A double noughting

November 1st, 2015 — 3:43pm

It is [a] double nullity of both subject and world, I contend, that underlies entertainment culture and the numbing array of cultural choices produced by it. The very notion of entertainment presumes the state of boredom as the norm, which means that a culture increasingly fueled by this notion assumes that our lives are innately and intrinsically meaningless without the constant stream of “stimulation” and distraction, a stream inevitably subject to the law of diminishing returns. This nullity on the side of the subject is matched by a similar noughting in the world, for latent in this assumption is a corollary denial of form, objective beauty, or a true order of goods that naturally and of themselves compels our interest. As a consequence, according to this cultural logic, all such choices can only be indifferently related to one another. None is intrinsically good or bad, and indeed no good approaches that of choice itself. Hence most citizens of the modern West, almost of necessity, live lives of profound fragmentation and internal contradiction, and yet these contradictions too frequently make no real competing claims on lives and loyalties and cause little pain or anguish to those who are subject to them. Yet the effect of many of these choices is less to please than to stupefy, anesthetize or distract us from the failed festivals, broken communities, and otherwise empty existence imposed by a formless goalless world. (Michael Hanby, “The Culture of Death, the Ontology of Boredom, and the Resistance of Joy”)


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A welling-up of the authentic self?

October 29th, 2015 — 3:42pm

According to the prevailing notion, to be free means to be free to satisfy one’s preferences. Preferences themselves are beyond rational scrutiny; they express the authentic core of a self whose freedom is realized when there are no encumbrances to its preference-satisfying behavior. Reason is in the service of this freedom, in a purely instrumental way; it is a person’s capacity to calculate the best means to satisfy his ends. About the ends themselves we are to maintain a principled silence, out of respect for the autonomy of the individual. To do otherwise would be to risk lapsing into paternalism. Thus does liberal agnosticism about the human good line up with the market ideal of “choice.” We invoke the latter as a content-free meta-good that bathes every actual choice made in the softly egalitarian, flattering light of autonomy.

This mutually reinforcing set of posits about freedom and rationality provides the basic framework for the discipline of economics, and for “liberal theory” in departments of political science. It is all wonderfully consistent, even beautiful.

But in surveying contemporary life, it is hard not to notice that this catechism doesn’t describe our situation very well. Especially the bit about our preferences expressing a welling-up of the authentic self. Those preferences have become the object of social engineering, conducted not by government bureaucrats but by mind-bogglingly wealthy corporations armed with big data. To continue to insist that preferences express the sovereign self and are for that reason sacred—unavailable for rational scrutiny— is to put one’s head in the sand. The resolutely individualistic understanding of freedom and rationality we have inherited from the liberal tradition disarms the critical faculties we need most in order to grapple with the large-scale societal pressures we now face.

(Matthew B. Crawford, The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction)

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The wrong “why”

September 8th, 2015 — 11:46am

If you look on the world with the eyes of science it is impossible to find the place, the time, or the particular sequence of events that can be interpreted as showing God’s presence. God disappears from the world, as soon as we address it with the ‘why?’ of explanation, just as the human person disappears from the world, when we look for the neurological explanation of his acts. So maybe God is a person like us, whose identity and will are bound up with his nature as a subject. Maybe we shall find him in the world where we are only if we cease to invoke him with the ‘why?’ of cause, and address him with the ‘why?’ of reason instead. And the ‘why?’ of reason must be addressed from I to you. The God of the philosophers disappeared behind the world, because he was described in the third person, and not addressed in the second. (Roger Scruton, The Face of God, p. 45)

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Just you wait

September 1st, 2015 — 12:37pm

Somewhere near the top of my list of Extremely Irritating Things is when parents a few years ahead of me in the childrearing process say, “Oh, just you wait until . . .” Fill in the blank: “Just you wait until the terrible twos.” “Just you wait until the preteen years.” “Just you wait until they’re thirteen; you haven’t seen anything yet.” “Just wait until they want your car every Friday night.” And so on. I’ve had to boost my filters so many times, lest something slip out like, “I’ve seen the way you parent, and I guess we all reap what we sow. Thanks for sharing.” But let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall.

I’ve been warned and warned in particular about the “preteen” and “teen” years. Personally, I think Christians ought to be ashamed of thinking in these terms. God didn’t create teens, market researchers in the last century did, and we’ve fallen for the whole stupid construct like lemmings.

Preteens and teens are just children transitioning to adulthood. They’re not a third category in addition to children and adults; they’re simply young humans experiencing the very early awakenings of adulthood, who will (hopefully) spend the rest of their lives growing into mature adults, without (again hopefully) ever leaving behind the wonder, purity, and joy of childhood.

If young children need parents to keep them from killing themselves (!), to teach them to discern right from wrong, and to train them in loving and doing the right, emerging adults need parents to take them by the hand and guide them into the mental and emotional life of adulthood and into its responsibilities and accompanying privileges. I don’t know why parents seem so surprised when this is (for the parent) a lot of work. In the nature of the thing, you’re going to encounter a lot of emotional responses that are extreme and immature. That’s because . . . your child is immature. We don’t expect newborn colts to run races. Take it easy. Better things will come in time. Just don’t sink to the level of the immature responses yourself, and you’ll be fine. Remember, you’re the parent. You’re setting the example.

There’s the rub, though. In my experience (so far), emerging adults tend to “push your buttons” more than really young children for the simple reason that they’re now playing (however ineptly) on your game board. Suddenly they have ideas and opinions about adult things. Suddenly they have some real adult expectations (the age at which these expectations emerge in our entitled age seems to be getting younger and younger – one wishes the same could be said about a sense of responsibility). Suddenly they begin to manifest that they’re carrying emotional burdens and feeling passions and dreaming dreams that seem faintly . . . adult. You don’t just have a bunch of kids running around that you can put to bed or put down for a movie or otherwise put out of your thoughts as players in another game. They’re in your game. Their moves are starting to interfere with yours in real ways. To make things worse, they learned this game mostly by watching you – so guess what? You get to see all the ways you’re a loser at it, played out in very immature form in them. That child heaping snark on his sister got his tone, posture, and much of his vocabulary from you – and you get to watch it in caricature, because he’s still only ten.

It dawned on me the other day as I was talking with my twelve-year-old daughter, and she was blowing me away with her budding insight on the world, that just as I was far too surprised when my two-year-olds needed obedience training, I’m far too surprised when my preteens need virtue training – when they need calm, caring, and confident guidance in laying aside foolish ideas and emotional vices. Of course they still need a lot of wisdom. Of course their character needs to be formed in all sorts of ways toward goodness rather than selfishness and irresponsibility. That’s what this season of parenting is for. The fact that this is the season we’re in doesn’t mean we’re way off the track. It just means we need to get busy doing what we’re called to do: going for the hearts of our kids, training them to open that citadel to wisdom and invite her to sit on the throne. We need to rebuke, exhort, instruct, discipline, enjoy, empathize, invite, demonstrate, and cheer their every step. We need to ask forgiveness, and forgive. We need to spend time with them at the cross, where all progress starts and hope is always fresh. We need to put them through their relational paces every day, showing them how to prosper in their relations with God, other humans, and the stuff of the earth. We need to take the time that it takes. We need to be careful of frustrating them, because they’re still very new to the game. Where we see that they struggle because we failed in their earlier years – and we will see it every day – it’s critical that we repent to God and to them. Nothing is more central than teaching them that God is their Rock, and we know it, and we need Him, too.

Just you wait, then. Those who sow in tears will reap in joy. It’s going to be wonderful.

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The end of pioneering

February 17th, 2015 — 12:12pm

Long years after the last Conestoga wagon, the pioneering spirit lives on. For centuries it has made America great, this restless quest for a better life, and it animates us now more than ever. We may have run out of uncharted territories, but we’re still a land of options and opportunities, and we rush feverishly to every new frontier. Up and outward we move, seeking better things.

The true aim of pioneering, however, is settlement; the pioneering spirit is not mere wanderlust. The goal is to get somewhere and build something – something worth preserving. This creates a tension between the desire to go farther and achieve more, and the desire to stay, build, and beautify. A wagon track dotted by ghost towns is not a cultural achievement. For civilization to occur, some must stay and cultivate, being rooted for years, even generations. And this not just for stability’s sake, but for the glories that come only through long accretion.

Amid the mobility – the mad rush, one might say – of the 21st century, the tension just described is acute. Few of us are locked into any life arrangement; we can easily seek new and better things if something proves unsatisfactory where we are. Often it’s clear that we should do so: we should move to greener pastures. Yet for all the blessings of the fact that we now so easily can, we face a nagging question: how can meaningful relationships with people and place be sustained in the midst of endless pioneering? Relationships fare badly when nothing is nailed down, nothing deeply rooted. When is it important, in the interests of human flourishing, not to take the road to a better life, but to stay and build that life where we stand?

The problem is that, in the abstract, there’s no end to the possibilities of a better life. Things could always be better. Thus the temptation to move on from where I am is perpetually strong. Of course, it never works out exactly right. There are always tradeoffs. When I get to the new place, the new people, the new circumstances, there are always things I miss about the pasture left behind. With that said, though, there are always not just illusory but also very real benefits to be gained by moving on. I can find better things, a better life elsewhere if I look long and hard enough. So when is it time to pioneer, and when is it time to settle?

I think the answer must be that at some point, to experience meaningful relationships with people and place, I must simply commit myself in love to particular people in a particular place; I must love them particularly because in their particularity they are irreplaceable.

Marriage is the best example. In the abstract, can I imagine myself happily married to a number of women? Well, yes. That’s what makes finding the right mate so daunting. At some point, however, I must look at a particular woman and (if she’ll have me) decide my pioneering days are over and I’m hers till death do us part, “forsaking all others.” The idea that flourishing demands my keeping my options open thereafter – since a happier marriage might await me out there somewhere – is a ruinous (though very popular) delusion.

Flourishing requires loving relationships, and loving relationships require commitment – the end of pioneering. The commitment must be free. Coerced commitment is not really commitment to the beloved; it’s just acquiescence under force. But commitment, while free, is real: it’s a self-imposed binding of oneself to a beloved: “This will be my place. These will be my people.”

The same experience of flourishing that comes only after fifty years of faithful marriage will also be experienced after fifty years of faithfulness in a particular place to a particular people. This is not to say the first place one stops should be the same place one finds oneself fifty years later. Obviously, there are times when we realize a community or a location just isn’t a good fit for us, and it’s beneficial to move on. But we should pity the poor soul who, through no providential necessity but simply because of wanderlust, never unpacks his wagon, dismantles it, and builds a house where he plans to play with his grandchildren. Maybe it’s enough for him that he has seen many places and many people; the question is whether he knows any of them deeply, deeply enough to truly love them and be loved in return. The pioneers of old were going somewhere to stay; in this, we moderns would do well to imitate them.

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What is an argument?

February 17th, 2015 — 5:04am

What is an argument? In an argument, you offend ME by crossing my will. I respond by confessing your offenses to you. At the same time, I explain to you how all my failings are really your fault. If only you were different, I wouldn’t be the way I am. You do the same to me, confessing my sins to me and excusing your own. Nowhere in the heat of conflict does anyone confess his own sins, except as a way to buy time for a counterattack: “Yeah, I was wrong to do that, but . . . .” The log remains firmly planted in the eye (Matthew 7:1–5) as each party plays lawgiver and judge. “But there is one Lawgiver and Judge, He who is able to save and to destroy. Who are you that you judge your neighbor?” Here we see that at the heart of interpersonal conflict, a far more profound conflict rages: the presumptuous sinner stands at odds with the one true God. (David Powlison, “Getting to the Heart of Conflict”)

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Will power

December 3rd, 2014 — 10:07pm

If there really is no transcendent source of the good to which the will is naturally drawn, but only the power of the will to decide what ends it desires – by which to create and determine itself for itself – then no human project can be said to be inherently irrational, or (for that matter) inherently abominable. If freedom of the will is our supreme value, after all, then it is for all intents and purposes our god. And certain kinds of gods (as our pagan forebears understood) expect to be fed. (David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions, p. 227)

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Not a squeak of light

November 14th, 2014 — 1:04pm

For unknown reasons, the gust of energy that had swept me up and fizzed me around all summer had dropped me hard, mid-October, into a drizzle of sadness that stretched endlessly in every direction: with a very few exceptions . . . I hated being around people, couldn’t pay attention to what anyone was saying, couldn’t talk to clients, couldn’t tag my pieces, couldn’t ride the subway, all human activity seemed pointless, incomprehensible, some blackly swarming ant hill in the wilderness, there was not a squeak of light anywhere I looked, the antidepressants I’d been dutifully swallowing for eight weeks hadn’t helped a bit, nor had the ones before that (but then, I’d tried them all; apparently I was among the twenty percent of unfortunates who didn’t get the daisy fields and the butterflies but the Severe Headaches and the Suicidal Thoughts); and though the darkness sometimes lifted just enough so I could construe my surroundings, familiar shapes solidifying like bedroom furniture at dawn, my relief was never more than temporary because somehow the full morning never came, things always went black before I could orient myself and there I was again with ink poured in my eyes, guttering around in the dark. (Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch, p. 512)

A taste, perhaps, of why she won the fiction Pulitzer this year.

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Mood worship and the mundane world

November 8th, 2014 — 9:53am

The idea that worship is a matter of mood, of setting aside the mundane world in which we live in an attempt to attain a higher plane or more “spiritual” mood or state of mind is inherently dualistic and assumes a sacred/ secular dichotomy that is not found in the Christian Scriptures. This concept of spirituality combines elements of mysticism and paganism, but is essentially a notion derived from the Greek dualistic perspective that underpinned the Alexandrian world-view, which has afflicted the Christian Church from the beginning (and our society at large as well). It is this Greek dualistic heritage that is the source of pietism, which mood worship is a good example of. Spirituality, biblically speaking, is not an attempt to escape from or rise above this mundane world in any sense, but rather the proper dedication of this mundane world to the service of God. (Stephen C. Perks, The Christian Passover: Agape Feast or Ritual Abuse? pp. 12–13)

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Probing questions

October 21st, 2014 — 12:03pm

As liturgical forms, content, and styles of celebration are changed, we must ask probing questions of any liturgical material. What theology is being prayed? What experience of (what) God is being promoted? What in the story of Christ is being proclaimed? What understanding of the church is being generated? What attitude toward the creation is being cultivated? What relationship to the world is being strategized? What kind of worship is being made possible? What kind of hospitality is being extended? How are new Christians being made? What values are being instilled? What doctrines are being expressed? Cultural anthropologists have learned through case studies that a change of ritual forms can bring about a change of doctrine. Such data need to be taken seriously lest the community of faith gain the whole world and lost its soul. (Frank C. Senn, New Creation: A Liturgical Worldview, p. xi)

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