First Things RSS Feed - Rodney Howsare
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60We’re All Rousseauians Nowhttps://www.firstthings.com/blogs/firstthoughts/2012/11/were-all-rousseauians-now
Fri, 09 Nov 2012 14:02:35 -0500
Hating the Sinners at Penn Statehttps://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2011/11/hating-the-sinners-at-penn-state
Tue, 15 Nov 2011 00:01:00 -0500 Modernity amounts to the gradual but steady emancipation of the political sphere from the religious sphere. This begins in America with simple non-establishment, but has grown into a more or less aggressive separation of church and state.
Even if we are to admit that the state should not establish an official religion, we will always have an ethos that undergirds our political commitments. And that ethos will inevitably have been born in the context of a particular religion. This is especially true given the fact that there simply is no such thing as religion in general or politics without undergirding values.
This brings us, believe it or not, to the Jerry Sandusky-Penn State scandal. Within the broad ethos of Christianity exists an old principle known as love the sinner, hate the sin. This was premised on the notion that standards of morality are objective and unchanging (therefore, hate the sin), but that human beings are weak and often fail to live up to those standards (therefore, love the sinner). This is not just a matter of faith, but also makes good sense. All of us can think of a time where we believed firmly in the evil of something (say, lying) and yet engaged in it anyhow.
But when a society abandons one ethos, it does not replace the void with no ethos; it replaces it with a different ethos. In America our current principle on the question of sin and sinners amounts to replacing the Christian principle of love with the secular principle of tolerance. The latter is much less demanding and much more individualistic. It goes something like this: as long as youre not hurting me, I dont care what you do. My neighbor once had a bumper sticker that said, Dont like abortion, dont have one.
Still, one can only go down the path of tolerance so far. If, for instance, we make the argument that America is a more advanced society than India because we tolerate pornography and they dont, wouldnt it be the case that a society that allows child pornography would be more advanced even than ours? The fact that we answer this latter question in the negative shows that tolerance and freedom cannot be our only criteria. We still have to talk about whats good and whats bad.
What does any of this have to do with Sandusky?
Well, in the older Christian ethos, we would deal with the Sanduskies of the world the same way we deal with all sinners: love them, but condemn their behavior. That may mean writing really condemnatory articles about the sexualization of children, child molestation and pedophilia, but it would not mean engaging in a nationwide tar and feathering of a particular child molester or pedophile. In secular America, however, it is just the opposite: we are increasingly sexualizing our children (a clothing company was recently marketing thongs to tweens, and Miley Cyrus was doing pole dances at her concerts years before she was of legal age), and yet we tar and feather pedophiles and child molesters.
The religion of freedom makes it very hard to know what to do with the Jerry Sanduskies of the world. All of the moral revulsion that used to be brought down on sin is now being brought down on the sinner. It is not, as we are sometimes led to believe, that we are simply and gradually becoming a society that has fewer hang ups about things that used to be called sins. Rather, once weve so drastically shortened the list of sins, anything left on the list will have to take the full brunt of all of our bottled-up wrath. And this time the sinner will not be spared in the process.
As Pope Benedict XVI has often said: in Jesus Christ, Gods mercy and justice kissed. Modernity rejected that balance in favor of the gradual increase of autonomy and tolerance, believing that we could have mercy without justice. Any talk of sin now strikes us as guilt-ridden baggage that we are glad to no longer be lugging around. Yet we are still human beings, and one of the things that separates us from other animals is that we make moral judgments. So the movement towards emancipation from rules leads us ironically into ever-greater episodes of self-righteousness (the secular press makes the Pharisees of Jesus day seem downright latitudinarian) and scape-goating (and the bigger the goat the better: e.g., Joe Paterno).
My point here is not to exonerate anything that Jerry Sandusky or Joe Paterno did or did not do. My point is that emancipating ourselves from Christianity in order to make ourselves more liberal may be much more complicated than we think. And the way our media are now treating the people at Penn State may have some of them longing for the comparatively merciful days of Torquemada.
]]>A Dangerous Freedomhttps://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2011/06/a-dangerous-freedom
Thu, 30 Jun 2011 00:01:00 -0400 I have no wish to pile on the infamous Canadian couple who recently made headlines when they decided not to reveal the
of their child in order not to prejudice the childs choice of
. For when you really get down to it, this couple is really just being consistent with the notion of freedom that has come to dominate the contemporary world.
Nearly all of my students come into my courses with a far-reaching philosophy that is almost identical to that of Oprah Winfrey (or Lady Gaga, if you wish). I dont mean that some of my students arent conservative or liberal (in the recent, political sense of those words). What I mean is that almost all of my students believe in advanced Liberalisms idea of truth (that its a private matter) and freedom (that its simply the maximization of choice and that its the highest good).
Since this Canadian couple grew up under the tutelage of the modern, Liberal state, they have thoroughly imbibed its notion of freedom: that is, that freedom means the lack of any kind of restraint. The modern notion of freedom is that freedom is a strictly
being told what to do,
having ones options limited, etc.
The older notion of freedom”the one that the Liberal notion supplanted”is that freedom is primarily a
, unique to human beings, to achieve the good, which is the human beings natural end. While a lion, for instance, is compelled by instinct to attack a crippled antelope or to mate with an unwilling lioness, a human being has the ability to tell his instincts where to get off, so to speak, in the light of some higher good (e.g., by not picking on the handicapped or by not forcing sex on unwilling partners). If we were to subscribe to the modern notion of freedom, the lion would have more freedom than the human being because he has no moral and legal limitations on his physical capacities.
To anyone before the modern era, being born into a particular species, at a particular place, as a particular sex would not have seemed like a set of restrictions, but as the ordinary limits which make freedom possible in the first place. Because I am a man (I have an XY chromosomal make-up), I am not able to get pregnant, and because I am a human being I am not able to sprint as fast as a cheetah or flap my arms and fly, so the good to which I can freely direct my life does not include pregnancy, sprinting, or flying.
Our contemporaries would phrase things differently:
as a human and a man, I am not
to get pregnant, sprint, or fly. But it would be strange for me to see the limits of my individual, physical nature as limits on my freedom. Before I can be free, I must first
and I must first be this or that sort of thing. In order to have the sort of freedom that human beings have, I must first be, well, a human being. And because no one can exist only in the abstract, I must be this specific human being, with this body and not that one, this sex and not the other, this hair color and no other.
But if freedom only means the lack of limitations, then any act that eliminates one limitation (even if it creates another) is free. There is a man in this country, to take a rather bizarre example, who thinks he is a cat trapped in a human body. He has therefore undergone a series of surgeries to make himself look more like a cat. Of course he will never be a cat, no matter how good we get at such procedures (and I suspect that we will get very good). He will always be a human who has used his freedom to pretend to be a cat.
Nor, by the way, can one really change his or her sex. This explains why there was a pregnant man in the news a couple of years back; he was a woman who had been changed into a man”but only from the waist up. But to go back to cat-man: the irony is that if he were really a cat, he wouldnt have the freedom or even the desire to be, say, changed into a man. No cat has ever shown up for species reassignment surgery.
The poor child raised by this (probably well meaning) Canadian couple will now grow up to see all of his/her individual traits (sex, race, height, species, eye color, hair color, natural abilities, natural inabilities), things which ought to be seen as gifts and given thanks for, as just so many obstacles to what the true self (the un-embodied, un-natured, all-consuming self) really wants.
In most healthy societies in history this would have been seen for what it is: not freedom, but a deeply ungrateful bondage to an unreal abstraction. This child may even come to see his/her naturally given parents as a limitation on his/her freedom to choose parents. Wait a second, perhaps theres hope for the kid yet.
Rodney Howsare is a Professor of Theology at DeSales University.