Guests on Volume 99: Marilyn Chandler McEntyre, on how the abuse of language creates distrust in the power of words and on how we can be better stewards of the gift of language; Paul A. Rahe, on the heresy of progressivism, which abandons vital convictions about human nature and political order and invites the advent of “soft despotism”; James L. Nolan, Jr., on how European countries have adopted the American model of problem-solving courts (and what they also get in the bargain); Andrew J. Cherlin, on why the twin American commitments to marriage and to expressive individualism hurt families; Dale Kuehne, on the faulty assumption that intimate relationships demand sexual involvement, and on how the essentially relational nature of the Gospel is ignored; and Alison Milbank, on how the fantasy writings of G. K. Chesterton and J. R. R. Tolkien are intended to reconnect readers with reality.
“Part of the church’s call is to be countercultural and right now the word of proclamation and even the word of admonition is a countercultural act. And to assemble people, to see each other face to face instead of through the medium of a screen is becoming countercultural as we have a generation coming up who text each other from across the hall. . . . I think that the gathering and the conversation that can only happen in the Church needs to be a preservation issue.”
— Marilyn Chandler McEntyre
Marilyn Chandler McEntyre discusses the complex ecosystem of language — both spoken and written — and how the health of our languages affects our thoughts, our relationships, and our capacities for conversation, prayer, and contemplation. While a well-turned phrase and a facility for eloquent argument may be viewed as a dangerous form of social power, McEntyre argues that anti-intellectualism and anti-elitism are poor defenses against such abuses through language. Instead, McEntyre proposes that we should foster habits of stewardship and preservation which seek to honor language by allowing ourselves to be addressed by it, to pause around it, and to dwell in it, rather than commanding and wielding our words as weapons.
“The problem was: can you have liberty in a large territory, say the size of the United States? And the initial answer that Montesquieu offers is ‘No, you cannot’ because in a large territory there are a thousand things that have to be dealt with, there are always emergencies. This leads to a concentration of power in the hands of the executive. Montesquieu suggested, however, that there were two ways that you could sustain liberty on an extended territory.”
— Paul A. Rahe
Paul Rahe locates a significant shift in attitudes concerning political governance that developed under the influence of nineteenth-century Hegelian historical progressivism. In contrast to what Rahe calls “the heresy of progressivism,” political philosophers prior to Hegel often recognized that throughout history, despotism had been the normal form of government and that modes of political liberty were rare. For this reason, eighteenth-century political philosophers sought methods for separating powers according to federal and state jurisdictions, various functioning branches, and according to the principles of scale and the character of localized lands.
“In the U. S., the courts are characterized by enthusiasm, boldness and pragmatism; and the other countries' are characterized by deliberation, moderation and restraint.”
— James L. Nolan, Jr.
In his book Legal Accents, Legal Borrowings, sociologist James Nolan compares the attitudes of U.S. judicial courts with those from four other English speaking court systems in Canada, England, Scotland, and Australia. Historically, Nolan comments, court systems and their judges have not been concerned with solving the personal problems of offenders, but rather with the role of adjudicating. One factor leading to this shift in judiciary role is a growing sense of futility felt among judges who see offenders cycle through their courts repeatedly. However, Nolan questions the wisdom of redirecting resources to refashion the criminal court systems at the expense of rebuilding institutions that have typically assumed responsibility for solving personal problems. Nolan attributes the American reorientation of the judiciary role to American cultural values such as pragmatism, entrepreneurial skills, charisma, and therapeutic individualism. While the European court systems are much more modest and restrained about their expectations from their judicial branches, they are, nonetheless, sympathetic to the idea of a problem-solving court. Nolan offers the reminder, however, that legal institutions are cultural products as well and that to adopt an institution as radical as the problem-solving courts may be to embrace many more American cultural assumptions than the European courts are comfortable with.
“I think Americans have two conflicting values in their heads about marriage. On the one hand, they really want to be married. We have one of the highest marriage rates of any country. On the other hand, they think of their marriages in a very personal sense. Am I getting what I need? Am I developing enough as a person in my marriage? And if the answer is no, they feel justified in leaving.”
— Andrew Cherlin
Sociologist Andrew Cherlin identifies a surprising disparity between American divorce rates and European divorce rates. Despite widespread religious sentiments among Americans, American marriages and cohabiting partnerships seem to be more fragile than their secular European counterparts. Cherlin locates a correlation between American divorce rates and American religion as taught in the flourishing mega-churches, in which people are encouraged to seek personal growth and fulfillment. Cherlin notes that while some European countries, such as Spain and Italy, are highly religious and other European countries, such as those in Scandinavia, are highly individualistic, the United States is the only country where one finds both a strong value on religion and a strong value on individualistic ways of thinking.
“But what I realized was that this idea that sexuality was necessary for human fulfillment was something that comes mostly from the sexual revolution in the 60’s, and until then that assumption was not part of Western society, and as a result, not only was same-sex marriage off the table, but the idea of fulfillment and sexuality being connected wasn’t part of the equation.”
— Dale Kuehne
Dale Kuehne discusses the relatively recent view that deep personal and relational fulfillment requires sexual intimacy. Though sexual deviancy has existed throughout history, societies that have been defined less by individualism and more by issues of public and communal virtue, viewed sex as an appetite that should be restrained, typically within marriage between a man and a woman. For instance, contrary to contemporary assumptions, in which sexual intimacy is requisite for the deepest form of human fulfillment, the ancient Greeks viewed male to male friendship as the highest form of relationship because it was seen as the most rational and least enslaved to the sexual appetite. Kuehne argues that individualism is detrimental to human relationships and to our capacity to imagine intimacy because it undermines more complex, communal structures for relationships.
“Chesterton saw that in order to restore the real, you did have to take a journey away from it.”
— Alison Milbank
Theologian Alison Milbank discusses the influence that G. K. Chesterton had upon J. R. R. Tolkien. Both writers saw fantasy as an escape from reality, but also a journey that would ultimately restore one’s perception of what was truly real. Tolkien, in particular, wanted his fantasies to enable readers to see the objects of this world as meaningful things apart from ourselves, rather than dead objects subject entirely to our manipulation and control. Milbank comments that Tolkien’s fantasies reflect a desire to return to a medieval view in which objects participate in reality as we participate in reality, with their own kind of form and integrity. For both authors, the things we perceive in the world present themselves as intentional, personal, and given.