5 Apr

The idiocy of a-theistic society

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 04/05/16

Luigi Giussani on the irresistable question of God for human flourishing

“Only the hypothesis of God, only the affirmation of the mystery as a reality existing beyond our capacity to fathom entirely, only this hypothesis corresponds to the human person’s original structure. If it is human nature to indomitably search for an answer, if the structure of a human being is, then, this irresistible and inexhaustible question, plea—then one suppresses the question if one does not admit to the existence of an answer. But this answer cannot be anything but unfathomable. Only the existence of the mystery suits the structure of the human person, which is mendicity, insatiable begging, and what corresponds to him is neither he himself nor something he gives to himself, measures, or possesses.

“The world without God would be a ‘tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.’ So muses one of Shakespeare’s characters, and the very fabric of an atheistic society has never been defined better. Life would be a ‘tale,’ a strange dream, an abstract discourse of an exasperated imagination, ‘told by an idiot,’ and, therefore, without unity. Life would be all splintered into segments, with no true order, with no vision beyond the immediate instant, ‘full of sound and fury,’ that is to say, where the single method of relationship is violence, the illusion of possession.”

—from Luigi Giussani, The Religious Sense (McGill-Queens University Press, 1997)

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7 Mar

Not just other-worldly concerns

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 03/07/16

William Cavanaugh on the “religionization” of Christianity

“The [current] debate over religious freedom has generally assumed that the primary contest is over defining freedom, not religion. We assume that we more or less know what we are talking about when we say ‘religion’; the argument is about how much freedom religion should be granted. But the concept of religion is itself a hotly contested concept. It is, furthermore, a politically charged concept, not a neutral descriptor. In other words, what counts as religion and what does not in any given context often depends upon and instantiates a certain exercise of power, for good or for ill.

“In the context of the current debate, . . . I want to explore the usefulness of the concept of religious freedom. In doing so, I will not assume that Catholicism or Christianity more generally is a religion, and then ask what the government can do to ensure its freedom. I will instead question the assumption that Christianity is a religion to begin with, and examine both the advantages and the problems with claiming religious freedom for the church. . . . Appeals to religious freedom can be a double-edged sword.

“On the face of it, the question I’m raising seems ridiculous. Of course Christianity is a religion. A deeper look at the recent government arguments about the free exercise of religion, however, makes clear that what does and what does not count as religion is at the heart of the matter. The HHS mandate has been framed by its protagonists not as a restriction of religious liberty but is a clarification about what counts as religion and what does not. Churches, synagogues, mosques, etc., are entitled as always to exemption from having to provide insurance coverage for services that violate their principles, based on the concept of free exercise of religion. But schools, hospitals, charities, and other agencies that are affiliated with such congregations have been redefined as not essentially religious, and therefore not exempt from the mandates under the principle of religious freedom, because they do not ‘serve primarily persons who share the[ir] religious tenets,’ according to the HHS. . . . The government’s position makes a distinction between church agencies that serve a religious function and those that serve a social function. The implication is that ‘religion’ is not something that is essentially social. . . .

“[R]eligion is defined in liberal society as a matter of beliefs about the otherworldly and only indirectly applies to the social and political. In Thomas Jefferson’s words, belief in one God or twenty neither picks my pocket nor breaks my legs; in other words, religion has no immediate social effect. . . . [T]he very modern Western concept of religion was born out of the desire to identify religion as precisely that which has to do with otherworldly concerns and not with the application of public power in ‘secular’ matters such as politics and economics. . . . To resist the confinement of Christianity to concern with the otherworldly, we need a robust defense of the idea that our God is the God of all creation, and that the gospel is concerned with caring for the flourishing of the whole human person, body and soul. We need more than an appeal to freedom of belief and freedom of conscience; we need to question the modern terms under which Christianity is consigned to one side of the religious/secular dichotomy that has been constructed in liberal society. We need to ask, as Robert Shedinger puts it, ‘whether the concern so often expressed over the politicization of Islam in the contemporary world ought to be replaced by concern with the “religionization” of Christianity.’”

—from William Cavanaugh, “Are We Free Not to Be A Religion? The Ambivalence of Religious Freedom,” in Field Hospital: The Church’s Engagement with a Wounded World (Eerdmans, 2016)

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7 Mar

The burden of creating meaning

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 03/07/16

George Parkin Grant on the insatiability of the modern will

“The more we are concentrated on the future as the most fascinating reality, the more we become concentrated on that side of our existence that is concerned with making happen. The more we can make happen novel events that come forth in the potential future, the more properly can we be called historical beings. When we single out somebody as an historical individual, or a people as an historical people, we surely mean that those in question have been in their doing the makers of events. Thus the English were an historical people in harnessing new power to industry, and in beating their European rivals in taking it around the world. In our generation Chairman Mao is an historical individual in bringing European technology to the Chinese masses, by uniting Chinese and European politics. In this sense we can say that just as men are more historical than other animals, so in the last centuries Western men have been more historical than the other civilizations still present, and than those civilizations we superseded geographically. . . .

“The accomplishments of masterful doing lead us to think about the language of willing. When we say that somebody has a strong will we mean that there is a resoluteness through time about his determination to carry out his purposes in the world. It says little about how much he may have deliberated about those purposes, nothing about their nobility. To state the obvious: in a university one knows many thoughtful people, irresolute in decision; in the political world one meets decisive men whose purposes are little deliberated. . . .

“Greek heroes were summoned to be resolute for noble doing, but their deeds were not thought of as changing the very structure of what is, but as done rather for the sake of bringing into immediacy the beauty of a trusted order, always there to be appropriated through whatever perils. In the modern call, human wills are summoned to a much more staggering challenge. It is our destiny to bring about something novel; to conquer an indifferent nature and make it good for us. Indeed in that summons our wills come to be thought of as operating in a quite different context. Human willing is no longer one type of agent in a total process of natural agents, all of which are directed towards the realization of good purposes. We now see our wills as standing above the other beings of nature, able to make these other beings serve the purposes of our freedom. All else in nature is indifferent to good. Our wills alone are able, through doing, to actualize moral good in the indifferent world. It is here that history as a dimension of reality, distinguished from nature, comes to be thought. History is that dimension in which men in their freedom have tried to ‘create’ greater and greater goodness in the morally indifferent world they inhabit. As we actualize meaning, we bring forth a world in which living will be known to be good for all, not simply in a general sense, but in the very details we will be able more and more to control. Time is a developing history of meaning that we make. The self-conscious animal has always been plagued by anxiety as to whether it is good to be in the world. But to modern man, though life may not yet be meaningful for every one, the challenge is to make it so. Upon our will to do has been placed the whole burden of meaning. . . .

“In the conceptions of history now prevalent among those ‘creative’ men who plan the mastery of the planet, changing the world becomes ever more an end in itself. It is undertaken less simply to overcome the natural accidents that frustrate our humanity and more and more for the sheer sake of the ‘creation’ of novelty. This movement inevitably grows among the resolute as the remnants of any belief in a lovable actuality disappear. We will, not so much for some end beyond will, but for the sake of the willing itself. In this sense, the challenge of the will is endless to the resolute, because there is always more ‘creation’ to be carried out. Our freedom can even start to make over our own species.”

—from George Parkin Grant, Time as History (University of Toronto Press, 1969)

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4 Mar

The body’s goodness (and beyond)

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 03/04/16

Oliver O’Donovan on what the erotic body is for

“It is commonly said — though the generalisation has nothing to recommend it other than the charm of naiveté — that Christianity traditionally despised and ignored the body. The opposite is the truth. Belief in the Incarnation made any such attitude impossible. Even in the eighteenth century, when the temptation for enlightened souls to take wing was, perhaps, at its height, Christians would sing:

“Soul! Take no offence at this,
That the Light of spirits’ bliss,
True likeness of God’s radiance,
Makes disguise of servile stance.

“Christianity has, in fact, harped upon the body. It has harped upon the conditions of the body’s mortal existence, and it has harped upon the body’s share in the hope of the Kingdom of God. ‘No one hates his own body,’ says St Paul, ‘but nourishes and cherishes it.’ (Ephesians 5:29) And if Christianity has earned little credit for its harping, that is because its late-modern critics have their own ideas of what should be said about the body, which often begins and ends with the body's erotic powers. Talk of the body’s sickness or death is all too easily dismissed as talking the body down. Gute Nacht, o Wesen! Christians sing to their dying bodies with all due respect and seriousness. But that is not a song the late-modern eroticist wants to join in!

“To ‘cherish’ the body is to care for very much about the body besides its erotic powers. It is to care for its internal organs and their functions, for the extraordinary capacities of its hands and feet, for its processes of growth. It is to take care of its weight, its rhythms of sleeping and waking, its powers of hearing and seeing. Even if we make a sharp distinction between the created and the fallen body, so bracketing out illness and death, we can hardly attend to the body and cherish it if we fail to notice its temporality, its exposure to physical risk, or its processes of aging. Jean-Yves Lacoste has reminded us recently that the phenomenon of fatigue cannot be assimilated to illness and suffering. Yet sickness and death should not, in fact, be excluded from our view, for Christians have historically seen mortality not as an accident befalling human bodies, but as a created possibility of bodily life that never need have become an actuality. But above all these things, we have to cherish the body’s role in interpersonal communications, its essential sociality. It is through the face that one human being is known to another, and all types of relation are built up through the body's strategies of nearness and distance: its attraction and repulsion, its power to dominate and threaten and its power to charm and endear. And this entails the learning of disciplines that surround the body’s bearing of itself. We can none of us endure everybody else’s bodies intruding constantly on our own; society is enabled by sustaining spaces around bodies, by holding the body back as well as bringing it forward, by turning the eyes away from it as well as fixing our gaze upon it. Gesture, clothing, styles and patterns of movement: all contribute to form the software by which the body loads its repertoire of social arts and achievements.

“The erotic body, in fact, stands out as the exceptional moment in the repertoire. Here the body conveys a hint of eternity that beckons and calls us from beyond it; here it reaches out to point beyond itself. It was surely an irrevocable insight on Plato's part (whatever reservations we may have about the rest of his theory of love) to see in eros an implicitly philosophical reaction to the human body. It is possible, of course, to use the word ‘erotic’, as a great many of our contemporaries do, simply as a synonym for sexual desire. But that is to miss almost everything of interest that has been thought about the erotic. Eros is precisely not sexual impulse; it is an aspect of the spiritual life of mankind, though inevitably engendering bodily experiences to accompany it since we are psychosomatic beings whose every moment is a mediation of the spiritual through the bodily. Reflecting on the body, it responds with yearning for its lurking hint of beauty and truth. It responds to something beckoning through it from beyond it. Precisely that moment of reflection is the temptation, as Plato, again, understood. The familiar body, the body that we live in, object of wonder though it is, is too essentially present to us, too intimate, too enclosing — let us say, too heavy to beckon us beyond itself. But the body of the spiritual imagination is light and elusive. If we fail to carry the act of reflection through to its conclusion, if we fail to enquire what the erotic body is a medium for, then we end up investing our perfectly ordinary experiences of sexual attraction with an ontological weight that is, in fact, a borrowed transference, and in our confusion we fail to understand either ourselves or our bodies. We cannot and should not take that moment of rapture in the presence of the beautiful body quite at its face value — though we cannot and should not ignore it, either. We must interrogate it for its meaning. So Plato taught, and much Christian philosophy after him; for Christianity mostly (though not universally) found this aspect of Plato’s thought suggestive and helpful. His warning has been echoed in most Christian thought about the erotic . . . . An unwelcome warning, perhaps, to an ethical intuitionism that puts its trust in the immediacy of feeling; and since Plato, by and large, is more spoken of than read, Christianity has had to shoulder the blame for the reserve — though it never was a reserve at the body, but a reserve at the erotic image of the body. Ever since St Paul it has been the phronêma sarkos, ‘the mind caught on the flesh’, not the flesh itself, that has caused alarm.”

—from Oliver O’Donovan, “Creation, Redemption, and Nature

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2 Mar

Learning to live within a hierarchy of goods

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 03/02/16

Richard M. Weaver on the ends of education

“It has been said countless times in this country that democracy cannot exist without education. The truth concealed in this observation is that only education can be depended on to bring men to see the hierarchy of values. That is another way of saying what has also been affirmed before, that democracy cannot exist without aristocracy. This aristocracy is a leadership which, if it is to endure, must be constantly recruited from democracy; hence it is equally true that aristocracy cannot exist without democracy. But what we have failed to provide against is the corruption of the system of recruitment by equalitarian dogma and the allurements of materialism. There is no difficulty in securing enough agreement for action on the point that education should serve the needs of the people. But all hinges on the interpretation of needs; if the primary need of man is to perfect his spiritual being and prepare for immortality, then education of the mind and the passions will take precedence over all else. The growth of materialism, however, has made this a consideration remote and even incomprehensible to the majority. Those who maintain that education should prepare one for living successfully in the world have won a practically complete victory. Now if it were possible to arrive at a sufficiently philosophical conception of success, there would still remain room for idealistic goals, and attempts have been made to do something like it by defining in philosophical language what constitutes a free man. Yet the prevailing conception is that education must be such as will enable one to acquire wealth to live on the plane of the bourgeoisie. That kind of education does not develop the aristocratic values. It neither encourages reflection nor inspires a reverence for the good.

“In other words, it is precisely because we have lost our grasp of the nature of knowledge that we have nothing to educate with for the salvation of our order. Americans certainly cannot be reproached for failing to invest adequately in the hope that education would prove a redemption. They have built numberless high schools, lavish in equipment, only to see them, under the prevailing scheme of values, turned into social centers and institutions for improving the personality, where teachers, living in fear of constituents, dare not enforce scholarship. They have built colleges on an equal scale, only to see them turned into playgrounds for grown-up children or centers of vocationalism and professionalism. Finally, they have seen pragmatists, as if in peculiar spite against the very idea of hierarchy, endeavoring to turn classes into democratic forums, where the teacher is only a moderator, and no one offends by presuming to speak with superior knowledge.

“The formula of popular education has failed democracy because democracy has rebelled at the thought of sacrifice, the sacrifice of time and material goods without which there is no training in intellectual discipline. The spoiled-child psychology, of which I shall say something later, has sought a royal road to learning. In this way, when even its institutions of learning serve primarily the ends of gross animal existence, its last recourse to order is destroyed by appetite.

“Every attempt to find a way out of these dilemmas points to a single necessity; some source of authority must be found. The only source of authority whose title is unimpeachable at all times is knowledge. But superiority in knowledge carries prerogative, which implies, of course, distinction and hierarchy. We have seen, too, that the possibility of liberty and the hope of personal improvement rest upon these, for liberty must always work in the name of right reason, which is itself a conception of the scheme of things.”

—from Richard M. Weaver, Ideas Have Consequences (University of Chicago Press, 1948)

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