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The Problematic Primacy of Personhood: (Part 1) Do we need to go back to school with Max Scheler?

Posted by nouspraktikon on February 26, 2019

Max Scheler (1874-1928)

A man who could not decide whether he wanted to be a playboy or a philosopher is probably not the best advertisement for a new ethics of love.   Yet out of charity it should at least be noted that Max Scheler was considered by his contemporaries (and I concur) the most brilliant thinker of his country and generation.  This was no mean accomplishment since the “time and place” was a still vibrant and relatively free Germany at the outset of the twentieth century.  Even if you havn’t heard of Scheler, and there are many reasons why you probably havn’t, none the less there are serious grounds for reexamining the kind of problems Scheler grappled with.    Notably this included the question: “What do we mean by ‘a person’?”  Furthermore, according to our understanding of “what a person is” what impact does that have on the relationship between rights and obligations, between law and love?

I’m not saying that Scheler resolved these problems in a completely satisfactory way.  Indeed, his philosophy resembles a ruined cathedral, at one time complete from foundation to tower, where the builder suddenly changed his mind and tore everything down to the second story.  That foundation, which Scheler insisted was serviceable no matter what religion (or none) one professed, was what he called a “non-formal ethics of values. ” Admittedly, this “non-formal ethics of values”, is just the sort of jawbreaker that you might expect to emerge from the cerebral jungles of German scholarship.  Yet, rightly understood a non-formal ethics of values gives us a key to deal with many thorny problems where the post-modern world has come up against a conceptual dead end.

For example, whom should we consider the rightful inheritor of Christ’s spiritual mantle, the modern political left or the modern political right?  Weighty and irreconcilable claims to a moral, if not apostolic, succession are made on both sides of the aisle.   To oversimplify, which should we acknowledge as the true gospel of political ethics: the left’s advocacy of indiscriminate and unconditional love or the right’s advocacy of absolute rights and righteousness?  The catch phrase here is “to oversimplify” since without further analysis of these bald claims, they both seem to rest on valid premises.   Agreed, we need to be both righteous and loving, and until we come up against a crisis where decisive action is required one way or the other, it would seem that we can eat our cake and have it too.  But then what?  In order to resolve this issue, and many like it, we need greater sensitivity.  Not greater emotional sensitivity (although that might be a desirable consequence) but a greater intellectual sensitivity.  Through phenomenological investigation Max Scheler developed his understanding of the difference between formal ethics and a non-formal ethics of values.  We need not endorse his conclusions, but we can utilize some of his discoveries as tools for resolving the dilemmas of modernity post-modernity.  It all starts by reexamining what we mean by “the person” and “persons.”  Indeed, are persons important at all, or just illusory sparkles on the surface of a vast ocean of existence?

Donald Trump vs. Existentialism

Let’s begin with the person of the hour.  Love him or hate him, everyone agrees that Mr. Trump has shaken things up on a grand scale.  Even his supporters are divided over the extent to which he has succeeded in fulfilling his promises.  But nobody doubts that his presidency has been educational.  For good or for ill, many things have been brought to light which were hidden prior to the last few years.  Most of these revelations have been social and political, and concern the influence of elites and/or the frustration of the popular will.  Yet hiding in plain sight is possibly the most important revelation of all, a metaphysical revelation in the truest sense.  Trump, of all people, has reminded everyone on the planet about the primacy of personal.

Central to the modernist movement has been an insinuation that all history, human as well as cosmic, reflects the movement of vast impersonal forces, within which individuals have little significance except to appear on the stage of life as pathetic victims.  Negatively, this expresses itself through seemingly self-evident critiques of “great man” theories, to which the adjective “discredited” is always applied.  Positively, it manifested through much of the 20th century as existentialism, the idea that the most heroic thing a human being could do was to accept the futility of life and derive meaning through suffering.  Both these moments in the self-depreciation of human life have a certain plausibility.  After all, heaven forbid that we return to the kind of hero-worship depicted by Thomas Carlyle, which reflected the Victorian world’s trauma in the aftermath of the Napoleonic episode.  Likewise, the ubiquity of human suffering certainly justifies highlighting the limitations and frustrations of existence.

Yet, viewing the 20th century in hindsight, it appears that the devaluation of the person was as much a product of propaganda as intrinsic plausibility.  Indeed, it was the high-tide of that movement against theism and personalism which was birthed in the so-called Enlightenment and then picked up momentum among the ideologues of the 19th century.  Through it all, personalist world-views never lacked exponents, of whom Max Scheler was but one voice, yet the general atmosphere of thought weighed heavily in favor of the subordination spiritual life to inexorable forces: mechanical, biological, social and (here is where it gets dicey) psychological.  If we drift spiritually, we are apt to forget that we, both self and others, are persons.  That is precisely what “they” i.e. the adversaries of personalism, who are arguably not forces but persons-in-hiding themselves, want us to forget.

In that context, consider how an individual like Donald Trump might be threatening to adherents of the impersonalist world-view.  After all, he seems to be an atavism, a sport of nature, an exception to the uniformity of history.  Naturally he is hated by those who detest his policies, but he is even disparaged by those who would normally be considered fellow travelers.  The common line is that policies are supposed to be planned and enacted by teamwork, not by rogue agents.  Yet there he is, right or wrong, reminding us that an individual can divert the course of history, if not to order, at least to some extent.  This might be the furthest thing in the world from ethical individualism, yet it demonstrates, as nothing else could, the plausibility of a personalist world-view.

Apart from being playboys, Scheler and Trump would seem worlds apart.  The reflective thinker on the one hand, the impulsive actor on the other.  Yet the present moment in history is one of flux, one which gives lie to the myth of material forces proceeding on to a determined end.  The individual has returned with a vengeance, and this should lead us to renewed reflection on personalism in both ethics and metaphysics.

 

 

Posted in Anthropology, Appologetics, Christian Education, Christianity, Culture & Politics, History, Law, Libertarianism, Paleoconservativism, Philosophy, Politics, Theology, Uncategorized | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

“Cultural Marxism” is a Pleonasm

Posted by nouspraktikon on February 1, 2019

Cultural Marxism is just plain Culture (i.e., Culture Theory)…so no, you don’t need to say it twice

Granted, it takes people a long time to wake up.  For a long time a notion has been going around in conservative circles that everything was just hunky dory until Gramci and the Frankfurt school showed up.  It is implied that prior to that Western intellectuals inhabited some mental prelapsarian world.  Baloney!  The only thing that the so-called “critical” schools did was tighten the screws until it started hurting people.  Perhaps they have taught us an object lesson in intolerance…not entirely a bad thing if it motivates one to action.

I am tempted to say that there was never any such thing as a non-Marxist theory of culture, but that would be imprecise.  Rather, there was never such a thing as a non-materialist theory of culture.  The modern theory of culture was designed as an adjunct of materialism, a theory which would explain away the existence of consciousness, volition, sensation and much else which seems to contradict our impression of how an exclusively material world would appear.  None of this has much to do with Marx, at least with the mature Marx who gave himself to ponderous and erroneous speculations on economics.  The story begins in his youth and with his more precocious peers, the Young Hegelians, who were the clearest exponents of materialism as a theory-of-everything, where “everything” necessarily includes consciousness, ideas, traditions, institutions, and morals.

These pre-Marxist radicals were too honest for propaganda purposes, and the path back to their witticisms has been strategically and mercifully covered up.  You can’t say things like “what you eat you are” or “consciousness is just another excretion of the body, like sweat…or…” and have any possibility of being misunderstood.  Building an ideology requires misunderstanding.  Enter “the Theory of Culture.”

No, there never was a “Conservative Culture Theory”

Darwinism was a “theory of everything.”  Unfortunately it was not just a bad theory, it was an unpalatable theory, which made it unpardonable.  People don’t like to be told that they are machines.  The brutal materialists of the 18th century said precisely that, and not a few of them got the guillotine for their pains.  The post-romantic, post-idealist, ideologues of the 19th century were wiser than that, and after Darwin started turning people’s heads they realized that they needed an anthropological x-factor both to plug the gaps in materialist theory and to give human pride something to hang its hat on.  The idea of “culture” was seized upon, a word which previously had referred variously to gardening, schooling, and nurturing the arts.  Now it was expanded to mean everything which was outside the human body which gave meaning to life, especially social life.  It became the sociological equivalent to the Cartesian ego, a mental complement to the material world.

But not really.  The surface dualism was only an ideological mask, not a metaphysical reality.  In place of the “spirits” of religion and the “ideas” of philosophy, the natural scientists of the 19th century filled the extra-material human world full of “culture”.    Culture was claimed to be a superorganic life, superimposed on organic beings.  However this “superorganic” level of culture was only an abstraction from group behavior, which in turn was the net result of human brains and bodies acting according to lawful patterns.

The period from the eclipse of the Young Hegelians (apx. Darwin’s Origin 1859) to the rise of the critical schools in the 1930s saw the golden age of cultural anthropology.  Supposedly this was a time of socially neutral, objective, and even edifying research.  As such it payed lip service to the classical Western notion, frequently identified with Plato, that human beings were metaphysical amphibians, inhabiting two worlds, one designated as the world of matter, and the other as the world of spirit, ideas, or according to the increasingly popular nomenclature…culture.  Unfortunately, “culture” was a Trojan horse in the service of materialism.   In place of the guileless expression of the Young Hegelians “consciousness is an excretion of the body” there was now the formidable “superorganic” which sounded like dualism but was actually the cloak and extension of a monist materialism.

No doubt this fooled gentle souls like Ruth Benedict who probably thought of the culture theory as a kind of flexible idealism manifesting itself in the variety and color of thousands of ethnic groups.  In fact, the term “superorganic” was derived from the hard-headed Herbert Spencer, and picked up by Alfred Krober in American anthropology.  Hence its roots go back to Positivism, a theory which is no less monist in its materialism than Marxism.  The only difference is that Positivism was willing to tolerate, at least for a while, some conservative norms of Western culture.  Eventually the tolerance ran out, and the critical schools (a.k.a., “Cultural Marxists”) began their relentless march through the institutions, a march which continues today.

In retrospect, this creates an illusion where “gentlemen and ladies” era of social science seems to have been motivated by Platonic idealism.  I have tried to point out that this is an illusion.  The culture concept, a formulated by the various schools of American, British, German etc. anthropology and sociology was always a derivative complement to a deeper metaphysical materialism.

Yes, different peoples throughout the world have had different traditions…but they did not come from “culture”

The total victory of the critical schools in post-modern thought is an outgrowth of the total victory of cultural anthropology in modern thought.  The latter was in turn founded on the prejudice of modernity itself.  Culture replaced idealism, as idealism had replaced spiritualism.

Objections may be raised to this view.  What, the peoples of the world had no culture?  Of course they did, but not in accordance with the cannons of the “culture theory”.  They had customs, morals, and language.  Where did these come from?  They came from tradition, of course.  But where did tradition come from?  Here is the crux of the matter.  From the point of view of the ancients, the traditions were not of human origin, but had been given to their ancestors by spirits.  This view is unacceptable to modern science.  It has never been disproved, it is simply unacceptable.  One reason why the testimony of the ancients cannot be right is that it would render the modern scientist superfluous, and the modern scientist does not want to be rendered superfluous.  The post-modern critic may smile at the discomfort of the scientist, but the critic is himself parasitic on the scientist he criticizes.

Hence it is not the ancients, but the moderns who have placed the world on a pillar of supporting elephants who stretch back to infinity.  The ancients could always specify a point of origin.  It all originated with the spirits.  This is not to say that the spirits were necessarily good.  Quite to the contrary!  The ancient account was free from the modern rubrics of cultural and moral relativism.  Many of the spirits were wicked, and the institutions they inspired were wicked as well.  Yet behind even the spirits was a substratum of nature which was good, the work of the Most High God.  Among the peoples of the Earth, it was only Israel which recovered contact with this primal source of morals and institutions.  However even outside of Israel, there were no nations who constructed their morals and manners out of whole cloth, hence they are sometimes called “children of a lesser god.”

This anthropology divested of the humanist “culture theory” is not likely to make much headway in recognized institutions of higher learning.   Modernity, not to mention post-Modernity, cannot tolerate the notion that human beings are a hybrid of matter and spirit.  Such a recognition would shut down the way society operates, higher education most of all.  No matter how intelligent a case you might make for a spiritual world, it would be banned.  The closest an aspiring professor might come would be to teach a course in the history of Platonism or Eastern Religion.  In this environment, the modern theory of culture can expect to have a long shelf life within the halls of education.  It teaches people a materialist theory of consciousness and human institutions, while flattering them that they are creating their own world: Free spirits who, if you bother to read the fine print, are neither free nor even spirits.

 

Posted in Anthropology, Appologetics, Christian Education, Conspriacy Theory, culture, Culture & Politics, Paleoconservativism, Theology, Traditionalism | Leave a Comment »

Jesus, teacher of the full Torah

Posted by nouspraktikon on August 20, 2018

JESUS, TEACHER OF THE FULL TORAH

…work out your salvation in fear and trembling. (Phillipians 2:13)

The full Gospel and the full Torah

Elsewhere, in 1 Corinthians 2:2  Paul gives us the full Gospel, explaining that he is determined to convey only his  knowledge of Christ and him crucified.  This knowledge does not refer to consciousness, information, or skills.  Paul was not an anchorite meditating on the Crucifixion of Christ 7/24 in a cell with disciples shoving him meals through a crack in the wall.  Paul had skills, wrote a lot, made stuff on weekdays, like tents, and preached on the sabbath.   In Corinthians Paul writes in Greek but thinks in Hebrew, where knowledge (Heb. daát) means something like intimate connection, as in the euphemism “he knew her in the Biblical sense.”

Jesus is our exclusive savior, but the Gospel, in the sense of evangelism, is not our exclusive preoccupation.  Paul’s words in Philippians are problematic because contemporary Christians tend to jump to evangelical conclusions.  This  makes the verse liable to a salvation-by-works reading which contradicts the Pauline doctrine of of grace.  However the phrase “work out your salvation” does not refer to the initial free gift of salvation.  It refers to the unpacking, assembling, and use of God’s gift.  What are the principles which ought to guide the life of someone who has gotten Jesus for free.  Do we send a thank you note?  How do you send a thank you note to God?  Surely we send it with our lives…as a “living letter.”

But then again, do we even need send a thank you note?  The antinomian would say “no”…that sending a thank you note is an insult to God.  Rather, we ought to live our lives with riotous abandon…showing the heathen what a great God we have who saves even the most contemptible sinners.  This view, though a minority position among theologians, actually crops up from time to time.  Let’s leave that discussion alone, since most Christians, whatever their failings in practice, are unlikely to be antinomians in principle…unless perhaps their common sense has been interfered with by too much theological subtlety.

Jesus the Teacher of the completed Torah

Most people will want to send God a thank you letter with their lives.  They will want to live their lives according to a pattern which is pleasing to God.  However they will also be careful not to give others the impression that they have earned their salvation through good works.  The antinomian is a rare but dangerous breed, and ever ready to pounce upon those who “trust in the law and not in grace.”

Yet, apart from those rare and eccentric antinomians , it is usually acceptable to be good, and even ever so, very, very squeaky clean good if you really want to be.  However if you ground your goodness according to Biblical standards, be prepared to face criticism, and not just from hard-core antinomians and kindred free-spirits.  Be prepared to face criticism from Christians, and even, perhaps especially, from morally rigorous Christians.

Morally rigorous Christians will agree that the gift of the gospel should evoke an ethical response from the believers.   However they are wary of the so-called “Old Testement”…a.k.a., the Torah that both Jesus and Paul knew and taught, albeit in a way which differed radically from the teachings of the Jewish rabbis of their times.  Torah (the life instructions and guidelines found in the beginning of the Bible) is supposed to be something other than, if not contradictory to, Christianity.  If you are determined to be good, then at least you should add some extra-Biblical criteria of goodness to your faith.  How about some virtue-ethics from Aristotle?  Or how about some Stoicism or Buddhism?  Marx anyone?  The last thing we want is an ethics drawn straight from the Bible, lest we be called Hebrisers…or worse, actual Jews!

Furthermore, weren’t the lives of both Jesus and Paul a string of unrelenting debate with Torah rabbis?  Well, yes, but that actually proves the opposite.  Jesus and the Pharisees were rivals, which means that both were struggling for the same thing.  They were both struggling for Torah.  The Torah of Jesus seems like a “new” teaching, or Torah.  However it was actually the teaching of the Pharisees which was new.  The teaching of Jesus was actually the old Torah of Moses, which was new in the sense that we speak of a priceless antique being “made like new” once the patina has been removed from its surface.

What was the difference between the Torah of Jesus and the apostles on the one hand, and the Torah of the scribes and Pharisees on the other?  Jesus taught the full Torah, his contemporaries taught only a partial Torah.  What does this mean?  Well, it is said that there are 613 precepts in the Torah.  Does this mean the Pharisees were teaching only 612 and Jesus was preaching the full 613?

Is this numerology or something?  Heaven forbid!

To avoid majoring in the minors, we need a succinct summary of the Torah.   As long as God has been kind enough to provide us with just “ten words” in the Bible which we need to obey, let’s lay aside the notion of 613, or some such number, precepts.  Usually these Divine Words are called “the ten commandments” but out of sensitivity to the law-phobic let’s call them words.  There is another reason to call them the “ten words”…since God’s words flow together as a single idea, expressed in a complete sentence.  If you take one of the words out it changes the meaning of the sentence completely.  That is the meaning of “you must keep the whole of the law”…not that anyone is actually expected to keep 613 “mitzvot” or commandments.

The scribes and the Pharisees were very good at keeping nine out of the ten commandments.  These nine are all things that one can do, or refrain from doing, with the body or using outward verbal expression.  The tenth commandment is different.  It is completely mental.  Superficially it seems to be a law against envy.  The authorized version uses the old-fashioned word “covet” which means “wanting to have something which other people have.”

Don’t lie. Don’t steal. Don’t murder. Don’t cheat on your spouse.  So far, if your conscience has even a spark of life in it, so good.  But what about “Don’t even think about any of that stuff!”

That’s the Jesus difference.  Jesus was teaching the full Torah, the scribes and the Pharisees were teaching only 9/10ths of the Torah.  It is not that most scribes and the Pharisees fit the cruel caricatures in which they are often depicted in Christian drama.  As far as intentions are concerned, they were probably outstanding in the degree of kindness and consideration they exhibited towards their peers.  In particular, they wanted to exculpate their contemporaries, and especially themselves, from the onus of violating the psychological implications of Torah. Their reasoning was as follows:

“Look, we know that the human mind is impossible to control.  The prophet Jeremiah himself said that it is the slipperiest and most deceptive thing in all creation.  Let’s be realistic.  If you will just act in a way which is socially responsible and morally decent, we will give you a pass.  What you think is your own business.”

This sounds reasonable, but unfortunately it stumbles on the last word of the ten words.  That word is not just about cravings for sex or the possession of buildings and domestic animals.  It is about the normal mental disposition of fallen humanity, a disposition which makes us so unsatisfied with our lives that we are, in extremity, driven to lie, steal, cheat, and even kill.  These actions don’t suddenly appear without cause.

The late Rene Girard, a French emigre who taught anthropology at Stanford University, noted that the object of the tenth word, i.e. “coveting” was the wellspring of all fallen humanity’s actions.  According to Girard, we are driven by a desire, not just to usurp the possessions of others, but to displace them in their very existence.  In the eyes of the (tenth) commandment breaker, the crime of the man or woman in our own chosen field (our neighbor) is not just that they have more “stuff” than we do.  Rather, it is their existence itself which is offensive to us.   We think, even if we do not say, “So and so has my same ideas, aspirations and attributes, and in fact is more successful than me in promotion of these things, yet paradoxically, so and so is not me!   What am I to do?  I must displace him or her…since there cannot be two of ‘me’!”  The preferred method of rivalry is to imitate the rival, to become a more successful version of the rival.  Yet who can become a better ego than their rival alter ego?  Hence elimination follows upon the failure of imitation.  Indeed, if things were allowed to take their natural course, breaking the Tenth Word in thought would lead back, by degrees, to breaking the Sixth Word in practice.

Jesus had an intuitive grasp of all these deep and unsettling truths, since they lurked at the bottom of the Tenth Word of the Torah, disguised by homely language about houses and cattle.  He recognized the essence of the matter and was not afraid to teach it.  He knew that breaking the last word, like removing the keystone from an arch, would cause the structure of the prior commandments to collapse. His rivals, intent on establishing a practical religion of action (both performed actions and prohibited actions) were horrified that the firewall between the body and the mind had been breached.  They feared that a psychological Torah would be impossible for anyone to keep.

Their fears were well founded, but Jesus continued to preach a psychological Torah anyway.  In this regard, as in all others, it was Jesus who was the orthodox Torah teacher, since Moses had already insisted on purity of mind as well as body.  His rivals were content with a seemingly tolerant, but increasingly minute religion of actions, an “orthopraxy” in the stead of “orthodoxy.”

Fear and Trembling

It is not that anyone needs to practice the Ten Words in order to get into heaven.  That is not what the “fear and trembling” is about.  The fear and trembling is the vision that we all should have of the contrast between a perfect God and the manifestly depraved tendency of the human mind when left to its own devices.  The Tenth Word, the word against Envy, is the capstone of Torah, just as the monotheism of the First Word is its foundation.

Just as his rivals feared, Jesus, in preaching a Torah which condemned the mental quality of envy as well as the increasingly vicious actions which proceed from envy, was preaching a Torah which is impossible for human beings to keep.  Moses had already understood the incompatible relationship between the moral teachings of Torah and the imperfections of human life, which is why the sacrifices of atonement were instituted in the temple.  With much greater confidence, Jesus, looking forward to the Messianic atonement, taught perfect doctrine to imperfect creatures.

We cannot live utterly without envy, and even if we could, it would not get us into heaven.  However we can “work out” our heavenly destiny by unpacking and living out the teachings of the anti-envy doctrine, which is one of the treasures which has been delivered to the saints.  It is edifying for us, and also a great way to say “thank you” to the God of our salvation.

Posted in Christian Education, Christianity, Culture & Politics, Hermenutics, Kabbalah, Paleoconservativism, Traditionalism, Uncategorized | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Centers of Barbarism: An Architectural Parable for America’s Academic Apocalypse

Posted by nouspraktikon on December 20, 2017

Reverting to Pictures…and Structures

Words cannot describe, indeed, words are no longer permitted to describe, the tragedy of American higher education.  From beacons of light, freedom of thought and expression, edification, and religion, our universities have become Centers of Barbarism.  Today, the untutored thought of the average garage mechanic is likely to be more liberal, more sincere, more unprejudiced than the snarky chit-chat of today’s illiberal colleges of arts, and I might even venture, that the mechanic’s conversation is actually less “mechanical”  in terms of knee-jerk predictability.  With but a few rare exceptions, the American academy has become noxious, a parasite both dependent upon and poisoning society as a whole.

We are left speechless, which is the intent of the modern educators, namely, to destroy language and hence the capacity for thought.  What use is dialectical refutation when the evil a person tries to denounce is embraced through what Friedrich Nietzsche called “the trans-valuation of values.”  I show you the evil of your ways, you say that yesterday’s evil is now good, and rejoice.  As the expression goes, what can a person wash down their throat with when they are choking on water!

Indeed, how should we argue, we who are sworn against the evils of the times?  Well, perhaps when words become vain, pictures will suffice, for a timely parable will often quicken the spirit even while reason slumbers.  Sadly, but usefully, the Academic apocalypse has a material analogy, for the very stones cry out in an elegant revelation of our tragedy and its origin.  Anyone who strolls through an old, established, American campus can see this great tableau of moral and intellectual decline engraved on the monuments which have been erected by successive generations of scholars, students, and sundry souls.  I’m talking about buildings, or what the moderns and their post-modern heirs would call “the physical plant.”  There is good and bad architecture, and their correspondence to correlative moral epochs is no accident.

Physical light has always been the analogue of mental enlightenment.  Where do we see this amplification of light but in the architectural style exclusive to Western Europe and its outliers, the vertical  style of the great cathedrals of the middle ages.  Abbot Suger (France 12c.) put it best when he described the upward intensity of light leading the soul to the Father of Lights himself, an experience which was made available in the ancient “virtual reality” of stone and glass work, the “poor man’s bible” of the middle ages.  Yet this style has been stuck with the label “Gothic” since the late Renaissance, the Renaissance being the first attempt by Westerners to sweep their own past into the dustbin of history.  Originally the Gothic style had been called “French-work” from the epicenter out of which it spread over the civilized world.  Yes, I make bold to say, over that portion of the Earth which was then most civilized, an inescapable value judgement.   One can never avoid aesthetic judgments, and neither can one avoid moral judgements.  No two things are ever equal in value, least of all architectural style.

We may not agree on either our opinions or our nomenclature,  but the fact remains, some things (including buildings) are essentially barbaric, while other things are essentially civilized.  Note that on the surface, the advocates of multiculturalism seek to abolish the civilization/barbarism duality.  However in practice, even they cannot avoid valuation.  Rather, they now stigmatize Western Civilization as barbaric, even if the word “barbarism” is avoided to give the illusion of value-freedom.  The previous valuation has simply been inverted, with the non-West now being viewed as civilized in relation to the barbaric West.

Where have we seen this before?  We have seen it in the literal demonization of traditional Christian architecture ever since the late Renaissance.  It is called Gothic,  but  what does that mean?  To those who revived the classical architecture of pagan antiquity, Gothic meant barbaric, while to our contemporaries, “Goth” is something or someone dark, dangerous, perhaps even satanic.  In reality, the Goths were an ethic group, now vanished, who were migrating into Christendom, struggling, however inconsistently, towards the light.  They had nothing to do with the architectural style now called “Gothic.”  Therefore, even if we must conform to the accepted nomenclature and call this style Gothic, we must remember that it is the physical embodiment and symbol of civilization, while its critics (Islamic, classical, or modernist) are to varying degrees  barbarous.

As a preliminary exercise, let’s compare the Gothic cathedral of the middle ages and the mosque of the same era.  We will make a little gamble, and the winner will get to pick what we call “civilization”.  After all, we have to play the game fairly. If I maintain that there is always a preeminent civilization, and that all other cultures must be evaluated according to its standard, then we must entertain the possibility that this preeminent civilization is not the West, but some other culture on the face of the Earth.  The middle ages is an interesting case in point, for there are many sober and diligent scholars who claim that the Islamic world was the most advanced portion of the globe during the time span of roughly 1000-1500AD.  During this time, it is claimed, the Christian West declined into relative barbarism. Furthermore, this is is not just a sectarian dispute, since the thesis is upheld by many Christian and secular scholars as well as by, of course, most muslims.  If you are a philosopher and can judge the works of say, Averroes against those of, say, Aquinas, then perhaps you can form an educated opinion on the matter.  Most people can’t, so they need a “poor man’s bible”…a sensory object against which they can make an aesthetic judgement, and hence to the basis of a moral judgement.  An aesthetic judgment goes as follows “…yes, that is beautiful…but not as beautiful as this.”  Of course, aesthetic judgements may be wrong, and may even change as a person’s perception becomes more refined.

Now, compared to the barbarism of modern secular architecture, the classical Islamic mosque is beautiful indeed.  However compared to the Gothic cathedral, the mosque seems unoriginal, even boring.  The enthusiast for mosques will, at some point, try to diverge into the subject of ornamentation, however I want to stick with the fundamental structural principles characteristic of architectural styles.  The mosque (and yes, anything can be a mosque in a religious sense, I am talking about the typical mosque of the Near East during what we call the middle ages) was largely dependent on the architectural principles which had already been developed by the time of the late Roman empire.  Interior space had been enlarged by putting a dome upon four supporting walls, a feat made possible by the plasticity and strength of Roman concrete.  A prime example of this is Haggia Sophia in what was once Constantinople, now Istanbul.  One or more towers was added to this Roman design, and voila, we have a mosque.

The development of the Gothic Cathedral also started out on the basis of late Roman, or “Romanesque” architecture.  However the cathedral diverged from the Roman plan in a radical way that the mosque did not.  Height and interior space was enlarged by buttresses, and the ratio of building material to surface was minimized, making room for enormous, translucent, windows.  The salient point here is that while the Roman and Islamic form depended on material strength, the Gothic style solved the problems of height and space through pure geometry.  To put it in more prosaic terms, it was by structural engineering rather than by material engineering that the cathedrals were constructed.  The cathedrals did not spring up from the Earth, they were translated to their sites from the heavens of the mind.

I know that this sounds fanciful, but the builders and patrons of the cathedrals themselves saw their works not as mere constructions, but as the manifestations of pure geometrical forms, sometimes called Platonic Ideas, and being Christians, they believed that these Ideas were not naturally birthed in the minds of mortals, but rather needed to be quickened in their souls by the operation of the Holy Spirit.

From Gothic to Barbaric

The “Gothic cathedral” cannot be stuffed into a secularist pigeonhole called “religion.”   During the middle ages the cathedral was also a school, until it got too large and had to be moved into an annex and called a university.  Thus Gothic style and the Western academic tradition were coeval and indistinguishable.  One was the physical correlative of the other, but as we have seen, even the physical plant of the early academy was spiritual in both design and intent.

In contrast, the architecture of modernism reflects the fact that today’s academic system is, for the most part, a vast money-making and consciousness-molding machine.  To go into the details of the machine would be tedious, but simply to consider, in the eye of the mind, the structural principles which house the machine is  revealing.  The modern university consists mainly of large rectangular concrete blocks, devoted to residence, instruction, and administration.  The academic environment is marked off from the rest of the urban environment by greater uniformity of structure which creates a clean, almost antiseptic, space which is generally safe for both humans and their supporting devices.  There are also oblong temples for the body, called sports areas.  These arenas augment the otherwise soulless academic environment with a kind of spirit, ostensibly a clean spirit, though never quite the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit was not expelled from the academy in a single act of apostasy.  Here we are eschewing intellectual history, the insidious and multi-faceted rise of secularism, but rather would epitomize the fall of the West through the story of its monuments, the degeneration from Gothic, to neo-Classical, and finally the modern.  This was not a single line of development, but a surge of iterating movements, each adapting, rejecting, or ignoring the stage before it.  Originally there was no such thing as “academic Gothic”   for there was no separation between school and church,  and hardly any between the chapel and the quadrangle, the vertical and the horizontal Gothic.

The classical style was a step backwards, quenching the Spirit, yet initially it was the product of good intentions, a quest for purity.  Granted, the mental and material reformations were somewhat out of sync.  While Cranmer and Hooker both preached and studied in the Gothic halls of England, their American successors took up lodgings in the neo-Classical as soon as they could move out of log cabins.  Even Darwin was a Cambridge divine at first, and it took many decades before the acid of his thought was able to eat away at the stones which nurtured him.  It was in America where academic and ecclesiastical architecture first parted ways, but not for long, as the neo-Gothic movement surged back and captured the imagination of the romantic generations.   The enthusiasm for the old architecture soon infected the academic world, even though 19th century materialism had given secular studies a charter of independence from the church.  It was a revival in stone which mirrored the many spiritual and intellectual revivals of America’s new republic.

Despite the church bona fides of the neo-Classical style (eg., St. Paul’s of London) the Gothic revival arrived as a protest against secularism.  Is it too broad an accusation to claim that the neo-Classical was a secret portal to atheism?  We may esteem Jefferson and his practical design of Monticello, but the faith of Jefferson was that of an Epicure who admired Christianity from afar.  Neo-Classical was the style of the Puritan divines, but also of men who’s orthodoxy was less than pure.  The rational principles of Neo-Classical  architecture became embedded in the secret language of deists and occultists, and the building profession itself lent its name to a great secular fraternity which in some times and places has operated as a secret alternative to the church, even to this day.  In contrast to this modern Masonry, neo-Gothic raised the banner of that faith once delivered to the cathedral builders.

In American Gothic (the movement, not the painting!) one name stands out above all others.  It was Ralph Adams Cram (1863-1942) who revolutionized, or perhaps we should say, “reactionized” American ecclesiastical architecture.  Yet this Gothic tsunami swept beyond the church and into the heart of American higher education, and without this revolution we would scarcely even have our stock image of “ivy covered halls.”  Apart from his church buildings, the palisades of Rice University (Texas) are usually considered Cram’s masterpiece.  It was with Cram’s style that, as a child living in a another university town, I grew up.

Whatever Cram’s faults (and he was more than a bit of a snob) he understood the essential principle, that the spirits of men must exist in harmonic resonance with their dwellings.  Cram, the arch-Goth of American architecture, imitated his Creator by placing a firmament between the ecclesiastical and academic applications of his art.  He understood that that the era of transcendence was past, and that the Man of the Earth had arrived.  Accordingly, when he designed Rice University he eschewed the vertical architecture which characterized his cathedrals.  A comparison of St. John the Divine and the Rice administration building gives a wordless testimony to how, even by the early 1900s, a half-way covenant had been made with secularism.  Rice is more Romanesque than Gothic, and indeed has a Moorish flavor about it, as if the Alhambra had been spirited off to Houston.   The temple of American learning remained a palpable temple, however it was no longer the First Temple, that of Solomon, but the Second Temple, that of the Idumeans and the Arabians.

It would seem that Cram, cathedral architect, had taken (or mistaken) modern scholars to be children of lesser gods, hence he stooped down to provide them with decent, if not uplifting, habitations.  The experiment worked, and for several generations thereafter it was possible to stroll along an academic porch and gently converse over the ideas of Nietzsche and Freud with the same tenor and consideration that one might grant to a reading of Jane Austen.  The eclectic architecture of the mid-20th century reflected a half-way covenant between civilization and barbarism, and indeed, it lasted so long that people began to mistake it for a genuine covenant, rather than a truce.

Insidiously, the corrosive ideas of modernity began to eat away at the stone, as each cohort of graduating scholars received a fainter imprint of the original Spirit which had animated Western learning.  A time came when it was thought suitable to construct buildings without any reference to antecedent human tradition, buildings which were smoothly operating machines designed for human habitation.  Such machines can be well oiled without being truly anointed.

I will not foster any hypotheses on you.  Did the minds make the buildings or the buildings make the minds?  I have my notions about efficient and final causes, but they are irrelevant here.  I am not interested in making arguments or “causing a scene” in front of those whom I would deem barbarians, those who have made civil discourse impossible.  Rather than my words, look at the scene itself, look at the bricks and the stones, and see if you can draw out their inner spirits.  Stroll through any college campus and look at the testimony of those monuments which speak softly of antiquity and modernity.  See when they were built, and imagine what kind of person would have constructed such an edifice.

Then use your own mind, use it like the staff that Moses used to strike the rock in the dessert.  You will find palpable truths written in stone, and discover that you have become an archeologist, a discoverer of the past, present, and possible future of Western civilization.  Not, “an” endangered civilization….but civilization, which is endangered.

 

Posted in Anthropology, Appologetics, Architecture, Christian Education, Christianity, Culture & Politics, History, Paleoconservativism, Philosophy, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Three possible anthropologies: the Man, the Crowd, or the Battlefield

Posted by nouspraktikon on December 13, 2017

Christ, Durkheim, Marx

There are only three anthropologies (and here by an “anthropology” I mean what most people would call a “world-view”) which remain possible for the West as it vanishes into post-modernity 1)Christianity, 2)Positivism, and 3)Marxism.  It is not a choice between three men, since two of them, by their own admission, are dead.  It is a choice between one living man and two systems struggling for the loyalty of the world.  These three are irreconcilable, yet those people who once prided themselves, whatever their background, as “children of the West” generally tried, with varying degrees of success, to mix the three principles.  Here I just want to sketch their differences and send the reader off on a rewarding path of future research.  I think this is an important course correction for conservatives, since I have noticed that Marxism has come under under a more than sufficient amount of criticism.  I say amount rather than degree of criticism, since the depth of Marxian evil is difficult to overestimate.  However Marxism didn’t just break into the sanctuary of Western thought like a thief, carrying away the chalice of impeccable philosophy.   Long before the barbarians broke through the gates, the capitalist West had yoked itself to an ideology which was more than sufficient to destroy religion and morality.

That ideology was, and remains, the Positivism of Auguste Compte and his disciple Emile Durkheim.  Today Positivism is buffeted by the scathing winds of post-Modernity, and the uncritical observer might presume that its supporters had dwindled to a deplorable basket of geeks and nerds, eking out a troglodyte existence in the basements of Engineering departments and Physics laboratories, while pathetically awaiting replacement by their own robotic creations.  Yet while mechanistic materialism remains a distinctive legacy of Positivism, its influence within the social sciences is far more alive and important today, for it continues to shape the moral presuppositions of many who consider themselves sober, mainstream thinkers…even self-described conservatives.  And while the physical philosophy of Positivism has been outflanked by quantum theory, its sociology has only been enhanced by bureaucratic globalism.

When we hear the word “collectivism” we are apt to think of Karl Marx and his disciples, and in a rhetorical sense both the friends and foes of Communism have gotten a lot of mileage out of the term.  However it is Positivism, not Marxism, which has been the major source of Western collectivist ideology since the early 19th century.  It is Positivism, not Marx, which replaced God with Society as the ultimate object of fear, concern, and worship.  We must at least credit Marx with intellectual consistency, since he recognized that God was irreplaceable and that respect for anything, be it Human Society, the Earth, the Moon, or the Cow that jumped over it, would soon go out of vogue among a population of convinced atheists.

Positivism is nothing if not respectful.  We can briefly pass over the career of August Compte, since the man was a hopeless lunatic.  Most atheistic conservatives, while craving order and respect, are unwilling to enlist in an organized “Religion of Humanity” with an actual atheist pope (as per Compte himself!) or ritual postures of adoration towards women (theoretically, as the respected “bearers of Humanity” but in practice, Compte’s mistress playing the Virgin!).  Even gender feminism hasn’t quite gotten to demanding that!  Atheists, on the whole, just want to get rid of God, they don’t want an atheist church preaching morality and sentimentality.  They may, some future day, be coerced into joining something like an atheistic church, but they won’t join one voluntarily, as per Compte’s abortive experiment.  This is significant.

A generation after Compte, in order to divest Positivist ideology from its ridiculous cocoon of pseudo-Catholic ritualism,  Emile Durkheim founded the modern discipline of Sociology as a (supposedly) objective line of academic  inquiry.  Yet the core ideology, that religion is “Society worshiping itself” remained the guiding principle of this modernized Positivism.  This is the ideology of the group-mind, an ideology which no longer is likely to absorb the world into an atheistic variant of the Jesuit-Catholic church (in spite of the efforts of the present pope!) but which is implicit in the modern network of banks, bureaucrats, and the modern media.

Durkeheim saw 19th century society slouching towards what he termed an “organic” society.  In a surprising reversal of the usual technical nomenclature, he described traditional societies as “mechanical.”  In other words, they were societies which were built up of homogeneous blocks, families grouping together with similarly structured families to form communities, tribes grouping together with similarly structured tribes to form nations.  In contrast to this building block world, modern society is based on functionally different groups interlocking with each other to form wholes, much like an organism.  Thus the modern bond of social solidarity is actually stronger and more permanent than the traditional versions.  Tribe A and tribe B can separate (secession) but industry or profession A cannot separate from industry or profession B without collapsing the interdependent system.  Hence, whatever your feelings about today’s processed foods, modern society is intrinsically “organic” in Durkheim’s scheme of things.

From a Positivist point of view, even in lieu of a formal “Religion of Humanity” this increasing interdependence should create ever deepening harmony and unity of mind, albeit one person’s harmony and unity of mind is another person’s tyranny and death.  Dream or nightmare?  It largely depends on what one thinks about individual sovereignty in contrast to the efficiency of ever expanding spheres of collective responsibility.  For the collectivist, there is a spiritual release in surrendering the individual ego to the will of the crowd.

Marx, no lover of the individual, none the less thought he saw a flaw in the Positivist program.  Anti-religious to the core, the pseudo-Catholic regalia of early Positivism spurred him to ridicule.  Marx didn’t want to worship society, he wanted to destroy it, and replace it with something better.  He reasoned, correctly, that society, conceived as an aggregated whole, was illusory.  For Marx classes were the actualities lurking under the mask of “society.”  However Marx didn’t protest against one abstraction only to replace it with another, for he knew that “class” was just as much a mutable phantom as “society.”  Rather, the core of human reality, according to Marx, was conflict, an idea which he found robustly confirmed in the works of Darwin.  Love and harmony among or within a class or classes was not the object.  The object was war, class war.  For Marx there is no such thing as humanity in the abstract, there is only a battlefield called human history.

Can you see the trap into which the conservative, the moderate, the well wisher of humanity is likely to fall?  Sober and sensitive minds will exclaim, “Surely we cannot allow chaos to reign, we must return to order and harmony!”  Surely, but how?  “We must not let particular class-interests guide our actions, we must do everything for the good of society as a whole!”  Really?  But what is society?  It is a ghost, an abstraction…in short, it doesn’t exist!  None the less, this phantom of the social god, first hatched in the lunatic mind of Compte, has been clothed in scientific legitimacy since the time of Durkheim.  Today’s college graduates assume that society is a reality, and that it obliges us to do something, ether for it (conservative) or to it (radical).

Anyone who is seriously opposed to collectivism must recognize that collectivism antedates Marxism, and moreover that Marxism is a reaction to the collectivist notions of Positivist social science.  These two systems, Marxism and Positivism, are both hostile and irreconcilable.  None the less they reinforce each other, order breeding chaos and chaos breeding order.  Is there no way out of this ring of fire?

Well, here is a hint towards the way out.  Readers of my essays know that I am always talking about something called “anthropology” and that this “anthropology” means something very different from what most people think.  Neither Marxism nor Positivism have use for anthropology in this special sense, although they both recognize that there is an anthropoid species homo sapiens, which has somehow or other gotten control of affairs on planet Earth.  Hitherto this dominance over the planet has just been due to chance and good luck.  But now a self-conscious elite of planners is ready to take control.  For Positivists the planners are social scientists, for Marxists the planners are revolutionary agitators.  For the time being these planners are, or seem to be, members of the human species, but this is not essential.  In the future they may be machines, or spirits, or space aliens.  From a scientific perspective (either Marxist or Positivist) it doesn’t particularly matter, as long as someone is in control.

However there is also a third way, the way of Christianity, which is a genuinely anthropological way.  A hint that Christianity might not just be “a” way, but actually “the” way, is the manner in which it solves the problem of love.  In Christianity love is not just an abstract humanitarianism, it is manifest in the special love of individuals for other individuals.  From the point of view of both Positivism and Marxism, special love-relationships seem narrow and privileged.  Even humanitarianism must give way to love for the Earth, and ultimately the Universe.  The individual, from the point of view of Positivist science, is a small affair, and liable to be sacrificed on the alter of the greater good.  From the point of view of Marxism, the individual may be unknowingly evil or heroic, depending on where their fortunes fall in the bloody wars of the historical dialectic.  Only in Christianity is the individual, not just the species, conceived as the image of God.

This Christian view of the individual, as image-bearer, is attractive to many people who aren’t even professing Christians.  Indeed, the image-theory lingers in the minds of many who profess various scientific or revolutionary creeds, softening morals and manners, and making their adherence to Positivist or Marxist in-humanism inconsistent.  This phenomenon is what Alexander Soltzhenitsyn called “…the ever diminishing social capital inherited by the West from the Gospel.”  Today we are down to our last pennies.  To replenish that capital would require a revival, a return to the belief which engendered all the humane consequences of the Christian world-view.

Modern common sense tells us that anthropology (humanity) is included within ontology (the universe), not the other way around.  Whatever their disagreements Positivism and Marxism are of one accord in rejecting any special status for humanity in the cosmos.  There is no King except the momentary “king on the hill” of survival.  Therefore, as much as people might wish to return to the Christian world-view in order to experience the ethical benefits of living in a Christian society, there is a stumbling block which bars the way.  That stumbling block is a seeming absurdity.  In Christianity the divine essence incarnates in an individual, the individual saves the species, and the species saves the universe.  Why, this is virtually Darwin stood on his head!  Instead of mankind being inside the universe, the universe is, so to speak, inside a Man.  Most people find this grossly insulting to their common sense.  Rather, the Earthling is more willing to render assent to Carl Sagan’s expression “We are star-stuff.”  Better a lonely, dead universe, which can somehow be rendered romantic through poetry, than to risk a “leap of faith.”

Only those “in Christ” are likely to see the sanity of the alternative.

Posted in Anthropology, Appologetics, Christian Education, Christianity, Culture & Politics, Esoterism, History, Paleoconservativism, Philosophy, Traditionalism, Uncategorized | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Lawrence Dorr, Witness

Posted by nouspraktikon on December 7, 2017

Witness to….

The late Hungarian-American emigre who went by the nome de plume Lawrence Dorr has endowed us with a troubling but beautiful deposit of literature, loosely disguised as fiction, they chronicle a life born into the European gentry, ending up in the American suburbs, and passing through the torment of WWII and its aftermath, depicting life behind, and escaping from, the Iron Curtain.  I am wont to call him a witness to the tyranny of human passions and systems, yet he would not have it so.  Rather, Dorr (1921-2016) saw himself as a witness to Divine grace, that unaccountable influx of godly symbol and substance which makes bearable even the bleakest winters of the human soul.  And while I would gladly enlist him in the slender honor roll of American conservatives who wrote fiction, that would be a false characterization, somewhat on the order of dubbing Flannery O’Conner an activist for a Southern varient of Christianity.

Yet politics is in some sense unavoidable even though, in Dorr’s own order of importance, it was far down on the list of immanent concerns.  His hierarchy of values was readily apparent to anyone who met him.  God always came first, followed by family, relatives, friends, and associates.  Third in significance, after a multitude of significant others, was the written word, especially the living literature of his adoptive language, English.  Those who knew him in the flesh only saw a tall bearded man, ruggedly handsome even in old age, large hearted and forever either exposing or committing some folly.  Yet his thick Hungarian accent would have perplexed anyone who only knew him in print as the master of English prose whom he truly was, or as an incisive, Christian, critic of contemporary best-sellers.  This disjunctive impression was a mystery which could have been accounted for by Dorr’s polyglot past, since he had grown up among cosmopolitan folk who’s parlance in French and German was more in vogue than the curious, non-Indo-European, language of his native country.  Moreover, literature was Dorr’s life, and he made a special study of English, which to him was more than just a medium of communication, but rather, one of those several means of grace which the Lord had used to save him, since,  having escaped from the warring tribes of the European continent, he had found solace in the arms of a nurse, the daughter of an English parson.  Subsequently they married and moved to rural Florida.

I am tempted to list politics as high as number four in Dorr’s scheme of values, far behind literature and slightly ahead of sports, but if you include the equestrian sports of rural Florida, of which he was an enthusiast, I’m not altogether sure even of that.  None the less, the political cannot be expurgated from an understanding of Dorr’s writing without anesthetizing the reader from the historical context of his life’s odyssey.  And what an odyssey it was!  One writer provides a brief summary of its highs and lows…

At 20, he served in the Hungarian army during World War II, and later became a political exile after his association with a capitalist newspaper in the newly communist Hungary. After leaving Budapest, he took odd jobs across Europe, once performing as the front-end of a zebra in a traveling circus, serving briefly in the French Foreign Legion and working as a masseur in an Austrian entertainment house. He met his wife Clare in an English mental hospital, where he was an orderly and she was an occupational therapist. Together they immigrated to the United States, where they spent time in South Carolina and Philadelphia before becoming missionaries in the rural town of Frostproof, 70 miles from Orlando. The couple and their two small children later moved to Sebring, where Dorr worked as a cowboy until he suffered a serious back injury. The jack-of-all-trades even found himself working as an artist’s model in Miami, draped for hours across a crucifix while posing as a Christ figure. (from April Patten “The words of a master”July 25, 2004, Gainesville Sun)

These encounters with the tragic and the comic, often simultaneous, were buffered by Dorr’s faith and the uncanny intervention of providence into the life of a man who should have died a thousand times over, and yet was continually being reborn into new personae and circumstances.

Although, like most emigres, Dorr longed to put the sins and the sorrows of the Old World, especially its politics, behind a wall of forgetfulness, his vocation as a writer forced him to witness to the realities which he had suffered.  There is a chiaroscuro quality to his short stories, at least those set in Europe, some cloud or nemesis which stifles the life if the protagonist until the light of revelation breaks through.  The earliest stories, in terms of chronology, not writing, record the nationalistic animus which which pervaded the pre-war period.  Dorr, though an anti-communist was not, unlike many on the European right, a fan of ethnic nationalism.  Some of this may have been due to his background in the minority Calvinist tradition within predominantly Catholic Hungary, as well as as his houshold’s marital alliances with foreign, French, gentry.  However in the main this moral universalism was the product of his personal enlightenment, the shock of realization, once the dreaming was over and blood had been drawn, that the heroism of youth was being perverted towards criminal ends.  For most Americans the Second World War begins at Pearl Harbor, or for more objective students of history, Hitler’s invasion of Poland.  Yet for those, like Dorr, who lived through it, the pre-war animosities already included the substance of the wider conflict.  Hitler himself was not a novelty, he was the old man of sin, equipped with terrifying technology and gone wild.  It was this inescapable beast, the beast of European tribalism, into which Dorr was born.  Indeed, in brutal manifestation of the symbol, he eventually found himself in the bowls of a tank retreating from the Red army.

Witness against….

The second strata of stories concern the post-war period.  Again, there is a stifling cloud of material want and mental anxiety, and a new antagonist, Communism.  For Dorr, an adherent to the doctrine of original sin, the potential for evil is inherent in all flesh.  None the less, in Communism he saw an evil which was somehow sui generis.  This isn’t articulated in the stories so much as felt.  Unlike the prewar animus, Communism is a novelty, something which comes in imitation of Christ rather than in ignorance of Him.

In this second strata of stories, unlike the first which is clearly autobiographical, there is some ambiguity about the “he” who is the protagonist.  Dorr is writing from his own perspective, however it is not clear that he is writing purely from his own experiences.  Was he the first lieutenant who was held in a Russian concentration camp, or was he the resistance fighter who nearly eluded capture after sabotaging a supply truck of the Red army, or was he the refugee who managed to scrape together enough food to sustain his grandmother, only to find that she had died during the war?  Since Dorr is writing fiction there is no need for a definitive answer to these questions, which may or may not be mutually exclusive.  The various stories may each be segments of a single connected narrative, or they may be the record of several independent chains of events.  They may or may not be factual, but they are all truthful, in the sense of faithful witness to the realities of the human heart.  All these hearts are sinful, but some have been left to supervise the inhumanities of the system while others struggle to survive, and perchance attribute their survival to divine grace.

The third, and final, strata of stories deal with the homely adventures of an American family in the suburbs and rural areas of Florida.  When I gave a volume of Dorr to a young woman her comments after reading were, “I enjoyed the early, scary, stories but I didn’t like the later ones.  I felt envious of him and his family because they had such a happy ending after their troubles.”  That’s really the root of all our attitude problems isn’t it?  Envy, better known to Christians as breaking the tenth commandment.  It starts off as a kind of whimsical discontent, so  amusingly expressed in the young woman’s candid admission.  However after numerous historical and/or personal iterations it can develop into a truly hateful view of life,  and ultimately putrefies into the radical egalitarianism which converts people to the Marxian world-view.

The third strata of stories returns to something akin to an autobiography of Dorr, albeit the third person protagonist remains unnamed.  However it should not be assumed that Dorr’s American period was an uninterrupted Cinderella tale.  Like all emigres from Communist lands, he experienced the angst of knowing that his personal fortune was all the more bright in comparison to the continuing tragedy of those who had been left behind the Iron Curtain.  Furthermore, his day job as a technical writer surrounded by academics in an American university town subjected him to the condescending attitude of those who who’s leftist ideals had not been tempered by experiencing the realities of Communism. It was with impotent anguish that he followed the news of the Budapest uprising in 1956, and a heart rending discovery that many of his newfound academic peers were secretly relieved by the failure of an anti-Communist rebellion.

None of these experiences ever turned Lawrence Dorr into a conservative, let alone a movement conservative.  Like Solzhenitsyn he was a Christian whose Christianity had been tempered in the crucible of Communism, but he never became an activist.   Still he remains a witness, and a powerful one.

 

N.B. Lawrence Dorr was the author of A Bearer of Divine Revelation (2003) and several other collections of short stories, which can be obtained through Amazon and other book vendors.

 

 

Posted in Appologetics, Art, Christian Education, culture, Culture & Politics, Fiction | Leave a Comment »

Human Action as a treatise on Philosophical Anthropology

Posted by nouspraktikon on December 4, 2017

Human Action;  It’s not your college “Economics”…but what is it?

Anyone with even the slightest acquaintance with the works of Ludwig von Mises knows that, while his works deal with economics, his thought is distinguished by what might be called,  misleadingly, a “multidisciplinary” approach.  I say misleading because Mises doesn’t just wander into various fields of history and policy at random.  Rather, at least in his magnum opus, Human Action, von Mises bases his exposition of economics and other social phenomena on a level of abstraction far too general to be circumscribed within one particular field of the social, or better said, the human sciences.  Even the term “science” here is somewhat suspect as importing all sorts of positivist notions regarding predictability, measurability, and so forth.  Perhaps “human studies” is the broadest description of areas which Mises was wont to involve himself in.  If we were to find a single word equivalent to “human studies” then certainly Anthropology would be the most apt substitute.  Yet nobody calls Human Action a work of Anthropology.  Why?

Superficially, this is because Mises takes an implicit understanding of Classical Christian anthropology and develops it in the direction of what we call “economics.”  More fundamentally, it is because few people today would even recognize Classical Christian anthropology, especially when it manifests itself in the work of an author who neither professed Christianity nor was writing explicitly on anthropology.  After all, von Mises embraced all sorts of moral and intellectual tenants which comport poorly with the classical Christian world-view, such as evolution and (fortunately, non-quantifiable!) utilitarianism.  None the less, because von Mises was part of the broader Judeo-Christian tradition, the bedrock of Christian Anthropology frequently breaks through the surface exposition of his putative “economic” treatise.  However, you won’t see it if you don’t know what to look for, and it doesn’t help that this classical, or Christian, anthropology goes against the very grain of Modernist and Post-Modernist “common sense.”

While in most Modernist views the human race is little more than the end result of myriad material causes, in classical Christian anthropology, “Man” in the sense of a singular “Anthropos” is the principle behind the universe, from which, as “Word” or “Logos” all other realities proceed.  The entire framework of this classical anthropology can be summarized as a movement through four terms, as follows:  From the Anthropos proceeds the individual, from the individual proceeds the species, from the species proceed groups.  Elsewhere I will try to explicate the framework in more detail, here I want to show how it is manifested in such an unlikely place as von Mises’ treatise, Human Action.

Again, I don’t want to make von Mises into some sort of Christianizing Platonist, or deny that much of the content of Human Action is based on Neo-Kantian or utilitarian principles which are alien to the basic framework.  None the less, the classical framework manifests itself in the very organization of the work, as can be seen from the arrangement of the contents.  The organization of the work in seven parts actually can be reduced to four themes.  I have highlighted the ontological/anthropological categories which Mises seems to have in mind at the right hand column.

I. The ideal

  1. Action as human essence         pt. 1            Anthropos–>Individual
  2.  Society                                         pt.2            Species–> Groups
  3. Individual exchange                 pt. 3             Anthropos–> Individual
  4. Market                                        pt. 4           Species–> Groups
  • The pathology, collectivism pt. 5              Groups–>Individual
  • attempts to compromise the ideal and pathology  pt. 6
    • History                              pt. 7

Structure of Human Action itself points the reader in the direction of methodological individualism.  You should be able to see the topical movement from essence, to individual, to species to group, repeated twice.

It may be that this organizational structure is not to be taken literally as von Mises’ last word on the ontological place of humanity within the universe.  It may even be that this organization was just the way von Mises thought a primary treatise on human action should be properly structured, somewhat like the scholars of the middle ages who felt that all treatises should be arranged according to the framework of Peter the Lombard, whether or not they agreed with Peter’s content or not.  None the less the framework bears the imprint of the classical Anthropological model, and testifies to  that model’s ubiquity and importance.  Certainly it differs from standard modernist and positivist expositions, which are based on the framework “from matter proceeds things.” This latter being what your man or woman on the street thinks of as “economics.”

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Sayings beyond syllogisms

Posted by nouspraktikon on August 10, 2017

Is it possible to straight talk to sinful human nature?

Skeptics argue that since the apostles were “illiterate peasants and shepherds” their moral teaching was  inferior to that of, say, the Greek philosophers.  Of course that characterization is false, and would be slanderous if peasants and shepherds were not generally wiser than Higher Critics.  James was one of many early followers who were educated to the standards of the rabbinical scholarly class, while Luke was certainly abreast of the latest developments in Greek science.  However the palm for scholarship, whatever value that might have, undoubtedly goes to Paul, who was adept in both Hebraism and Hellenism.

Indeed, to Paul’s contemporaries, the opposite side of the criticism was made.  Thus a Roman proconsul (no doubt vexed by Paul’s compelling but offensive reasoning) exclaimed in exasperation, “Too much learning has made you mad!”  This was a far more effective criticism than calling out the Apostle to the Gentiles as an “illiterate tentmaker.”  Think of Paul as a world-class scholar living in a world without grant applications…hence the day-job.  None the less, while it might be considered flattering to some people, the accusation of “to much learning” driving someone mad is preposterous.  I don’t mean that it is preposterous from the point of view of those who think more learning is always a good thing.  I doubt that endless learning is always beneficial.

Rather, from a specifically Christian point of view the statement, “too much learning has driven you mad” is utterly false.  It is false because people, all people, are mad prior to attaining any education whatsoever.  Surely this is what one must believe if the doctrine of total depravity has any meaningful application.  Whatever one might think of Calvinism, and this writer is several points short of full “five-point” affirmation, total depravity is one point which all Christians need to take seriously.  Our thinking part, wherever that may be located, has been as much afflicted by sin as any other portion of our being.  Paul never talked about our “good brain” struggling against our “bad genitals” for him it was all “our flesh.”  Contrary to Plato, the Prophet Mani and many other speculators, the good/evil cutting off point isn’t at the neck, its above the head or wherever our relation with God has been broken.

Yes, the shocking truth is that from God’s point of view all human beings are mad according to their sin-nature.  From our point of view, there is a kind of normative rationality which prevails in society, sufficient sanity to maintain morality and civil order, which individuals participate in to various degrees.  However this “rationality” is essentially a makeshift arrangement, capable of breaking down whenever societies as a whole consent to manifest the irrational in collective hysteria.  It is no substitute for God’s objective truth.

A preference for parables

Hence, from God’s point of view, the problem is how to communicate saving truth to those who are mad, considering that this is a pandemic and essential madness, not the isolated and accidental madness of those individuals who are considered insane by society.  It is important to realize that this is not a madness which has been “caught” by individuals due unfortunate turn of events.  We have been born that way.  In particular one cannot have been driven mad by any amount of learning.

However, and this is an important caveat, certain kinds of learning are likely to exacerbate the essential madness of mankind.  The most notorious, though not the only, learning which exacerbates madness is any kind of dabbling in the occult.  I strongly suspect that the unfortunate character who became the host of “Legion” had once staked out a career for himself as a sorcerer or a fortune-teller.  Inevitably his “familiars” got the better of him.  So yes, demoniacs and other afflicted persons are notably insane in a sense which goes beyond the ordinary madness of mankind.  One has to be careful what one let’s into one’s mind!

Yet nobody is saved by either prudence or philosophy!  If the major problem were keeping Satan out of our minds, then yes, it would make sense to complain of “too much learning (or other experience) driving someone mad” but it has long since gotten beyond that point, since Satan has been there all along in our individual minds, and since the Fall in terms of our species.  Rather, the problem is how to get God into our minds, minds which have been shut up against God by the ubiquitous insanity of sin.

Perhaps an insight is beginning to dawn upon you.  Perhaps you are now in a position to grasp what has eluded many philosophers: If sin is madness, then nobody can be reasoned out of sin!  Logic and the Socratic dialectic are fine tools, but they are only tools which work when the premises upon which they operate are true.  In the world of computer programing there is an expression “garbage in, garbage out” since even the most superb algorithm will crank out false results when incorrect data has been fed into the program.  Likewise, the human mind has superb powers of inference, both inductive and deductive.  However, to the extent that humans are self-programmed and not God-programmed, the premises of their reasoning will be based on sin, or more precisely, sin-as-thinking, i.e., madness.

Fortunately God has ways of getting around the obstacles which mankind has put in the way of communicating truth.  Christian apologists are the most unlikely of God’s angels, and their well intended attempts at dialectic are typically effective with those who have already surrendered to the Truth.  Salvation, as opposed to illumination, can be brought about through the teaching opportunities pregnant in all of life’s struggles.  For this reason Paul was more apt to use exhortation than discursive reasoning, although he was fully capable of the latter.  Finally, the Lord Jesus himself, though the Logos incarnate, preferred the obscurity of parables to straight on logical ( a.k.a.,”logos-ish”) demonstration.

This reaching out of the sane to the insane, the holy to the unholy, through the artful working of the Holy Spirit, has been misconstrued by secular critics as Christian “misology.”  On this misunderstanding rests all the scornful imagery of “illiterate peasants and shepherds.”   What the secularists fail to realize is that these soft admonitions of the Holy Spirit are a condescension to human weakness, to minds which would inevitably reject truth if it were presented to them in propositional forms.  Yet somehow, not through reasoning but through revelation, minds are transformed.  On the basis of this tacit operation some theologians, notably existential ones, have gloried in the supposed irrationality of the gospel.  However this is misleading.  It would be better to say that human minds are led to conclusions which can be rationally demonstrated, but which would never gain the assent of sinful minds without the subtle intervention of the Holy Spirit.

Of course He can do it any way he choses, but it would seem that the Holy Spirit prefers to play divine music on the soft strings of parable than the harsh cords of dialectic.

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The singularity…was

Posted by nouspraktikon on July 31, 2017

A meditation on the space between Genesis 11 and 12

Now these are the generations of Terah: Terah fathered Abram…

(Genesis 11:27)

Today we hear more and more about the “singularity”…a near future techno-event which will flip our reality upside down with the ease of a skinny judo sensei slamming a portly yellow-belt to the floor.  No doubt the future will witness some startling transformations in the relationship between the human species and whatever salient force is supposedly controlling our environment, therefore we reckon that Biblical prophecy should be flattered, not by these ominous portraits depicted through science fiction and futurology, but that imitation affirms the original.

It is not that I doubt “the singularity” rather, I think it is a more apt term for an event which took place long ago, somewhere in the range of thirty-six or thirty-seven centuries before the present.  This was an all encompassing event which, in the twinkling of an eye (historically speaking!) altered the human condition forever, and it had nothing, or very little to do with technology.  It wasn’t the so-called “Neolithic Revolution” or the “Urban Revolution” although such changes in technology and demographics were certainly ongoing at the time.  Rather, it was a change in the relationship between Man (a.k.a.,humans of both sexes!) and God.

Having let that slip, the atheists have got up and left the room!  Well, fine, because I’m not talking to atheists, I’m talking to philosophers, which (contrary to the prejudice of some believers) is not a distinction without a difference.  The true philosopher not only believes in God, or at least a god, but can even affirm the Hebrew scriptures…up to a point.

That point is the singularity, not a hypothetical future singularity, but the real, past, singularity which transpired once, and only once, at a time and place which we can determine with fair accuracy.  Before that time the human species as a whole was to worship God through reason.  Then suddenly, one man began to worship God through faith.  Understandably, the philosophers think this was a wrong turning, a path out into the wilderness which has distracted humanity from the level causeway of science.

To the philosophers, this turning is doubly offensive.  The first offense is the alleged substitution of faith for reason.  Endless lamps have burned late into the night refuting this accusation, but allow me a momentary respite from this main theme in Christian apologia.  The second offense is the shift from universal to special revelation.  I think this second issue strikes deeper into the heart of philosophical objections to scripture, that is, the narrative as it has been received from Moses onward, where the story of the world up through Genesis 11 must make way for the story of a family, the family of Abraham, beginning with chapter 12.

On the face of it, the philosophers have an easy case to make.  Perhaps that case is better stated in terms of science fiction rather than science.  For Christians, the Hebrew scriptures and their Greek sequel are a  kind of Guidebook to the Universe.  Now, one would expect a Guidebook to the Universe to explain the entire universe in sweeping and satisfying generalities.  Of course the Bible does no such thing, and for that matter, neither does the Guidebook to the Universe.  Any book which did would be a colossal bore, with the emphasis equally distributed between “colossal” and “bore.”   The Bible was written by the Holy Spirit for the edification of the human race, no doubt in the knowledge that a book without human interest would never find a human reader.

That is about as far as pastoral theology is likely to take the scene-change between Genesis 11 and 12.  However I know that the philosophers are unimpressed by folksy analogies, and I am determined to meet their objections in earnest.   I know that for the good philosopher, the kind who wants to believe in a Creator God and an orderly world, Abraham  is a stumbling block.  Such a philosopher, if pushed into a corner, will even declare that he or she could write a better Bible than the one which the Holy Spirit has authored.  Furthermore, some have gone ahead and made the attempt.

From the Universal to the Individual

And the whole Earth was of one language and one speech…

(Genesis 11:1)

Now, in the interests of clarity, let us absolve our hypothetical philosopher of any prejudice towards Abraham qua Abraham.  In 1800BC we are still too early for anti-Semitism, but not too early to get derailed by irrelevancies.  No, the hypothetical philosopher against whom we are arguing objects to the naked singularity, not to the qualities which make Abraham “the father of faith.”

For purposes of illustration lets do a thought-experiment.  Let’s take Genesis 1-11 as a unit, a unit which can be accepted by anyone who is a theist and a creationist.  Of course this will include Christian and Jewish creationists, but it will also include any “pagans” (or whatever you wish to call them) who acknowledge the High God who created the heavens, the earth, and the human race.  In our Bible, Genesis 1-11 is followed by Genesis 12-50, Exodus, Leviticus…and so on.  However in their “Bibles” after Genesis 1-11 the succeeding traditions go on to record the various ethnic histories other than that of the family of Abraham.  Keep in mind, this is only a thought-experiment, and I don’t claim that the nations actually had an accurate narrative of Genesis 1-11.  So in the case of some hypothetically creationist Greeks, the books in their “Bible” would be Genesis 1-11, followed by the Illiad, then the Odyssey, followed, perhaps, by the Works of Hesoid…and so forth.   I wont insist on the details as long as you see the general drift of the argument.

The import of the illustration is not to call attention to the ubiquity of creationism, but to pinpoint the disjuncture where our hypothetical philosopher has become scandalized.  The philosopher whom I am imagining would be just as offended by Achilles as Abraham.  As an apostle of reason, the philosopher does not want science mixed up in personal narratives.  The reasoning is that once personal narratives get mixed up into our scientific premises those premises cease to be objective.  In this view, the Bible from Genesis 12 and beyond is tainted by particularity, just as much as the Illiad, or any other tribal lore.  Granted there are names and persons in Genesis 1-11, but the Creation, the Fall, the Flood, and the Dispersion can all be affirmed as principles of doctrine, of whom the associated personalities are either real or mythical archetypes.  However once we get characters like Achilles or Abraham mucking around, not as representatives of humanity, but protagonists of particular families and nations, then the high ground of objective discourse on the nature of the world has been surrendered and we have seemingly landed in a pandemonium of  individual conflicts and claims.  Personally, I think there is far more depth to Abraham than Achilles, but I have pledged not to pull that card.  Doing so would be to argue for or against particular individuals, and it is particularity itself which the philosopher objects to.

To be blunt, what the philosopher wants is a Bible which only contains universal truths, and does not descend into the conflicts of individuals.  To take up the cause of Abraham, Achilles or anyone else would, in the mind of such a philosopher, betray the universal fatherhood of God to the idols of the tribe.  Moreover, the zealous among the universal philosophers have not contented themselves with carping at the Hebrew scriptures, rather they have authored many substitutes, sundry tomes which could be considered”corrected” Bibles, redolent of reason and purged of particularity.

A Monument of Monotonous Monotheism

Neither shall your name any more be called Abram but Abraham for a father of many nations I have made you…

(Genesis 17:5)

One of the better thought out and well-intended Bible-substitutes was Baruch Spinoza’s Ethics, written in the mid-17th century Netherlands, by a Jewish philosopher who worked a day job as an optician.  As befits the masterpiece of an optician, the Ethics is a very clean and translucent book.  A virtuous philosopher might carry it about as a vaudemecum, a portable Guide to the Universe, and never suffer any embarrassment.  Since the Ethics reduces reality to a set of logical propositions, it contains no narratives of rampaging heroes like Homer’s Achilles, or worse, perplexing anti-heroes like Abraham.  Already, in the war against religious perplexity, Maimonides (1135-1204), an important influence on Spinoza, had explained away God’s body.  Spinoza got rid of His emotions and personality as well.  Thus, Spinoza’s God was essentially the same as nature, although he made a distinction between two kinds of nature, creating nature and created nature.  Hence much of posterity has come to the conclusion that Spinoza was an atheist, either because they were scandalized by his ideas, or conversely, as atheism became stylish rather than stigmatized, they wished to honor him as a forerunner of Enlightenment infidelity.

Others, and I am counting our hypothetical philosopher among them, have taken Spinoza at his word, as a “God-intoxicated man” who sought to preserve the honor of the Deity from the scandal of particularity, and in particular from association with Abraham and his descendants.  One must wonder if Spinoza also wished to clean up the image of his people among the gentiles, an image formed by Abraham, David, and a rogues gallery of assorted sinners, to be replaced by gentler and more edifying examples of Hebrew scientists and scholars…a people among whom Baruch Spinoza himself stands out as a respectable archetype.  None the less, and without respect to Spinoza’s motives, we ought to deal with his theology on its own terms, as a theology and not (as per Leo Strauss and others) a crypto-atheistic doctrine, for we are trying to find out what kind of God would stand above all the messy facts of human history, and whether, as claimed, such a God is preferable to the God who reveals himself in Genesis 12 and beyond.

The value of philosophy is its ruthless consistency.  Many people reject the Bible out of squeamish aversion to nasty particulars, but they have no alternative world-view to substitute for scripture.  However rationalistic philosophers, of whom Spinoza is typical, have taken great pains to describe a God who is above all passions and particulars.   Now the salient characteristic of such a God is that He (if He is a he!) is closest to general laws and further from particular instances of those laws.  One might go so far as to say that He is the laws of the universe Himself.  This sounds quite reasonable, as does the converse, that such a God is furthest from individuals, since individuals are the most particular things in the universe, at the opposite pole from general laws.

Such a God, a god of generalities, might be reconciled to a Bible which ends at Genesis 11.  In the first part of Genesis God is seen as the creator of kinds, or what we call species.  In His dealing with men, it is as representatives of moral types, thus Cain is rebellious and Able is obedient, however after the Flood, and particularly after the Dispersion, the differentiation between individuals and races no longer expresses clear moral contraries, rather, it is variegated in the common sense of non-moral distinctiveness.   The human tribes emerging from the Dispersion are no longer different the way that Good and Evil are different, rather, they are different in the way that Apples and Oranges are different.

The Singularity

And I will make your seed as the dust of the Earth…

(Genesis 13:16)

The various “tables of the nations” after the Flood bear out this “Apples and Oranges” ethnology.  Gone are the scary Antediluvian cast of characters who are susceptible  of a Manichean interpretation.  After the early chapters of Genesis, people are just people, though chastened by the Flood and the Dispersion, and for a while God deals with them just as any rationalistic philosopher would have Him do, through the means of common grace and natural revelation.

Until Abraham.

This is the point at which human reason chokes.  Why, after having created a variegated species does God pick out one man in one family for special revelation?   The rationalistic philosopher would have God blaze his laws in the sky, for all the Earth to see without particularity or prejudice.  Instead, the singularity takes place in the nocturnal solitude of Abraham’s tents.  Humanity has never quite gotten over this event, this solicitude of God to one man and his family.  Here we are not concerned with the problematic reactions of posterity to “the choice” either the complaints of the Anti-Semites that the whole thing was a hoax or the apprehensions of Jews who feel it as an albatross around their neck.  Like it or not, the singularity was.   Rather, we are trying lift our eyes up to the purposes of the Creator, and weigh the claims of His two most plausible and noble interpreters, reason and special revelation.  Make no mistake, one of these two must be primary, and the second reduced to either a handmaiden or an allusion.

What we think about the source of our knowledge (reason vs. special revelation) will determine how we think about the the singularity, i.e., the “Abraham event.”  Conversely, how we understand the Abraham event will determine which is primary, special revelation or reason.  If we are to proceed philosophically, we will first want to understand in what sense these two sources of knowledge are similar, and then examine their differences.

At the risk of appearing commonplace, it needs to be acknowledged that both rational exposition and Biblical revelation are propositional forms of knowledge.  Now some people, especially those who claim to be mystics, are going to want to cavil at this assertion.  However I am not saying that all the things which are communicated by God to human beings take the form of propositions.  None the less, if we restrict ourselves to the revelations in the Bible, they are clearly propositional statements, such as “thou shalt not kill,” or “Cain traveled to the east and founded a city.”  They are logical statements intended for human comprehension.  Famously, during an age when men and women had drunk too deeply from the tap of mysticism, Dr. Luther objected that the Bible was a model of perspicuity, a plain message which didn’t require any spiritual advancement or academic prowess to understand.

Once we have acknowledged that both rational exposition and special revelation are propositional, it is easy to find the critical difference between these two sources of knowledge.  Rational exposition is dialectical, that is to say, it is a kind of machine for finding truth.  On the other hand special revelation is relational.  From our human standpoint, we could say that special revelation is similar to rhetoric, providing we are willing to ignore the negativity which surrounds the word “rhetoric.”  The ideal of rational exposition is independence from the prejudices of any hypothetical auditor.  In contrast, special revelation is more than just exposition, it is communication.

This is the “secret” of special revelation, which is not really a secret, but rather so obvious that it seldom occurs to anyone to give it much thought: The message of revelation is not just the propositional content of what is being revealed, rather the persons from whom and to whom the message is sent is part of the meaning itself, indeed, sometimes it is the main import of the revelation.  Revelation, i.e.,special revelation, can be defined as relationship + content.

Therefore something of critical importance is going on from the moment that God starts speaking with Abraham.  Personality, rather than matter, has been affirmed as the building block of the universe.  Or rather, since God is on one side of the equation, personality has been affirmed as the builder/building blocks of the universe.  An occasionalist would say that while he was talking with Abraham, God was actually creating the idea of personality.  Fortunately occasionalists (philosophers who think time is an illusion) are pretty nutty, so we can ignore their opinion.   Rather, if we adhere to the reality of creation, we can safely assume that personalities, both Divine and human, existed prior to the Abraham event, but that with that event the full meaning of “personality” was revealed to us.

Of course this doesn’t mean that the content of the revelation was irrelevant or trivial.  God didn’t tell Abraham “one two buckle your shoe” although that would have sufficed to initiate a Divine/human relationship.  Rather, all the things that God told Abraham and asked him to do were intended for not just for his good, but for our edification as well.

Singularity over Substance

…and the souls that they had gotten in Harran.

(Genesis 12:5)

Perhaps I am picking rather unfairly on Baruch Spinoza.  I am sure he was a very nice man.  However the great divide in this world is not between nice men and not-so-nice men (and ditto for women).  Rather, the great divide is between those who are on the side of Abraham and those who are on the other side, and I am not talking, at least primarily, about ethnicity.  In his goodness, Spinoza took solace in the concept of “substance” which was universal and inclusive of all people and things, the all-in-all.  Was this a universal cosmos-worship which denied a separate God, or a universal theism which denied the created universe?  I am sure that God  is not particularly troubled by the confusions of philosophers over nomenclature.  What should be troubling for us is the absence of personality in this metaphysical system, an absence which oddly manages to coexist with the egoistic basis of Spinoza’s ethics.  It is as if Spinoza were telling us, “Take care of yourself, but don’t take yourself too seriously…in the end you will drift away into the vapors!”

In contrast, Abraham takes himself and the fortunes of his family very seriously.  We would tend to count this as one of Abraham’s many faults if it were not that God took Abraham at least, if not more, seriously than Abraham did himself.  Abraham is a singularity, not a spoonful of the universal substance, but rather, a substance-in-himself.  Paradoxically, the fact that God authorizes Abraham’s uniqueness, and takes an interest in his survival, confirms the substantial reality of all the individuals who ever have and ever will exist throughout human history.  Not in vain was it written that those who bless Abraham will be blessed by God.

At last we have arrived at the point were the philosopher is most offended, yet the very point were the believer takes most satisfaction.  This is the scandal of the inclusion of the species inside the individual.  Here we are not speaking, primarily, about procreation.  Adam, Noah, Charles Darwin, or whomever,  may contain a population within their body, as we all know.  However Abraham is different, as all are different who are “in” Abraham, whether they be his biological descendants or not.  The naturalistic philosopher puts this “in” stuff down as an aberration of the apostle Paul, who is summarily dismissed as a poor logician, if not totally insane. However it is not logic which motivates these skeptics, but rather a nagging apprehension that Abraham is just the opening wedge in a fault line which will eventually pull asunder the veil between God and humanity some seventeen centuries later.  They want the veil to stay.

The common sense objections to “in” are based on a conflation of logic and ontology.  Although there are certain kinds of fanatics who delight in the irrational (a generation ago they were called existentialists, today it’s postmodernists)  God never contradicts himself.  He made the laws of logic and He’s sticking to them. To say that a species can be “in” an individual is not the same as claiming that a genus can be inside a species.  If I start a religion which claims that all mammals are zebras, I may have great faith, but  it is bad faith because the object of my faith is a falsehood.  A genus cannot be part of a species.  That would be a logical contradiction.

However a species can subsist within an individual.  This might be true in any number of senses, most of which are irrelevant to the issue at hand.  Procreation has already been mentioned.  Even people who don’t believe in Adam and Eve have heard of “mitochondrial Eve” although there might be resistance to talk of being “in” her, since secularists don’t like bracketing out time in their speculations, not to mention more commonplace squeamishness.  And speaking about what makes us squeamish, what about Legion?   Although “he” is hardly an pleasant topic, we have as sure testimony to Legion as anybody in scripture, including Abraham.   Legion was a species, or at least a population, who (prior to the Lord’s intervention) inhabited an individual.  Skeptics can dispute the truth of the story since they deny the reality of demonic possession, however they cannot claim that the story is logically contradictory, only that it violates their notions of ontological possibility.  If “he” had been a species of bacteria, it would be acceptable to naturalists.

However there is nothing of this biological or spiritually squeamish stuff going on with the “in” of Abraham.  Incorporation into the body of Abraham is incorporation “only” in the sense of being part of a body politic.  Although this may seem intangible in comparison to biological descent, nothing is more fundamental to human existence than having a legal personality which allows one to function in society.  This is easy to see in a worldly sense.  However when one has a standing in relation to Someone who is outside of time and space, it means that one is no longer just a drop in the ocean of universal substance.  Rather, it means that you have your own substance, an individuality which will persist beyond time.  It means that whatever you do will effect eternity.

Whether this is a good thing or not is yet a different question.  In the absence of some mechanism for the atonement for sin, one would have to be very careful indeed.  Considering the liabilities of eternal, individual, existence, it is easy to sympathize with those who wish nothing more than to dissolve into the ocean of Being.  Should life be lived seriously, or should it be viewed with amusement as a passing vanity?  The serious life begins with the singularity of the Abraham event, but fortunately it doesn’t end there, since with individuality comes the recognition of responsibility for sin, and setting sin straight would be a crushing burden if outside help were not forthcoming.  The help arrives when the outside help becomes inside help, and only those who have been tutored in the school of Abraham are prepared to understand how the “out” becomes the “in.”  They are the ones who understand that the uniformity of nature has been split apart, giving rise to individuals, nay, to souls, perchance saints.

Grace is now, but the singularity…was…

 

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How Churchmen are changed into Ducks

Posted by nouspraktikon on May 9, 2017

George Whitfield (1714-1770)

Among the more formidable characters in church history is George Whitfield (sometimes spelled Whitefield but pronounced without the “e”) the preacher who spread a Calvinistic variety of Methodism in colonial America.  You must understand that at the time Methodism was, as the very name indicates, a methodology and not a sect.  It was Whitfield’s aggressive preaching method, not to the taste of some, which had such a tremendous effect on forming the unique spirituality of early America.

His odd looks (he was cross eyed) and forceful rhetoric must have convinced many that Whitfield  was more an angel than a man.  It was related that he could pronounce a word as neutral and exotic as “Mesopotamia” in such a way as to draw tears from his audience.  For some this was sorcery, but for others it was salvation, and the crowds that he was able to gather were a mighty tributary in that powerful river of revival which we call America’s Great Awakening.

Like his rival in preaching the good news, John Wesley, Whitfield was a life long clergyman in the Anglican church.  Oddly enough, this evangelist with Tory sympathies earned the esteem of freethinking Benjamin Franklin, and the two struck up a friendship which lasted throughout their mature lives.  None the less, it is hard to imagine Whitfield, who died five years before the outbreak of the American Revolution, throwing in his lot with the founding fathers.  For Whitfield being an Anglican was not a doctrinal affirmation, and indeed he despised most of what today would be called “Anglican theology.”  For him, membership in the established church was just the normative state of being born into the British branch of Christendom.  In the Whitmanian view, the established church didn’t get you into heaven, but you couldn’t get out of the established church.  A questionable deal, but a deal nobody could refuse in Britain or its colonies.

To Whitfield’s amazement, many of the Americans whom he had converted on matters spiritual in the 1740’s were loath to join his church, preferring to form into autonomous assemblies, notably Baptist associations.  Whitfield sighed, in reference to the immersion of his converts, “It seems that my fledglings have become ducks!”  From our modern perspective this seems odd as well, why would someone get evangelized by a preacher from one denomination and then go out and join another denomination?  Why did the Whitfield Christians “become ducks”?

Erastianism

To begin with, “denominations” in our contemporary sense didn’t exist, although there were already a multitude of sects.  What did exist was a passionate clash of opinions over ideological and theological issues which today seem obscure and unimportant.  A key word in these debates was “Erastianism” which dropped out of our household vocabularies a century and a half ago and has not been missed yet.

However, unless we know how this “Erastianism” could get people hot under the collar (both clerical and lay collars) we wont understand how churchmen became ducks.  Fortunately there is a term of  recent coinage which conveys much the same meaning to modern ears.  Among libertarian, Constitutional, and conservative circles “statism” has become the contemporary opprobrium of choice for what the colonists called “tyranny.”  Today we can define Erastianism as “statism applied to church governance”, or church-statism.  Keeping that in mind, and equipped with a Bible in one hand and the Declaration of Independence in the other, we are well underway to unravel the ecclesiastical conundrums of 18th century America.  We know what the outcome was, the rise of the Methodists and Baptists and the decline of the Anglican/Episcopalians.  Was this due to the vagaries of demographics or was there some underlying principle working itself out in the lives of Christian men and women?

Going back to the mid-18th century British America, one must keep in mind that Erastianism was not just a theory but a practice.  Take the colony of North Carolina as an example.  The Church of England was established as a public institution, essentially an arm of the state.  Did this mean that those early Tarheels were enthusiastic Anglicans?  Hardly!  In fact the region was largely unchurched during its early history.  None the less a system of church vestries (lay committees) was established paralleling the civil administration, and all subjects were required to pay taxes to maintain this apparatus.

As in all monarchical church-state systems the organization was pyramidal.  Yet, curiously, within British North America this was a truncated pyramid.  Above the vestries and the occasional parish priest, there were no high church officials.  North Carolina, and all other colonies (mostly outside New England) where Anglicanism was established, reported to the Bishop of London.  This led to a curious ambivalence on the part of the colonials.  Some persons, of an Episcopal persuasion, were eager to have cathedrals and bishops established on American shores.  They blamed the crown for foot-dragging on this issue.

Another, and presumably larger, party was heartily glad that the bishops had not yet arrived.  Their fear was that the crown was scheming to impose a hierarchy on the colonies, a hierarchy which would coerce believers in matters of doctrine and impose heftier church taxes.  This was a major item of contention among the colonists in the run up to the revolution, and the fact that it was not directly mentioned in the Declaration of Independence is, like the dog that doesn’t bark, rather a testimony to the seriousness of the issue than the contrary.  It was, like slavery, one of those issues that divided the Founders at a time when it was crucial to present a united front against the crown.

Voting with their (webbed) feet

Keeping these things in mind, perhaps it is easier to understand why the fruits of the Great Awakening, sparked by the evangelism of Anglican priests, did not redound to the Established Church.  Again, taking North Carolina as our example, there are records of a great increase in the membership of Baptist assemblies, while the Established Church remained largely a bureaucratic skeleton.  Converted by the Spirit (through the preaching of Whitfield, Wesley et al) the rustic colonists saw no need to perfect their salvation through works, where the “works” in question were attendance on the ceremony and obligations of local established parishes.  Moreover, such were were added on top of (prior to the revolution)the “work” of paying the church tax…that is regardless of one’s belief, atheist, dissenter or whatever.

Really, Whitfield ought not to have been surprised, for the Spirit was working through his eccentricities, not his Anglicanism.  The crowds swooned at his uncanny words such as “Mesopotamia”…I know not whether they would swoon at “Mother England.”

We too should cry when we hear the world “Mesopotamia”!

These things are of interest to me since I am persuaded by a kind of Calvinistic Methodism myself.  Albeit that I am only a Calvinist in supposing that all people are sinners, while my Method has little in common with that of the Wesley brothers.  Rather, the method consists in this, that (at least under ceterus paribus conditions, a.k.a., all things being equal) freedom is a good thing and coercion is wrong.

Now today in Christendom (or rather post-Christendom) we are no longer so clearly divided into and Established Church and Dissenters.  However the same perennial urges resurface under different guise.  Thus today we have Liberal churches and Conservative churches.  In both these “denominations” there are churches and individuals who seek to become an Establishment.  Both seek to establish a church-state, albeit according to a different view of what the proper function of the state might be.  The liberal churchmen, and churchwomen, want to be the altruistic cheerleaders of the journalistic-academic-welfare-health complex, while the conservatives want the church to be an official apologist for the military-industrial-banking complex.

However there is always a remnant which has been granted the wisdom to understand human folly.  Among the greatest of follies is what has been called “the tyranny of good intentions.”  This is when we try to force something good on someone.  If we try to force Christ on someone we get the Inquisition.  If we try to force “democracy” (a problematic concept in itself!) on a people we get…well, we get something like the contemporary Middle East, a region in constant turmoil where two thousand year old Christian communities are today on the verge of extinction.

It is we, not Whitfield’s auditors, who should weep when we hear that old name for Iraq and its neighbors…”Mesopotamia”!

Yet through the gloom of it all, let’s remember that Jesus loves us.  I’m afraid I may have increased the gloom by throwing a heavy theological tome at your head.  But at least I warned you…

Duck!

 

 

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