R. R. Reno’s “The Nazi Taboo” section in his “Public Square” (December) immediately piqued my interest, but I am still not sure where the thesis was headed. Is the sudden emergence of ISIS an example of our vulnerability to an “upsurge in primitive urges?” Certainly it has conjured up deep passions and primitive bloodlust. But not a word of this parallel to Nazism was mentioned. I would agree that thin streams of Marxism still run through our Western consciousness, but not necessarily as the author described it: that reason should govern human affairs.
I would point more to the fact that the overriding materialistic thinking of today continues the basic communistic assumption that people are simply and universally motivated by money. All the world’s evil stems from the unequal distribution of goods. The basic problem of man is economic. We see it in American domestic politics. “It’s the economy, stupid!” We see it in our foreign policy. “If only young Arab men had jobs, they wouldn’t go on jihad.” We see it in education. “Everybody needs to go to college (. . . so they can make more money.)” We see it in social theory. “People steal because they are poor.” (I would counter that people are poor, many times over, because they steal.) We see it in the field of law with its differing standards of justice for those of poor socioeconomic background. I see it in my field of history with its incessant resorting to economic bean counting as the key to understanding people and events.
The basic problem of man, as every Christian knows (or should know), is moral. The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it? The genius of our U.S. Constitution is that it began from this basic truth. Rational materialism has no such understanding of man and is doomed by its wishful thinking otherwise.
R. R. Reno replies:
Maynard Nordmoe raises important points. The first concerns Marxism. I’m convinced it’s dead as a political economy. That said, the underlying Enlightenment vision of society governed by reason remains strong and seems to be getting stronger. The idea of a planned economy has migrated into that of a planned culture. Political correctness is an elaborate effort of cultural engineering that’s doomed to fail, just as socialist economies failed. We see as much on our tony college campuses and other bastions of progressivism where the cultural engineering promises racial harmony and the erasure of any male-female difference through speech codes, indoctrination, and 24/7 intimidation of dissent. Success is unlikely. Human beings have deep moral and spiritual needs that must be addressed, not suppressed or managed or provided thin pseudo-fulfillment.
Perhaps that’s why Nazism is such a threat in our technocratic age. It does not see man as economic. Quite the contrary, German Nazism’s genius was to see that the human animal transcends his materiality. And his reason as well: The heart has its reasons that reason doesn’t know, as Pascal observed. Those reasons unknown to reason are dark as well as light. They draw us down as well as raise us up, as, again, Pascal recognized. Nazism was a lowering “transcendence.” Christianity (and some other religions and philosophies) offer an elevating transcendence. Today, Nazism is a danger (here I mean the lowering ecstasies it promised, not its peculiar doctrines). That’s because our universities and other organs of culture in the West attack all historical modes of elevating transcendence. Metaphysical claims are forbidden, to say nothing of theology. Meanwhile, our postmodern culture plays footsie with dark powers it imagines to be light pleasures, harmless fantasies, or old bogies now neutered by cool analysis. One sees this in endless talk of sex, but also in identity politics and homages to power that one finds in today’s academic literature.
Nordmoe is right. We are not utility-maximizers. We are not happy to be parts of a rational, material social machine. A Muslim in France knows that. So does a Muslim in the United States. And having reasons reason does not know, our postmodern culture leads him into the arms of those who take dark powers seriously, deadly seriously. It is telling that the band playing at the Bataclan theater where ISIS terrorists killed more than one hundred was Eagles of Death Metal, an instance of our Western dreamlike fantasy that we can make dark powers emotionally satisfying for entertainment but otherwise politically and spiritually harmless.
We need to wake up. Reason cannot engineer satisfactions to our deepest human longings. The only cure for false, dehumanizing transcendence is a true, humanizing one.
As a Catholic school parent, I enjoyed reading Charles Glenn’s optimistic assessment of the future of religious schools in “Faith-Based Resistance” (December). As Glenn notes, religious schools have a strong track record of promoting goals that secularists claim to support, and it’s heartening to consider that they might, on those grounds, be defended from progressive schemes to undermine the integrity of their mission.
I still have my doubts, however. Progressives clearly realize that parents are using religious schools as a sanctuary, hoping to shield their children from the materialistic culture and anti-traditional social agenda that have overwhelmed the public schools. But is that really something secular progressives want to support? And is it likely that they will be placated by studies showing religious schools’ success in promoting “tolerance” and “civic engagement”? That’s hard to believe, given how hollow the secular commitment to tolerance has proven to be. Isn’t religious dogma exactly the sort of thing many secularists don’t want tolerated?
Parents may trust religious schools to provide them with viable alternatives to our aggressively secularized public school system. It’s great to hear that some legislators have been persuaded to see things in a similar light. But in a take-no-prisoners culture war, it seems almost too much to hope that education could be the place where religious conservatives and liberal progressives can carve out common ground.
university of st. thomas
saint paul, minnesota
Charles Glenn replies:
Rachel Lu suggests that I may be too optimistic about the prospects for faith-based schools, and perhaps she is right. I’m a glass-half-full kind of guy. But my hope is not based on any change of heart on the part of secular progressives. After all, it was through political and legal struggles over many years, and as a result of compromises, that other Western democracies recognized the pluralistic nature of a free society and adopted policies protecting the rights of parents and of educators to maintain and receive public funding for faith-based schools. The Dutch had their seventy-year schoolstrijd before that compromise was achieved, the Belgians and French their luttes scolaires, and so forth in more than a dozen other countries. Now they have much less conflict over schooling than we have grown accustomed to in the U.S.
So it is a case of agreeing to disagree and of seeking to reduce conflict by allowing educators to create distinctive schools and allowing parents to choose among those schools without financial penalty. My message last month at the global congress on Catholic education in Rome was that the danger is that schools will lose their distinctiveness, educators will lose their nerve, and parents will settle for education that does not challenge the surrounding culture.
Colin Moran challenges steadfast Christians—orthodox “conservatives”—to reclaim the high ground seized by “countercultural” and now domineering liberalism (“Recovering Creativity,” December). The “family resemblance among the fields liberals dominate” in corporate America, the arts, and academia, he explains, is that “all are associated with innovation or self-expression—what popular culture refers to as ‘creativity.’” There is much to sympathize with in Moran’s analysis, but he too quickly cross-wires this package with the thinking of emeritus Pope Benedict XVI, who foresees a shrinking of the Church into “creative minorities” who “will ultimately convert worldly decline into fresh vitality.”
In fact, it is Benedict who is countercultural. He is not in step with the new normal of only dynamic imagination, innovation, and self-expression. Instead, he grounds creative renewal and true self-identity with conversion toward the other and the Other: “Man does not find salvation in a reflective finding of himself but in the being-taken-out-of-himself that goes beyond reflection—not in continuing to be himself, but in going out from himself. . . . Man finds his center of gravity, not inside, but outside himself.” We can agree with much of Moran’s thesis, but overall it simply is not true that the dominant tribe of postmodernity—in academia, Silicon Valley, and the arts—is creative. They are self-expressive and innovative, yes, but not truly creative. The resemblance among “the fields liberals dominate” is less a “family resemblance” than it is the postmodern new normal of academic overspecializations, flat-earth narratives, transformer toys, special effects media, and individualized opposable-thumb electronics.
And speaking of families: It is the formation of real families that is truly creative. Liberal creativity, on the other hand, reveals itself in its attempt to redefine the family, as in Obergefell v. Hodges. Culturally speaking, while the “relative infertility of the orthodox is puzzling” to Moran, the actual infertility of radical liberalism should not be graffitied over Benedict’s prophetic message. The mother who raises (rather than aborts) a Down syndrome child is falsely made equivalent “in other contexts, with creativity” (not by Moran, but by the self-defined creative class). How long must we endure the agenda of plundered vocabulary as in gay, family, orientation—and now creativity? Asked what he would do to save his collapsing civilization, Confucius replied, “I would restore the meaning of words.”
Peter D. Beaulieu
Colin Moran replies:
I enjoy denigrating liberalism as much as anyone. In fact, I belong to a dinner club whose conversation consists exclusively of such denigration. But to my mind the important question for believers is not whether liberalism is creative but whether orthodoxy is.
One need not look far in the average workplace to find people listless in their work or human relationships, occupied but not engaged, bitter without any discernible grievance. I would suggest that many of these inflammations, sometimes so difficult to fathom, arise from people’s inability or unwillingness to cultivate their own creative potential.
The orthodox sometimes speak as if liberalism appeals only to man’s ignoble instincts. But perhaps one reason liberalism exerts such magnetic force is that it appreciates the urgency of modern man’s desire to make a worthwhile print of himself on the world. And maybe one reason orthodox culture has lost its standing in the world’s ongoing conversation about how to live well is that it does not affirm this instinct as it should.
Pope Benedict evinced more awareness of this particular deficit in orthodox culture than did either his predecessor or successor. As Peter Beaulieu notes, he did not of course encourage believers to idealize narcissistic self-expression or pointless novelty. But he did predict that orthodoxy would eventually adopt a more dynamic self-understanding. And dynamism was closely linked in Benedict’s mind with what we might call the mentality of the creator. For him Christian love, when authentic, naturally proliferates into the discovery, artisanship, and poetic sensibility that thicken human experience. The creative minority of Benedict’s vision is one that actually creates.
Laura and Al, both lifelong Catholics, were married in a nuptial Mass at Saint Ignatius Church. They were active in the parish as RCIA mentors and served on parish councils. Laura was a daily communicant, and both she and Al, together with their children who grew to number three, attended Sunday morning Mass. After twelve years of marriage, Al disappeared from the family he had started. He moved out and moved in with a woman he had come to know through his work.
Four years later, Al was completely estranged from his family and cohabiting with his companion, and Laura had been civilly married to a man she met through her younger child’s school. That was six years ago. Laura and her husband attend Sunday Mass together with their daughter. Laura continues her practice of daily Mass, serves on the parish council, and is on the parish school board. She desperately misses contact with the Lord Jesus in the sacrament of Holy Communion and the strength and encouragement that that contact would give her.
Laura read Archbishop Charles J. Chaput’s article, “A Jubilee Year of Mercy” (December). She says she would change the statement in the article “where annulments were not deemed possible” to “where decrees of annulment were not deemed possible.” She says that her sacramental marriage to Al was made null by Al’s actions and his continued refusal to repent. Laura says that she feels her situation is too complex—a “tangled” reality—to be reduced to Chaput’s phrase “consequences of the choices that grown people freely make.” She asks if Chaput intends his phrase “patterns of behavior that separate . . . from God” as a description of people like her. The same for “sin’s bonds are strong” and “a pastoral strategy that minimizes sin.” Laura says that she wonders if Chaput is not speaking more as a “cold warrior” who thinks that admitting her to the sacrament would be a “compromise” (“While We’re At It”) than as a member of the Church that both teaches and lives the truth.
Mark A. Scott
Archbishop Chaput replies:
Spiritual direction via a third party, and especially in a letters column, is not a prudent idea. If the person described in the letter above wishes to contact me directly and confidentially, I’ll be glad to respond. As I said in my article, divorced and civilly remarried Catholics are not excluded from the Church, and they deserve our understanding and pastoral support. Many are good and generous people, and the Church means no ill will and intends no harm by her teaching. Quite the opposite: She exists to bring all persons to salvation in the light of God’s truth.
And there’s the rub. How we “feel” about the Word of God and the teachings of his Church does not determine their truth or their applicability to our lives. The Church belongs to Jesus Christ, not to us. Ignoring what the Church teaches about proper reception of the Eucharist is really a form of asserting one’s own will against the experience and wisdom of the believing community—because that’s what the Church is, a community of believers committed to God’s truth, not just here and now, but across time. And the discipline of the Church on the matter of receiving Communion has a very long history.
The temptation of our current culture is to cast the Church as a bureaucratic obstacle to wounded persons’ desire for God, and her pastors as “cold warriors”—but this, to put it kindly, is less than honest. No pastor wants any Catholic serious about his or her faith to suffer needlessly. Life is messy, and a seasoned confessor earns a doctorate in compassion from the human complications he hears again and again under the seal.
Yet if there is such a thing as truth in our beliefs and practices, then ignoring those truths is not an expression of mercy, but a form of spiritually damaging confusion—dangerous for the individual, and dangerous for the believing community as a whole. Because truth does matter, not just in this life, but beyond it.
Roger Scruton’s essay “Living with a Mind” (December), though admirably sentimental, ought to provoke concern from any reader who recognizes the very real consequences of thinking and academic thought. Scruton divides knowledge into two parts. On the one hand is the buzzword-laden discourse of academic philosophy (and, presumably, of the critical theory–dominated humanities), while on the other is the work of uncovering “real” knowledge. This domain Scruton reserves to the thinkers in the real world who encounter the small truths that undergird day-to-day life: the common law judge, the newspaper editorialist. It is with the company of the latter category that Scruton is content to retire to a kind of invisible college of the mind, hidden from the ignorance that dominates academia.
Such a way of living sounds beatific. It is also startlingly selfish. Retreating to the countryside will do very little to stave off the left’s increasing domination of academic discourse, which in turn has very real consequences on the way in which the public’s philosophical imagination is shaped. Those natural law theorists and journalists with whom Scruton breaks bread were, before they took up their particular professions, steeped thoroughly in the philosophy of law or of politics. Those who doubt the impact of academic theory on real-world political actors should perhaps stop themselves the next time they unthinkingly condemn Elizabeth Warren for participating in a socialist worldview, or consider how Federal Reserve Chairwoman Janet Yellen has willfully bent the policy of America’s monetary regulator to her own social justice agenda.
The responsibility of conservative public intellectuals—like Scruton, like Charles Murray, like the late Bill Buckley—is to go beyond the mere love of truth for its own sake and to fight to defend how that truth is maintained and reproduced in society. Scruton may prefer his countryside life of the mind. But I suspect England is far less safe because he does.
new haven, connecticut
Roger Scruton replies:
Charles Lehman is right, of course, that we conservative intellectuals should not merely retreat into monastic isolation. Having found the place and the network to support the life of the mind, we do have a duty to pass on what we know, and to encourage young people to make use of it. But when the universities are dominated by opponents, wedded to a worldview that censors out what we would wish to teach, it is rather pointless to remain there.
My own view is that, having discovered the peace of mind that permits us to go on thinking, we should then create new circles of influence, new institutions, new ways of engaging in open discussion and free inquiry—which can be offered to those eager to participate in otherwise threatened forms of knowledge. Establishing free universities, liberal arts colleges, and summer schools is still possible in America. One or two of us are trying to do the same in Britain, too. But the work would be futile if we had not spent time and energy on the most important task, which is to find the spaces in our societies where thinking is still allowed.