While We’re At It (March 2012)
♦ Being a Theodish heathen, and indeed the “First Atheling” (prince, in case you didn’t know, and he even has “thralls”) of a tribe called New Normand, New York Republican city councilman Dan Halloran “could be the first elected official in the United States whose religion says abortion should be legal while his political compass says it shouldn’t.”
He’s publicly pro-life, reports the Village Voice, which pleases us but upsets his heathen colleagues. You get an idea of what his kind of heathenism means from his explanation of abortion. “The lore is fairly well established here,” he wrote in 2004 in a discussion string obtained by the Voice.
The soul complex does not attach to the fetus until the naming, three to nine days after birth. First, if it attached before the naming it would be impossible for the fetch or luck to manifest in the manner described/attributed to naming in the ausa vatni . Specifically, our forebearers believed that the ancestor the child was named for would be the source material for the soul component attaching, and thus possess some of his traits. The sagas confirm this belief.
A former follower says that Hollaran is, or at least used to be, “pro-abortion to nearly the point of endorsing infanticide,” and you can see why. Current abortion doctrine draws a line between the unborn and the born child, giving the latter rights as a “person” the first doesn’t have. It’s irrational, but at least it tries to ground the question in something real. Our heathen grounds it in someone’s choice to name the child, something, as far as we can tell, not being pagans, entirely subjective.
♦ Crab-walking is the image the editor uses to describe the way most of us act out our church’s moral norms. We don’t reject them, he writes in a Commonweal symposium, we “trim, adjust, and make exceptions.”
The symposium addresses what the English Catholic historian Eamon Duffy had called the “ticking time bomb” of the “growing number of Catholics in irregular unions.” The other contributors suggest the answer is essentially to regularize those unions. Reno stands out.
The problem, Reno writes, is “bourgeois religion.” This kind of mind “presumes that the feelings and behavior of well-to-do middle-class people pretty much reflect the will of God.” In this case, “the countercultural belief that traditional morality involves a cruel and unnecessary limitation on the sexual lives of men and women.”
The ticking time bomb will go off, and probably sooner than later, and either bourgeois religion will re-form Catholicism or Catholics, at least a sizable percentage, will give up bourgeois religion. A lot of you are betting on the first, we suspect. The editor isn’t. “I’m inclined to think that the coming explosion will do more damage to bourgeois religion than to traditional sexual morality,” he writes, pointing out how the last century’s bourgeois religion, liberal Protestantism, has run out of gas.
More importantly, “the animating ethos of the Catholic Church does not come from the laity, or even the diocesan clergy, but instead from religious orders that are constituted to cast out the bourgeois hearth gods of health, wealth, and hedonism.” We would add that the Church tells us the truth and that man wants the truth, whatever pressing reasons he has for ignoring it at the moment. People will always be irregularly united, because that is how fallen people are, but they will always want the good of marriage, and at some level know that the Church is telling them how to be happy.
♦ Regular readers will understand that we are not exactly in agreement with Commonweal ’s liberal Catholicism. We suspect there are more pictures of Benedict XVI in our office than in theirs. But it is also a varied, unpredictable, and stimulating magazine. See commonwealmagazine.org for more information.
♦ This reminds us of two favorite lines from G. K. Chesterton’s The Catholic Church and Conversion: “We do not really want a religion that is right where we are right. We want a religion that is right where we are wrong” and “We do not want, as the newspapers say, a church that will move with the world. We want a church that will move the world.”
♦ Which in turn reminds us of another favorite quote, this one from Chesterton’s book Orthodoxy : “The church is a living teacher, not a dead one . . . . It has not merely told this truth or that truth, but has revealed itself as a truth-telling thing. All other philosophers say the things that plainly seem to be true; only this philosophy has again and again said the thing that does not seem to be true, but is true. Alone of all the creeds it is convincing where it is not attractive.”
Interestingly, the example he gives, writing one-hundred-some years ago, is one that bears on the question of “irregular unions.” He did not have, he writes, “any instinctive kinship with that enthusiasm for physical virginity, which has certainly been a note of historic Christianity.”
But when I look not at myself but at the world, I perceive that this enthusiasm is not only a note of Christianity, but a note of Paganism, a note of high human nature in many spheres . . . . With all this human experience allied with the Christian authority, I simply conclude that I am wrong, and the Church right; or rather that I am defective, while the church is universal. It takes all sorts to make a church; she does not ask me to be celibate. But the fact that I have no appreciation of the celibates, I accept like the fact that I have no ear for music. The best human experience is against me, as it is on the subject of Bach. Celibacy is one flower in my father’s garden, of which I have not been told the sweet or terrible name. But I may be told it any day.
♦ The NPR interviewer, writes a friend, really, really wanted him to judge the nature — no, the quality”of Newt Gingrich’s conversion, and was apparently hoping for a critical judgment. Those of us who are converts know that all you can do is throw up your hands and say “God knows” because we simply don’t know anyone well enough to know why they did what they did. We don’t know ourselves well enough to explain fully why we did what we did.
In any case, it’s a politically irrelevant question, since outside some extraordinary cases, conversion doesn’t change anyone’s character and personality. You are who you’ve made yourself. Conversion simply puts you in the position where God can begin to change you, which he does through the usual long-term methods of prayer, worship, confession, alms giving, and the disciplines.
We can only vote on what we know from the evidence we have. If X was a bad choice before he converted, one ought to assume he’s still a bad choice, without years of evidence to the contrary. If he was a good choice then, he will be a good choice now. But conversion doesn’t by itself make a difference one way or the other.
♦ “Not long ago, American churches (which Protestants used to call, more modestly, ‘denominations’) asserted their superiority over other churches.” So said Joseph Small, author of “Presbyterianism’s Democratic Captivity” in this issue, speaking at a recent conference in the Netherlands. A Presbyterian himself, he notes that
Reformed churches considered synodical forms of church governance faithful to Scripture (and consistent with American democracy) while episcopal forms were clearly borrowed from Roman culture (and consistent, of course, with Old World monarchies). Reformed church sacramental practice (decent and in good order) was superior to both Catholic superstition and free-church neglect. Reformed church commitment to the “transformation of culture” was more consistent with the gospel (and American values) than other churches’ attempts to dominate culture or to separate from it.
This, he says, was all “Presbyterian mythology.” Other churches had their own mythologies and Presbyterians were often their bad guys. In any case, “churches experienced themselves over against other churches.”
We think he’s half right about this. The differences between churches aren’t exactly a “mythology.” We really do disagree, and disagree about fundamental questions. That’s the challenge, and we would say the fun, of ecumenical encounters.
On the other side, however, for the most part the various Christian bodies don’t experience themselves over against each other. We differ, but more clearly than in the past we also see that we look to the same Lord and read the same Scriptures and even, in different ways, submit to the same tradition. That’s what makes ecumenical encounters not only fun, but fruitful.
♦ Speaking of Presbyterianism, former NFL player Terrell Owens explained his feelings on going to a Presbyterian church (he grew up a Southern Baptist): “It’s preppy. At the part where we say ‘Amen,’ they say ‘Indeed.’”
♦ For those who want even more on Spinoza than Allan Arkush provides in his review in this issue, our deputy editor sends along a limerick written by a friend, Clare Coffey, an undergraduate at Dartmouth. She writes, with apologies to the Moses/toeses/roses scene from Singin’ in the Rain:
Spinozes supposes that God is the roses
But Spinozes supposes erroneously.
For Moses, he shows us
That God ain’t the roses”
What Spinozes supposes is idolatry.
♦ “Many liberals have jettisoned the politics of economic equality and prefer to focus on the far less expensive practice of lifestyle liberalism.” It’s all about sex, in other words. Not news to us, of course, but good to have it confirmed by Eric Alterman of the leftist magazine The Nation.
♦ Writing in that same issue of The Nation, a book reviewer explains that though Stephen King “sometimes sentimentalizes small towns, he’s spent enough time in them . . . to understand the violence they breed: the spouse and child battering, the bullying, the backbiting, the jealousy, the destructiveness of gossips and prudes.” King reveals “the violent and unmooring in small-town life.” Which of these, we wonder, does he think not also characteristic of the city and the suburb?
♦ And then there are the people who talk about the past the way some city dwellers talk about small towns. According to the novelist E. L. Doctorow, “Today, we are socially aware in ways few in the 1920s could have understood.” Some states didn’t let women vote, no one cared about endangered species, and writers like Hemingway, Eliot, and Fitzgerald used, with apparent approval or at least an embarrassing lack of disapproval, anti-Semitism and racism in their writing.
Fair enough. But we are also socially unaware in ways most in the 1920s would have found appalling. We don’t need to go over the examples. Anyway, it is amazing how the progressive narrative continues to be believed, and how often some progressive hero like Doctorow speaks as if it were self-evident. It’s a kind of romance story, with the romance novel’s comforting lack of ambiguity and failure.
Conservatives seem to be the last ones who believe as a matter of principle that every time and society has its typical virtues and vices, and that time, chance, and original sin happeneth to us all in about equal measure.
♦ Another article in The Nation offers some disturbing news about the honesty of our scientists. One study found that half the science faculty members surveyed knew about at least two types of scientific misconduct and 7 percent had seen faculty making up data. A similar study of biochemists found that half of them knew of at least one such incident. A metaanalysis of eighteen studies found that 2 percent of scientists admitted to making up data and 14 percent had seen other scientists doing so.
Evidence of human sinfulness will never surprise the religious believer, especially when the pressures and the rewards are as high as they are in the scientific world. But we do think this evidence should make our secular elites, for whom scientists so often serve as prophets, priests, and kings, to be a little more skeptical in their religious devotions.
In the halls of the headquarters of the European Union in Brussels, reports the editor of the liberalish English magazine Prospect, “rhetorical tyranny demands that one must coyly refer to the ‘country I know best’” and never to “my country.”
There are, with the best will in the world, profound differences between the religions. Here is a passage taken from a mid-twelfth-century Syrian text, taken from the new biography of Saladin by Anne-Marie EddÈ (quoted in a review in The Spectator ):
The most amazing thing in the world is that the Christians say that Jesus is divine, that he is God, and then they say that the Jews seized him and crucified him. How then can a God who cannot protect himself protect others? Anyone who believes his God came out of a woman’s privates is quite mad; he should not be spoken to, for he has neither intelligence nor faith.
This is, we should say, quite sensible. Wrong, of course, but quite sensible, and not just from the Muslim’s point of view. It helps to remember this, for the memory helps Christians be thankful that we have been given the grace to see something the sensible man may think quite mad.
♦ North Korea remains the worst country in the world for persecuting Christians, and the only one to receive the “severe persecution” ranking in Open Doors’ 2012 World Watch List. The communist state has imprisoned from one in four to one in eight Christians in labor camps.
Rounding out the bottom ten are Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Iran, Maldives, Uzbekistan, Yemen, Iraq, and Pakistan. All are Islamic countries, and in numbers two to six “indigenous Christians have almost no freedom to believe at all.” Seven of the next ten on the list are also Islamic countries, the others being Buddhist (Laos and Bhutan) or Buddhist and Communist (Vietnam).
The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church, Tertullian noted (from close observation) in the early third century. The report concludes by quoting a pastor in a Gulf country: “When we suffer, we bring a credibility to the gospel that cannot be ignored, because we show that Christ is worth it, and that is the secret of growth under persecution.” For more information, see worldwatchlist.us .
♦ Our advisory council member Robert P. George gave a lecture in mid-January at St. Thomas More Church in New York City, entitled “The Clash of Orthodoxies: Revisited.” Our junior fellow Mark Misulia reports:
By way of showing the marked differences between understanding life issues from utilitarian consequentialism and from natural law, George had the audience imagine that their exceptionally gifted young daughter, destined to make innumerable societal contributions, needs a liver transplant. Her’s being a rare blood type, the only available liver was possessed by a mentally disabled girl across town.
From the point of view of consequentialism, the liver should be taken from the disabled and given to the gifted, considering her capacity for greatness versus the disabled girl’s incapacity for even normal human flourishing, added to the inconvenience she imposes on her caretakers. From the point of view of natural law, the proposition is of course morally reprehensible.
George wanted only to show the repugnant result of reducing personhood to functionality. But his hypothetical example, extreme as it sounds, is not far from reality. At the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, a mentally disabled child is in fact being denied a kidney transplant on nearly the same grounds. The girls parents report (the hospital disputes the charge) that the representing doctor of the nephrology department claims that the child is not eligible “because of her quality of life,” while the social worker reminded the parents of the lasting inconveniences of caring for an older disabled person.
Though the doctor and social worker are probably not avowed utilitarian consequentialists, the time has come, it seems, when the moral-problem scenarios of the ethics textbook have become our problems as well.
♦ Just when it seemed like the atheism controversies of the past few years had begun to lose their luster, Alain de Botton, a Swiss-British writer and television personality, has lately been pushing what he calls “Atheism 2.0.” You’d think, given the centuries of argumentation over God’s existence, we’d have reached at least, say, Atheism 5.0 by now, but no matter. A rough description of his, er, vision was pithily summed up by a friend of ours a few days ago: “It’s like New Atheism meets ‘spiritual-but-not-religious.’”
What de Botton is aiming for, he told the audience in a recent speech at a TED Conference, is a system of unbelief that can “keep the good and get rid of the bad wherever you find it, including religion.” He urges his disciples to “steal from religion,” without actually committing to any specific doctrine. But he’s not hostile to faith, he claims”unlike the Harrises and Dawkinses of the world, he urges his rather bemused-looking audience to approach religious people and institutions with a kind of childish wonder, and even demands that atheists be open to “spiritual moments, but without belief in spirit.”
De Botton delivers his talk quite amiably, and peppers it with a few refreshingly clear-sighted anthropological claims about the “unfilled holes” that inevitably emerge in a purely secular human life. Yet the whole thing has the feel of a manifesto, as if de Botton imagines he’s hit upon some brilliant new formula and must get the message out to the disciples.
But seen with a bit of critical distance, his whole project”retaining the outward forms of religion (along with some of the more pleasant doctrines) while ignoring or stigmatizing the thornier questions”just sounds like a pretty perfect summation of the last one hundred years of Western cultural ambiguity.
• Notes from the Editorial Life: One of the writers for the “On the Square” section of our website recently remarked to his editor that “Every word is a precious child of Bethlehem, and you are a cruel Herod trying to cut them down.” We think he was joking.
♦ American popular culture has hit a dead end: It’s stopped evolving and contented itself with endlessly regurgitating the past. That’s the premise of Kurt Anderson’s “You Say You Want a Devolution” in the January issue of Vanity Fair. We haven’t reached the end of history, he says, but we have reached the end of culture.
“Rather than a temporary cultural glitch,” writes Anderson, “these stagnant last couple of decades may be a secular rather than cyclical trend, the beginning of American civilization’s new chronic condition, a permanent loss of appetite for innovation and the shockingly new.”
Most provocative, perhaps, are the final lines of the piece, with allusions to stories of decline and “The Hollow Men.” It’s the sort of doomsaying usually found in a certain kind of reactionary, now become sufficiently mainstream as to appear in Vanity Fair , even if the lament is more focused on bubblegum pop, casual clothing trends, and chain stores than on symphonies, formal wear, and classical education.
But the reactionary has an answer: Return to the past. Anderson doesn’t offer any suggestions for restarting this supposedly stalled culture. Perhaps, with virtually all taboos broken and transgressions made, he simply can’t think of any”older pillars of culture like family, community, and religion being apparently unmentionable or unremembered.
♦ The Family in America is a quarterly you will want to know about. Published by the Howard Center for Family, Religion, and Society, it offers substantial but accessible essays (sample subtitles, because subtitles tell you more than titles: “The American Law Institute’s Role in Deconstructing the Family” and “How Entitlement Reform Needs a Fertility Boost”), book reviews, and an exceptionally useful section of about thirty pages summarizing new research on the family and related issues, most of it from journals you will never hear of, much less read. The editors save you the trouble.
♦ Speaking of the editors, the editorial board includes people like our friend and contributor W. Bradford Wilcox, Kay Hymowitz, Patrick Fagan, and Rod Dreher.
To find out more about The Family in America, see familyinamerica.org.
♦ Our friend and writer Gerald McDermott is the editor of the new(ish) Oxford Handbook of Evangelical Theology. When asked about it, he wrote: “Evangelical theology has come of age,” pointing to the academic success of Evangelicals in the wider world, like the historians Mark Noll, George Marsden and Harry Stout, philosophers like C. Stephen Evans and Alvin Plantinga, and the position of others in the Christian world, like N. T. Wright, Kevin Vanhoozer, Richard Hays, and Miroslav Volf.
The book, he says, “registers a major shift in Evangelicalism, from triumphalist disdain for the Great Tradition to self-critical recognition that Evangelical theology is doomed if it does not learn respectfully from that tradition.” In his chapter, Alister McGrath argues that Scripture does not interpret itself on matters like the Lord’s Supper, the millennium, and usury, and that in fact Luther and Calvin had held to a “single-source” theory of the mutual interplay between Scripture and tradition.
It looks like a very helpful, and possibly ground-breaking, book. Among the writers, by the way, is our advisory council member Ephraim Radner, who writes against Evangelicalism’s “ecclesial atomism” and for the idea of the Church as a living body extending through time.
♦ He also, Gerry tells us, “thinks the only hope is ‘common martyrdom,’ in which members of the persecuted church see one another across ecclesial lines to recognize the objective and material true Church of Christ.”
While We’re At It sources: Heathen politician: Village Voice, November 30-December 6, 2011. Crab-walking Bourgeois: Commonweal , January 13, 2012. Atheism 2.0: TED, July 2011. Mythologizing Presbyterians: From the author. Amen Indeed: GQ , February 2012. Best known countries: Prospect, December 2011. Dead end culture: Vanity Fair, January 2012. Liberal lifestyles: The Nation, January 9“16, 2012. Violent small towns: Same. Progressive romances: Prospect , December 2011. Sinful scientists: The Nation, January 9-16, 2012. Quite mad Christians: The Spectator, December 3, 2011.
WWAI tips: William Randolph Brafford, Matthew T. Cantirino, Mark Misulia, and Matthew Schmitz.