Addenda

22 Dec

Sofa as church

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 12/22/16

David Thomson on the formative powers of television

“It’s older than most of us, parental yet uncritical, if not unconcerned. It poses as some kind of comfort, but you can’t kid yourself it cares. So when did you start to think about television?

“I admit ‘thinking’ may be an inadequate word for what happened between you and this medium. So much that is formative in television has to do with the loose textures of ease or unthinking — ‘I’ll go home and I’ll watch . . . and then I’ll feel all right.’ As if you hadn't felt all right out in the world. How could you, with that horizon getting grimmer from 1914 onwards? But television’s magic has always embraced safety, the possibility of ‘useful’ intimate company, and the thought of time elapsing restfully but constructively. It’s the sofa as church. Or rather, it is church reduced to the soft status of a sofa, minus guilt, redemption, or moral purpose.

“There is this added, rueful comfort: Whenever you started thinking, it was too late. For the thing we used to call television doesn’t quite exist now. The sacred fixed altar (the set) has given up its central place of worship and is now just one screen among so many, like the dinner table kept for state occasions in a life of snacking. The appointment times of TV have eroded; the possibility of a unified audience (or a purposeful society) has been set aside. In the dire 2015–16 presidential election campaign, it was obvious that the thing — the talent show — had found the frenzy of other game shows, with drastic but meaningless dialogue and monstrous celebrity better suited to daytime soap operas. As a democratic process it was not just shaming; there was the portent of worse to come, even a fear that ‘the vote’ might be buried in some instant TV feedback derived from American Idol. ‘You like to vote — let’s do it all the time.’ The more debates, the less subjects were debated. Journalists were alive with jittery, spinning self-importance. They said the election was the most important ever — that sweet dream. We knew it was just a nightmare show our trance had allowed.”

— from David Thomson, Television: A Biography (Thames and Hudson, 2016) 

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11 Nov

“Let us live to make men free” (in a specific way)

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 11/11/16

Patrick Deenen on the molding of the liberal soul

“While there is a long tradition among political theorists and legal scholars who insist that liberalism is defined above all by a neutrality regarding conceptions of the Good, many thinkers — both critics of liberalism, as well as its most enthusiastic proponents — have insisted that liberalism itself embraces and promotes a deeply-held set of substantive commitments. These commitments arise from liberalism’s fundamental basis upon individual liberty, understood as liberty as a right to believe, act, or choose as one wishes where (to cite the proto-liberal, Thomas Hobbes) ‘the law is silent.’ The liberal political theorist Stephen Macedo has forcefully — and, with honesty and forthrightness, admirably — acknowledged that the liberal commitment to this form of freedom does not, finally, take the form of neutrality, but rather an active society-building and culture-shaping effort that molds the soul of man under liberalism. In a 1998 article entitled ‘Transformative Constitutionalism and the Case of Religion: Defending the Moderate Hegemony of Liberalism’ [in Political Theory 26, no. 1 (February 1998): 69], Macedo has argued that liberal constitutionalism is, and rightly should be, ‘a pervasively educational order,’ and not one that is neutral toward various forms of education. Among the shaping powers it does and should employ is the effort to diminish, weaken, attenuate, and even reduce if not outright eliminate non-liberal groups and entities within the liberal order. At a most basic level, he argues, liberal law and practice aims to ‘shape people to help ensure that [liberal] freedom is what they want.’ That is, far from being ‘neutral’ or ‘indifferent’ about whether liberal freedom is, or is not, the proper way to understand and animate human life and choices, Macedo acknowledges that a liberal order appropriately and actively seeks to ‘make men free’ in accordance with the liberal understanding of freedom. To do this, it must not only order the public realm in accordance with full access to liberal rights to free and unencumbered choice — it must, he writes, also ‘constitute the private realm in its own interest.’ Of central concern, then, is an area that many regard as liberalism’s attitude of indifferent toleration: religious belief, and the ways that religious belief is shaped and guided within the private associative realm of the family and church. Macedo argues that liberalism can ill-afford to leave this vital area untouched by liberalism’s soul-shaping and comprehensively educative efforts, and highlights, in particular, the success that liberalism has had in re-casting Catholicism in its image. 

“Macedo points, among other pieces of evidence, to the ‘ritual which Catholic judges and candidates for president have had to pass through in their quest for higher office.’ Citing Sanford Levinson, he approvingly notes that ‘Catholics have effectively “been forced to proclaim the practical meaninglessness” of their religious convictions as a condition of being allowed to serve.’ Macedo suggests that ‘such rituals are bound to be educative’ — that they have a shaping power for society at large. In particular, Catholics are effectively disallowed, through disapproval and dismissiveness of the liberal order, from a robust opportunity to express the substance of Catholic teachings, and even from a receptive hearing, by the order shaped by the deepest liberal assumptions. To the extent that Catholicism rejects the liberal conception of freedom and the basic anthropological assumption of radical autonomy on which it is based, Catholicism stands as a non-liberal competitor that must be effectively overcome by liberal philosophy and liberal pedagogy. Public claims of the validity of its belief must be effectively (perhaps legally, but most often informally) disallowed, and rather may be retained only as forms of private belief. As Macedo argues, ‘the healthy course of things in a healthy liberal democracy will be that beliefs in tension with fundamental liberal democratic commitments will be diminished in importance.’

“Moreover, such belief must be limited in its scope of influence not only in the public realm, but even as a shaping force in private life. For example, Macedo argues that liberalism cannot be indifferent to the education of children — liberalism has a civic interest in the shaping of properly liberal souls, ones that will ensure that it is ‘freedom that they want.’ Thus, ‘if parents want their children always to be guided solely by sectarian religious teachings both in politics and elsewhere then their view of good citizenship is at odds with the liberal one. We have good reasons to hope that there will be fewer families raising such children in the future.’ Far from offering a ‘level playing field’ of belief, per claims for liberal neutrality, Macedo forthrightly acknowledges that liberalism actively seeks to advance a view of freedom that is distinct from that view of ‘true freedom’ — a freedom in conformity to the Truth. . . . With refreshing honesty, Macedo acknowledges that liberalism seeks to be hegemonic, fostering, among other things, a ‘certain religious homogeneity’ that finally accords with the definition of freedom at the heart of liberalism.”

— from Patrick J. Deneen, “Religious Liberty after Liberalism: Re-thinking Dignitatis Humanae in an Age of Illiberal Liberalism,” in Communio (Summer-Fall, 2013) 

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9 Oct

From a-rational faith to meaningless world

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 10/09/16

D. C. Schindler on how faith detached from reason guarantees relativism

“Descartes famously sought to prove the existence of God through the strict application of logic in order to provide a foundation for the objectivity of the world, the reality of things beyond the phantasms of the imagination. There are many fundamental criticisms to make regarding the Cartesian project: it turns God into an instrument serving a philosophical purpose, or indeed primarily psychological purpose of providing certainty; it operates with a radically impoverished sense of reason, which is defined in strict opposition to faith; and it takes for granted a radicalized subjectivity, an isolated consciousness set off from the physical things of the world, as the problematic starting point, which inevitably sets the terms for the resolution. In another context, we could show that these problems are all related. But, here, I want instead to highlight something positive in Descartes’s reflections, namely, the insight that the objectivity of the world stands or falls with the objectivity of God. The claim I want to make, here, is not exactly Descartes’s — namely, that we have to prove the existence of God first in order to be able to affirm the existence of the world— but rather a somewhat more modest contrapositive of his claim: if we deny the possibility of a rational proof for the existence of God, or that reason has any business occupying itself with such things, or that God would represent a truth demanding the consideration of reason — in other words, if we insist that the God-question is exclusively a matter of private, personal faith, which does not concern anyone else but me — then we undermine the objective reality of things in general. The world gets emptied of its ontological density at a single stroke, even if the outward shell remains intact for centuries thereafter.

“Nietzsche famously observed that the death of God — the disappearance of God’s significance — is a ‘tremendous event’ that ‘has not yet reached the ears of men. Lightning and thunder require time; the light of the stars requires time.’ It may be that only the appearance of a broad moral controversy brings to light what had in fact been true already for generations: all of a sudden, we come to realize that we do not in fact believe that there is such a thing as ‘nature,’ that the physical world, paradigmatically the human body, is meaningful in itself, that truth and goodness and beauty have objective weight. Charles Péguy defined the spirit of modernity as not believing what one believes (‘ne pas croire ce qui l’on croit’); perhaps postmodernity arrives when we finally see through this falsehood and shed the pretense. In any event, I wish to suggest that at the root of the subjectivism and relativism that we regularly encounter in contemporary culture lies the conviction that faith in God is ultimately a personal, private affair alone, a matter sealed off from the realm of truth. If the Creator of the world is not in some basic sense an other, to which I must conform, any real otherness that the world may have grows thin, and fails to put up any ontological resistance to human projects — at the moment of crisis, initially, but eventually in any moment of need, however trivial.”

— from D. C. Schindler, “‘Unless You Become a Philosopher . . . ’: On God, Being, and Reason’s Role in Faith” Communio (Spring, 2016)
 

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7 Oct

More on Peter Harrison

Category: What We're Reading
By: Eve Ruotsinoja
Published: 10/07/16

On our most current issue, Volume 131 of the Journal, we featured an interview with historian, Peter Harrison, on his book The Territories of Science and Religion. If you would like to read an excellent summary of Harrison's book, or if you need a little more incentive to listen to the interview, we encourage you to read Peter Leithart's review of Harrison's book "Not Religion v. Science," published on October 6, 2016 on the First Things website.

27 Sep

Confident agnosticism

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 09/27/16

Lesslie Newbigin on not knowing everything

“There is indeed a proper place for agnosticism in the Christian life. There is a true sense in which we are — with others — seekers after the truth. The apophatic tradition in theology has always insisted on the fact that no human image or concept can grasp the full reality of God. Christians are — or should be — learners to the end of their days. But it is equally important to insist that this learning is, like all genuine learning, an exercise which is guided and disciplined by a tradition — the tradition which stems from God’s decisive acts in Jesus Christ. No learning takes place except within a tradition whose authority is accepted as guidance for exploration. No seeking can be called serious which is without any clue. Wandering about in a twilight where all cats are grey is not seeking truth. When Christians affirm, as they do, that Jesus is the way, the true and living way by whom we come to the Father (John 16:4), they are not claiming to know everything. They are claiming to be on the way, and inviting others to join them as they press forward toward the fulness of the truth, toward the day when we shall know as we have been known.”

— from Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society and the Common Good (Eerdmans, 1989)

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