Featured Article for This Friday's Lunch Discussion
The race for the Democratic nomination for President of the United States continues to intensify as energy builds from the almost weekly announcements of a new candidate vying for the nomination. Most recently, Vice President Joe Biden officially announced his candidacy for Commander and Chief. It came as no surprise, but now he is officially in. The surprise in the race is a candidate who has captured the continued (and largely adoring) gaze of the media. His name appears relentlessly in the headlines from every major media outlet. He has become a national sensation—and he is a name that very few of us knew until just a few months ago.
He is Mayor of South Bend Indiana, Pete Buttigieg.
The murderous radicals who set off bombs and killed hundreds on Easter Sunday in Sri Lanka chose their targets with ideological purpose. Three churches were bombed, and with them three hotels catering to Western tourists, because often in the jihadist imagination Western Christianity and Western liberal individualism are the conjoined enemies of their longed-for religious utopia, their religious-totalitarian version of Islam. Tourists and missionaries, Coca-Cola and the Catholic Church — it’s all the same invading Christian enemy, different brand names for the same old crusade.
Officially, the Western world’s political and cultural elite does its best to undercut and push back against this narrative. The liberal imagination reacts with discomfort to the Samuel Huntingtonian idea of a clash of civilizations, or anything that pits a unitary “West” against an Islamist or Islamic alternative. The idea of a “Christian West” is particularly forcefully rejected, but even more banal terms like “Western Civilization” and “Judeo-Christian,” once intended to offer a more ecumenical narrative of Euro-American history, are now seen as dangerous, exclusivist, chauvinist, alt-right.
And yet there is also a way in which liberal discourse in the West implicitly accepts part of the terrorists’ premise — by treating Christianity as a cultural possession of contemporary liberalism, a particularly Western religious inheritance that even those who no longer really believe have a special obligation to remake and reform. With one hand elite liberalism seeks to keep Christianity at arm’s length, to reject any specifically Christian identity for the society it aims to rule — but with the other it treats Christianity as something that really exists only in relationship to its own secularized humanitarianism, either as a tamed and therefore useful chaplaincy or as an embarrassing, in-need-of-correction uncle.
I have a half-baked theory, and I’m going to write about here to see where it goes.
My half-baked theory starts with the intuition of an analogy. I’ve been working on a piece for Real Life about the heightened self-consciousness our use of social media tends to generate (it was published today, you can read it here). I leaned a bit on some of Erving Goffman’s dramaturgical theory of the self to make my case.
In The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life, Goffman suggested that we understand our social interaction by analogy to the theater. When we interact directly with others in their presence, it is as if we are actors on stage. On the stage, we are engaged in the work of impression management—trying to manage how we are perceived by controlling the impressions we give—the particular shape of which depends on the audience. But, in keeping with the analogy, we also have a back stage. This is where we are no longer immediately before a public audience. In our back stage area others may be present, but, if they are, they constitute a more intimate, familiar audience before which we are more at ease, some might say more ourselves. In our back stage area, we are able to let down our guard to some significant degree.
Bullets flew by our faces and smacked into the ground around us. Snipers were shooting at us from the tent-and-truck city that was Baghuz, the last physical stronghold of Islamic State (ISIS). Below us, in a smoke-and-dust-shrouded valley at a bend in the Euphrates River, was the distillation of the most hard-core living ISIS members.
The battle being fought out in this little corner of the Syrian desert began when ISIS militants, with their families, had retreated from Mosul, Iraq, pushed out by the Iraqi army and coalition forces, to Raqqa, Syria, the last capital of the ISIS caliphate. From there, Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) had taken over the offensive and, with the help of air and artillery support of the coalition, had pushed them out to Deir Ezzor. The fight had continued, and the last remnants of ISIS were steadily pushed back along the east side of the Euphrates to Baghuz on the Iraq-Syria border.
Now, the thousands of people remaining were compressed into a dense collection of trucks and tents. We could see bunkers under many of the trucks and what looked like tunnel entrances. An ISIS woman from Norway who had fled earlier told us that there were more than 30,000 people packed into this last small space and each person had only a 3-by-6-foot space to live in. “It is a horrible, dirty, starving, stinking place of constant maiming and death,” she said.
It is Sunday, April 5, AD 33. This day will change the entire course of world history, more than any other day before or after, though only a handful of people will know this by day’s end. In an ancient, arid, Near Eastern city, one singular event will occur this day, unleashing a movement so compelling, so enduring, so influential, so unstoppable that two thousand years and billions of adherents later, it will still be growing, faster than ever, while the mighty empire that witnesses its birth will long lay in ancient ruins. This movement will shape nations, span oceans, birth universities, launch hospitals, transform tribal peoples in the world’s remotest places, and be spoken, read, and sung about in more languages than any other religious movement by far.
If you grew up with dogs (as I did), you know that something bizarre and sad often happens when a mother dog loses her puppies. With hormones and maternal instinct coursing through her, she will frequently adopt inanimate objects as “replacement-puppies.” Usually, she chooses something like a boot, hat, or stuffed toy. Mother cats do the same thing, typically with socks. Whatever the object, the animal will carry it around, lick it, attempt to suckle it, protect it, and otherwise pour all of her energy and nurturing instincts into it—often for much longer than she would an actual litter of puppies or kittens. Something in her brain is soothed by the non-living replacement, but ironically, this replacement-puppy can prevent the mother from trying again to bear actual young. Her instincts are permanently misdirected, wasted on an object that will never be her real offspring.
Iam here to speak of cultures in all their splendid diversity, what it may mean to them when they encounter Christ, what that encounter has to teach us about where the value of diversity lies, and how that diversity is threatened by the secular West. But I think it would be most convenient to do first what Plato does in the Republic. That is, I should like to begin not with the great but with the small; not with the society or culture, but with the human person. To do so, I turn to a scene from C. S. Lewis's The Great Divorce.
Imagine an old man sitting upon a stone, looking whimsically upon a traveler who has taken a bus from the gray city below to the bright borderlands above. The traveler gazes with wonder upon a beautiful woman whose robes seem like the expression of her person, so that she is clothed yet fully revealed in her clothing, as if she were Milton's Eve before the Fall, "with native honor clad / In naked majesty." They need no clothes in that country to hide themselves, but rather "the spiritual body lives along each thread." She is followed by a long train of immense beings bearing flowers and dancing, of youths and maidens singing, and of dogs and cats and birds and horses.
"Is it—is it?" the traveler stutters. He believes he is looking upon Mary, the Mother of God.
"Not at all," says the old gentleman with a broad Scottish brogue. "It's someone ye'll never have heard of. Her name on Earth was Sarah Smith and she lived at Golders Green."
The traveler is a bit confused. "She seems to be . . . well, a person of particular importance."
"Aye. She is one of the great ones. Ye have heard that fame in this country and fame on Earth are two quite different things."
Sarah Smith of Golders Green; that is all she was, but the old guide tells us why she is great. "Every young man or boy," he says, "that met her became her son—even if it was only the boy that brought the meat to her back door. Every girl that met her was her daughter." Even the animals partook of her motherly care. Says the old man, "Every beast and bird that came near her had its place in her love. In her they became themselves."
In her they became themselves—that is an astonishing claim. Such is the elevating power of the love of Christ. Says the old man, "It is like when you throw a stone into a pool and the concentric waves spread out farther and farther. Who knows where it will end? Redeemed humanity is still young."
The Department of Health and Human Services says it has granted a second 90-day extension to a contract it has with the University of California at San Francisco that requires UCSF to make “humanized mice.”
These creatures are made by implanting mice with human tissues taken from late-term aborted babies.
The HHS's multi-million-dollar contract with UCSF that requires the construction of these “humanized mice” creates a demand--driven by federal tax dollars--for tissue taken from late-term aborted babies. According to an estimate it has published on its website, the National Institutes of Health (which is a division of HHS) will spend $95 million this fiscal year alone on research that--like UCSF's "humanized mouse" contract--uses human fetal tissue.
Philosophers ponder the meaning of life. At least, that is the stereotype. When I risk admitting to a stranger that I teach philosophy for a living and face the question ‘What is the meaning of life?’, I have a ready response: we figured that out in the 1980s, but we have to keep it secret or we’d be out of a job; I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you. In fact, professional philosophers rarely ask the question and, when they do, they often dismiss it as nonsense.
Toxic to Spiritual Growth and Ruinous to Political Health
When I was barely seventeen, I left everyone I knew in the world for the first time in my life and packed it off to summer school at William and Mary, 1,500 miles away. I hadn’t been in my strange new surroundings a week when something happened that lifted me high in my young eyes (very young, since I had graduated from high school a year early). In working my way through the cafeteria’s dinner line, I had forked four slices of ham onto my plate, thinking I had only three—and paying for only three at the register. In the middle of my lonely meal, I discovered my error and promptly returned to the checkout woman to correct it. She was so visibly amazed and delighted at my punctilious honesty that I basked in the glow of her smile for days. What a fine young man I was, after all!
Psychology professors from Claremont McKenna, Yale and Berkeley have just published a study that should be “disconcerting to those interested in promoting an accurate understanding of evolution.” Specifically, they’ve identified an insidious factor that has crept into science films and videos, undermining the ability of viewers to be good Darwinists.
Awe is the culprit, they say. All those jaw-dropping nature documentaries have been messing with our minds.
Most wildlife shows are packaged with the usual Darwinian narrative, spoken in an authoritative tone that isn’t supposed to be questioned. But it seems that wildlife itself, in stunning visual display, is conveying a different message — more powerfully, in fact.
Everyone is awed by life, and experiences that accentuate this awe seem to affect us, whether or not we believe in God. The new study suggests that these experiences affirm a sense of faith in theists and a sense of purpose-like natural order in atheists and agnostics, both of which cause problems for instructors wanting to churn out good Darwinists.
I want to make plain to all the graduates today that, if you are a Christian, you will spend the rest of your life on this earth with a spiritual condition that may be called sacred schizophrenia.
The second definition of schizophrenia in my dictionary, after the medical one, is “a state characterized by the coexistence of contradictory or incompatible elements.” That’s what I mean by schizophrenia. In calling it sacred I mean that it is a condition brought about by the Holy Spirit. It is not a perfect condition, but it is a holy condition. A sacred schizophrenia. https://world.wng.org/2017/05/a_sacred_schizophrenia
What should the role of Christians in politics be? More people than ever are asking that question. The historical Christian positions on social issues don’t match up with contemporary political alignments.
Christians cannot pretend they can transcend politics and simply “preach the Gospel.” Those who avoid all political discussions and engagement are essentially casting a vote for the social status quo. American churches in the early 19th century that did not speak out against slavery because that was what we would now call “getting political” were actually supporting slavery by doing so. To not be political is to be political.
America’s founders certainly believed in individual liberty, but they believed that liberty happens within a shared community. They began the Constitution with the phrase, “We the People.” We are all one thing — a people, a nation, a collective.
That people shares a moral order — rules that are true for all people in all times and that govern us in our freedom. Among them, for example, is the idea that all people are created equal.
How fitness classes provide the meaning that religion once did.
Institutions like CrossFit and SoulCycle are offering their students more than just a chance to lose weight or tone up. They function, ter Kuile argues, like religions.
“People come because they want to lose weight or gain muscle strength, but they stay for the community,” he said. “It’s really the relationships that keep them coming back.”
Of course, these spaces are themselves defined not just by their spiritual role but by their economic one. At up to $40 a class, places like SoulCycle and CrossFit often cater to a particular demographic: urban millennials with high-paying jobs and disposable incomes, the same group that tends to identify as religiously unaffiliated.
What is said today about ‘fear’ of the Lord in Biblical language is true,” Father Ernest Fortin told his graduate students at Boston College. “It does bear the meanings ‘awe’ and ‘reverence.’ We shouldn’t forget, though, that the word also means fear.” This was the mid-nineties, when John Paul II’s Veritatis Splendor had recently re-presented the Church’s teaching on moral law. There are “intrinsically evil acts” that “radically contradict the good of the person made in his image,” wrote the pope. “They are [evil] always and per se.”
Despite the number of Christian fellowships that daily set up their tables on Sproul and the churches that dot the outskirts of campus, our university is a secular one. Charles Taylor’s tome, A Secular Age asserts that our entire age is secular, not because we have rejected religion outright (the active, growing fellowships and churches would demonstrate otherwise), but rather our age is secular because belief in the divine is only one option out of many options that we can choose from.
The greatest threat to Christianity is found not in the arguments of the atheist but in the assumptions of the apathetic. The “new apathy” is a more dangerous threat than the new atheism.
The “new atheism” fad of Richard Dawkins, Samuel Harris, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, and dozens of other ornery antitheists created a lot of noise over the God Question, reaching its peak in the late 2000s. The loud, kaleidoscopic festival of fallacies served up by these commentators attracted a lot of media attention. Westerners had never had such a public and prominent debate on God’s existence, and millions were seduced by superficially intriguing yet ultimately facile questions like “who created God?” and “is a prime mover not equally as plausible as a giant plate of pasta floating in space?”
There is a dimension of truth which most of us have tragically lost and need to recover, a dimension that cannot be put into words and sentences, though words and sentences can be used to suggest it.
All premodern societies had this other dimension, even the ones who were very far from having the propositional truth, the Christian content of revelation. This other dimension is a vision, a perspective, a habit of seeing rather than a specific thing seen. If we do not have this habit—this vision—then our theology will not sink much deeper than on a conscious, rational level.