The body’s promise, the mind’s amen

This is the fourth and final part of my series on natural law.  Parts 1, 2, and 3, whose purpose was to build up to what I say below, can be found here, here, and here.


Is there then no way around rationalism and the dualist’s alienation from the body? In fact, there is another possibility, one that doesn’t cut the person off from the suprarational capacities of his body to express meaning. Rather than saying, “This act means X, Y, and Z; therefore I affirm X, Y, and Z”, he can say “I affirm the totality of what this act means.” If he knows that the act naturally means X, Y, and Z, then he must indeed accept those propositions, but he doesn’t truncate the act’s meaning to his partial understanding of it, nor to his intellectual, linguistic mode of signification.  He accepts that his actions have dimensions of meaning that he may not entirely understand, and yet he commits himself to the whole meaning.  He may not realize all that he has promised his wife, but even what he doesn’t yet understand he acknowledges as already promised.

It is this third way that natural law proposes as man’s proper way of being in the world. One can see why, despite being the true and only way to overcome alienation from one’s body, natural law has been embraced more readily by the less intelligent sectors of society. Those with high IQ are more confident in their ability to give meaning to their lives through shear intellectual exertion. They think it fitting that a smarter man can think up a more comprehensive statement of love than a duller man, and they are less eager to imagine that God Himself has given to every man, regardless of intellect, a way of “speaking” his love for his wife with a profundity that no human intellect can match. Those of us who lack the elite’s mental gifts also lack some of their hubris. We would not wish for the depth of meaning in our lives to be limited to what our own imaginations could provide.

We Christians believe that God Himself uses natural significations, the “language of the body”, to make Himself present to us in the sacraments.  God doesn’t overwrite the natural meaning, but uses it to express His relationship to us. It is precisely the natural meaning of marriage as total self-donation between husband and wife that lets it serve as the living image of Christ and His Church. And it is fitting that a suprarational mode of signification should serve as the channel for the superhuman gift of grace.  When I receive the Blessed Sacrament, the priest holds the host before me saying “the body of Christ”, and I say “Amen”.  What does the “amen” mean?  Not that I can really fathom what it means that the thing before me is the body of the Incarnate God, or that I could fully say what it means–what I’m “getting myself into”–for me to consume it.  I have some idea, based on the natural symbolism of consumption, but my “amen” means “I mean what this act means”.  Because I can say this, I can say more than it is possible for a human mind to say; I can perform a supernatural act.

Even more important is the mode of expression natural meanings provide.  Natural meanings are given, rather than being products of one’s private intellect.  They allow us to step outside the limits of our imaginations, of our personal fixations and eccentricities, of the personality and style that we craft for ourselves.  What I say about marriage, fatherhood, and filiation is always colored by my self-image, my idea of what “a person like me” would say.  Natural meanings, by their impersonal–let us instead say “suprapersonal”–nature, allow me to step outside myself and make a completely authentic response to the thing itself.  Being a husband and father means taking on a universal role, a role not of my making but one that lets me participate in the mystery of creation.  The ephemera of my personality fall away, and I engage this mystery, not as “bonald” (35 year old, assistant professor, Star Trek fan, etc) but simply as Man.  By my imagination, I have my own private world, but by natural meanings, I am one with every human being who ever lived.  Fatherhood means the same thing for every father; it’s bigger than any one of us, and yet it is at the core of each of us.  Reflecting on these matters helps us see the real unity of the human race, the unity alluded to in the expression “Man” (“Adam” in Hebrew).  Man is the whole race considered together as one, but Man is also the essence of each individual, what we find when we look deeply into ourselves.  This escape from oneself and into Man is so important that cultures create formalized rituals–at weddings, funerals, etc–to provide more of it.  Here again, part of the act’s meaning is its universality, that I speak the same wedding vows my father said and my son will say.

In this matter the Christian has an advantage.  What is abstract for natural reason becomes concrete and vivid in the light of the Faith.  God’s substance and essence are one, so He alone can bridge complete universality and concreteness.  We believe that Man was made in His image, and at the appointed time, God Himself became Man, a new Adam, making Himself the core of humanity.  So when he acts “as Man”, the Christian realizes a sense in which he is acting “as Christ”.  When the body makes a promise (through sex, childbirth, etc), it is ultimately God Himself making the promise.  If we would not be so mean as to break our own word, how much more should we take care not to break His!

So we find our corporeal existence charged with meaning; God Himself has lent it His own voice.  Will you protest against this aspect of human nature because you didn’t choose it?  But this is what you are!  This is your inmost nature.  Surely the proper response to so great and holy a thing is reverence.  Reverence and gratitude.  Let us embrace our place in the order of nature, the place chosen for us by the Creator.  Let us respect the language of the body, with its suprarational, suprapersonal mode of signification.  Let us follow its calling to grow out of ourselves by putting on Man.

Should liberals try to understand conservatives?

Sometimes intra-liberal debates can be fun to watch.  Remember that spat some years back between the evolutionary psychologists and the feminists over whether there is an evolutionary explanation for rape?  The ev-psych guys were throwing out their usual “just so” stories, and feminists were outraged, saying that any natural explanation of rape would somehow justify it.  To understand is to approve, so if something is bad, we must try not to understand it.  Now there’s a similar argument going on in the halls of liberaldom about whether or not they should try to understand a phenomenon that most of them would put on a moral par with rape–political conservatism.

Jonathan Haidt is a Leftist psychologist who tries to plumb the reactionary mind.  As always, the Chronicle of Higher Education is the place to go:

To Haidt, the evolution of morality can help make sense of modern political tribes like this one. And in that evolution, the big question is this: How did people come together to build cooperative societies beyond kinship?

Morality is the glue, he answers. Humans are 90-percent chimp, but also 10-percent bee—evolved to bind together for the good of the hive. A big part of Haidt’s moral narrative is faith. He lays out the case that religion is an evolutionary adaptation for binding people into groups and enabling those units to better compete against other groups. Through faith, humans developed the “psychology of sacredness,” the notion that “some people, objects, days, words, values, and ideas are special, set apart, untouchable, and pure.” If people revere the same sacred objects, he writes, they can trust one another and cooperate toward larger goals. But morality also blinds them to arguments from beyond their group.

How much of moral thinking is innate? Haidt sees morality as a “social construction” that varies by time and place. We all live in a “web of shared meanings and values” that become our moral matrix, he writes, and these matrices form what Haidt, quoting the science-fiction writer William Gibson, likens to “a consensual hallucination.” But all humans graft their moralities on psychological systems that evolved to serve various needs, like caring for families and punishing cheaters. Building on ideas from the anthropologist Richard Shweder, Haidt and his colleagues synthesize anthropology, evolutionary theory, and psychology to propose six innate moral foundations: care/harm, fairness/cheating, liberty/oppression, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation….

And the six moral foundations are central to how Haidt explains politics. The moral mind, to him, resembles an audio equalizer with a series of slider switches that represent different parts of the moral spectrum. All political movements base appeals on different settings of the foundations—and the culture wars arise from what they choose to emphasize. Liberals jack up care, followed by fairness and liberty. They rarely value loyalty and authority. Conservatives dial up all six.

This is not bad.  Note that he’s explained conservatism in a way that isn’t manifestly derogatory.  Some attempt is being made to understand conservatives’ motivations, to understand us on our own terms, even if he doesn’t accept those terms himself.  It’s better than Corey Robin version that we conservatives just want to rob our workers and rape our wives.

As I said, Haidt is a Lefty himself.  His primary concern is to understanding these moral cues so that the liberals he approves of can more effectively manipulate the populace.

Now Haidt wants to change how people think about the culture wars. He first plunged into political research out of frustration with John Kerry’s failure to connect with voters in 2004. A partisan liberal, the University of Virginia professor hoped a better grasp of moral psychology could help Democrats sharpen their knives. But a funny thing happened. Haidt, now a visiting professor at New York University, emerged as a centrist who believes that “conservatives have a more accurate understanding of human nature than do liberals.”

So far Haidt hasn’t had much luck interesting political types in his ideas. He reached out to Democratic politicians in his home state of Virginia, like Mark Warner and Tom Perriello, as well as to the Center for American Progress, a liberal research group tightly wired to the White House. But folks in Washington strike Haidt as too fixated on dodging daily bullets to think about the long-term future of liberalism. The few political people who gave him any time seemed more interested in tapping behavioral science for fund raising, or simply too busy to engage with his ideas.

Needless to say, the intelligentsia is outraged that someone is trying to understand conservatives–as opposed to simple condemning them–even if he’s doing it in the interests of liberalism.  One must not admit that there are any moral arguments for conservatism, even invalid ones.

But even as Haidt shakes liberals, some thinkers argue that many of his own beliefs don’t withstand scrutiny. Haidt’s intuitionism overlooks the crucial role reasoning plays in our daily lives, says Bloom. Haidt’s map of innate moral values risks putting “a smiley face on authoritarianism,” says John T. Jost, a political psychologist at NYU. Haidt’s “relentlessly self-deceived” understanding of faith makes it seem as if God and revelation were somehow peripheral issues in religion, fumes Sam Harris, one of “the Four Horsemen of New Atheism and author of The End of Faith.

The theory frustrates some. Patricia S. Churchland, a philosopher and neuroscientist, has called it a nice list with no basis in biology. Jost, the NYU psychologist, feels Haidt makes a weak case for defining morality so broadly. Philosophers have long considered whether it’s “morally good to favor members of your own group, to obey authority, or to enforce standards of purity,” Jost says. “And they have come largely to the conclusion that these things don’t have the same moral standing as being fair to people and trying to minimize harm.” Following leaders can lead to horrific consequences, he notes.

Haidt acknowledges that the same beelike qualities that foster altruism can also enable genocide. But as a psychologist, not a philosopher, he generally sees his job as describing moral judgments, not advising what is right and wrong for individuals.

So, court theologians of the liberal establishment insist that their’s is the one true faith.  Imagine that.  Given how incredibly flawed consequentialism is as an ethical system, I would say that philosophers who prioritize “being fair to people and trying to minimize harm” to the extent liberals do should have a reduced “standing” on our attention.

Why worship God?

All theists will agree that it is good to worship God.  But why, asks the atheist?  What and who is it good for?  Is it good for God?  Then He must be a very imperfect deity that His self-esteem needs such elaborate reinforcement.  “No, no!” we say.  “God is the plenitude of being (and, in the Trinity, the plenitude of love); He certainly has no need for our worship.”  Well then, if He is just as well off without it, why not just sleep in on Sunday?  One answer suggests itself, and has become quite popular:  “Worshiping God is good for us!  It’s what we were made to do, and what we find our completion in.”  And this is quite true.  On the other hand, it’s the secondary thing, not the primary thing.  No one who gives himself in adoration to God is thinking of a benefit to himself.  Not that wanting benefits from God is wrong–Christ Himself taught us to petition God.  Still, glorifying God is something different; one’s eyes are not on oneself.  It is what von Hildebrand called a “value response”.  We worship God because that is the proper response to His goodness.  It is good for us, but above all, it is good period, that is, it is just.  It is the correct and just relationship between creature and Creator.  Not every “good” has to mean “good for…”

Proph is one of the few people I’ve seen to get this exactly right.  Here he is critiquing an atheist internet video:

He declares there are “many problematic qualities” we’re asked to accept about this God that proves its falseness, but then provides perhaps the stupidest sample of what those “problematic qualities” are: “No being can be regarded as perfect,” he says, “if it needs to be worshipped.”

Agreed! Such would be a contradiction in terms. God, being perfect, has no imperfections in need of realization and therefore no “needs.” So we should not presume to worship God because we think He needs to be worshipped. We should worship Him because he deserves to be worshipped, and moreover, because it is good — that is, consistent with our natures as created beings who owe their creator a debt of gratitude and obedience — to worship Him. The argument as expressed by QS is stupid and he is right to call it such. But he is wrong to call it a “problem” for theism because no one, to my knowledge, has aksed anyone to accept that argument.

Of course, for rational creatures, there is a tight congruence between “good for us” and “good period” (i.e. just), since the telos of our rationality is to make appropriate judgments, above all value judgments about the highest things.

Ways of knowing God

The title deliberately evokes Danielou’s classic God and the Ways of Knowing, but I wanted to change the title a little, so that people don’t come in expecting a book review.

How do people relate to God?

  1. The sense of the sacred.  This is the most “democratic” of ways in that most people in societies more advanced than the pygmies seem to experience it.  It is, in fact, the only socially relevant religious sense, and societies have been built around it.  It involves a sense that the world is divided into sacred and profane realms which must be kept separate, and a sense of one’s own ontological poverty before the sacred.  Ours is, I believe, the only advanced society to lose this sense.
  2. Personal, affective devotion; love of God as one person loves another.  This kind of devotion is especially marked in religions like Christianity and Hinduism, in which the god becomes human and can be related to as such.  This is the highest level of religious sense that most people are capable of, and perhaps it is only in Incarnational religions that a majority is capable of it.  It is not spontaneous, but can be developed through frequent Bible reading and meditation on the life of our Savior, and the like.  It can, in times of great enthusiasm, become a social force.  More importantly, it can transform individual souls.
  3. Mysticism, a direct, superconceptual apprehension of God.  This is generally agreed to be the highest religious sense, but it is reserved for a small spiritual elite, an Ibn Arabi or a Pseudo-Dionysius.  It is socially irrelevant, because it is given to so few and is by its nature incommunicable.  Nor does it save many souls, but it does contribute treasures to a religious tradition for those few able to profit by them.

Those wishing to know God should start low and build up.  Each stage of ascent must be tested against those below.  There is a false devotion to Christ, an easy “Jesus is my boyfriend” familiarity that can be known as false because it offends against our sense of the sacred.  The higher forms should never contradict the lower.  There is a false mysticism, that of charlatans like Joseph Campbell, that attacks all distinctions between good and evil, between holiness and profanity, and which attacks the (tri)personal God of Christians and Muslims.  A heretic may have a mystic vision and blasphemously proclaim his own divinity, while a sounder mystic like al-Ghazali will find in devotion to Allah a fresh zeal for obeying a holiness law.

Death at the movies: Zombies and Ghosts

Rudolf Otto suggested that people naturally associate dead people with the numinous realm, and that this sense of a holy aura surrounding the dead explains both ancestor worship and ghost stories.  The latter may seem like an odd claim, since holiness is good, but no one wants to encounter a ghost.  One must remember that, as Otto explains so well, a true encounter with the holy is awe-inspiring, disorienting, and terrifying.  The presence of the dead does bring a distinct discomfort, whether it be a body without a soul (a corpse) or a soul without a body (a ghost).  No doubt there are more obvious reasons for us to find corpses unpleasant, both distressing and disgusting.  They remind us of death; they are unsanitary.  Still, the more obvious points don’t capture the uncanniness of looking at a thing that a moment ago was a person.

Once, when I was in grade school, my family and I went shopping in a nearby city, and our dog died while we were gone.  The vet said that her stomach twisted, or something like that, that sometimes this happens to big dogs, and there’s nothing one can do about it.  Anyway, when we came home the dog was dead.  Now, I really loved that dog; she was sort of my dog.  My parents asked me if I wanted to see the body before it was disposed of.  I remember being frightened to look.  There would be this thing that looked just like my dog sleeping, but it wouldn’t be my dog, and that really disturbed me.  And there is the eeriness of it:  the appearance of the lost person (or even, in this case, animal), but not the soul.  As the corpse decomposes, it becomes more disgusting but less disturbing, because it is no longer masquerading as someone.

So we have an apprehension, but one whose cause doesn’t fit into any of our day-to-day categories.  We are possessed by an emotion like fear, but there’s no sense that the dead are an actual, physical threat.  When we have an emotion we can’t process, we represent it in fiction in a form that makes more sense to us.  In our time, movies are the preeminent form of fiction.  Thus, our modern, materialistic age presents us with the zombie movie.  These movies serve a sort of therapeutic function; they help us to eliminate our sense of the numinous in the dead.  Do we find corpses disturbing?  Well, let us take that unease and make it a simpler emotion–actual fear.  Let the corpse be an actual, physical threat, the crudest threat imaginable:  something that wants to eat us.  We bring to light what we take to be the underlying emotion (fear).  In directly facing it, we see that it is ridiculous, and we are cured.  That is, discomfort with corpses is rendered absurd, and we cease to feel it.  Although moviemakers are perhaps not conscious of this goal, what they have done is to cut off one of mankind’s avenues for experiencing the sacred.

If I am right, then the purpose of a zombie movie is to be absurd.  First, we imagine what everyone knows is not true–that dead bodies want to eat us.  Then, just to make the fear of corpses seem even sillier, we don’t even imagine them as a credible threat.  Zombies are just stupid staggering automata, who can only be at all menacing in large groups.  This creates a dramatic problem, though.  The genre does such a good job of making fear of the dead seem silly that it risks making itself uninteresting.  Thus, the real drama in a zombie movie has to come from the living characters.  Usually, they’re trapped in some restricted area under siege from the outside zombies, and they start to fight among themselves, which livens the movie up in a way that the moaning bodies outside can’t.  Even in spite of this, these movies almost never work.  They have too little respect for the emotion that feeds them.  The only one I kind of liked, Shawn of the Dead, was a comedy.

On the other hand, most cultures have ghost stories.  Now, its worth noting that while ghost stories are supposed to be frightening, the ghost itself isn’t really much of a physical threat.  That the ghost itself will actually directly kill one of the characters is seldom presented as a possibility.  In order for ghosts to be frightening and not mere nuisances, the story must evoke the eeriness we associate with death, so it must respect the numinous sense, at least much more than zombie movies do.

Now, if you don’t mind, I’m going to ramble about ghost stories for a while.

It is odd, and yet it seems to be true, that while one would expect that adding fantastic elements to a story would enlarge the range dramatic possibilities, actually they seem to shrink it.  There seem to be fewer distinct storylines with preternatural, science fiction, or fantasy elements than there are without them.

Most of the ghost movies I’ve seen fall into two categories.  First, there is story, told from the ghost’s point of view, of the ghost who doesn’t know he’s a ghost and only finds out at the end.  Examples are easy to give, but I will refrain, lest I spoil a movie for someone.  It’s funny that this plot has become so popular, especially given that its popularity compromises its effectiveness–audiences are getting harder to surprise.  It does follow a nice trajectory where the uncanny elements start out small, in the background as it were, and then grow to engulf the protagonist’s whole world, including his self-conception–the classic Twilight Zone formula.  Still, I think the main reason moviemakers keep coming back to this story is that it’s so well suited to their medium.  We who have been watching movies our whole lives have been trained to ignore certain things.  For example, we don’t expect movies to show characters performing mundane tasks like eating, sleeping, or buying groceries; we assume they do these things in between scenes.  This class of ghost stories has gotten very good at using audience expectations against us, so that clues can be placed in plain sight.  In my example above, it might be obvious in retrospect that a character never slept but was doing things at all hours, or that the main characters never interacted with anyone but themselves.  I could also give examples where this same trick is used in movies told from the perspective of a living but mentally ill and hallucinating character, but again I will restrain myself.

Then there’s the ghost story about the wrong that must be avenged, told from the point of view of the living characters.  For example, a man commits murder and is not caught, and the ghost of the victim haunts a third party until he solves the mystery and exposes or avenges the crime.  This story appeals not only to our interest in death, but even more to our interest in justice.  We have a sense that a crime hidden and unpunished still happened, that it leaves some kind of mark on the cosmos that cries out for recognition and redress.  It isn’t even clear to me if the ghost is really the disembodied soul of the victim, or if it’s supposed to be some spiritual marker of guilt or the crime itself.  Ghosts are very vindictive; a sincere apology never seems to be enough to make them “at peace”.  Anyway, even though ghost stories start from a more humane appreciation of death, they generally veer off into exploring other issues.

Yes, I know, you and I have all read some stories or seen some movies with ghosts that didn’t fall into either of these categories, but I still think it’s notable how many of them do.  Tinkering with the formula is difficult.  For example, the movie Ghost is a justice/vengeance story told from the point of view of the ghost, and that didn’t work at all.  Yeah, I know the movie was popular, but it succeeded as an adventure story, not as a ghost story.  It really makes you admire someone like Charles Dickens, who took the ghost idea and did something very different with it that dramatically succeeded.

Understanding Fascism

I’ve recently finished reading Italian Fascisms:  From Pareto to Gentile, an anthology edited by Adrian Lyttelton that was recommended to me by Drieu a long time ago.  After a few half-hearted efforts to understand fascism as a distinctive ideology, things are finally starting to click for me.  The quality of the collections is uneven–as was the actual quality of fascist writers:  lots of vitalist idiots, but four contributors that were really first rate:  Vilfredo Pareto, Alfredo Rocco, Giovanni Gentile, and Benito Mussolini.  Pareto was a sociologist who emphasized the importance of elites; what are presented as revolutions of the masses are always just the replacement of one elite by the another (usually of the class immediately behind the ruling one).  The Marxists would agree, except that Pareto is more consistent, applying the rule to socialist takeovers as well.  Rocco does a good job of explaining fascist corporatism and presenting the fascist view of history from the fall of Rome to the present as the story of the State asserting itself against rival forces and, by subjugating them, putting an end to those awful Middle Ages.  Mostly, though, I would like to focus on Mussolini and Gentile, who try to directly present the key fascist doctrines.

First, it’s important to understand what the fascists mean when they call their doctrine “totalitarian” (and they do call it that).  It does mean that no power, no organization, no social force of any kind is to exist outside of the state.  Now, when we hear that, we imagine the State just doing the minimalist sorts of things a liberal state does, and everything else wiped out–a social wasteland.  The fascist would say that this is a complete misunderstanding.  None of the peoples’ collective activities–their arts, commerce, festivities, scholarship, and religion–is to be lost.  The state is to make itself the guardian of them all, only directing them to the common good.  “The Fascist State…takes over all the forms of the moral and intellectual life of man.”  The fascist state does this not by obliterating lower levels of organization (as it accuses the socialist of doing), but by incorporating them into itself, providing a context where they can truly come into their own.  For example, private ownership of factories is to continue, but they are to be subordinated to the state via corporations, governing bodies where both owners and workers are represented.  One might well ask what good private ownership is without private control.  The fascist would probably reply by pointing to the high degree of subsidiary control:  most decisions would be made at the lowest levels by the owner/manager/worker organizations.

The fascist understanding of the state is the key to their system.  As Mussolini put it

The State, as conceived by Fascism and as it acts, is a spiritual and moral fact because it makes concrete the political, juridicial, economic organization of the nation and such an organization is, in its origin and in its development, a manifestation of the spirit.  The State is the guarantor of internal and external security, but it is also the guardian and the transmitter of the spirit of the people as it has been elaborated through the centuries in language, custom, faith.  The State is not only present, it is also past, and above all future.  It is the State which, transcending the brief limit of individual lives, represents the immanent conscience of the nation.  The forms in which States express themselves change, but the necessity of the State remains.  It is the State which educates citizens for civic virtue, makes them conscience of their mission, calls them to unity; harmonizes their interest in justice; hands on the achievements of thought in the sciences, the arts, in law, in human solidarity; it carries men from the elementary life of the tribe to the highest human expression of power which is Empire; it entrusts to the ages the names of those who died for its integrity or in obedience to its laws; it puts forward as an example and recommends to the generations that are to come the leaders who increased its territory and the men of genius who gave it glory.  When the sense of the State declines and the disintegrating and centrifugal tendencies of individuals and groups prevail, national societies move to their decline.

Given the State’s charge to the people’s “spirit”, it is obvious how fascism will reject the liberalism for its individualism and socialism for its materialism.  What is more interesting is the fascist reason for rejecting conservatism in its religious, nationalist, and traditionalist forms.  This is because of fascism’s other key doctrine:  immanentism.  The State is prior to individuals and groups, but nothing is prior to the State.  It has no goal outside of itself; it can be judged by nothing outside itself.  How could it, since the State is supposed to already embody the people’s highest spiritual ideals?  The reactionaries, nationalists, and theocrats (as the fascists characterize them) disagree, seeing the state as ordered to some good–God, dynasty, nation, tradition, race–that is conceived as existing prior to the State.  Gentile is particularly clear on this.  Regarding the nationalists:

The nationalists’ “nation” is, in a word, something which exists not by virtue of the spirit but as a given fact of nature, either because the elements that give it being, such as the land or the race, depend on nature itself or else because they must be considered as human creations:  language, religion, history.  Because even these human elements contribute to the formation of the national entity, inasmuch as they are already in being and the individual finds himself face to face with them, since they pre-exist him, from the moment he begins to act as a moral being; they are therefore on the same plane as the land and the race…This naturalistic attitude is a weakness…This naturalism was particularly and obviously visible in the loyal support shown by the nationalists for the monarchy….

So basically, fascists are as devoted to autonomy as liberals, but autonomy for the collective spirit known as the State rather than for individuals.  Note that racialism is incompatible with fascism.  Strictly speaking, Hitler was not a fascist.  Regarding the Church:

The Italian Fascist state, desirous…of forming one single unit with the mass of the Italians, must be either religious or else Catholic.  It cannot fail to be religious because the absolute nature which it attributes to its own value and authority cannot be conceived except in relation to a Divine Absolute.  there is only one religion based on and indeed rooted in the mass of the Italian people and meaningful for them, on which they can graft this religious feeling of the absolute nature of the will of the country…So the Fascist state must recognize the religious authority of the Church…

This, too, is a difficult problem since the transcendental conception on which the Catholic Church is based contradicts the immanent political conception of Fascism; and Fascism, I must reiterate, far from being a negation of liberalism and democracy, as people say–and as its leaders, for political reasons, are often justified in repeating–is, in fact, or strives to be, the most perfect form of liberalism and democracy, as defined by Mazzini, to whose doctrine it has reverted.

So, Fascism in its Italian incarnation must preserve the Catholic Church, because it gives the people an imaginative apparatus for experiencing awe for the State.  However, Catholicism has the drawback that it is ordered to something outside and above the State and the national community.  That is a dilemma, and Gentile doesn’t really point the way out.

The contradiction between fascism and conservatism is quite instructive.  Is the nation a completely immanent being, ordered to nothing outside itself, or is it the collective response of a particular people to the order of being around it?  The goal of fascism is to take the nation’s spiritual resources and give them an entirely immanent frame, but can that be done without doing violence to them?  What would it even mean to have a religion without a “transcendental conception”?  That’s practically the defining feature of a religion!  I would say the same thing about arts and sciences; they are essentially ordered to apprehending a cosmos that transcends us, and only accidentally express the genius of a people.  Perhaps if fascism had lasted longer, we would have seen how its best thinkers–represented in this book–would have dealt with this.

Does Christianity lead to democracy?

Laura Wood writes (my thanks to Stewart G. for pointing it out to me):

While 21st century radical democracy, with its insistence on the extreme separation of church and state, is indeed hostile to Christian society, democracy essentially fulfills Christianity rather than opposes it. There are obvious disadvantages to church leaders being appointed by monarchs, with the church then inevitably, over the course of time, becoming a tool of the state. When church is strong and infuses its sensibility throughout society, democracy provides for the flowering of faith. Democracy represents the evolution of Christian principles and the recognition of a God that does not force, but beckons…

This is an argument I cannot fully develop here. But one reason I chose Kalb’s quote is I was annoyed to find a Catholic blogger yearning for a day when we will be ruled by a Catholic king and all the complexities of modern life will be resolved in a theocratic utopia. This longing is misplaced. Theocracy destroys a society’s love of God.

I am flattered to infer that Mrs. Wood still reads this blog.  (If she’s found another Catholic theocratic utopian, I hope she’ll provide a link.  My kindred spirits are hard to find.)  The Thinking Housewife is probably the best reactionary weblog on the internet, and I recommend that everyone read it daily and take Mrs. Wood’s arguments seriously.  One should note that she insists that it’s not “radical” democracy that Christianity is supposed to lead to.  Her ideal would be a limited franchise and an informal Protestant establishment.  If I were going to get behind any kind of democracy, that would be the one I’d find most attractive.  However, as someone who thinks that theocracy is actually the natural expression of society’s love of God, and democracy the expression of insubordination, I owe it to my readers to present the seldom-heard alternate point of view.

I will be interested to see how The Thinking Housewife develops this idea of a correlation (of any kind) between Christianity and democracy, given that it seems to be so completely and consistently contradicted by the historical record.  History, I think, backs up us Christian theocrats.  Christianity has only ever flourished under empire or monarchy.  Democracy has always been the work of unbelievers, and it has always brought ruin to public faith.  For many happy centuries, the Church worked with monarchical governments to build Christian societies; more than this, it was primarily the Church that lifted the barbarians from tribal democracy to territorial monarchy.  Then two centuries ago, a gang of usurpers–atheists and freemasons all–imposed democracy first on English America and France, then on the rest of Europe.  Christianity in the West immediately died everywhere–yes even in America, where the public culture is aggressively atheistic, and the Christianity of the majority is purely nominal.  The historical piece of evidence Mrs. Wood presents–the fact that Christianity collapsed in France after monarchy-established Catholicism was replaced by republic-established atheism–actually backs up my claim.  France had been proudly Christian–with an enormous bounty of saints and theologians–for a millenium under the Catholic monarchy, and it could have been Christian for another millenium if deist freemasons hadn’t imposed an accursed democracy.  The argument I’m always seeing is “We were doing A and it seemed to be working fine.  Then we switched to B, and all hell broke loose.  That means that A wasn’t really working as well as we thought, and we should keep doing B.”  But that doesn’t follow at all.  The fact that the majority apostasizes when apostasy is made official dogma does not mean that they weren’t really Christian when Christianity was the officially inculcated belief system.  By that reasoning, we should assume that Europeans today aren’t really agnostic liberals, but only pretend to be out of fear of hate crimes litigation.  This is obviously wishful thinking.  The majority always accepts its society’s ideology.  They accept it without thought or interior reservation.

Here is the really interesting question:  what explains the consistent and enduring affinity between monarchy and Christianity?  Why is it that a society that embraces one finds itself more receptive to the other?  What is it about the idea of serving a king that speaks to the hearts of Christian men, even as the same idea inspires repulsion in “free-thinkers” and deists?  Here we must remember that a government is not to be thought of primarily as a machine for gathering taxes, waging wars, and the rest.  Above all else, government is a symbol.  It is first of all a people’s symbol of itself, the embodiment and voice of the collective (what Voegelin called society’s “existential representation”).  But the government also symbolizes a peoples’ vision of the order of the cosmos and their collective relation to moral and sacred absolutes (the “cosmological” and “psychological” representations).  Certain forms of government may better capture a people’s spiritual intuitions than others.  I claim that democracy is essentially an anti-Christian symbolic structure; it’s an atheist’s vision of the world expressed in institutions.  Conversely, monarchical symbolism is extremely congruent with the Christian worldview and attractive to the Christian sensibility.

  1. The fundamental Christian policital principle is the social kingship of Christ:  all authority comes from God.  God’s sovereignty extends not only over all individual souls, but over all human collectives.  All Christian nations have developed a clear way of expressing this in their coronation ceremonies.  This is a distinctly Christian ritual that began in Byzantium, spread to the West with Charlemagne, and is still practiced in officially Christian lands.  The king is annointed by the senior prelate:  a sign that authority comes from God, and also a sign of the Church’s superiority to the state.  The Church mediates our contemplative union with God, while the State makes God’s sovereignty over our wills concretely present.  As the intellect is prior to the will, and the king’s legitimacy rests on faith in God’s will taught by the Church, the Church must be the superior power.  The king takes an oath to preserve the traditions of the nation he shall guard, and the people by their acclamations pledge their fealty to their temporal sovereign.  The king is no creature of the popular will.  His claim lies in his birth, that is his organic (indeed biological) connection to his nation’s past, and therefore to its beginning, the quasi-mystical time when that people constituted itself as a sacred order.  Symbolically, mythologically, the beginning of a nation recapitulates the ordering of the world out of chaos by God “in the beginning”.  Beginnings symbolize God–the ultimate source of Being and so the ultimate “beginning”–by their very nature.  Hence the sacrality of tradition and ancestors.
  2. On the other hand, democracy denies God’s sovereignty, blasphemously claiming to derive authority from the will of “the people”.  Elected representatives are–and, more importantly, are seen to be by the symbolism of their election and installation–creatures of popular will.  They are not bound by God or national tradition.  They represent the people’s unfettered will.  It is no wonder that, when a democracy is in power, it quickly displaces Christianity as the official creed with an ideology more suited to its essence, namely the worship of freedom.
  3. Monarchy also makes itself congruent to Christian sensibilities by making the king a quasi-sacramental figure.  His distinction from the ecclesiastical ministry is always clearly maintained (a king cannot confect the Eucharist), but a vaguely sacral aura nevertheless affixes itself to him.  It was not at all out of place, for example, for the king to offer blessings.  Disrespect for the royal family was vaguely sacreligious.  There is no idolotry here; Christianity is a distinctly sacramental, Incarnational religion.  God’s efficacy is spread out through creation.  He acts and shows Himself through visible signs in which members of Christ’s body, the Church, participate.  Bringing the temporal power into this economy of grace is pleasing to the Christian imagination; in fact, the Christian imagination suffers from its absence.
  4. Democracy, on the other hand, makes the temporal order wholly profane.  It is a machine engineered to satisfy whatever temporal desires we happen to possess.  No man ever felt nearer to God from an encounter with Congress.
  5. Finally, democracy is stupid and vulgar, while Christianity is sublime.  Therefore, they naturally repel.

Is idolatry possible?

A modern philosopher [Max Scheler] supposes that every man believes of necessity either in God or in “idols”–which is to say, some finite good, such as his nation, his art, power, knowledge, the aquisition of money, the “ever repeated trumph with women”–some good that has become an absolute value to him, taking its place between him and God; and if only one proves to a man the conditionality of this good, thus “smashing” the idol, then the diverted religious act would all by itself return to its proper object.

This view presupposes that man’s relation to the finite goods he “idolizes” is essentially the same as his relationship to God, as if only the object were different:  only in that case could the mere substitution of the proper object for the wrong one save the man who has gone wrong.  But a man’s relation to the “particular something” that arrogates the supreme throne of his life’s values, pushing eternity aside, is always directed toward the experience and use of an It, a thing, an object of enjoyment.  For only this kind of relation can bar the view to God, by interposing the impenetrable It-world; the relation that says You always opens it up again.  Whoever is dominated by the idol whom he wants to acquire, have, and hold, possessed by his desire to possess, can find a way to God only by returning, which involves a change not only of the goal but also of the kind of movement.  One can heal the possessed only by awakening and educating him to association, not by directing his possession toward God.  If a man remains in a state of possession, what does it mean that he no longer invokes the name of a demon or of a being that is for him distorted demonically, but that of God?  It means that he blasphemes.  It is blasphemy when a man whose idol has fallen down behind the altar desires to offer to God the unholy sacrifice that is piled up on the desecrated altar.

When a man loves a woman so that her life is present in his own, the You of her eyes allows him to gaze into a ray of the eternal You.  But if a man lusts after the “ever repeated triumph”–you want to dangle before his lust a phantom of the eternal?  If one serves a people in a fire kindled by immeasurable fate–if one is willing to devote oneself to it, one means God.  But if the nation is for him an idol to which he desires to subjugate everything because in its image he extols his own–do you fancy that you only have to spoil the nation for him and he will then see the truth?  And what is it supposed to mean that a man treats money, which is un-being incarnate “as if it were God”?  What does the voluptuous delite of rapacity and hoarding have in common with the joy over the presence of that which is present?  Can mammon’s slave say ‘You’ to money?  And what could God be to him if he does not know how to say ‘You’?  He cannot serve two masters–not evern one after the other; he must first learn to serve differently.

–Martin Buber, from I and Thou, (transl. W. Kaufmann)

A couple of thoughts:

  1. I think both Scheler and Buber make valid points.  It’s true that everyone must have something that functions as a supreme value, and so he must have something functionally similar to God.  On the other hand, his devotion may be very dissimilar in quality, in substance.  Similarly, people often debate whether Marxism is a religion or an anti-religion, whether modern culture is a culture or an anti-culture.  The first is true for the thing’s function, the second for its substance.  For example, popular materialistic culture does provide a set of shared understandings that help people get along, and in that sense it serves the function of a culture.  On the other hand, if by “culture” we mean what most cultures would take to be their heart, those beliefs and customs that elevate a man with the collective wisdom of a whole people, then popular materialistic culture should be regarded as the opposite of a culture:  it maladapts a man for wisdom and holiness.
  2. I wonder if there really is such a thing as idolatry.  It seems that when someone worships God and recognizes Him as the fountain of all holiness, he realizes that God has a certain quality that creatures don’t have at all.  God doesn’t just have more of it.  He’s the only one with it; other beings only bear this quality to the extent that He dwells in them.  This seems to me a valid intuition.  But if it is true, then anyone who ever really revered and worshipped an idol must have seen something of the true God in it.  Was his worship really idolatrous then?  Something about Saint Boniface cutting down sacred trees doesn’t sit well with me.

The dogmatic spirit in Protestantism, lost and restored

Cardinal Newman claimed that the dogmatic spirit is a key feature of Christianity, and I have come to see that this is very true.  Some other relitions seem to get along fine without dogma, but Christianity without detailed doctrinal support quickly reduces to sentiment, and sentiment not even deeply felt.  In his latest essay, Alan Roebuck traces the decline of doctrinal precision in the Protestant churches and its ruinous effects.

Until recently, at least in the United States, “Evangelical” basically meant “non-liberal Protestant.”…But in recent years much of Evangelicalism has gone off the rails. Although many Evangelicals still practice traditional Protestantism, and almost all Evangelicals still use the language of their theologically conservative ancestors, the movement is characterized overall by a refusal to adhere to, or even to identify, most of the body of traditional Protestant teaching. Crucial doctrines such as the Trinity of God, the Resurrection, the Atonement, justification by faith alone and the Second Coming are still generally taught. But the details of the systematic theology that makes Christianity a coherent system and makes sense of all the Bible says (and that builds the individual’s faith) are not taught, the excuse generally being that “doctrine is divisive.”
A personal example may help clarify. In the late 1990’s I began attending and eventually joined a large Presbyterian church in the Los Angeles area. Although the church was not known to be liberal, and was considerably more conservative than the liberal United Methodist Church I had recently left, I cannot recall the pastors or teachers ever teaching any of the distinctive Presbyterian
doctrines…And at no point during the six-week new members’ class were we instructed in Christian doctrine. The closest we came was when the senior pastor led us in the “Sinner’s Prayer,” a common Evangelical ritual which involves asking people to pray along with the leader as he recites a far-too-brief summary of the basic gospel message of our sinfulness and inability to save ourselves and our need to have faith in Christ for the forgiveness of our sins. Although the Sinner’s Prayer does contain important Christian truths, it is practically worthless if not followed up with a regular parish life of proper instruction in Christianity. At this church, and the other three Evangelical churches with which I was seriously involved, the leaders acted as if Christian clichés were enough to save lost sinners.
…the basic problem with fundamentalism is not being too conservative. The problem, which is the same with Liberalism and Evangelicalism, is that many of these Christians have denied the faith and cut themselves off from the theological wisdom of the ages.
Indeed, the essence of theological liberalism is the desire to make Christianity agree with the spirit of the age. Classical theological liberalism changed Christianity to agree with Enlightenment-style rationalism. “Seeker-sensitive” Evangelicals make Christianity agree with contemporary marketing theory. And “Emergent”Evangelicals make Christianity agree with postmodern relativism. In this, they are all liberals.
The cure to watered-down Protestantism is, Roebuck believes, Confessional Protestantism, that is Protestantism that takes its statement of doctrine seriously.
What then is the antidote for Protestant infidelity? As mentioned above, there is a fourth type of Protestantism. This type is not widely known, but it is usually called“confessional” or “creedal.” A confessional Protestant church requires clergy and laity alike to know and affirm agreement with at least one of the comprehensive Protestant confessions or catechisms such as the Westminster Confession of Faith for Presbyterians, the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession and the Canons of Dordtfor the Reformed, the Augsburg Confession for Lutherans, the London Baptist Confession for Reformed Baptists or the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion for Anglicans/Episcopalians. Each of these creeds has authority only by virtue of being a faithful summary of what the Bible teaches, the Bible being the supreme (and only inerrant) authority on every subject about which it speaks.
If I were going to be a Protestant, I think I would be a Calvinist.  Calvinism is serious.  It’s not trying to be appealing; it’s trying to be true.

What’s wrong with saying Islam isn’t a religion?

DanPhillips explains it:

What the “Islam is not a religion” crowd is doing, whether they realize it or not (and most don’t), is imposing on the definition of religion a philosophical concept that is relatively novel (historically speaking) and that potentially binds theology beforehand. Per their reasoning, in order to be a religion a religion must embrace modernist liberalism. This would have been news to anyone—Christians included—who lived, say, more than 300 years ago, give or take. One commenter I was debating with said that Islam is not a religion because it doesn’t embrace separation of church and state. Really? Are we that historically myopic? Neither did the whole of Christendom until a couple of centuries ago.

By their definition of religion, the Judaism of the Old Testament was not a religion. Was not the Judaism of the Old Testament an all-encompassing system that mixed church and state, had religion-based laws, had a social order dictated by the religion, frowned on pluralism, etc.? The Catholic Church, especially before Vatican II, is not a religion by this definition. Arguably, and it would be hard to argue otherwise, the Protestantism of Luther and Calvin wasn’t a religion either. Was Calvin’s Geneva a bastion of modernist liberalism? The Puritans certainly were not. One would have to look back no further than the Radical Reformation to find widespread Christian denominations that would meet the exacting liberal standards of the “Islam is not a religion” proponents. (And even some of the products of the Radical Reformation, such as the Mennonites, were quite illiberal in many ways internally.)

I hope you see the problem here. I would argue that liberalism is a modern philosophical concept that most modern Christians have read into the pages of the Bible (addressing this idea fully would require a separate essay). I do not think this liberalism is a theological concept that flows from a natural reading of Scripture. The Bible insinuates, if it doesn’t outright dictate, Christian particularism. Christianity should be the broadly encompassing worldview that Islam is accused of being (in type, not in detail of course) and it represents a failure of the modern Church that it is not.

This idea that Islam is incompatible with America and the West (what used to be called Christendom) because it is illiberal, implies that what truly distinguishes the West from the rest is its liberalism not its Christianity. This may be true and would go a long way toward explaining the sorry state of modern Christianity, but it is to be bemoaned if it is, not celebrated.