Accumulated clippings, 2/3/19

1

Must every London gentrified street have a Starbucks, a Pret A Manger, a Caffè Nero, a Costa Coffee, a Wagamama, an Itsu, a Tesco Express, an Eat, a Hotel Chocolat, a Foxtons and a Boots? Is that all that’s left?

Emptiness is what people feel. At the end of all the myriad diversions offered up by technology-at-the-service-of-efficiency lies a great hollowness. “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in,” wrote Leonard Cohen. Modernity is a crack eliminator. The only cracks it allows in its polished, glistening, purring, scented spaces are fake ones.

I think the emptiness produced by watching a rigged globalized system deliver homogenization on a massive scale — one way to think, one way to work, one way to conceive of profit, one way to impose a brand, one way to (not) drink at lunch, one way to eat at your desk, one way to be healthy, one way to deliver a gentrified urban neighborhood — has been underestimated as a source of disruptive fury.

Roger Cohen, The Harm in Hustle Culture

2

Only Democrats can save this president. They can do so by nominating someone loopy enough to panic voters who are asking only for someone cheerful, intelligent and tethered to reality.

George Will

3

With the help of the Chapter “The Emperor’s New Literature” in John Senior’s The Death of Christian Culture, the coin dropped that part of what classical education accomplishes is that classically educated people in various countries are all reading in the Great Tradition, none in provincial or nationalistic ephemera.

That’s not nothing.

4

For a solid month Americans again focused on illegal immigration. In a country that’s never thinking about only one thing, that was a bit of a feat. Also, Mr. Trump in his statements and meetings with the press came across, for perhaps the first time, as sincere and informed. Previously he’d looked like a guy who’d intuited a powerful issue and turned it into a line.

The vast majority of the American people want order and the rule of law returned to the border. How it is done is up to the experts. They just want it done. The word “wall” has been symbolic to many of them too—it means taking the issue seriously.

Peggy Noonan

5

He’s fiscally to the right and on social issues to the left. There’s some market for that, but is it really where America is going?

No, it is not.

America is headed left economically. Two thousand eight changed everything, deeply undermining faith in free-market capitalism. One of the great sins of that time—and all the years after—was that the capitalists themselves, in their vast carelessness, couldn’t even rouse themselves to defend the reputation of the system that made them rich and their country great. In any case, the most significant sound in 2016 was Trump audiences cheering his vows not to cut entitlements. They would have cheered if he’d promised increases, too.

As for what are called the social issues, moderation is the future, maybe even a new conservatism, not leftism. The left has demanded too much the past few years, been maximalist in its approach, got in America’s face and space. Its social activism is a daily harassment in ways that don’t show up in the polls. The new abortion regime in the states, bake my cake, the farther edges of #MeToo, demands for changes to our very language. Liberation becomes propaganda and filters up through the media and down to the schools. America once had a lot of “live and let live” in it. Not anymore, and its giving way is causing barely articulable grief, and more broadly than the left imagines.

Wise Democrats are developing reservations. Young conservatives are perhaps about to come alive.

I think Mr. Schultz has it backward.

Peggy Noonan.

I can only hope.

6

Let’s get one thing perfectly clear: There is no national security crisis on the southern border.

President Trump claimed otherwise in his nine-minute Oval Office address to the nation … But he was lying.

How do we know this? Because if there were a genuine national security crisis on the southern border, Republicans in the House and Senate would be tripping over themselves to fund — and take credit for funding — Trump’s border wall. There is no political downside whatsoever to taking a strong stand in defense of the country in the midst of a national security crisis.

And yet, what have we seen over the past two years during which Republicans controlled both houses of Congress and could have appropriated funds for Trump’s beloved wall at any time? Zip. Nada. Nothing.

[P]ublic opinion has shifted in favor of immigration since the president was elected, no doubt in large part because of the above-mentioned ineptitude and malice the administration has displayed toward immigrants over the past two years. That has, if anything, put the cause of immigration restrictionism in a weaker position politically than it was when he was running for president.

Like King Midas in reverse, every policy Trump touches turns to excrement.

Damon Linker

7

Iranian political culture is deeply authoritarian, and, therefore, whatever political order follows the mullahs is unlikely to be liberal. And that’s okay. We don’t need to replicate liberalism everywhere. Iranians can have a decent, benign regime that is nevertheless responsive to the deep longings in the Persian soul for order, continuity, and visible authority — kingship, in a word. That’s how the political culture is wired. My friends at Freedom House, the National Endowment for Democracy, and the rest will, of course, find it repellent that I’d say so. But what can I say? I’ve lost a lot of my spread-freedom-everywhere idealism.

Sohrab Ahmari, emphasis added.

I should note that the interview is about Ahmari’s conversion from Shiite Islam to Roman Catholicism.

8

[A]t great cost I bought the first volume of the Works of St. John of the Cross and sat in the room on Perry Street and turned over the first pages, underlining places here and there with a pencil. But it turned out that it would take more than that to make me a saint: because these words I underlined, although they amazed and dazzled me with their import, were all too simple for me to understand.

They were too naked, too stripped of all duplicity and compromise for my complexity, perverted by many appetites. However, I am glad that I was at least able to recognize them, obscurely, as worthy of the greatest respect.

Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain.

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Hauerwasian “modernity” today

We disagree. In truth, we not only disagree about conclusions, we disagree about the facts, about how the facts are to be considered, what, indeed, constitutes a fact, what constitutes considering, and so on. We are a fragmented society whose fragmentation is becoming a major spiritual force in the lives of its people.

The fragmentation of the modern mind (even within itself) is just that – modern. Of course, a new consensus has been suggested: that we all agree that not agreeing is normal. Stanley Hauerwas places this at the very heart of the meaning of modernity:

By modernity, I mean the project to create social orders that would make it possible for each person living in such orders “to have no story except the story they choose when they have no story.” Wilderness Wanderings, 26

This is proving to be the most destructive aspect of the modern world. “To have a story” requires that someone else consent to the story – we do not live alone (even when we pretend that is our story). The only means of generating a consensus that has no basis other than “the story I choose,” is coercion. The social cohesion of consensus is being replaced by various versions of coerced agreement. We are angry.

This is not a game Christians can win, nor is it a game Christians should want to play. The Christian witness is not to a story we choose ….

Fr. Stephen Freeman, Consent to Reality.

Hauerwas’ definition of modernity (emphasis added) is priceless:

  1. It echoes or anticipates Justice Kennedy’s “Mystery Passage”: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”
  2. It distills the essence of attacks on the sexual binary, whereby 50 or more fanciful and/or ineffable “genders” (with corresponding pronouns) have been invented.
  3. Our consent to the gender-multiplying gaslighting is indeed being coerced. We would, after all, be committing the ultimate dignitary assault, denying the storytellers’ very existence as they’d put it, were we allowed to say “That’s bullshit!” or even “Very nice, dearie. Run along now.”

I’ll try not to forget Hauerwas’ definition again.

UPDATE: Point 1 on Hauerwas’ definition of modernity included “I don’t know when Hauerwas first wrote it, but I’m 99% positive it was before the collection Fr. Stephen cites and I suspect it was before Planned Parenthood v. Casey (the source of Kennedy’s maudlin philosophizing).” I had seen the date of a second or subsequent addition of Wilderness Wanderings. The first edition, I now noticed, was 1998, and I suspect it was the first publication of that definition.

* * * * *

Learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed.

(David Foster Wallace via Jason Segedy, Why I’m Leaving Twitter Behind.)

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… not we ourselves

The project of modernity was to produce people who believe they should have no story except the story they choose when they had no story. Such a story is called a story of freedom – institutionalized economically as capitalism and politically as democracy. That story, and the institutions that embody it, is the enemy we must attack through Christian preaching. 

(Stanley Hauerwas, “Sanctify Them in the Truth,” 197-198.)

I’ve got to read some Hauerwas, as he was mentor, and continues powerfully to influence, Fr. Stephen Freeman, who so far has blogged twice on this block quote.

Lest you think that Hauerwas is making things up, check out these examples from the opening paragraph of The Dangerous Idea that Life is a Story:

  • “Each of us constructs and lives a ‘narrative’. This narrative is us.” (Oliver Sacks)
  • “Self is a perpetually rewritten story. In the end, we become the autobiographical narratives by which we ‘tell about’ our lives.” (American cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner)
  • “We are all storytellers, and we are the stories we tell.” (American psychologist Dan P McAdams)
  • “We invent ourselves … but we really are the characters we invent.” (American moral philosopher J David Velleman)
  • “We are all virtuoso novelists, who find ourselves engaged in all sorts of behaviour … and we always put the best ‘faces’ on it we can. We try to make all of our material cohere into a single good story. And that story is our autobiography. The chief fictional character at the centre of that autobiography is one’s self.” (Daniel Dennett)

Au contraire:

Know ye that the Lord, He is God: it is he that hath made us, and not we ourselves; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.

Psalm 100:3

Fr. Stephen’s second blog particularly “got me,” echoing as it does the old observation, now apparently thought as extinct as the Dodo, that we are who we are at least partly by “status, not contract.” By missing that, the narrativists miss as much or more than anyone so clueless as to deny that we (moderns?) do tend to tell self-narratives.

Autonomy, being “self-ruled,” is the heart of our contemporary delusion. We have seen this taken to extremes in the recent past. Fundamental givens in life, such as gender and race, are now seen by some as subject to choice. Self-definition (“how I identify”) has become the latest demand in the Modern Project.

This is an extreme example of Hauerwas’ statement that modernity wants to produce people “who believe they should have no story.” Everyone is his own author, writing the tale of his life in living free verse. It also means that modern people are always on the edge of meaninglessness …

Givenness is both at the heart of reality and at the heart of the Orthodox Christian faith. It is at the heart of reality: we do not bring ourselves into existence. Just as our life is a gift, our body is a gift, so our meaning and place in the world are a gift. In none of these things are we self-created.

It is at the heart of our faith: the spiritual expression of embracing the givenness of life is thanksgiving. All that we have, we have received as a gift. The right response to a gift is to give thanks. Everything else is a hardening of the heart.

I suspect that “self-narrative” may be part of the logismoi the Holy Fathers warned against. It certainly seems to partake of nominalism versus Christian realism.

I can commend no better Sunday reading than You Don’t Mean a Thing and A Purpose-filled life.

Let’s throw in If It Makes You Happy, too:

In 1998, my family and I were received into the Orthodox Church. I had served as an Episcopal clergyman for 18 years prior to that. I left a large parish with a wonderful staff and tremendous programs. I took up the work of starting an Orthodox mission. Of course, such a life-change creates awkward moments for your friends, colleagues, and former parishioners. What do you say to someone who just chucked a career to start a mission in a warehouse? Perhaps the common expression, typically American, was, “I’m glad you’re doing what makes you happy.” It would have also been beyond awkward had I responded by telling the truth: “Actually, it makes me miserable.” And the difference between their thoughts and mine, their actions and mine, is all the difference in the world. It was a difference that was at the heart of my conversion and it separates Orthodoxy from the modern world …

[Y]ou do such a thing if you believe it is the truth and that choosing such a path sets your feet on the road to salvation. You do such a thing if you believe that other paths are the way of destruction and that, no matter how much pleasure they might bring, they are to be abandoned sooner rather than later …

To be a Jew in a room full of Nazis who are free to choose is not good news. America’s founding fathers were closer to classical Christian civilization than we are. A number of them knew that democracy was never any safer than the character of the people it served. If the people become vicious (governed by vice), then the Republic will become a vicious state. However, their experiment in creating a new civilization failed to institutionalize the making of virtue. In time, the laissez faire approach to character has proven itself to be a failure.

The same approach has come to be adopted within modern Christianity. Faith is now seen as a choice to believe, made by free persons. The assumption is that, given sufficient and accurate information, people will choose well and rightly. A primary sacrament of this flawed theology is adult-only baptism. Infants are not able to choose and are therefore disqualified from Baptism. The presumption is that somehow, a person will become an adult and freely choose to follow the right way. No other civilization in history has made such a foolish gamble with their children ….

* * * * *

Theosis goes far beyond the simple restoration of people to their state before the Fall. Because Christ united the human and divine natures in his person, it is now possible for us to experience closer fellowship with God than Adam and Eve initially experienced in the Garden of Eden. Some Orthodox theologians go so far as to say that Jesus would have become incarnate for this reason alone, even if Adam and Eve had never sinned.

(Abbot Tryphon)

* * * * *

“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.

Hegemony and eschatology

Two mind-benders recently encountered, both from (what I think is) deep in my Orthodox tradition. I intuit, but cannot articulate (yet), a connection between them beyond that.

First, philosopher-theologian Christos Yannaras, on receiving an honorary Doctorate from Hellenic College/Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology, made some very challenging remarks aimed at Orthodox zealotry, particularly the fiercely anti-Western and anti-ecumenical sort. In the process, he gives a shout-out to a parade of improbables: Nietzsche, Heidegger, Sartre, Baudelaire, Kafka, Bergman, and Fellini!

His critique is radical: anti-Western and anti-ecumenical fierceness can only be harbored if one has adopted an individualistic (i.e., quintessentially Western) approach to Orthodoxy:

[T]his Zealotry certainty does not constitute a defense of the decisions of the Councils; it does not derive from a conciliar expression of catholic ecclesial experience. It is an individual choice and conviction, based usually on the opinion of some geron, or elder, also chosen individually, who is lent “objective” authority by his hagiorite, or other, monastic affiliation. The defense of Orthodoxy by the “conservatives” is conducted on the basis of their individual choices and judgements, not on the basis of the Church’s conciliar expression. It is therefore a defense that manifestly undermines the coherence of the ecclesial body. It invalidates the conciliar system; it denies the episcopal ministry.

[I]n the extreme case of the fundamentalist “Zealots” the historical challenge that arose for the Church with the arrival of Modernity becomes abundantly clear. The West in Modernity is no longer the portion or party that at the time of the Schism cut itself off from the body of the One Catholic Church. Now the whole of Christendom is the West, since all of us who bear the name of Christian live integrally and self-evidently within a Western cultural context; we embody the Western mode of life. Our routines, our mental outlook, our reflexes, our prioritization of needs, the way our social institutions are formed and function are all absolutely obedient to the Western-individualistic not the social-ecclesial model. We live, we think, and we act in the mode fashioned by Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, and Descartes.

That is why on the level of Modernity, too, our opposition to the West, whatever our defence of ecclesial Orthodoxy, is inescapably fleshness [sic], unrelated to the reality of our common life: an abstract piece of ideology. We recognize differences between Christians but we regard them as “confessional”: as by definition ideological. They are discussed by scholarly committees of “specialists” – university professors and bishops (that is, the professional cadres” of ideology). It has never occurred to us to bring people of experience into ecumenical dialogue, people such as authentic monks and gifted artists.

… There is no entity called the West “confronting” Orthodoxy; the West is “within us” and Orthodoxy is the common nostalgia of all who perceive the falling away of both East and West. The pioneers of self-criticism, the guides to metanoia, are not those who engage in “dialogue” about “primacy” and “infallibility,” or about the puerile doctrine of the Filioque, but those who have boldly attempted to make a painful break with moral error: Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Sartre, and closely related to them in the language of art, Baudelaire, Kafka, Bergman, and Fellini: All those who have proclaimed painfully that the alienating transformation of a relationship with God into ideology and legalism has led to the death of God – the God of individual “convictions” and crutch of egocentric Morality has died: “we are all his murderers” – Wir haben ihn ge late t, wir aile sind seine Marder!

(If this seems a bit jerky and disconnected, read the original, which provides some connecting dots that I, perhaps mistakenly, thought unnecessary to an adequate evocation.

Dr. Yannaras’ remarks resonate with what I’ve glimpsed repeatedly. I’d be tempted to say that I’ve apprehended but not comprehended it, but should I comprehend it, I’d probably dissect it into ideological pieces and kill it in the process.

It seems like there’s a sort of Orthodox uncertainty principle, which may be just a way of gussying up apophaticism. We walk by faith, not sight.

Second, Father Stephen Freeman illustrates, in The Last Christmas – Ever, the eschatological time-warp in which traditional (at least Orthodox) Christians live (and exposes the inadequacy of current popular concepts of eschatology):

The first proclamation of Christ (and of John the Baptist) is: “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand.” Modern scholars, having lost a proper understanding of eschatology, often misinterpret this as an announcement of an immediate coming of the end of the world in a linear, cause-and-effect manner. They equally think that Jesus was “mistaken” in this and that his followers had to change the message to fit his failure.

And the message is misunderstood as well. For many, the “coming of the Kingdom of God” is made into an ethical event, while others simply give up on the topic and make Jesus’ ministry into something else. For example, the forensic model of the atonement reduces Jesus’ ministry to His blood payment on the Cross. His teachings, healings and wonders become of little importance (again reduced mostly to ethical teachings).

Only the strange world of traditional eschatology sees Christ’s ministry and the whole of His work as a single thing and continually present within our lives at this moment. This strange world is found within the liturgical and sacramental life of Orthodoxy – indeed, it is essential.

Again, I invite you to read the original, which is chock-full of supporting evidence from the words of the Liturgy – words that tend to glide by unnoticed, or which are traditionally said “secretly” (softly at the altar) and thus unheard by laity.

Both this and Yannaras’ remarks are hard for us today even to apprehend as not just other than gibberish, but as fundamentally sane in a world largely gone mad (or at least has swung too far in one direction of the pendulum). How can I summarize what I’m still trying to grasp?

* * * * *

“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.

Atheist Delusions I

I recently read David Bentley Hart’s Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies (Yale, 2009). Although Hart is Orthodox, a world-class philosopher, and not half bad at popularizing, I hesitated to buy it.

For one thing, I’ve read plenty of books on the supposed historical conflict between “religion” and science, and my views have been pretty settled for rather a long time now. (Were I a scientist, I’d share them, but I’m not — and can’t imagine that they’re of keen interest to others.) I’m unfazed when I read some “New Atheist” screed. “Been there, done that, and other atheists do it better,” is my attitude in a yawn.

For another, I bogged down on Hart’s The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth.

But people I respect kept recommending it, and it sounded as if he might take a different tack on The New Atheists. They were right.

I may be posting some more on this book over the next few days or weeks. What I post now is just some select thought.

First of all, Hart doesn’t make the mistake of arguing, in effect, that Christianity is safe and harmless and perfectly compatible with modernity, as if modernity were the measure of truth:

It is not difficult, for instance, to demonstrate the absurdity of the claim that the rise of Christianity impeded the progress of science; but if one thereby seems to concede that scientific progress is an absolute value, upon which Christianity “respectability” somehow depends, one grants far too much … That Christendom fostered rather than hindered the development of early modern science, and that modern empiricism was born not in the so-called Age of Enlightenment but during the late Middle Ages, are simply facts of history, which I record in response to certain popular legends, but not in order somehow to “justify” Christianity. And I would say very much in the same regard to any of the other distinctly modern presuppositions — political, ethical, economic, or cultural — by which we now live. My purpose in these pages is not (I must emphasize) to argue that Christianity is essentially a “benign” historical phenomenon that need not be feared because it is “compatible with” or was a necessary “preparation for” the modern world of its most cherished values … Above all, I am anxious to grant no credence whatsoever to the special mythology of “the Enlightenment.” Nothing strikes me as more tiresomely vapid than the notion that there is some sort of inherent opposition — or impermeable partition, between faith and reason, or that the modern period is marked by its unique devotion to the latter. One can believe that faith is mere credulous assent to unfounded premises,  while reason consists in pure obedience to empirical fact, only if one is largely ignorant of both.

Second, Hart isn’t trying to spark a religious revival, and a war against the New Atheist featherweights, on some utilitarian grounds that we need “religion” even if it’s false. For a few examples:

To be honest, my affection for institutional Christianity as a whole is rarely more than tepid; and there are numerous forms of Christian belief and practice for which I would be hard-pressed to muster a kind word from the depths of my heart, and the rejection of which by the atheist or skeptic strikes me as perfectly laudable.

I can honestly say that their many forms of atheism that I find far more admirable than many forms of Christianity or of religion in general.

I should note here — not in order to strike a mournful note on departing, but only to clarify my intentions — that I have not written this book as some sort of frantic exhortation to an improbable general religious renewal. Such a renewal may in fact take place, I imagine, as the spirit moves, and as a result of social and political forces I cannot hope to foresee. I have operated throughout from the presupposition that in the modern West, the situation of Christianity and culture at large is at least somewhat analogous to the condition of paganism in the days of Julian, though Christianity may not necessarily be quite as moribund. I do not, at any rate, anticipate a recovery under current circumstances, and I cannot at the moment envisage how those circumstances might change. Even in America, I assume, despite its special hospitality to transcendental ecstasies and enduring pieties, the intellectual and moral habits of materialism will ultimately prevail to an even greater degree than they have in Europe. And neither a person nor a people can will belief simply out of dread of the consequences of its absence. In one sense, Christianity permeates everything we are, but in another it is disappearing, and we are changing as a result; and something new is in the centuries-long process of being born.

(I heartily agree with Hart about lacking any deep commitment to “institutional Christianity as a whole,” and my appreciation for the superiority of some honest atheism to some Christian traditions.)

Third, Hart not only mocks the poseurs of the New Atheism, but mounts a systematic attack on myths about Christian history. He’s no Polyanna, but he ably defends Christianity (not “religion” generally, and he explains why) as a social and cultural revolution that is innocent of much of what it routinely and insouciantly stands accused of:

  • Special Irrationality
  • Destruction of sources of pagan wisdom and philosophy
  • Constraint on human freedom
  • Misogyny
  • Opposition to science or any special promotion of bad science
  • Persecution
  • Provocation of war — including “The Wars of Religion”

I would send one caution, however. I’m reminded as I read Hart, of the late Francis Schaeffer (not the mouthy, living Frank Schaeffer). Like some of Schaeffer’s polymath musings, I suspect that Hart’s history wouldn’t 100% hold up as history in a room full of historians, and that his social psychology (I think that’s probably the best phrase for his speculations about why the New Atheists have caught on better than their arguments merit) wouldn’t fare perfectly well in a room of whatever academics are expert about that.

But that’s a risk of writing of writing a broad book on a multi-faceted (or is it Hydra-headed?) phenomenon. Hart’s book overall strikes me as solid and moderately important.

Just don’t expect the push-back to cease. Hart doesn’t expect it and neither do I.