Guests on Volume 108: Thomas Albert Howard, on why many nineteenth-century Europeans were nervous about the shape of American religious life; Jean Porter, on how natural law provides a rationale for the rule of law and for legislative and judicial authority; Peter Augustine Lawler, on how neither ancient philosophy nor modern science explains human nature (but the Logos does); Hans Boersma, on why Christians should reject the modern separation of Heaven and Earth and recover a “sacramental ontology”; Felicia Wu Song, on how online communication systems shape relationships and community; and Elias Aboujaoude, on how life online makes us think we’re bigger, badder, and smarter than we really are.
“The idea was that the logic of history moves from the theological to the irreligious, to the secular; that's the normative route of modern history.”
— Thomas Albert Howard
Thomas Albert Howard discusses European perspectives of eighteenth-century American religious life. Howard suggests that for many American writers and thinkers, Alexis de Tocqueville is the be-all and end-all of European observers of the relation between American religious and public life. However, to get at and understand some of the darker and more negative opinions of American public life, Howard notes that other European sources may prove to be more fruitful. Philip Schaff was one of those sources who, from a Protestant perspective, noticed some of the dangers and problems with religious life in America. For many Europeans, the exuberant and untrammeled sort of freedom on display in America was disconcerting. For example, while they paid far greater attention to the industrial and French revolutions in their immediate vicinity, the German Romantics were also disturbed by the lack of idealism that seemed to them a consequence of the highly-practical and commercial orientation of Americans. As time went on, European thinkers influenced by the Enlightenment gradually came to focus on the recalcitrance of American religiosity, which seemed an aberration with respect to what they saw as a historically normative process of secularization.
“The very formality of legal systems, when they operate in good order, when they are set up in accordance with real ideals of legality and not simply pretexts for some kind of improper dominion . . . they embody principles of justice and fairness.”
— Jean Porter
Jean Porter joins us to describe how natural law justifies legal and moral authority within the life of the human person. She argues that the ideals of legality are positive goods, not merely necessary evils or concessions to human weakness and sin. One of the motivations for her writing is her observation that a strong suspicion of government has in the past thirty years developed into something much stronger akin to a soft anarchism. Christians, in her view, have too uncritically bought into the notion that the government is always the problem. She contrasts this to ideas she finds in medieval Christian sources which portray the relationship of individuals to authoritative communities and their institutions not as an intrinsically antagonistic one, but one where the community and the individual find their proper fulfillment in each other: the community by its respect for the individual, and the individual by its participation and formation in the community. Individuals need institutions and culture to frame and structure their lives as rational beings. She notes how instability often arises in periods of radical change in social and technological spheres, and compares contemporary times to periods in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries where significant dislocations led to varied political responses, some richly innovation and fruitful and some not. The interview ends with an intriguing discussion of what she means by “the autonomy of the law” and the formal goods of legal proceedings and structures which do not merely serve as instruments to achieve justice, but actually embody justice.
“Christianity showed us something that reason can affirm, but in fact reason had not discovered. But once Christianity tells the truth about human freedom, that idea of freedom can't disappear because of its truth. So even modern philosophy is kind of secularized Christianity affirming an idea of freedom that actually natural science has never been comfortable with.”
— Peter Augustine Lawler
Peter Augustine Lawler discusses in this segment three differing views of the human person. He contrasts the ancient philosophical view of the Greeks rooted in an impersonal dualistic cosmology, the modern scientific view rooted in self-construction, and a Christian view rooted in the Logos and animated by recent writings of Pope Benedict XVI. His goal is to correct the Aristotelian and Darwinian sciences through a personalism that is “open to being,” that is open to the experience of love, goodness and dignity inherent in the existence and experience of a person, which is validated ultimately in the Incarnation of the Person of the Logos. He illustrates with a number of examples where modern and ancient scientific views cannot explain our experience of freedom, resulting in conflicting dualisms that are passed over and ignored or otherwise suppressed. Lawler observes that human persons are neither minds nor bodies but a third thing combining both into something that is capable of love and dignity in a way incomprehensible to views of humans as fundamentally divisible minds and bodies.
“We’ve assumed especially since the Enlightenment that we can approach natural realities by themselves and can properly understand them, can properly grasp them, without any supernatural assumptions.”
— Hans Boersma
Theologian Hans Boersma talks about a sacramental view of reality he calls a “sacramental ontology.” Boersma uses the word ontology loosely to describe the way we understand all of reality. He argues that a view of salvation that is limited to individual human souls apart from the rest of Creation inadequately describes the biblical portrait of salvation and God's relation to his Creation. God isn't merely some far-off alien whose only relationship with an autonomous Creation occurs when humans repent and place their faith in him. Rather, all of reality is always and already interpenetrated with the presence of God, apart from which Creation does not exist since its existence depends upon the being of God. The relationship and activities of redemption are not, then, arbitrary interventions beginning a new contrived relationship between a God who is basically foreign to Creation, but the intimate work of a loving God on a cosmos that has always been his own and which has depended on his divine being for its created being. The relation of Creation to God is not merely as a sign pointing nominally to God, though it is that. It is a deeper, more intimate relation where Creation at a fundamental level participates in the being of God. Boersma observes that one form of separation between earth and heaven (or pure nature and pure grace or pure reason and pure faith) mirrors a dubious and misleading separation between the natural and supernatural which associates Jesus Christ with one rather than the other, when Christ is the supernatural source of all things, and so all things we consider natural actually have a supernatural telos.
“Very often the harsh qualities that exist within our communities, our real communities, [become] realities we can choose to turn on or off.”
— Felicia Wu Song
Sociologist Felicia Wu Song explains her research on virtual communities. Recently, her work has focused on networks of “mommy” blogs and the challenges they face when commercial interests make authentic posting and blogging relationships more complicated. She notes how the internet facilitates the creation of homogenous communities — beginning with those who are able to afford internet access — but observes internet technology only amplifies a preexisting trend in society. The internet also shapes in peculiarly technological ways how people organize and put into action ethical and social movements: what once required face-to-face meetings with those in need can be done with a Like button that makes a small donation to a cause, and the context is lost.
“All these traits were not invented with the internet . . . but what’s happening is that this particular medium is amplifying them, it’s giving them a new stage and new audience.”
— Elias Aboujaoude
Elias Aboujaoude discusses the effects of online participation on personality. He notes that rigorous studies on the psychological and neurological consequences of the virtual revolution have been lacking considering how pervasive online life is in modern society, which is why he did his study. Through his study and encounters with patients, Aboujaoude found that the ways one behaves online influence one’s personality in general in a number of ways that bear resemblance to psychological disorders, including impulsivity, addictive behavior, infantile regression, viciousness, and delusions of knowledge. For example, a form of grandiosity can obtain through one’s experiences online; the internet can open up a new frontier for people to explore and let loose, and apparent prospects of limitlessness (or at least fewer limits) for things online like popularity or property or status can inculcate a distorted sense of reality that overflows to one’s life offline. Aboujaoude believes we’re just not that good at compartmentalizing our experiences.