An atmosphere of crisis envelops us. Political commentary has become hysterical, not just on clickbait Internet platforms, but also in prestige journals and newspapers. Authoritarian, fascist, neo-Nazi, white nationalist, neo-Bolshevik—these terms are being used liberally today. After penning a modest reconsideration of Michael Novak’s influential assessment of the spiritual and moral benefits of democratic capitalism, some readers, even friends, wrote to express their concern that I was betraying conservative principles and flirting with socialism. Many seem on edge, easily triggered.
It’s not just among the chattering class. The Public Religion Research Institute recently reported survey data from young people ages fifteen to twenty-four. They believe discrimination against Muslims, transgender people, and black Americans is getting worse. Half the female respondents who report experiencing discrimination say they face situations in which they fear for their safety. Young black Americans are the most pessimistic. Just short of three-quarters (73 percent) say Americans are very divided over race. Meanwhile, 36 percent of young whites think reverse discrimination is a serious problem. A young person’s horizon of experience is constrained. He has seen little of the world, and even the recent past is a foreign country. But how could someone, even a teenager, possibly imagine that transgender individuals face greater discrimination today than in the past? The same goes for racial discrimination. It may persist, but compared to a generation or two ago, our society is far less racially divided.
Data of this sort are dangerous signs. They do not suggest a social breakdown, but instead a cultural one. Young people are being catechized to believe injustice is on the rise. As I’ve written in the past, this catechism increasingly serves the political interests of rich liberals. They use threats of discrimination to renew support for their supereminence (“Bigot-Baiting,” August/September 2016). Adrian Vermeule frames the phenomenon more broadly as liberalism’s liturgy. We are required to recite a litany of injustices in order to renew liberalism’s claim to be the indispensable source of freedom from oppression. Either liberalism or Orval Faubus, Auschwitz, the Inquisition.
Whatever the reasons, it’s evident that young people are being tutored by a public culture that tells a narrative of social decline and frames disagreements in apocalyptic terms. This is bipartisan, it seems, though the nature of the decline and who is to blame vary. In any event, young people are now encouraged to interpret the slights they must endure and the inevitable setbacks of life as signs of deep social pathologies. They increasingly see themselves as victims, and if not victims, then victimizers, which is not a happy self-image either.
Millennials are derided as “snowflakes.” But feelings of intensified vulnerability are not limited to the young. Religious believers also see themselves under assault. Rod Dreher’s recent book, The Benedict Option, has struck a chord in large part because it is suffused with end-of-days sentiments. “If demographic trends continue, our churches will soon be empty.” “We’ve lost on every front.” “The public square has been lost.” We face a “thousand-year flood.”
When religious people talk like this, one would think secular people should be confident and secure. But that’s not the case. They express a similar pessimism. They watch The Handmaid’s Tale, a TV series based on Margaret Atwood’s imagined future of theocratic fundamentalism that forces women into sexual servitude. This dystopian pessimism was reinforced last fall when a number of powerful men were accused of sexual harassment. This led the New York Times to appoint a new “gender editor.” She told her readers that we need to battle against the “widely held perception that women’s bodies are available for public consumption.” There is peril everywhere, it seems. An academic friend tells me the administration at his university asks faculty to remove personal information from their curricula vitae—date of birth, home address, citizenship, marital status, and so forth. “It is good practice nowadays to not make this kind of personal information publically available.”
Our present cultural moment is one of suspicion, anxiety, and worries about vulnerability. Many, perhaps most, fear that they are being discriminated against and marginalized. And those who don’t? They often live in the fear that they will be accused of white privilege or some other sin. Perhaps this is to be expected. Patriarchy, racism, heteronormativity—they are said to infect everything. One area of public discourse immune from the postmodern hermeneutics of suspicion is wonkish policy debate. But this is dominated by economistic thinking, which takes as its first premise rational self-interest. Here, too, we’re pictured as eyeing each other with competitive suspicion.
The anxiety baffles me. Our society works pretty well. In many cities, crime is down dramatically, reaching historically low levels. The economy grows, both here at home and globally. American war-making has settled into a pattern of limited engagement that leaves most of us undisturbed. Meanwhile, public culture rings with warnings that things are heading toward disaster—global warming, resurgent racism, populism. Every week our office receives review copies of another book that promises to show us how to “save liberal democracy.”
Some point to social media as the source of our unease. It debases political discourse by reducing debate to brief punches and jabs. Others bemoan the general coarsening of our society. How can we feel at ease when TV hosts launch into rants liberally punctuated with f-bombs? And it’s not just celebrities posing as political commentators, but the commentators themselves, as well as those on whom they comment, including the present occupant of the White House. Then there is the general atmosphere of polarization and rancor, which beckons us to reach for rhetorical weapons. As many have pointed out, half of the country has difficulty talking to the other half. The red vs. blue divide has become cultural.
The chasm between reality and how we talk makes me skeptical of end-times rhetoric. It’s not the 1930s. Even the 1930s were not the 1930s of our overheated political imaginations. In this issue I offer a more modest explanation of our present travails (“Goodbye, Heraclitus”). Our crisis, I argue, emanates from problems in the upper reaches of society, not anger or protest from below. The unease at the top is the result of the decadence of our postwar political and cultural outlook. This failing consensus makes our leadership class increasingly unable to lead. And this, in turn, gives our present debates and challenges the atmosphere of crisis and doom. Those who need to lead us are frustrated with their ineffectiveness. They don’t like being ignored and tuned out. Like Americans abroad who imagine that foreigners will understand their English if they yell more loudly, the instinct of our elites is to insist upon their solutions (and their authority) with even greater force.
At the end of an era—and we are at the end of one, the postwar era—there’s a great deal of heat and not much light. We will have to endure a time of political and cultural disorientation. As we do so, let’s maintain our equilibrium. Our society needs people who remain focused on human realities rather than the apocalyptic visions and self-referential polemics of our disoriented elites. God’s truth illuminates reality, which means that as religious believers, we should be able to keep our cool in the present, overheated moment.
The Courage to Go Forward
The postwar consensus is decadent because it can’t address the real problems in 2018. One does not need a degree in political science to recognize that the cultural and economic decline of the middle class in America is destabilizing our society. Without a confident middle class, it becomes increasingly difficult for our political process to hold the rich upper end of society accountable to the common good. As a result, a disconnected, often arrogant oligarchy emerges, and solidarity—both cultural and economic—erodes. A healthy political culture depends upon the first-person plural, the “we.” This captures our problem. As Roger Scruton has noted on a number of occasions, the “we” has become elusive.
The obvious absurdity of the analogies to fascism popular among liberal intellectuals indicates how little we understand our circumstances. This is to be expected, perhaps. As Hegel once observed, the owl of Minerva takes flight at dusk, when the day has worked itself to its end. When it comes to public life, only retrospective vision is twenty-twenty. The present and future remain opaque. As we face the end of the postwar era, my first counsel, therefore, is humility. Let’s not imagine we know exactly what’s going on and what’s at stake.
My second counsel is courage and stamina. We are going to need them, for the dying consensus is certain to fight for its life. Peggy Noonan describes our situation well in a recent Wall Street Journal column.
Last April I had a disagreement with a friend, a brilliant journalist who said when the Trump era is over, we will turn for safety to the old ways. We will return to normalcy. Suddenly we’ll see the mystique of the solid two-term governor in the gray suit, the veteran senator with the bad haircut. After all the drama of Mr. Trump, normality will have a new charisma.
No I said, I see just the opposite. We will not go back for a long time, maybe ever. We are in the age of celebrity and the next one will and can be anything—Nobel laureate, movie star, professional wrestler, talk-show host, charismatic corporate executive.
The political class can bemoan this—the veteran journalists, the senators and governors, the administrators of the federal government. But this is a good time to remind ourselves that it was the failures of the political class that brought our circumstances about.
When at least half the country no longer trusts its political leaders, when people see the detached, cynical and uncaring refusal to handle such problems as illegal immigration, when those leaders commit a great nation to wars they blithely assume will be quickly won because we’re good and they’re bad and we’re the Jetsons and they’re the Flintstones, and while they were doing that they neglected to notice there was something hinky going on with the financial sector, something to do with mortgages, and then the courts decide to direct the culture, and the IRS abuses its power, and a bunch of nuns have to file a lawsuit because the government orders them to violate their conscience. . . .
Why wouldn’t people look elsewhere for leadership? Maybe the TV star’s policies won’t always please you, but at least he’ll distract and entertain you every day. The other ones didn’t manage that!
The idea that a lot had to go wrong before we had a President Trump, and the celebrity who follows him, has gotten lost in time, as if someone wanted to bury it.
The postwar consensus got us to this juncture. It was a bipartisan consensus that did a great deal of good in the past, which is why our leaders remain loyal to it. But it’s not right for our times, putting those disgruntled by the consensus’s present failures in a punitive mood when they go to the polls. And not just the polls. Lots of people are thinking again about whom to listen to, whom to trust. This is not without consequences. Powerful people—those often labeled the establishment—are being abandoned by readers, viewers, and voters. They will try to censure public discussion, suppress new ideas, and discredit those who challenge them because they want to retain the illusion that we have no choice but to rely on them. They’re trying to defend their monopoly on “responsible.” Angela Merkel summed up this strategy: “There is no alternative.”
The debates about our present circumstances are likely to get ugly. They already are. We’ll need fortitude to make our way forward. I pledge that First Things will not suppress fresh thinking about what has gone wrong and how to make our way forward in the dusky, final stages of the postwar consensus. There are alternatives.
One way to suppress dissent from the postwar consensus is to target challengers with charges of racism, anti-Semitism, and bigotry. I was in touch with Nigel Biggar recently. He’s the Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology at Oxford and directs the McDonald Centre for Theology, Ethics and Public Life, also at Oxford. The center sponsors a project on ethics and empire. Biggar argues for a balanced assessment of the British Empire, acknowledging its atrocities, but affirming its accomplishments and criticizing the present mentality of universal condemnation and collective guilt. This evoked an “open letter” signed by nearly sixty academics. They announced their horror that a “bigot” such as Nigel Biggar is permitted to say what he says about the British Empire.
When discussing this episode with him, I observed that charges of bigotry function these days in the same way assassinations did during the 1930s. George Orwell was disgusted by the ideological brutality he witnessed while serving on the Republican side during the Spanish Civil War. One did not discuss; one eliminated. A similar spirit is at work today. What happened to the professors at Yale targeted by black students? What happened to the Claremont McKenna dean who was forced to resign over charges of racial “insensitivity”? They were not killed. We live in a bloodless era, thankfully. Instead, they were professionally assassinated. Professor James McAdams at Marquette was assassinated in this way. Some at Duke Divinity School tried to use the method of professional execution to get rid of Paul Griffiths.
The assassinations are by no means limited to the poisoned groves of academia. We see it happening elsewhere. James Damore was recently assassinated at Google, and before him Brendan Eich at Mozilla. I’m willing to bet many readers of First Things know of someone kneecapped by charges of racism, homophobia, or other sins. These assassinations create an atmosphere of fear, which is the goal. We should be grateful that the left does not put bullets in the back of the heads of those who dissent. But let’s not kid ourselves; it is a velvet terror, but still a reign of terror.
Michael Sean Winters got into the assassination game. Our publication of Romanus Cessario’s review of a translation of Edgardo Mortara’s spiritual memoir (“Non Possumus,” February) stirred up controversy. A sharp debate followed. Winters is not interested in debate. He wants an execution. “Dominican Fr. Romanus Cessario, professor of systematic theology at St. John’s Seminary, associate editor of The Thomist, senior editor of Magnificat, and general editor of the Catholic Moral Thought series at the Catholic University of America Press, should be sacked. Not permitted to retire early. Not permitted to resign. He should be sacked and sacked publicly.” The reason for this public hanging? We need to adopt a “zero tolerance policy against anti-semitism by clerics.”
The reign of terror works in part because conservatives too often play along. They rarely rise to the defense of those targeted for assassination. Google’s parent company, Alphabet, has more than 70,000 employees. I find it hard to imagine that none are either classical liberals or conservatives who find the climate of political correctness abominable. Yet none spoke up in public. The same is true in academia. No senior faculty signed the open letter charging Biggar with bigotry. Many told him in private that they found the attacks on him regrettable. None spoke up in public.
Conservatives sometimes even reinforce the climate of fear. They do so by imposing an appearance-of-bigotry standard to police their own precincts. Their reasons are understandable. They want to protect themselves and their institutions from destruction by liberal enforcers. But in our present moment this self-policing is feckless, and it contributes to the reign of terror, which gets worse as it meets with no opposition.
As I argue in “Goodbye, Heraclitus,” the anti-discrimination imperative has become dysfunctional, as anyone paying attention knows. The Southern Poverty Law Center is the fully funded arm of the liberal establishment. It deploys its historical reputation to lend credibility to absurd charges of racism and bigotry that have nothing to do with reality and everything to do with assassinating political enemies. It’s past time for us to refuse to play along.
He was the most significant influence on my intellectual life, and I mourn his passing. I can’t think of any particular principle or substantive belief I owe to George Lindbeck’s role as one of my graduate teachers and then as mentor and friend. He was and remained a Lutheran, and he had only a small degree of sympathy for my conservative political leanings. But I can’t imagine thinking about theology the way I do without his example. He helped me see that conceptual thinking is architectural. To use a different metaphor, one Lindbeck drew from Wittgenstein, our efforts to honor and express that which is true involve more than particular, substantive affirmations; they have a formal grammar.
Born in China to parents who were Lutheran missionaries, as a teenager Lindbeck was sent to the boarding school in Korea that provided English-language education for the children of missionaries of different Protestant denominations. No doubt this contributed to his ecumenical outlook. He came to the United States for college studies at Gustavus Adolphus, an institution founded by Swedish Lutherans, from whom Lindbeck descended. After receiving his BA in 1943, he went on to study theology at Yale, getting his bachelor’s in divinity (a master’s in divinity in today’s terminology) in 1946. He focused on medieval theology and philosophy, remaining at Yale for doctoral studies. He was appointed to a junior faculty position there in the early 1950s before completing his doctorate. He retired from Yale in 1993.
Yale Divinity School during his student days was dominated by two imposing figures, H. Richard Niebuhr, Reinhold Niebuhr’s brooding and cerebral brother, and historian of theology Robert L. Calhoun. Lindbeck was profoundly influenced by Calhoun, whose papers and lecture notes he spent his retirement working to bring into order. (They were eventually published as Scripture, Creed, Theology.) Calhoun insisted upon close readings of texts. One has to know what the tradition says before one is entitled to an opinion about its merits. As a church historian he did not indulge in the modern temptations of Whig history, an approach that reads the past as, at best, a prelude to the greater achievements of the present, or, at worst, a history of errors finally corrected by our enlightened, progressive Christian outlook of today. Calhoun was also a perfectionist who rarely felt his work ready for publication.
Lindbeck had similar qualities. I can’t remember a lecture or seminar during which he ventured a judgment about whether the figure we were studying was right or wrong. He did not parse Aquinas, Rahner, and others into the parts we were supposed to affirm and what was to be discarded. He had no patience with the conceit that, after Kant, metaphysics is “impossible,” or other false truisms such as Bernard Lonergan’s disastrous distinction between “classical” and “historical” consciousness. Instead, Lindbeck wanted to think about how theologians such as Aquinas use Aristotle and other philosophical resources. We were to get “inside” the Christian theological tradition, approaching the tradition on its own terms.
This is more difficult than it sounds. For example, we’re inclined to think that someone who affirms that the bread and wine of the Eucharist are transubstantiated into Christ’s body and blood necessarily disagrees with someone who denies it. At one level, of course, he does. One is saying bread and wine are Christ’s body and blood, while the other is saying they are not. However, in any complex system of thought, the meaning of “is” and other key concepts get defined in subtle ways.
Lindbeck taught me this lesson when lecturing on an early medieval controversy between two monks, Radbertus and Ratramnus. Their dispute concerned whether or not the consecrated bread and wine is Christ’s physical body or his spiritual body. His patient unpacking of this controversy allowed me to understand his metaphor of “grammar.” Both monks wanted to affirm the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, the consensus affirmation for almost all Christians, not just in the twelfth century, but in our time as well. However, there is no consensus about what makes things real—a metaphysical question. As a consequence, it’s possible for someone to treat spiritual presence as more real than physical presence. Platonism encourages this way of thinking. The Pythagorean theorem is more “real” than any particular right-angle triangle. Others find this dissatisfying and emphasize the thatness of things, which is to say, their physical presence. This, moreover, is not just a matter of differing philosophical intuitions. The Bible suggests divergent metaphysical affirmations. The opening chapters of Genesis encourage a focus on physical presence, but Jesus’s statement that his kingdom is not of this world points toward the view that the spiritual is more real than things we can see and touch.
Soon after the final exam, I forgot the particular arguments and formulations used by Radbertus and Ratramnus. But my thinking was transformed by Lindbeck’s method of analysis, which was not unlike what one finds in John Henry Newman’s work. Both had extraordinarily subtle and careful minds. But they rejected an easy rationalism that lines up syllogisms. Newman saw that there was a gap between what we can prove and what we can get others to acknowledge as true, a gap closed by the illative sense, a power of reason that can never be formalized. Lindbeck recognized that the conceptual tools by which we construct the house of knowledge can never be purified of historical, subjective, and aesthetic influences, all of which give our arguments and analysis a taste and smell, as it were, not just intellectual force or power. As a consequence, both recognized that two people can insist upon quite different conclusions, even seemingly contradictory ones, that, on closer examination, are compatible and in some cases complementary.
Lindbeck has been hailed as one of the great ecumenists of his generation, and rightly so. He was among the first Protestant scholars to be trained by Catholic scholars, having spent two years of his doctoral studies in Toronto with Étienne Gilson and in Paris with Paul Vignaux. An official Lutheran observer at the Second Vatican Council, perhaps the most formative experience of his adult life, he participated in ecumenical dialogues for decades after the council. I admire his commitment to ecumenism. But I’ve come to see that Lindbeck’s way of parsing theological positions and arguments also encouraged an ecumenism of time, which was more important than his official ecumenical activity. He trusted in the power of God’s Word and presumed it has the power to take possession of great figures of the tradition, and lesser ones as well. Our job, therefore, is to look beyond their obvious differences to discern the inner logic of their distinctive approaches, an inner logic that seeks to honor the Logos. Yes, the Christian tradition is diverse, but insofar as its greatest representatives are animated by a common faith, the warp and woof of their theologies are often more similar than one imagines possible, given the differences in their leading concepts and dogmatic affirmations.
As I wrote last month, the modern era presents itself as the fulfillment of history. We are told that ours is “a world come of age.” Every era is unique, of course. For example, there can be no doubt that the recovery of Aristotle in the Christian West beginning in the twelfth century stamped the thought of Thomas Aquinas. But however much authority St. Thomas accorded to the Philosopher, the Bible remained the sacred code. In that sense, St. Thomas was more a contemporary of the apostolic generation than an Aristotelian, Augustinian, or man of the thirteenth century.
When I look back, Lindbeck taught me this: If we will but form our hearts and minds in accord with the sacred code, we too can live in accord with those who saw and touched and heard the Incarnate Son of God. And those who have come before us endeavoring to do the same are our spiritual companions, however historically, philosophically, and even theologically remote they remain. I’m grateful for this lesson. May he rest in peace.
WHILE WE'RE AT IT
♦ Bishop Franz-Josef Bode of Osnabruck, vice president of the German bishop’s conference, recently urged discussion about whether the Church should bless same-sex unions. “We have to ask ourselves how we’re encountering those who form such relationships and are also involved in the Church, how we’re accompanying them pastorally and liturgically.” He insists this must not be confused with a wedding ceremony, but “shouldn’t we be fairer, given that there is much that’s positive, good and right in this?” As for the impediment of Catholic moral doctrine: “Same-sex relationships are generally classified as a grave sin in the church, but we need to think how we can differentiate.”
In January 2015, I speculated that the Catholic Church will try to find a way to accommodate itself to the sexual revolution (“A New Concordat?”). A few months ago, I noted the steps now being taken in this direction (“Bourgeois Religion,” December 2017).
The Catholic Church’s retreat from anything resembling clarity about sexual morality does not surprise me. It’s been a long time coming. Catholicism and other forms of establishment Christianity in the West tend to take the form of bourgeois religion. That term denotes the fusion of church culture with the moral consensus held by the good, respectable people who set the tone for society as a whole. In the aftermath of the sexual revolution, that consensus shifted. For a long time now it has been socially acceptable to divorce and contracept. Soon thereafter it was OK to cohabitate, and then the good and responsible people who run things adopted an affirmative attitude toward gay sex. During all this, the same consensus became hostile to those who say otherwise. It became “cruel,” “hateful,” and “bigoted” to call something wrong that the bourgeois consensus now deems right. In this way, the good and responsible people did not just accommodate themselves to the sexual revolution; they took ownership of it.
Bishop Bode’s remarks reflect the bourgeois consensus, especially his impulse to “differentiate.” In real-life terms, this means distinguishing between respectable sodomy and the unseemly sodomy of casual sex. We’re to approach homosexuality the way we’re now told to approach divorce and remarriage. There are tawdry people who have ugly, bitter separations. The Church is clear that they are not good. But there are respectable people who see therapists, say nice things about their ex-spouses, and make sensible arrangements for the kids. They’re commended by our bourgeois consensus for making the best of bad circumstances. Those are the sorts of people Bishop Bode seems to want to accommodate.
♦ Last month, while riding to work on the subway, my eyes went to an advertisement from our local electric utility. It urged customers to sign up for courtesy text messages: “Live in a world where you never miss an outage alert.” Not quite utopia.
♦ The editors at the Wall Street Journal continued their attack on the expanded child tax credit shortly after the president signed the tax bill. “This special break for some families has no discernible growth effect. That’s because the child credit does not—say it again—change the incentive to work or invest.” These claims are worth pondering. Apparently, the editors think flourishing families with children are of no import for the future of our society, and legislation to encourage and support family formation amounts to nothing more than a “special break” for the lifestyle choices of some, to the disadvantage of those who choose not to have children. The sole purpose of our tax policy, they assume, is to increase incentives to work and invest. Anything else is conservative “social engineering.” This is an odd claim, since increasing incentives to work nudges people toward working more—which is also social engineering.
♦ Politics is social engineering. Political debates inevitably concern the kind of society we want to have. Our liberal tradition, broadly understood, encourages us to approach these debates with caution. One of the dangers of public life is our tendency to want to use the political process to realize, as fully as possible, our vision of human flourishing. To forestall the tyranny of any one view, we rightly seek to limit the goals and purposes of government. That said, it is disingenuous for free-market conservatives to identify what they don’t like as “social engineering” while portraying their favored policies as simple expressions of free-market principles. We have natural impulses to work, invest, buy, sell, and otherwise seek our advantage in the marketplace. Wise policies encourage and direct those impulses toward the advancement of the common good. But we also have a natural impulse to procreate and, for that matter, to worship. It is social engineering of a sort contrary to human nature if we only provide incentives for the pursuit of economic interests and not of other human interests.
This was brought home to me decades ago when I was watching John Updike being interviewed on Book TV. He was asked what he thought of his early novels. The celebrated author adopted an amused look and allowed that they were to some degree dated. He recounted a recent trip to an elite university. The students told him that his stories, many of which revolve around afternoon martinis and sexual escapades, ring false. It was not as though life in upscale America had become more buttoned up in the interval between the publication of Rabbit, Run (1960) and their adolescent years in the 1990s. Rather, they told Updike, no adults were home in the early evenings, and their parents were too tired to throw the sorts of cocktail parties that provide the occasions for the alcohol-fueled transgressions that figure prominently in Updike’s fiction. As Updike told the interviewer, he had to inform these hard-charging, high-achieving kids that upper-middle-class grown-ups didn’t work so hard in the 1950s. People had more time on their hands.
No doubt there are many reasons why, decades ago, upper-crust people had three-martini lunches and left their offices at 5 p.m. to go home. But one was certainly the income tax rate. When the top rate is above 75 percent, it’s hard to see the point of staying late. After Reagan lowered the top marginal rate in the 1980s, incentives to work longer hours rose significantly. Well-educated and highly skilled workers at the top of the income ladder responded accordingly. Along with the two-career household, this transformed upper-middle-class suburban life, which is one reason the intimate situations in Updike’s novels seemed so remote to the children of those formed by the new economic incentives of the 1980s. Those changes were not intended, I’m sure. But social engineering by accident is still engineering.
♦ Progressives harbor the conceit that they can fine-tune society with well-planned policies. A conservative remains skeptical, aware of the law of unintended consequences. It may be the case that the child credit that Marco Rubio fought for will have little effect on family formation. Or it may tip the scales in favor of mothers staying home, leading to a modest withdrawal of women from the workforce that creates labor shortages, hobbling economic growth. Or maybe the shortages will force employers to raise wages, drawing underemployed men back into the workforce and thus solving one of our most significant social problems. We need to avoid the hubris that imagines we can use government to solve all of society’s problems. But we also need to avoid the pessimism that imagines all efforts by government to be counterproductive and futile. And we certainly need to reject the impoverished view that the only thing that matters in public life is economic growth.
♦ In our pages, Catesby Leigh analyzed Michelangelo’s final sculpture (“The Florentine Pietà,” December 2017). He recently wrote me, revising his assessment.
In my short essay on Michelangelo’s Florentine Pietà, I referred to the frescoes he painted in the Vatican’s Pauline Chapel as “formally crude and emotionally bleak” and not in sync with the sculptural majesty of the Christ figure in the Pietà. Emotionally bleak they might be. But in commenting on my essay shortly before his unexpected death on January 8, Bruce Cole, the distinguished Renaissance art historian, said he saw the Pietà as being formally akin to the Pauline Chapel frescoes. Unbeknownst to me when I wrote my essay, those frescoes were recently restored, clarifying among other things the excellence of the nude figure of St. Peter, shown being crucified upside down. There is nothing crude about this powerfully monumental figure. It is a privilege to eat crow in tribute to Bruce’s connoisseurship.
♦ Some rich New Yorkers got married in Las Vegas. They pledged themselves to a sexless union. Quentin Esme Brown said of her new husband, Peter Cary Peterson, “Peter and I are not romantically involved—in fact we are still dating others and will continue to seek love in all forms—we are just each other’s hearts and wish to begin our journey toward evolution, because the more we face reality, the more we can see that there is no right or wrong.” Peterson echoed her sentiments. “Esme and I have never been romantically involved. We will continue to date others and live our lives. I understand many people will not understand or agree with this, but Esme and I have taken a progressive step towards what we believe marriage should be. I need to be constantly evolving, growing, and progressing.” Thus our anti-metaphysical moment: a journey toward evolution! Life is about growing and progressing toward more growing and progressing. Pure Heraclitus.
♦ A friend wrote:
My brother-in-law got us a Google Home voice-activated speaker as a gift. You can ask Google to play music or set an alarm, and you can ask it basic questions like, Who is the President? Who is Buddha? Who is Muhammad? It gives you simple answers. But get this: Ask, Who is Jesus? and it won’t answer. It will say something like “I can’t help you with that.” Ask who Satan is, and it gives you a solid answer. Ask who Charles Manson is, and you get a really long answer. Ask what “#MeToo” means, and it gives another really long answer. This got me thinking, and I went to my computer to use Google search. I typed in Charles Manson’s name, and his bio popped up on the computer screen to the right of the list of links. This is a nice feature when you search by name. I typed Buddha and Muhammad, and their bios popped up. Then I typed Jesus. There is no bio. Interesting.
♦ Robert Miller and I have been tussling over regulation and freedom. I say that we’re living in a time of unprecedented economic freedom, a time in which labor, goods, and capital move with accelerating speed. He thinks this is bunk. In his view, the growth in regulation over the last few decades indicates exactly the opposite. “The economy is much more regulated, and thus much less free, than it was two generations ago.” Miller’s line of reasoning led me to consider the following: Legal regulation of sexual relations has increased over the past two generations. Decades ago, there was no federal “guidance” requiring universities to adopt elaborate mechanisms to secure consent, nor were there federal regulations governing the way in which universities adjudicated violations of consent. When I was a college student, there were no official rules or regulations governing sexual conduct. So, given Miller’s argument, it must be the case that today there is far less sexual freedom than there was generations ago. The sexual revolution is a hoax.
♦ Flannery O’Connor once observed that people found Wise Blood dark and pessimistic, leading them to assume she was a “hillbilly nihilist.” Not at all, she protested; “I’m a hillbilly Thomist.” In that spirit, the Dominicans of the St. Joseph’s Province have produced a CD, The Hillbilly Thomists, featuring American spiritual classics from the backcountry culture that made music with the washboard, fiddle, guitar, banjo, and mandolin. All the picking, strumming, and singing is done by the friars. This is a must-have for anyone who wants to know what St. Thomas would have sounded like in the hollers of east Tennessee.
♦ Rev. Collin Setterberg would like to form a ROFTERS group in Monroe, Georgia. You can indicate your interest in discussing the latest issues of First Things by contacting him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
James O’Rourke of Wolfeboro, New Hampshire, wants to gather folks for a ROFTERS group. If you live nearby, get in touch at email@example.com.
Our Australian readers are swinging into action. Patrice Daley of Sydney, Australia, would like to start a ROFTERS group. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you live in Brisbane, you can join a group headed up by Francis Ribeiro of nearby Moggill. His contact is email@example.com.
♦ 2017 was a good year for First Things. We added more readers, with especially strong growth in the number of folks receiving print magazines in the mail. It’s good to know we’re in more mailboxes and on more kitchen tables. We also ended the year with a very successful fund-raising campaign that exceeded our goals. I’m grateful to the hundreds of people who contributed in 2017. Your support helps First Things remain the most influential journal of religion and public life. Thank you all for being loyal readers.