I’m very pleased to announce that Mark Bauerlein will join the First Things editorial staff as our senior editor, beginning in August. Mark has taught English literature at Emory University for twenty-five years. Along with a tranche of scholarly books, he’s the author of The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (2008). We published his autobiographical essay, “My Failed Atheism,” in our May 2012 issue. From 2003 to 2005, he served as the Director of the Office of Research and Analysis at the National Endowment for the Arts. Mark is a veteran of many academic battles, always struggling to keep the human in the humanities and the actually-knowing-something in knowledge. I’m grateful he’s willing to join our little band of theological rebels against the secular spirit of the age.
The winds of change seem to be blowing, however gently. This reported in The Economist: “In 2013 the Church of England started training 113 20-somethingsthe most for two decades (although still too few to replace retirees). The number of new trainees for the Roman Catholic priesthood in England and Wales has almost doubled since 2003, with 63 starting in 2012, and their average age has fallen.” Maybe what’s stirring is the Holy Spirit.
Gene Robinson, the first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church, USA, is circling the track yet again. Having divorced his wife in 1986, he recently announced that he’ll be divorcing his husband. He wrote, “My belief in marriage is undiminished by the reality of divorcing someone I have loved for a very long time, and will continue to love even as we separate.” Yes, undiminished by the reality of divorce. One has the distinct impression that reality has very little to do with Bishop Robinson’s beliefs about marriage, or anything else.
I don’t want to seem to be singling out Episcopalian bishops. Italian Catholic ones can also provide . . . how shall I say it . . . entertainment. Nunzio Galantino, bishop of the southern diocese of Cassano all’Jonio and secretary general of the Italian bishops’ conference, recently told a journalist: “My wish for the Italian Church is that it is able to listen without any taboo to the arguments in favor of married priests, the Eucharist for the divorced, and homosexuality.” I’m not familiar with Italian slang, but is “without any taboo” a euphemism for “with heartfelt agreement”? He went on to say, “With Pope Francis the Italian Church has an extraordinary opportunity to reposition itself on spiritual, moral, and cultural beliefs.” Reposition? Have the successors to the apostles been reduced to brand managers?
The hot air from Bishop Galantino is evidence that bishops in Europe are facing their Vichy moment. When Hitler overran France, it was a time for rebranding. Many clerical leaders in the Church felt they had to reconcile themselves to reality. The spirit of the age seemed to belong to fascism. It was to be a thousand-year Reich, after all. So it was a time when many listened “without taboo” to arguments in favor of complicity with Nazi domination of Europe. That complicity, that “repositioning” of the Church, compromised and damaged Catholicism in France. St. John XXIII, then Angelo Roncalli, was appointed papal nuncio to newly liberated France. His task: to save what could be saved. One of his most important achievements was to negotiate the “retirement” of the bishops who had collaborated. It’s an approach to restoring the integrity of the Church worth keeping in mind as our “leaders” encourage us to relax and make ourselves comfortable in today’s post-Christian culture.
Which brings to mind an observation by G. K. Chesterton: The Church “is the only thing that frees a man from the degrading slavery of being a child of his age.” And elsewhere: “We do not want, as the newspapers say, a Church that will move with the world. We want a Church that will move the world.”
But theological liberalism can’t resist servitude. One of its key tenets is that the modern era reveals something new about the human condition that requires the Church and doctrine to change in fundamental ways.
The eighteenth-century French writer and dramatist Nicolas Chamfort wrote: “Nearly all people live in slavery for the reason the Spartans gave us as the cause of the slavery of the Persians: they are not able to utter the syllable ‘no.’ To be able to utter this word and to be able to live alone are the only two ways to preserve one’s own freedom and identity.” True as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go far enough. To say “no” one must first give oneself to a higher “yes.”
As long as I’m correcting great writers, let me quote John Henry Newman. He wrote, “The love of our private friends is the only preparatory exercise for the love of all men.” Only? I’d add the love of our families and of our neighborhoods, the love of our regions and of our nations. There’s a manifold pedagogy of love that prepares our hearts for higher love of God and others in him.
I came across Chamfort’s observation about slavery and freedom in The Hall of Uselessness, a wonderful collection of essays by Simon Leys, the pen name of scholar and literary critic Pierre Ryckmans. He was an early critic of Maoist China, and in The Hall of Uselessness one finds a number of essays criticizing the craven and myopic enthusiasm of French intellectuals for communist China. There are also very fine critical essays on great modern French authors, as well as acerbic pieces taking on the puerile atheism of folks like Christopher Hitchens. Highly recommended.
In the same volume, Leys ends a long essay on French writer and Nobel Prizewinner André Gide with a particularly memorable quote from St. Augustine: “People have such a love for truth that when they happen to love something else, they want it to be the truth; and because they do not wish to be proven wrong, they refuse to be shown their mistake. And so, they end up hating the truth for the sake of the object which they have come to love instead of the truth.” This, Leys suggests, helps us understand why intellectuals can become so willfully loyal to their “truths” and blind to realitya condition he thinks Gide sadly exemplified.
Union Theological Seminary here in New York has taken a stand. It’s divesting from fossil fuels. Investment chairman Michael Johnston intones, “Climate change is affecting this globe. It’s killing people, and it’s going to destroy what the world looks like as we know it. As a seminary we have a moral obligation to no longer profit from the production of fossil fuels.” Presumably that means divesting from companies that are engaged directly in coal, gas, and oil exploration and production, though not their use. After all, the latter would entail divesting from the modern economy as a whole, since so many companies gain a distinct advantage from using gas-powered trucks rather than horse-drawn wagons, thus profiting from the production of fossil fuels.
Conceits about “fossil fuel” divestment aside, what comes through loud and clear is moral self-congratulation. Seminary President Serene Jones: “As a seminary dedicated to social justice, we have a critical call to live out our values in the world. Climate change poses a catastrophic threat, and as stewards of God’s creation we simply must act.” Indeed, and one thinks of the catastrophic threat posed by our all-too-human anger, bitterness, greed, lust, and will to power. But worry not, rumor has it the trustees of Union Theological Seminary are considering a resolution to divest from the human condition.
Meanwhile, Adam Laufer, co-CEO of MJ Holdings, wants us to invest in a great new industry: the production and sale of marijuana. Twenty-two states and the District of Columbia now allow the cultivation and sale of medical marijuana. Colorado and Washington allow its recreational use. Worried about the fact that marijuana is still listed as an illegal drug under federal law? Laufer reassures us, “The Obama administration and the DOJ have issued the Cole Memo, which deprioritizes federal criminal prosecutions of marijuana crimes, when commercial operators are operating in accordance with state laws.” The authorities are rolling a great opportunity for smart investors! Laufer promises a return of 10 to 18 percent!
Mark this down as exhibit A in the demonstration that there is a very close and comfortable fit between the lifestyle libertinism nearly all progressives endorse and the quest for profit. Exhibit B: the buying and selling of men’s sperm and women’s eggs. Exhibit C: contracted surrogacy.
Liberals always think of conservatives as capitalist tools. But they’re blind to the many ways their efforts to bulldoze traditional morality remove constraints on buying and selling and pave the way for the triumph of the market as society’s dominant organizing principle.
In June, an Alberta judge determined that a twelve-year-old transgendered boy (in this case, a girl who considers herself a boy) must have the right to a new birth certificate with a new gender assignment. Prior to the judgment, Alberta law only allowed for new birth certificates if sex change surgery had been performed. The judge deemed that restriction to be a violation of “the rights of transgender people.” We get to be who we think we areand we have the right to compel everybody to agree with us. Ah, progress.
Faithful America is a 501(c)(3) organization that describes itself as “the largest and fastest growing online community of Christians putting faith into action for social justice.” Its main strategy is to mount a number of “campaigns” involving petitions people can sign online. It’s striking that the overwhelming majority of campaigns concern gay rights or some aspect of today’s quest for sexual freedom. Sadly, the noble legacy of Christian progressivism and the Social Gospel movement has devolved to a narrow set of priorities that has everything to do with upper-middle-class preoccupations and very little to do with the needs of the poor.
F. A. Hayek observed that conservatism has little or no placeor at least no positive placefor change. “It has, for this reason, been the fate of conservatism to be dragged along a path not of its own choosing.” True, but do we ever reliably go down paths of our own choosing? Take life as an example. The path toward death isn’t one I’ve chosen, and dragging my feet to slow my way toward that destination strikes me as exactly the right reaction. When it comes to death, I’m very reactionary.
The Philosopher’s Mail is a new website (philosophersmail.com) that takes a stab at intellectual populism. Run by Alain de Botton, a popular pop-philosopher, the articles are in the “What Would Socrates Say?” genre. About travel, for example, we learn the “outer journey” must align with the “inner journey.” Botton means well. He wants Everyman to lead an examined life. But to paraphrase Dorothy Parker on Katharine Hepburn, Botton has a spiritual depth that runs the gamut from A to B.
Sometimes your readers know you only too well. That’s the case with Andrew Wilson, a theology student who seems to know the scene. He recently posted a particularly astute column: “Twenty-Five Bloggers in One Sentence Each.” Here’s his take on me: “You’d think it was conservatives that didn’t like poor people, but it’s actually progressives, so ha.” I’m not sure I could have said it better. In fact, didn’t I say pretty much that a few items above?
Wilson has a take on other First Things regulars. Carl Trueman: “No one after tasting Old Calvinism desires New, for he says, ‘the Old is better.’” I think that’s best understood as the Scotch whiskey principle of theology. Peter Leithart: “I wouldn’t have a problem with Protestants if they were all like me.” Wait a minute, isn’t that the first principle of Protestantism?
I apologize for the snide Catholic triumphalism of that rhetorical questionor at least half-apologize.
On the topic of Catholic triumphalism: Not a few Protestant friends complain that First Things is a Catholic party with a few Protestants and Jews invited. That always makes me wince, because it’s not altogether false. After all, the magazine was begun by a man who had just published a book titled The Catholic Moment. But I hope the two forceful essays about Protestantism in this issue convince readers that it’s also not altogether true. Carl Trueman’s powerful argument that any who care for the future of Christianity in the post-Christian West should stand with Calvin would suggest that we don’t make our invitations conditional. There’s no requirement that one kowtow to Catholicism.
“Prostitutes and drug dealers are set to give Britain a £10bn boost.” That’s because the data crunchers are adding various illegal activities to their estimates of annual GDP. Austria, Slovenia, Finland, Sweden, Norway, and other countries are doing the same. Arriving at accurate estimates won’t be easy, given the fact that drug dealers and prostitutes don’t report their activities to local officials. There’s a good bit of tricky guesswork when it comes to tricks turned.
Patrik Schumacher is a new star in the architectural firmament. He propounds “parametricism.” Deconstructivism and postmodernism? They’re just “transitional episodes that ushered in” Patrik Schumacher’s, er, parametricism. And what’s this Great New Thing? As best I can tell, it means having a “swarm” of architectural components creating a “complex physiognomy,” which is to say lots of curves.
Schumacher says his goal is to create a building that “pushes the communicative capacity of the built environment.” That rings false. Michelangelo’s Piazza del Campidoglio in Rome communicates quite effectively, thank you. The same goes for the Mall in Washington, D.C., as well as the staid wall of classical brick apartment buildings lining Park Avenue north of 59th Street in New York. In different ways, those built environments are saying that wealth and power must accept the constraints and responsibilities of reason and proportioned beauty.
What Schumacher really means is that his approach changes what buildings communicate. “I find symbols of national identity and culture to be a distraction. They impede participation in globalized cultures.” Roughly translated: Schumacher wants to communicate to us the postmodern fact that wealth and power refuse all traditional constraints and responsibilities. Parametricism is the style of a meretricious architectural elite.
On April 29, Biola University in La Mirada, California, hosted “The Future of Protestantism,” an evening event that First Things cosponsored with the Davenant Trust and Biola’s Torrey Honors Institute. The occasion for it was Peter Leithart’s provocative column “The End of Protestantism,” published on firstthings.com late last year. Along with Leithart, another First Things writer, Carl Trueman, and Biola professor Fred Sanders gave compelling opening speeches. A revised version of Peter’s remarks appears in this issue. The discussion that followed was substantive. Real theology. Really debatedwith passion.
The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty had its annual Canterbury Medal Dinner in mid-May. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks received the award this year in recognition of his outspoken defense of religious liberty in Great Britain and elsewhere. His address reminded me that he’s surely one of the great orators of our time. If you haven’t watched the video of his 2013 Erasmus Lecture, you should. It’s spellbinding.
Late May and early June saw two very fine book talks at the First Things office. John Beaumont presented The Mississippi Flows into the Tiber: A Guide to Notable American Converts to the Catholic Church, providing a wonderful tour of the saints and rogues who have found their way into Holy Mother Churchincluding quite a few people associated with First Things. Jennifer Fulwiler talked about her spiritual autobiography, Something Other Than God: How I Passionately Sought Happiness and Accidentally Found It. It’s a beautifully written book about which she spoke beautifully. You can follow Jennifer on her popular blog, ConversionDiary.com.
Ryan Neal, a devoted First Things reader (a pleonasm, I realize), would like to start a ROFTERS group in upstate South Carolina, which South Carolinians will recognize as the region encompassing Clemson, Greenville, Anderson, and Spartanburg. If you’d like to get together with serious-minded people who want to talk about religion, culture, and public life, please get in touch. He can be reached at email@example.com. Once y’all get going, please let me know, and we’ll put you on the website along with our other ROFTERs groups.
Another loyal reader, William Fisher, would like to organize a ROFTERs group in southern Nevada. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Again, please let me know once things get going, and I will list the group on our website.
If you’re a reader who would like to organize a ROFTERs group in your area, drop us a line at email@example.com.
while we’re at it sources: England’s priests: economist.com, April 19, 2014. No more, Nunzio: thetablet.co.uk, May 13, 2014. Chesterton: Twelve Modern Apostles and Their Creeds and New Witness. Fossil fuels: utsnyc.edu/divestment, June 10, 2014. Transgender birth certificates: thestar.com, June 16, 2014. Hayek: The Constitution of Liberty. Traveling philosophy: philosophersmail.com, “Where to Go on Holiday and Why.” Prostitutes and drug dealers: Financial Times, May 29, 2014. Parametricism: Architectural Record, March 19, 2014.