Trade-offs of pluralism

I’m still bereft of worthy, fresh ideas for blogging since blogging for me is part of an iterative search for truth and I don’t have a good enough handle on coronavirus to say a whole lot confidently and truthily.

Except maybe this: If you think the coronavirus is a hoax and not very serious, pull your head out of those nether-regions where the sun don’t shine (i.e., shut off Limbaugh, Hannity and their ilk), get a few basic facts, and think about how many Chinese, Italian and Spanish people died, how many international organizations sounded alarms, in this elaborate hoax to dethrone King Donald. Does that sound plausible?

Lacking something fresh, I found another incomplete draft, from September 9, took it and dusted it off. Enjoy!

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Sohrab Ahmari and David French finally faced off live at Catholic University of America Thursday evening [September 5?], moderated by Ross Douthat.

In debating terms, it was no contest: French cleaned up. In fairness to Ahmari, his wife had a child on Wednesday, so he had things on his mind more important than a mere livestreamed national debate of sorts.

But again and again, French, in good Evangelical style, spoke of the freedom to preach the Gospel in a content-neutral public square, to lead drag queens to Jesus, and such. That’s pretty consistent with the forward-facing values of ADF, the Evangelical-leaning public-interest law firm for or with whom he formerly worked.

It started to sound as obsessive as Ahmari’s concern over Drag Queen Story Hour. So I was glad to see Jake Meador at Mere Orthodoxy argue for something a bit thicker than mere neutrality:

For most of the … campus ministries at Nebraska, …universities were convenient social institutions because they rounded up a large number of demographically similar young people into a single place where they would have broadly identical routines, all of which made it very easy to evangelize them. Many of these groups did not think anything of taking their students away from campus regularly on retreats, heavily programming their weeks (thereby cutting into their time to give to their studies), and even sometimes suggesting that their academic work was of mostly incidental importance. The real life happened in Bible studies and when you prayed and over coffee with your discipler or disciplee. College, much like one’s eventual career, was mostly a necessary evil that simply secured material goods for you.

While watching the French-Ahmari debate last night it occurred to me that French seems to have a fairly similar vision of the nation—it’s an incidental good that is useful for advancing certain strictly material goods but it pales in significance when set next to the work of the church …

The point is not necessarily that French should endorse some species of integralism, although it is worth noting that in his handling of rights and the nature of religious doctrine as it relates to public life French is far closer to the Baptists than he is the traditional views of the reformed tradition to which he belongs. But that point aside, French could preserve many of the rights he cares about preserving while anchoring his account of the political in something more real than the pragmatic adjudication of disputes within a pluralistic society.

… That the government could be something more than a mere arbiter who threatens to hit you in the head with a brick if you don’t play nicely with your neighbor seems to be unimaginable ….

There’s much more Jake wrote, but you can go read it yourself readily enough.

By lifelong mental habit and eventual initiation into the solemn mysteries of “thinking like a lawyer,” I don’t suppose I’ll ever be able to leave the camp of classical procedural liberalism, but the Ahmaris and Meadors of the world at least drive home that there are trade-offs in our pluralistic experiment.

One of the trade-offs is the risky one of declaring, a priori, that we must never agree on just what is the “common good” because we know that there’s no such thing as human nature, just humans with various and sundry natures, each, probably, as unique as a snowflake. I disagree with both dogmas, but for the foreseeable future, I’m a loser. It will take some undeniable anthropological catastrophe, the equivalent of COVID-19, to turn those tables.

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[O]nce you say you are ashamed,
reading the page they hold out to you,
then such light as you have made
in your history will leave you.
They will no longer need to pursue you.
You will pursue them, begging forgiveness,
And they will not forgive you.
There is no power against them.
It is only candor that is aloof from them,
only an inward clarity, unashamed,
that they cannot reach ….

Wendell Berry, Do Not Be Ashamed

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You can read most of my more impromptu stuff at here. It should work in your RSS aggregator, like Feedly, should you want to make a habit of it.

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If I weren’t so compulsive, I’d probably say of my reading this late-morning, “That’s enough! Time to stop and chew on this for a couple of hours.”

Educated cynics suspect that all uses of … stock phrases are empty of thought; like a college professor whom I admired, they feel a burden to respond to every “How are you?” with a seven-seconds’ pause and measured reply. But imagine the strain, the impossibility, of trying to invent a unique response to every “How are you?”, a unique phrase for each circumstance needing “I’m sorry” or “I love you” or “You have my sympathy”, a unique creed for every Christian. In this latter case particularly, pursuing freshness of expression would be _wrong. _A creed is not meant to express individual or innovative understanding and belief, but to give voice to communal, traditional understanding and belief. It is not expression but identification, not communication but communion.

That pedantic college professor is me, which is why I should chew on the rest of this very thoughtful and humane author’s insights.

And so the educated person must reassess, or risk the irony of his scorn of clichés becoming yet one more: the cliché of overeducated cynicism. Without denying Orwell’s point, could there still be an acceptable place for the cliché? Not in things meant to present and provoke fresh thought, but in circumstances that call for identification and communion? In circumstances when the rhythm of exchange, and not the reasoning of language, bears more weight?

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Secularism, I submit, is above all a negation of worship. I stress:—not of God’s existence, not of some kind of transcendence and therefore of some kind of religion. If secularism in theological terms is a heresy, it is primarily a heresy about man. It is the negation of man as a worshiping being, as homo adorans: the one for whom worship is the essential act which both “posits” his humanity and fulfills it.

Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World, Appendix 1

I appreciate Donald Trump’s judicial appointments and a few other things he has done, but I’m utterly opposed to allowing that hateful, unstable and completely self-serving man to serve as President. Maybe by saying it here, I’ll feel less compelled to fault his multiple daily outrages — mere corroboration of his dark soul and tormented mind — in the body of the blog.

You can read most of my more impromptu stuff at here. It should work in your RSS aggregator, like Feedly, should you want to make a habit of it.

A real deal Christian on the left

The year after [Shane] Claiborne graduated, he and five friends pooled their savings and bought a rowhouse in Philadelphia’s Kensington neighborhood, one of the city’s poorest areas, where they had already gotten to know many of the residents. They filed paperwork to become a 501(c)(3) — an “antiprofit organization,” Claiborne later wrote — and moved there in January 1998, opening their doors to everyone who needed food or clothing. They dubbed their community the Simple Way and took inspiration from long-established “intentional communities” like the Catholic Worker and Bruderhof.

Nick Tabor, Washington Post

I would not have given their enterprise much chance of success. They beat the odds.


It wasn’t until 1995, after the Republicans had swept the midterm elections, propelled by the release of Newt Gingrich’s conservative legislative blueprint “Contract With America,” that Ralph Reed, the Christian Coalition’s director, could say his movement was “thoroughly integrated and enmeshed into the machinery of the Republican Party.” In the short term, this partnership was a boon for both the GOP and the conservative faith leaders. But it had an unintended consequence: People who came of age in the ’90s or later learned to see the GOP and evangelicalism — or even religion more broadly — as almost synonymous. Rejecting one would mean rejecting the other.

(Emphasis added)

Because so many Evangelicals have sold their souls to Donald Trump, I’m especially glad that Shane Claiborne exists (though I knew about him long before Trump). At least a few for whom the Religious Right never held any charm (or perhaps lost its charm) have turned Claibornesque progressive Christian rather than leave the faith.

As for those souls of who left the faith because it was “thoroughly integrated and enmeshed into the machinery of the Republican Party,” the Ralph Reeds, conservatives and Trumpians who confounded the faith and partisanship will have to answer.

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All Christian readers could benefit from listening to the podcast The Struggle Against the Normal Life. It’s a short (11:05) detox for our toxic faux Christian environment.

You can read most of my more impromptu stuff at here. It should work in your RSS aggregator, like Feedly, should you want to make a habit of it.

Framing a guilty President-Elect

A dialog between conservative lawyers, one certifiable Never-Trumpish, the other too new to me for me to say, on the FBI’s counter-intelligence investigation of the Trump campaign:

French: Do you think they thought it was gonna all come out fine because they believed they were gonna have the goods, and they were going to be the team that exposed it? Ummm. Because you know, when you have a successful prosecution — let’s say you send a Gotti to jail — there are often elements of that prosecution that are bad. You’ll have suppression motions that evidence was collected unconstitutionally, you’ll have a henchman who walks because that prosecution was so bad — whatever. But the fundamental bottom-line story is “We got him,” and everyone who’s involved in that is a hero … And it just feels to me like this is the kind of thing you do when you are pretty darn sure that you know what the ultimate outcome is going to be.

Isgur: Well, let me use a more concerning example. I have worked on cases where defendants, including one who was on death row, [were] framed. Prosecutors and police don’t frame people who they believe to be innocent — at least I have not seen that happen. They hide evidence or manufacture evidence against people they believe to be guilty. I have no doubt in reading all of this that they truly believed that this was true and it was just a matter of proving it. They were not using these investigative techniques against innocent people …

French: Well, let me make another argument for my theory about the malignancy of the Steele Dossier … If you look at the alacrity with which the ratcheted up the effort to get the Carter Page FISA after they got the Steele Dossier — I have long thought that what the Steele Dossier did effectively was create the blueprint of what they were going to prove ….

David French and Sarah Isgur in the inaugural episode of the new Advisory Opinions podcast from The Dispatch.

I think French and Isgur are right (and that their new podcast is very promising — better than one French did with Alexandra DeSanctis, not a lawyer, at NRO), and I think so largely for my convictions about human nature — essentially what Isgur says about prosecutors and police.

I also coincidentally read a review of Clint Eastwood’s new movie Richard Jewel that posits that it has no heroes and no villains — just ordinary people doing their jobs (and making life hellish for an innocent oddball). Then I read another that makes it a parable of the Russiagate investigation, with Trump being the oddball who ipso facto was guilty.

That Trump seemed such an oddball that he must be guilty (and that “oddball” is massively understated) rings emotionally true, but I’ll withhold judgment on whether Clint Eastwood is so clairvoyant that he’d make a parable based on Trump’s innocence, which was not then manifest (even if you think it is now).

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Sailing on the sea of this present life, I think of the ocean of my many offenses; and not having a pilot for my thoughts, I call to Thee with the cry of Peter, save me, O Christ! Save me, O God! For Thou art the lover of mankind.

(From A Psalter for Prayer)

You can read most of my more impromptu stuff at here. It should work in your RSS aggregator, like Feedly, should you want to make a habit of it.

Liberal gerrymandering

I may have found a website that’s very relevant to a current preoccupation of mine: Postliberal Thought. For instance, apropos of my particular concern for religious freedom, what if the very definition of “religion” in our liberal order is gerrymandered in favor or the state waxing, religion waning?

To think that the liberal state allows for “freedom of religion” in some sort of metaphysical sense is quaint. In fact, the State is indifferent to particular religions because they operate within the stability of the juridical, public category of “religion,” and such variations are by definition socially irrelevant …

Within late liberalism, then, one has freedom of religion precisely to the extent that the State has defined religious content, per se, as not mattering to its order; as something private and so indifferent, like one’s favorite color. As soon as this is not the case, as soon as an opinion or action is understood to impinge on the rights of other legal personae or to affect their public options, these opinions or actions cease to be considered properly religious and are therefore eligible for regulation by the State, a phenomenon clearly on display in State action against bakers or florists who decline to participate in same-sex weddings …

It is imperative that we recognize the tautological nature of this discourse … “The secular” is really nothing more than a name for societies that use or operate “religion” in this manner – as a kind of holding pen for these private, personal actions that do not yet affect the State.

Within late liberalism, then, religions are simply voluntary associations relevant to particular aspects of their members’ private lives. As soon as a religion verges into non-religious aspects of members’ private lives, it becomes a cult; if it verges into coercion, it becomes a terrorist organization; if it mobilizes for political action it becomes a political party; and if it starts manufacturing and selling goods, it becomes a business. In a liberal order, these actions are generally understood as perversions because within its categorical schema the content of religion doesn’t belong in certain aspects of the private or in the public realms of politics or economics. So, liberal States tend to effectively outlaw such perversions. Or else, they must redefine the public to include them and the religious to exclude them … Hospitals matter socially and so they simply cannot be, in essence, religious – and so they must be eligible for direct state regulation. Such constant redefinition is the ongoing project of liberalism’s discourse on religious liberty which is necessarily as much about defining religion and keeping it in its proper private realm as it is about protecting it from public disturbance. The late liberal notion of religious liberty is ultimately about the maintenance of the irrelevance of the “religion” category itself. Religion is by definition free and can be identified as whatever we are free to do.

Religion is just one type within a whole category of similar phenomena, “morality” being perhaps the most fundamental. For example, for many decades now Christians have attempted to mount an effective opposition to what they have called “moral relativism.” What is meant by this concept? Christians can’t really mean that our late liberal opponents don’t believe in right and wrong. We know that isn’t the case … And yet, many Christians continue to talk about moral relativism. Why?

This behavior becomes intelligible when we understand that similar to religion, in the everyday liberal vernacular, the word “moral” is restricted in application to things that society is more-or-less relativistic about … It’s not that society has relegated all “lifestyle” choices to the relativistic category of morality. Light up a cigarette in polite company to prove that is not the case. Smoking is not a “moral” issue, it’s a public health issue, like obesity, and so an appropriate object of public disdain and censure. Rather, particular behaviors have become “moral” precisely because they are understood as socially irrelevant. The relativism comes before the morality; relativism is a criterion for the category … The word “morality” comes to mean something like: “things that we all know are relative and socially unimportant but concerning which Christians have historically tried to oppress us and would again if given the chance.” In this way, the late liberal concept of morality includes within it both moral relativism and the story of Christian opposition to moral relativism. And so, when Christians argue against “moral relativism” as if it were a real thing, they reinforce not only the liberal segmenting of human action into moral (i.e. relative) things and amoral (i.e. political) things, but the marginalization of Christianity as an ultimately tyrannical dogma that has been overthrown, but which remains a threat. They are paradoxically profoundly liberal in their illiberality because liberalism requires them for its internal coherence.

… One can “define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life” as long as one’s determination of that meaning, as D.C. Schindler has put it, amounts to nothing at all– at least nothing social. Liberalism provides a tidy, closed circle. This is what the so-called pluralism of liberalism ultimately amounts to. It is, in fact, a profound homogenization and enforcement of orthodoxies.

Andrew Willard Jones, What if the liberal concept of religion is the real problem?.

This blog was not light reading, but was very worthwhile. As I try to get some handle on American post-liberalism, I think I’ll be spending more time at Postliberal Thought.

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At the end of this blog appeared some utterly unfamiliar Latin, which I though might be fraught with meaning:

Cras mattis consectetur purus sit amet fermentum. Integer posuere erat a ante venenatis dapibus posuere velit aliquet. Aenean eu leo quam. Pellentesque ornare sem lacinia quam venenatis vestibulum.

So I ran it through Google translate:

Tomorrow a lot of tomato chili carrots fermentation. Whole to lay a previously sterilized protein was put outdoor bananas. Jasmine lion than football. Kids football television skirt and poisonous gas.

So I guess these guys aren’t always hyper-serious.

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You can read most of my more impromptu stuff at here. It should work in your RSS aggregator, like Feedly, should you want to make a habit of it.

I highly recommend as a crazy-easy alternative to Twitter (if you’re just looking to get your stuff “out there” and not pick fights).

Feminization of Christianity?

I’ve been aware of, and tacitly agreed with, the theory that Christianity has been “feminized,” and that the feminization is the source of declining attendance, particularly among men.

Rod Dreher reprised the theme Tuesday. Read it all if you’re unfamiliar with the theory, which this more or less encapsulates:

We live in a society with a female religion and a male religion: Christianity, of various sorts, for women and non-masculine men; and masculinity, especially in the forms of competition and violence that culminate in war, for men.

(Leon Podles via Rod Dreher) In fact, I’d probably have said that everyone who has looked at the question knew that the feminization theory is true.

I should know better. One of Rod’s regular readers now has taken issue with this theory in her own blog (which I discovered because of her interactions with Rod in his blog’s comments):

Where I disagree is with the rest of the post, because it follows a pattern of thought that I’ve seen before. The pattern goes roughly like this:

1. In some bright age of the past, Christianity was for Real Men. Real Men who did all the hard, heroic, sacrificial things of life also brought that ethos with them to worship, and their manly, masculine churches reflected their understanding that men had a job to do when it came to the struggles (a word Rod uses throughout his post) of life.

2. Then, gradually, everything changed. Women were allowed to help out with more and more things at church, and worship started becoming unduly feminine. Men were pushed out by all the Female Stuff happening at worship.

3. Thus, fixing worship means making it masculine again. Churches that figure out how to appeal to manly men in their masculinity will thrive, while churches that fail to do this will end up with women “bishops” in silly hats trying to run things via estrogen-fueled services set to “Jesus is My Boyfriend” music.

The people who think this way seem to forget that even in the early days of the Church Christianity was mocked as a religion for women and slaves; they also forget the long time in American history when Protestants looked at Catholicism (and possibly Orthodoxy as well) with the celibate priesthood, the long, lace-trimmed vestments, the highly ornate and decorated churches, and saw–well, they didn’t accuse Catholicism of being too manly, that’s for sure.

Now, I thought about what I wanted to say for a long time today (too long) and a commenter over on Rod’s blog beat me to it. Since I don’t know her personally, I’ll paraphrase: why do so many men use “female” and “feminine” as synonyms for moral failings? What’s wrong with the church isn’t that it has been feminized; what’s wrong is that it has been infantilized.

She’s right, this commenter, and profoundly so. When liturgy is dumbed down, it isn’t done because the people in charge (in the Catholic Church’s case, male priests and bishops and cardinals, etc.) somehow have suddenly decided to make things more appealing to women. It’s done in an effort, however misguided, to reach the spiritual infants of both sexes who may be present in the congregation.

(Erin Manning)

I’m inclined to agree with Manning (and Antonia, the unnamed Dreher commenter) at least that “feminization” is not a very helpful label.

In fact, though I’m loathe to back off saying a true thing just because someone charges that it’s “hurtful” or “demeaning,” Antonia got my respectful attention with this:

I’m kind of tired of femininity being equated with moral failings. Talk about Gnostic!
For instance, narcissism is not feminine. Venus may have a mirror, but perhaps you should recall where the word narcissism comes from? In classical mythology, Narcissus was a MAN, obsessed with his own image in a pond. Point is, most moral failings are not masculine or feminine, nor are the moral virtues. Courage was a quality of ALL martyrs, St. Lucy as well as St. Stephen.

If “bridal mysticism” is a problem, then is Holy Scripture a problem? Last I read, “bride of Christ” is a biblical term for the Church.

C.S. Lewis, a man with a very masculine view of Christianity, said that we are all feminine in relation to God. On the other hand, Caryll Houselander, one of the most feminine of Catholic writers, often speaks in terms of spiritual warfare.

MTD [Moralistic Therapeutic Deism] is not the feminization of religion – it is the infantilization of religion.

(Emphasis added) During this Orthodox Holy Week, with “Bridegroom Matins” served nightly Sunday through Tuesday (some traditions do more) in a famously man-friendly Church, I can’t agree that Christ as “bridegroom,” the Church as “bride,” has any inherent problems. Such problems as it has seemingly come from bad cultural constructions of masculine and feminine.

There are a lot of sane people on the internet, and sometimes they change my thinking on what “everyone knows.”

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Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.

(Philip K. Dick)

The waters are out and no human force can turn them back, but I do not see why as we go with the stream we need sing Hallelujah to the river god.

(Sir James Fitzjames Stephen)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

Where I glean stuff.

Urban dreams

New Urbanism has had its share of critics. Some … have criticized New Urbanism because many new developments built along its principles occupy higher price points in the real estate market. They tend to be exclusive and unaffordable. The high prices, however, reflect the level of demand for such places. They are indeed attractive. And rare. The solution to that problem is to build more of them, not less.

My interest in walkable city neighborhoods is not merely theoretical. It’s also part of my experience. I have lived in such a neighborhood in Grand Rapids for the past 30 years. It goes by the name of Eastown. It’s an old streetcar suburb that was largely built out in the 1910s, before car ownership was widespread. People, primarily professionals in that day, would take the streetcar downtown to work, return, and walk home. Home may have been a single-family detached house. Or it may have been a duplex or apartment. Eastown contains a variety of residential options. The neighborhood had its own retail section that supplied residents with their daily and weekly needs within a comfortable walking distance.

Much has changed since then. A good number of buildings have been lost to parking lots. Some of the retail has moved out to big box stores on the edge of the city. But the community still has good bone structure, a fine network of connected streets. And many walkable destinations. Within a five-minute walk of my house lies a farmer’s market, a supermarket, three churches, two elementary schools, a civic theater, two coffee shops, a pizza parlor, a donut shop, three restaurants, two bakeries, a brewery, a park, a college, a creek, two used-book stores, a shoe store, a yoga studio, a massage therapist, two beauty salons, a gift shop, a gym, a butcher shop, a delicatessen, a post office, a bike shop, and a bus stop. My wife and I make do with one car, since I can ride my bike or moped to work in fair weather and take the bus in foul.

(Lee Hardy) I’d encourage you to click that link if only to note the two photos of what a human-scaled built environment looks like.

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“No man hath a velvet cross.” (Samuel Rutherford, 17th century Scotland)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

Where I glean stuff.