Turns Out W-w Isn't Sufficient

Matt Chandler implicitly challenges the powerful work of taking every thought captive:

The challenge with white privilege is that most white people cannot see it. We assume that the experiences and opportunities afforded to us are the same afforded to others. Sadly, this simply isn’t true. Privileged people can fall into the trap of universalizing experiences and laying them across other people’s experiences as an interpretive lens. For instance, a privileged person may not understand why anyone would mistrust a public servant simply because they have never had a viable reason to mistrust a public servant. The list goes on.

What is so deceptive about white privilege is that it is different from blatant racism or bias. A privileged person’s heart may be free from racist thoughts or biased attitudes, but may still fail to see how the very privilege afforded to him or her shapes how he or she interprets and understands the situations and circumstances of people without privilege.

Well, actually, if you’ve seen any television show in the last five decades, not to mention the beloved The Wire, you have plenty of reasons for knowing about the mistrust that some people experience when encountering a public servant. Heck, if you’ve watched a single Coen Brothers’ movie, you can’t but help encounter the mixed motives that course through most people who don’t think they have had a lobotomy just because Jesus is in their heart. Double heck, if you went to Temple University and dealt with “public servants” in the Bursar’s Office, you don’t need to be black to mistrust people who work for the state.

But I do wonder why people with white privilege need to change more than to be pitied. Maybe people with white privilege are simply under bondage and can’t change. Why don’t they receive any empathy? Or why does Chandler expect some people to overcome their blinders but not others? Is it another form of white privilege to think that whites have the capacity to change or lead it?

Should We Change Our Name?

Maybe it should be Metaphysical Club instead of Old Life Theological Society, so impressed as I am by Louis Menand’s book about pragmatism and more. I have not read a history book that has been so hard to put down, so vivid in its depictions of characters, so plot driven as it were, and so accessible in presenting difficultly complex ideas. In fact, I was prepared to dislike the book partly because of a distrust of Pragmatism and partly because of the hype the book received. But now I not only think Menand deserved a Nobel Prize to go with his Pulitzer, but he also has me thinking about the value of what pragmatists did (not to mention presenting William James as one of the most intriguing intellectuals to walk the greatest nation on God’s green earth).

One reason for finding pragmatism appealing is the way that folks like James and Dewey recognized that w-w won’t work either as the motivation for w-w holders or for explaining how people live and specifically live with thoughts. Menand explains:

People reach decisions, most of the time, by thinking. This is a pretty banal statement, but the process it names is inscrutable. An acquaintance gives you a piece of information in strict confidence; later on, a close friend, lacking that information, is about to make a bad mistake. Do you betray the confidence? “Do the right thing” — but what is the right thing? Keeping your word, or helping someone you care about avoid injury or embarrassment? Even in this two-sentence hypothetical case, the choice between principles is complicated — as it always is in life — by circumstances. If it had been the close friend who gave you the information and the acquaintance who was about to make the mistake, you would almost certainly think about your choice differently — as you would if you though that the acquaintance was a nasty person, or that the friend was a lucky person, or that the statute of limitations on the secret had probably run out, or that you had acquired a terrible habit of betraying confidences and really ought to break it. In the end, you will do what you believe is “right,” but “rightness will be, in effect, the compliment you give to the outcome of your deliberations. Though it is always in view while you are thinking, “what is right” is something that appears in its complete form at the end, not at the beginning, of your deliberation.

When we think, in other words, we do not simply consult principles, or reasons, or sentiments, or tastes; for prior to thinking, all those things are indeterminate. Thinking is what makes them real. (The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America, 352)

Is w-w, then, simply a justification for a process that is otherwise indeterminate, inscrutable, and hidden?

Raising this question may make 2k the pomo side of contemporary Reformed Protestantism. That is, 2k may be pomo in the sense that the certainties of one kingdom cannot be extended as certainties to the other kingdom (which is most of life). Peter Lawler made a point about postmodern conservatism that made me think much of the grief that 2kers receive comes from people who expect orthodoxy outside the church. In other words, 2kers are unwilling to provide the kind of certainty or absolute standard that so many who take their cues from the culture war want. Lawler puts it this way:

The modern world has now ended only in the sense that we have now seen enough of it to judge it. Although we have reason to be grateful for the wealth, health, freedom, and power that modern achievements have given us, we know that the individual’s pursuits of security and happiness will remain always pursuits—and not possessions. So even as the modern world continues to develop, we can be free of its characteristic delusion, its utopianism. We can speak of its strengths and its limitations from a perspective “outside” modernity, and that perspective is the foundation of conservatism today. Conservatives can be (perhaps the only) genuinely postmodern thinkers. The reason we can see beyond the modern world is that its intention to transform human nature has failed. Its project of transforming the human person into the autonomous individual was and remains unrealistic; we can now see the limits of being an individual because we remain more than individuals. The world created by modern individuals to make themselves fully at home turns out to have made human beings less at home than ever.

Conservative thought today is authentic postmodernism, but it is, obviously, not postmodernism as it is usually understood. Most allegedly postmodern thought emphasizes the arbitrary character of all human authority, the freedom of each human being from all standards but his own will or creativity, and the death not only of God but of nature. These allegedly postmodern characteristics are really hypermodern; they aim to “deconstruct” as incoherent and so incredible any residual modern faith in reason or nature. They shout that everything modern—in fact, everything human—is nothing but a construction.

Postmodernists in the usual sense often do well in exposing liberal hypocrisy, but they can only do so in the name of completing the modern project of liberating the individual’s subjective or willful and whimsical perspective from all external constraints. Conservative postmodernism, by acknowledging and affirming as good what we can really know about our natural possibilities and limitations, is radically opposed to liberated postmodernism—and to the modern premises it radicalizes.

2kers see the hollowness of the modern project by virtue of knowing that this world is not all there is and that the believer’s ultimate comfort comes in the world to come. Critics of 2k regard this skepticism as a betrayal of Christianity or the church’s mission when in fact many critics of 2k are simply dressing up modernity and its narrative of liberty and progress in Christian clothing.

I understand that 2k is not inspiring or optimistic about what we do in this world. But you would think that people who take human depravity seriously would understand the delusions of inspiration and optimism.

How To Tell If Your Religious Liberties Are Under Siege

Our Pennsylvania correspondent sent word of this post which contains this chart:


This is helpful and puts the difficulties that North American Christians face in a category different from the one Eritrean Christians endure.

But isn’t the issue for most neo-Calvinists and subscribers to w-w ideology that you know your rights are being violated when you see Christ’s Lordship being denied? The irony is that these folks don’t rail on themselves as much as they do the public schools, secular elites, or the Obama administration.

Noah Millman's On a Roll

First he renders Inside Llewyn Davis a great movie (I left the theater scratching my head about a good movie that defied the Coen’s conventions):

There’s a poetic rightness to the fact that “Inside Llewyn Davis,” one of the best films of the year, was not nominated for Best Picture by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The latest from the Coen Brothers, “Inside Llewyn Davis” does just about everything it can to alienate voters, starting with the fact that it’s about a raging misanthrope. Like “Her” but in the opposite emotional key, this is another story where form and subject are perfectly mated, and where the story wouldn’t work at all if they were not.

The Coen Brothers have always been interested in losers. But never before have they gotten us so close to the heart of one of those losers, and a loser who knows that he deserves to win, and knows he just isn’t going to, and is consumed by the bitterness of that condition. Like “A Serious Man,” this feels like a very personal film for them, but whereas “A Serious Man” wrestled with origins – specifically their Jewish identity – “Inside Llewyn Davis” wrestles with destiny, and the possibility of not having one.

Played with wonderful naturalism by relative newcomer Oscar Isaac, Llewyn Davis is a folk singer in New York in 1961, right before folk is about to explode out of its niche with the emergence of Bob Dylan. But Llewyn isn’t going anywhere. He can’t afford even a rathole apartment downtown, and crashes on the couches of the vanishingly few New Yorkers who don’t hate his guts. One of them is his more successful friend’s wife (Carey Mulligan, giving a nicely subtle performance – watch her eyes while she sings), who informs him she’s knocked up, possibly by him. Another is an uptown academic couple who are faultlessly generous with him, and whose generosity he rewards by lashing out, cursing, saying he feels like a trained poodle.

He’s got more than his share of rotten luck – beaten up by inexplicably malevolent cowboys, robbed of even his minimal royalties by his rotten manager, trapped for hours on the way to Chicago with an outlandishly insulting old jazz man who won’t stop poking him with his canes (the only out-and-out Coen grotesque in the film, played by John Goodman). But he also makes his own bad luck, telling his sister (Jeanine Serralles) to throw out his old stuff (including his old mariner’s license, which he turns out to need), refusing royalties on a ridiculous novelty song that his friend (the one he cuckolded, played with delightfully deadpan squareness by Justin Timberlake) wrote so that he can get the cash quicker (only to see the song do well), and, when he finally gets a chance to audition for a manager who could really take him places (F. Murray Abraham), picking an obscure and depressing song guaranteed to turn him away. And his response to every piece of bad mazel he suffers is the same, whether he’s obviously implicated or not: a sour conviction that it figures, that the universe has it in for him one way or another.

With one exception. In what is certainly a screenwriting joke (given the ubiquity of Blake Snyder’s book) this deeply unattractive character does one noble thing. He saves a cat. Or tries to.

Then Millman wonders about the value of using w-w to debate atheists who use Pat Robertson as an interlocutor:

If I understand [Ross Douthat’s] argument now, it is that the new atheists’ worldview lacks “coherence” – whereas other world views, including some other varieties of atheism, would not lack that coherence so drastically.

I suspect that’s true. But what I would say in response is that virtually nobody has a “coherent” worldview. I’m pretty sure I don’t. And it’s only a certain sort of personality that feels a psychic need for a worldview characterized by coherence. I might even go further and say that some religions are more prone to seek that particular grail than others. I’d certainly rank Catholicism far higher on the “seeks coherence” scale than, say, Judaism, or the LDS Church, to say nothing of faith traditions like Hinduism that don’t even have a clear mechanism for defining the boundaries of inclusion and exclusion, and that hence by definition cannot provide that kind of coherence.

If guys like Bryan Cross were to read more Millman and watch more movies by the Coens, would the Call to Communion be funnier and more effective?