Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Koestler's "Darkness at Noon"

Excerpts from Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon (at Amazon or on-line in PDF)

I had heard about the author and this book-- off and on. Recently, I read another review. And then, waiting for bridge partners in the library, I wandered over to the stacks. At eye level on the first shelf I approach? This book! Seemed like Providence, so I picked it up and devoured it soon afterwards. An easy read in terms of style, but some tough concepts. Good stuff; I recommend it!

The old disease, thought Rubashov. Revolutionaries should not think through other people’s minds. Or, perhaps they should? Or even ought to? How can one change the world if one identifies oneself with everybody? How else can one change it? He who understands and forgives—where would he find a motive to act? Where would he not? (23) 

An interesting question: If you relate to people, will you have the passion/motive to work for change? But if you don't relate to people, will you have the knowledge to work for change, effectively?
 

This also reminds me of Haidt's account of the relevant research-- in particular on the Left's frequent and ironic difficulty with empathy. It also made me wonder, at least briefly, about the Democrats' inability to understand the range of Trump voters-- from supporters to hold-your-nosers-- and comments like HRC's "basket of deplorables". Do they, like Rubashov, wrestle and ultimately refuse to try empathy? It seems more likely that it's more about their orientation than their choices.

The Party’s warm, breathing body appeared to him to be covered with sores—festering sores, bleeding stigmata. When and where in history had there ever been such defective saints?  Whenever had a good cause been worse represented?  If the Party embodied the will of history, then history itself was defective. (58)

This reminded me of Orwell's account of Socialism and Socialists in The Road to Wigan Pier. (I have a review essay on the book, forthcoming in The Independent Review.) Orwell is a devotee of Socialism, but he wonders why it's not gaining more traction, given its obvious (to him) benefits. His primary answer is that Socialists are a mess-- and to the point above, they look down on people (and the people recognize this). 

The passage also reminded me of the Church. One could say the same sorts of things: How can people be so little changed by the Gospel? How can people choose grace and conversion-- and then not allow it to change their lives? How can churches be so messy? How can the Church be such a jacked-up institution? I'm reminded of the quip that the Church is like Noah's Ark: it stunk but it was the best thing going. And of course, working out grace in community-- as modeled by a Triune God-- is at the heart of Christian theology and practice. 

Rubashov has the passion but the appeal is not working. Part of the lack is their failing; part of it is perception; part of it is the enormity of the task. Again, this speaks to the Utopia of Socialism and the Gospel of Jesus. 

The cause of the Party’s defectiveness must be found. All our principles were right, but our results were wrong. This is a diseased century. We diagnosed the disease and its causes with microscopic exactness, but wherever we applied the healing knife a new s ore appeared. Our will was hard and pure, we should have been loved by the people. But they hate us. Why are we so odious and detested? We brought you truth, and in our mouth it sounded a lie. We brought you freedom, and it looks in our hands like a whip. We brought you the living life, and where our voice is heard the trees wither and there is a rustling of dry leaves. We brought you the promise of the future, but our tongue stammered and barked. (59)

As the book wraps up, Rubashov begins to debate the purist/theorist Ivanov-- with the latter's theory and purity leading him to persecute the former as a compromiser. Here, Koestler brings Socialism and Christianity together-- two similar approaches with very different worldviews. One starts with God and the individual-- and then moves to community; the other starts and mostly ends with community-- or really, the State. I'll give just a brief excerpt (160) of a long, climactic discussion (160-163): 

There are only two conceptions of human ethics, and they are at opposite poles. One of them is Christian and humane, declares the individual to be sacrosanct, and asserts that the rules of arithmetic are not to be applied to human units. The other starts from the basic principle that a collective aim justifies all means, and not only allows, but demands, that the individual should in every way be subordinated and sacrificed to the community—which may dispose of it as an experimentation rabbit or a sacrificial lamb. The first conception could be called anti-vivisection morality, the second, vivisection morality. 

Koestler also depicts the likely-in-practice contradiction in Socialism and Progressivism. In theory, the people should progress-- with the help of elites, who know and want what's best for them. But in practice, the perceived progress is halting at best, always too slow for the elite. And so, they maintain control from a spirit of paternalism and a willingness to use public policy in a paternalistic manner (170). 

The amount of individual freedom which a people may conquer and keep, depends on the degree of its political maturity...does not follow a continuous rising curve, as does the growing up of an individual, but that it is governed by more complicated laws.

One complication is that the times change. This makes it even more difficult for the rubes to keep up with the requisite growth. Fortunately, the elites are able to learn such things quickly, justifying their use of force on the unwashed (170-172). 

The maturity of the masses lies in the capacity to recognize their own interests. This, however, presupposes a certain understanding of the process of production and distribution of good...The mistake in socialist theory was to believe that the level of mass-consciousness rose constantly and steadily...Every jump of technical progress leaves the relative intellectual development of the masses a step behind, and thus causes a fall in the political-maturity thermometer.

It's always this way. Sowell describes this as the unconstrained vision of the utopians vs. the constrained vision of the realists. The former's vision is always frustrated, as they strive for its implementation. So they increasingly embrace the State as the means to various ends. With their worldview, their use of the State is ethical (means justify the ends) and practical (they are, you remember, the elites).





Monday, July 24, 2017

evolution and religion

I was thinking about Evolution/evolution and religion the other day...

I think it's reasonably plausible-- as another story/narrative within the Evolution narrative-- that religion could have evolved. People (especially early in human history) might easily imagine forces and gods/God greater than themselves-- to "explain" (really, to provide a narrative for) the mysteries of life. From there, one might reasonably expect religion to evolve into two competing camps-- interestingly, the camps we see today. 

1.) One can approach God through sufficient good works-- very common in explicit and implicit religious beliefs. This view would have the appeal of consistency with human relationships: you behave yourself to encourage business and personal relationship with others. You earn your relationships as one earns wages (Romans 4). As a parent, it's a useful meme to encourage obedience in children. It could be harnessed by religious and political leaders for their self-interests. It encourages social cohesion and efficient outcomes. And so on.

2.) One cannot approach God through good works, but it requires God's grace instead. Christianity teaches this explicitly and I have met adherents of other faiths who also believe that they will be "saved" exclusively by God's grace. The illogic (or inconsistencies) of the "works" religion could lead to a grace-based religion. It would be attractive to people since the grace is free rather than earned. And so on.

The sociological literature has indicated that the most vibrant religious communities have rigor in theology and practice. Among Protestants, groups with more rigorous (conservative) theology and more stringent (legalistic or conservative) practice are thriving. So, the strongest form of religion might be grace-based, with expectations of conduct after experiencing God's grace-- Ephesians 2:10 after 2:8-9; church discipline a la I Cor 5:9-13; and so on. 

In any case, let's assume that an evolutionary narrative is sufficient to tell a good story about the origins and continuance of human religion. Why not embrace this story in faith? Three reasons-- all of which happen to be mentioned in Romans. First, nature testifies to God's existence (Rom 1:20). How on earth did all of this get here without a Creator God? Someday, Evolution may extend far beyond its current narrative; at present, it provides only an infinitesimal proportion of what would be required for an explanation. Moreover, its difficult to imagine it overcoming its biggest conundrums--e.g., evolution through vital and reproductive organs....over and over and over again. So, the narrative requires far too much faith to embrace confidently.

Second, conscience and spirit testify (Rom 2:14-15). We know internally that there is are standards of right and wrong. Even the relativists embrace and absolute standard. CS Lewis uses this to great effect in Mere Christianity. If people try to explain this away, it's easy enough to ask them about various violations of right/wrong-- at least as it impacts marginal people or themselves. 
Third, the subjective experience of the Christian-- who has the Spirit of God living in him (Rom 8:9)-- serves as subjective-direct and objective-indirect evidence. When a Christian walks faithfully with Jesus, the Spirit indwells and dominates human/sinful nature, providing evidence to the disciple of Jesus and to those around him.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Lewis' "The Abolition of Man"

Lewis' The Abolition of Man is a set of three essays/lectures, relying on reflections on English education and moral subjectivism to the importance of living by "Natural Law" (or something similar-- what Lewis calls the Tao). 

I've often said that Mere Christianity is a great (the greatest?) apologetic for "Modern" thinkers, while The Great Divorce is a great apologetic for "Post-modern" thinkers. The Abolition of Man fits between both-- the logic of Modern applied to the norms of Post-modern. (In a recent issue of CRJ and on this podcast of CRI's radio show, Adam Pelser applies it to modern society, eugenics, etc.)

The first essay, "Men Without Chests", starts by taking two textbook authors to task. He starts with something seemingly small-- their reduction of Coleridge's use of "sublime" to express mere feelings. Students are meant to learn that "all sentences containing a predicate of value are statements about the emotional state of the speaker, and secondly, that all such statements are unimportant." (19) This troubles Lewis the thinker as a serious error. He also laments it as a missed opportunity to inspire students-- instead, almost guaranteeing that they will find the subject uninteresting. "The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles but to irrigate deserts. The right defense against false sentiments is to inculcate just sentiments." (27) But most troubling to Lewis as an educator, the authors' angle serves as propaganda. A student thinks he's doing English "and has no notion that ethics, theology and politics are all at stake." (20) In sum, the two literary critics "while teaching him nothing about letters, have cut out of his soul, long before he is old enough to choose." (23) 

Lewis is not sure whether this springs from error-- or malice and an underhanded desire to sweep away the old to bring in their own, new-and-improved worldview (25). In any case, one picks up the textbook and gets "the work of amateur philosophers where he expected the work of professional grammarians." (26) In this, I'm reminded of the scientists who do more sciency stuff than Science.

Two popular, contemporary examples: 1.) A simplistic approach to global warming: too much faith in highly-speculative models; ignoring the role of ideology and govt funding; and failing to answer the four big, necessary questions (extent of GW; extent to which it's man-made; benefits vs. costs of GW; benefits vs. costs of policies-- in practice). 2.) Trying to defend Evolution as a comprehensive system/explanation while relying on lousy and unstated assumptions about metaphysics to draw their inferences
(like Jerry Coyne)

The punchline for Lewis is that all of this develops "men without chests"-- despite calls to have the attributes that go along with chests. "We remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful." (37)


The second essay is "The Way". Lewis opens by noting the universal and necessary contradiction within relativism-- that, at the least, people are absolute (and often dogmatic) in their view that everything is relative. Why would the authors bother to write a book, otherwise?! "Their skepticism about values is on the surface; it is for use on other people's values: about the values current in their own set, they are not nearly skeptical enough." (43)


Finally, in the last essay, "The Abolition of Man", Lewis notes that man's power over Nature is really the power of some men over other men, using Nature as an instrument (67). From there, he observes that the present has power over the future. Today, there is much talk about government debt and climate change-- and the real and supposed burdens on the next generation. But it's true in all regards. Lewis focuses on Eugenics, Communism, and Nazism to make the point. Here, "the power of Man to make himself what he pleases means, as we have seen, the power of some men to make other men what they please." (70) But without the values of the Tao, how do they judge how to proceed? "They are not men at all. Stepping outside the Tao, they have stepped into the void...Man's final conquest has proved to be the abolition of Man." (74)

Buechner's "Yellow Leaves"

I'm a big Buechner fan, especially his books of definitions. I read a review of his recent anthology, Yellow Leaves, in Books and Culture-- and decided to pick up a copy. It was an easy read, full of miscellany, and ideal for a reading experience between a devotion and something that needs half of one's attention. (Here's my review of Buechner 101-- the other book mentioned in that review.)

The title comes from a verse of Shakespeare: 
That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold, 
Bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang.

Buechner uses this to introduce the project-- that his well of books has dried up (at least for now), but the miscellany is still worth "a volume like this". (ix)

Observations from the mix: 

-Buechner's story on "Presidents I have Known" includes a short memories of FDR and Truman, before sharing a lengthy discussion of Eisenhower. He didn't want to like Ike, but found his smile to be "so beautiful...utterly spontaneous...all but justified my mother-in-law's [description of him as] spiritual." (24) Buechner implicitly connects Ike and his supporters to ACL (American Civil Religion)-- one of my favorite little concepts-- describing Ike as "so spiritual".

In "Wunderjahr", Buechner shares a bit of wisdom-- "to look not at the horizon but just above it" (29). He intends this literally and figuratively, as a more effective way to see life. This reminds me of Chesterton's "maniac"-- where people stare narrowly and directly at the horizon, but lack the perspective to understand reality, dogmatically insisting that their blinkered version of "the truth" is all there is. 

Late in the same essay, Buechner notes that his first book had been a surprising success. But his second novel was wooden, overtly Christian "before I had any clear idea what Christianity was about", and his least successful book. He muses on what would have happened to his career-- given his early and later success. But he concludes "all in all I wouldn't have had it otherwise". (45-46)

In "The Laughter Barrel", Buechner shares a story of his time with Maya Angelou (66-68). They met at a speaking engagement and the emcee introduced Angelou, after Buechner spoke, by saying that their backgrounds were totally different. But Angelou said they "had the same story". He profoundly enjoyed talking with her-- mostly listening to her, really: "She is as good a listener as she is a talker, but I kept mostly silent so as not to interrupt her wonderful, lazy progress from one thing to another."

To open "Gertrude Conover remembers", he shares her speculation on theology (81-82), transforming reincarnation into its Christian cousins-- the ideas that eternal life has already begun (for the believer) and that we reap as we sow (at least for this life and probably beyond). The excerpt ends with a wild story of her marrying a confirmed bachelor-- and I don't want to steal its thunder by revealing the strange and wonderful ending (86-87).

Buechner includes a long discussion of Charles Dickens' and all of the effort he put into "A Christmas Carol" (89-91). He wrote in in two months, but took great pains to edit it thoroughly. He spent a lot of time, money and energy on its production-- "the most expensive format" of any book he wrote. And so on. Buechner concludes: "It is Dickens' undoubted masterpiece and its own way an extracanonical Gospel."

Some marvelous little gems:
-Buechner shares a pithy and powerful response to a simple question about complex matters: "Any question that can be asked in one sentence can be answered in one sentence." (43)

-Giving a eulogy for an old teacher/mentor: "it was as hard for me to look at my old teacher lying there as it was to avoid looking at him." (49)
-A story at the end of "Bulletin Board", he relates a story about a priest who struggled with depression and with whom Buechner had shared morning prayers for years. He told Buechner that his friendship and presence over nine years "had saved his life"-- what Buechner described as "a gift of sheer grace to both of us." (62)

blame and responsibility as external vs. internal

One fascinating thing that tends to separate liberal/conservative or Dem/GOP (whatever those terms are taken to mean): a tendency to ascribe blame and responsibility to the person vs. external circumstances. (Libertarians often do both-- e.g., personal responsibility is big, but the government has done a ton of harm to poor people, African-Americans, etc.)

Usually, the "conservative" propensity to "blame people" for their state is portrayed as heartless. But at least they're consistent: they also blame themselves when they're overweight (h/t: Harpers). In contrast, liberal extend the "blame others" lens to themselves, reducing the role of choice. If we're going to call the former "heartless", maybe we should call the latter "naive"?


Irony: Dems/liberals tend to be Calvinists in their implied theology and on matters of personal conduct (e.g., emphasizing orientation over choice). And yet, they often view a relatively Calvinistic god as deeply troubling. So much reduces to free will vs. pre-destination!

 




Peterson's fumble

I'm a huge Eugene Peterson fan-- and getting ready to enjoy his most recent book. So, this episode has been really painful to watch. Al Mohler has a lot of good stuff in his comments here. Summarizing and extending...
 

Remember that defining something as sin does not mean that you are unable to love the relevant sinner. But also know this can be a difficult combination to hold (or at least, be perceived as holding, in a politically-correct world).

Related: if you decide to "tolerate" X in the modern sense of the word (i.e., "accept" X in its prior sense of the word), know that this is not necessarily equivalent to a robust, biblical love for others. 


Regardless of your position, get it straight and communicate it as clearly as possible (or don't talk). Corollary: If you're older and don't much attention to "what the kids are doing", take especial care.

Recognize that the tolerant people are, at best, tolerant in an Orwellian sense. They are willing to kill you if you step out of line.

Monday, July 17, 2017

LGBTQA "community" and illiberal self-styled liberals

Haven't heard of James Martin's book, but this review in FT by Paul Mankowski provides some new angles on the topic (at least to me)-- and is otherwise a good op to revisit some of the key issues. Two things to share with you, directly:

First, Mankowski notes that the term "community" is not defined in its biblical meaning (or even, its usual secular meaning). This may be too strong as a generalization, but the reviewer is certainly correct in how the author uses the term.

From the outset the encounter is framed in political rather than pastoral terms. The term “community” in the phrase “LGBT community” is borrowed from the civil rights movement of the 1960s, and in its present employment the word corresponds to no discernible social reality. One does not find among lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people—taken as a collectivity—distinctive commonalities of religion, nativity, culture, recreation, or fellowship. Their shared interests are political; they are aggregated not as a true community but as something like a caucus. It is noteworthy that Fr. Martin voices his wish that his readers understand the LGBT acronym expansively as LGBTQA—that is, to include “questioning or queer, and allies.” The word “ally,” designating not sexual appetite but political allegiance, gives the game away.


One implication: the Church does not care about that sort of community, but rather, loves the people in that "community" and strives for biblical community. The truth is that the Church, as Church, has no pastoral interest in the LGBT bloc apart from her concern that those who compose it be protected from sin contemplated and rescued from sin committed—precisely the same concern she shows for everybody else. 
Second, Mankowski notes the ironic fundamentalism and illiberalism of Martin's narrow circle and his correspondingly blinkered thought:

Disconcerting, however, is his failure to acknowledge the existence of those afflicted with same-sex attraction who believe that the Church has it right today and has had it right all along....Such Catholics already live in the heart of the Church, as much as do any of the faithful, and no bridge needs to be built to them. Moreover, they do not need to be “accompanied,” as the jargon has it, because they have already arrived at, or never left, the home they share with their ­would-be accompanists...It is astonishing that Martin seems never to have met such a person.

For a liberal take on the possibilities of what Mankowski describes, check out Wesley Hill's terrific and courageous book, Washed and Waiting.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

disagree does not equal hate-- for Christians or pagans

All sorts of people disagree with all sorts of aspects of "my lifestyle". Maybe I missed something: Am I supposed to infer that they hate me? Here's a satirical bit from Babylon Bee on this topic. 

I love the C.S. Lewis quote on this: “I remember Christian teachers telling me long ago that I must hate a bad man's actions but not hate the bad man: or, as they would say, hate the sin but not the sinner. ...I used to think this a silly, straw-splitting distinction: how could you hate what a man did and not hate the man? But years later it occurred to me that there was one man to whom I had been doing this all my life -- namely myself. However much I might dislike my own cowardice or conceit or greed, I went on loving myself. There had never been the slightest difficulty about it. In fact the very reason why I hated the things was that I loved the man. Just because I loved myself, I was sorry to find that I was the sort of man who did those things.”

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

the arithmetic of legalism

The arithmetic of legalism:
-ADDS man-made requirements to Justification and Sanctification
-SUBTRACTS God's grace, Christ's cross/blood, Holy Spirit's role
-MULTIPLIES problems with self-image, ministry, witnessing
-DIVIDES people in disunity

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Unseen


They showed this short film at B&B...very powerful.

If you're looking for a resource on suicide-- for a school or church setting-- I'd heartily recommend this.

In trying to deal with the struggle, the grandfather tells a story about two wolves who would battle-- and the one that had fed would always win over the one who had not been fed. I'm not sure it works that way in real life, but the moral of that story: the wolf you feed will win over the wolf you starve.

In the words of John Nash in "A Beautiful Mind", you need to be on a "diet of the mind". Feed your mind good things. In Biblical terms, see: Philippians 4:8 and Romans 12:1-2.


your story? (on the pros and cons of PoMo)

One of the fascinating and troubling things I encountered a few times this week (at Bible & Beach): At times, young people have an over-arching emphasis on "their story".

One of the good aspects of post-modernism is elevating story, context, and narrative-- away from the faux certainties of modernism and scientism, elevating the value of the individual human person vs. the aggregations of socialism and its ilk, and so on.

But, as with anything else, elevating "my story" to a pedestal results in the necessarily painful manifestations of idolatry. "My story" is important, but not over God-- or how Christ and the Spirit redeem my story. Story is not my identity; story is only an aspect of my identity. It's not your story; it's your story-- in Christ.

Confusion here takes one to some very nasty places:
-comparing your story to the story of others and coming up short;
-prone to fleeting feelings, experiences, and emotions;
-building your life on a narrow, subjective, narcissistic sense of.something rather than rooting your life in the Cross, the Resurrection, the Spirit, and the Word.