25 Jan

From enthusiasm to discernment

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 01/25/21

Hans Urs von Balthasar on the maturing of aesthetic taste

“At first, the science of art may appear to be a material collection of those things that generally pass for beautiful, while the subjective judgment of taste on what is beautiful seems subject to the most extreme variations. The young especially experience this subjective aspect with particular intensity and tend to generalise it. Since they have not yet acquired objective criteria for the evaluation of works of art, and because they have not yet learned to distinguish by seeing and listening, they compensate with the ‘enthusiasm’ proper to their age. They find themselves in or transport themselves to a state of mind, an interior ‘vibration’, which transfigures nature, art, friendship and love in their sight, and which communicates the experience of the beautiful like a drug whose effect, as experience shows, quickly disappears. People who cling to this view of the subjective nature of taste’s judgment have remained immature adolescents. By developing his soul according to the images of the objectively beautiful, the maturing person gradually learns to acquire the art of discrimination, that is, the art of perceiving what is beautiful in itself. In the process of their development, the subjective elements of perception (which, doubtless, include state of mind and fantasy) more and more pass into the service of objective perception. Even in the case of a masterpiece, the mature observer of art can without difficulty give an objective and largely conceptual basis for his judgment.”

— from Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics. I. Seeing the Form



21 Jan

The scantily clad public square

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 01/21/21

Reinhard Hütter on the necessity of the virtue of religion

I am heartened each time I read a remark from some pundit or other that our society suffers from a failure to take seriously “what it means to be human.” But not infrequently, my sense of encouragement is severely dampened when I see in the prose that follows an all-too slight account of the meaning of our humanity. For, when social or political life is discussed, the characteristics of the human that are typically named are those readily discernible by the social sciences without guidance from theology or philosophy. 

Perhaps I’m alert to such constricted accounts of “what it means to be human” because my own thinking about culture, society, and politics suffered for a long time from the same imposing of boundaries. I used to assume that public life could be well ordered without reference to distinctively theological claims, without deliberate engagement with the One in whom all things hold together. The term that summarized my thinking about a place account of what it means to be human was “our mere humanity,” by which I meant human existence and experience without reference to (among other things) the Trinity, the Resurrection, Pentecost, or the Second Coming. “Human flourishing” (the currently popular term) was, I believed, fully imaginable and achievable within what Charles Taylor has called the “immanent frame.” Rejecting that claim was to put oneself at odds with the ordering principles of virtually every modern institution and practice. Those distinctive, theologically described claims were fine for private life, but not in public life. I was not an advocate for a naked public square, just a scantily clad one.

In case MARS HILL AUDIO listeners haven’t noticed, I’ve changed my mind about this and, for a number of years, the guests I’ve interviewed have often been explicitly critical of what I once believed. Take, for example, Reinhard Hütter, the author of Bound for Beatitude, a guest on volume 149 of the Journal. For those who haven’t yet heard this interview, I summarized in an earlier post Hütter’s argument that “what it means to be human” is to be a creature made for fulfillment in union with the Triune Creator. As he writes, “Humanity is ordained to the gratuitous supernatural final end of union with God.”

That summary claim is from a chapter in his book called “The Preparation for Beatitude—Justice toward God: The Virtue of Religion.” Consider that final phrase “virtue of religion.” Listeners may remember my conversation with historian Peter Harrison (discussing The Territories of Science and Religion on Volume 131) who explained how the concept of “religion” has radically changed its assumed meaning. Where once it described an interior disposition, in the early modern West — concurrent with the rise of modern notions of science — it came to mean a body of propositions and the community united in affirming those beliefs. William Cavanaugh in The Myth of Religious Violence (discussed on Volume 101) and elsewhere similarly argues that the conventional understanding of “religion” is a modern development, and not a neutral one: as he writes, “the [conventional] concept of religion . . . is a development of the modern liberal state; the religious-secular distinction accompanies the invention of private-public, religion-politics, and church-state dichotomies.” All of which, it should be noted, expands the power of the state over every aspect of life.

Back to Hütter’s discussion of the virtue of religion, which in Aquinas’s view is (in Hütter’s summary) “absolutely central for genuine human flourishing.” The moral virtue of religion is analogous to the cardinal virtue of justice. Where justice predisposes us to render to everyone what he or she is due, the virtue of religion inclines us toward acts of honor and reverence to God. 

Early in his chapter discussing the virtue of religion, Hütter describes the modern assumption that human life can be lived quite happily without religion, in any sense of the word. Hütter insists that, in Aquinas’s view (and his own) this is a dangerous assumption: “Doing without religion constitutes a grave impediment in regard to attaining the ultimate end and places one, therefore, on a margin of human existence.”

He continues: “For the educated elites of the Western Hemisphere, doing without religion is the welcome effect of an ineluctable progress from ignorance and bigotry to enlightenment and tolerance. For them, doing without religion does not constitute at all one of the margins of human existence but, quite on the contrary, the precondition for the ultimate flourishing of the sovereign self.”

Hütter then goes on to discuss five different definitions of religion used in contemporary parlance. The first of these is political liberalism’s use of religion. “This use is so utterly influential because it is part of the conceptual matrix of a normative secularism that frames — primarily by way of the media — the public discussion in virtually all Western societies. The positive contrast of terms to this negative use of religion are ‘secular reason’ and its present instantiation, ‘secular discourse.’ ‘Religion’ stands for sets of beliefs that are presumably more or less arbitrary in nature, beliefs impossible to warrant and adjudicate rationally. Because of its inherently irrational nature — so secularist reasoning goes — ‘religion’ must establish its claims by way of more or less subtle forms of violence, ranging from psychological manipulation to open terror, torture, and religious war. In order to secure peace in the public square, a pure ‘secular’ reason and discourse must dominate the public sphere, while ‘religion’ in all shapes and forms is to be relegated to the private, or at best, social sphere.”

This paragraph continues with some important observations about how this understanding of “religion” guides the interpretation of “religious freedom” in liberal democracies. Hütter’s description deserves serious reflection, especially by those who believe that their “right to religious liberty” offers significant protection from tyrannical overreach by the State:

“While in virtually all Western societies there exists, of course, a constitutional right to religious freedom, the political and judicial powers of current Western liberal democracies interpret this religious freedom not as a constitutional human right antecedent to normative political categories of ‘public’ versus ‘private,’ but merely as a political right within them. Normatively framed in such a way, the right to religious freedom turns into a right of free exercise that pertains first and foremost to the private sphere and, under increasingly restrictive conditions, also to the social sphere. According to this by now quasi hegemonic secularist interpretation of the freedom of religion, the public sphere belongs exclusively to ‘secular’ reason and discourse. Religious belief and practice are constitutionally protected as long as they remain within the parameters of the private and social spheres.”

Later in the chapter, Hütter raises significant objections to the limits of this protection. Just as “it is according to the very nature of the virtue of justice to transcend and to encompass both the public and the private spheres,” so “the virtue of religion, rightly understood and practiced . . . resists submission to the superimposition of a political disciplinary distinction that compromises the essence of the virtue itself. . . . Being directed to the highest good, the summum bonum, reverence of and honor to the first principle of the creation and government of things, the first truth and sovereign good — in short, the triune Lord — this virtue is only practiced authentically according to its nature when it is practiced in the political public such that the political public itself is rightly ordered to the first principles of the creation and government of things.

“Now, to say the least, this is obviously not how contemporary democracies constitute themselves in the spirit of sovereign secularism. Banishing the practice of the virtue of religion from the political public is a constitutive element of their self-understanding. Of course, to force the virtue of religion into the purely private sphere is to force it to turn into its own counterfeit. . . .

“Not only does the virtue of religion suffer from the profoundly alienating imposition of its privatization, but also does the body politic suffer eventually. One of the foremost German legal philosophers of the second half of the twentieth century, Ernst-Wolfgang Böckenforde, argued famously — and persistently — that a truly just, and therefore free, democratic society lives from moral sources that transcend its scope, sources that secular liberalism per se cannot provide and replenish on its own terms, but on which a truly free and just society at the same time vitally depends. These sources are fundamentally connected with and accessed by way of the public practice of the virtue of religion. And this practice of religio, according to Böckenforde, will be ideally and preferably Christian because it is nothing but the Christian understanding of the human being that is presupposed in the tenets and the program of genuine liberalism: the human being as created in the image of God and, therefore, endowed with an indelible dignity and an intrinsic orientation toward transcendence, an orientation expressed first and foremost in humanity’s universal desire for knowledge and happiness and consequently in the public practice of the virtue of religion that gives honor and reference to the first principle of the creation and government of things, the triune creator and Lord who is the fount of every good. By privatizing the virtue of religion, late modern secularist democracies cut themselves off from the transpolitical moral and spiritual roots that fund the public ethos of their own citizens. This development leads to the transformation of the citizen into the essentially private consumer of goods, the sovereign self in the order of consumption, for whom the public ‘secular discourse’ is nothing else but the interminable negotiation of the competing interests of consumers, customers, and clients.”

21 Jan

The eclipsing of happiness

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 01/21/21

Reinhard Hütter on the Christian recognition that happiness is only intelligible in light of the end for which we were created

Reinhard Hütter is a guest on Volume 149 of the Journal, talking about his book Bound for Beatitude. Those three words capture the boundless confidence that is the ground for the Christian understanding of human nature. Every human being is created with a desire to be happy. That is given with our nature, but we need to learn what true happiness is. As Hütter writes, “The teaching of Scripture is unequivocal: true and lasting happiness, beatitude, is found only when a person embraces the truth that God reveals, follows the path God thereby opens up to that person, and, through God’s grace, begins to participate in the divine life.” 

The subtitle to Hütter’s book is A Thomistic Study in Eschatology and Ethics. Instructed by the work of Thomas Aquinas, Hütter describes why Christian ethics — indeed all Christian theology — must be grounded in the ends for which persons (and all of Creation) were called into being. 

The culture of modernity — in the seas of which we swim — is marked by a rejection of the claim that there are ends (teloi) for which human beings exist and according to which their lives, privately and publicly, should be ordered. By contrast, the work of Aquinas, explicated in Hütter’s book, reflects the fundamental Christian affirmation of “the principle of finality,” the recognition that “every agent acts for an end,” an end (telos) established by the Creator.

Our age is emphatically anti-teleological, insists Hütter: “[O]ne of the characteristics of the modern era is the widespread rejection of the principle of finality. As it plays out in the anthropological realm, this pervasive dismissal of the principle of finality leads to a crisis in terms of the human being’s understanding of himself as a human person. Due to the widespread and erroneous dismissal of the finality of human nature, the human self-image as rational animal, as person and nature in one, collapses into the irresolvable antinomy between two contradictory and agonistically competing self-images, a neo-Gnostic angelism and a naturalistic animalism. The late modern person vacillates between the self-image of an essentially disembodied sovereign will that submits all exteriority, including the body, to its imperious dictates, and the self-image of a super-primate, a highly advanced animal, gifted or cursed with a developed consciousness that is driven by instincts, passions, and desires beyond its control and understanding into patterns of behavior for which an animal can never be held fully accountable.”

If there are no ends for which we were created — no nature that defines us— then the pursuit of happiness has no transcendent guidelines or points of reference. As Hütter observes, “a partial result of the eclipse of what it means to be human [is that] the understanding of and search for happiness has taken a radical experiential turn. The happiness now sought is the emotional state of joy, delight, and especially ecstasy as the apex of an encompassing feeling of well-being that ideally continues, fed by whatever sequence of objects, substances, and events it takes to sustain it. The a-teleological dynamic of consumption — the trademark of consumer capitalism — collapses action and its purpose to the here and now. Any remaining sense of community and conviviality is no longer based on the common good, let alone on the highest good, God, but rather on sensuality, sentiments, and transient coalitions of proximate interests. Nietzsche announced the return of the Dionysian and what has arrived is the obsession with the body and with orgiastic and analogous experiences of sensual and emotional ecstasy. The fun- and event-centered culture — the most characteristic feature of which is the collection of extraordinary, exhilarating, and possibly transgressive experiences of all sorts — is the direct result of the pervasive search for the feelings of joy, delight, and ecstasy that happiness issues in the here and now. . . .

“[G]iven this existentialist understanding of happiness as the result of the instant gratification of some desire and the resulting sensual or emotional elation, a happiness that consists in the attainment of a specific good, even the highest good, is simply meaningless.”

14 Jan

Merciless moralism bereft of moral reasons

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 01/14/21

Dallas Willard explores how moral passions on campuses — and elsewhere — are now immune to rational examination or critique

On volume 149 of the Journal, I talked with Steven L. Porter, who was one of the scholars who completed a book left unfinished by philosopher Dallas Willard when he died in 2013. Five years later The Disappearance of Moral Knowledge was published, compiled by Porter and his colleagues from many manuscript pages that Willard had completed, along with fragments of notes, partial drafts, syllabi, class handouts, and marginalia written in the books Willard had been reading for years.

In his 1998 book, The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God, Willard had observed that we live in a culture “that has accepted the view that what is good and right is not a subject of knowledge that can guide action and for which individuals can be held responsible.” The Disappearance of Moral Knowledge presents Willard’s thorough exploration of the social and intellectual causes of that deplorable condition, and how it might be confronted.

Much of the book displays Willard's concern that Western institutions of higher education — once significant custodians and conduits of moral knowledge — had repudiated that role and were responsible for the loss of confidence in the broader culture, that there were reasons behind claims about morality, that the Good was True. During my interview, Porter talked about how — despite this repudiation — universities remain the site of intense moral commitments. They still want their graduates to be good and do good. They simply lack the confidence that one can examine claims about what is good with the same rational rigor that one can bring to the study of chemistry, law, or history.

As Willard explains in the following paragraphs from early in his book, the tacit assumption that moral commitments are finally irrational may account for the vicious character of contemporary political disputes.

“What most deeply characterizes the discussions of moral instruction and guidance in the universities currently is failure to understand how such instruction and guidance are actually conveyed. This is largely, but not wholly, an intellectual failure: a failure to observe and understand. Such guidance is rarely conveyed by explicit instruction or anything remotely like ‘course content,’ though these certainly do play a role. Moral guidance is communicated to others, and especially to the young, by how we live with them and around them. Aristotle noted long ago that if lectures in ethics are to be of any use to hearers, ‘they must have been brought up in good habits’ of thought, feeling, and action. It was the business of the legislator, on his view, to see to it that people are well brought up. One hears lectures in ethics, he held, as a preparation to be a legislator or ‘political scientist.’ But habits are formed by living, and a very small part of living is being ‘talked at.’ During the pre-World War II period, students in higher education at all levels were talked at a great deal — and ‘in class’ to boot — along the lines of traditional morality; and university life was fairly closely regulated by that same morality. It was assumed by the general public, as well as by university and college personnel, that there was a body of moral knowledge and that traditional moral rules, virtues, and practices fell largely, not wholly, within it. The ‘talk’ was assumed by all to be of some benefit for moral understanding and practice. . . . It by and large expressed the morality in which the students had been brought up. Higher education was at the time mainly restricted to elite social groups of little diversity; and, for all their moral failures, people from these groups respected traditional morality and thought it fairly well represented ‘how things are’ in reality. They generally acted on it and held themselves and others to it without much reflection.

“Most faculty and nearly all university students today have been formed in a different world. It is a world in which the teachings and practices of traditional morality are scarcely known, and certainly are not understood to any depth. Insofar as those teachings are thought of at all, they are regarded as irrelevant to life, at best, and at worst as oppressive of various real or imagined human goods: ‘success’ or sexual gratification, for example. Indeed, those teachings and practices are often thought of as immoral now, or perhaps just silly, because they clearly do not permit people to live however they might wish — an overriding moral imperative to the contemporary mind. That moral imperative — to allow people to do what they want (so long as others aren’t ‘hurt’) — is one major component in the moral system that is taught and relentlessly enforced in the university setting, and often very blatantly, in the classroom or tutorial situation, as well as in the hallway and the ‘mixer.’ . . .

“How is this moral system taught? Like every morality, every vision of what is humanly acceptable or unacceptable, good and bad, it is mainly taught by body language, facial expressions, ‘looks,’ tones of voice and inflections, off-hand remarks about people and events; by what is presumed to be ‘automatic’ or to ‘go without saying,’ by example, by how we treat people of various types (in class, out of class, our colleagues, and overseers and underlings), by who gets rewarded or punished or dismissed in various ways in the classroom and out, and so forth. In short, it is ‘taught’ by the fine texture of how we live together in the university setting. The implicit approvals and disapprovals by teachers and other ‘authorities,’ and simply how things are arranged in campus life, are the matters most studied by students, for they know that these are the things with which they really have to come to terms. Such things cannot be hidden or fail to have significant influence on the student and others, and they function as indications of how things actually stand in moral reality. This all lies in the 'hidden curriculum,’ well known among educational theorists.

“It should be noted that what comes over in these and similar ways as ‘moral guidance’ in the university setting is never communicated as mere social acceptability or practice, nor as mere personal taste or preference. It is always conveyed, and always comes over, as well-thought out knowledge or conviction about how things really are: in short as moral wisdom and insight — as how intelligent and informed people ‘in the know’ deal with moral reality. It comes over as the considered beliefs of experienced and thoughtful persons who occupy enviable and influential positions in life and society. This is unavoidable if the individual professor or administrator manifests the competence, confidence, and authority required to do their job well and to convey intellectual leadership. They cannot help manifesting their beliefs, and belief is an indication of presumed reality. Thus, in the university context as elsewhere, people who do not follow the prescribed (even if tacit) morality are typically treated by its partisans as stupid or ignorant or ‘unenlightened,’ not just as people who happen to be ‘different.’

“Accordingly, the abundant though non-traditional moral guidance actually conveyed in the university setting . . . is conveyed as moral knowledge, or at least as responsible beliefs about moral reality. And associated with that guidance is the range of emotions, feelings, or ‘moral sentiments’ which always characterize moral judgments among human beings. There is a characteristic type of friendliness, approval, acceptance, willingness to support and reward, and desire to see prospered and imitated, that goes out toward what is perceived to be morally correct and praiseworthy action and toward the character and person thought to be morally good. Conversely, a peculiar sort of resentment (even disgust and anger), blame, exclusion, willingness to avoid or to punish, and desire to see frustrated and not imitated, goes out toward what is taken to be the morally wrong and blameworthy action and toward the character and person thought to be morally bad. The continued presence of these positive and negative moral sentiments in university life, as elsewhere, alerts any thoughtful person to the fact that we remain deeply engaged in moral guidance and moral instruction and judgment, even though we may have abandoned or reversed the traditional content and manner of such guidance and instruction.

“This heavy presence of the range of attitudes, feelings, or ‘sentiments’ peculiar to morality also lets us know that what some try to pass off as political remains stubbornly moral. That in turn casts light on why, in recent years, political processes and political discourse in this country have become so morally embittered, generating a political life dominated by contempt, anger, and even hatred. Political opposition quickly degenerates into hard core moral opprobrium. Confusion of the moral with the political, perhaps fostered in part by the intention of treating moral issues as political (or legal), actually may have backfired with the effect of making political opponents out to be immoral and hence unworthy of the generous regard and cooperation necessary to successful political interactions. . . .

“The real issue, one might think, is how to be intellectually and morally responsible for the moral guidance we cannot help but give — whether we want to or not, and whether we know it or not — by subjecting it to explicit and thorough rational scrutiny and discussion, as appropriate, in the classroom and out. Taking into consideration the official ‘disappearance’ of moral knowledge is one way of understanding why we cannot purposively do this now. There is no recognized body of moral knowledge to serve as a basis for such a pedagogical practice. Or so, at least, it is now generally assumed.

“Beneath the pose of moral neutrality and non-judgementalism, a powerful moral point of view nevertheless runs free and casts an ominous shadow of mindless conformity over the campus and over much of professionalized academic life. The traditional ideal of free, honest, and thorough inquiry into moral issues is not sustained, because it is no longer seen as a part of being responsible for knowledge of how things are — knowledge of what every viewpoint must come to terms with. What is morally acceptable, by rational standards, is overshadowed by emotional and political prejudices concerning what must be good and right. The ‘right’ opinions and attitudes on a fairly narrow range of topics — sexuality, gender, race and culture, social justice, etc. — serve as touchstones of moral standing for individuals, opinions, and actions. But those opinions and attitudes are not themselves subjected to traditional standards of rationality. Indeed, such standards are often disregarded because of some association they are perceived as having with ‘improper’ opinions and attitudes on the favored issues. In any case, if knowledge in moral matters is not an option, then responsible rational critique of moral opinions and practices is not something everyone must practice, and serious inquiry into moral matters is suppressed in favor of what is ‘acceptable’ so far as social pressures (left or right) are concerned.”

7 Jan

Why lectures or scolding won’t change behavior

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 01/07/21

Dru Johnson on healing the scars of community-ritualized violence and uncertainty

In his letter to the Philippians, St. Paul writes “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” Our minds are to be aligned by various excellences, and human nature is such that we need to learn, we need to be taught how to recognize what is just and pure and commendable. The need for teaching is implied in the very next verse, when the apostle writes “What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.”

In The Abolition of Man, C. S. Lewis reminded his readers that the premodern view of education was more about training the emotions or affections than about training analytic reason: “St. Augustine defines virtue as ordo amoris, the ordinate condition of the affections in which every object is accorded that kind and degree of love which is appropriate to it. Aristotle says that the aim of education is to make the pupil like and dislike what he ought. When the age for reflective thought comes, the pupil who has been thus trained in ‘ordinate affections’ or ‘just sentiments’ will easily find the first principles in Ethics: but to the corrupt man they will never be visible at all and he can make no progress in that science. Plato before him had said the same. The little human animal will not at first have the right responses. It must be trained to feel pleasure, liking, disgust, and hatred at those things which really are pleasant, likable, disgusting, and hateful.”

All education is fundamentally moral formation, and not all education happens in classrooms or through words. Our perception of what is really true and really good (not to mention what is really beautiful) is shaped by the routine practices of everyday life. James K. A. Smith calls these practices “liturgies.” They could also be described as rituals.

One of the guests on Volume 149 of the Journal is biblical scholar Dru Johnson, who talked about his book Human Rites: The Power of Rituals, Habits, and Sacraments (Eerdmans, 2019). In our conversation, Johnson stressed the fact that rituals have an epistemic role in our lives; they form the framework of understanding that orient our acting in the world. Our minds — and our loves — are aligned through the practices, usually involving bodily action, by which we have been and are being formed.

Rituals can malform us. Johnson has a chapter in Human Rites titled “When Rites Go Dark,” from which the following paragraphs are taken:

“If warped rituals have shaped our lives, we must be re-ritualized, oriented to true north. When corrupting rituals have gotten their hooks into us, we act and react. Sometimes the corruption comes from unsafe neighborhoods or abusive homes, which show us that dark ritual honors no socio-economic status. For corrupt rituals, the process is the same: ritual in, expected behavior out. And, of course, children can be the most susceptible to such corruptions. 

“Children corrupted by dark rituals act out their ritual lives. We’re often naïve about this, believing that teaching such children to think differently will make them act better. We believe that if a child understands how her reckless actions affect others, she’ll eventually stop misbehaving. But like Vietnam veterans suffering from PTSD, not all children know why they do what they do. 

“Our church in Newark, New Jersey, spends much of its energy with children from the Newark housing authority neighborhoods. Most people, including the people who live there, would call it ‘the projects.’ Many of the kids in that downtrodden neighborhood have been ritualized into appalling practices. Caught in a world ruled by drugs and gangs, these children can’t have PTSD because they continue to live in their traumas, never having the opportunity to get to post-trauma. In many communities, that’s also the case for their parents. These beautiful folks bearing the image of God are often seized by fight-or-flight hypersensitivities.

“When we bring our neighbors in for a meal and time together, fights break out over the slightest infractions. These lovely children, by dint of the rituals shaping them and the white noise of violence surrounding them, often lose control of their faculties. And, like a triggered veteran, a child who has reacted violently to nothing more than an antagonistic smirk from another child can’t be reasoned with. 

“After spending years developing friendships in this community, we began to see the world differently. We all remembered watching the now-infamous videos of grown men from similar communities irrationally freaking out and breaking away from police. We used to think, 'Why would they do that? They know this isn't going to end well.’ Now we see our eleven-year-old friends in those videos. Just a few years from now, that could be them. Now we understand that their traumatized bodies react in a way that even they don’t understand. It’s a mode of panic most of us have never experienced. And years of such violence and uncertainty in a community don’t foster rational responses in the moments of their worst crises. 

“While making friends in that community, we came to realize that if years of community-ritualized violence and uncertainty had burned those reactions into the bodies and minds of those children, then it would take more than a few days or weeks of love and affection to re-orient them.

“In the first few years of our friendships with them, we reverted to the standard therapies for misbehavior: talking through what happened, why it was wrong, how it hurt that person, and so on. And reasoning with someone about their misdeeds certainly has its place. But if they’re completely overcome by ritualized reactions, they simply can’t process such reasoning at that moment. 

“Most often, a caring hand on the shoulder can be the best immediate response to such episodes. That’s no small task when you yourself are upset and pulling apart fighting kids. But research has shown us what we already know: children need regular and appropriate affectionate touch from caring adults. Those who don’t get it suffer dramatically over the course of their lives.

“Looking at these children as bearers of a ‘history of rituals’ has helped us to appreciate what’s great about them and to have patience for what’s not so great. Violent or anxious reactions that seemingly come from ‘out of nowhere’ come from somewhere, and can be re-directed toward something better. 

“If there’s one thing the biblical authors are convinced of, it’s that we need a new view of reality, one that can envision the reign of God charging into a housing project rife with corruption and the background threat of violence. So we walk alongside these kids, sharing food rituals and offering affection. 

“There’s no easy way to spot when good rituals go bad. And people will always find ways to corrupt rites toward the wrong goals. In fact, we’re all using rituals toward our own ends. But unless they have some kind of moral foundation, we will all eventually ritualize our world into a ‘kingdom of me.’ These dark rituals don't warn us about ‘those nefarious folks over there.’ They warn us about ourselves.We’re all prone to bend our rites back in our favor and exploit others in the process.

“When this happens, we need other people who care for us to script our rituals. Only they can see us soberly. Only they can help us think about which rituals we must embody and which we must avoid. A caring guide re-ritualizes us out of addiction or violence or whatever our particular darkness is, without twisting us toward their own agendas. It’s no accident that the Christian Scriptures describe a wise God who cares for humanity and wants to guide us through rituals for our benefit — no twists, no hooks, no addictions.”