Addenda

22 Sep

Not “mere” matter

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 09/22/15

David Bentley Hart on the spirituality of the material world

“In the Western philosophical tradition, for instance, neither Platonists, nor Stoics, nor any of the Christian metaphysicians of late antiquity or the Middle Ages could have conceived of matter as something independent of ‘spirit,’ or of spirit as something simply superadded to matter in living beings. Certainly none of them thought of either the body or the cosmos as a machine merely organized by a rational force from beyond itself. Rather, they saw matter as being always already informed by indwelling rational causes, and thus open to—and in fact directed toward—mind. Nor did Platonists or Aristotelians or Christians conceive of spirit as being immaterial in a purely privative sense, in the way that a vacuum is not aerial or a vapor is not a solid. If anything, they understood spirit as being more substantial, more actual, more ‘supereminently’ real than matter, and as in fact being the pervasive reality in which matter had to participate in order to be anything at all. The quandary produced by early modern dualism—the notorious ‘interaction problem’ of how an immaterial reality could have an effect upon a purely material thing—was no quandary at all, because no school conceived of the interaction between soul and body as a purely extrinsic physical alliance between two disparate kinds of substance. The material order is only, it was assumed, an ontologically diminished or constricted effect of the fuller actuality of the spiritual order. And this is why it is nearly impossible to find an ancient or mediaeval school of thought whose concept of the relation of soul and body was anything like a relation between two wholly independent kinds of substance: the ghost and its machine (which, for what it is worth, was not really Descartes’ understanding of the relation either).”

—from David Bentley Hart, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss (Yale University Press, 2013)

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22 Sep

The problem with patriotism in secular democracies

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 09/22/15

Alasdair MacIntyre on the systematic rejection of the tradition of the virtues in modern political institutions

“[M]odern politics cannot be a matter of genuine moral consensus. And it is not. Modern politics is civil war carried on by other means. . . . 

“[P]atriotism cannot be what it was because we lack in the fullest sense a patria . . . . [T]he practice of patriotism as a virtue is in advanced societies no longer possible in the way that it once was. In any society where government does not express or represent the moral community of the citizens, but is instead a set of institutional arrangements for imposing a bureaucratized unity on a society which lacks genuine moral consensus, the nature of political obligation becomes systematically unclear. Patriotism is or was a virtue founded on attachment primarily to a political and moral community and only secondarily to the government of that community; but it is characteristically exercised in discharging responsibility to and in such government. When however the relationship of government to the moral community is put in question both by the changed nature of government and the lack of moral consensus in the society, it becomes difficult any longer to have any clear, simple and teachable conception of patriotism. Loyalty to my country, to my community—which remains unalterably a central virtue — becomes detached from obedience to the government which happens to rule me.

“Just as this understanding of the displacement of patriotism must not be confused with the liberal critique of moral particularity, so this necessary distancing of the moral self from the governments of modern states must not be confused with any anarchist critique of the state. Nothing in my argument suggests, let alone implies, any good grounds for rejecting certain forms of government as necessary and legitimate; what the argument does entail is that the modern state is not such a form of government. It must have been clear from earlier parts of my argument that the tradition of the virtues is at variance with central features of the modern economic order and more especially its individualism, its acquisitiveness and its elevation of the values of the market to a central social place. It now becomes clear that it also involves a rejection of the modern political order. This does not mean that there are not many tasks only to be performed in and through government which still require performing: the rule of law, so far as it is possible in a modern state, has to be vindicated, injustice and unwarranted suffering have to be dealt with, generosity has to be exercised, and liberty has to be defended, in ways that are sometimes only possible through the use of governmental institutions. But each particular task, each particular responsibility has to be evaluated on its own merits. Modern systematic politics, whether liberal, conservative, radical or socialist, simply has to be rejected from a standpoint that owes genuine allegiance to the tradition of the virtues; for modern politics itself expresses in its institutional forms a systematic rejection of that tradition.”

—from Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue (University of Notre Dame Press, second edition 1984)

 

 

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17 Sep

Leaders with management skills (but no virtues)

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 09/17/15

Philip Turner on viewing authority as mere conflict management

“[I]n the classical tradition, the very notion of authority carries with it two attendant ideas that underline the close links between authority and community health. One is that there is a common set of beliefs and a common way of life and the other is that there are people who have a particular set of virtues that allow them both to understand those beliefs and ways better than others and to protect and augment them in the midst of life’s chances and changes. . . . We have a crisis of authority because our society no longer has widely shared beliefs and forms of life to which common reference can be made. Beliefs and ways of life, save in respect to certain minimal attitudes and practices without which social life could not successfully be carried on, are considered matters of private rather than public business. Further, because our notions of equality constantly seek to exclude discussion of the personal qualities of excellence that makes one a fit person to govern, we increase the number of arguments over what ought to be done by those in authority and simultaneously narrow the range of personal qualities we believe make one fit to be entrusted with it. We seem less and less concerned that those we invest with authority embody a common ideal and more and more concerned that they succeed in the particular matters that touch our own interests.”

“[T]here has arisen another view of what having authority is and how it ought to be exercised. . . . The new authority rests not upon the presence of shared beliefs and practices but upon their absence. Within modern and postmodern cultures, this new way of having authority depends upon the very absence of shared beliefs and practices and it functions not to further what is common but to insure a social order within which people, who regard one another as strangers and potential enemies, can follow differing beliefs and ways of life without in the process doing unacceptable harm to one another. The peace it seeks to foster is the avoidance of conflict between contradictory aims rather than common though conflicted pursuit of shared goals.

“In short, the new authority is justified not by what is common but by irreconcilable differences in what people believe and the ways in which they choose to live their lives. The new authority therefore functions not by producing consensus within a common, but nonetheless dispute driven, tradition but by seeking to guarantee the rights of people who are strangers one to another — people whose lives are informed by different traditions. These guarantees are insured by creating buffer zones between people who are not civic friends or brothers and sisters in the Lord but adversaries with differing interests. These interests are protected (supposedly) by fair procedures which are designed not to augment common beliefs and ways of life but to insure that individuals are able to make their own choices about these matters. The new authority exists, in short, to see that the rights of individuals are protected and to lay down and enforce the fair procedures that are designed to guarantee their protection.”

“No longer is it necessary for those in authority to stand close to a common tradition or exhibit a range of virtues prized by all. What is necessary is to have the skills of a manager of conflict and the expertise of a technician. The job is to manage conflict in ways that allow people with various desires and ‘life plans’ to coexist. The job description of the new authority is best summed up in the words of pluralism and inclusivity. The new authority functions, at least in theory, to insure that a plurality of beliefs and practices, indeed a plurality of traditions, are allowed to coexist and that the devotees of these various ways of life are not excluded from participating in and benefiting from the goods of social life.”

—from Philip Turner, “Episcopal Authority in a Divided Church: On the Crisis of Anglican Identity” (Pro Ecclesia, Vol. VIII, No. 1 [Winter 1999])

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14 Sep

A society without purpose

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 09/14/15

Oliver O’Donovan on the eighteenth-century sources of radical secularism

“The paradox of the First Amendment is that a measure conceived as a liberation for authentic Christianity has become, in this [i.e., the 20th] century, a tool of anti-religious sentiment, weakening the participation of the church in society and depriving it of access to resources for its social role. . . .

“[T]here were features of the intellectual climate of the eighteenth century which weakened the Christian understanding of salvation-history, and replaced it with an open-ended concept of historical development, shaped by human action ventured, perhaps, in imitation of Christ but not in obedient faith directed back to his accomplished work. The shift from salvation-history to an unfolding providence undermined the intelligibility of Christian secular government, as it undermined the intelligibility of the doctrine of the Trinity itself. . . . A Deist religion of divine fatherhood seemed sufficient to support the authority which government needed. . . . By denying any church established status in principle, the framers of the First Amendment gave away more than they knew. They effectively declared that political authorities were incapable of evangelical obedience. And with this the damage was done. It did not need the anti-religious line of interpretation pursued by twentieth-century courts to make this formula, from a theological point of view, quite strictly heretical. The creed asserts: cuius regni non erit finis, and the apostle that ‘at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow’ (Phil. 2:10). The First Amendment presumes to add: ‘except . . .’.

“Excluding government from evangelical obedience has had repercussions for the way society itself is conceived. Since the political formation of society lies in its conscious self-ordering under God’s government, a society conceived in abstraction is unformed by moral self-awareness, driven by internal dynamics rather than led by moral purposes. To deny political authority obedience to Christ is implicitly to deny that obedience to society, too. Precisely such a conception arose from the sociology which emerged in the eighteenth and came to maturity in the nineteenth century. Society was an acephalous organism, driven by unconscious forces from within an object of study and, to the skilful, of manipulation, but in no sense a subject of responsible action. With this conception late-modernity, as we now experience it, stands on the threshold. This, after all, is society as it has been thought about in capitalist economic theory and in revolutionary socialism: it is liberal technological society, which functions like a computer constantly to extend the scope of its own operations in obedience to no rational purpose.”

—from Oliver O’Donovan, The Desire of the Nations: Rediscovering the Roots of Political Theology (Cambridge University Press, 1996)

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14 Sep

Lives with no context

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 09/14/15

Miroslav Volf on the triumph of the will

“Those among our contemporaries who think that flourishing consists in experiential satisfaction tend not to ask about how this notion of flourishing fits with the character of the world and of human beings. The reason is not simply that, for the most part, they are ordinary people, rather than philosophers (like Seneca or Nietzsche) or great religious thinkers (like Augustine, Ghazzali, or Maimonides). After all, over the centuries and up to the present, many ordinary people have cared about aligning their lives with the character of the world and of ultimate reality. No, the primary reasons have to do with the nature of the contemporary account of flourishing and the general cultural milieu prevalent in today’s Western world. . . .

“[M]any today would not care whether they live with or against the grain of reality. They want what they want, and that they want it is a sufficient justification for wanting it. Arguments about how their desires fit with the more encompassing account of reality—how they relate to ‘human nature,’ for instance—are simply beside the point.”

—from Miroslav Volf, “Human Flourishing,” in Renewing the Evangelical Mission, edited by Richard Lints (Eerdmans, 2013)

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