What We're Reading

5 Sep

Stanley Hauerwas on the modern idea of freedom

Category: What We're Reading
By: Ken Myers
Published: 09/05/13

American churches and autonomous choosers

Stanley Hauerwas

One of the themes that emerged in several interviews on Volume 118 of the Journal was the meaning of human freedom. I think Ron Highfield (God, Freedom, and Human Dignity) is absolutely right in insisting that the modern view of freedom is incompatible with the Gospel’s understanding of who we are and how we were meant to thrive. Unfortunately, much of American Christianity seems configured to justify many modern assumptions rather than critique them. 

Do American churches have the capacity and courage to offer an alternative to the central assumptions that comprise the spirit of our age? In a recently published essay called “The End of American Protestantism,” Stanley Hauerwas argued that “Protestant churches in America lost the ability to maintain the disciplines necessary to sustain a people capable of being an alternative to the world.” He further observes: “More Americans may go to church than their counterparts in Europe, but the churches to which they go do little to challenge the secular presumptions that form their lives or the lives of the churches to which they go.”

I have a lot of sympathy with Hauerwas’s evaluation of the cultural captivity of the American churches. And I think Hauerwas is right in this essay to identify a particular view of freedom (and of America) as fundamental to our confusion. That view of freedom is implicit in the glib concept of “church shopping” (as Daniel M. Bell, Jr., observed in our conversation) and in the proud championing of the “market-driven church” that has become uncontroversial in much of Protestantism.

Hauerwas argues that “America is the exemplification of what I call the project of modernity. That project is the attempt to produce a people who believe that they should have no story except the story that they choose when they had no story. That is what Americans mean by ‘freedom.’” Hauerwas has used this “no story” formulation to discuss the modern view of freedom in other essays, and it’s worth spending some time with his essay to discern what he means. I think that he’s right in insisting (here and elsewhere) that this is a view of freedom that issues in nihilism. American society, he asserts, is “a society that shares no goods in common other than the belief that there are no goods in common.” If churches really want to confront the implicit (and often explicit) nihilism of our cultural moment, they will have to confront their complicity in its nurturing.

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23 Aug

"What You Need to Know About Hans Urs von Balthasar"

Category: What We're Reading
By: Ken Myers
Published: 08/23/13

Rodney Howsare's new essay (and his 2009 book) provide instructive guidance for reading Balthasar.

To date, our Journal has featured no interviews about the work of theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar. There is probably no good reason for this omission. His name has been mentioned in passing during interviews, and many of our guests have been influenced by his work (perhaps most notably David Schindler, heard on vol. 112, and Stratford Caldecott, a guest on vol. 102 and vol. 116).

Reading Balthasar is not a project casually pursued. As Rodney Howsare has remarked, Balthasar “makes enormous demands on his reader, both in terms of the density of his arguments and in terms of what he expects them to already know.” Howsare has provided would-be Balthasar readers with welcome assistance in his 2009 book, Balthasar: A Guide for the Perplexed (T&T Clark). Now Howsare (Professor of Fundamental Theology at DeSales University) has offered an even more concise and tantalizing primer in an essay posted on the Front Porch Republic website, “What You Need to Know About Hans Urs von Balthasar.” In addition to a summary of Balthasar’s massive theological project, Howsare includes links to other introductory essays.

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19 Feb

A Hobbit Journey: Discovering the Enchantment of J. R. R. Tolkien's Middle-earth

Category: What We're Reading
By: Ken Myers
Published: 02/19/13

(Brazos, 2012)

A reworking and expansion of his earlier Following Gandalf, Dickerson (a guest on volume 85) discusses the moral vision of Tolkien in the Middle Earth books, focusing a good deal of attention on matters concerning justice in warfare.

19 Aug

With enemies like this . . .

Category: What We're Reading
By: Ken Myers
Published: 08/19/09

The spurt of books published in the past few years by fervent, fundamentalist atheists has seen a predictable sequel in a crop of titles by the critics of the critics of religion. The most stimulating of these critiques may have been written by a man who makes no claims of personal Christian commitment.

Alister McGrath's The Dawkins Delusion (InterVarsity Press, 2007) was a brief point-by-point refutation of claims made by Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion. In Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies (Yale, 2009), David Bentley Hart focuses on the most outrageous claim made by the "New Atheists," that the history of the West was more cruel and ugly because of Christianity than it would have been otherwise. "Many of today's most obstreperous critics of Christianity," writes Hart, "know nothing more of Christendom's two millennia than a few childish images of bloodthirsty crusaders and sadistic inquisitors, a few damning facts, and a great number of even more damning legends; to such critics, obviously, Christians ought not to surrender the past but should instead deepen their own collective memory of what the gospel has been in human history." Such a deepening is what Hart's book succeeds in encouraging. (My interview with Hart about his book will be heard on volume 98 of the MARS HILL AUDIO Journal.)

Terry Eagleton's Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate (Yale, 2009) presents the lightly manicured texts of four lectures given last year in which Eagleton—a brilliant literary critic and unabashed Marxist—offered a blistering dismissal of arguments made by Dawkins and by Christopher Hitchens in God Is Not Great. This artful shellacking was a continuation of the 2006 review ("Lunging, Flailing, Mispunching") that Eagleton fired at Dawkins's book in the London Review of Books, a review which memorably began, "Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology."

Eagleton's witty deconstruction of the two-headed "Ditchkins" (the Dickensian persona he employs to signify these two authors and their genus) provides the impetus for this book, but not its substance. In the Preface, Eagleton writes that he has a larger goal than simply rebuking the "ignorance and prejudice" of Ditchkins. "If the agnostic left [among whom we assume Eagleton is numbered] cannot afford such intellectual indolence when it comes to the Jewish and Christian Scriptures, it is not only because it belongs to justice and honesty to confront your opponent at his or her most convincing. It is also that radicals might discover there some valuable insight into human emancipation, in an era where the political left stands in dire need of good ideas. . . . [These] scriptures have much to say about some vital questions—death, suffering, love, self-dispossession, and the life—on which the left has for the most part maintained an embarrassed silence. It is time for this politically crippling shyness to come to an end."

Contrary to what some might be led to infer from this claim, Eagleton is not ransacking the Bible for superficial sources of political leverage. His interaction with Christian thought is much deeper than that and is marked by some remarkable insights into the meaning of faith, reason, creation, love, and sacrifice.

Take, for example, Eagleton's treatment of the relationship between faith and reason. Early in the book, Eagleton observes that "Life for Dawkins would seem to divide neatly down the middle between things you can prove beyond all doubt, and blind faith. He fails to see that all the most interesting stuff goes on in neither of those places." Later (in a chapter called "Faith and Reason"), Eagleton observes: "We might clarify the relations between faith and knowledge here with an analogy. If I am in love with you, I must be prepared to explain what it is about you I find so lovable, otherwise the word 'love' here has no more meaning than a grunt. I must supply reasons for my affection. But I am also bound to acknowledge that someone else might wholeheartedly endorse my reasons yet not be in love with you at all. The evidence by itself will not decide the issue. At some point along the line, a particular way of seeing the evidence emerges, one which involves a peculiar kind of personal engagement with it; and none of this is reducible to the facts themselves, in the sense of being ineluctably motivated by a bare account of them."

While he is a staunch critic of cocky postmodern irrationalism, Eagleton is eager to make rationalists feel the pressure that "[i]f we are to defend reason, we must be inspired by more than reason to do so." And as to the notion that science is simply the exercise of pure reason, Eagleton quotes Charles Taylor, who points out that "to hold that there are no assumptions in a scientist's work which aren't already based on evidence is surely a reflection of a blind faith, one that can't even feel the occasional tremor of doubt." Science is about faith, but faith in Eagleton's view "is not in the first place a matter of choice. It is more common to find oneself believing something than to make a conscious decision to do so—or at least to make such a conscious decision because you find yourself leaning that way already. This is not, needless to say, a matter of determinism. It is rather a question of being gripped by a commitment from which one finds oneself unable to walk away. It is not primarily a question of the will. . . ." Eagleton offers here an aside about the "cult of the will" that characterizes the United States: "Negativity is often looked upon there as a kind of thought crime. Not since the advent of socialist realism has the world witnessed such pathological upbeatness. This Faustian belief in Man's infinite capabilities is by no means to be confused with the virtue of hope. As long as it exists, however, belief will continue to be falsely linked to so-called acts of will, in a voluntaristic misunderstanding of how we come by our convictions."

Earlier in the book, Eagleton offered a summary of the Christian understanding of the doctrine of Creation, insisting that God "made the world with no functional end in view but simply for the love and delight of it. . . . he made it as gift, superfluity, and gratuitous gesture—out of nothing, rather than out of grim necessity. . . . He created it out of love, not need." This theme of gift-ness returns when Eagleton observes: "The difference between science and theology, as I understand it, is one over whether you see the world as a gift or not, and you cannot resolve this just by inspecting the thing, any more than you can deduce from examining a porcelain vase that it is a wedding present."

Faith, in Eagleton's view, resonates with the giftly character of Creation. "The Christian way of indicating that faith is not in the end a question of choice is the notion of grace. Like the world itself from a Christian viewpoint, faith is a gift. This means among other things that Christians are not in conscious possession of all the reasons why they believe in God. But neither is anyone in conscious possession of all the reasons why they believe in keeping fit, the supreme value of the individual, or the importance of being sincere. Only ultrarationalists imagine that they need to be. Because faith is not wholly conscious, it is uncommon to abandon it simply by taking thought. Too much else would have to be altered as well. It is not usual for a life-long conservative to become a revolutionary because a thought has struck him. . . . Because certain of our commitments are constitutive of who we are, we cannot alter them without what Christianity traditionally calls a conversion, which involves a lot more than just swapping one opinion for another."

Eagleton is as critical of the optimistic project of liberal humanism as he is of glib rationalism. At the end of the book, he identifies himself as a "tragic humanist," one who believes that the goal of human flourishing can only be pursued "by confronting the very worst" in the human condition. Tragic humanists hold "that only by a process of self-dispossession and radical remaking can humanity come into its own." Holding such a conviction, Eagleton is understandably ready to find the story of Christ's crucifixion and resurrection a compelling and revealing one, more ready perhaps even than many believers.

Posted by Ken Myers on 8/20/09

13 Apr

Digital Equality and the Untuning of the World

Category: What We're Reading
By: Ken Myers
Published: 04/13/09

Lee Siegel's most recent book, Against the Machine, is a pointed exploration of themes MARS HILL AUDIO addresses frequently: the centrality of the sovereign self in modern culture (and the dehumanizing effects of that sovereignty), the way technologies rearrange social relationships without our noticing the changes (or their consequences), and the erosion of forms of cultural authority. These are concerns that have emerged in other essays by Siegel, who has contributed regularly for the last decade to The New Republic, The Nation, and Slate. In this book, subtitled Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob, Siegel's concerns about the consequences of cultural carelessness seem more closely defined, if sometimes overstated.

Siegel's range of cultural criticism is broad; his 2006 book, Falling Upwards: Essays in Defense of the Imagination, included pieces about J. K. Rowling, Saul Bellow, Jack Nicholson, Jane Austen, The Sopranos, and Dante. That same year, he wrote a cover story for The New Republic about Oprah Winfrey, Thank You for Sharing, a brilliant analysis of how Oprah had become such a powerful public figure by showcasing themes that resonate with certain dominant cultural vibrations. Having acquired cultural influence by reflecting certain values, her public presence further reinforces those vibrations, which snowballs her to remarkable social influence.

In the Oprah article, Siegel discussed two interrelated cultural patterns: the narcissistic preoccupations encouraged by the modern elevation of the self at the center of the moral universe, and the erasing of objective hierarchies of significance that accompanies that enthroned self. In Siegel's analysis, a large proportion of Oprah's diverse range of guests are united by their stories of struggle and survival, of suffering and growth—stories that serve a therapeutic purpose for viewers anxious about navigating the shoals of their own experience. While stories of growth through suffering sound redemptive, Siegel suggests that Oprah's paradigmatic stories encourage personal growth on terms established autonomously by each person. In other words, each of us sets out to become the self we choose to be, on our own terms. Our actions are meaningful not in the context of some overarching moral framework, but as episodes in the construction of that self-authenticating self. And we can find encouragement for negotiating obstacles in our way by empathizing with the plucky and resourceful guests on one of Oprah's comfy chairs.

But Siegel worried that a crucial capacity for moral reflection and evaluation was undermined by the empathy marathon in Oprahworld, which seems to be

a kingdom of mere sensations, in which no experience has a higher—or different—value than any other experience. We weep and empathize with the self-destructive mother, we weep and empathize with Sidney Poitier, we weep and empathize with the young woman dying of anorexia, we weep and empathize with Teri Hatcher, we weep and empathize with the girl with the disfigured face, we weep and empathize with the grateful recipients of Oprah's gift of a new car to every member of one lucky audience, we weep and empathize with the woman burned beyond recognition by her vicious husband. In the end, like the melting vision of tearing eyes, the situations blur into each other without distinction. They are all relative to your own experience of watching them. The fungibility of feeling is really a reduction of all experience to the effect it has on your own quality of feeling.

The implication here is that all powerful feelings are self-authenticating. According to the cultural ethos exploited and sustained by Oprah (and countless others), no one need regard any feelings as disproportionate, misdirected, or disordered.

The socially destructive effects of narcissism (and of the idea that the self is a project we create autonomously) are also examined throughout Against the Machine. In a chapter called The Me Is the Message, Siegel recalls Christopher Lasch's 1978 The Culture of Narcissism, and Lasch's concern about a rising tide of confessional writing evident in American culture. As Siegel notes, Lasch was worried that such self-preoccupation would create an inner sense of emptiness by exalting the self and cutting it off from reality. Such isolated self-scrutiny, packed with psychiatric clichés, made people so self-conscious that they felt as though they were performing their existence rather than living it. Siegel believes that what Lasch saw was the initial edge of a social revolution, and argues that the way Internet technologies have developed has enabled the advent of the first social environment to serve the needs of the isolated, elevated, asocial individual.

In Siegel's view, the connections made possible by this technology do not compensate for the disconnections it encourages:

[T]he Internet creates a vast illusion that the physical, social world of interacting minds and hearts does not exist. In this new situation, the screen is all that is the case, along with the illusion that the screen projects of a world tamed, digested, abbreviated, rationalized, and ordered into a trillion connected units, called sites. This new world turns the most consequential fact of human life—other people—into seemingly manipulable half presences wholly available to our fantasies. . . . What kind of idea do we have of the world when, day after day, we sit in front of our screens and enter further and further into the illusion that we ourselves are actually creating our own external reality out of our own internal desires? We become impatient with realities that don't gratify our impulses or satisfy our picture of reality. We find it harder to accept the immutable limitations imposed by identity, talent, personality. We start to behave in public as if we were acting in private, and we begin to fill our private world with gargantuan public appetites. In other words, we find it hard to bear simply being human.

Late in the book, Siegel describes the quasi-gnostic effect of Internet communications, observing that when you are online,

you don't have to be communicating with anyone in particular. Just being online means that you are communicating with everyone in general. . . . There are no physical reminders of where the other presences online begin and end. There are no concrete inhibitors. And because you are alone, without bounded people, or a definite environment, or delineated circumstances—because there is nothing to remind you that you yourself have limits—you can 'express' yourself out of the infinite conceptions you have of yourself. . . . Such absolute liberation from constraints is why anonymity is so widespread on the Internet, and why everything on the Internet tends toward anonymity: the hidden solitude of sitting before the screen, the spectral half-person presence of being online, the sense of yourself and of other people as having no boundaries. After expertise, authority, and merit have fallen away as obstacles, identity remains the last barrier to the vicarious, acquisitive, totally accessing, fully participating Internet will. Anonymity, you might say, is the Internet's ultimate identity. If you are not who you say you are, you can be anyone you wish to be.

Boundaries are a central idea in Siegel's book; not only the boundedness of identity and personal experience, but the proper boundedness of ideas. Early in the book, he observes that the Internet ideal of giving everyone a voice begs the question of whether everyone deserves—in every setting—the same hearing. The digital mechanisms and social structures that give everyone a voice can also be a way to keep the most creative, intelligent, and original voices from being heard.

Boundaries (along with hierarchies) are also implicitly in play when Siegel discusses the difference between being knowledgeable and being well-informed.

[K]nowledge means you understand a subject, its causes and consequence, its history and development, its relationship to some fundamental aspect of life. But you can possess a lot of information about something without understanding it. An excess of information can even disable knowledge; it can unmoor the mind from its surroundings by breaking up its surroundings into meaningless data.

In Ideas Have Consequences, Richard Weaver observed that many modern people wish to know the truth, but they have been taught a perversion which makes their chance of obtaining it less every day. This perversion is that in a just society there are no distinctions. A just society—the conventional wisdom has it—will tolerate no elites, let alone honor them. This egalitarianism and its repudiation of cultural authority is the consequence of the blogosphere Siegel finds most repulsive. The Internet, Siegel claims, has created a universal impatience with authority, with any kind of superiority conferred by excellence of expertise. Created is an unwarranted verb: Weaver saw this impatience in the 1940s. But the Internet has certainly aided and abetted this tendency; its economic, social, and technical capacities make it ever easier for sheer popularity to replace excellence as the sole criterion of cultural value.

Siegel's greatest sin in the eyes of his critics is his insistence that culture should not be democratic. When he asserts that Not everyone has something meaningful to say, he is dismissed as undemocratic, an enemy of equality. But, as Richard Weaver warned, an undefined equalitarianism is the most insidious idea employed to break down society. . . . Thomas Jefferson, after his long apostleship to radicalism, made it the labor of his old age to create an educational system which would be a means of sorting out according to gifts and attainments.

One other observation of Weaver's seems to resonate with Lee Siegel's critique of bloggers, especially those who proudly dismiss the dinosaur of mainstream media as antiquated and enemies of universal access. Weaver noted I would mention here the fact, obvious to any candid observer, that 'equality' is found most often in the mouths of those engaged in artful self-promotion. These secretly cherish the ladder to high designs but find that they can mount the lower runs more easily by making use of the catchword. We do not necessarily grudge them their rise, but the concept they foster is fatal to the harmony of the world.

Posted by Ken Myers on 4/14/09