An injustice to people’s full humanity

More thoughts from the Eighth Day Symposium Friday and Saturday, and again from Ken Myers.

I’ll try to distinguish direct quotes from my summaries or paraphrases. I consider none of what’s below today my original contribution, and if something appears plagiarized, it must be because I inadvertently omitted a credit that Ken Myers did give, which credits were given lavishly.

Reminder: The topic was “Cultivating Friendship in a Fractured Age.”

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Plato and Aristotle both agreed that stimulating moral virtue primarily takes the form of conversation, of speaking with one another. The aim of politics in Aristotle is “living well in a polity of justice, which justice is practiced by citizens who live in virtue-forming friendships.” Friendship and politics are thus mutually dependent in Aristotle. Life in the larger community requires virtuous citizens whose affections have been trained to love the good within noble friendships. And the polity was committed to protecting the space for such friendships.

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What Poem or novel since Tennyson’s “In Memorium” has celebrated friendship? Eros has innumerable modern literary examples, while David & Jonathan and other historic examples of friendship have few or none. We admit mens’ need for “a few friends” only grudgingly.

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Aristotle deals with justice in in a single book in the Ethics. Friendship fills two books. It fills less than a page in Kant.

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Modern political theory banished friendship to the private realm so it would have no influence on politics. Our anthropology assumes that humans are such that government exists to protect individual rights to live as we please. In this theory, society is not an integrated body, with its own health.

Government exists, in other words, to protect us from one another. We’re interest-seeking, rights-bearing atoms. That atomistic individualism spills into private life, reconfiguring all relationships. We even approach friendship, when we approach it at all, as if we’re trying to get a good bargain.

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Oliver O’Donovan thinks angry political backlash comes from somewhere deeper than loss of inclusion, but from a perception that modern politics is morally unintelligible, because justice is not being done to people’s full humanity. We’re so tutored in individualism that we lack the vocabulary to describe how politics has abandoned seeking the objective good of communities.

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Christians believe that community is good for individuals, but they do not believe that society exists to serve individuals’ private purposes.

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Once society is thought of s an agreement … between competing wills, the cloud of competition never lifts from it.

(Oliver O’Donovan)

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Speech has lost its orientation toward deliberating about the common good. Political speech is about managing and allocating competing claims about the good.

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“Modern politics is civil war carried on by other means” (I think that’s from Alistair Macintyre) Because we’ve abandoned the idea that communities are bound by common objects of love, modern liberalism tells us that our nature and dignity are honored, and that

“we’ll be happy, when we’re completely from from any constriction on the pursuit of our desires. We’ll be happy when we get to define what happiness is on our own terms.”

If we assume this … then if we find we’re not happy, then we assume we’re just not free enough, and we turn to the government to expand our freedom. “Let us define what marriage is,” for instance …

But what if happiness depends on submitting to an understanding of happiness that we didn’t invent? What if we can only be free when we honor an understanding of freedom rooted in certain truths about our nature, an understanding shared by and received from our community?”

I confess my interest in political philosophy is a relatively new thing. It was energized significantly as we lived through the surreal election year of 2016. And I began asking myself “Is what we’re living through a sign of the failure of our political structures or is it the logical outcome of a system with critical design flaws? Is it actually succeeding, and this is what success looks like?”

I’ve come to believe that a more hopeful future requires the radical revision of some basic beliefs about public life — about the relationship between state and society, the purposes of government and about how the ordering of temporal affairs must account for the full reality of what we are as human persons. And those are finally theological questions.

A number of thinkers much more experienced and wiser than I have suggested that we have a really hard time imagining radically different paradigms for political life.

And I think that what we need to jump start our imaginations is a renewed understanding of, and more importantly practice of, friendship … It is to do with a reciprocal sharing of all that is good. Only secondarily is it about organizing the distribution of material goods and designing laws that are always somewhat arbitrary.

(Ken Myers)

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“While saints are engaged in introspection, burly sinners run the world.” (John Dewey) Be a saint anyway. (Tipsy)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

Where I glean stuff.

Filicide Tryptich

I had to go out and find what Judaism could offer me outside the institutional settings of my childhood.

My first step in that direction was an encounter with an Orthodox rebbetzin from a black hat yeshiva community near where I grew up. Home from college, I sat next to her on a bus one day and she invited me for Shabbat. I loved it and went back many times. Nobody cared what you had or what your outfit cost. Strangers were invited and fed. Shabbat was joyful, song-filled; there was no television or other distractions. Yes, it was the 1980s, and communities were less rigid. I was even allowed to visit a few homes while wearing pants. All summer, I studied with that rebbetzin. She encouraged me to ask her all kinds of hard and even disrespectful questions, and she answered them. Sometimes her husband, a rosh yeshiva, or leader of a talmudic academy, from a famous rabbinical dynasty, joined our discussions. I think he found my pushback entertaining.

No, I didn’t become ultra-Orthodox. Anyone who cares about women’s participation is not going to disappear into such a community — but there is still plenty to be learned from one. Nobody drops off the kids at synagogue and speeds off to go shopping, or teaches them about laws and traditions that are never used at home. Any Jew is welcome to walk into services, including on High Holidays. Nobody goes without a place for Shabbat. And kids aren’t studying or praying to reach a finish line, let alone a party with a buffet, a DJ and a bag filled with personal checks.

(Sharon Pomerantz, How My Bat Mitzvah Turned Me Off Judaism, via Rod Dreher)

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Victorinus was a Roman rhetor during St. Augustine’s time. His government position required him to make speeches honoring the gods of the empire. But he was interested in Christianity and read Scripture. One of St. Augustine’s friends, Simplicianus, often visited Victorinus. They would talk about spiritual matters. In private, the famous orator would confide, “I am already a Christian, you know.” Simplicianus, however, recognized that Christianity is a public identity, and he would reply, “I will not believe that, nor count you among Christians, until I see you in Christ’s Church.” Victorinus seems to have found this emphasis on outward expression of Christian faith superficial. Augustine reports that he said, “It’s the walls that make Christians, then?” To put it in contemporary terms, he needled Simplicianus, saying that this requirement of church attendance made him a “Doctor of the Law.”

Eventually, Victorinus realized that walls do make Christians. We are not with Christ in private. Our Lord has a body: “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am in their midst.” And so Victorinus enrolled as a catechumen, was baptized, and professed the Church’s creed before a packed crowd in one of Rome’s churches.

(R.R. Reno in First Things)

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“It is surely a fact of inexhaustible significance that what our Lord left behind Him was not a book, nor a creed, nor a system of thought, nor a rule of life, but a visible community.  I think that we Protestants cannot too often reflect on that fact.  He committed the entire work of salvation to that community.  It was not that a community gathered around an idea, so that the idea was primary and the community secondary.  It was that a community called together by the deliberate choice of the Lord Himself, and re-created in Him, gradually sought–and is seeking–to make explicit who He is and what He has done.  The actual community is primary: the understanding of what it is comes second.  The Church does not depend for its existence upon our understanding of it or faith in it.  It first of all exists as a visible fact called into being by the Lord Himself, and our understanding of that fact is subsequent and secondary.”

(Lesslie Newbigin, The Household of God: Lectures on the Nature of the Church, pp. 24-25, via Wesley Hill on Tumblr)

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Epilogue:

The reason I have so much trouble wrapping my mind around the fact that Christian families really do choose Sunday sports over church is that it is so blisteringly obvious that this is spiritually suicidal, in the sense that kids catechized by the popular culture in this way will not practice the faith as adults. The faith will likely die in their generation. Their parents and their community will have taught them by example that God is less important than sports. Or, to put it another way, that sports is the true God.

You can carry around in your head the idea of God, and that you affirm your religion, but that’s vaporous if you don’t put it into practice in this ordinary way. I bring up in speeches a lot the challenge I received from a Christian undergraduate at a talk earlier this year: “Why do you say practices are so important? Why isn’t it enough to love Jesus with all our hearts, as we were taught growing up?” This Sunday sports thing is one reason why. Not a single Christian parent who chooses sports over church believes that he or she is denying the faith. After all, they still believe, in the sense of affirming certain propositions, right? But unless the faith is manifested and embedded in practices — communal practices — it is not going to last.

(Rod Dreher, Chariots of Fire vs. Minivans of Apathy)