30 April 2016

A Brief Note on the Meaning of Amoris Laetitia

Much has been said about the exhortation, its dubious language, and its problems.

For the present here's the main thing: the intention of the pope was clearly to change the way these "difficult situations" are handled.  He wanted to open up space for a new case by case discernment of moral situations.  While it may be unclear whether the document endorsed Kasper's "penitential path", the fact remains that, even if such an endorsement was not given, the legal authority will not stand against prelates who teach and encourage such approaches.  Thus they have become legitimate de facto, just as the neomodernism of Schillebeeckx and Rahner was legitimized by the silence and lack of discipline after the council.

10 April 2016

Why Our Evangelism Doesn't Work

To some extent, it’s impossible to give a general theory of the success of groups like the Human Rights Campaign, because the phenomena involved are too complex, and the interactions and conversions that take place on the street, or afterwards, are part of a web of social transformations too big to map out.  But I’ve identified four typical differences that, I think, have helped the HRC to dominate the street evangelization scene—differences that could help us strategize for effective evangelization going forward.

The first difference is that the HRC is not identified as “religious”.  Calling something “religion” is less a matter of describing its qualities (just look at the confusion surrounding the term’s meaning) than a status-generating speech act.  Once enough people decide that something is “religion” or “religious”, it is relegated to an intellectual ghetto.  Religion is that-about-which-one-cannot-argue.  It is self-contained, irrational, and excluded from the evidences and activities which occur in public (political) life.

Second, the HRC’s project is easy to understand.  They present an itch (inequality, discrimination) and a salve (equal protection, tolerance), both of which align with universal moral and civic education.  Their message is presented in terms that are known and unquestionable.  Who supports discrimination?  Who doesn’t want to advance human rights?  

The Christian message, on the other hand, is often missing a compelling “itch”: Why should I repent when I don’t believe in sin?  Why should I worry about eternal life if I don’t believe in hell? Or in some cases it lacks sufficiently motivating salve: If Christianity is about being a nice person, don’t I already have that covered?  If God is so loving and generous, won’t he forgive me, no matter what?  

Third, there is a difference of narrative trajectories.  The HRC’s project is empowering. Its goals are definite and achievable, and they are outwardly-directed.  When one becomes a Christian, the resulting goals tend to be inwardly-directed, and contemporary Christian culture tends to render the narrative aims of Christianity spiritualistic and vague.  What is one aiming at, as a Christian?  A relationship?  Heaven?  What do those things really mean?  How are they tied concretely to efforts in the present life?  These questions are rarely adequately answered, or if they are answered it is in a simplistic way that leaves the majority of daily life untouched by conversion.

The fourth difference I want to point out is not a difference in the style of the presentation, but in the psychology of those presenting the “good news”.  For HRC volunteers, there is a strong underlying assumption that the message is not only true, but evidently true.  These people are on the street to some extent because they have a conviction, not just that they’re in the right, but that everyone is capable of recognizing that they are right.  Often in Christian evangelization, there is an attitude of correctness, but also a sense that the truth of the Gospel is not evident, that people will not understand, and that therefore the mission of evangelization is something of a fool’s errand, successful only by the grace of God.  While it is true that grace, not human effort, brings people to Christ, today’s evangelist feels the need to mask the plain message of the Gospel behind personalist spirituality in order to make it appealing.  Or his preaching emerges out of a familial or personal heritage, making it more an exercise of personal devotion than an act of education or public proclamation of the truth.  The apostolic kerygma has been largely replaced by the spiritual testimonial as a genre of evangelization.

Taken together, these differences suggest problems that need to be surmounted if our evangelism is going to be made more effective:

1.  It is necessary to overcome the notion that religion is a private and irrational affair.  This is a very difficult problem, because the privacy of religion has become a fundamental tenet of American political culture.  The establishment clause has come to mean, for all intents and purposes, that religion has no place in public life.  Even our own religious leaders seem to endorse this belief, when they defend faith not by asserting and defending the doctrines of Christianity, but by speaking abstractly in favor of “religious liberty”.  Religious liberty is, in the long run, a watchword for political secularization, and the secularization of the political will always be accompanied by the secularization of public discourse and morality.  If we are to make evangelization effective, we need to fight for a political culture in which Christianity is not part of a sub-class of irrational ideologies, but a fit and fighting participant in political culture.  And this, not on the terms of liberalism or constitutionalism, but unabashedly, and on its own terms.  We need to reach a point at which we can assert that Christianity has a place in public life, not because it supports liberal constitutional values, but because it supports Christian values.  In other words, because it is true.

2.  We need to think more about the intelligibility of our evangelism.  To what extent are the concepts necessary for evangelization intelligible to the person today?  If the notions of sin and redemption, for example, are not intelligible, we should not replace them with therapeutic spiritualisms that are intelligible, because these weak spiritualisms generate a proportionately weak Christianity.  Instead we need to identify the more basic questions and problems which point toward things like sin and redemption.  For example, the idea of heaven cannot work as a draw to people who don’t believe in an afterlife.  But what might?  The suggestion that we should try to live forever.  Or if someone believes that everyone goes to heaven regardless, how might we draw them into a conversation about religious commitment?  By attempting with them to hash out exactly what eternal life is.  These are just examples, but the general principle is more robust: If the evangelist tries to convert someone by offering answers to questions in which a comfortable secularist has no interest, he will fail.  If the evangelist tries to win someone over by appealing to the goodness of something the secularist already comfortably possesses, he will fail again.  Evangelization should begin, conceptually, where the existing secularism fails in itself, and exploit those failures to draw people into Christianity.  Where the concepts necessary for the Gospel are unavailable, we need to begin by building them up, instead of trying to circumvent them. 

3.  Membership in an organized movement becomes more enticing as the movement is able to provide more concrete ways for members to exercise agency in the accomplishment of broad goals.  One of the biggest faults of contemporary Christianity is the way its spiritualization of the Gospel leads to passivity and quietism among Christians.  What can we do to advance the kingdom of God?  This question is almost never answered from the pulpit, except in terms of a few narrow activities: private devotional exercises, acts of generosity, and monetary gifts.  These are good things, but they fail to engage the ordinary, daily lives of Christians.  In a purposeless, nihilistic society like our own, people are starving for someone to give them a task in a great cause.  They are yearning to be told what to do, to be organized and personally subsumed under something larger than themselves, with glory they can participate in, and sacrifice themselves to uplift.  We need organizers of men, who can direct the multitude to exert themselves productively in defense of the Body of Christ.  The advent of this kind of activity would not only energize the Church, but go further than almost anything else in drawing people to Christianity.

 4.  Christians speak a great deal of the truth.  Today, we are becoming exceptional in this regard.  But often “truth” is treated in religious talk as a kind of metaphor or bit of mystical jargon.  Often the weakness of Christian conviction (and therefore of evangelism) stems from an inadequate desire for the truth.  Christians become another species of ideologue, characterized by mere prejudice and chauvinistic advocacy for our group and our tradition.  Chauvinistic Christianity may preserve people raised Christian, but it makes very few converts, because there are many groups out there in which one can celebrate one’s membership.  Christianity only becomes intelligible to outsiders when the Christian faith is treated not merely an inherited prejudice, but as an answer to questions sincerely asked.  In general, belief is based not primarily on the communication of personal experiences of transformation, but on the direction of a person to the apprehension of the truth.  Testimony is a part of that, to be sure, but only if the testimony identifies the fundamental questions answered by Christianity, in a way that indicates not emotionalism and blindness, but wisdom and understanding.  Christianity needs to become truth-loving again, and this means that there needs to be an intellectual renewal—a philosophical renewal—among Christians.  We need to deeply understand the questions to which Christian doctrine is the answer.

The HRC is a shallow organization with a fundamentally incoherent ideology.  There is very little that is naturally compelling about its message, which only succeeds because opposition in the public sphere is structurally weak, and people are intellectually incapable of critically parsing its ideas.  The suggestions I have given above are, in some ways, merely expressions of the foundations of the culture that existed in Christendom: a culture in which ordinary civic life was suffused with Catholic concepts and activities, in which public participation in eucharistic processions and liturgies was common, in which the Church was held to be a fount of reason and wisdom, rather than an ideological enclave in the midst of society.  We were great once, nine centuries ago, when all these conditions existed.  Time to be great again.

04 April 2016

To Rudolf Kassner

What follows is an incomplete draft of a translation of the eighth of Rainer Maria Rilke's "Duino Elegies".

The Eighth Elegy

With all their eyes all creatures see
the Open.  It's only our eyes that
are inward turned and focused on ourselves
like traps, encircling their free exit.
What exists outside, we know it from the beasts'
expressions only; since we hem in
already little kids, and pressure them to see
backwards, their own form, not the Open,
which lies so deep in the sight of beasts.
Free from Death. We alone see him.
The free beast keeps his own demise behind him
and God in front, so that when he walks,
he passes like a fountain, to infinity.
     We never have, not for a single day,
pure space before us, into which
the flowers swell unending.
For us, always more world, and never
Nowhere without the "no": the pure,
unoverseen, which one can breath and know
beyond all limits, without craving. As a child
one might loose himself before it in the quiet,
and be shaken.  Or he dies and is it.
For close to death one ceases to see death
and gazes outward, as if with the profound sight of a beast.
Were it not for others, who block one's sight, lovers
are near to it and marvel... As if by chance it's opened up
to them behind the other... But nothing escapes past him,
and again it becomes his world.
Always turned to face creation, we see in it
only the reflection of the Free, which we darken.
Or that a beast, a dumb one, looks up, quiet through and through.
This is fate: to stand opposed
Always opposed, and nothing else.

If in that certain beast were consciousness like ours,
that beast who draws away from us
down other paths—, his change of course
would make us swerve as well.
But his existence is for him unending,
unbound, without a glance at his condition,
pure, just like his outlook.
And where we see the future, he sees everything,
and in the midst of all, himself, and healed forever.

And yet there is, in the warm and watchful beast
the weight and care of a great melancholy.
For that which often overpowers us grasps at him as well
and always clings — The memory, of when the place
which one pursues was nearer and more faithful,
and its embrace infinitely tender.
Here everything is distance, and there
it was breath.  After his first home,
the second seems ambivalent and windy.
     Oh the blessedness of little animals,
who always stay within the womb from which they sprang;
Oh luck of midges, who hop around within it,
even when they marry: for them the nest is everything.
And see the bird's half-confidence,
who nearly knows

03 April 2016

What I've Been Listening To

It's unfortunate, but now that I have full-time employment again (after an interlude of six months), posting on this blog has slowed down.  Hopefully once the current burst of real-life work ends (in a month or two), I'll be able to put down more thoughts here.  I've been reading bits and pieces of various books: Weber's Economy and Society, Levi-Strauss's The Savage Mind, a collection of texts by Hayao Miyazaki, etc.  Something is likely to come from all this.

Meanwhile, I'd like to put down a few links to things I've been listening to lately.  I hope you enjoy.

Also, while I'm here I shouldn't fail to advertise that First Things is putting on a Great Books-style intellectual retreat on the topic of happiness this May in Los Angeles. (Much of my current work has been preparing for this retreat.) If you have the resources to put down $600 to attend (not including hotel or transportation), I highly recommend it.  The magazine has assembled a range of very good people, and it should be a great experience for everyone who goes.  More info and registration here.

Now to the music.

1.  Watage Warabe, by Takagi Masakatsu, from the soundtrack to the documentary Kingdom of Dreams and Mandess.  This entire soundtrack is great.

2.  Malka Moma Dvori Mete, a choral setting of a Bulgarian folk song, performed by the Philip Koutev National Folk Ensemble.  I discovered this through the Isao Takahata film Only Yesterday, which is incredible.  The film uses several tracks from this album.

3.  Kaze wo Atsumete, by Happy End, from their 1971 album Kazemachi Roman.  This song is featured in the film Lost in Translation.

5.  Project Falcon, by Joe Hisaishi, from the soundtrack to Hayao Miyazaki's The Wind Rises (also an incredible film).  Here's a link to the track (and the whole album), courtesy of my friend Mario.

27 March 2016

The Reactionaries

Plot Outline:

  1. Pius is introduced, morning routine, departure for the grocer's. (It is Saturday in winter.) Only passing mention of vandalism in the newspaper.
  2. Background notes on Simon's college  (start with deep background -- no mention of Simon)
  3. Pius meets Anita (his much younger sister) at the grocer's, talks to her about their uncle Leo (Leo is a paleo-con and traditionalist catholic, with a testy and legalistic disposition.  Anita disapproves of him vaguely, Pius does not defend him but is clearly sympathetic.)
  4. Tatiana's first year at college (culture shock).  Tatiana is very free with her personality, and very assertive of herself.
  5. Pius walks past graffitied synagogue, remembers a conversation with uncle Leo about religious pluralism.  Pius investigates the graffiti, notices certain aspects of it.
  6. Tatiana's second year at college (postmodernism, gender theory, ideas about experimentation)
  7. Anita calls Simon, expresses concern about Pius asks Simon to drop in on him.  After the conversation, Anita and Wallace (her husband) talk through their concerns about Simon's impracticality and failure to secure reasonable employment.  Anita has success anxiety.  Wallace is dispassionate and cynical about his son's generation and its faults.
  8. Tatiana's third year at college (introduction to the conservative set, description of the ridiculous rituals and ideas.  Simon appears, but is a quiet figure, interested in literature, a member of the group by default (through familial alignment, not by personal choice). He engages a little, but is not one of the leading personalities. The main focus of the chapter is a dinner scene with the group.  Raymund plays arch-reactionary antagonist to the moderate traditionalism of the others.  He is laconic and a way of peppering banter with witty sarcasm.
  9. Simon's house and housemates in the present.  Simon has just gotten off the phone with his mother.  They are building a fire.  (Zadoc and Ralph)  Simon and Ralph argue about nominalism and the reality of fictional persons.
  10. Tatiana's fourth year at college.  The chapter is another dinner scene.  Tatiana is preoccupied with Simon, but Simon has shifted from literature to political theology, and spends all his time arguing with Raymund, who has become quietly charismatic.  The two linger on the fringes of the set while Tatiana watches them.  Tatiana reflects on the difference between the desire to be esteemed by one's peers and the desire to shape reality.
  11. At Simon's house, the door rings and it is Uncle Pius, who has brought some loose tea.  Simon is startled, introduces Pius to Zadoc and Ralph.  Pius makes the tea and they chat, mostly about his memory of cultural changes in the 1960s and 70s. (There are references to Uncle Leo.) Ralph argues (passionately but with polite restraint) in favor of the view that certain decisive historical events shaped history.  Pius is calm and magisterial, sympathetic, but he offers a Tolstoyan picture of historical developments as an antidote to Ralph's view.  Chapter ends with Tatiana arriving with a friend (Alice), prompting Pius's departure.  Pius invites Simon to visit him that afternoon, so he can give him something.
  12. Winter in Tatiana's fourth year of college.  Raymund and Simon are walking in the snow, and Simon is angry.  The topic of big talk / little action arises, with the air of a challenge.  They encounter Tatiana, who is derisive toward them, and tells them that one and the other are both just playing a game, and their self-consciousness only raises their hypocrisy to the next level.  (Kierkegaard, basically, but without mentioning Kierkegaard.)  Raymund laughs, but Simon is startled and notices Tatiana.
  13. Pius sits at home, reading.  He thinks more about the synagogue he passed, and tries to work out the balance between religious liberty and the duty to the truth.  His thoughts are interrupted by the doorbell.  
  14. Raymund is leaving work (tutor) and picks up a newspaper at a coffee shop.  He strikes up an exchange (laconic, but warm and earnest) with the barista about the weather.  Raymund smiles brightly and laughs to himself as he leaves, apparently overjoyed at the interaction.  Raymund gets on the train, reads about the graffiti, reads the story carefully and rereads it. (no reaction registered)  He gets off the train and walks to a house, where he rings the bell.  Pius answers.
  15. Tatiana sits with Alice and Zadoc by the fire, while Simon showers and gets dressed.  Alice interrogates Tatiana about domestic life and the idea of "settling", with Zadoc interjecting (or being called into the conversation) sporadically.  Simon emerges, ready to leave.  Zadoc withdraws to his bedroom, leaving Alice sitting awkwardly alone in the house.
  16. Pius welcomes Raymund in.  Raymund pulls out a pouch of tobacco and papers, sets a book down on the kitchen table, and asks Pius if he'd like to smoke.  Pius is delighted.  Raymund rolls two cigarettes while they talk about the popularity of addiction as a subject.  They step out to the back of the house and smoke.  There, Pius reminisces about a friend of his whose overzealous expectations of himself drove him to despair and suicide.  At the end of the story, he admits that he doesn't know why his friend committed suicide, that it was probably an accident, but he wanted to teach Raymund something.  (What?)  Pius and Raymund go inside to discuss the book (student/mentor relationship).
  17. Simon, Tatiana, and Raymund emerge from a matinee and are discussing the movie.  Different standards of assessing it: by what it was trying to do, by its moral value (in particular themes, in general), by its political and philosophical implications, by its entertainment value.  Raymund holds the film to high standards.  Tatiana is interested in its morality.  Simon is more accommodating and positive about it, as a piece of mass culture.  They walk as they talk, with Simon directing them.  Tatiana asks where they're going, and Simon explains that he promised to stop by Pius's house.  Despite the intensity of the conversation, they are enjoying themselves.  The sun is setting.  They arrive at the house as it gets dark, and no one is home.
  18. Pius walks to the evening mass at a local parish.  He thinks about Uncle Leo again and what he would have to say about Saturday evening mass.  They banter in his head about change and drawing hard lines and accommodating the imperfections of reality.  Leo wins the argument, and Pius accepts this, thereby implying (to the reader) that he agreed with Leo all along.  Nevertheless, he deadens himself as he makes the sign of the cross at the beginning of the mass.
  19. Raymund's notebook.  A collection of fragments dealing with his thoughts about relationships and society, most of which focus directly on particular experiences.  The excerpt closes with a long memory of an experience he had in college (the confrontation with Simon and Tatiana).

16 March 2016

A Political Fragment

1.  Every act is the act of an agent.  Every agent acts out of its own nature, which determines its aptitude toward particular acts, and frames the bounds of its possibility.

2.  Human agents act out of their own, human nature, and that human nature is differentiated in each person by various accidental characteristics—things like memory, prejudice, habituation, and physiology.

3.  Man is a political animal.  This means first of all that humans are naturally social—they have relationships with other people.  But to be political is more than that.  Man is a political animal because his life (the set of activities and contexts which make up his everyday way of being) tends to be part of a stable order of dependencies and hierarchies, which constitute a whole, a community.  Man is a political animal because the structure of individual sociability tends to create political order. Wherever humans dwell, the polis soon appears, and with it law, culture, custom, ritual, and social differentiation.

4.  Political order arises from human relationships, between individual personalities.  Personalities are as complex as the experiences and desires of individual persons.  Because in the first instance political relationships are relationships between particular individuals, political order tends first of all to have a personal character, which is born out in most “primitive” societies.  Order and law are located in personalities and social bonds, rather than in the heavens or an abstract realm of ideas—or, the abstract realm of ideas and the heavens are themselves understood in ways that reflect the highly personal character of social order.  As below, so above.

5.  The stability of political order (which leads to the long-term inculcation of certain social positions, relationships, and dependencies) makes possible the emergence of categories of social behavior that are more particular, and less dependent on individual personalities.  The complexity of life which is so present in the rituals, customs, mores, and social hierarchies of primitive societies is gradually sifted and specialized.  In a large city or a developed society, each person needs to worry only about a few things, or perhaps just one thing.  The meaning of social positions is rarefied, creating large uniformities of social position and behavior, within which new currents of activity can develop.

6.  In the introduction to his book The Savage Mind, Claude Levi-Strauss puts forward a contrast between two modes of making and understanding, which he calls bricolage and engineering.  Bricolage is improvisational.  It takes a set of already available ideas and materials and crafts something out of them.  The product of bricolage cannot be conceived without taking note of the materials, and whatever results from bricolage bears within itself a dense array of existing significances, previous uses, and traditions.  Engineering, on the other hand, attempts to start from nothing.  The engineer’s materials are blank; his designs are imposed upon them without restriction.  The engineer is, ideally, a pure maker, whose works are purely artificial.  

7.  The practice or ideal of engineering is made possible over the long term by a certain tradition of bricolage.  It is out of the rarefaction and refinement of our narratives about the world that we make available the most abstract and universal concepts.  Likewise in social relations, the stratification of society, the division of labor, and the refinement of specialties make it possible for us to describe politics in terms no longer directly tied to the complexity of human personalities.

8.  One of the peculiar possibilities opened up through this process of abstraction or social rarefaction is the construction of new cosmic mythologies by groups occupying select social positions, using ready-to-hand concepts and narratives internal to them.  

27 February 2016

The Renewal of Metaphysics and the Rebirth of Christian Society

Today we are facing what seems to be the total collapse of Christianity’s role in the political life of our country.  There are many signs of this collapse, including the rise of the “Nones”, the increasingly irreligious secularity of popular entertainment, and major defeats in the legal sphere.  Perhaps most telling, though, is the growing unintelligibility of hard religious claims and commitments to Americans, especially young Americans.  Young people can, to a large extent, no longer conceive of religion as something with a claim on their beliefs and behavior.  Instead they embrace what is popularly referred to as “spirituality”—a combination of therapeutic activities and positive thinking which provide a reprieve from the anxious nihilism of our secular culture.  Spirituality is replacing religion. Individually conceived and chosen ideas about morality and the transcendent are replacing objective, public views on the moral law, the truth, and public order.

To some extent all conservatives in America—or at least all conservatives engaged in thinking about the role of religion in public life—are aware of this phenomenon.  We talk about it constantly.  Conservatism itself has become an endless litany of laments over what has been lost: morality, culture, education, a sense of the objectivity of the law.  And, as conservatives, we are all engaged to some extent in the perplexing problem of combating this shift in our society.

Because of our religious makeup and history, one of the most prominent strategies in recent decades has been a shift toward the “Evangelical” as a way of reviving public Christianity.  What I mean by Evangelicism is a re-framing of Christianity in minimal terms—a mere Christianity, to borrow Lewis’s phrase.  This mere Christianity is stripped of most of the larger social and cultural elements of traditional Christianity, and consists instead of the bare minimum: a recognition of sin and fallenness, the disclosure of the good news of redemption in Christ, and a life of moral reform in the midst of a community of support.  Because Evangelical Christianity lacks many of the more ornate elements of traditional Christianity, it is much easier to inculcate.  Catechesis takes less time, and the demands on the convert or neophyte are less taxing, in terms of the transformation of their worldview and their participation in public life.  Evangelical Christianity is a quick cure, and in many ways an effective one—it offers the salve of redemption and the support of community without an unwieldy intellectual or cultural apparatus.

But the strengths of the Evangelical approach to Christian renewal are also its weaknesses.  This is difficult to appreciate because “culture” is such an abstract term, and because the average person in our post-metaphysical society has little sense of the importance of an underlying intellectual apparatus as stabilizing ballast for a community of faith. Because Evangelical Christianity is essentially a personal faith, lacking external authority (aside from Scripture, for which it lacks an interpretive authority), there is little to prevent the larger cultural drift from drawing sincere Evangelicals into a Spiritualistic Christianity which is individualistic, divorced from larger cultural commitments and the kind of social robustness necessary for an enduring Christian community.  Evangelical Christians can easily become “Nones”—not in that they have rejected Christ or the hope of salvation, but in that their faith, like the spiritualism of yoga practitioners or American Buddhists, is individually conceived and chosen, and has little authority with which to bind their moral commitments or public behavior.

Among members of more traditional Christian sects, a kind of renewal parallel to American Evangelical Christianity has appeared in the form of personalism.  Important truths about the dignity and ontological primacy of individual persons and experiences are emphasized, and transformed into the basis of Christian practice.  The evangelicization of American Catholicism is widespread—the public and moral aspects of the faith are downplayed, the cultural elements discarded, in favor of a Catholicism centered on the therapeutic care of the individual person and the cultivation of a robust Christian experience.

To be sure, many good things have emerged from the Evangelical renewal of Christianity in American life, including many good things for the Catholic Church.  Evangelical Catholicism points people toward legitimate truths.  The problem we face, though, is that the intelligibility of these solutions and their ease of implementation comes at the cost of their effectiveness in fighting the larger cultural drift toward individualism and secularism.

Faith is personal and individually chosen.  But a faith which transforms the society in which it takes root can never be primarily a personal and individually chosen faith.  It must also be a public faith, a faith which enters not just into the silence of spiritual experience, but into the language and fundamental assumptions which undergird our description of the ordinary world.  Metaphysics, i.e. an understanding of the nature and order of reality, is necessary for the survival of a cultural Christianity.  And if we want to stop losing the struggle for civilization and preserve the monuments of culture, law, and morality, we need to pursue a strategy based not on the appeal to individual experience or the therapy of sentiments, but on the transformation of discourse and the common vision of the world at large.

I am not suggesting that individual salvation hinges on the transformation of the public sphere, or that human effort in itself conveys grace to those who believe.  But, as St. Thomas Aquinas famously writes, “grace perfects nature and does not destroy it.”  The efficacy of gospel proclamation and the very right of Christians to exercise our faith in the public sphere—the right of Christ to receive worship from all people—is aided or hindered by the strategies of evangelization we choose to pursue.  For someone to whom sin is an unintelligible notion, the good news of a redeemer makes no sense.  To someone for whom the concepts of natural order or moral law are foreign, sin itself will seem bizarre.

We have progressed as a civilization to the point at which these basic human concepts—concepts like nature, truth, being, and perfection—have fallen away.  The average person experiences the world as a series of technological conveniences organized according to chance desires and experiences.  Being itself is lost to them.  Truth is lost to them.  At the same time, the metaphysical impulse is inextricable from human nature.  People want to know the truth.  Children, no matter how well-indoctrinated they have been into secular relativism, want to understand why things are they way they are.  The concept of right, though confused and distorted, remains a force in the public and private lives of our fellow citizens and neighbors.

The strength of Christianity, and its natural desirability, lies in its (at this point nearly unique) ability to present answers to these question which we have trained ourselves, culturally, not to ask.  “What is the meaning of life?”  “What is the purpose of existence?” “What is the origin of the universe?” “What is the nature of the cosmos?”  The common man no longer thinks to ask these questions, because he has been taught from a young age to despair of their answerability.  Or he settles for cheap answers that make no difference for his engagement with existence or his personal choices.  The meaning of life is what you make it.  The origin of the universe is the Big Bang.  The nature of the cosmos is “whatever science says”, though we know not what.  A metaphysical Christianity supplies answers (and struggles for answers) that are not cheap truisms or therapeutic salves, but which enrich our personal engagement with the world, and call us into definite types of behavior, definite strategies of education and political organization.  The metaphysical Christian raises his finger toward the still point in the moving world.

So, what would a metaphysical renewal of Christianity look like?  How would this kind of evangelism work?  It would begin by asking, and asking seriously, certain audacious questions:  What is being?  What is causation?  What is order? Is there such a thing as real perfection?  And, asking these questions, it would begin to answer them: that being is the act of what exists.  That “causation” is a notion that helps us answer the question “why” in various ways for an individual being or event. Etc. These questions and answers seem prosaic—unbelievably, perhaps unbearably prosaic.  But if we return to them as the foundation of our way of speaking, and we emphasize them as the basis of education and public discourse, we will gain a double advantage.

First, we will have a certain supremacy of intelligibility over the slippery relativism of the present age.  Not that we should polemicize against relativism (this is a battle which, taking place outside the bounds of reason, can never be won by reason), but that by simply asserting what is sensible and reasonable, we will possess a truth which is inherently desirable and otherwise unavailable.

Second, insofar as we achieve a renewal of metaphysical discourse in common culture, we will bring people to a place at which the basic notions prerequisite to the intelligibility of Christianity and Christian social and moral order are available to people.  With the notion of truth at their disposal, the question of first truth can once again arise for them.  With the notion of nature and natural order, they will be able to understand both the primitive meaning of God’s existence, and the reality of sin and moral failure.

But the greatest advantage offered by a metaphysical Christianity is its ability to lay claim not just to the internal forum of spiritual experience, but to the external forum of law and social order.  A metaphysical Christianity is capable, unlike a personalist Christianity, of asserting itself as a rational position within the public sphere, and creating a common culture and tradition within which Christianity is once again understood and accepted—if not personally, then at least as a strong contender in disputes over the truth.  Metaphysics and the metaphysical concepts constitutive of our understanding of reality, play a major role in the formation of political culture and education.  It is to metaphysics first, then, that we need to turn, if we want to reclaim our society and not merely retreat to shrinking enclaves amidst the dissolution of Western civilization.

25 February 2016

Conservative Despair

Food is conserved in conditions of scarcity.  Forests are conserved when they are being wiped out.  We conserve historical sites when they are in a state of disrepair or permanent disuse.  The word “conservatism” suggests the preciousness of what is being preserved and a will to defend it, but it also suggests a climate of decay and a general trend toward decrepitude.  Conservation, after all, is merely a way of staving off the inevitable.  

The source of conservative despair is a weakness not of principles or ideals, but of posture.  Our disposition toward the present context lacks adequate direction.  We fight for things like neutrality, and the liberty to be left alone. (Acedia’s plea.) We gripe about our losses and reminisce about the good old days (of fifty years ago or fifteen hundred).   We huddle together in increasingly isolated enclaves of fellow-thinkers.  And this posture of conservatism, which is merely conservative, primes us for failure.  The inevitable.

Christ did not send out the apostles to have them gather in the upper room and share morose reminiscences about the time they spent with the master.  He did not tell them at the ascension to “Go out and cooperate with the Roman authorities, so they will give you tax exemptions and allow you to associate freely.”  He sent them out like laborers into the field, to gather in the harvest.  He sent them “like sheep among wolves”, and promised them an abundance of persecution and contradiction.  He sent them, not to receive this persecution and contradiction with loathing and hesitation, or groan beneath its yoke, but to rejoice in it.  

Christianity is a progressive, forward looking doctrine.  What are we fighting for? Certainly not merely to preserve the lukewarm compromises of last century's democratized Catholicism.  Not to work out a new modus vivendi on the world's terms.  

Then what are we fighting to accomplish?  What are our concrete plans?