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.