Dallas Theological Seminary last month published an interview with the eminent Evangelical Anglican theologian Alister McGrath on subjects from atheism and apologetics to classical liberalism and Ludwig Feuerbach.
Here’s what he had to say about American apologetics:
A lot of American apologetics is still angled toward to a modern, rather than a postmodern context—I’m thinking of its concern with propositional correctness. I accept that; that’s a very important part of apologetics. But apologetics is also relational. It’s how you become the right kind of person. It’s how you find something you can rely on. It has to do with ethics. It has to do with imaginative visions of the world. Without losing its strengths, can American apologetics embrace these areas as well? I think it can and it will.
It is right to say there is a degree of complexity in nature that can’t be accounted for in any natural mechanism. . . . But I get worried that the Intelligent Design movement sometimes is a bit like the “God in the Gaps” approach. In effect, you say, “Look, you can’t explain this—that’s God.” Take Michael Behe’s book, Darwin’s Black Box (1996), which often says “We can’t explain that by science, therefore . . . ” But actually, fifteen years later, some would say that we can now explain some of that.
and classical liberalism:
[Classical] liberalism, as I understand it, is an ethos of tolerance. It is an ethos of saying, “This is what you think; this is what I think, but we can get on together in a civilized way that enriches us and our society.” . . . I fully accept that we should work hard to get on with each other. Yet as a matter of principle, we have to say sometimes, “This is just wrong. We can’t allow this. We need to do something about this.” In effect, classic liberalism makes toleration its normative foundation. Therefore, it finds itself in a difficult situation where it has to tolerate that is intolerable.
Daniel Silliman ponders on his blog whether charity could entirely replace the welfare state, as some conservatives desire:
Could private charities move beyond assistance, beyond helping at the points where the system of government assistance is breaking down, replacing government with benevolent associations as religious conservatives say would be preferable. If given the chance, could and would people of good will take care of the poor voluntarily, giving enough money to private organizations to functionally replace the social safety nets now in place?
He cites his experience as a reporter in Georgia, taking that state as a test case for whether charities could take over the work of government programs for the poor. Later he examines the claim that lower tax rates will lead to more private-sector giving:
The president of [the Acton Institute] has argued that “Private charity tends to be inversely related to growth of government welfare” and that when “budget cuts go into effect, people will reach deeper into their pockets to help those genuinely in need.”
That doesn’t seem to be true, though. Giving doesn’t correspond to tax rates, but to economic growth. When recessions hit, giving declines, and when the economy improves, giving does too. In recent history, giving increased a good bit during the late ’90s, corresponding pretty directly to the boom years of the dot-com bubble. The Bush tax cuts, by comparison, which went into effect in 2001 . . . saw no corresponding increase in giving. . . . Generally speaking, charity doesn’t increase when there’s increased need, in the way that government spending might, but rather seems to be another kind of luxury spending that people, in aggregate, spend when they have.
To state the obvious: If conservatives want the argument that charity can replace government programs to look plausible, we’ll need to start putting our money where our mouths are. You can read Silliman’s entire post here.
Sometime in the last few years, I realized that my ignorance of botany was interfering with my enjoyment of literature. This truth was brought home to me once more last night as I read Sigrid Undset’s novel Ida Elisabeth. The title character, Undset tells us, “would have liked more plants in pots”:
It made her green with envy to go past windows which had swelling tea-roses and bright bunches of red and white pelargoniums pressing against the panes. Marit, for instance—she had a huge green window-box full of Jacobæa lilies; in summer it was like a regular thicket of long, narrow dark green leaves arching and crossing one another, and then in autumn came the flowers, as many as twenty at the same time. . . . Ida Elisabeth felt wild with longing; she did not quite know for what, as she sat and looked at all these tall, stiff stalks with bunches of great staring red calyxes—the colour was so strange, so bright and clear, and the shape of each separate flower seemed so perfectly clean-cut and strong.
It’s supposed to be an evocative passage, but I had no idea what Ida was looking at.
I can easily find out what the named flowers look like: here are tea roses, red and white pelargoniums, Jacobæa lilies. But when I’m reading in bed, I don’t want to get up and Google it. Even when I’m reading with a computer nearby (no e-reader for me), I rarely want to disrupt the experience of reading by pausing to look something up, whether a word or a plant.
The problem seems trivial, I know, but it represents a sad impoverishment of the imagination: When I (and presumably many others today) read “pelargoniums,” no picture comes to mind. The word is divorced from the image, disconnected from the thing it names. And in most cases, the names and descriptions of plants function as more than just background or filler material. Rather, they develop the atmosphere of a scene, or establish a metaphor, or reveal something about the inner life of a character.
For example, by telling us in the above passage that Ida Elisabeth is drawn to certain bright, lush flowers in full bloom (rather than to delicate baby’s breath flowers, a simple green shrub, or a stately tree), Undset probably means to underscore that Ida wants a richer life than she experiences during her busy days indoors as a seamstress and mother. In the context of the book, this interpretation seems obvious; without a mental picture of the flowers named, however, the reader is less likely to connect the flowers with the more explicit descriptions of Ida’s desires.
Similarly, not without reason would D. H. Lawrence name lime trees, balsam pines, and copper beeches in the poem “Trees in the Garden.” When we know nothing about those trees—what they look like, where they’re found, what emotions or characteristics are commonly associated with them—we’re not going to get much out of the poem. One cannot skip over the types of trees he names in the way a small child can skip over unknown words in a book and still grasp the story’s development. For the writer’s purposes, then, our ignorance of the natural world resembles not merely a stunted vocabulary but the lack of a whole language: We cannot understand what we’re reading on the level the writer intends. And that is a sad loss.
The Church hates science. The Church hates women. The Church hates gay people.
Many Catholics are sick of hearing this refrain but unsure of how to answer it, especially in language that’s appealing to non-Christians. And a quick search for resources is more likely to yield Internet polemics, dated encyclopedia entries, and an intimidating stack of books than anything of use in a face-to-face argument.
Into this breach has stepped Christopher Kaczor, whose recent book The Seven Big Myths About the Catholic Church: Distinguishing Fact from Fiction about Catholicism offers an accessible and impressively thorough (for its length) examination of the Church’s alleged hatred, bigotry, and backwardness.
In just over 150 pages, Kaczor takes on misconceptions related to the Church’s stand on science, happiness, women, contraception, homosexuality, same-sex marriage, and priestly celibacy (this last item especially in connection with the sex abuse crisis). (more…)
The Institute for Culture and Society of the University of Navarra and the Social Trends Institute have scheduled a two-day Seminar on Natural Law and Public Reason for graduate students. The seminar will be run by advanced graduate students in the field of moral philosophy, and is also addressed to graduate students working in the field.
Presenters will include friends of First Things Sherif Girgis and Matthew O’Brien. The full list of presentations, along with application details and information on travel grants, can be found here.
Detroit’s Archbishop Allen Vigneron recently spoke about the role of Catholic schools in the Church and the new evangelization—an issue particularly urgent as many Catholic schools struggle to remain open and affordable. Archbishop Vigneron argues that schools are “an organic extension of the Church, an outgrowth of her very substance”:
Schools are integral to the Church not only because of who our Lord is but also because of who we are. We are persons, not animals or robots. God has created us with a dignity and a capacity for wisdom that correspond, however analogously, to his own. But neither are we angels, so we also need to learn wisdom and to grow in wisdom. . . . There are many ways we come to wisdom and to the knowledge of God, but our schools provide privileged opportunities for this education during the most formative years of our lives.
He reminds his listeners that Catholic schools do not exist merely to provide a superior form of education. Rather:
What we want for our students, to put the matter in its simplest form, is that they become saints. A school that is an effective instrument of the New Evangelization will equip each of its students with all that is needed to offer a wholehearted “yes” to the universal call to holiness.
Calling for a “fundamental renewal of our Catholic schools,” the archbishop points to a successful educator of the past:
Here I look to the great scholar Alcuin, who was the schoolmaster of Charlemagne and a very significant reformer of Catholic education around the turn of the 9th Century and one of the leading lights of the Carolingian Renaissance. Alcuin’s efforts at launching a new education project bore great fruit, reshaping Christian culture over 1000 years ago.
Today, we’re Alcuin. Christ is calling us “(to) put out into deep water” in the work of renewal. We must be “deep” in our self-examination, “deep” in the changes we are willing to make for the sake of our mission, and “deep” in the boldness with which we will launch out into a new way of educating our children. Half-measures will not be sufficient to do the job. Our schools need our commitment, our self-investment, and our resolve if they are to become the instruments of the New Evangelization Christ wants them to be. Our children need what we have to offer in our schools, which is to say they need Jesus, and woe to us if we fail them. Jesus himself expects this of us, and we cannot disappoint him.
The address is available in its entirety here (PDF).
Today the Catholic Church marks the Feast of the Holy Innocents. Matthew’s Gospel tells us that Herod, after realizing that the magi had deceived him, was “furious” and “ordered the massacre of all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity two years old and under.” “Then was fulfilled,” Matthew continues, “what had been said through Jeremiah the prophet”:
A voice was heard in Ramah, sobbing and loud lamentation; Rachel weeping for her children, and she would not be consoled, since they were no more.
The Church considers the slaughtered children to be the first martyrs: the first to die for Christ. It seems a tragic event to commemorate, an occasion for mourning rather than feasting. Yet St. Augustine, in a homily for this occasion, describes the day as a celebration:
Today, dearest brethren, we celebrate the birthday of those children who were slaughtered, as the Gospel tells us, by that exceedingly cruel king, Herod. Let the earth, therefore, rejoice and the Church exult — she, the fruitful mother of so many heavenly champions and of such glorious virtues. Never, in fact, would that impious tyrant have been able to benefit these children by the sweetest kindness as much as he has done by his hatred. For as today’s feast reveals, in the measure with which malice in all its fury was poured out upon the holy children, did heaven’s blessing stream down upon them. . . . (more…)
The FamilyScholars blog is hosting a symposium on marriage this week to mark the release of “The President’s Marriage Agenda for the Forgotten Sixty Percent” (PDF here), a new report from the National Marriage Project and the Institute for American Values. The “sixty percent” in the title refers to the roughly three in five Americans who have graduated from high school but not from college—a group whose members are rapidly becoming less likely to marry and more likely to have children outside of marriage, with all the disadvantages those trends imply.
In my contribution, I argue that we can’t talk about the marriage crisis without talking about sex. Here’s a taste:
The breakdown of marriage stems not only from economic factors but also from changing standards in the realm of sex, dating, and intimate relationships. Making these standards more conducive to marriage is as crucial as political reform if we are to restore the institution.
Let’s start by acknowledging that there is no such thing as consequence-free sex. No form of contraception is 100 percent effective; even a one-night stand can result in the creation of a child. Aside from pregnancy, sex has dramatic effects on physical, mental, and emotional health. Hookups, for instance, significantly increase teenagers’ and female college students’ risk of depression. The more lifetime sexual partners an adult woman has, the more likely she is to be depressed and to report a lower level of life satisfaction. Sexual satisfaction is highestand the risks of sex lowest in the context of marriage.
Continuing the debate over fertility and decadence that Matthew Schmitz has mentioned on this blog, Samuel Goldman suggests that underlying the low birth rates of wealthy nations is not just selfishness but a very high estimation of the requirements of parenting. The occasion for his post is a report on the low birthrate of Germany. Goldman writes:
While Germans expect relatively small personal and social benefits from childbearing, they see childrearing as an extremely intensive activity. That makes family a low-reward, high-investment arrangement. With these attitudes, it’s no wonder that they have few children.
However, he continues:
It’s not that Germans don’t care enough about the future to have babies. In a sense, the problem is that they care too much: children seem like an unacceptable burden precisely because Germans (especially German women) place so much emphasis on being good parents.
He then examines the changing standards for parenting in the United States and concludes: (more…)
John Willson, professor emeritus of history at Hillsdale College, reflects at the Imaginative Conservative on “the chief cruelty of our profession: assigning our students to paradise, purgatory, or the inferno with the stroke of a pen.” He reminds us:
Grades as we know them are a relatively recent educational innovation. Although Yale president Ezra Stiles tried as early as the 1780s to rank his seniors (Optimi, 2nd Optimi, Inferiones, Pejores) it didn’t take. Mt. Holyoke College was the first institution to adopt a grading system—in 1897, about the time my grandfather graduated from Syracuse. . . .
Grades were invented by my grandfather’s generation, a product of an age of democracy and equality, science and technology and measurement; an age of organization and bureaucracy: The Progressive Era. Grades are no more “natural” to teaching, or to education in general, than is the SAT, which is also a reflection of similar cultural assumptions.
Rather than focusing exclusively on standardized tests and grade point averages, teachers should “work out a gradus ad Parnassum,” he argues:
Parnassus is the mountain associated in Greek mythology with Apollo and the muses of poetry, the arts, and learning, and therefore of wisdom. Gradus is Latin for “step,” to or from an object, indicating everything from the quality of an egg to the level of one’s proficiency at a musical instrument. The Jesuit Paul Aler used Gradus ad Parnassum (“step to Parnassus”) as the title of his book on Latin grammar in 1687, and it thereafter became a common designation for books in many subjects in the liberal arts, especially music.
It’s a fetching thought, that a teacher can help students take “steps to wisdom.” . . .
The trick to [this mindset] is first to figure out where your students are in their journey—what level they have reached—and to estimate as well as you can how far they can reasonably get in the time you have them.
Today’s educational benchmarks are unlikely to go away anytime soon, but I commend to you Dr. Willson’s whole essay, which contains many insights from his fifty years of teaching.
Austin Ruse’s post last week on the wealth and political power of gays and lesbians left me uneasy. That’s not because I thought his point was entirely illegitimate (it’s fair to point out that the situation of non-straight people today is not exactly comparable to that of non-whites in the mid-twentieth century) but because of everything he left out.
As David Blankenhorn commented:
Really, it’s ethically shockingly obtuse to conclude that because LGBT people are comparatively financially well off that “we should all be so discriminated against.” To even say such a thing is to overlook so much painful history, and so much actual human suffering due to persecution and stigmatization, that — well, one hardly knows where to [begin].
Christians must be willing to talk about and fight the bullying, harassment, and (yes) bigotry that gays and lesbians face. Roughly 80 percent of LGBT teens have experienced verbal harassment, and 40 percent have experienced physical harassment. Not infrequently, such abuse leads LGBT teens (or those perceived as LGBT) to commitsuicide. We cannot ignore these facts, even as we continue to preach the gospel in its entirety.
Making a similar point, Jordan at the Gay Subtlety blog recently described Evangelicals’ engagement with LGBT people this way (emphasis his):
This week’s Economisthas a nice story on the revival of traditionalism in the Catholic Church, entitled “A traditionalist avant-garde: It’s trendy to be a traditionalist in the Catholic church.” The usual tropes are there—the “church hierarchy in Western countries [is] beset by scandal and decline”—but as mainstream news reports go, it’s accurate and balanced.
The numbers behind the trend are striking: “The Latin Mass Society of England and Wales, started in 1965, now has over 5,000 members. The weekly number of Latin masses is up from 26 in 2007 to 157 now. In America it is up from 60 in 1991 to 420.” More from the report on the Latin Mass scene:
Women sport mantillas (lace headscarves). Men wear tweeds.
But it is not a fogeys’ hangout: the congregation is young and international. Like evangelical Christianity, traditional Catholicism is attracting people who were not even born when the Second Vatican Council tried to rejuvenate the church. Traditionalist groups have members in 34 countries, including Hong Kong, South Africa and Belarus. Juventutem, a movement for young Catholics who like the old ways, boasts scores of activists in a dozen countries. . . .
A big shift came in 2007 when Pope Benedict XVI formally endorsed the use of the old-rite Latin mass. Until that point, fondness for the traditional liturgy could blight a priest’s career. The cause has also received new vim from the Ordinariate, a Vatican-sponsored grouping for ex-Anglicans. Dozens of Anglican priests have “crossed the Tiber” from the heavily ritualistic “smells and bells” high-church wing; they find a ready welcome among traditionalist Roman Catholics.
The story reminded me of a relevant passage in Ross Douthat’s Bad Religion. He praises Latin Mass Catholics and analogous groups of Protestants for their vibrancy and other virtues before issuing a gentle warning:
In its quest for a greater purity and a more perfect solidarity, the Benedict option [i.e., withdrawing from society or the larger Church, as traditionalists sometimes do] often seems to have little to say about the millions of baptized Christians whom separatism would effectively leave behind. Even if their faith is lukewarm and compromised, the undercatechized Catholic and the Oprahfied Protestant are still only a good confession or an altar call away from a more authentic Christian life.
I thought his warning a prudent one when I read the book, and I still do. But in my experience, traditionalists are well aware of potential pitfalls and doing their best to avoid them. Rather than withdrawing from society, my traditionalist friends are busy inviting undercatechized Catholics to attend the Latin Mass, talking to their Oprahfied Protestant friends about Catholicism, and reviving their local parishes. We should all have such problems.
It is always in reference to those things which arouse in us the most human of all our emotions—I mean the emotion of love—that we conceive the deepest of our errors. Suppose we met Euclid on Westminster Bridge, and he took us aside and confessed to us that whilst he regarded parallelograms and rhomboids with an indifference bordering on contempt, for isosceles triangles he cherished a wild romantic devotion. Suppose he asked us to accompany him to the nearest music-shop, and there purchased a guitar in order that he might worthily sing to us the radiant beauty and the radiant goodness of isosceles triangles. As men we should, I hope, respect his enthusiasm, and encourage his enthusiasm, and catch his enthusiasm. But as seekers after truth we should be compelled to regard with a dark suspicion, and to check with the most anxious care, every fact that he told us about isosceles triangles.
For adoration involves a glorious obliquity of vision. It involves more than that. We do not say of Love that he is short-sighted. We do not say of Love that he is myopic. We do not say of Love that he is astigmatic. We say quite simply, Love is blind. We might go further and say, Love is deaf. That would be a profound and obvious truth. We might go further still and say, Love is dumb. But that would be a profound and obvious lie. For love is always an extraordinarily fluent talker. Love is a wind-bag, filled with a gusty wind from Heaven.
It is always about the thing that we love most that we talk most. About this thing, therefore, our errors are something more than our deepest errors: they are our most frequent errors. That is why for nearly two thousand years mankind has been more glaringly wrong on the subject of Christmas than on any other subject. If mankind had hated Christmas, he would have understood it from the first. What would have happened then, it is impossible to say. For that which is hated, and therefore is persecuted, and therefore grows brave, lives on for ever, whilst that which is understood dies in the moment of our understanding of it—dies, as it were, in our awful grasp. Between the horns of this eternal dilemma shivers all the mystery of the jolly visible world, and of that still jollier world which is invisible.
The debate at Public Discourse over whether and how we can sustain the American liberal tradition continues with a contribution from Nathan Schlueter (a Hillsdale College professor whose classes I enjoyed). Criticizing Vincent Phillip Muñoz for over-emphasizing the Lockean aspects of liberalism and Patrick Deneen for claiming that voluntarist moral philosophy is inextricable from liberalism, Schlueter writes:
We must break free of the tendency to treat liberalism as a monolithic concept resting upon a moral framework of radical autonomy and a legal framework of moral neutrality with respect to competing notions of the good. This form of liberalism (which can be called modern liberalism) is a latecomer to the liberal tradition, and finds little support in the prior tradition of liberalism, and no support in the principles of the American founding.
Instead of rejecting liberalism per se, he continues, we ought to recover what might be called “natural law liberalism” of the Founding Fathers, who drew from both social contract liberalism and classical liberalism while correcting their deficiencies. The principles of that tradition include the following:
Reason, properly understood, is a necessary and sufficient condition for political life. Reason can discover and has discovered within tradition permanent truths, including human equality and natural rights. But equality and rights cannot be properly understood apart from the positive basic goods that they serve and that constitute real human flourishing, goods like knowledge, friendship, and beauty. The achievement of these goods depends upon a plurality of associations (families, churches, educational, commercial, and cultural institutions). It also depends upon an overall political association and political authority that protects, supports, and coordinates the activities of individuals and associations for the sake of each and all (the common good). Finally, the entire social and political order and the goods it serves require a degree of solidarity, citizenship, and virtue in its members.
The principle of subsidiarity—which the budget plans and vice-presidential run of Paul Ryan put in the spotlight this year—is easily misunderstood. It is sometimes characterized simply as the idea that problems should be solved at the lowest possible level, by (say) the family or the neighborhood rather than the federal government.
The proper application of subsidiarity may recommend a move towards localism at times, but as Villanova law professor Patrick Brennan writes in a new paper, subsidiarity from a Catholic perspective consists of more than that. From the abstract:
Subsidiarity is the fixed and immovable ontological principle according to which the common good is to be achieved through a plurality of social forms. Subsidiarity is derivative of social justice, a recognition that societies other than the state constitute unities of order, possessing genuine authority, which which are to be respected and, when necessary, aided.
Brennan elaborates on this theme as he explains Pope Pius XI’s words in Quadragesimo Anno:
Negatively, it is a principle of non-absorption of lower societies by higher societies, above all by the state. This is the aspect of subsidiarity that is commonly invoked today, but it represents only half the story. Positively, subsidiarity is also the principle that when aid is given to a particular society, including by the state, it be for the purpose of encouraging and strengthening that society. . . .
It bears emphasis that the libertarian misinterpretation of subsidiarity, which reduces the principle to little more than its non-absorption aspect, is falsified by the popes’ repeated insistence that the state has a right, and sometimes a duty, to intervene.
Elsewhere he adds, “The more the work of a particular state can be accomplished through the competencies and authorities of the many and varied societies that are nested within that state . . . the richer that particular state’s socio-political order.” Rather than associating subsidiarity with federalism, then, we might more accurately understand it as pluralism.
Brennan also provides a valuable overview of how Catholic social teaching developed through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in the face of increasing government centralization. You can download the entire twenty-page paper here.
Perhaps the primary difficulty with implementing this broader (and more accurate) view of subsidiarity lies in negotiating how the government and private institutions can cooperate for the sake of the common good. (more…)
Is the common law an obsolete relic of our history as an English colony, or is it still a principle of sound constitutional interpretation? Does it protect citizens’ liberty, or undermine it? How does common law interact with the evolution of our culture and legal system?
The Library of Law and Liberty explored these questions in their recent forum on the role of common law in the U.S. Constitution and legal tradition. James Stoner argues in the lead essay that common law is crucial if we are to understand, preserve, and develop that tradition:
Without understanding common law, you cannot understand either the original meaning of the Constitution or the way that meaning has been adapted to remain effective in our own time. Moreover, there is much about the common law that is alive today and plays no small part in supporting our lawful liberty. Finally, common law has been a means by which natural law or the law of reason has retained authority in American life.
Hadley Arkes, a member of our Advisory Council, offers reflections in response to Stoner, concluding that “unless [common law] keeps distracting us with the romance of ‘tradition,’ it leads us back . . . to that test of reason that finally gives us, in any case, the true ground of judgment.”
I believe that common law reasoning to interpret the Constitution would be unlikely to be beneficial to liberty today in part because the Supreme Court [unlike England's royal court system] faces no competition from other courts and because it sits in a legal culture that is not very friendly to the kind of liberty the Founders envisioned. In short, because of its centralized nature and the likely class of its personnel, it is not likely to discover good social norms.
He then puts forward several ways that “the Constitution can confront the fact of social change . . . without common law reasoning.”
Finally, Hans Eicholz chimes in on the Liberty Law blog to compare the relative advantages of continental Europe’s civil law system and the Anglo-American tradition of common law.
At our annual Erasmus Lecture in October, Jean Bethke Elshtain named Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, a Protestant village in France famous for hiding thousands of Jews and other refugees from Nazi and Vichy authorities during World War II, as an exemplar of loyalty.
Margaret Paxson writes about Le Chambon and a handful of similar villages on the Plateau Vivarais-Lignon in the Wilson Quarterly, contrasting them with the Ukrainian capital of Kiev where more than 30,000 Jews were massacred in 1941.
Why, we all ask, did the French villagers act differently—demonstrating loyalty not merely to their family members and friends but to strangers? Paxson writes:
Perhaps the first thing to understand about Plateau Vivarais-Lignon is that the community has been taking in strangers—persecuted, or poor or ill—for centuries. The villagers know how to do it; they possess the knowledge as a habit and a skill. Since the 16th century, the plateau has been home to a great number of Protestants. Up in hard-to-reach hills and far from the center of French rule, the Protestants on the plateau sheltered their coreligionists or shuttled them to safety during the gruesome struggles of the Reformation that marked the end of Roman Catholic hegemony. Many of the present-day plateau dwellers are descendants of the Protestants who remained in the region.
But according to academic studies, theology—like the local church’s emphasis on loving one another, which Paxson mentions—was not the only factor underlying their actions. Their ethic was also shaped by their own experience of persecution:
Studies of altruism . . . don’t show that Protestants are necessarily more likely to perform altruistic acts than others. They do, however, find that one social feature that seems to encourage heroic altruism is the experience of having been an outsider, or a minority, or persecuted oneself. Altruism fares best, in other words, among those who have been treated badly and have decided that treating others well is best for all.
Virtue is hard won, it seems. Yet the French villagers’ generosity saved the lives of some five thousand.
We Americans believe that slavery is wrong, and we’re appalled that anyone ever believed otherwise. We’re even inclined to tell ourselves that, if we lived a couple centuries ago, we would have been abolitionists. Yet as historian Jay Case writes, we shouldn’t be so smug:
You and I believe that slavery is wrong, but neither of us came to this conclusion on our own. We did not reach this conviction by wrestling with complicated ethical, economic, political and theological issues. . . . Neither of us have ever been confronted with the reality that we would lose a large proportion of our wealth, should our society decide that slavery were wrong.
Instead, we grew up in a culture where we did not see legalized slavery around us anywhere. We were raised in a society that told us in thousands of ways, explicitly and implicitly, that freedom was good and this system was wrong. We accepted this great truth without thinking about it. It cost us nothing.
He reflects further on the abolition of slavery on his blog.
Historian Chris Gehrz (The Pietist Schoolman) happened to read Case’s post two days before lecturing his Bethel College students on European imperialism and the transatlantic slave trade. Gehrz hopes to teach his students to avoid the “I wouldn’t have [owned slaves, condoned slavery, committed some historical injustice]” temptation,
first, because they don’t understand all the experiences, ideas, and assumptions that shaped those who participated in such systematic injustice; and second, because, if they’re perfectly honest with themselves, they would acknowledge that they — as much as the Spanish of the 16th century or the British of the 18th or any people at any time since the Fall — are tempted by greed, power, and cruelty, or at least prone to ignore the stirrings of their conscience when acting on it would bring risk or inconvenience.
I [also] worry . . . that our students will hear these stories, feel some sadness, but then insulate themselves with thoughts like “But that was the Spanish, and I’m American,” or “They were Catholics, and I’m Protestant,” or “That was five hundred years ago, and this is a new day.” That’s a bit better in the sense that it starts with a recognition of difference . . . but it’s a problem for a history class taught at a Christian college. Like it or not, the story of slavery is part of the story of Christianity — for the most part, the slavers (and a good number of the slaves) share the name of Christ with us. Which should do still more to strip away our own self-righteousness.
A sobering reminder that we, too, are capable of grave injustice, and that we should not assume that our own age is incapable of such sins.
On Public Discourse, Vincent Phillip Muñoz responds to his colleague Patrick Deneen’s critique of liberalism (“Unsustainable Liberalism,” which appeared in our August/September issue). He says he’s “largely sympathetic” to Deneen’s views, yet disagrees with him about the root causes of and proper solution to contemporary liberalism’s problems:
Deneen sees the pathologies of modern life as liberalism’s effects. But I wonder if instead we have departed from a healthy and proper understanding of liberalism and succumbed to temptations [such as anthropological individualism and a rejection of the idea of human nature] that liberalism makes possible.
These temptations, in my view, are not themselves a necessary product of liberalism. Moreover, let me also suggest that the path to a healthier and more sustainable society is not imaginative innovation or the development of a new political philosophy, but rather a return to our founding principles, principles grounded on truths about and a deep respect for nature.
Muñoz goes on to argue that America’s historical liberalism does not embody but in fact rejects the distortions of liberalism that Deneen rightly criticizes.
Deneen, replying on the same site, believes Muñoz ”avoids responding to the core of [his] argument, because to do so would force him to admit that there is no way to avoid the Lockean (and founding) sources of these pathologies.” He continues:
What Muñoz neglects is that the liberal invocation of individual rights, voluntarism, and self-ownership—while useful as an appeal against practices such as slavery—unavoidably also undergirds the tendencies and practices that are at the heart of my critique [of liberalism], namely the tendency toward the expansion of voluntarism into all spheres of life and the effort to conquer nature so as to satisfy all human appetites and intentions that arise from an unconstrained human will.
Broadly speaking, I am (like Muñoz) sympathetic to Deneen’s views, but I’m curious about the closing lines of his response:
I increasingly fear that Americans will have to break with America, and seek to re-found the nation on better truths—ones that have perhaps never been self-evident, but rather hard-won, and which are far better than our philosophy and increasingly better than ourselves.
What would this refounding look like, and if it becomes necessary, how would we achieve it? Through devoting our energy to the family, the Church, and the local community (to use a phrase beloved of an old professor of mine) rather than on maximizing personal wealth and freedom? Through greater enforcement of duties to the family and more aggressive regulation of the market?
Or would it involve something more drastic, like a wholesale rejection of our current forms of democracy and capitalism (since the two arguably embody the voluntarism underlying our current problems)? Need we reject most forms of technology, return to the land, and become independent farmers?
I don’t intend to ridicule anyone who holds these views, as I share the concerns that inspire them. Yet if the “self-aggrandizement, individualism, willfulness, and liberty defined as the absence of constraint achieved through the conquest of nature” that Deneen rightly criticizes are inextricable from today’s political and economic institutions, then refounding the nation on better truths would be a radical proposal and a painful process indeed.
The principle of double effect affects Catholic (and arguably Protestant) moral teaching on subjects from war to abortion, meaning it’s highly relevant to our debates over the use of drone strikes and the tragic death of Savita Halappanavar. In a nutshell, the principle is that ”sometimes it is permissible to bring about as a merely foreseen side effect a harmful event that it would be impermissible to bring about intentionally.”
According to twentieth-century analytic philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe, it’s a crucial but easily abused principle—which makes it all the more worth exploring here. In an essay (PDF here) on the ethics of killing the innocent in war, she argues that behind Catholics’ lack of concern on that subject lay “double-think about double-effect.” On the necessity of the principle, she writes:
The distinction between the intended, and the merely foreseen, effects of a voluntary action is indeed absolutely essential to Christian ethics. For Christianity forbids a number of things as being bad in themselves. But if I am answerable for the foreseen consequences of an action or refusal, as much as for the action itself, then these prohibitions will break down. If someone innocent will die unless I do a wicked thing, then on this view I am his murderer in refusing: so all that is left to me is to weigh up evils. Here the theologian steps in with the principle of double-effect and says: “No, you are no murderer, if the man’s death was neither your aim nor your chosen means, and if you had to act in the way that led to it or else do something absolutely forbidden.” Without understanding of this principle, anything can be—and is wont to be—justified, and the Christian teaching that in no circumstances may one commit murder, adultery, apostasy (to give a few examples) goes by the board. These absolute prohibitions of Christianity by no means exhaust its ethic; there is a large area where what is just is determined partly by a prudent weighing up of consequences. But the prohibitions are bedrock, and without them the Christian ethic goes to pieces. Hence the necessity of the notion of double effect.
Yet, she continues, the idea is often mis-applied: (more…)
After a tiresome election season and an even longer season of slacking off spiritually, I thirst for Advent as ardently as the nation’s retail sector thirsted for the recent anti-holiday known as Black Friday.
In addition to breaking out my favorite Advent music (like the beautiful new collection Advent at Ephesus by a cloistered order of Benedictine nuns), I’m revisiting some of the many wonderful sermons of Blessed John Henry Newman. Here are excerpts from a few sermons especially relevant to our preparation for Christ’s coming:
In truth we are not called once only, but many times; all through our life Christ is calling us. He called us first in Baptism; but afterwards also; whether we obey His voice or not, He graciously calls us still. If we fall from our Baptism, He calls us to repent; if we are striving to fulfil our calling, He calls us on from grace to grace, and from holiness to holiness, while life is given us. Abraham was called from his home, Peter from his nets, Matthew from his office, Elisha from his farm, Nathanael from his retreat; we are all in course of calling, on and on, from one thing to another, having no resting-place, but mounting towards our eternal rest, and obeying one command only to have another put upon us. He calls us again and again, in order to justify us again and again,—and again and again, and more and more, to sanctify and glorify us.
We too are looking out for Christ’s coming,—we are bid look out,—we are bid pray for it; and yet it is to be a time of judgment. It is to be the deliverance of all Saints from sin and sorrow for ever; yet they, every one of them, must undergo an awful trial. How then can any look forward to it with joy, not knowing (for no one knows) the certainty of his own salvation? And the difficulty is increased when we come to pray for it,—to pray for its coming soon: how can we pray that Christ would come, that the day of judgment would hasten, that His kingdom would come, that His kingdom may be at once,—may come on us this day or tomorrow,—when by so coming He would be shortening the time of our present life, and cut off those precious years given us for conversion, amendment, repentance and sanctification? Is there not an inconsistency in professing to wish our Judge already come, when we do not feel ourselves ready for Him?
We must not only have faith in [Christ], but must wait on Him; not only must hope, but must watch for Him; not only love Him, but must long for Him; not only obey Him, but must look out, look up earnestly for our reward, which is Himself. We must not only make Him the Object of our faith, hope, and charity, but we must make it our duty not to believe the world, not to hope in the world, not to love the world. We must resolve not to hang on the world’s opinion, or study its wishes. It is our mere wisdom to be thus detached from all things below.
In the video above, Luke Smith and his colleagues at the U.K.-based Christian group Fusion reenact the fourteenth chapter of the Gospel of Luke, with lovely results. It’s a project particularly apt in light of our recent celebration of Thanksgiving here in the U.S. and our discussions of hospitality on this page. Smith recounts the background:
Jesus tells a story about a rich man who invites guests to a dinner. They all politely decline with various excuses. So the guy decides to invite anyone who will come. Lame beggars, poor people and literally anyone who will accept the invitation. Jesus says that the Kingdom of Heaven is like this. All are welcome—you just have to accept the invitation. Read the full story here.
When I read this story recently, I had an idea. I manage two phenomenal ladies. Pippa Elmes and Miriam Swaffield. They are two of the most energetic, creative and loving people you could ever meet and I’m always looking for ways to manage them well.
On Friday, they turned up to work at 7:30am expecting a quiet team day in the countryside. Instead, I gave them twelve hours to throw a banquet for anyone who would come. They rose to the challenge and at 7:30pm they opened the doors and held a banquet for over 100 people from all walks of life. God provided the food and drink through generous people and shops in York and they raised over £600 for a local charity who work with the homeless and destitute.
The Chronicle of Higher Education last week published a rather odd article on the evolution of eugenics excerpted from Nathaniel Comfort’s new book The Science of Human Perfection: How Genes Became the Heart of American Medicine. It’s odd because, though it acknowledges the evils that eugenicists have historically committed, it assumes that today’s eugenics are (and will remain) entirely benign.
Here’s Comfort’s description of the twentieth-century version, whose victims are still with us:
Progressive-era eugenics sought to eliminate undesirable traits (negative eugenics) and cultivate desirable ones (positive eugenics) by population control, mostly through regulating immigration and sex. Eugenicists were interested in the genetics of disease, personality, intelligence, and race—just as we are today. Birth control, marriage restrictions, and sexual sterilization of “defectives” (a medical term still in use as late as the 1970s) were among their means of effecting genetic change. They hoped people would voluntarily do the right thing for the greater good—but if they didn’t, the state had a responsibility to do it for (i.e., to) them.
Today, on the other hand, we don’t need to use coercion. In vitro fertilization, pre-implantation genetic screening, and abortion are so widely accessible and accepted that they play the same role as state-sponsored intervention once did. Eugenics has moved from the realm of state control to individual choice—which means, to the autonomy-maximizing liberal, that eugenics must be an unequivocally good thing.
Comfort acknowledges in passing the inevitable commoditization of human life that today’s baby-designing techniques encourage: “The standards of perfection are selected more democratically now, but they are conditioned by the perversities of market pressures and fashion.” But he sees no reason to fight it because, as he writes in his strangely blithe closing paragraphs, eugenics we will always have with us: (more…)
. . . Well, not a bar: They actually walked into the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia for a discussion hosted by the Princeton Center of Theological Inquiry and broadcast on the radio show “On Being.” The novelist was Marilynne Robinson (Gilead, Housekeeping, Home); the astrophysicist, Dartmouth’s Marcelo Gleiser.
Their conversation with show host Krista Tippett covers (among other topics) science, religion, creation stories, and the much-sought Theory of Everything. Marilynne Robinson speaks about our loss of a sense of origins:
I think, frankly, that as modern people we struggle under certain prejudices against ourselves, that there are ways in which we have lost contact with . . . the earlier intuitions that actually described themselves in culture and in literature and so on. But . . . everyone wants to have a narrative of personal origins. Most of us want to have narratives of what you might sort of call tribal origins, you know: where did my grandparents come from and why and that sort of thing, you know.
I think that our bond with humankind is felt as a sort of very much enlarged family narrative of origins in that sense. . . There’s some sort of a feeling that if you know where you came from you would know who you are. You would know what you should do. We lack definition of ourselves, which is an incredibly haunting feature of human life.
Later in the show, Marcelo Gleiser says that for him, science and spirituality are not at odds:
To think of science as separate from spirituality to me is a big mistake. You know, there is nothing that says that science should be dispassionate about the spirit or the life of the spirit. And to me it’s quite the opposite. It’s exactly because I feel very spiritually connected with nature that I am a scientist. And to write equations on a blackboard and to come up with models about how nature works is, in a sense, a form of worship of that spirituality.
As the conversation drew to a close, the two had a particularly revealing exchange on scientific discovery:
Dr. Gleiser: When you find the solution or something that looks like a solution [in scientific research], you get emotionally moved to an amazing extent, especially when it’s a surprising thing. You know, it really is a spiritual emotion. Like, I’ve had this a few times — not many. . . . But when I have this, it really is something transcendent.
Ms. Robinson: Do you think that, for example, teleology might be an inadequate way of articulating what you’re talking about? You know, I mean, teleology is sort of forbidden, but you can feel the shape of something pulling you toward something that you don’t intend and it’s as if the shape is somehow intrinsic and the conclusion is somehow necessary?
Dr. Gleiser: That’s funny because you phrased it in the negative. But that’s very smart. Maybe? I am always afraid of teleology. You know, teleology has so many different traps. And so the question is always if it’s teleology who’s in control? And I don’t know.
Gleiser’s comment about teleology’s “traps” put me in mind of Thomas Nagel’s attempts to account for nature’s apparent teleology without God. If you’re interested in more on this topic, John Haldane wrote about Nagel’s new book Mind and Cosmos in our December issue and Edward Feser discussed it last month On the Square.
Though the dropping crime rate in the U.S. over the last few decades has been something of a mystery to experts, most agree that key factors are tougher laws and harsher criminal sentences.
As a result of such measures we now have the world’s highest incarceration rate, with a shocking 2.2 million Americans behind bars—but that number could start dropping, if prison reformers have their way.
According to David Dagan and Steven M. Teles in Washington Monthly, criminal justice reform is gaining momentum as conservatives who once were tough on crime are becoming tough on prisons:
A rogue’s gallery of conservative crime warriors have joined [Newt] Gingrich’s call for Americans to rethink their incarceration reflex. They include Ed Meese, Asa Hutchinson, William Bennett—even the now-infamous American Legislative Exchange Council. Most importantly, more than a dozen states have launched serious criminal justice reform efforts in recent years, with conservatives often in the lead.
Skeptics might conclude that conservatives are only rethinking criminal justice because lockups have become too expensive. But whether prison costs too much depends on what you think of incarceration’s benefits. Change is coming to criminal justice because an alliance of evangelicals and libertarians have put those benefits on trial. Discovering that the nation’s prison growth is morally objectionable by their own, conservative standards, they are beginning to attack it—and may succeed where liberals, working the issue on their own, have, so far, failed.
The late Chuck Colson’s Prison Fellowship plays a role in the story, of course, one which Stephanos Bibas explored on this site after Colson’s death. Dagan and Teles recount the movement’s development from the left-leaning perspective typical of the magazine; nevertheless, it’s a fascinating story of how conservative Christians and fiscal hawks joined a cause long dear to liberals and libertarians. Given the high costs, both societal and financial, of our incarceration rate, I hope the new alliance continues to succeed.