Thursday, June 4, 2015

Leading from behind

Place Uriah in the front line of the fiercest battle and withdraw from him, so that he may be struck down and die. --2 Samuel 11:15

If we see that Germany is winning we ought to help Russia, and if Russia is winning we ought to help Germany, and that way let them kill as many as possible. --Harry S Truman, 1941

Various commentators of the neo-con, interventionist sort (y'know, "serious," mainstream commentators) have faulted the Obama Administration for a while now for not warring more directly on the Assad regime in Syria. Now that the Saudis and Turks are funding and arming al-Qaeda linked militants, and those militants (along with ISIS militants) are making greater progress against the Assad regime, the new neo-con line seems to be that we're going to miss our piece of the action if Sunni radicals do all the anti-Assad fighting and dying for us.

Now as it happens, I will be somewhat sorry to see the murderous Assad regime go, because it seems to be the only protector of Christians in Syria.

But assuming for argument's sake that the fall of Assad is desirable (to check Iran or whatever), why exactly is it a problem if it's jihadis dying for that cause, rather than Americans? Is it supposed to be because the jihadis will then have more influence in a post-Assad Syria? But if that's the case, how is it any different than Libya, where we followed the interventionist script and ended up with more jihadi influence than under Qaddafi? For that matter, how is it any different than Iraq, where we have ended up with more jihadi influence than under Hussein? It seems to me that we are going to have more jihadi influence in the Arab world until Arabs themselves weary of them. So why not let jihadis and Baathists slaughter each other in the meantime, rather than having Americans be involved? As Kissinger is said to have quipped of the Iran-Iraq War--can't they both lose?

I think the obviously correct analysis of what the Administration is trying to do here here isn't some sort of liberal timidity (as if the party of drone war, the Carter Doctrine, and Vietnam were really noninterventionist anyway), but rather the one Perry Anderson offers in his (excellent) new book American Foreign Policy and Its Thinkers, reflecting conditions as of its composition in 2013, but still plausible today:

The safer path was a proxy war, at two removes. The US would not intervene directly, nor even itself—for the time being—arm or train the Syrian rebels. It would rely instead on Qatar and Saudi Arabia to funnel weapons and funds to them, and Turkey and Jordan to host and organize them.

There's a great deal of loose talk among neocons (many of them working at Gulf-funded think tanks, I imagine) about some sort of dangerous split between the U.S. and the Gulf princedoms. But Anderson's picture of the U.S. and the Arab royals working hand-in-glove rings a lot truer than the spleen being vented by the Gulf royals' American mouthpieces.

Not, of course, that we mere citizens have much power over the steady course of the national security establishment's plans for continuing imperial hegemony. Just nice to call out obvious cant for what it is once in a while, if only to stay sane.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

War (of the Stray Dog) in Heaven

I would not have returned to the Faith as an adult were it not for discovering Aquinas' proofs of God, and I would not have come to Aquinas' proofs were it not for the Thomistic popularizer and reinvigorator Edward Feser. Accordingly, I owe Feser an incalculable debt.

Feser has feuded in print with Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart, whom I also esteem for his splendid contributions to contemporary theology.

Their most recent slapfight--here, here, here, and here--concerns whether animals go to Heaven.

Besides a general disdain for (a caricature of) neo-Thomist manualism, Hart's thrusts attack the Thomist point that animals do not go to Heaven because their souls are not immaterial.

This point runs roughly as follows:

The soul, for a hylemorphist (i.e., an Aristotelian who believes that matter is structured by form) is the form of the body--the organization of its faculties.

The form of a rubber ball is, inter alia, its sphericity.

The form of a plant is its vegetative soul, the way that its matter is organized and informed unto nutrition, growth, and reproduction.

The form of an animal is its sensitive soul, which includes all the vegetative functions, but also informs animal functions of sensation, locomotion, appetition, emotion, and imagination.

The form of a human is his or her rational soul, which includes all the animal (and thus all the vegetative) functions, but also informs the human function of reason.

Now, modern science will confirm Aristotle's and Aquinas' view that vegetative and sensitive faculties are entirely embodied: they work in and through matter, and without matter, they do not work.

Reason is different. As the contemporary Thomist James Ross has argued in Immaterial Aspects of Thought (one of the most important readings in my own intellectual development as a Thomist and indeed as a Christian), reason incorporates a degree of abstraction and precision that the material, of its nature, cannot entirely embody.

Because reason is immaterial, the rational soul which instantiates it must, Aquinas rightly reasoned, be immaterial, too, as the vegetative and animal souls are not.

Now, animals have imagination and emotion, but they do not reason. They can be taught to communicate, but they do not make logical inferences or engage in mathematical theorization. An animal's mind is entirely exhausted by the hylemorphic form/matter compound of its brain, with no "naked form," no solely immaterial aspect, left over.

Thus, reasons the Thomist, dogs don't go to heaven. (Or cats to hell.)  They cannot:  Heaven and Hell are immaterial realities, and a dog has no immaterial soul.

Thus the Thomist, and so thus Feser. Hart is outraged at this slight to our animal brethren, and cites the Bible ("the lion shall lay down with the lamb," etc.) against it. Hart reminds us that the Kingdom of God will involve the restoration of all Creation. And it indeed it shall. But.

The feud has gone on for some time, and neither Feser nor Hart has drawn what seems to me to be the crucial distinction between Heaven and the General Resurrection.

When you die, we may hope that you go to Heaven. There, you will exist immaterially, as Aquinas teaches. But at the end of history, all the dead shall be raised. The sheep shall be separated from the goats. The saints shall live in glorified resurrection bodies in the New Jerusalem, and the damned shall burn: both the joy of the saints and the agonies of the damned shall be embodied, somehow--real pleasure, real burning.

There will be no dogs in Heaven, because there cannot be. But will there be dogs, will there be lions and lambs, in the general resurrection? Well, why not?

Just as the glorified body of the Risen Lord and of His Mother assumed bodily into Heaven (in a way that dogs very much are not) is not the corruptible, agonized and agonizing body we bear today, so the resurrected lion and lamb need not dwell in ichneumonidaean agony anymore.

In sum, I think Feser and Hart, two heroes of mine, are simply arguing past each other. Feser is right, with Aquinas, to affirm that there are no dogs in Heaven. Hart is right to affirm, with the Fathers, that there may indeed be animals in the Kingdom. But the Kingdom, in its fullness, is not the rest of the righteous in Heaven, but the glory of the saints in the general resurrection after Doomsday.



Tuesday, June 2, 2015

(Star) War(s) is Hell

I suppose it's not very BenOp of me, but I let my toddler watch Star Wars. She's pretty obsessed with it now. "I want watch bobots" is pretty much a nightly refrain around here: she does like her daily dose of Luke, "Dark Hater" ("He's Luke's daddy; you're my daddy"), and especially "Bobot Fett"--kid has great taste already. (It's also probably not very traditionalist of me that I'm proud of her for wanting to be a Jedi instead of a princess, but she does, I am, and that's that.)

Anyhow, I've had a lot of time lately to ponder all six episodes of Lucas' magnum opus. (If you had told pubescent me that it was possible to get sick of Star Wars, he wouldn't have believed you. He would have been wrong.) In addition to their surprising usefulness in teaching my daughter to stay the heck away from fire (Anakin's fate in Revenge of the Sith:"fire hot; give him bad boo-boos; I not touch fire") and electricity (Luke's torment in Return of the Jedi: "tricity hurt Luke; Emperr not nice"), the third and sixth episodes contain some perhaps useful object lessons about evil.

In particular, one of the thoughts I've had watching (and watching, and watching) all this Star Wars is that there are a two moments in Lucas' hexad that neatly encapsulate some of C.S. Lewis' insights about Satan.

First, consider the two main villains Luke Skywalker encounters in Return of the Jedi: first Jabba the Hutt in his palace and on his pleasure barge, and then Emperor Palpatine (along with Darth Vader, of course) on his Death Star. 

The corpulent Jabba looks like gluttony incarnate, and his palace and "pleasure" barge host his lustful, perverse penchant for keeping enslaved dancing girls. Jabba embodies the sins of the flesh. He's also rather easily defeated.

Now consider Palpatine. Hatred, pride, envy--those are the sins to which he tempts, enthroned in his cold technological lair. And defeating him is much, much costlier--Luke nearly dies, and his father does die.

That contrast in Return of the Jedi reminds me of this passage from Lewis' Mere Christianity:
The sins of the flesh are bad, but they are the least bad of all sins. All the worst pleasures are purely spiritual: the pleasure of putting other people in the wrong, of bossing and patronising and spoiling sport, and back-biting, the pleasures of power, of hatred. For there are two things inside me, competing with the human self which I must try to become. They are the Animal self, and the Diabolical self. The Diabolical self is the worse of the two. That is why a cold, self-righteous prig who goes regularly to church may be far nearer to hell than a prostitute. But, of course, it is better to be neither.
Second, consider the infamous "Do Not Want!" scene near the conclusion of Revenge of the Sith. Palpatine, the diabolical puppet-master of all six films, tempted Anakin Skywalker to the dark side by promising that if only he would give in to Palpatine's temptation, Anakin could employ dark arts to save his pregnant wife, Padme, from death during childbirth. Anakin turns to the dark side, chokes his wife nearly to death out of jealousy and rage, and gets himself brutally burned after pridefully challenging his erstwhile Jedi master in a duel. Awakening as a shell of his former self, mummified alive in a cybernetic life support suit, Anakin (now Darth Vader) asks, "Where is Padme? Is she safe? Is she all right?"

Palpatine replies with perverse nonchalance that, "It seems in your anger, you killed her."

Vader says, "I...? I couldn't have! She was alive... I felt it!" He bursts the bonds holding him to the operating table, and lashes out with the dark side of the Force to crush much of the bric-a-brac in the operating room--empowered to rage so, but impotent to bring back the woman, and the wonderful life, that he cast aside. As Vader yells "Noooooo!" in one of Lucas' tale's moments of deepest pathos (and film's moments of deepest bathos), Palpatine's cowl hides a smirk.

Despite the bathetic lapse in mood of Vader's endless "Noooooooooooooooo!", this scene is about the best cinematic representation I've ever come across of a key passage from Lewis' Screwtape Letters, in which the demonic tempter instructs another demon in the dark arts of temptation thus (keeping in mind that for Screwtape, "the Enemy" is God, and the "Father," the devil):
In the first place I have always found that the Trough periods of the human undulation provide excellent opportunity for all sensual temptations, particularly those of sex. This may surprise you, because, of course, there is more physical energy, and therefore more potential appetite, at the Peak periods; but you must remember that the powers of resistance are then also at their highest. The health and spirits which you want to use in producing lust can also, alas, be very easily used for work or play or thought or innocuous merriment. The attack has a much better chance of success when the man’s whole inner world is drab and cold and empty. And it is also to be noted that the Trough sexuality is subtly different in quality from that of the Peak—much less likely to lead to the milk and water phenomenon which the humans call “being in love”, much more easily drawn into perversions, much less contaminated by those generous and imaginative and even spiritual concomitants which often render human sexuality so disappointing. It is the same with other desires of the flesh. You are much more likely to make your man a sound drunkard by pressing drink on him as an anodyne when he is dull and weary than by encouraging him to use it as a means of merriment among his friends when he is happy and expansive. Never forget that when we are dealing with any pleasure in its healthy and normal and satisfying form, we are, in a sense, on the Enemy’s ground. I know we have won many a soul through pleasure. All the same, it is His invention, not ours. He made the pleasures: all our research so far has not enabled us to produce one. All we can do is to encourage the humans to take the pleasures which our Enemy has produced, at times, or in ways, or in degrees, which He has forbidden. Hence we always try to work away from the natural condition of any pleasure to that in which it is least natural, least redolent of its Maker, and least pleasurable. An ever increasing craving for an ever diminishing pleasure is the formula. It is more certain; and it’s better style. To get the man’s soul and give him nothing in return—that is what really gladdens our Father’s heart. And the troughs are the time for beginning the process.
Palpatine gets Anakin's soul and gives him nothing in return. Palpatine is among the most purely satanic characters on film. And miserable, duped Anakin among the better object lessons for us sinners.



Monday, June 1, 2015

ClippyCorp

For our wrestling is not against flesh and blood; but against principalities and powers, against the rulers of the world of this darkness, against the spirits of wickedness in the high places.
--Ephesians 6:12
In my recent post on our liber(al)tarian moment, I mentioned Charles Stross' idea that we live under a beige dictatorship in which representative democracy has been captured by corporate interests to the point where the U.K. political system under which he lives, like the partisan duopoly here in the States, and indeed like political systems throughout the developed world, no longer offers any real access to those actors and ideas that would really, truly rock the boat. In his post on the beige dictatorship, Stross links to another of his posts, in which he likens corporations to invaders from Mars; it's too insightful not to quote almost in full:
The rot set in back in the 19th century, when the US legal system began recognizing corporations as de facto people. Fast forward past the collapse of the ancien regime, and into modern second-wave colonialism: once the USA grabbed the mantle of global hegemon from the bankrupt British empire in 1945, they naturally exported their corporate model worldwide, as US diplomatic (and military) muscle was used to promote access to markets on behalf of US corporations. 
Corporations do not share our priorities. They are hive organisms constructed out of teeming workers who join or leave the collective: those who participate within it subordinate their goals to that of the collective, which pursues the three corporate objectives of growth, profitability, and pain avoidance. (The sources of pain a corporate organism seeks to avoid are lawsuits, prosecution, and a drop in shareholder value.) 
Corporations have a mean life expectancy of around 30 years, but are potentially immortal; they live only in the present, having little regard for past or (thanks to short term accounting regulations) the deep future: and they generally exhibit a sociopathic lack of empathy. 
Collectively, corporate groups lobby international trade treaty negotiations for operating conditions more conducive to pursuing their three goals. They bully individual lawmakers through overt channels (with the ever-present threat of unfavourable news coverage) and covert channels (political campaign donations). The general agreements on tariffs and trade, and subsequent treaties defining new propertarian realms, once implemented in law, define the macroeconomic climate: national level politicians thus no longer control their domestic economies. 
Corporations, not being human, lack patriotic loyalty; with a free trade regime in place they are free to move wherever taxes and wages are low and profits are high. We have seen this recently in Ireland where, despite a brutal austerity budget, corporation tax is not to be raised lest multinationals desert for warmer climes. 
For a while the Communist system held this at bay by offering a rival paradigm, however faulty, for how we might live: but with the collapse of the USSR in 1991 — and the adoption of state corporatism by China as an engine for development — large scale opposition to the corporate system withered. 
We are now living in a global state that has been structured for the benefit of non-human entities with non-human goals. They have enormous media reach, which they use to distract attention from threats to their own survival. They also have an enormous ability to support litigation against public participation, except in the very limited circumstances where such action is forbidden. Individual atomized humans are thus either co-opted by these entities (you can live very nicely as a CEO or a politician, as long as you don't bite the feeding hand) or steamrollered if they try to resist. 
In short, we are living in the aftermath of an alien invasion.
Stross' point about corporate personhood is well taken, and one to which I have been sympathetic throughout the years since I worked for the Nader-LaDuke campaign alongside a POCLAD activist. But I would caveat the point, not least to stress the value of constructive legal personhood for corporate bodies like labor unions, political parties, and the Church (which, of course, is in fact the corpus mysticum of Christ, and so a "corporate person" in a real as well as a constructive legal sense). Indeed, even the constructive personhood at law of joint stock corporations has allowed for economic dynamism that would not exist otherwise, and whatever the many Faustian horrors of Mammon-enabled scientism and science-enabled holocaust, we can and ought to thank capitalist modernity for the relief of man's estate.

But even with those caveats, Stross is right that profit-driven corporations function in our global society as autonomous superorganisms who rule us with a cold, calculative agenda not our own. In this, they are apt tools of the Prince of this World. Thus, when we struggle for social justice, against the porn-ification of pop culture, and for a humane, distributist local economics, against these corporations, our wrestling is not against flesh and blood, but against principalities and powers.

But however useful the capitalist corporation is to the Enemy, the most useful way for Christians to conceptualize it is perhaps as a variant of Less Wrong's "Clippy." Named for the annoying, failed A.I. that used to pester Office users with useless suggestions, Clippy is a thought experiment popular among the motley extropians, transhumanists, singularitarians, etc. who spend time over at Less Wrong being catastrophically wrong about metaphysics and ethics, exaggerating the value of Bayesian statistics, being a cult (er, "phyg") with a creed, and (most relevantly here) worrying about unfriendly A.I. and trying to prevent it and thereby save the world. Like so much the endearing oddballs at Less Wrong come up with, the present Catholic oddball finds Clippy pretty thought-provoking. (Indeed, for all their oddity, the Less Wrong folks are some of the most interesting, intelligent people thinking and writing right now.) Of Clippy, Less Wrong's community wiki tells us that
The paperclip maximizer is the canonical thought experiment showing how an artificial general intelligence, even one designed competently and without malice, could ultimately destroy humanity. The thought experiment shows that AIs with apparently innocuous values could pose an existential threat. 
The goal of maximizing paperclips is chosen for illustrative purposes because it is very unlikely to be implemented, and has little apparent danger or emotional load (in contrast to, for example, curing cancer or winning wars). This produces a thought experiment which shows the contingency of human values: An extremely powerful optimizer (a highly intelligent agent) could seek goals that are completely alien to ours (orthogonality thesis), and as a side-effect destroy us by consuming resources essential to our survival.
Note that unlike Clippy, Satan hates you, personally, in just the way described by C.S. Lewis in Perelandra:
What chilled and almost cowed him most was the union of malice with something nearly childish. For temptation, for blasphemy, for a whole battery of horrors, he was in some sort prepared; but hardly for this petty, indefatigable nagging as of a nasty little boy at a preparatory school. Indeed no imagined horror could have surpassed the sense which grew within him as the slow hours passed, that this creature was, by all human standards, inside out - its heart on the surface and its shallowness at the heart. On the surface, great designs and an antagonism to Heaven which involved the fate of worlds: but deep within, when every veil had been pierced, was there, after all, nothing but a black puerility, an aimless empty spitefulness content to sate itself with the tiniest cruelties, as love does not disdain the smallest kindness.
But the profit-maximizing corporation, like Clippy the paperclip maximizing A.I., is merely indifferent to you: as the Less Wrong wiki's article on Clippy quotes Less Wrong's maharishi, Eliezer Yudkowsky,
The AI does not hate you, nor does it love you, but you are made out of atoms which it can use for something else.
A.I. is not a proximate danger. But we live under the beige dictatorship of corporate capital right now. And like Stalinism before it, late capitalist corporate hegemony is an idolatrous perversion of economic justice, a "god that sucked." So it matters if corporate capital is Clippy. And it is Clippy: the fiduciary duty of corporate directors under modern law is to maximize profits, period. Just as Clippy would mindlessly convert the whole planet into paperclips, indifferent to the consequences, so the corporation is legally mandated to mindlessly convert the whole planet into profits, indifferent to the consequences.

Does getting kids addicted to junk food maximize value for agri-business and food manufacturing shareholders? Then do it.

Does getting teens addicted to porn and to semi-pornographic popular entertainments maximize profits? Do it.

Do strip mining, tar sands oil, Dickensian sweatshops, conflict diamonds, cocoa grown and shrimp caught by slaves boost profits? Just do it.

Like structural racism and media bias, our corporate-corrupted economy, culture, and politics are not a single, conscious human enemy. Like Clippy, global capitalism is a mindless algorithm, indifferent rather than malevolent. But the Prince of this World is the puppet-master of all such structures of oppression, and he is malevolence itself.

So resist the "alien invaders." Resist the Enemy. Follow the King.







Sunday, May 31, 2015

Jesus approaches

Today's Gospel (Mt. 28:16-20) for Trinity Sunday reads:
The eleven disciples went to Galilee,
to the mountain to which Jesus had ordered them.
When they all saw him, they worshiped, but they doubted.
Then Jesus approached and said to them,
"All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me.
Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations,
baptizing them in the name of the Father,
and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,
teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.
And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age."
The Trinity is an unfathomable mystery. Much has been written of Our Triune God's unity in trinity. Today I'd like to focus on a humbler mystery, more suited to my station. Our Lord tells us today that He is with us "always, until the end of the age." But we don't always feel that He is, do we? Well, it says of the disciples here that
they worshipped,
but they doubted.
Then Jesus approached....
Consider that. Although they doubted, they worshipped anyway. And Jesus approached.

In his Pensées, in the section on "the means of belief," Pascal warns of
Two extremes: to exclude reason, to admit reason only.
Reason only is insufficient:
The reason acts slowly, with so many examinations, and on so many principles, which must be always present, that at every hour it falls asleep, or wanders, through want of having all its principles present. Feeling does not act thus; it acts in a moment, and is always ready to act. We must then put our faith in feeling; otherwise it will be always vacillating.
Indeed, Pascal admonishes us that
It is superstition to put one's hope in formalities; but it is pride to be unwilling to submit to them.
Why? Because
The external must be joined to the internal to obtain anything from God, that is to say, we must kneel, pray with the lips, etc., in order that proud man, who would not submit himself to God, may be now subject to the creature.
By contrast,
Other religions, as the pagan, are more popular, for they consist in externals. But they are not for educated people. A purely intellectual religion would be more suited to the learned, but it would be of no use to the common people. The Christian religion alone is adapted to all, being composed of externals and internals. It raises the common people to the internal, and humbles the proud to the external; it is not perfect without the two, for the people must understand the spirit of the letter, and the learned must submit their spirit to the letter.
And that is the secret of how the doubting worshipper makes straight a path for Jesus to approach:
For we must not misunderstand ourselves; we are as much automatic as intellectual; and hence it comes that the instrument by which conviction is attained is not demonstrated alone. How few things are demonstrated? Proofs only convince the mind. Custom is the source of our strongest and most believed proofs. It bends the automaton, which persuades the mind without its thinking about the matter. Who has demonstrated that there will be a to-morrow, and that we shall die? And what is more believed? It is, then, custom which persuades us of it; it is[Pg 74] custom that makes so many men Christians; custom that makes them Turks, heathens, artisans, soldiers, etc. (Faith in baptism is more received among Christians than among Turks.) Finally, we must have recourse to it when once the mind has seen where the truth is, in order to quench our thirst, and steep ourselves in that belief, which escapes us at every hour; for always to have proofs ready is too much trouble. We must get an easier belief, which is that of custom, which, without violence, without art, without argument, makes us believe things, and inclines all our powers to this belief, so that out soul falls naturally into it. It is not enough to believe only by force of conviction, when the automaton is inclined to believe the contrary. Both our parts must be made to believe, the mind by reasons which it is sufficient to have seen once in a lifetime, and the automaton by custom, and by not allowing it to incline to the contrary. Inclina cor meum, Deus.
You cannot reason your way to faith. That is not because the Faith is false, but because you are blind.

In his discussion (ST, IIa-IIae, Q.153, art. 5) of the "daughters of lust," Aquinas instructs us that
When the lower powers are strongly moved towards their objects, the result is that the higher powers are hindered and disordered in their acts. Now the effect of the vice of lust is that the lower appetite, namely the concupiscible, is most vehemently intent on its object, to wit, the object of pleasure, on account of the vehemence of the pleasure. Consequently the higher powers, namely the reason and the will, are most grievously disordered by lust. 
Now the reason has four acts in matters of action. First there is simple understanding, which apprehends some end as good, and this act is hindered by lust, according to Daniel 13:56, "Beauty hath deceived thee, and lust hath perverted thy heart." On this respect we have "blindness of mind." The second act is counsel about what is to be done for the sake of the end: and this is also hindered by the concupiscence of lust. Hence Terence says (Eunuch., act 1, sc. 1), speaking of lecherous love: "This thing admits of neither counsel nor moderation, thou canst not control it by counseling." On this respect there is "rashness," which denotes absence of counsel, as stated above (Question 53, Article 3). The third act is judgment about the things to be done, and this again is hindered by lust. For it is said of the lustful old men (Daniel 13:9): "They perverted their own mind . . . that they might not . . . remember just judgments." On this respect there is "thoughtlessness." The fourth act is the reason's command about the thing to be done, and this also is impeded by lust, in so far as through being carried away by concupiscence, a man is hindered from doing what his reason ordered to be done. [To this "inconstancy" must be referred.] [The sentence in brackets is omitted in the Leonine edition.] Hence Terence says (Eunuch., act 1, sc. 1) of a man who declared that he would leave his mistress: "One little false tear will undo those words." 
On the part of the will there results a twofold inordinate act. One is the desire for the end, to which we refer "self-love," which regards the pleasure which a man desires inordinately, while on the other hand there is "hatred of God," by reason of His forbidding the desired pleasure. The other act is the desire for the things directed to the end. With regard to this there is "love of this world," whose pleasures a man desires to enjoy, while on the other hand there is "despair of a future world," because through being held back by carnal pleasures he cares not to obtain spiritual pleasures, since they are distasteful to him.
It might be objected, Aquinas anticipates
that the daughters of lust are unfittingly reckoned to be "blindness of mind, thoughtlessness, inconstancy, rashness, self-love, hatred of God, love of this world and abhorrence or despair of a future world." For mental blindness, thoughtlessness and rashness pertain to imprudence, which is to be found in every sin, even as prudence is in every virtue. Therefore they should not be reckoned especially as daughters of lust.
but Aquinas replies that
According to the Philosopher (Ethic. vi, 5), intemperance is the chief corruptive of prudence: wherefore the vices opposed to prudence arise chiefly from lust, which is the principal species of intemperance.
Now, perhaps lust is not your besetting sin. Excellent. Nevertheless, unless Our Lord or His Mother is reading my blog now, you, dear reader, are a sinner. And sin, via the body, via the will, darkens the intellect.

What worship does, via the body, via the will, is create in you a docile heart, by which Christ, Our Liberator, may enlighten the intellect. You cannot completely reason your way to the Faith, because without the grace of Faith, your mind remains in darkness. The preambles of faith can lead you--and should lead you--to the precipice. But then you must leap.

Friday, May 29, 2015

The Smoke of Satan

(Note: This is a post about libertarianism, which is a very bad ideology. It does not contend that all libertarians are necessarily bad people. When not mistakenly advocating for wicked policies, many of them are lovely people personally.)

Via Via Meadia, we learn from Gallup that 
Thirty-one percent of Americans describe their views on social issues as generally liberal, matching the percentage who identify as social conservatives for the first time in Gallup records dating back to 1999.... In contrast to the way Americans describe their views on social issues, they still by a wide margin, 39% to 19%, describe their views on economic issues as conservative rather than liberal. However, as on social ideology, the gap between conservatives and liberals has been shrinking and is lower today than at any point since 1999, with the 39% saying they are economically conservative the lowest to date.
Social liberalism is ascendant, but laissez-faire economic ideology is still more than holding its own for the moment. We are living in a "liberaltarian" era. Mercifully, this too shall pass: perhaps a view of economics that grants a role for state aid to the poor will continue rising, or there will be a backlash against the squalor of today's porn-addled Sodom.  But this Liberaltarian Era is our political moment, the beige dictatorship of our new power elite, and we must make sense of it if we are to be of any use in the public square right now. So let's take a look at this rough beast slouching toward us.

When Brink Lindsey coined the term "liberaltarian" back in 2006, he wrote of the attractions of such a project that
it has become increasingly clear that capitalism’s relentless dynamism and wealth-creation—the institutional safeguarding of which lies at the heart of libertarian concerns—have been pushing U.S. society in a decidedly progressive direction. The civil rights movement was made possible by the mechanization of agriculture, which pushed blacks off the farm and out of the South with immense consequences. Likewise, feminism was encouraged by the mechanization of housework. Greater sexual openness, as well as heightened interest in the natural environment, are among the luxury goods that mass affluence has purchased. So, too, are secularization and the general decline in reverence for authority, as rising education levels (prompted by the economy’s growing demand for knowledge workers) have promoted increasing independence of mind.
Yet progressives remain stubbornly resistant to embracing capitalism, their great natural ally. In particular, they are unable to make their peace with the more competitive, more entrepreneurial, more globalized U.S. economy that emerged out of the stagflationary mess of the 1970s. Knee-jerk antipathy to markets and the creative destruction they bring continues to be widespread, and bitter denunciations of the unfairness of the system, mixed with nostalgia for the good old days of the Big Government/Big Labor/Big Business triumvirate, too often substitute for clear thinking about realistic policy options. 
Hence today’s reactionary politics. Here, in the first decade of the twenty-first century, the rival ideologies of left and right are both pining for the ’50s. The only difference is that liberals want to work there, while conservatives want to go home there. 
Can a new, progressive fusionism break out of the current rut? Liberals and libertarians already share considerable common ground, if they could just see past their differences to recognize it. Both generally support a more open immigration policy. Both reject the religious right’s homophobia and blastocystophilia. Both are open to rethinking the country’s draconian drug policies. Both seek to protect the United States from terrorism without gratuitous encroachments on civil liberties or extensions of executive power. And underlying all these policy positions is a shared philosophical commitment to individual autonomy as a core political value.
This ideology is really just libertarianism simpliciter, with Lindsey's coinage serving only to emphasize the tactical benefits to libertarians of moving from Meyer-style fusionism with the G.O.P. to alliance with the Democrats, and to indicate a laudable willingness to countenance some kind of safety net for the poor, which latter deserves its own post here sometime.  I borrow the term because it highlights the growing edge of libertarian ideology in our time, which is sexually libertine and smugly secularist--indeed, laïque and anticlerical.

Contra Lindsey, I yearn for both the traditional families and the vigorous union-driven broad prosperity of the 1950's. I'm a voice in the desert of today's surreal Sodom against onanism and sodomy, and I am an unabashed "blastocystophile," (as Lindsey puts it) who loathes Moloch as much as Ishtar. Indeed, I increasingly think molochism ought to be my new word for the murder of the unborn, to match sodomy and onanism: you coin your words Brink, I'll coin mine.

So just what is a Catholic who strives for orthodox submission to the authority of the Magisterium on both "life" and "social justice" issues to make of this liberaltarian libertarianism? Consider that troll-sown kudzu of the comboxes, the Nolan Chart:



Now, the economic and cultural individualist is of course the libertarian, seeking to enable corporate rapine and cultural poison. And the seamless garment Catholic--that is to say, the orthodox Catholic, submissive to the Magisterium--works pursuant to the Gospel of Life for a cultural focus on community (traditional family open to life, flourishing parish, political subsidiarity and a patriotism of the local, a MacIntyrean Benedict Option in which to learn and incarnate virtue, etc.) and pursuant to the Gospel call to social justice, for an economic focus on community (universal destination of goods, preferential option for the poor, solidarity, distributism, unionism, guilds, co-ops, "small is beautiful," care for the "least of these," etc.).

The Nolan Chart is plain enough: the libertarian takes a stand that is the polar opposite of the doctrine of Christ and His Church.  The version of the Nolan Chart I've pasted above is kind enough to call Christ's will for us "communitarian." Other variants, more popular among libertarians I've encountered online, dub the pole of the Chart where the Cross is planted to be "populist," or "statist," or worse, "authoritarian" or "fascist."

That the libertarian runs all of these disparate movements together both with each other and with the teaching of Christ and His Church shows a typically libertarian shallowness of mind, a kind of autistic flattening of perception which one encounters ubiquitously among both libertarians and among eliminative materialists, who indeed are often the same people, given how attractive a package the two diabolical doctrines are to such deformed minds as are so prominent in our culture that autistically worships mere technological toys like a phallic cult of propeller-headed rocket-science.

The metaphysical underpinnings of liberaltarian diabolism are precisely what you would expect, given the diabolical consequences of nominalism. Liberaltarian blogger Will Wilkinson has decreed, with the smug glibness typical of his jejune coterie, and indeed of many of his coddled peers in the new clerisy that Metaphysics is Boring When You Know the Answers, the answers of course being Quinean scientism, nominalism, and other sorts of answers that are both the polar opposite of the wisdom of the Church. Of course, Wilkinson's precisely wrong, pernicious and faddish philosophical preferences are perfect for our moment: they are the sort of thing that the Quine and Parfit and Rorty reading likes of bien pensants like juicebox mafioso Matt Yglesias are sure to nod with approval at when Wilkinson hits a Beltway cocktail party, right before Yglesias makes the autistically economistic observation that churches should lose their tax exemption because "there's no reason to believe that religion-related expenditures enhance productivity" which is exactly the sort of derp, as these cool kids say, that centuries of nominalist materialism has made respectable, and so perfectly encapsulate our very autistic, very liberaltarian moment funded by techbro extropian John Galts.

But the "glibertarian" is at least frank: Christ is his enemy, these odd worshippers of Chrestus a mere populist rabble of authoritarian elitists, effete pacifist communitarian hobbits, all warlike fascist orcs, an unsettling, disrespectable (even trashyanarcho-monarchist chimera, led by a troublesome priest of Melchizedek of whom some enterprising proconsul, preferably a nice, sensible nominalist, ought to rid the American Empire. The only thing that's clear from this mush-minded muddle of pejoratives is that the libertarian (and thus the "liberaltarian") knows the Church for what it is: his foe.

Given the pejoratives ("fascist," etc.) flung at us from the Nolan Chart-brandishing side, I shall not shy away from naming the libertarian position for what it is: the pole opposite the Cross, and so by its own definition the position of the Enemy, of Satan. (The satanist has been a Nazi and a Nero and lots of other things over the centuries, but I write of the present moment.) Libertarianism's frankly satanic position is precisely, literally-as-to-etymology diabolical, in the sense Rod Dreher recently highlighted in a deeply thoughtful and richly rewarding post on the symbol/diabol distinction:
 Rieff’s prophetic point is that Western culture has renounced renunciation, has cast off the ascetic spirit, and therefore has deconverted from Christianity whether it knows it or not. In bringing this up with my priest friend, I asked him why he thought sex was at the center of the Christian symbolic that has not held.
“It goes back to Genesis 1,” he said. “So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. Then he told them to ‘be fruitful and multiply.’ We see right there in the beginning the revelation that male and female, that complementarity, symbolizes the Holy Trinity, and in their fertility they carry out the life of the Trinity.”
In other words, from the perspective of the Hebrew Bible, gender complementarity and fertility are built into the nature of ultimate reality, which is God. Our role as human beings is to strive to harmonize our own lives with that reality, because in so doing we dwell in harmony with God.
“Do you know what the word ‘symbol’ means in the original Greek?” he asked. I said I did not. 
“It means ‘to bring together,’” he said.
“To integrate,” I replied.
“Yes. Now, do you know what the antonym for symbol is 
“No.” 
“It is diabolos, which means to tear apart, to separate, to throw something through another thing.” 
“So when something is diabolic, it means it is a disintegrating force?” 
“You could say that, yes,” he said. “All the time I’m dealing with the fallout from divorce and families breaking up. Kids who don’t know their fathers. You should hear these confessions. It’s a huge deal. You can see the loss of the sense of what family is for, and why it’s important.”
He said that the students he works with are so confused, needy, and broken. Many of them have never seen what a functional, healthy family looks like, and have grown up in a culture that devalues the fundamental moral, metaphysical, and spiritual principles that make stable and healthy family formation possible — especially the belief that the generative powers of sex, within male-female complementarity, is intimately related to the divine nature, and the ongoing life of the Trinity. Nobody has ever explained it to them, he says. If they’ve heard anything from the Church, it’s something like, “Don’t do this because the Bible says not to” — which is not enough in this time and place. And many of them have never, or have rarely, seen it modeled for them by the adults in their lives.
The Judith Butler essay brought that conversation to mind this morning, and reflection on the symbol/diabol distinction sent me online looking for more. Lo, the Google results give me this entry from a dating website, in which the author quotes from a bestselling 2004 book The Art of Seduction, by Robert Greene. From the website:
In the book, Greene talks about the importance of language in seducing someone. Seduction, as you know, is a matter of how and what you communicate to your target, and is thus, extremely important in your interactions.
Greene makes the distinction between two types of languages – symbolic and diabolic language. To quote him here:
“Most people employ symbolic language—their words stand for something real, the feelings, ideas, and beliefs they really have. Or they stand for concrete things in the real world. (The origin of the word “symbolic” lies in a Greek word meaning “to bring things together”—in this case, a word and something real.)
“As a seducer you are using the opposite: diabolic language. Your words do not stand for anything real; their sound, and the feelings they evoke, are more important than what they are supposed to stand for. (The word “diabolic” ultimately means to separate, to throw things apart—here, words and reality.) The more you make people focus on your sweet-sounding language, and on the illusions and fantasies it conjures, the more you diminish their contact with reality. You lead them into the clouds, where it is hard to distinguish truth from untruth, real from unreal.” 
As an indirect seducer, you must focus on using diabolic rather than symbolic language. Your goal is to stimulate your target’s imagination, enveloping her into your spirit. Do this, and she will not be able to resist you.
There you have it. If nothing is real, then there is nothing but lies — that is to say, the manipulation of reality — and the pursuit of power. A worldview that believes in nothing real, only the will to power (expressed, for example, in deciding that your gender is what you say it is, and nothing more), is intrinsically diabolical. It scatters, it disintegrates, and makes the song of the world into senseless cacaphony....
This civilizational madness will have to run its course. We now have our leading scholars saying that women can have penises — and this is considered the highest wisdom. It is on the basis of this wisdom that our laws are being changed. It is diabolical, in the sense of being fundamentally about dis-integration. Depending on your point of view, it is diabolical in every sense of the word. You hear in Judith Butler the voice of the Seducer, the voice of the Diabolist. Hers is no longer a marginal voice, but rather one increasingly magnified by our mainstream media....
The denial of Logos as an ordering principle, and asceticism as an ordering function, is leading to the disintegration of all things, including the family, and ultimately the human personality. The world accepts this. Even many in the church accepts this. If you are going to be part of the resistance, and one day far into the future, when the lies fail, a renaissance — then you had better make provision for surviving and thriving in the long defeat.
Now, Judith Butler (a dangerously radically nominalist "queer theorist" but also a person of the Left) is no libertarian. But the precisely "diabolical" seduction strategy of Robert Greene, the quoted venereal Screwtape in Rod's post, is the seductive siren's call of the Market, of Mammon, of Venus, of the Nolan Chart's disintegrative, anomie-promoting "individualism," of oily men photographing gape-mouthed, wide-eyed girls to glance come-hither at the camera to sell you poisonous junk food and corpulent gas-gluttonous giant trucks, of Don Draper and Ayn Rand, of P.T. Barnum and Larry Flynt, of the voice that Rage Against the Machine warned me long ago is always there tempting the fighter for justice, seductively whispering:
come and play,
come and play, 
forget about the Movement.
Well, Christian, the Church is the Movement Christ founded. Don't let the whispering Serpent seduce you from your pilgrim's progess, and don't let his sirens tempt you to desert Christ the King and go over to the Enemy.

Now we've stared into the abyss--let's not linger. Soon, I hope to post on the political tactics of cultural and economic guerrilla resistance that any Benedict Option will need for a successful subversion of the empire of this Beast.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

The Single Life

Over at Rod Dreher’s, commenter Turmarion asks social conservatives what the heck our endgame is with regard to the optimal societal status of same-sex attracted people:
I tried on another blog once to get some socons to come right out and say what they thought the ideal status would be
Here's my attempt as a "socon" to answer his question (with further quotes from his comment indented as blockquotes):

Turmarion, yours is really a question that same-sex attracted orthodox, traditionalist Christians need to lead the way on, I think. The Church has affirmed vocations like, e.g., monasticism, but the contours of monasticism were created and discovered by the pioneering monks of the Egyptian desert and their imitators elsewhere, not just invented by abstract a priori noodling about it. I imagine that whatever functional, flourishing lives same-sex attracted orthodox, traditionalist Christians are able to build will be models for sainthood that they have to discover, not that us straights will get to impose on them after reading some Thomist manual or something. (Not that I dislike Thomist manuals, which get a bad rap.)
Should gays go back in the closet?
Absolutely not. Same-sex attraction appears to be at least partly innate, and same-sex attracted people can’t build really deep supportive relationships with friends and family if they’re hiding something like that. OTOH, chaste gays might be prudent to be careful how they partipate in gay cultural events, just as the rest of us need to exercise prudence in similar situations. Here’s what I mean by that: there ought to be no shame or stigma attached to being same-sex attracted, any more than to being straight. But just as straights shouldn’t have an “Adultery Pride Parade,” orthodox traditionalists need to be sure that when we, say, march alongside the pride float at a St. Patrick’s Day parade, or attend a gay friend’s Unitarian wedding, or some such, that we are seen to be affirming the dignity of homosexual persons, or the depths of our friendship for the wedded gay friend, or what have you, rather than the acceptability of homosexual acts. I expect people like Eve Tushnet to be great examples in how to navigate this stuff going forward.
Should they have domestic partnerships?
IMHO it would take nigh-superhuman chastity not to have that turn into a near occasion of sin, so I think it would be extremely imprudent (just as I think Gandhi’s notorious habit, IIRC, of sleeping naked beside naked girls to hone his chastity was not only exploitive of the girls but evinced hubris regarding his own virtue). But such arrangements are an example of something that chaste trad gays are going to have to lead the way on; it’s not my place to pronounce on anything other than my own hunch of how it would go. That said, I think Tushnet’s desire to restore “vowed friendship” to cultural prominence is salutary in the extreme, and not just for gay people. Something like adelphopoiesis, on Tushnet’s rather than Boswell’s understanding, would be a tonic against the loss of homosocial friendship that not only marginalizes chaste gays, but also impoverishes so many straights (especially straight men) of the simple, vital pleasures of deep homosocial friendship once common to folks like, say, the Inklings. This is an important example, IMHO, of a gift that same-sex attracted people like Tushnet can provide for the whole Church, by leading the charge on issues like this.
What place do gays have in your view of how society ought to be?
Society ought to cherish each and every child of God.
There’s a big debate on this in celibate gay circles. Eve, Wesley Hill, and others argue for a positive view in which being gay is a part of one’s identity that can be a blessing, and in which sexuality is not denied. Rather, it is sublimated into the community and into friendship. She has also advocated for the revival of vowed friendships, as a way for gay people to have a lifelong but chaste bond with another. On the other hand, some like Daniel Mattson strongly oppose this, insisting on using “homosexual” instead of “gay”, opposing a view of their orientation as even minimally positive, and insisting that the grace comes through resisting the urges of their damaged nature.
Well, the Magisterium has called same-sex attraction “disordered,” and on a natural law understanding that’s inescapable. But one can celebrate the unique, vibrant contributions of, say, deaf people, autistic people, people with Downs, etc., as “blessings” (which in that sense they very much are) without also engaging in any Orwellian obfuscation of the plain fact that such conditions are departures from normative human nature. Likewise, I share Mattson’s wariness that affirmation of the ways in which the unique emotional, artistic, etc., gifts of same-sex attracted individuals are treasures for all of us, and thus rightly thought of as blessings, can shade into a celebration of same-sex attraction as somehow “just as valid,” just as rightly ordered toward human flourishing, as heterosexuality.

In sum: one side of this debate tends to accuse the other of being “homophiles,” while non-traditionalist observers will tut-tut that traditionalists are homophobically “heteronormative.” My take is that Christian charity requires us to affirm the blessings each person brings with them, and yet Christian charity also requires us to upbraid the sinner and to speak up for the proper ecology (as Benedict XVI so fruitfully put it) of the human family. Thus, we need to find a way to be “heteronormative homophiles,” if that makes any sense, to celebrate and cherish and affirm the unique gifts (if not, perhaps, “charisms,” as a technical terminological theological matter) our same-sex attracted peers bring without ceasing also to celebrate, cherish, and affirm a heteronormative theology of sacramental marriage and of rightly ordered human sexuality.

All of this opens up on a much deeper point that I think you’ll appreciate, Turmarion: One of the accusations flung at Thomists like Ed Feser (whom I admire) by the likes of DB Hart (whom I also admire) is adherence to a kind of “two tier” system of nature and supernature, of natural human flourishing and super-added grace. As a (poorly versed, autodidactic) Thomist myself, I think this accusation ultimately unjust. But, but:

Christ Crucified teaches us that the sort of normative human flourishing delineated by Aristotle—in which a wise man contemplates the divine while securely ensconced in a life charmed with natural goods like rank, wealth, and progeny—is not the truest, deepest model of human flourishing. The Crucified was not “flourishing” by Aristotle’s lights, and yet He incarnates for us what God’s telos for humanity really is.

I take Aquinas to have integrated this rather Augustinian thought into his Aristotelianism. YMMV, and I think does, IIRC. That’s fine. But Aquinas’ opinion being what it may have been (which question I leave to historians), it is my own humble opinion that any Catholic natural lawyer has to integrate these things, at grave risk of embodying the caricature of the arid neo-Thomist manualist if he does not.

On the one hand, those of us who make our living in the City of Man, especially those of us called to the vocation of marriage, rightly aim at human flourishing in something like Aristotle’s sense. OTOH, all Christians are called to sainthood. Part of sainthood is taking up your Cross, whatever that might be. Taking up one’s Cross ought not to mean, say, breaking your own leg, or imitating Gandhi’s chastity-testing sleeping arrangements, or refusing to take your antibiotics, just so you can rack up merit (like some Calvinist caricature of a Catholic) for how well you deal with the pain you cause yourself.

But while we should seek human flourishing, we must also shoulder any Cross that comes as an obstacle in the way of that flourishing, whether it be same-sex attraction, infertility, disability, poverty, or whatever. Relatedly, some of us do not have a vocation to marriage, or a calling to a career in the City of Man, but are instead called to abandon that “natural,” Aristotelian sort of flourishing for the “supernatural” flourishing of renunciation of natural goods like marriage and wealth in favor of full time consecration to the works of the City of God.

As Charles Taylor points out, our Protestant and secular heritage in the modern West makes it hard for us to accept a division between flourishing in a normative natural life and flourishing in a “supernatural” life of renunciation, as it seems to draw an invidious distinction between schlubbish laymen and spiritual athletes. Instead, the post-Hildebrandine reformist trend has been to insist on sanctifying ordinary life, and in the Protestant case, to denigrate renunciative vocations as hubristic counterfeits.

Now, I of course think we go wrong to condemn the ordained and consecrated vocations. But the reformist is right that valorization of renunciation can lead us to neglect the need to sanctify the ordinary life, and relatedly (but not identically) to a gnostic contempt for the real goods praised by the likes of Aristotle. The need for the theologian is to find a “Middle Way” between cynical scorn of sanctity and gnostic scorn of fleshly flourishing, just as Siddhartha is said to have found one between the hubristic “ascetic athleticism” of the mendicants and the enslavement to the satanic principalities and powers of Kama-Mara characteristic of the unawakened, or more relevantly, just as our paradigmatic God-man knew when He ought to fast in the desert, and when He ought to let Himself be taken for a wine-bibber. “Both/and” is as usual the Catholic answer. Taylor’s “Reform” tendency is right that we are all of us called to sainthood, but wrong to think that there cannot be different ways to incarnate that call.

All that said, the position of the same-sex attracted orthodox traditionalist Catholic, called, per the Magisterium, to a chaste “single life” is undefined and unexplored as yet (although the likes of Tushnet are bravely exploring that terra incognita for us, thanks be to God), and is liminal between the natural flourishing of heteronormative marriage (which rightly orders, by uniting, the unitive and procreative natural goods of human sexuality) and the Cross taken up by those with vocations to the ordained or consecrated life.

Called to celibacy, the exclusively same-sex attracted Catholic called to the single life is in that regard a renunciant. But not a consecrated renunciant. Here, a riff on Tushnet may help: “vowed friendship,” “spiritual friendship,” etc., is not a “vocation” or a state of life or a sacrament in the way that marriage or ordination are. But it is a natural good, just as are many of the other life events (launching a ship, e.g.) that the Church has been happy to provide blessings for. What distinguishes the friendship that might rightly be celebrated in a non-sacramental rite of adelphopoiesis from the sacrament of marriage is that while marriage unites the unitive and procreative natural goods of a couple, “friendship,” qua friendship is a strictly unitive good.

In the sense that the chaste same-sex attracted Catholic is called to attain sainthood in part through taking up the renunciatory Cross of celibacy, there is something akin to consecrated life there. In the sense that natural flourishing through the unitive good of friendship can be an enriching, central part of the single life, there is something akin to the vocation to marriage there. The discernment in our time of the vocation to the single life is a quite new development in doctrine. I look forward to the ways that both the Tushnet/Hill and the Mattson perspectives from within that sector of the Church will craft new ways to follow the whole of Christ’s teaching without abandoning either our orthodoxy, or our humanity.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

The real world, and the real battle

Rod Dreher continues to inspire important discussions in the orthodox Christian community with his suggestion that the time is ripe for a "Benedict Option." Today, Rod asks readers what we think of critiques of the Benedict Option from those like Princeton Professor (and "New Natural Law" theorist) Robby George, who want to hold off on the Benedict Option and continue fighting, e.g., civil same-sex marriage (SSM), in the public square. Although a sacramental SSM is of course a non-starter for an orthodox Catholic like me, I think the larger question of whether cultural traditionalists should continue to follow the "Moral Majority" model of focusing our energies on politics is the right one is an important question. More precisely, I question if the Moral Majority model was ever the right one. Here is what I commented on Rod's post.

Robby George’s zeal and dedication are admirable (and he’s about the single most patient, affable, unaffected guy I can imagine, having once had the privilege of meeting him at a Christian Legal Society brown bag lunch) but I think the sacrifice he personally may be called to make is accepting that his prominence as a celebrated G.O.P. intellectual won’t survive much longer as the G.O.P. cynically walks away from the SSM issue so that it may better woo the pro-SSM cohorts that will be an ever-rising percentage of the electorate from 2016 onward. Happily, he has far more important work to do; as a selection from the Ken Myers talk about "seed ideas" quoted above says:
The most important way we can be a counterculture serving the common good is not through influencing government policies but through re-forming the moral and metaphysical imaginations of our contemporaries.
Precisely. Those seminal ideas are what rule the world, not political ephemera. St. Paul wielded far more lasting influence over the future than Nero. The Scholastic debates between realists and nominalists (as the post about Richard Weaver noted yesterday) did far more to lay the groundwork for the astonishing historical ruptures of modernity’s five centuries than the Hundred Years’ War. No one in a thousand years will care whether SSM became legal in the ancient American Empire because of a high court mandate or on a province-by-province basis. But today’s ideas, today’s discussions, today’s communities and culture, and most importantly, today’s prayers to the living God: those seeds will still be bearing fruit in a thousand years, in two thousand years. In reality, the fate of each individual soul—which is eternal—is of far more consequence than the political trifles of a decade, a century, or a season. Our worldly cares tempt us to ignore this, this lay of the land in the real world. As Frank Sheed wrote in the dedication to his classic Theology and Sanity:
Sanity, remember, does not mean living in the same world as everyone else; it means living in the real world. But some of the most important elements in the real world can be known only by the revelation of God, which it is theology’s business to study. Lacking this knowledge, the mind must live a half-blind life, trying to cope with a reality most of which it does not know is there. This is a wretched state for an immortal spirit, and pretty certain to lead to disaster. There is a good deal of disaster around at this moment.
If we think that helping some politician get elected is more important than prayer, contemplation, and community, then we are not living in the real world, but only in secular society’s impoverished, imprisoning view of what is real and important—devoting our lives to bickering about shadows with the other manacled fools in Plato’s cave. In his novel Perelandra, C.S. Lewis tried to evoke the reality in which we actually live, the water we fish don’t notice:
He thought he saw the Great Dance. It seemed to be woven out of the intertwining undulation of many cords or bands of light, leaping over and under one another and mutually embraced in arabesques and flower-like subtleties. Each figure as he looked at it became the master-figure or focus of the whole spectacle, by means of which his eye disentangled all else and brought it into unity only to be itself entangled when he looked to what he had taken for mere marginal decorations and found that there also the same hegemony was claimed, and the claim made good, yet the former pattern not thereby dispossessed but finding in its new subordination a significance greater than that which it had abdicated. He could see also (but the word “seeing” is now plainly inadequate) wherever the ribbons or serpents of light intersected, minute corpuscles of momentary brightness: and he knew somehow that these particles were the secular generalities of which history tells—peoples, institutions, climates of opinion, civilizations, arts, sciences, and the like—ephemeral coruscations that piped their short song and vanished. The ribbons or cords themselves, in which millions of corpuscles lived and died, were things of some different kind. At first he could not say what. But he knew in the end that most of them were individual entities. If so, the time in which the Great Dance proceeds is very unlike time as we know it Some of the thinner and more delicate cords were beings that we call short-lived: flowers and insects, a fruit or a storm of rain, and once (he thought) a wave of the sea. Others were such things as we also think lasting: crystals, rivers, mountains, or even stars. Far above these in girth and luminosity and flashing with colours from beyond our spectrum were the lines of the personal beings, yet as different from one another in splendour as all of them from the previous class. But not all the cords were individuals: some were universal truth or universal qualities. It did not surprise him then to find that these and the persons were both cords and both stood together as against the mere atoms of generality which lived and died in the clashing of their streams: but afterwards, when he came back to earth, he wondered. And by now the thing must have passed together out of the region of sight as we understand it. For he says that the whole solid figure of these enamoured and inter-inanimated circlings was suddenly revealed as the mere superficies of a far vaster pattern in four dimensions, and that figure as the boundary of yet others in other worlds: till suddenly as the movement grew yet swifter, the inter-weaving yet more ecstatic, the relevance of all to all yet more intense, as dimension was added to dimension and that part of him which could reason and remember was dropped farther and farther behind that part of him which saw, even then, at the very zenith of complexity, complexity was eaten up and faded, as a thin white cloud fades into the hard blue burning of the sky, and a simplicity beyond all comprehension, ancient and young as spring, illimitable pellucid, drew him with cords of infinite desire into its own stillness. He went up into such a quietness, a privacy, and a freshness that at the very moment when he stood Farthest from our ordinary mode of being he had the sense of stripping off encumbrances and awaking from trance, and coming to himself.
Angels and demons see this reality and its stakes for what they are. Elections and wars are but wet paper to them, fragile and ephemeral.

But the eternal soul of the most humble, pathetic “loser” you can imagine? A fortress forested with alabaster spires; vast as Sahara; looming like Himalaya; battlements warded by Heaven’s hosts, but besieged by demon legions; a great strategic prize in the one, only really Great War that ever was or will be: a rich trove of gems, a palisaded garden, a dazzling, awful armory of prayers meekly offered and thus terrible, terrible in their power to shape the Great War. A high-walled treasure city: the celestial and infernal armies’ struggle for it—could we but see it—a saga far worthier sung than trifling Troy’s! That’s the soul of the raving bum on the corner; the addict trembling in the squalid crack den; the disabled, disfigured child in the womb; the gay activist calling you a bigot in all caps on Facebook. That soul is of infinite value.

And so is your soul, and mine, and the soul of the young atheist you bring around to faith in Our Lord Jesus Christ by chatting about ideas in the coffee shop. That’s reality. Yes, this sublunary sphere matters: it is God’s good gift to us, which we are to cherish and steward, this globe both our garden and His Temple. But the really great common good is not most ably served by statesmanship, but by discipleship. Today’s hegemonic Rome may burn, and we will rightly mourn it as patriots who love our native earth. But we must not forget that it is not this Babylon, but the New Jerusalem, that is our country:

The Benedict Option is not a retreat: it is joining the battle in the real world.

Don’t retreat into the beguiling tribal squabbles of politics. Follow the King to battle.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Pedagogical Esotericism in the Bible

Over at thoughtful, thought-provoking atheist blogger Scott Alexander's semimonthly open thread, commenter Cauê asks for theist commenters' views of the Bible. This a lightly edited version of the second point I made in my reply:

Esotericism is a huge deal in understanding ancient writing. Not esotericism of the “spooky occult secrets” sort, but pedagogical and belle-lettristic esotericism. I’ve been asked in Scott's comments before why, if God inspired the Bible, He didn’t clearly lay out what His plan was, and prove it was Him by dropping some modern science in there or something. The answer to the latter part is that He was working through autonomous human authors who didn’t know any modern science. The answer to the former is that ancient people never would’ve preserved a book that clearly laid out anything, because they scorned such books. They liked their books like we like our online RPGs: full of hidden Easter eggs. (Indeed, finding allegorical “Easter” eggs in the Old Testament was kind of the main hobby for Christian exegetes for centuries.)

From P.E. Gobry’s recent “pedagogical esotericism”-stressing review of the recent Straussian work Philosophy Between the Lines by Arthur M. Melzer

Philosophers did not just practice esotericism as a way of sneaking subversive ideas past the censors, but also as a pedagogical device, much in the way of Socrates’ insistent questioning. For the Ancient philosophers, philosophy was not just, perhaps not even primarily, a body of doctrine, but an attitude of the mind towards contemplation and relentless questioning. The task of making philosophers, then, was not primarily about imparting ideas, but about leading people towards a certain state of mind. The philosopher wanted his pupils to discover his ideas on their own, by studying the text and working hard to get past the literal meaning, and thereby growing into a philosophic mind and posture.

In this regard, Melzer points out something else (in retrospect obvious, but which was quite an “Aha!” moment for me), which is the rarity of books in the era before the advent of the printing press, and the fact that the classical liberal arts curriculum included long study in “rhetoric” (i.e. the art of writing) which is something we have all-but forgotten. Everyone who was educated was trained in writing and reading between the lines. And because books were rare and expensive, owners of books, instead of the contemporary practice of reading a book once and then just moving on to the next, would typically reread the same book many times over their lifetime. Knowing this, authors would typically be alert to write in an esoteric style, concealing many layers of meaning into the text, so that the book would still be rewarding on the Nth reading. Just like, to the contrary, anyone writing a book today knows all-too-well that his book is competing with millions of other books, and so strives to make his argument as clear, literal and obvious as possible for fear that the reader just drop the book and move on to another.

If this is how everyone understood the art of writing and the art of reading until very recently, then, certainly, this should have an impact on how we read the Bible. In fact, Strauss was first alerted to the reality of esoteric writing by his reading of Maimonides and Rashi, the two greatest Medieval rabbis. (Maimonides (like Aquinas) read Aristotle esoterically, as did every single Ancient commentator (Aristotle is the single author with the biggest secondary literature in the Ancient world), even though today Aristotle is considered as perhaps the most literal Ancient philosopher.)

Even without referring to inspired spiritual senses, we should still realize that the Modern prejudice that the surface meaning of a text is almost always the most authentic is just that–a culturally-contingent prejudice. By contrast, educated readers and writers for the rest of history would have had precisely the opposite assumption: that it’s more likely that the surface meaning of the text is not the most authentic. And this is indeed how many rabbis and Church Fathers read the Bible.


Anyway, that’s a lot. But as a Catholic, if there was ONE concept I wish contemporary atheists had in their head about the Bible, it would be how the modern secular, post-Protestant prejudice that a high quality book is necessarily a highly perspicuous book is 180 degrees from the stylistic canons of the Bible’s own era. Once I discovered the perspective of pedagogical esotericism, studying the Bible went for me from frustration at its ambiguity to delight in its intricacy. And I suddenly understood why the Church Fathers and the medieval Scholastics enjoyed commentating it so much, and why moderns tend to dislike it so much.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Scrumping monkeys

Rod Dreher has a post up about animal rights activists trying to bring a habeas corpus suit on behalf of lab chimps at SUNY. I commented:
Bioethics is and will be the new disputed frontier of the culture wars.

Thus, this and similar suits in recent years are indeed ominous portents, although many here will doubtless wish to point out that they’re not succeeding…yet. The linked NY Times article indicates that the state judge involved sees this ruling as merely a way to get the parties into court, rather than as a ruling on the merits. So that’s good.

Further, legal personhood is a fictional construct—chimps aren’t people, but neither are corporate entities like business corporations, churches, political parties, etc. So legal personhood need not imply metaphysical personhood of the sort rightly assigned to humans. So that’s another reason not to fret.

However, there are still reasons to fret: Professor Tribe, in the linked article, says we’re not ready to grant “human personhood” to chimps “yet.” This is very dangerous rhetoric indeed. First, “human personhood,” real personhood, is the sort of personhood that thinkers of the ilk of Peter Singer and Julian Savelescu want society to grant to nonhuman animals (and maybe A.I. at some point), and withhold from the comatose, the unborn, and even infants under the age of two.

Animal rights activists’ focus on “personhood” lawsuits like habeas corpus actions reveals (not that they’re shy about stating their goals) that revolutionizing our definition of human personhood to include animals (and incidentally to exclude disfavored humans) is the core agenda here. As Wesley J. Smith (whose National Review column “Human Exceptionalism” is really the go-to reference, IMHO, for traditionalist coverage of skirmishes like these at the bioethical frontiers of the culture war) often quotes PETA President Ingrid Newkirk assertion that typifies the extremist desire to blur our boundaries of personhood: “A rat is a pig is a dog is a boy.”

Backed into a corner, many of these activists will protest that they only mean that “a rat is a pig is a dog is a boy” in the sense that all can feel pain and should have their welfare protected. But that is not the vision that animates the zealous core of the animal rights movement, as we can see in two key ways.

First, we know that one-year-old babies can feel pain, but thinkers like Singer and Savelescu think it’s fine to murder them if they are disabled or otherwise inconvenience their parents. Now, presumably S&S (“the S.S.” was a deeply tempting choice of contraction given my read on the ultimate stakes here, but this debate gets heated enough without bringing Godwin’s Law into it, so I think I owe S&S’s side at least the minimal courtesy of refraining) would say that such children ought to be anaesthetized before being “euthanized.” However, PETA zealots want all animal experimentation to end—anaesthetized or not. So reducing animal pain is not the end goal here.

Second, “animal rights” overlaps with, but is very different than, “animal welfare.” Animal cruelty laws already exist to address animal welfare concerns. If regulations on animal experimentation don’t sufficiently protect animals from needless pain, then animal advocates should (and can) advocate for state and federal lawmakers to strengthen those regulations.

Now, perhaps the concern is that government regulators aren’t sufficiently motivated (or funded, or whatever) to bring actions against violators of existing animal welfare regs. But if that’s the case, then PETA and its ilk ought to be lobbying for qui tam provisions in animal welfare regs.

(A “qui tam” provision allows private “whistleblower” suits in cases where the government is being defrauded (which isn’t relevant here) and also, relevantly, can allow private parties to bring suit against other private parties for violating laws or regulations. The classic law school example of such a qui tam suit would be a local nonprofit bringing suit under a qui tam provision against a local factory for dumping pollutants in a nearby river in violation of environmental regs.)

Now, there is a complication here: SUNY is a state agency, and IIRC (although I am very much open to correction on this point, which is far outside my knowledge base) qui tam suits, at least under federal statutes, can’t be brought against states for 11th Amendment reasons. However, I would imagine that legislators in Albany could be lobbied (or, being Albany, bought, if one does politics that way) to add some sort of private enforcement provision to state regs.

So, with the caveat that SUNY is a state agency, and maybe that’s relevant in the present case, I think it’s revealing that these zealots, across a variety of cases over the years, have sought a habeas corpus remedy rather than a qui tam remedy. A qui tam remedy would allow them to bring animal abusers to court. But it wouldn’t be a legal recognition of personhood for animals, any more than present qui tam suits against polluters of rivers represent personhood for rivers.

So this isn’t about animal welfare: it’s about animal personhood.

It’s an extremist position, and hasn’t gained much traction yet. But the two key ideological traits that allowed for SSM’s rapid ascent to cultural respectability in our Lockean legal order and our emotivist, therapeutic public culture are there:

1. Sympathetic victims. SSM had the travails of decent people denied hospital visitation, child custody, and other basic civil protections for the family lives they had built. Animal rights has primates, cetaceans, and every big-eyed fuzzy critter you can think of.

2. A carefully constructed narrative of itself as the next civil rights frontier. Richard Rorty wrote of secular relativist liberalism as a project of expanding circles of concern and compassion—from propertied able-bodied white men to women, people of color, disabled people, etc. As we’ve seen, SSM fit right into that vision, and transgender narratives do, too. Here, the idea of expanding the circle of concern to include animals is an ideologically natural (indeed, perhaps historically inevitable) outworking of Deweyan progressive visions like Rorty’s, and indeed animal rights thinkers like Singer, and the people at the Great Apes Project (a primate personhood initiative associated with a lot of these habeas suits in the U.S. and with campaigns for primate personhood parliamentary legislation in countries like Spain) have been articulating that exact “expanding circle of concern” case for animal rights as the next civil rights for years now.

All movements start small. And this particular suit is unlikely to prevail. But these suits for the rights of beasts portend that something very, very rough indeed is slouching toward Bethlehem to be born. This is tomorrow’s culture war. And the side that has sympathetic victims and a narrative of itself as “the new civil rights movement” always seems to win. The time to start thinking rigorously about how to counter this—or how to survive our very, very probable defeat in a future American cultural landscape where chimps are obviously people, comatose humans obviously aren’t, and anyone who thinks differently is a “religious nut”—is long past.


I got some thoughtful pushback, to the effect that my view was alarmist, "mistaking a squirrel rustling a tree branch outside for the onrushing Wehrmacht." I replied:

Oh, I don’t think that tree branch rustling outside in our garden is the Wehrmacht, those noisy brutes—we’d both have noticed their sort by now. I think it’s maybe the Wandervögel tramping through our yard, those apolitical German hippie hiker kids, happy to admit Jews and gay people into their ranks, eager for peace, love, nature, and vegetarianism, greeting each other with a hearty “Heil!”, singing German folk songs round the campfire, and dabbling in Teutonic neopaganism. Nice kids, wholesome ideals, happy to have them stroll through our yard. But I do notice that some of those ideas could, maybe, be appropriated a certain way, and do some damage. Not now, not in 1895, as the boys in our garden rustle the branches of our blooming spring trees so they can grab flowers for their belles’ hair. But in a few decades? In the far, futuristic world of 1933 or 1945, with its technologies we can hardly dream of from the vantage of 1895? I don’t know. Maybe. I’m far from panicked. But I think sober reflection is in order. And I think some of those Teutonic neopagan elements, in particular, ought to be opposed before they make trouble. I’m going to go talk to those kids on our lawn now, so we can reason together. No harm in that, and it might ward off something ugly. There will be apples on our trees soon enough, and they might yet scrump them. Fair enough—what could be more wholesome than a fresh-picked apple? And we’ve plenty to spare for scrumpers. But I do recall that mankind has gotten in trouble scrumping apples before; terrible trouble indeed, from messing about with something good-seeming, promising godlike knowledge and power, but proven in the eating a fruit full of worm-spoiled woe and sorrow. I’d best warn those nice kids away from the orchard. Now. Before the apples come.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Hiatus

Life is very busy at the moment. Blogging will resume here as time allows. God bless.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Overflowing

In today's Gospel, we read:
Jesus said to his disciples: “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. Stop judging and you will not be judged. Stop condemning and you will not be condemned. Forgive and you will be forgiven. Give and gifts will be given to you; a good measure, packed together, shaken down, and overflowing, will be poured into your lap. For the measure with which you measure will in return be measured out to you.”
--Luke 6:36-38

What you give is what you will be given by the Father. And yet, we are promised that what we will be given will be overflowing abundance. Thus, the only measure that can call forth that reciprocal response of mercy, nonjudgment, noncondemnation, forgiveness, and gift is a superabundant measure. In order to be capable of receiving God's overflowing grace, we must become the sorts of beings who can accept such abundance. But how to grow into being capable of giving and receiving goodness that overflows all natural bounds? With His supernatural help. We are not called merely to be somewhat merciful, or somewhat forgiving, but to be supernaturally, superabundantly merciful and forgiving. This is not a task for unaided human nature. So ask for His help!

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Tathāgata

As we read in today's Gospel, Our Lord in His Incarnation is the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets:
Jesus took Peter, John, and James and went up the mountain to pray. While he was praying his face changed in appearance and his clothing became dazzling white. And behold, two men were conversing with him, Moses and Elijah, who appeared in glory and spoke of his exodus that he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem.
-- Luke

What was this new exodus which Our Lord was going to accomplish?

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Dove Strategy

In today's Gospel, Our Lord asks the impossible of us:
You have heard that it was said, "You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy." But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust.
--Matthew 5:43-45

Friday, February 22, 2013

Promise to Peter

In the wake of Pope Benedict's brave and self-effacing recent renunciation of the See of Rome, today the Church celebrates the "Feast of the Chair of St. Peter, Apostle." In today's Gospel, Our Lord promises the first Pope:
And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.
-- Matthew 16:18

Sometimes it seems as if Christ's Church is in insurmountable crisis. Concern trolls in the media have said as much in their cynical reflections on Pope Benedict's revitalizing and reformist renunciation.