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Tag Archive: First Things

What drives history over the long haul is culture

Posted: Friday, January 6, 2012 (6:53 am), by John W Gillis


Quote of the Day for Friday, January 6th, 2012 – Epiphany.

George Weigel, in an On The Square article over at FirstThings.com last Wednesday, entitled The Weakness of Tyranny:

With the benefit of 30 years of hindsight, it now seems clear that the imposition of martial law in Poland in December 1981 was not an act of strength but one of weakness, by a regime so incapable of commanding the allegiance of those in whose name it claimed to rule that it could only compel obedience by violence. It took some time for this to become clear in Poland, a country frequently burdened by crushed hopes; John Paul’s second pastoral pilgrimage to his homeland, in June 1983, did a lot to raise the spirits of his countrymen—who rallied their energies such that, by 1987, the Pope could spend his third pilgrimage home laying the cultural and moral foundations for a post-communist Poland, which was born two years later in the Revolution of 1989.
[…]
The lessons, 30 years later? Solidarity’s triumph ought not be universalized as a one-size-fits-all model for coping with tyrants. Still, John Paul II’s instinct for reading history through cultural lenses has much to commend it. Politics and economics are important. What drives history over the long haul, however, is culture: what men and women cherish, honor, and worship; what men and women are willing to stake their lives, and their children’s lives, on.

The truest realism, therefore, is one shaped by truths and ideals, not only by calculations of power. If you doubt that, ask General Jaruzelski.

I (re-)watched a video/drama biography of Pope John Paul II last week that my daughter had brought home over Christmas school vacation, and was glad for the opportunity to spend some time with the family appreciating the great man. What struck me most profoundly in the story was the way it presented the malice of malevolent power as incompetent; in particular how the scheming but fearful bully tactics of the Communist regime, while attempting to secure an easily manipulable client to be named bishop of Krakow by insisting upon a young, local theater wonk of a priest, ended up with Karol Wojtyla. Oops. In the end, evil-doers always end up stealing enough rope to hang themselves, though they don’t always go down without first doing much harm.

Today we celebrate, among other things, vicious King Herod being stiffed in his evil designs by the Magi, though we mustn’t forget that he responded with the Slaughter of the Innocents. It’s a good day for me to ponder what it is I am willing to stake my life on, and the lives of my children.

Merry Epiphany. Now, Christmastide is over. It’s time to take down the lights, and begin the ordered cycle of the new year.

The great danger that bedevils any powerful heuristic or interpretive discipline is the tendency to mistake method for ontology

Posted: Friday, September 30, 2011 (1:57 pm), by John W Gillis


Quote of the Day for Friday, September 30th, 2011:

David Bentley Hart, from an On The Square article today over at First Things, on the inherently epistemologically-limiting nature of intellectual methodology, and the dangers of ignoring that fact:

The great danger that bedevils any powerful heuristic or interpretive discipline is the tendency to mistake method for ontology, and so to mistake a partial perspective on particular truths for a comprehensive vision of truth as such. In the modern world, this is an especially pronounced danger in the sciences, largely because of the exaggerated reverence scientists enjoy in the popular imagination, and also largely because of the incapacity of many in the scientific establishment to distinguish between scientific rigor and materialist ideology (or, better, materialist metaphysics).

This has two disagreeable results (well, actually, far more than two, but two that are relevant here): The lunatic self-assurance with which some scientists imagine that their training in, say, physics or zoology has somehow equipped them to address philosophical questions whose terms they have never even begun to master; and the inability of many scientists to recognize realities—even very obvious realities—that lie logically outside the reach of the methods their disciplines employ. The best example of the latter, I suppose, would be the inability of certain contemporary champions of “naturalism” to grasp that the question of existence is qualitatively infinitely distinct from the question of how one physical reality arises from another (for, inasmuch as physics can explore only the physical, and the physical by definition already exists, then existence as such is always “metaphysical,” or even “hyperphysical”—which is to say, “supernatural.”)

This interesting little aside into the role of methodology in the intellectual life got me to thinking about the role of religion in the academy. It seems to me, when you get right down to it, that the idea of methodology serving as a definition of the limits of knowledge, thus marginalizing thought which falls outside the methodology as non-knowledge (or “un-scientific”, as one hears it imprecisely put today), is essentially a superstition. Superstition, after all, is nothing more than a belief that a methodology (i.e. cult), whether in act or incantation, will cause effects which in reality are quite independent of their alleged explanations, despite appearances to the contrary (superstitions that did not appear to “work” some convincing proportion of the time would, of course, never have been held). This is not merely a conflation or confusion of correlation with causation (though it certainly can involve that), but an actual belief in the power of allegedly explanatory phenomena, which misdirects the intellect away from its proper end, which is the contemplation of truth. That’s a fancy way of saying that people are deceived by their own cleverness, and so take their eyes off of God.

The history of true religion, be it Christianity or the Israelite religion that spawned it, is a history of struggling against and overcoming the superstitions of pagan religions, and of pointing to the one, true, un-manipulable Cause. It’s ironic that the Yahwists of yore could be denounced essentially as atheists for their rejection of the cosmology, cult, and attendant morality of pagan religion, while their modern descendants are reviled as “religious theocrats” by people often calling themselves atheists, who are practitioners of a methodology (cult) believed to be bringing relief (salvation) to the human condition, but which superstitiously claims both to explain things clearly beyond its competence and invalidate ideas beyond its scope, furthermore is based on a cosmology of Original Violence, or intrinsic struggle – with its resounding similarity to pagan mythology – and is producing in its wake a social morality that resembles nothing so much as pagan hedonism.

It’s been said often enough that wisdom depends on an apt understanding of the meanings of words. Our society could benefit greatly from a non-obfuscatory working definition of religion.

Through obedience, we become who we really are

Posted: Tuesday, April 26, 2011 (7:06 am), by John W Gillis


Quote of the Day for Tuesday, April 26th, 2011:

David Mills, from an On the Square post over at First Things, from an interesting, if somewhat bizarrely sensationalist, reflection on the moral significance of being true to the self:

No one objects to being told to live like Jesus. But to live the way St. Paul says to live, or the way the Catechism of the Catholic Church says to live, that we dislike. Being chaste, or giving alms, or stifling our desire for profit, or going to confession, or watching our language, or suffering a fool gladly, that rankles, especially if we have to do it. But through obedience to the accumulated and refined wisdom of the Church, we become who we really are. It’s worth it.

Mills hits on a truly significant point here about the easiness of conforming to a vague notion of Jesus-ism (i.e. What Would Jesus Do?), which can be (and too often is) readily reduced to a projection of self-interest by anyone seeking “religious” justification for their own delusions. Not so much, as he says, with Saint Paul, or the teaching Church.

We can try that to solve homelessness by mandating everybody to buy a house

Posted: Tuesday, February 1, 2011 (11:10 pm), by John W Gillis


Quote of the Day for Tuesday, February 1st, 2011:

I’m not sure quite how to attribute this… I’m quoting Joe Carter over at the First Thoughts blog today, who is quoting Judge Roger Vinson’s ruling published Monday striking down the ObamaCare law on account of the individual mandate, which is quoting then-candidate Barack Obama from 2008, essentially mocking the notion of a mandate… You can figure it out:

On this point, it should be emphasized that while the individual mandate was clearly “necessary and essential” to the Act as drafted, it is not “necessary and essential” to health care reform in general. It is undisputed that there are various other (Constitutional) ways to accomplish what Congress wanted to do. Indeed, I note that in 2008, then-Senator Obama supported a health care reform proposal that did not include an individual mandate because he was at that time strongly opposed to the idea, stating that “if a mandate was the solution, we can try that to solve homelessness by mandating everybody to buy a house.”

Politicians really hate when you remind them what they said on the campaign trail. I imagine they despise it even more when the reminder is included in a federal ruling overturning their prized legislation.

Priceless. But if there remained any doubts, we surely know now why Senator Obama was so well-known for voting “present” during his legislative stints – he’s not stupid. As to whether he’s principled, well, that’s another question altogether, as we wouldn’t want to conflate being principled with having an agenda. There’s a world of difference between being willing to pay any price to stand your ground, and being willing to pay any price to get what you want.

Modernity is simply the time of realized nihilism

Posted: Friday, January 28, 2011 (2:00 pm), by John W Gillis


Quote of the Day for Friday, January 28th, 2011:

David Bentley Hart, from the just released February 2011 volume of First Things, discussing Martin Heidegger’s reading of the centrality of nihilism in Western civilization’s cultural history and its philosophical tradition, in an article that appears to be available to non-subscribers on the website:

Modernity, for Heidegger, is simply the time of realized nihilism, the age in which the will to power has become the ground of all our values; as a consequence it is all but impossible for humanity to dwell in the world as anything other than its master. As a cultural reality it is the perilous situation of a people that has thoroughly—one might even say systematically—forgotten the mystery of being, or forgotten (as Heidegger would have it) the mystery of the difference between beings and being as such. Nihilism is a way of seeing the world that acknowledges no truth other than what the human intellect can impose on things, according to an excruciatingly limited calculus of utility, or of the barest mechanical laws of cause and effect. It is a “rationality” of the narrowest kind, so obsessed with what things are and how they might be used that it is no longer seized by wonder when it stands in the light of the dazzling truth that things are. It is a rationality that no longer knows how to hesitate before this greater mystery, or even to see that it is there, and thus is a rationality that cannot truly think.

I found this article to be a very useful exposition on the thought of Heidegger, a writer I’ve never had much success trying to read – in part because of the denseness of his writing, and perhaps more so than I’m completely comfortable admitting because of a personal revulsion against his well-known involvement with Nazism. But I’ve also lacked a broader understanding of what he was trying to get at, and this article sheds some light on that. I’m not sure I won’t still walk away from an encounter with Heidegger shaking my head in incomprehension, but perhaps I’ll give him another try.

An attack on the poor, who have been most helped by capitalism

Posted: Thursday, January 27, 2011 (10:58 pm), by John W Gillis


Quote of the Day for Thursday, January 27th, 2011:

Robert T. Miller, in February’s First Things, criticizing the continuing latent Marxism in the political economy of Alasdair MacIntyre’s thought, in an article entitled Waiting for St. Vladimir:

Capitalism efficiently delivers goods and services, but it is not a perfect system—far from it. To be sure, capitalism has costs of various kinds. It is a key insight of modern economics, however, that all solutions to a given problem have costs, and we delude ourselves if we think we can find a perfect (in the sense of costless) solution. Despite its costs, capitalism has raised up from poverty hundreds of millions of human beings, fed, housed, and clothed them vastly better than their ancestors, lengthened their lives and preserved them from disease—and all in ways that people living in early ages could not possibly have imagined. When people respond to the financial incentives capitalism creates, they often are not doing much to improve their souls, but the capitalist system has done more—much more—to improve the material conditions of mankind than all the corporal works of mercy performed by all the Christian saints throughout the ages. For this reason a foundational attack on capitalism is an attack on the material well-being of the human race and especially an attack on the poor, who have been most helped by capitalism.

MacIntyre is a giant of a moral philosopher, who has done great work in revitalizing the notion of Virtue Ethics, but as Miller – who admits a deep debt to MacIntyre in other areas – makes clear, MacIntyre has not disabused himself of his leftist misappropriation of the meaning of economic justice, even at this late stage in his life, and well after his conversion to Catholicism.

Most of the article is spent specifically addressing MacIntyre’s writing, but I thought the paragraph above was a beautifully concise explication of the major problem with the typical leftist jeremiad against capitalism – whether that comes from an explicitly Marxist critique, or from the kind of “soft-leftism” prevalent in what is confusedly called liberalism these days. One needn’t be blind to the real costs of capitalism in order to see its obvious benefits to the world, and if we manage to tear down the edifice of capitalism, we will not “progress” into a new era of endlessly flowing milk & honey for all, but revert to the widespread destitution and privations that dominated the pre-industrial era – and this after having destroyed the social hierarchies that made such living bearable by investing it with the meaning of belongingness.

People cannot claim a right to kill you simply because they will not recognize you as a person

Posted: Wednesday, January 26, 2011 (7:54 pm), by John W Gillis


Quote of the Day for Wednesday, January 26th, 2011:

Joe Carter, writing an “On the Square” column over at FirstThings.com, on Being a Person:

But should all human beings be considered persons? Historically, the answer has been a resounding “no.” Slaves, women, infants, Jews, and “foreigners” all share a common history of being denied legal or moral standing as persons, despite being recognized as humans. The judgment of recent generations, however, has without exception concluded that denying personhood to these members of the human family is a great moral evil. I have no doubt that future generations will judge ours just as harshly.

Yet while recognition of personhood is the foundation of certain positive rights, it should not be required for a basic negative right—the right not to be deprived of life without due process of law. In other words, people cannot claim a right to kill you simply because they will not recognize you as a person.

This is an interesting article from Carter, in which he throws down the gauntlet to a certain extent by trying to move the arguments for the rationalization of abortion away from language concerning personhood, and toward the more ontologically coherent matter of being. That being said, I don’t see why he is apparently ready to concede any kind of functional imperative to personhood, even if the legal fiction of corporate personhood involves that kind of reductionism. It seem to me that we shouldn’t have too much trouble distinguishing in a moral argument between a person as a spiritual reality on the one hand, and on the other a legal construct that is transparently meant to be understood as a person only analogously.

The only treasure that the Church really has to offer

Posted: Tuesday, January 4, 2011 (10:19 pm), by John W Gillis


Quote of the Day for Tuesday, January 4th. 2011:

Rev. Thomas G. Guarino, of Seton Hall University, in an article at FirstThings.com entitled The Priesthood and Justice, reflecting on the U.S. bishops’ handling of priests accused of sexual misconduct, in the wake of the dismissal from the priesthood of a 73 year-old monsignor in the Archdiocese of New York at the end of last year:

Various actions taken against accused priests suggest that current policies are straining the theology of the priesthood. This may have the short-term advantage of preventing litigants from storming the Church door. It may keep the media at bay for the moment—a media that, in any case, will always find the Church a stumbling block because of her insistence on the incomparable truth she bears. But such actions are also having the disastrous effect of eroding Catholic doctrine, the only treasure that the Church really has to offer.

This might be an unpopular stance, but it is one that needs to be taken. I know that I was rather stunned when the so called “Dallas Charter” was published in 2002, with the bishops adopting a zero-tolerance policy. I had considered draconian zero-tolerance stands – in general – to be the work of small minds seeking cheap political points in easy answers, and could hardly believe that the USCCB was falling into that trap. I understand its appeal, but as Guarino points out in this short article, it is thoroughly contrary to a Gospel ethic, and I was comforted at the time to know that such intellectual giants of the Catholic world as Richard John Neuhaus and Avery Cardinal Dulles shared the deep unease of this poor sinner.

Nonetheless, the policy has stood for almost a decade, and the treatment of offending priests continues to serve as a lightning rod issue for all kinds of anger – not much of it rational – while the Church finds itself without a teaching voice in the matter on account of its own indulgence in easy answers. It’s as if Docetism, suppressed in so ugly a manner, is finally wreaking its revenge in damaging the Church’s theology of the priesthood.

All the while, the masses fulminate with rage against the Church and those priests caught rightly or wrongly in the crosshairs, every time another old story surfaces. Not all those who fulminate hate the Church, but many of them do, and I am amazed at the consistency with which they demand the dismissal of the accused from the priesthood – “defrocking” seeming to be the almost universal term of choice in the English-speaking world, with its fricative and plosive combination ostensibly serving some cathartic end. Yet, they largely have no clue what any of it means!

Never mind that from a practical perspective, letting obviously sick and unsupervised men loose on society  by washing its hands of them is about the most irresponsible thing the Church can do – the Church is probably the best-equipped institution on the world for finding a safe and constructive place for them to live out their lives. More importantly, a Church that is ready to throw its own to the curb seems to me to have lost, in some important manner, its own sense of its identity as the sacrament of Christ in the world. And then there’s the whole matter of what Holy Orders means in the first place…

Our whole society shares this stupidity

Posted: Monday, January 3, 2011 (9:35 pm), by John W Gillis


Quote of the Day for January 3rd, 2011:

John Sommerville, from an article in the October 1991 issue of First Things, entitled: Why the News Makes Us Dumb

The News can’t be fixed. There is something about daily publication, all by itself, that distorts reality. That is why the addiction to News that so many of us share has brought on a kind of stupidity. Our whole society shares this stupidity, and so we have a hard time recognizing it.

Catching up on some blog reading I missed last week, I noticed that Joe Carter had penned a piece at FirstThings.com on one of my favorite subjects to grouse about: how the Daily News Product industry dominates our culture, and infests it with rampant stupidity. Carter quoted a different passage in this 20 year-old article from Sommerville, which happily appears to be a free article in the First Things on-line archive. According to Carter, this essay was later fleshed out into a book by Sommerville, which I see via Amazon is a rather short one (155 pgs.) published by IVP in 1999, called How the News Makes Us Dumb: The Death of Wisdom in an Information Society. It never ceases to amaze me how many people think the schlock marketed to them as "news" makes them somehow more knowledgeable about the world around them.

Only If Liberty Is Beautiful… Can It Really Be Worth the Courageous Risk of Life

Posted: Monday, December 6, 2010 (8:29 pm), by John W Gillis


Quote of the Day for Monday, December 6th, 2010:

With the Thanksgiving holiday still lingering in the air, I found this excellent article on the continuing value of America’s Puritan forebears over at the always worthwhile First Principles Journal site. Written by Peter Augustine Lawler, it is entitled: Praising the Puritans:

Because the Puritan conception of political freedom wasn’t based on the apolitical, selfish, rights-obsessed, and duty negligent Lockean individual, it both not only demanded virtuous civic participation but also connected political freedom with the creature’s charitable duty to the unfortunate. It set a high or virtuous standard for political competence and incorruptibility, and it didn’t seem to need to rely on institutions with teeth in them to restrain the spirit of faction and boundless ambition of leaders.

Whatever Puritan government was, it was not another name for a band of robbers, just as Puritan freedom could never be confused with another name for nothing less to lose. The Virginians’ view of freedom was finally merely useful or materialistic; it is the liberty of beings with interests and nothing more. The Puritans distinguished themselves by their “beautiful definition of freedom,” “a civil, a moral, a federal liberty,” “a liberty for that only which is just and good.” That’s the liberty for which it makes sense “to stand with the hazard of your very lives.” Only if liberty is beautiful or for the display of the most admirable and virtuous human characteristics can it really be worth the courageous risk of life.

The citizens of New England took care of the poor, maintained the highways, kept careful records and registries, secured law and order, and, most of all, provided public education for everyone—through high school when possible. The justification of universal education was that everyone should be able to read the Bible to know the truth about God and his duties to Him for himself. Nobody should be deceived by having to rely on the word of others; they had the democratic or Cartesian distrust of authority without the paralyzing and disorienting rejection of all authority. That egalitarian religious understanding, of course, was the source of the American popular enlightenment that had so many practical benefits.

readersmIn contrasting the worldviews of two early colonial communities within what would become the United States (Virginia and the New England Puritans), Lawler sketches out a sound defense of the much maligned New Englanders, showing how their characteristic reading of man’s place in the world laid the groundwork for much of what came to be the best of the American genius, and how it could provide an important corrective today to some of the more narcissistic and utilitarian tendencies that threaten to undermine the American community.

HT to Joe Carter over at FirstThings for the link.