Thursday, July 17, 2014

My Interview with William James on the New Atheists

     Ok, I begin with a disclaimer. This is not an actual interview in the technical sense. Since William James passed from this world in 1910, many decades before I was even born, it is not possible that I interviewed him. However, here is what really did happen. After spending the last few months pouring over key books by Professor James, it caught up with my unconscious mind and I did indeed dream that I met him and we talked. The following is an imagined conversation based on significant engagement with some of his writings and an unusual dream. 

Robert Woods: This is a most unexpected honor to meet you Dr. James and be able to ask you some questions about some things you have written.

William James: My pleasure. I am glad to discover that some are still reading my writings.

Woods: I think what most impresses me about your education is that you are a philosopher and psychologist, but were trained as a physician which gives you an extraordinary advantage over some who only have more limited education or training.

James: I do think that I have acted to allow various truths and insights from philosophy, psychology, and medicine to shed light on the fullness of what it means to be a human being.

Woods: I wanted to discuss something with you that has occurred within the past few decades- a group of academic Philosophers, Scientists, Cultural Critics who have been labeled the new atheists.

James: I suspect that there is very little new in their thinking.

Woods: That is certainly true, what is new about them is that they lack the general humane spirit of previous atheists. 

James: With the new atheists being "fundamentally," pun intended, scientists in the most modern sense of the term scientists, it should be remembered that "science... has ended by utterly repudiating the personal point of view. She catalogs her elements and records her laws indifferent as to what purpose may be shown forth by them, and constructs her theories quite careless of their bearing on human anxieties and fates. Though the scientist may individually nourish a religion, and be a theist in his irresponsible hours, the days are over when it could be said that for Science herself the heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament showeth his handiwork. Our solar system, with its harmonies, is seen now as but one passing case of a certain sort of moving equilibrium in the heavens, realized by a local accident in an appalling wilderness of worlds where no life can exist. In a span of time which as a cosmic interval will count but as an hour, it will have ceased to be. The Darwinian notion of chance production, and subsequent destruction, speedy or deferred, applies to the largest as well as to the smallest facts. It is impossible, in the present temper of the scientific imagination, to find in the driftings of the cosmic atoms, whether they work on the universal or on the particular scale, anything but a kind of aimless weather, doing and undoing, achieving no proper history, and leaving no result. Nature has no one distinguishable ultimate tendency with which it is possible to feel a sympathy. In the vast rhythm of her processes...she appears to cancel herself. The books of natural theology which satisfied the intellects of our grandfathers seem to us quite grotesque, representing, as they did, a God who conformed the largest things of nature to the paltriest of our private wants. The God whom science recognizes must be a God of universal laws exclusively, a God who does a wholesale, not a retail business. He cannot accommodate his processes to the convenience of individuals. The bubbles on the foam which coats a stormy sea are floating episodes, made and unmade by the forces of the wind and water. Our private selves are like those bubbles—epiphenomena, as (W.K.) Clifford, I believe, ingeniously called them; their destinies weigh nothing and determine nothing in the world's irremediable currents of events."

Woods: I think one quality of you writings on religion is occasional whimsy, but always a gracious tone. Much of modern philosophical reflection on religion is both mean and arrogant, and generally humorless.

James: That is an intellectual shame. I think that “good-humor is a philosophic state of mind; it seems to say to Nature that we take her no more seriously than she takes us. I maintain that one should always talk of philosophy with a smile.” 

Woods: Some philosophers, many professors of religion, and most scientists who address religion and philosophy have reduced all such endeavors to glitches in the human genetic make-up. I have been struck that your writings often move in the opposite direction from reduction. 

James: “Were one asked to characterize the life of religion in the broadest and most general terms possible, one might say that it consists of the belief that there is an unseen order, and our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves thereto.” 

Woods: Ok, here is another major difference between you as a philosopher, psychologist and explorer of religious truth--you place yourself in the place of yielding to reality and not imposing yourself onto that reality.

James: Yes, indeed. You should keep in mind that the person doing the reflecting on reality, including religious reality is only part, but nonetheless part of the process. I have long held that “Whenever two people meet, there are really six people present. There is each man as he sees himself, each man as the other person sees him, and each man as he really is.” 

Woods: So, are you saying that humans are more complex than we normally think.

James: Not just humans, but human relationships and all human musings.

Woods: I do wish that the new atheists would read your books or at least those who read the new atheists would also read your writings.

James: If your portrayal of these new atheists is correct, one key difference between me and them is that personally, "I fear to lose truth by the pretension to possess it already wholly.”

Woods: What error or errors are the new atheists making?

James: Likely an error of one of the "isms." Essentially, "reduced to their most pregnant difference, empiricism means the habit of explaining wholes by parts, and rationalism means the habit of explaining parts by wholes. Rationalism thus preserves affinities with monism, since wholeness goes with union, while empiricism inclines to pluralistic views. No philosophy can ever be anything but a summary sketch, a picture of the world in abridgment, a foreshortened bird's-eye view of the perspective of events. And the first thing to notice is this, that the only material we have at our disposal for making a picture of the whole world is supplied by the various portions of that world of which we have already had experience. We can invent no new forms of conception, applicable to the whole exclusively, and not suggested originally by the parts. All philosophers, accordingly, have conceived of the whole world after the analogy of some particular feature of it which has particularly captivated their attention." So, my suspicion is that they are committing the error of either empiricism or of rationalism. Possibly scientism also.

Woods: This is most helpful in considering that some of the new atheists only see from one view and have eliminated other views entirely.

James: “There are two lives, the natural and the spiritual, and we must lose the one before we can participate in the other.” 

Woods: What might be an example of what you are describing?

James: Let's take prayer for example. “Through prayer, religion insists, things which cannot be realized in any other manner come about: energy which but for prayer would be bound is by prayer set free and operates in some part, be it objective or subjective, of the world of facts.” 

Woods: In other words, there is more to reality than our natural world and that this unseen realm generates practical effects in this world.

James: It seems from your description that these new atheists do not realize it but, "all our scientific and philosophic ideals are altars to unknown gods."

Woods: In their writings and debates the new atheists rail against the subjective nature of faith and speak fervently about the objective nature of their scientific studies.

James: "Objective evidence and certitude are doubtless very fine ideals to play with, but where on this moonlit and dream-visited planet are they found?"

Woods: That is a great question. So are you saying that a key problem with the new atheists, beyond saying nothing new, is that they seem to be profoundly ignorant of religion and the very nature of how we know in general and understand religion specifically?

James: Indeed. Again, if you have correctly characterized them. They seem to me woefully unaware of religion as a human reality and the strong evidence through human history that religious beliefs hint at and point to transcendent reality. They seem to be unaware that for the truly religious person, "religion...is a man's total reaction upon life." 

Woods: Most of the new atheists argue for an evolutionary explanation of religion. Actually, everything has an evolutionary explanation. In essence religion is a bio-electrical, chemical, evolutionary oops.

James. Well, I have dealt with this before. It is not a new idea. Simply, "to plead the organic causation of a religious state of mind, then, in refutation of its claim to possess superior spiritual value, is quite illogical and arbitrary, unless one have already worked out in advance some psycho-physical theory connecting spiritual values in general with determinate sorts of physiological change. Otherwise none of our thoughts and feelings, not even our scientific doctrines, not even our dis-beliefs, could retain any value as revelations of the truth, for every one of them without exception flows from the state of their possessor's body at the time."

Woods: So if they are right about religious knowledge, then the same argument could be made against all knowledge, including much of scientific knowledge?

James: Correct. We all really should spend more time on the matter of epistemology.

Woods: Based merely on our conversation, what might you say to the new atheists to help them.

James: I experienced this and this truth is key. “Our view of the world is truly shaped by what we decide to hear.” The new atheists should listen more to the religious world.

Woods: Do you have any final words, as I feel I have imposed too much upon your time.

James: No imposition at all. I would only add that, "when all is said and done, we are in the end absolutely dependent on the universe; and into sacrifices and surrenders of some sort, deliberately looked at and accepted, we are drawn and pressed as into our only permanent positions of repose. Now in those states of mind which fall short of religion, the surrender is submitted to as an imposition of necessity, and the sacrifice is undergone at the very best without complaint. In the religious life, on the contrary, surrender and sacrifice are positively espoused: even unnecessary givings-up are added in order that the happiness may increase. Religion thus makes easy and felicitous what in any case is necessary; and if it be the only agency that can accomplish this result, its vital importance as a human faculty stands vindicated beyond dispute."

Woods: Thank you again for your time and your ideas. I do hope that the new atheists or any atheists, and all believers can read more and find your books on their reading lists.

James: Me too.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

If Dostoevsky Had Written Science Fiction

    Sounding like a modern, the Greek writer Callimachus once penned an epigram where he quipped, “a large book is a great misfortune.” Does not the legitimacy of such an assertion depend on the author and the reader? Novelist Michael O’Brien gives all lovers of fine novels another marvelously large book. As one who enjoys good science fiction, it is always a treat when a first rate novelist ventures into a genre different than what is the norm for that novelist.
    Often when talking about literature, someone will ask, “what is it about?” This question is sometimes confused with the more important question of, “what are the possible meanings of this work?” While the storyline of Voyage to Alpha Centauri  is about a trip of the spaceship Kosmos to Alpha Centauri and given to us primarily in the form of the diary of Neil de Hoyos, one might be able to say that the novel  is really about what it means to be a human being, the human civilizations that we make, and the civilizations that make or unmake us.
    Voyage to Alpha Centauri is a sci-fi dystopian novel which functions as an aesthetic critique of what is wrong with the world and how all might be as it should. O’Brien offers the reader part critique of totalitarian governments and part examination of how such social disorders come to exist. Similar to Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Solzhenitsyn, O’Brien’s work is philosophically and theologically rich dealing with the fullness of our humanity considering such issues as life, death, habits, longing for order, and our fallen human nature. How many other novelists would put Virgil's Eclogues and Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness into conversation with one another to demonstrate the Biblical truth of the glory of creation and the fallen nature of humans? The greatest novels, by the truly great novelists, look at human aspirations, longings, dreams, the goodness of the particulars of our existence, human finitude, zeal for freedom, and our recurring tendency to get it wrong, and Voyage to Alpha Centauri does just this.  
    The big picture setting of this novel spans almost 400 years and the territory from Earth to Alpha Centauri. While the practically minded may be able to take a journey across the cosmos without contemplation of the divine, not all the characters can escape such Pascalian questions posed of the infinite by the finite. “Whoever looks deeply into the cosmos, and continues to look, cannot rest content with what he observes through the telescope. If he persists with courage and honesty, he will ask himself about the meaning and end to which the whole of creation is oriented." Again, while philosophical truths can be eclipsed by the gadgets and gizmos in some futuristically imagined literary works, O’Brien has characters who think beyond the superficial matters.    
“Does relativity relativize existence? We may feel that it does, since our psychological/perceptual/conceptual bearings are determined by planetary–based measurements, and tend to blur and even disorient us in the face of principles of cosmic physics. Yet relativity has no pretensions to being an ontological system. Indeed, philosophy may in the end prove to be a more coherent model of existence than physics.”
    By its very nature, science fiction as a genre, tends to either celebrate the science or demonize science. As with much else in the work, a theologically acumen calls for a different approach. O’Brien does not refrain from reflection of the nature of applied science. He is conscious of the truth that some of the tools we design to give us power over nature and other humans can act back upon the makers and bring unintended consequences. There is much in this novel that stands as critique of the big technologies that affect our lives (bombs and spaceships), and also the little technologies that affect our everyday in ways that we are often unaware. Such is the content of the discussion between the characters Dwayne and Neil de Hoyos, “plebian mind-nummers,” are mentioned and the conversation continues, "The old maximum e–drug. Surfing, vids, films, holo–porn.”
“Digital environmental chambers?”
“DECs? Yup, there’s a lotta people hooked on them too.”
    Examining the grand role and the everyday place of human technological power calls for more than efficiency. In truth, the more efficient our tools and techniques are, the more harmful they may be. The spirit of utilitarianism trumps careful consideration. Questions of “should we do this” are superseded by “can we do this.” Regardless of the functional role of various technologies, all tools have an ideological bias and O’Brien’s novel demonstrates through the lives of the characters that sound reasoning is imperative for tools to be used wisely.
    While this writing will likely be classified as science fiction, it bends toward the dystopian. In the currently popular genre of dystopian fiction (one does wonder why so many are writing and reading works that explore a world gone wrong), the novelist calls into question ideas and assumptions that are pervasive. As a deeply spiritual writer, O’Brien recognizes the increasing intolerance against a robust expression of that faith that engages all of life and every area of culture and society. However, like Bradbury in Fahrenheit 451, totalitarian government is not all or even first to blame. Speaking of a key character, “He was a dedicated man, since in those days the churches were closed, due to the indifference of a once religious nation and, sporadically, government crackdowns on organized religion." Part of the real genius of this novel is the realization that government, by its very nature, tends to become all encompassing. “We confuse imposed governance for legitimate authority. What, then, is legitimate authority? Is it not a mutual contract between free beings who agree to apportion their fields of responsibility and levels of decision–making, according to their gifts, while maintaining accountability, and placing above all other social considerations the necessity of mutual respect? If this is so, we must conclude that rare indeed has been its exercise in the history of mankind.” Taking a cue from Christopher Dawson, there is the recognition that humans need properly sanctioned order or government. Notice here again, a sharp observation about proper and improper authority.
    Voyage to Alpha Centauri also keeps the human being and human condition in clear focus throughout. The novel conveys a clearly articulated religious anthropology. Insightful reflection and commentary given on the distinction between communicating truth though various humane means, propaganda, and the key distinction between uniformity and unity and how that occurs within human civilizations. What is most edifying within this novel is the ongoing reflection and appropriate criticism of a dehumanizing, reductionistic, mechanistic, naturalistic worldview where,"they think everything about humanity is biology." A most ennobling anthropology is proposed in this work in contrast to an animalistic dehumanizing view that has become all too common in our age. “Every person who enters our lives is present as unique phenomena, radiational, gravitational, altering the symphony.”
    Reminiscent of C.S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength, O’Brien boldly rethinks the idea of social engineering. It is the notion that since humans can control some of nature and physical matter, the assertion and practice is that humans can also easily control human beings since they are merely an extension or variant expression of matter. "We can harness the atom, but we cannot attempt to absolutely control men's wills, nor their capacity for rational thought, nor their hunger for freedom, without grave risk to man himself.” In a Delphic moment, the question is asked, "One wonders constantly how it happened, he said. How did man cease to know himself?"
    Another religiously keen insight regarding human nature is, “behind every anthropology there is the lure of ideology. By the same token, behind every ideology you will find a determining anthropology–and this latter is the more dangerous.” Voyage to Alpha Centauri does consider humans as religious beings, longing for transcendence and desirous of community. O’Brien writes with prophetic tone and within the Judeo-Christian tradition when he has one character declare, "Man without God becomes a slave of the old gods, those demons, or else he becomes his own god and falls into another kind of darkness."
    An observation within the novel that is so true is that, “The power of culture is immense, especially when it is sensually rewarding.” O’Brien provides a novel rife with the good, the true, and the beautiful. There are works of great literature, great art, and great music, referenced throughout as markers or signposts and are used in a variety of ways to reinforce a particular truth embodied or uttered.

    Michael O’Brien gives us a work of science fiction in the tone and texture of the great novelist of the modern world. If C.S. Lewis’s space trilogy conversed with Dostoevsky while Christopher Dawson also joined the conversation, this is what it would look like. For all of us who enjoy a thick read that gives us much more than mere entertainment, but delights us and profits us, this should be added to your “must read” list.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Christopher Dawson's Religion and Culture: The Expansive Lens of Cultural Interpretation

     He was among the brightest students I have taught. We had just finished talking about how and why Freudian or Marxists interpretations of reality are suffocating in their reductionistic interpretations. The conversation moved to the writings of Christopher Dawson that are happily being reprinted by Catholic University Press of America. As our discussion meandered, he questioned, "why are Freudian and Marxist ideologies reductionistic, but Dawson's assertion that 'religion is the key to history' not reductionistic?" Bravo, I thought, a marvelous question. Now we were onto a grand quest. My first response was that, religion, as understood by Dawson is not a mere accident of human nature, but an essential characteristic or quality of the human condition that manifests itself throughout culture. Additionally, human cultures as envisioned and developed by various people through history act back upon and shape our religious impulse.
     Having read most of Dawson's works after I was blessedly introduced to them in graduate studies by an aging professor who declared, "more people need to read him and hopefully we will one day see a resurgence of interest in his writings," I can confirm the wisdom of the desire of my professor. My wise old professor did not live to see the rebirth of admirers, but he would have been encouraged more by the truth of the occurrence than his prediction. 

Dawson wrote extensively about the interplay between religion and culture. Better stated, he examined the interdependence of religion and culture as a subject that is sorely absent from modern historians and cultural scholars. Dawson asserted in various ways that religion is the key to truly understanding human history and human cultures. In truth and practice, with growing secularization comes increased disdain and hostility toward religious reality and social expressions of that reality. There is no need to look any further than the rhetorical expressions of fundamentalist atheism. Dawson warned about those who practice "any so-called science of comparative religion which treats its subject in terms of psychopathology or economic determinism is sterile and pseudo-scientific." Instead, calling for an openness to "the science of religious truth."

In addition to writing extensively about the interplay between religion and culture, Dawson was also intrigued and somewhat taken with the ways in which culture transitions from one movement to another or from being one thing into being something else. He also called for examining religion as a unique manifestation of human experience. Unlike many modern critics, Dawson examined rituals, practices, superstitions, and mystical experiences as these are part of understanding humans and religious expression. Transcendence and human consciousness should not be separated in analysis. The reason that observers of cultural change give attention to religion is because, "a culture is a spiritual community which owes its unity to common beliefs and common ways of thought...."

Whether analyzing ancient primitive cultures or the high culture of Christendom during the Carolingian renaissance, Christopher Dawson recognized the intricate and profound relationship between life and religion. His stress on the "spiritual culture--the training of the mind in the way of divine law" and even a rebellion of that way, is most important toward a proper interpretation of culture. "Thus the scientific revolution has been almost inseparable from movements of social and political revolution and with a far reaching secularization of social life which produces a new type of conflict between religion and culture." Between the acts of worship associated with religious practices and the beliefs themselves that stem from religious practices and worship. As with all things, Dawson saw a keen connection that few others have noted. 
While most of Christendom (especially Protestants and even more so Evangelicals) focus solely on ideas (a rather gnostic impulse), there is much more to understanding society and culture than disembodied ideas. In a sense, Dawson was using the insights of the sociology of knowledge, found in Durkheim, before it became standard among cultural historians. Simply put, sociology of knowledge is the recognition that there is keen interplay between the way people think and the social context of that thinking, and the way such thinking influences that very same society. It is the recognition that the way of thinking is as important as what is being thought. Where many stress the particular ideas, this approach stresses the manifestations of these ideas in habits, actions, and institutions. One contemporary sociologist employing this tool noted that “the microwave generation cannot understand the virtue of patience.” The genius of this example is that it recognizes the technological ingenuity which produced a device that in turn affects the daily habits of people. Dawson's analysis of the Enlightenment and Industrial revolution make similar observations. These same people do not realize how their new “instant” culture is counter to the habit of deliberative contemplation and the essential good of being hesitant before engaging in some actions.
     The wide world of scholarship is not likely to rise up and say, "Dawson was right about religion and culture and we were wrong." Despite the astonishing discoveries at Gobekli Tepe and what should be a universal rethinking of the ways religion shapes culture and not the other way. It is also not probable with the trendiness of the new atheists, that religion will get proper respectful attention anytime soon. However, if Dawson is right, and the sense from many is that he is right, religious reality and our "transcendent intuition" provide cultural manifestations all around us. 
     Back to the astute student who asked, why is Dawson's assertion that 'religion is the key to history' not reductionistic?" Unlike others who commit the all too common metaphysical fallacy of "nothing but." Religion is nothing but a longing for the absent daddy, culture is nothing but repressed human sexuality, society is nothing but a way to use and abuse others, and the human being is nothing but a meat puppet. Dawson did not say culture is nothing but religion. He keenly observed that in human history, religion was key to human culture. Dawson offered an expansive lens, not a reductionistic lens, for understanding religion and culture.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Andrew Klavan's Nightmare City and the Moral Gothic Imagination

    In literary terms, Gothic typically refers to that frame of mind and soul that embraces the strange, the mysterious, and the irrational, specifically terror. Gothic novels are often set in the dark and wild. This is what one encounters in Andrew Klavan's most recent novel.
    As I consider this novel written for a popular audience, there are no empty cliches for Klavan. Nightmare City is a pulse pounding, page turning, plot twisting engaging work that will be enjoyed by all who love a rich suspenseful novel. This is not a mere bump-in-the-night, goose bump, chills producing novel; rather Nightmare City has the capacity to move the soul toward reflection. The reality of death and evil are all around us and even within us. While there is the true, the good, and the beautiful  received with joy, sometimes the true and good are met in the dark. Ignoring evil does not make it vanish. In addition to our contemporary culture being taken with dystopian fiction, we seem also to be fascinated with zombies and vampires. It has been said that vampires are about sex and zombies are about death. Just a cursory knowledge of graphic novel series and the television show, The Walking Dead, one is struck by the pervasive nihilism. Klavan gives us suspense without despair, fear without hopelessness, and lessons about courage and morality in the midst of human mortality.
    Author, Russell Kirk, writing of his own ghost stories says, "What I have attempted, rather, are experiments in the moral imagination. Readers will encounter elements of parable and fable...literary naturalism is not the only path to apprehension of reality. All-important literature has some ethical end; and the tale of the preternatural...can be an instrument for the recovery of moral order." The key here is the ethical end toward which great literature often aims, but has been rejected in our own moment. Klavan is very counter cultural in this regard.
    Just as in the natural order there are laws that must be yielded to, in "ghost stories" there is a parallel principle within the supernatural order.  These accompanying laws have equally real results when adhered to or when dismissed. Again Kirk, "The better uncanny stories are underlain by healthy concept of the character of evil. Defying nature, the necromancer conjures up what ought not to rise again this side of Judgment Day. But these dark powers do not rule the universe: by bell, book, and candle, symbolically at least, we can push them down under."
    It is so important to stress here, for the reader of this blog that the realities these stories in general, and Nightmare City in particular, speak of are not merely symbolic or allegorical, as it is the case that a symbol (by the nature of being a symbol) points to or hints at a reality beyond itself. In other words, an allegory is parallel to something that is other than itself. If this is not the case, then allegories and symbols merely refer to other symbols and allegories, and the mirror maze becomes a prison.
    Additionally, Russell Kirk gives further insight into another value of the "ghost tale" which is also true of liberal arts grounded in fine letters. "The story of the supernatural or mystical can disclose aspects of human conduct and human longing to which the positivistic psychologist has blinded himself." The human heart longs for "transcendent perception" and "arcane truths about good and evil" that answers questions we have about the meaning and truth of things. Kirk adds, "as a literary form, then, the uncanny tale can be a means for expressing truths enchantingly." Many are drawn to this literary genre as it affirms what most of us know, and that is the truth that our senses are not capable of apprehending all that was, is, or will be. While the 'scientists' or 'materialists' will not acknowledge it, 'nature' is something more than mere fleshly sensation, and that something may lie above human nature, and something below it–-why, the divine and the diabolical rise up again in serious literature."
    So the scientists, mechanists, or fundamentalist who resists these tales of transcendence, and the eerie novels such as Nightmare City should more resist the ignorant order that loses touch of the ultimate reality to which these parables are set next to and offer a glimpse into. It is our narrow, shallow, and hollow view of reality that should be resisted by those of us drawn to the dark, scary, otherworldly and mysterious tales such as these that point us to what is.
    The synopsis of Nightmare City is "Tom Harding only wants the truth. But the truth is becoming more dangerous with every passing minute. As a reporter for his high school newspaper, Tom Harding was tracking the best story of his life—when, suddenly, his life turned very, very weird. He woke up one morning to find his house empty . . . his street empty . . . his whole town empty . . . empty except for an eerie, creeping fog—and whatever creatures were slowly moving toward him through the fog. Now Tom’s once-ordinary world has become something out of a horror movie. How did it happen? Is it real? Is he dreaming? Has there been a zombie apocalypse? Has he died and gone to hell? Tom is a good reporter—he knows how to look for answers—but no one has ever covered a story like this before. With the fog closing in and the hungry creatures of the fog surrounding him, he has only a few hours to find out how he lost the world he knew. In this bizarre universe nothing is what it seems and everything—including Tom’s life—hangs in the balance."
    Klavan has said in more than one interview that his ideas often begin with a "what if question." Human life is filled with mystery and the “what if” calls us beyond ourselves toward something else. Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Williams, Ray Bradbury, and Russell Kirk are grand writers who blend both moral and Gothic imagination. With a keen eye for action and adventure, Klavan joins their ranks.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Holding Firm to a Conservative Mind When Facing the Borg

     I have never acted to conceal the truth that I am a Trekkie. Additionally, I have never hidden my conviction that I am a traditionalist and a conservative in the way defined by Russell Kirk. While there are thematic and ideological elements worthy of criticism in the Star Trek worldview, there is much that can be redeemed. On the 60th anniversary of Russell Kirk's magnum opus, The Conservative Mind, it is certainly worth the time and energy to revisit this essential reading. My reexamination of the key points in this most important work has been shaped recently, in part, by my rethinking of how much some of our current political, cultural, and social moment is reminiscent of the Borg.
     While there is much for mind and soul in this volume, I would like to rethink the essence of conservatism, as discovered by Russell Kirk, and contrast it with collectivism and consumerism as an antidote to these contemporary toxins. No doubt many have been taken with Kirk's examination of conservatism by simply understanding the six canons of conservatism he proposes. Before we look at these, it is worth remembering that at the heart of Kirk's conservatism is the assertion that "The essence of social conservatism is preservation of the ancient moral traditions of humanity."
     Russell Kirk, "the benevolent sage of Mecosta," does indeed serve us as a most worthy example and guide. From the true statesman Edmund Burke through the literary giant T.S. Eliot, those desire to know what authentic conservatism is and is not, Kirk said, that in "a world that damns tradition, exalts equality, and welcomes change..." the conservative mind must be made known. For those who may not know of the infamous Borg, their notorious reputation comes from their nature to assimilate, by force, other species into their collective and compel them into "the hive mind." The new collectivism that Kirk and others warned about is equivalent to a group think. All attempts to offer dissent from the collective is not tolerated. 
     Returning to Kirk's The Conservative Mind, here is a summary (one must really savor Kirk's fuller explication) of his six "canons of conservatism:"
  • Belief in a transcendent order (not surprisingly rooted in tradition, divine revelation, or natural law);
  • Affection for the "variety and mystery" of human existence;
  • Conviction that society requires orders and classes that emphasize "natural" distinctions;
  • Persuasion that property and freedom are linked;
  • Faith in custom, convention, and prescription, and
  • Recognition that change may not be salutary reform and traditions as well as customs must be considered before political action is deemed prudential.
Add to the above six canons, Kirk's five characteristics of "radicalism since 1790" and you get a sense of both the meaning of conservatism and its enemies.
  • The perfectibility of man and the illimitable progress of society;
  • Contempt for tradition;
  • Political leveling;
  • Economic leveling;
  • Common radical view of the state's function.
     Without being reductionistic, one might be able to propose that the essential difference between the conservative mind and the radical (progressive) mind, is regarding givenness of what is. The conservative sees and embraces natural diversity and distinction and aspires to yield to what is. The radical, mocking the very notion of givenness, acts to construct a tower to the heavens and force everyone to join the project. Again, referencing the Borgs and comparing to the radicals, they insist on sameness. 
     While resistance to the modern political, cultural, and social Borg may be futile, it is imperative that all those who treasure the humane, must resist as long as possible and not give into the modern social construction of human reality.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

How Reading Thucydides During Government Shutdown Tends Toward Wisdom

"And if we should know what government is, we should observe, in Thucydides' laconic account of the revolution at Corcyra, what happens when it fails." Stringfellow  Barr

     Most keen observers would say that our government has been in failure mode for a number of decades, and this is not easily refuted on empirical grounds. Readers of the Great Books might suggest we begin not with Thucydides, but with Plato and Aristotle. One should not quibble over such matters. Instead, go now, and get a copy of Thucydides' The History of the Peloponnesian Wars. Turn and read book III, chapter X. The only immediate background needed is this: The time and place of the revolution is at Corcyra in the fifth year of the Peloponnesian War. We find ourselves in a trial of sorts.
     Thucydides describes a world where words have little to no meaning. With the collapse of communication, so comes the collapse of community. The spiral from order to chaos is inevitable. It is clear from Thucydides that events leading up to and the consequences following a revolution cast a dark shadow on human endeavors. The specific results of the Corcyraean revolution were famine and ongoing civil strife. 
     The careful reader is held from the powerful opening when the Plataeans plead with extraordinary rhetorical flare to the Lacedaemonians to the line which concludes, "Such were the words of the Plataeans. The Thebans, afraid that the Lacedaemonians might be moved by what they had heard, came forward and said that they too desired to address them, since the Plataeans had, against their wish, been allowed to speak at length instead of being confined to a simple answer to the question." (Thucydides, 3.60.1)
     Rhetoric and pragmatism is in high form throughout this event. Thucydides speaks of politics as backroom bargains, and all the scheming motivated by the pragmatic. What was absent then and absent today is statesmanship which was dismissed so brute force could be enacted and people could be executed. The cause of all these evils was the lust for power arising from greed and ambition; and from these passions proceeded the violence of parties once engaged in contention. The leaders in the cities made the fairest professions: on the one side with the cry of political equality of the people, on the other of a moderate aristocracy; but they sought prizes for themselves in those public interests which they pretended to cherish and, stopping at nothing in their struggles for ascendancy, engaged in direct excesses. In their acts of vengeance or the good of the state demanded, but making the party caprice of the moment their only standard, and invoking with equal readiness the condemnation of an unjust verdict of the authority of the strong arm to glut the animosities of the hour. Thus religion was in honor with neither party; but the use of fair phrases to arrive at guilty ends was in high reputation. Meanwhile the moderate part of the citizens perished between the two, either for not joining the quarrel, or because envy would not allow them to escape.” (Thucydides, 3.82.8) Possibly the key phrase is in reference to "the moderate part of the citizens" perishing. It is certainly a lesson of history and wise letters that the plight of the moderate is to be crushed by the extremists.
     By looking at what can happen when political and social order falls below the lowest level among humans, we can take some peace, that we are not there yet. Right? Let us conclude this reflection in a different place. For Thucydides, revolutions give us insight into human nature and the loss of all important social order. It is eerie how familiar his words are considering our context. "Thus every form of iniquity took root in the Hellenic countries by reason of the troubles. The ancient simplicity into which honor so largely entered was laughed down and disappeared; and society became divided into camps in which no man trusted his fellow. To put an end to this, there was neither promise to be depended upon, nor oath that could command respect; but all parties dwelling rather in their calculation upon the hopelessness of a permanent state of things, were more intent upon self-defense and capable of confidence. In this contest the blunter wits were more successful." (3.83.1,2)
     More than once, over the past few decades, I have had to defend why I stay focused on reading the Great Books when many others watch hours of news. The news, at best gives the pre-digested data of the moment according to the leanings of the source. For me, news tends toward befuddlement and poisons the soul which inhales the noxious vapors of the blind soothsayers, while wisdom, sometimes painful to embrace, sustains the human soul. The words of G.K. Chesterton seem more pertinent than ever when he spoke about democracies that are born as the result of a revolution. "You can never have a revolution in order to establish a democracy." Here we are more than two hundred years after our revolution with the pervasive illusion that we are fee, equal, and always changing for improvement. 

Monday, September 9, 2013

Thinking Christianly About the Liberal Arts

The incarnation calls us to the things of this world. So when we consider the following quotes about the liberal arts we must begin and end there:

What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?  

- Tertullian

“What has Ingeld to do with Christ”?
-Alcuin (when catching some monks reading Beowulf)

What has Horace to do with the Psalter? Or Virgil with the Gospel? Or Cicero the Apostle?
- Jerome    

   Just as the Logos, God Himself, became flesh, and just as God’s words and wisdom were penned by human hands in particular times and places, Christians, as embodied beings, are called to be in the world. We are called to a healthy, robust terrestriality, without compromising our calling. Engagement with the world–in all of its God–imbued glory intertwined with human wretchedness–requires wisdom from God, a wisdom that assists us to be faithful.  Just as the incarnation was ultimately about redemption, it is the task of the Christian to redeem all that can be redeemed. Paul tells the very worldly Corinthians to “take captive every thought for Jesus Christ". We can do this by imitating the enfleshed Word of God and by dwelling in God’s Words while we live in God’s world.
   It is grand news indeed that we are not alone. There have been many who have been faithful in this endeavor for thousands of years. Remember the examples of John of Salisbury and what he did with his Metalogicon, or Hugh of Saint Victor’s Didascalicon, or Dorothy Sayers’s The Lost Tools of Learning. The shape, tone, contours, and content of the Liberal arts in the West has been thoroughly developed by the Christian worldview. It is the Bible, more than any other writing, that informs the great intellectual liberal arts tradition, to such a degree, that ignorance of the Bible, virtually makes apprehension of our humane past nearly impossible. Indeed the Bible was institutionalized in the Western intellectual tradition until the modern world, and the modern world’s reaction to the Bible can be seen as persistent mass rebellion of that tradition.
   The Liberal Arts have been in decline for a number of decades and the attacks on this tradition come from various fronts. There are those who have called for all education to be “immediately practical” and “eminently usable”, who have called for the end of these “irrelevant studies” that “waste our time on fruitless” intellectual endeavors. These utilitarians are the modern day equivalent of the ancient slave owners. All considerations about the issue of what it means to be human are framed in terms of “man as worker” who is best educated when pragmatism governs the work week and consumption is the chief end.
   Not all the enemies of liberal learning are managers of middle class America. There are those in the Academy, who have been “educated” in modern day “wisdom” to have a posture of disdain toward the Great tradition. In fact, much of the attack begins there. We should recognize these enemies of the permanent things as anti-traditionalists.
I once had an exchange with an individual who claimed there was no great tradition or western intellectual heritage. I assured him that the Great Tradition is as real as Narnia and my birth city of Rochester, NY. All real in different ways, but real nonetheless. These are all places we can inhabit and that, in turn, inhabit us. Unfortunately, there are those who would state that since they have never been to Rochester or Narnia they do not exist. This is modern narcissistic folly.
   Much like Christianity in twenty-first century America, liberal learning has fallen to the wayside due more to sheer apathy than overt attacks. The masses care little about anything that happened fifteen minutes ago, let alone fifteen-hundred years ago. This apathetic posture has done tremendous damage. And the people in the academy have come to passionately embrace it. Instead of the good, the true, and the beautiful, one can now major in the relative, the mundane, and the insipid.  
   Possibly the worst enemy, both omnipresent in the academy, and pervasive throughout society, is an extraordinary level of ignorance about the Liberal Arts. Shortly after I received my PhD in Humanities, a well-intentioned but astonishingly ignorant fellow asked me in the most sincere tone, “Why would a Christian get a PhD in humanism since humanism is opposed to God?” After several minutes of trying to explain to him that I did not spend years pursuing a degree in Humanism, but in the Humanities, I yielded to him and said, “I’m not sure.”  Willful ignorance trumps learning and persuasion almost every time. Within the academy, I gave up years ago trying to explain the value of the study of the Humanities to my colleagues in the "Hard and Social Sciences."  As they have boldly declared in various ways, “we know how things really work in the world with the aid of our disciplines.” I have decided that there are certain treasures that ought not to be placed before certain critters where mud-like ignorance is the grime of their habitation.
   There are things many humans desire toward a different end than merely knowing those things. Most college students now attend college, not to learn for the sake of learning, but to acquire the skills necessary for gainful employment. Times have indeed changed. Not many decades ago, the primary motivation for attaining a college education turned toward the immediate end of earning wages. Oddly, we are at a moment when many, if not most, graduate with neither.
  To paraphrase scripture, “what does it profit a person to go to college for four years?” It seems the answer now is to establish the beginning of twenty-five years of student loans and a certificate of achievement, still called a diploma. The sad fact is that the college diploma has become synonymous with the elementary school award, “Everyone Is A Winner.”
   In the best and highest sense, a liberal arts education is a liberation from something and for something. It is liberation from the kind of narrow training that restricts one to a single trade, or skill, and a myopic vision of all that is good, true, and beautiful. Humane learning is that which moves us toward a life of happiness beyond labor, feeding, and rest. When a human soul has been expanded and ennobled by liberal learning, he is able to recognize, and desires to embrace, that which makes him distinctly human.  
   A human who has reaped the full benefits of a liberal arts education knows how to recognize the true even when swimming in a sea of propaganda. He knows the good even in an age that humorously declares there is no good. The privileged human who has received that rarest of education will know and treasure the beautiful in an age of crass consumption.
   Ideally, a liberal arts education, fully informed by Christian conviction, will make students unfit for the modern world. Much of our western world, shaped by the odd marriage of Enlightenment arrogance, Romantic consciousness, and Industrial consumerism is contrary to the virtues of those who inhabit the kingdom. While there are tensions and some inconsistencies intellectually within the Great Tradition, ones that Mortimer Adler argued should be forced to speak with one another so that the truth can be heard, there is much more of compliance, agreement, and derivation to be found here.
   Thinking Christianly about the liberal arts is not merely to give attention to the content, but is the very means of thinking about that content. In other words, in addition to what is analyzed, it is the process of analysis that was historically, thoroughly informed by the Christian faith. Within the history of the Christian intellectual tradition, the liberal arts have been appreciated first and foremost as pillars of wisdom and also as intrinsic goods gifted from God, even when discovered in Egypt and Babylon. The consensus among early Christian thinkers was that all truth is God’s truth and this remains consensus to this day among those who have learned from the one greater than Solomon. When faithfully adhered to, this conviction provides freedom.
   A major contention of thinking Christianly about the liberal arts, implicit throughout the west until the Enlightenment, is that if the Liberal arts are to survive in a meaningful manner or even thrive with new and significant scholarship, it must be among Christians–unique communities, and institutions shaped by Christian conviction. While I know and trust that there are those old school Humanists still fighting the good fight, their days are numbered. I desire to be counted among a people who recognize the eternal value of this kind of education rooted in the permanent things. It is to those people I offer encouragement: you are not alone. There is hope and help from the great cloud of witnesses to the Great Tradition. We are strengthened and aided if we have but ears to hear and eyes to see.