At stake is whether Sojourners can claim the mantle of “progressive” if they remain on the sidelines on what has apparently become the cultural barometer for the progressive/conservative distinction. And it’s not just conservatives that are treating it that way: the reaction to Sojourners’ decision suggests progressives think it is as well. As Andrew Marin puts it:
Jim and Sojourners are currently getting thrown under the bus every-which-way by the LGBT community. Rightfully so, in my opinion. If a person or an organization is going to align themselves with a very specific social and theological ideology and take the donations of that very specific ideology’s people and organizations, how can they then pick and choose what constitutes as proper progressively? They can’t.
Of course, it’s not like Wallis has hidden his position on homosexuality. So it’s hard to see why he’s to blame for taking money that was given by people who apparently presumed more than they should have.
But there’s a dilemma here for the religiously progressive community: It’s not enough (anymore) to be liberal on economic or racial issues and conservative on the sexual ones, as sexual politics have taken precedence over any others in the religious left. Don’t think for a second it’s just conservatives who have made gay marriage an issue to draw lines over: the reaction to Wallis’ decision suggests that the time is coming when folks like him and Ron Sider, who want to stop their progressivism at the line of gay relations and marriage, will find themselves in just as odd a position as those who are conservative economically but liberal on sexual politics. And maybe an even worse one, as the number of folks in that camp seems to be growing rapidly.
At his New York Times blog, Ross Douthat has been doing a yeoman’s work, making me almost regret my critique of his essay on gay marriage by offering a patient, sophisticated case for preserving the “ideal” of heterosexual marriage.
Specifically, I was pleased to see him affirm my point that the legal affects the culture in addition to reflecting it, a point often lost on my peers. One of my favorite moments is when he turns the civil rights narrative on his opponents to prove the point:
Second, I think that most of Greenwald’s examples of cultural norms that aren’t legally enforced actually tend to back up my belief that law and culture are inextricably bound up, rather than his case that they needn’t be. A stigma on racism, for instance, would hopefully exist even in a libertarian paradise, but it draws a great deal of its potency from the fact the American government has spent the last 40 years actively campaigning against racist conduct and racist thought, using every means at its disposal short of banning speech outright. The state forbids people from discriminating based on race in their private business dealings. It forbids them from instituting policies that have a “disparate impact” on racial minorities. It allows and encourages reverse discrimination in various settings, the better to remedy racism’s earlier effects. It promulgates public school curricula that paint racism as the original sin of the United States. It has even created a special legal category that punishes crimes committed with racist intentions more severely than identical crimes committed with non-racial motivations. In these and other arenas, there isn’t a bright line between the legal campaign against racism and the cultural stigma attached to racist beliefs; indeed, there isn’t a line at all.
Douthat suggests that as gay marriage is legalized, the stigma against those who have old-fashioned views of marriage will increase and the line between culture and law will continue to blur. That’s near the center of the social conservative anxiety over gay marriage, despite the Constitutional protections that are in place to preserve the “freedom of religion.” Like freedom of speech, the ability to practice our religion doesn’t seem to be absolute when the “harm” of other individuals is in question.
But the heart of Douthat’s case—so far—is his description of heterosexual relationships as “thick,” which I joked over at Mere Orthodoxy is a term philosophers use when they have nothing else to say. The argument is that the gender differences and procreative impulses add an additional layer of complexity to heterosexual relationships that distinguishes them from homosexual relationships, which inevitably have to be characterized by “love and commitment”—and nothing more.
I like Ross Douthat. A lot. I started reading him when he was at The Atlantic, and was instantly hooked. He is without a doubt one of the most reasonable conservatives I have read.
While I was initially disappointed by his recent New York Times column on gay marriage, I’ve moved on to simply being confused.
I don’t think I’m the only one.
Adam Serwer at The American Prospect suggested that, “Ross Douthat‘s column this morning reads like a column from someone whose religious and cultural views lead them to oppose marriage equality but can’t think of a very good reason for the state to prevent recognition of same-sex marriages.”
But then, that’s not quite right. Douthat’s goal doesn’t seem to be to articulate the reasons why traditional marriage is to be preferred at all.
I liked Lost. A lot. I have to say that and repeat it so the Losties don’t kill me for what comes next: it wasn’t the best show on television the past three weeks. That position belongs to Friday Night Lights, the beautifully filmed drama that people think is about football. But it’s not. Really.
Friday Night Lights’s timing is fortuitous: while Lost is done, it rebooted with several new characters and an intriguing new central storyline. I won’t recap it here, but I will make a brief case why it’s worth your attention:
1) The show oozes–and there is no other word for it–authenticity. More than any other network show I’ve ever seen, FNL makes me feel as though I was really in the middle of the world I’ve been dropped into, observing the events as they unfold. And no wonder. They don’t film it like most shows, with three cameras and scripted movements. Instead, the actors are given instructions about the plot points and allowed to improvise with the camera’s following them, which creates a beautiful effect. Don’t believe me? Check out the teaser:
2) The Taylors. The central characters are hardly perfect, but they wear and bear their imperfections with a gracious faithfulness unknown in TV-land. They have managed to find that difficult equilibrium of respect, candor, and love, all while dealing with the practical realities of raising children and seeking excellence in their work.
3) The plot. There are no islands, no vampires, and–best of all–no time travel. There’s only that guy from down the street. You know, the guy who cares a bit too much about his football because he doesn’t have any other life. And the guy who thinks football is a waste of time because he wants his son to get an education. And the capable-but-underachieving girl who only wants to get away from her broken life, but has no way of doing it. And the talented kid whose mom is too drugged out to raise him. And the kid who doesn’t much like white people.
You know: the stuff of real life. The best part of Friday Night Lights is that it manages to take life in a small Texas town (which is not so different from the small Washington town I grew up in) and draw us in to the powerful narratives and dynamics that are always present, but that we might miss in our own lives.
Gene Fant dug up this little gem from Timothy Morton in the latest Proceedings of the Modern Language Association:
It’s not just that rabbits are rabbits in name only; it’s that whether or not we have words for them, rabbits are deconstructive all the way down—signifying and display happen at every level. Nothing is self-identical. We are embodied yet without essence. Organicism is holistic and substantialist, visualizing carbon-based life-forms (organic in another sense) as the essence of livingness. Queer ecology must go wider, embracing silicon as well as carbon, for instance. . . . Queer ecology would go to the end and show how beings exist precisely because they are nothing but relationality, deep down—for the love of matter” (277).
I’ve read the full essay so you don’t have to. Perhaps the most shocking line is this one:
Karl Kroeber suggests that if you don’t believe Nature exists, you need to stand out in a midwestern thunderstorm (42). This suggestion now sounds distressingly almost like waterboarding.
We should use this to establish a new academic rule: if your theory leads you to believe that standing in a thunderstorm and waterboarding are nearly equivalent, then we are prima facie justified in thinking that you have something wrong in the water upstream.
But while it’s tempting to dismiss Morton, I actually think that there is something we can learn from them, like this: dualism might be unavoidable.
If you ask noted pacifist John Howard Yoder, the answer is unequivocally “yes.” Writes Yoder:
The answer of the pre-Constantinian church was negative; the Christian as an agent of God for reconciliation has other things to do than to be in police service. . . . Christians saw their task as one of patient suffering, not taking over themselves the work of the police. . . . The post-Constantinian church obviously accepted government service by Christians, but for reasons which cannot be deemed adequate.
That judgment has been repeated often, even by those who are sympathetic to just-war theory as a legitimate development of Christian doctrine.
But the pre-Constantinian church’s understanding of the relationship between Christians and the police functions of the state may be more complex than Yoder and others indicate.
So argues J. Daryl Charles in the latest issue of Logos. Contra Yoder and others, Charles contends that the early church fathers are not as unified on the issue of pacifism as is often thought. Consider his judicious conclusion on Tertullian:
What that means is that, if we care about the sport as a story, we have to hope that the people in charge of running it do their jobs just badly enoughto ensure that the Hand of God is possible. The wider the circle within which you’re willing to see the game as aesthetic, in other words, the more you wind up relying on chance and accident. If soccer is only a game—that is, aesthetic only in the most limited and technical sense—then it can achieve perfection as a deliberate design or as a successfully realized intention. If it’s a story—that is, aesthetic in a more primary sense—it can’t. If you want a masterpiece, the artist has to screw up. The lamest defense of bad refereeing in the world is “human error is part of the game.” It isn’t; but it is certainly, and problematically, part of the story.
I’m intrigued by the idea, but not persuaded. It seems that incorporating an official’s error as an essential part of any sports narrative is possible only ad hoc. Had the play been appropriately called, the game wouldn’t have been stripped of its broader storylines–it simply would have had a different ending, and a different meaning.
If you asked St. Augustine why he believed in an immortal soul, I suspect he’d look at you quizzically, raise an eyebrow, and utter a dismissive, “Because St. Paul did!”
Of course, there are large groups of Christians who might accept the rationale for Augustine’s answer while simultaneously deploring it. After all, we now know that it was that blasted Hellenstic influence and its pesky dualism. It’s almost like magic: wave a hand, utter the magic words, and the problem goes away.
Or better, it’s like a trump card. The syncretism card. Play it, and you immediately put your theological opponent in a place where they have to justify not only their interpretations of Scripture, but have to demonstrate that those interpretations haven’t been unduly tainted by the (obviously) problematic philosophy in question.
It’s a little more combative, a touch more polemical than the mystery card. But it’s still effective when you’re in a tough theological conversation and you’re not sure how to escape unscathed. By which I mean, “admitting you might be wrong.”
Miller highlights the paradox of believing in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, which she claims “has strained the credulity of even the most devoted believer.” And while Ross Douthat is right that rationally the belief is “a pretty small leap” from the notion that God created the world ex nihilo, I suspect those who challenge the resurrection of the dead are similarly suspicious about the ability of God to speak matter into being. The freedom of God to create and organize matter as he wills is, in a theological environment eager to bow to science, always in danger of eroding.
But that’s beside the point of my post, which is that Miller’s excerpt misses the real paradox.
On the one hand, our conceptions of heaven are inextricably embodied. ”In most of our popular conceptions, we have bodies in heaven: selves, consciousness, identity. We do things . . . If you don’t have a body in heaven, then what kind of heaven are you hoping for?”
On the other hand, our belief in the bodily resurrection is declining and being replaced by an emphasis on the immortality of the soul. Miller points out that only 26 percent of Americans believe they’ll have bodies in heaven.
The question, then, is what to make of the disconnect between our deeply embodied visions of heaven and our nonchalance about whether we will, in fact, have bodies.
Over the past 72 hours, I’ve been engaged in various debates about the contents of our newly minted-health care system and the effects of the executive order that was issued to appease Bart Stupak and his ilk.
The central question in the debate is whether the bill will–does–fund abortions, and whether the Executive Order that Obama has promised to sign is enough to prevent that from happening.
It’s my suspicion that significant confusion remains on the issue. So here’s my attempt to shed light on the question of abortion in the Senate bill.
But let’s do this Q&A style. Because that’ll be more fun.
Did the Senate health care bill, which was the bill under consideration, cover abortions initially?
The assumption that ‘love’ (or ‘romantic love’) is the primary basis for marriage is often said to be an innovation of the modern West. It is certainly a central preoccupation of the novel, the literary genre most characteristic of the modern West. The novel holds up a mirror to what is held to be the reality of ‘love and marriage’; it is the image of a representation that arises from the reality and exercises an influence over it, although the reality is never reducible to the representation…
Even in the traditional novel, the link between love and marriage is in fact contingent. Marriage is often an end (the end of the novel), and not a transition to a new beginning. If marriage is the goal of love but not the context of its continuing development, is marriage tacitly presented as the end of love?
Where, at the beginning of the novel, marriage has already occurred, love may well be sought outside marriage; the rendering of a love that both issues in marriage and develops and matures within it is much less usual…The more recent convention that ‘love’ is the precondition not of marriage but of ’sex’ is a natural development of tradition rather than a reaction against it. ’Modern’ and ‘traditional’ novels tend to display an ambivalence towards marriage combined with an unshakable faith in ‘love’ itself…
These novels are familiar with the assumption that marriage is the proper context and home of love, but, in declining to make this assumption narratively plausible, their tendency is to induce scepticism toward it.
Watson’s point could easily be made against Shakespeare as well as the modern novel. But his association with the novel as the predominantly Western form of literature and the rise of romance in the West as the basis for marriage bears more reflection.
Certainly some literature stands out in contrast to Watson’s critique, but not a whole lot is coming to mind right now.
Are there novels that present marriage not only as the culmination of romantic love, but also as its context and home (that is, husbands and wives who are still ‘romantic’)?
Make your suggestions in the comments. I’m interested to hear them.
One of the distinctive aspects of the Theology of the Body is its beautiful expression of the mutual relations of men and women, a mutuality that originates in and is best expressed by a sexual act which is constituted by self-giving.
It’s a position that I am sympathetic to. But Francis Watson’s takes dead aim in Agape, Eros, Genderat attempts to establish the sexual act as the grounds for the differences between men and women. He writes:
The belonging together of woman and man is not confined to the sexual relationship, nor is that even its primary expression. The veil is interposed in order to confine eros to his limits, excluding him from the ekklesia, the place in which the belonging-together of man and woman is disclosed, and differentiating him from the agape which is the mode of that belonging together.
As he puts it later, “On what authority is it asserted that man and woman become two and one primarily, or even exclusively, in the sexual act?” The “two and one” refers to their differences, male and female, within the structure of the ‘one flesh’ union.
Standing against the tide is Nicholas Healy, who offers some interesting cautions in his article, “Practices and the New Ecclesiology: Misplaced Concreteness?” Healy’s article is older—first published in 2003—but he does a nice job of highlighting some of the troubles that arise through viewing Christianity as constituted by its practices.
Healy’s leading critique is that the language of practices obscures the central role intentions play in both individual and communal actions. His central thrust is that the emphasis on practices fails to account for why they fail to shape us in the ways proponents claim they should. In other words, the Mainline Protestantism problem.
But his more trenchant critique is the theological one: most accounts of practices (and specifically Stanley Hauerwas) fail to locate the practices of the church beneath the doctrine of God. He writes: (more…)
I have always thought that every academic–or wannabe, like me–ought have one or two hypotheses that are held very loosely, are somewhat defensible but impossible to prove, and just fringe enough to make academic parties interesting.
One such hypothesis that I have occasionally advanced is that G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxyis the most important work of the twenty-first century, even though it was written in the twentieth.
Though Chesterton attained more fame during his life than C.S. Lewis—he was greeted by massive crowds on his trips around the world—by the beginning of World War II his position as chief apologist and defender of the faith had been taken over by Lewis. In particular, Chesterton’s influence on American evangelicalism has been relatively non-existent compared to Lewis’s.
And no wonder: Lewis’s Mere Christianity, which has influenced numerous evangelical leaders over the past few decades, is a masterfully written apologetic. The discovery of Lewis helped many evangelicals in the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s realize the importance of having a faith that was as intellectual as it was spiritual.
Yet the situation within evangelicalism (and without) has now changed, and Mere Christianity is an apologetic suited to its time. While evangelicals have made strides in recovering the life of the mind, it is now en vogue to criticize evangelical Christianity as too propositional. The new generation of post-modern evangelicals is moved more by the story of Christianity than its ideas, and more prone to appeal to the imagination than the intellect.
Such critics would do well to consider Orthodoxy.
Though it was written just over 100 years ago, Chesterton’s finest work is still relevant. In a First Things‘ article, Ralph Wood writes:
The irony, of course, is that the same Christians who tend to be suspicious about spending money on architecture tend to also have a robust appreciation for the arts. A stereotype, yes, but part of the emerging critique of traditional evangelicalism has been an aesthetic one: The Church has neglected artists and the arts, and so they set out to recover them.
And rightly so. May their numbers increase.
But the dichotomy between architecture and the rest of the arts simply isn’t sustainable. If the arts are somehow tied to culture, then how much more architecture? As it turns out, a lot.
If I ever write a book, I will be content if it is half as thoughtful, profound, and meditative as Gilbert Meilander’s Neither Beast Nor God.
I am tempted to stop with that sentence; but I won’t. And I won’t write a book that even comes close to half, try as I might.
Meilander’s work was forged in response to the conversations he had during his time on the (controversial) President’s Council on Bioethics. Neither Beast Nor God is an exploration of dignity, a concept which he thinks the Council left ambiguous.
Meilander contends that dignity needs to be understood in two senses.
The first is human dignity, which is characteristic of our status in between God and beasts: “Not simply body, but also not simply mind or spirit; rather, the place where body and spirit meet and are united (and reconciled?) in the life of each person.” He argues that birth, breeding, and death are the features of life that most offend this sense of dignity, and as such are the central battlegrounds for those attempting to help us become more than human. Human dignity is “to be found in the kind of life that honors and upholds the peculiar nature that is ours.”
But because this human life is shaped by human powers and capacities, it invites us to “think in terms of comparative degrees of human distinction or dignity—and of some as more dignified than others.” To offer a tendentious example, insofar as Dante’s powers of writing exceed my own (which is to say, by a lot), he attained a greater degree of distinction with respect to that power than I. The same could be said with respect to the intellect of Einstein or the wisdom of Solomon (not to mention that of my wife).
But beneath human dignity is personal dignity, which is an equality all humans share that is grounded:
Still, I think Schaengold is on the mark here, in the way he writes about the skyscraper and the observation deck. It’s only that I see it as a defeat for humanity, even though it’s a triumph for science and engineering. They can’t build churches that look worth a damn anymore either, not these days. If you live in New York and want to know how alien to any human thing a modern church can be, go by the small church of St. John the Evangelist in the Archdiocese of New York headquarters and poke your head in. It belongs in a skyscraper, or in Princess Leia’s palace.
To deploy a post-modern (or better, late-modern) line of inquiry, the difference between the medieval cathedral and the modern observation deck is not only what’s observed, but the perspective of the observer.
I’m a terrible student of architecture, so I’m overstepping my limitations here. But it strikes me that what’s at stake with the skyscraper is not the joy of observation per se, which we could gain just as easily from considering “the lilies of the field.” It’s the inherent sense of triumph of observing from 13,000 feet, and gaining a perspective on the world without effort that our ancestors only dreamed of.
For the warning about this perspective, though, I naturally turn to Chesterton, the last true medieval:
Every theologian, wanna-be theologian, a-theologian, and otherwise thinking person has one.
Discuss a point of theology long enough, and you’ll inevitably see it played. Call it Anderson’s Law: As a theological conversation grows longer, the probability of seeing the mystery card approaches one.
You’ll learn to see it coming. The shoulders shrug just a little, a sympathetic smile starts slowly forms, slow-motion starts as the words hit you: ”Well, some things are a mystery . . .”
This is a dangerous card for the theologian to play, as it functions as a bit of a trump card. Play it too early, and you short-circuit the difficult process of coming to a more robust understanding of the subject of inquiry. Don’t ever play it, and end up like Chesterton’s lunatic who tries to get the heavens into his head, only to have his head split.
With that said, here are a few of theological and a-theological frameworks and the distinct places where the mystery card gets played:
Calvinists: the existence of human responsibility
Arminians: the existence of divine sovereignty over salvation
Roman Catholics: the simultaneous presence of Christ’ body in the Eucharist and in Heaven
Anglo-Catholics: their relationship to the Reformation
Naturalists: consciousness and the existence of free will
Eastern Orthodox: I’m pretty sure this is the only card they play with.
Lutherans: how (and that!) sanctification happens
Weslyans: why sanctification doesn’t happen
Baptists: the working of the Holy Spirit
Pentecostals: the working of anything else
Dispensationalists: the Old Testament
Yes, the list is a bit of a joke. But it’s a joke to tease out the difficulty of knowing where to place our mysteries, and how many we should admit.
But seriousness aside, this is a game we can all play. Add mystery cards in the comments and I’ll update the post accordingly. Bonus points for picking on your own tradition(s).
One of the main themes of the early days of First Things’ Evangel blog was evangelicals’ complex relationship to culture.
I recently came across Evangel contributor Russell Moore’s astute analysis on the question from 2007 in the pages of Touchstone, the other ecumenical magazine of record.
Dr. Moore’s piece really needs to be read in its entirety, as he manages to thoughtfully engage the question without degenerating into overreaction or hyperbole. He is in favor of evangelical engagement with culture, but cognizant of its limitations.
But what struck me was this bit near the end:
Often at the root of so much Christian “engagement” with pop culture lies an embarrassment about the oddity of the gospel. Even Christians feel that other people won’t resonate with this strange biblical world of talking snakes, parting seas, floating axe-heads, virgin conceptions, and emptied graves. It is easier to meet them “where they’re at,” by putting in a Gospel According to Andy Griffith DVD (for the less hip among us) or by growing a soul-patch and quoting Coldplay at the fair-trade coffeehouse (for the more hip among us).
Knowing Andy Griffith episodes or Coldplay lyrics might be important avenues for talking about kingdom matters, but let’s not kid ourselves. We connect with sinners in the same way Christians always have: by telling an awfully freakish-sounding story about a man who was dead, and isn’t anymore, but whom we’ll all meet face-to-face in judgment.
This is a crucial point, and similar to one I made while speaking to a group of homeschoolers. I argued that their unique experience as homeschoolers—a sometimes derided and disenfranchised population—would better prepare them for being comfortable in the discomfort that can come with believing and proclaiming the remarkable and surprising fact of the Gospel.
But for those of us who work in the church, Christian universities, or Christian non-profits, we tend to lose sight not only of the “freakishly bizarre” nature of the gospel, but also the weird nature of the lives that bear witness to it.
Charlotte Allen has a long piece in The Weekly Standard that highlights the contemporary dating game and the pathologies—there’s really no other word—that drive it. From her conclusion:
The whole point of the sexual and feminist revolutions was to obliterate the sexual double standard that supposedly stood in the way of ultimate female freedom. The twin revolutions obliterated much more, but the double standard has reemerged in a harsher, crueler form: wreaking havoc on beta men and on beta women, too, who, as the declining marriage rate indicates, have trouble finding and securing long-term mates in a supply-saturated short-term sexual marketplace. Gorgeous alpha women fare fine—for a few years until the younger competition comes of age. But no woman, alpha or beta, seems able to escape the atavistic preference of men both alpha and beta for ladylike and virginal wives (the Darwinist explanation is that those traits are predictors of marital fidelity, assuring men that the offspring that their spouses bear are theirs, too). And every aspect of New Paleolithic mating culture discourages the sexual restraint once imposed on both sexes that constituted a firm foundation for both family life and civilization.
Allen’s basic point is that social Darwinism has triumphed in the urban dating scene: the beta men get left behind, while the alpha men get women and then teach others to do the same, deploying sales methods and psychological assumptions similar to the get-rich-quick movement (not to mention the pop-psychology, chicken-soup self-help movement).
Conor Friedersdorf takes on Allen for her hasty adoption of the “pseudo science” of the pickup artists. And while he’s probably right to do so, his rejoinder ignores Allen’s references to evolutionary psychology and to Rossie’s mentor, F. Roger Devlin. While she derides the form it takes among the pick-up artists, her basic argument seems to be that evolutionary psychology explains the behavior of those involved in the culture, even if it doesn’t work.
And contra Conor, I think the rising marriage age supports her case more than he is willing to grant. We don’t have to think that there was a golden age of marriage (as the marriage movement is sometimes thought to believe in) to see that something significant has gone on in how men and women relate to each other. Even if we decide that pickup artists are a fringe community, they are a more liberal fringe than that of fifty years ago. And while there could be other reasons for the rising marrying age (economic reasons, especially), people aren’t exactly remaining celibate while they wait to tie the knot—not to mention that our current concept of marriage is profoundly different that fifty years ago.
Heather MacDonald’s latest piece at National Review explores some of the questions surrounding gay marriage, and the difficulties that arise when parental status and identity is established solely by intent, rather than by biology–as it is in the case of homosexual marriage.
The question, of course, that MacDonald has to answer is why this separation matters at all. She answers:
The institutionalized severing of biology from parenthood affirms a growing trend in our society, that of men abandoning their biological children. Too many men now act like sperm donors: they conceive a children then largely disappear, becoming at best intermittent presences in their children’s lives.
If parental status is a matter of intent, however, not of genes, absent fathers can say: “I never intended to take on the role of that child’s parent; therefore I’m not morally bound to act as a parent.”
The separation of biology and parenthood, then, has two problematic effects: on the one hand, it undercuts the argument that fathers have obligations to any offspring they do not conceive intentionally, further perpetuating the social problems absenteeism has caused. On the other hand, it undercuts the complementarity that men and women have in raising children, a complementarity that MacDonald thinks can be established even at a biological level.
And if it’s right, it might have significant repercussions for younger Christians who want to claim that they are pro-life while still allowing homosexual marriage. The force of MacDonald’s piece is that she establishes a link between the technological subordination of procreation (as expressed through making procreation only valid when it is intentional) with marriage practices, arguing that, “The primary challenge to traditional notions of parenthood comes from gay conception, not gay marriage.”
“This is not the golden age of virtue.” So opens Professor J. Budziszewski’s “Vicious Circles, Virtuous Circles, and Getting from One to the Other,” one of the afternoon lectures at the Summons of Freedom Conference.
Budziszewski is interested in decline, and that of two sorts: personal moral decline, and (the related, but not necessarily attendant) social decline. He considers several ways of describing the process of change before settling on the intractable problem of circles. Parents fail to raise their children to be virtuous, those children (not knowing how to be virtuous) do the same, and the perpetual cycle continues. Budziszewski examines the nature of the virtues and their interdependence to more precisely understand this process.
Of course, it was precisely on the question of how we escape vicious circles–socially and personally–and become virtuous that Budziszewski declined to give an answer, musing instead that outside of special grace the process of moral and social change didn’t seem possible. But Budziszewski’s presentation critiqued those strategies that attempt to solve this dilemma through utilizing bad motives to keep worse ones down.
Consider, for instance, the classical notion of the pursuit of glory. Budziszewski pointed out that it had been deployed to motivate people to seek a higher and more virtuous way of life. Closer to our own time, Adam Smith might be said to foster a love of gain, and to subordinate and utilize morality to that end.
But such strategies of using glory, or gain, as motivations toward virtue have multiple problems: for one, they are incomplete insofar as they are not able to account for what merits glory. More importantly, as Augustine points out, by using these bad motives we eventually destroy the vestiges of virtue that we attempted to preserve. While they may offer a sense of stability or permanence, they are not structurally sound. As Budziszewski puts it, if you use dragons to keep wolves under control, you eventually have to reward the dragons. And eventually they get so large that they do what they want.
Budziszewski’s warning is worth bearing in mind. Insofar as the social order is not founded on the transformative grace of Jesus Christ—and hence has the perfection of virtue–it is faulty. And the virtuous circles that we attempt to build will inevitably be proximate.
But Mary Keys’ paper had me at the title: “Why Justice is Not Enough: Aquinas and Wilberforce on Mercy, Love, and the Common Good.”
Putting the patron saint of Catholic philosophy in dialog with a self-described Protestant evangelical politician? Yes, please.
There is a principle in the Western tradition of political theory that justice is a sufficient virtue for the proper operation of the political order. Keys however, develops Aquinas’ thought that justice is not sufficient, but that mercy and love are essential for political action and behavior. I won’t recount the full argument here, but found it interesting that for Aquinas, justice (in an absolute sense) exists because of a prior sense of mercy.
As contingent creatures, we exist only by virtue of a prior act of goodness. We are not ultimately owed our own being, yet once created, and so the first movement of the universe is one of mercy and caritas. Justice and its pursuit in this context, then, is at least logically dependent upon this prior working.
Keys wants to defend mercy and justice as necessary for the proper functioning of the political order. And occasionally it is recognized as such, as when India gave Mother Theresa a state funeral for her work in Calcutta.
In some ways—and these reflections are my own—the fact that mercy and caritas precede justice protects the transcendent basis of justice, and preserves justice from being “de-natured” and subordinated to the state. Keys, in holding up Wilberforce as an exemplar of someone who pursues justice through mercy and caritas, argues that Wilberforce realized that he needed to pursue cultural change prior to the political change.
In this way, Keys seemed to be an ally against the politicization of every aspect of human life. Mercy and caritas are crucial for the political order because the human is a transcendent creature, created in the image of God—which mercy and caritas point toward.
Just a quick note that I will be attending the Summons of Freedom Conference this coming weekend. If there are any other First Thoughts readers attending, do make sure you let me know in the comments, as I’d love to meet you.
The annual gathering, which is put on by excellent Center for Ethics and Culture at Notre Dame, is now in its tenth year. This years theme is “Virtue, Sacrifice, and the Common Good.” Conferees will “reflect upon political and legal questions having to do with the very nature of the political common good, the particular conflicts that arise in trying to achieve it, and the precarious situation of freedom in the democracies of advanced modernity.”
No recent essay I have read captures the potential intrusion on natural human life by political borders better than Joshua Treviño’s recent piece for The New Ledger. It is not a policy proposal, or even a philosophical defense of any particular position on border enforcement. Instead, Treviño provides an intimate account of life on a particular section of the US-Mexico border. As such, it functions as the datum which philosophical and political conversation seeks to understand and integrate.
Treviño’s central theme is the absurd treatment of American citizens by border patrol agents and the infringement upon civil liberties that routinely occurs. Such behavior rejects in principle the presumption of innocence by American citizens. Trevino alludes to the rationale for these restrictions—heavy protection at the borders leads to freedom of travel and freedom from harm within—but is worried about the loss of the cultural unity of the region. Writes Treviño, “All this is prelude: the Rio Grande Valley from which half my family hails has always been a communal and cultural unity, regardless of its political division. Now, terribly, senselessly, that political division threatens to override all else.”
It is important to properly constrain Treviño’s worry. He is not troubled by the existence of the border per se. In fact, he opens with the interesting argument that the border has played a unifying function and has shaped the culture of that region. Instead, it is the “regime of fear, control, and interdiction” that is Treviño’s concern, and rightly so. Treviño’s concern is not to articulate all that proper border enforcement entails, but rather to specify what it does not entail.
Of course, many conservatives have anxieties over the existence of the border out of a lurking fear that progressives would undo it, and that in doing so, would undo America as we know it. It is possible that this fear is based on some sort of xenophobia, but the desire to preserve a border might have deeper and better grounding than race. In Ways of Judgment, Oliver O’Donovan writes:
What is it that gives unity to these various focal points of social tradition? They are likely to have certain things in common: the use of a language, the observance of religion, beliefs that are accepted as premises for discussion among strangers, a mythology, a literature . . . and economic interaction. All peoples have some such cultural features that unify them internally, though there are great diffferences in what carries most weight . . . yet a people is more than an ensemble of its cultural features. These are simply the precondition, the channels worn by habits of communication that have brought the people to birth. To be a people is to put these culturally unifying features to the service of collaborative action, and that is what makes the difference between a group of homogeneous tribes and a viable political entity.
In framing the possibilities of common action, one feature has come to assume a special significance: a defined territory. The more complex the content of the tradition, the more varied culturally and racially it has grown, the more depends on this formal mode of demarcation. There was a “king of the French” before France had defined borders; but today we depend on the borders to know who the French are. Territory gives objective form to the infinitely varied cultural elements that comprise the people’s communications. This point is illustrated by the conquest-traditions of Israel. It was not through the promised land that Isreal became a people; it was a people already, by descent from the patriarchs, by the common experience of Egyptian bondage and miraculous delivery, by the shared nomadic existence in the desert, and supremely by the law. Territorial existence was an enhancement of Israel’s identity, one which the prophets never forgot could be reversed if it were abused. It offered opportunities for growth and maturity, for establishing a civilization with internal disciplines of cultural transmission and ordered relations to surrounding peoples. Territorial boundaries mark the division between the domestic and the foreign. But the effect of the division is not merely to set a limit. It is to form a horizon which will stimulate neighborly relations between the people and other peoples. It defines a “You” in relation to which the people acts as a corporate “I.”
O’Donovan highlights, I think, the difficulty that Treviño’s essay so ably teases out: The pre-political community that exists on the border has been severed by the loss of neighborly relations between the United States and Mexico, but the border also preserves the continuity of the American experience. Because America has always been so culturally diverse and pluriform, it has needed a stronger sense of borders than other cultures for its self-identity. Conservative anxieties about illegal immigration and border enforcement are grounded in this desire not for a uniform culture, but rather the communication of distinctly American traditions to continue.
But Treviño’s point should be heeded: The manner in which we conduct border enforcement is intrinsically connected to our self-identity as Americans, for our identity has always been shaped by our relationships to other countries. Our loss of neighborliness, then, is more than procedurally tied to the infringement of the civil liberties. They are substantially connected. As our internal communication of American traditions weakens, anxiety about the public symbols will increase, and the state’s role will inevitably expand.
In this regard, despite Treviño’s initial caveat that he differs from conservatives on this point, his essay ends up being deeply conservative, for it defends the pre-political communities that shape life and that legitimize our political institutions. These pre-political communities are precisely what conservatives have attempted to preserve and ground public policy in, with varying degrees of success. And they are what conservatives must promote and defend if the growth of government is to be slowed.