I’ve found an easy way to improve the average quality of Throne and Altar posts:  to eliminate the sub-par ones.  I am currently in the process of removing what I regard as the most forgettable posts.  Ultimately, I’d like to remove at least half of them.  I’m also removing posts that are possibly dangerous to the faith:  criticisms of Pope Francis, pointing out what I think are weaknesses in arguments for orthodox conclusions, expressions of disrespect for the episcopate, and the like.  In the end, I hope to remove most of the theology posts except those relevant to political philosophy, since the others are beyond the scope of this blog and the expertise of the author, and are thus likely to be inadvertently heretical anyway.  Nonpolitical philosophy posts will stay for the time being, but I would prefer to move them to their own blog someday.  I intend for the culling to be an ongoing process.  I will continue to write forgettable posts, but will then remove them after a month.  I’m making this announcement so that people won’t think I’m being persecuted by liberals working for WordPress or that I am underhandedly trying to hide evidence for my bad predictions and bad arguments. (No–I am forthrightly hiding the evidence!)

Links and short comments

It’s that time of year again when I must write an annual assessment report on my department’s graduate program.  So I am receptive to this article on “the bullshitization of academic life“.  As the author points out, it is a paradox that hiring so many administrators whose job it is to relieve faculty of this sort of work results in faculty having to spend more and more time doing paperwork, a paradox until, that is, one considers the incentives administrators have to make work for themselves and the rest of us.  I was surprised to learn that 40% of all workers think their jobs contribute nothing meaningful to the world.  The author notes it as a rather depressing argument for a universal basic income.

Speaking of academia, sociologists are dismayed that conservatives, especially educated ones, don’t think their field is a real science.  I’d say the fact that they regard “science” as an authority they covet rather than a methodology they strive to emulate is a pretty clear sign that they are, indeed, not scientists.

Cardinal Marx points out that without Karl Marx, there would be no Catholic Social Doctrine.  Which is true, just as without Arius there would be no Nicene Creed.

I am shocked to learn–from First Things, no less!–that Christianity for a millennium and a half saw nothing wrong with monarchy, and it was only Talmudic Judaism that Europeans got the idea that only republics are legitimate.  (Speaking of our Elder Brothers and their proclivities…  Interesting that they are overrepresented among sociology and law professors more than other fields.)

Lastly, the Left finds another dead white man to purge:  Hans Asperger.  Oddly, Asperger is getting the boot for embracing current-year-fashionable utilitarian bioethics too early, back when it was called Nazi euthanasia.  So now they want to rename “Asperger’s syndrome” or eliminate the category entirely.

When did Nature get so social-justice-y, anyway?  Didn’t it used to be a regular scientific journal?

Is event ontology forced on us by modern physics?

Book review:
The Event Universe:  The Revisionary Metaphysics of Alfred North Whitehead
by Leemon McHenry

The idea that the world consists of objects that persist through time (what this book calls “substance ontology”) comes naturally to us.  The author, Leemon McHenry, thinks this is largely because of the way our grammar is structured and argues that modern physics suggests something different, something more like Whitehead’s “event ontology”.  I have found Alfred North Whitehead’s own writings very difficult to follow, at least without consulting books of his interpreters who explain the jargon, and McHenry does a good job of briefly and clearly making the main points.  Whitehead’s metaphysics is reminiscent of supersubstantivalism, the idea that spacetime is the only thing that exists, and every other quality (mass, charge, etc) is just a property of parts of spacetime.  Event ontology further stipulates an atomist doctrine that only individual points of spacetime (events) are ultimately real; spacetime itself is just an aggregate of events.  Actually, Whitehead seems to think that the manifold picture of spacetime breaks down at some level and spacetime is ultimately cellular, and these individual cells Whitehead calls “actual occasions” and regards as the ontologically fundamental beings.  In this picture, continuity through time, whether of an atom or a person, is an illusion.  At most, a timelike sequence of actual entities may resemble each other and be causally related.  It’s quite remarkable that the world can be described either by things with properties or by spacetime events with properties, and the event picture is impressively clear and simple.

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Progress in philosophy and theology in the long view

Why does philosophy seem to make so much less progress than science?  Professor J. L. Schellenberg addresses this often-asked question at Aeon magazine.  He quickly touches on some common answers.

  1. Philosophy deals with inquiries for which a proper methodology has not yet been developed.  Once real progress starts being made, a subject stops being a branch of philosophy and becomes a science.
  2. The point of philosophy isn’t to answer the big questions, but for each individual to refine his or her soul by struggling with them.  By its nature, it must be done anew by each person.
  3. Philosophical questions don’t get answered but they do get refined.  We now have a more precise sense of what the problem of free will is, for example, and this is progress of a sort.

I think there is merit in each of these points, but Schellenberg suggests another.  Perhaps the big questions of philosophy are just really hard and take longer than a couple of millennia to solve.  It is not unreasonable to hope that the human race will survive for tens or hundreds of thousands of years.  On such timescales, philosophy hasn’t be around long and may still be, looking back from a hundred thousand years hence, at a very immature phase.  The task of philosophers for the coming centuries may ultimately preparatory work:  discarding dead ends, developing tools, achieving small but solid initial results.

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Catholic common ground

Bishops are searching for it.

Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago and Archbishop José Gómez of Los Angeles, who at least on some matters, would be regarded stereotypically as representing “liberal” and “conservative” views, will headline together a major convening of Catholic leaders this June aimed at overcoming division, building relationships, and strengthening the Catholic community’s contribution to the common good.

“Through Many, One: Overcoming Polarization Through Catholic Social Thought,” will take place June 4-6 at Georgetown University and is a project of the university’s Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life in response to what its organizers have described as “the harmful divisions within our Church.”

Cupich – who was appointed to Chicago in 2014 – is widely perceived as one of Francis’s closest allies in the U.S. Church and has been a strong champion for worker’s rights, immigration, and the consistent ethic of life. Gomez has led the nation’s largest and most diverse diocese since 2011 and is currently the vice-president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). He was ordained a priest through Opus Dei, a movement that is widely viewed as having conservative leanings, and has been a vocal advocate for pro-life and religious liberty causes. In recent years he has also become one of the most vocal leaders within the U.S. Church hierarchy calling for comprehensive immigration reform.

The gathering will focus not on internal Church issues, but on “the neglected challenge of bringing Catholic principles to public life so as to truly be ‘salt, light and leaven’ in a divided society.”

Well, there does some to be one conspicuous piece of common ground, one that sets apart these holy bishops from all those grubby nativists in the pews.

Actually, I don’t understand why these freedom-and-democracy types are bothered by polarization.  Why shouldn’t Catholics be divided on everything under the sun?  Otherwise, would it not mean that we had failed to evangelize one faction?  If we need a core that unites us and distinguishes us from the world (and we do!), we could point to the seven sacraments and the Nicene creed.  However, that would mean giving up on “bringing Catholic principles to public life”, at least insofar as “public life” means what are commonly called “political disputes”.

Instead, the goal is a united witness to Catholic social teaching.  I’m all for this, but I doubt either the Cardinal or the Archbishop is.  After all, if the Church has a duty to bring something distinctive to public debate, then it must advocate a position different from the main non-Catholic positions, a position that nonbelievers by-and-large disagree with.  Banalities about caring for the poor and the common good don’t count.  The anti-Catholic communists agree with them.  The same could be said for pleas to protect the environment.  Even the episcopal common ground of open borders advocacy is a completely common position in elite circles.  A robust defense of the social kingship of Christ would certainly qualify, but American bishops would recoil from any such thing.

The trouble is that, to episcopal ears, “Catholics social teaching” means “the things we can say that will make us popular, that will attract the young people and get the newspapers to write nice things about us”.  There are indeed things men in the public eye can say that carry no risk and some degree of social reward.  (Nobody ever lost a job or status for attacking “racists”.)  However, such popular, consensus-affirming positions simply by being popular and consensus-affirming are not distinctive, and the Church serves no urgent or irreplaceable function in articulating them.

If Catholic social teaching is important, it must be unpopular.

Is the novel a distinctly atheistic art form?

This is the opinion of Ian McEwan, because novels train us in empathy.  I’m not sure what that has to do with religion, but most atheists do strike me as nauseatingly sentimental, so maybe there is a connection.  In the linked article, M. M. Owen analyzes three of McEwan’s novels, finding their treatment of storytelling to be more ambiguous than McEwan’s public position.  It sounds like McEwan is too good a novelist to keep himself on message.

Certainly, there does seem to be something about the novel that makes it a poor vessel for religious or mythical narratives.  I think it’s that novels describe their events in such great detail.  Archetypes may be invoked, but no character or event can simply be its archetype because it has been so thoroughly individualized.  Myths reside in “sacred time” beyond profane localizations, like Platonic Forms.  When the story is recited, or a like event occurs, the myth becomes present.  Novels are too long and too detailed to be “made present” through communal, liturgical reading.

Christians are always being told that we need to retake the culture.  Don’t bother with politics; reach people through the arts.  We should not assume that this just means to excel at the art forms of the contemporary world:  that we should aspire to write the best novels, movies, and pop music and somehow instill it with our values.  It may be that we will need to develop other art forms as proper bearers of our culture.

On the politicization of children

Pope Francis urges young people to be good Leftist stooges and hector their elders.

Dear young people, you have it in you to shout.  It is up to you to opt for Sunday’s “Hosanna!”, so as not to fall into Friday’s “Crucify him!”…  It is up to you not to keep quiet.  Even if others keep quiet, if we older people and leaders – so often corrupt – keep quiet, if the whole world keeps quiet and loses its joy, I ask you: Will you cry out?

What an evil, stupid thing to say.  If any young people are reading this, please check out my model commencement address.  American news outlets have tied the Pope’s exhortation to the recent school walkout in which children were encouraged by teachers and media personalities to skip classes to protest for gun control.  In fact, the context of the Pope’s words was the close of the Vatican Youth Meeting.  Apparently, the Catholic Church needs the wisdom of ignorant, media-programmed children to decide which of her doctrines to discard.  No surprises–what the kids want is more approval for sodomy and more power for women, in summary stricter adherence to the beliefs and status hierarchies of the secular world.  No popular belief has ever been more contrary to the truth than the idea that young people are naturally rebellious.

Still, CNN and the rest are right to connect the pope’s words with the gun control agitation.  If one lived in a social vacuum and just read the pope’s homily, one might think that he meant that young people should loudly proclaim the Catholic faith, but since everyone including me take him to mean young people engaging in advocacy, protests, awareness-raising (you know, Leftist bullying tactics), that’s what it really meant.

Leftists politicize their children from a very young age.  I member on a visit to Boston meeting a 5 year old girl who explained to me that Republicans hate poor people.  In an airport, I overheard a proud couple boasting that their one year old had learned to chant “Obama” whenever the then-president appeared on television.  No doubt, these liberal parents would also be the first to believe that one should not impose a religion on a child, but let him figure it out when he’s old enough.  Correct political beliefs, on the other hand, must be instilled early.

I have not seen the same thing in conservatives.  The idea of teaching a five year old a mirror image political statement, e.g. “Democrats hate Christians.”, is revolting.  It’s not that I’m more scrupulous about imposing beliefs on children than my political rivals.  Although I don’t talk about politics with my children, and never teach them that this or that party is made of bad people, I do speak to them of certain tenets of the Christian faith as definitely true.

The difference, I believe, is that we conservatives intuit that politics and its factionalism and partisan spirit are sordid affairs.  They are spiritually corrupting.  They are perhaps a necessary evil, but the young and impressionable should by shielded from them as much as possible.  Religion, on the other hand, we see as ennobling.  We would no more deny a child knowledge of God than we would deny him a knowledge of numbers, for a properly functioning mind should be able to both think quantitatively and acknowledge its Creator.  Leftists, on the other hand, really do believe in the goodness of democracy, not only in an abstract sense but in its embodiment in contemporary partisan politics.  They encourage young people to protest, march, “call out” their elders, and so forth because they think these are ennobling acts that both manifest and solidify a healthy moral sense.  I don’t think they see much moral hazard in protesting, so long as the protest is for a proper Leftist cause, just as we don’t see any moral hazard in practicing a properly orthodox religion and would never think to warn children of its supposed perils.

Children should not be marching for any political cause, not even a good one.  Childhood is a time for formation and learning, and young people should not imagine themselves qualified to dictate reform to their elders.  Then again, we conservatives keep on saying this, and we keep on losing.