28 Apr

Culture as legacy

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 04/28/16

Hannah Arendt on the place of authority and tradition in education

“The crisis of authority in education is most closely connected with the crisis of tradition, that is with the crisis in our attitude toward the realm of the past. This aspect of the modern crisis is especially hard for the educator to bear, because it is his task to mediate between the old and the new, so that his very profession requires of him an extraordinary respect for the past. Through long centuries, i.e., throughout the combined period of Roman-Christian civilization, there was no need for him to become aware of this special quality in himself because reverence for the past was an essential part of the Roman frame of mind, and this was not altered or ended by Christianity, but simply shifted onto different foundations. 

“It was of the essence of the Roman attitude (though this was by no means true of every civilization or even of the Western tradition taken as a whole) to consider the past qua past as a model, ancestors, in every instance, as guiding examples for their descendants; to believe that all greatness lies in what has been, and therefore that the most fitting human age is old age, the man grown old, who, because he is already almost an ancestor, may serve as a model for the living. . . . 

“With the undisturbed background of such a tradition, in which education has a political function (and this was a unique case), it is in fact comparatively easy to do the right thing in matters of education without even pausing to consider what one is really doing, so completely is the specific ethos of the educational principle in accord with the basic ethical and moral convictions of society at large. To educate, in the words of Polybius, was simply ‘to let you see that you are altogether worthy of your ancestors,’ and in this business the educator could be a ‘fellow-contestant’ and a ‘fellow-workman’ because he too, though on a different level, went through life with his eyes glued to the past. Fellowship and authority were in this case indeed but the two sides of the same matter, and the teacher’s authority was firmly grounded in the encompassing authority of the past as such. Today, however, we are no longer in that position; and it makes little sense to act as though we still were and had only, as it were, accidentally strayed from the right path and were free at any moment to find our way back to it. . . .

“The problem of education in the modern world lies in the fact that by its very nature it cannot forgo either authority or tradition, and yet must proceed in a world that is neither structured by authority nor held together by tradition. That means, however, that not just teachers and educators, but all of us, insofar as we live in one world together with our children and with young people, must take toward them an attitude radically different from the one we take toward one another. We must decisively divorce the realm of education from the others, most of all from the realm of public, political life, in order to apply to it alone a concept of authority and an attitude toward the past which are appropriate to it but have no general validity and must not claim a general validity in the world of grown-ups. 

“In practice the first consequence of this would be a clear understanding that the function of the school is to teach children what the world is like and not to instruct them in the art of living. Since the world is old, always older than they themselves, learning inevitably turns toward the past, no matter how much living will spend itself in the present. . . .

“What concerns us all and cannot therefore be turned over to the special science of pedagogy is the relation between grown-ups and children in general or, putting it in even more general and exact terms, our attitude toward the fact of natality: the fact that we have all come into the world by being born and that this world is constantly renewed through birth. Education is the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it and by the same token save it from that ruin which, except for renewal, except for the coming of the new and young, would be inevitable. And education, too, is where we decide whether we love our children enough not to expel them from our world and leave them to their own devices, nor to strike from their hands their chance of undertaking something new, something unforeseen by us, but to prepare them in advance for the task of renewing a common world.”

—from Hannah Arendt, “The Crisis of Education,” in Between Past and Future (The Viking Press, 1961)

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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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