Guests on Volume 104: James Le Fanu, on the mistaken assumption that modern medical science has eliminated the fittingness of a sense of mystery and wonder at the human mind and body; Garret Keizer, on how many noises in modern life reveal a state of warfare with the limitations of our embodiment; Daniel Ritchie, on how Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) and Isaac Watts (1674-1748) anticipated late twentieth-century critiques of the Enlightenment; Monica Ganas, on how the distinct vision of life embedded in “California-ism” has exerted a powerful cultural influence; Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, on how the search for faithfulness to Christ led him to the wisdom of the Benedictine Rule and a new monasticism; and Peter J. Leithart, on why Constantine has an unfairly bad reputation and on how his rule dealt a severe blow to paganism in the West.
“People need to know how little we know.”
— James Le Fanu
James Le Fanu talks about how scientific developments are increasing rather than eliminating the mysteriousness of the human person. For example, he lists a number of phenomena that remain opaque to developments in neuroscience. Le Fanu argues that there are many important things about the human person that science cannot explain, that remain outside of the competence of science to explain. Unfortunately, rather than acknowledging the limits of the nature and competence of science, many cultural authorities tend to ignore, diminish, or reduce to materialistic aspects those parts and phenomena of reality that science cannot address. If science cannot apprehend or explain something, it must be something illusory, something that isn’t truly real. Consciousness, for example, might be reduced down to mere chemical reactions in the brain creating an illusion of self-awareness. In Le Fanu’s experience, the practice of reducing phenomena to purely material explanation begins quite early for many children in science education, which tends to bore them because of it. Le Fanu would have us reinforce the instinctual appreciation for the non-material aspects of our existence found in traditional liberal arts education and especially the humanities.
“A lot of the noise we're making is noise expended in the effort not to return to the earth but to utterly escape the earth and our bodies with it, and each other.”
— Garret Keizer
Critic Garret Keizer recognizes that much of the noise in our everyday lives is a by-product of our attempts to surpass the limits of our bodies. Keizer discusses how Milton and Dante regarded and wrote about noise in their works, and comments on the historical association of noise with pain, in contrast to music with pleasure. He points out that a drawback of particular advances in power over time and space is the noise that is generated through those particular advances, noise that is repulsive because it interferes with our fullest and deepest enjoyment of life. This creates a tension in our lives that must be navigated, but Keizer believes it is instructive to attend to the particular noises we hear and experience because of the way particular noises represent conflict in particular ways, in particular places, and within particular orders. Noise can represent a challenge to those things, which can be just and good or illegitimate and dehumanizing, and which require attention.
“Watts is critical of Locke’s reduction of rationality to sensation and reflection . . . but that's not what we remember Watts for.”
— Daniel Ritchie
English professor Daniel Ritchie describes how many of the figures he studies in his new book, including Jonathan Swift and Isaac Watts, emphasize the significance of human experience, enculturation and contingency to human knowledge; in contrast to this appreciation of the humanity of knowledge, Ritchie observes that many of the figures of the Enlightenment idealized a non-contingent, machine-like knowledge that could be completely divorced from particular human situatedness. Jonathan Swift illustrates the contrasts between these two approaches in parts of his satirical Gulliver’s Travels and in a number of his essays at the beginnings of the Enlightenment. Swift was responding to the major discussions of the time where contemporary and ancient times were being compared. Isaac Watts was likewise aware of the intellectual currents of the day, and he engaged contemporary discussions in both prose and verse. He was highly critical of the divorce between beauty and knowing that figures such as John Locke and Immanuel Kant later would claim.
“I think grace — the notion of grace — was co-opted sort of early on by a notion of luck that operates as a central metaphor.”
— Monica Ganas
Monica Ganas reflects on the cultural impact of the unique state of California. A mystique surrounds California, Ganas observes, one that is perceived in the way people not from California talk about it. It evokes hopes and dreams and possibility and longing in an almost mythic way that has formed the backdrop of many significant events in California's history from its naming to the Gold Rush and beyond. She links these powerful qualities of possibility to the growth of information technology and genetic engineering, which are industries especially situated at the vanguard of the future promise of expansion and renewal. The image and mindset of progress is often in tension with grace because the passion cultivated by “California-ism” is both directed to and driven by heroic achievement in the grasping and harnessing of opportunity. Luck displaces grace in California-ism, but it still maintains a vital religious sensibility of faith in possibility -- the possibility of fortune.
“There’s much to be said for being free from all of those things that are bad, but that conversation alone doesn’t determine what we’re free for, what the content of our freedom will be once we begin to live into it.”
— Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove
Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove discusses the value of resisting hyper-mobility and living in one place for a long time. He argues that stability in a certain place makes possible a kind of depth and breadth in the experience of a community that is strained and often precluded by constantly moving around. He has learned much from the monastic tradition of Christianity about how one's faith can be lived out fully, and he observes that many Christians who seek intentional community out of frustration with their churches likewise draw from these resources support that can sustain them. He points out that the very dearth of deep and satisfying community that generates longing for it unfortunately also shapes people in ways that keep them from being able to receive and participate in that deep sort of love; this phenomenon perpetuates a vicious cycle, and Wilson-Hartgrove appreciates the collected wisdom of the Benedictine monks that address such phenomena in human experience. He discusses the differences between American notions of freedom and Benedictine notions. Finally, Wilson-Hartgrove cautions against an over-determined view of monastic life; Benedictine practice has always retained a flexibility that has served it well over the centuries, looking different in different times and yet retaining continuity with the tradition.
“We’re so used to a de-sacrificed civic order that we have a hard time imagining how significant that was. But that’s a huge shift in Western civilization.”
— Peter Leithart
Theologian Peter Leithart examines Constantine’s life and legacy, and the implications of that for Christian life today. He begins by observing that biblical Christianity contains within it a vision of all of life and reality and relations, and so Christian thinking about various aspects of life from economics and sociology to art and music to what it means to be human cannot faithfully start from scratch, but must grow within and out of that cosmological vision. Theology is social theory, a theory of the relations of man and God in history. Leithart cites John Milbank’s historical work concretely tracing the genealogy of contemporary political and social thought to particular philosophies and theologies in time, and he notes that many of the theories operative today arise out of heretical Christian theology and pagan philosophy. In history, there is no neutral civic or social theory, but always one presupposing and built upon particular theologies and philosophies claiming certain things about the people and the world. Leithart then discusses his aims for the book: to evaluate the historical evidence concerning Constantine’s life in such a way as to clarify the historical narrative on which contemporary political theology rests. He does this in great sympathy with critics of Constantine, carefully noting the main critics, arguments, and evidence that have cast suspicion upon Constantine and deemed his influence upon the early Church as corrupting. He appreciatively cites John Howard Yoder as providing the most compelling of the Constantinian critiques in that his criticisms are ecclesial and eschatological in nature and resist the modern privatization and over-spiritualization of the Church typical of post-Enlightenment and liberal Protestant critics. The interview ends with a lengthy discussion on the end of pagan sacrifice in and organizing the Roman civic order, a theme Leithart draws out in his conclusion to the book.