called “The Closing of the American Mind.”

The book appeared when I was in high school, and I struggled to make my way through a text thick with references to Plato, Weber, Heidegger and Strauss. But I got the gist — and the gist was that I’d better enroll in the University of Chicago and read the great books. That is what I did.

What was it that one learned through a great books curriculum? Certainly not “conservatism” in any contemporary American sense of the term. We were not taught to become American patriots, or religious pietists, or to worship what Rudyard Kipling called “the Gods of the Market Place.” We were not instructed in the evils of Marxism, or the glories of capitalism, or even the superiority of Western civilization.

As I think about it, I’m not sure we were taught anything at all. What we did was read books that raised serious questions about the human condition, and which invited us to attempt to ask serious questions of our own. Education, in this sense, wasn’t a “teaching” with any fixed lesson. It was an exercise in interrogation.
To listen and understand; to question and disagree; to treat no proposition as sacred and no objection as impious; to be willing to entertain unpopular ideas and cultivate the habits of an open mind — this is what I was encouraged to do by my teachers at the University of Chicago.

It’s what used to be called a liberal education.

The University of Chicago showed us something else: that every great idea is really just a spectacular disagreement with some other great idea.

Socrates quarrels with Homer. Aristotle quarrels with Plato. Locke quarrels with Hobbes and Rousseau quarrels with them both. Nietzsche quarrels with everyone. Wittgenstein quarrels with himself.

These quarrels are never personal. Nor are they particularly political, at least in the ordinary sense of politics. Sometimes they take place over the distance of decades, even centuries.

Most importantly, they are never based on a misunderstanding. On the contrary, the disagreements arise from perfect comprehension; from having chewed over the ideas of your intellectual opponent so thoroughly that you can properly spit them out.

I began this talk by noting that Americans have rarely disagreed so vehemently about so much. On second thought, this isn’t the whole truth.

Yes, we disagree constantly. But what makes our disagreements so toxic is that we refuse to make eye contact with our opponents, or try to see things as they might, or find some middle ground.

Instead, we fight each other from the safe distance of our separate islands of ideology and identity and listen intently to echoes of ourselves. We take exaggerated and histrionic offense to whatever is said about us. We banish entire lines of thought and attempt to excommunicate all manner of people — your humble speaker included — without giving them so much as a cursory hearing.

The crucial prerequisite of intelligent disagreement — namely: shut up; listen up; pause and reconsider; and only then speak — is absent.

(Bret Stephens, The Dying Art of Disagreement, emphasis added reluctantly)

Stephens was addressing a group of Australian journalists, so he closed with a challenge for journalists to help revive disagreement. It is his weakest section, because bickering is mass market, intelligent disagreement niche market, as his own remarks acknowledge.



The problem is that in setting out to transform politics in the United States, Catholics have been transformed by it…

The problem is that in setting out to transform politics in the United States, Catholics have been transformed by it. Like mainline Protestants, they have succumbed to the molding pressures of state-sponsored bureaucratic power—not the overt and direct power of Fascism and Communism or the militant secularism of European democracy (as in France), but the more subtle workings of indirect power, which domesticates any and all subordinate groups by dissolving their ability to resist the authority of the state and by co-opting the well-intentioned efforts of good people, good Catholics, into conforming to the polarized political culture of the nation.

Looking back almost a half century later, this danger should be more apparent to us. Father Murray got the story of American Catholics wrong. The United States is not unique among modern states. It is not providentially blessed in the way he supposed. But what of the natural law tradition? What does eternal reason enjoin the American Catholic community to undertake?

For several decades Alasdair MacIntyre has been arguing on Thomistic-Aristotelian grounds—the same grounds on which Father Murray argued—that the natural law does not serve the modern state but subverts it, that the modern state must be resisted because it is corrosive to the practices and virtues necessary for genuine political community. Only small-scale, practice-based communities, MacIntyre argues, can support the kind of practical reasoning aimed at achieving the common good. Only a polis, as envisioned by Aristotle and re-envisioned by Aquinas, can sustain the moral and intellectual life through these dark and difficult times.

Providentially, this task of constructing local forms of community has been taken up by increasing numbers of Catholics. Troubled by a sense of political homelessness in America, disaffected with both liberal and conservative ideologies, they have turned from state-centered, partisan politics and devoted themselves instead to the political life of local communities wherein the common good may be embodied: unions, worker co-ops and neighborhood organizations; agrarian projects and charter schools; ecclesial communities of prayer, friendship and works of mercy; houses of hospitality for the poor, unemployed, elderly, disabled, unwed mothers and immigrant families.

The significance of these efforts was acknowledged by the U.S. Catholic bishops when they unanimously endorsed the cause of the canonization of Dorothy Day. For almost five decades Day urged Catholics to turn aside from the impersonal, bureaucratic and often violent politics of the nation-state in favor of constructing genuine political communities where it is possible to take personal responsibility for the care of others. Perhaps now Catholics are ready to absorb Day’s antistatist, personalist politics, as when she proclaimed in an editorial in The Catholic Worker newspaper, denouncing the cold war and universal military conscription, “We Are Un-American: We Are Catholics.” Perhaps providence will bless us with a revolution inspired by another—doubtless very different—St. Francis.

(Michael Baxter, Murray’s Mistake: The political divisions a theologian failed to foresee) I came away from this (after reading some rejoinders) basically agreeing with Baxter about the political “schism” within Catholicism, though not with his diagnosis of the cause. But I also gained a real appreciation for the stature of John Courtney Murray, who died about the time I was beginning to engage serious thought, and who, moreover, came from the Roman Catholic tradition I was inclined to ignore at the time.

As when I learned about René Girard the other day, this was one of those lucky days when I clearly learned something new. Retirement is good.


Okay, this is just deliberate silliness.

From Mercatornet, Men are increasingly ‘marrying up’, instantly brought to mind this Antsy McClain classic:

* * * * *

“Liberal education is concerned with the souls of men, and therefore has little or no use for machines … [it] consists in learning to listen to still and small voices and therefore in becoming deaf to loudspeakers.” (Leo Strauss)

There is no epistemological Switzerland. (Via Mars Hill Audio Journal Volume 134)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

One thought on “Tuesday, 9/26/17

  1. I heard recently of some seminary students who should read Bret Stephens’s piece — but probably won’t; after all, there were even attempts to have his invitation to give that lecture withdrawn.

    A professor of New Testament at a conservative(-ish) seminary affiliated with an increasingly divided reformed(-ish) denomination reported that in one of his classes last year he was explaining — not endorsing — the so-called “complementarian” view that is popular in many evangelical quarters and in some quarters of the denomination in question: that men and women, although equal, have complementary rather than interchangeable roles. While he was talking, six female students got up, one by one, and walked out of the class, then went and complained to the Dean.

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