Feeling at Home

I used this quote over at Patheos but given the excitements round hyeh the last week or so, a reminder about being strangers and aliens from a Roman Catholic intellectual invoking Augustine might be useful. I will include as well Peter Lawler’s comments about the Confederate Flag for good measure:

I really was quite moved when, driving through the heavily gay midtown section of Atlanta last Sunday, I saw so many homes and businesses flying the rainbow flag with the American flag. It’s not a a small thing that so many gays now feel fully at home in their country, where they’re free to live openly as who they are. But I wish more people were moved by Catholic writers calling for the American flag to be removed from the sanctuaries of their churches. Some argue that it never should have been there in the first place, and a Christian should always think of himself, as Saint Augustine says, as an alien or a pilgrim in his country. Still, many Christians have written in the last few days they have come to think of themselves, for the first time, as aliens in their country, and they know they will soon be marginalized if they live loudly and proudly (and charitably) as who they are.

Notice that I’ve managed to avoid waxing judgmental about the Confederate battle flag, although Apple moved to banish Civil War games that show that flag in the context of Confederate soldiers actually going into battle. Well, let me add one point: The main flag fact about the South today, especially the small-town South, is not the Stars and Bars; it’s the Stars and Stripes seen everywhere in places public and private, commercial and residential. The Confederate flag, it goes without saying, is hardly at all and shouldn’t be at all a sign of some present-tense form of allegiance. That doesn’t mean Americans should be deprived of historical literacy just because one flag lost and even deserved to lose. And it shouldn’t be a thought crime to believe that Lee and Jackson were really great generals and even good (although certainly misguided) men.

Now all we need is for President Obama to apologize for flying the gay pride flag.

No, wait. I forgive him. Who says Old Life is angry?

What Did Charlie Hebdo Accomplish?

The drive back from the annual American Historical Association meeting (and other points northeastern) brought the missus and me lots of coverage of the killings of editors and cartoonists at the offices of Charlie Hebdo yesterday in Paris. As unnerving and tragic as those deaths were and as close to the events as reporters still stood, the dominant narrative of the event was the need, courage, and danger of free speech. Many French and English journalists conducted interviews that indicated the enormous debt they owed to the editors, writers, and cartoonists of the magazine for standing up for free speech. In fact, the Protestant Federation of Churches in France issued the following statement:

We reiterate that the secular republic and its values, including freedom of conscience, democracy and press freedom remains for us the foundation of our life together.

This fairly modern, liberal, and republican line (it is striking to hear the French identify with “The Republic” while Americans who inhabit a republic of similar vintage talk about “The Constitution”) is fairly at odds with the experience of most modern, liberal residents of republics. None of us actually enjoys freedom of speech. Sean Michael Winters, for instance, noted that he is unwilling to use the freedoms he has:

I am not Charlie. I am not as brave as the editors at that newspaper were, continuing their satire even after the death threats and after their offices were fire-bombed. To point out another obvious difference, I am not a satirist and I do not go out of my way to poke fun at other people’s religion. But, they did and – you will pardon the expression – God bless them for it.

In other words, most people even in free societies and even when writing for the wider public censor their thoughts. From deciding not to tell your wife the truth about the chair she purchased to holding your thoughts about the pastor’s sermon, we do not live in a world that allows us to say whatever we think. Some people show more caution than others, and this is of course different from governments censoring citizens. But little in the reporting yesterday suggested any awareness of the layers of free speech.

What has already emerged, however, and this will likely continue for a while, is the chance of drawing attention to the inconsistency of those who condemn these killings. For instance, Mark Tooley observes that the World Council of Churches’ statement about the deaths stands in sharp contrast to the organizations former failure to uphold freedom of speech during the Cold War:

These statements are not bad, and Tveit’s affirmation specifically of the “freedom to print and publish” is especially notable. During its darkest Cold War days of accommodating Soviet Communism and its global proxies, the WCC was often scandalously silent about the freedom to print and publish, among many other freedoms suppressed by dictatorships.

At the risk of adding to such scapegoating, I can’t help but think about the complexity of freedom of speech when it comes to talking about race in the United States or to talk in general at most of the United States colleges and universities. Peter Lawler’s post about campus dissent stands in sharp contrast to outpouring of praise for freedom of speech (folks who talk about microaggressions and social sins should take note):

Now a big difference between the Communists and today’s politically correct is that the (typically perverse) nobility of the Old Left was that it was moved by the plight of people who had little to no property. And so they wanted to use the power of government to redistribute resources from one class to another. There’s still some of that idealism on campus, and even some professors who claim that they have the duty to be socialists to counter the capitalist propaganda that they say dominates the media and so much of ordinary life in America. The genuinely throwback socialists often love liberal education, and I often think I have more in common with them than with libertarian economists, despite the fact that the astute libertarian futurists have a better handle on what the future will probably bring.

Richard Rorty complained that when the Left went from being Old to New it lost interest in the issue of economic injustice and got about the business of eliminating every trace of cruelty and indignity — all the aggressions both macro and micro — from American discourse. Justice became making everyone — rich and poor, black white, straight and gay, and so forth and so on — absolutely secure in his or her freely chosen personal identity. Some of that progress has served the cause of decency, but it’s way out of control. Because the new political correctness reaches its height of self-righteous self-consciousness on campuses, it becomes pretty much unsafe to say anything judgmental or controversial or against reigning democratic and “extreme autonomy” prejudices.

During much of the press coverage yesterday I kept wondering whether someone would step up to explain how Charlie Hebdo’s provocations had actually helped French society. After all, if you provoke people to the point where the police (public servants) need to guard your offices, you might be more of a public nuisance than a cultural asset. Then again, and I don’t know the climate of French campuses, if residents of France enjoy more freedom than their fellow republicans in the U.S. to say what they think without fear of hurting hearers’ feelings, then Charlie Hebdo may have performed a valuable service.

Postscript: Michael Sean Winters added this comment in his praise for those who died yesterday:

The values of a culture that says it is fine to behead homosexuals are worse values than those of a culture that says it is not fine to behead homosexuals. The values of a culture that seeks to keep women in third-class status are worse than the values of a culture that seeks to open opportunities for women. The values of a culture that demands adherence to a strained, fundamentalist reading of a religious text are worse than the values of a culture that acknowledges pluralism and seeks to find peaceful ways for people of different religions to live together amicably. These values are not merely different. Cultural relativism only gets you so far. Our values, our liberal values, are better. I do not have to like this cartoon or that essay, I may regret the sense of license our commitment to liberty allows and even encourages, many and deep are my reservations about the seraglio of the Enlightenment, but I would rather be a citizen of the Fifth Republic of France than a slave in territory governed by ISIS. So would everybody except the evil and the deranged.

By that logic, Winters would also likely prefer to be a citizen of a libertarian U.S. than a member of pre-modern Christendom. In fact, he acknowledges that the history of Western Christianity has not always been appealing:

Just as Catholicism has had to break from its own barbarisms, haltingly to be sure, and insist that its faith be expressed in humane ways, indeed that inhumane expressions of the our Catholic faith are a contradiction of that faith, so too must our Muslim brothers and sisters find the arguments and the ideas and the critical mass of supporters to break their faith free from these murderers who claim to act in their name. The thing that we Catholics can do, especially those of us who are not afraid to call ourselves liberals, is create relationships with humane Muslims, work with them for the common good, highlight their culture and its contributions, and encourage them as they seek to remove the cancer that is currently eating away at their religion. We can share with them the ups-and-downs of our Catholic history in this struggle, noting that sometimes those ups-and-downs occurred in the same person, as when the venerable Saint Thomas More sent heretics to the flames. History, the catalogue of humanity, is itself a great humanizing force in any culture, whether its study prepares a person for a job in the 21st century marketplace or not.

Similar reservations haunt the performance of pre-modern Protestants. In which case, those of us Christians (Roman Catholic or Protestant) who enjoy the blessings of liberty need to do a little more reflection on where those freedoms came from. That they originated at the time of the founding of the American and French republics is not a reason to suggest that medieval Christendom or confessional Europe had nothing to contribute to the legal and political outcomes of the modern West. But the Council of Trent and the Westminster Assembly did not produce the Bill of Rights for a reason. And that reason should lead every modern Christian to express some gratitude (i.e. two cheers) for the Enlightenment.

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.

Finding the West's Inner Augustine

Peter Lawler has responded to Patrick Deneen about the divide among U.S. Roman Catholics on whether or not to get right with America. Part of Lawler’s response is to invoke Augustine on the homelessness that all people feel this side of the eschaton (or is it merely the impermanence of creaturely existence?):

All political arrangements, devised as they are by sinners, have within them the seeds of their own destruction. It’s the City of God, not the City of Man, that’s sustainable over the infinitely long term. Still, Christians have the duty not to be too alienated from their country, and to do what they can to be of service to their fellow citizens by loyally encouraging what’s good and could be better in the political place where they live. America, we southerners know especially well, is the easiest place in the world to be both at home and homeless, to enjoy the good things of the world without forgetting that our true home is somewhere else.

When Lawler does this, he implicitly invokes the Augustinian- vs. Whig-Thomist debate previously mentioned here. Ironically, it is Lawler the Whig, who identifies more with Augustine than the Augustinian-Thomists who seem to be motivated more an older view of politics than an Augustinian one.

Through most of these debates I fail to detect a recognition of an even older division in political thought, namely one between pagan and Christian theories. Here is how R. A. Markus describes that difference in his book on Augustine:

For the polis-centered tradition of Greek thought the political framework of human life was the chief means of achieving human perfection. Life in a city-state was an education for virtue, a fully human life, the good life. Politics was a creative task. It consisted in bringing into being the kind of ordering of society which was most conducive to the realisation of ultimate human purposes. In this sense, Plato, Aristotle, the Sophists and the rest all upheld fundamentally the same conception of political activity. . . .

In Judaeo-Christian tradition the key-note of political thinking was different. The people of God, whether of the old or the new Covenants, could not think of themselves as citizens involved in creating the right order in society, nor of their leaders as entrusted with bringing such an order into being. Only God’s saving act could establish the one right social order. In relation to that kingdom they were subjects, not agents; in relation to all other human kingdoms, they were aliens rather than citizens. . . . Their whole tradition was dominated by the need to adjust themselves to a society radically alienated from the one ultimately acceptable form of social existence. In such a society they could never feel themselves fully at home. (Saeculum: History and Society in the Theology of St Augustine, 73-74)

Since Thomism is what seems to bind both sides of the Roman Catholic debate about the U.S., and since Thomas Aquinas was responsible for injecting a major dose of Aristotle into western Christianity, could it be that Thomism is responsible for the preoccupation of contemporary Roman Catholics about society and politics instead of ecclesiology and sacraments (what accounts for the transformers, neo-Calvinists, and theonomists is likely nostalgia for Christian nationalism — Dutch, Scottish, or U.S.). In fact, I wonder if anyone who is serious about Augustine and his views on the church as a pilgrim people can ever talk about “human flourishing” with a straight Christian face. If Markus is correct, human flourishing is what the pagans wanted through the polis. For Christians, human flourishing doesn’t happen this side of the new heavens and new earth.

Church-State Separation Is Good for the Church

Even Roman Catholics agree:

The danger in democracy is that Christian churches lose their capacity to be genuinely countercultural—or teach the truth that will be neglected “on the street” in middle-class democracy. And so the separation of church and state is to keep the church from being corrupted by excessive concern with endlessly egalitarian justice and the logic of the market. The separation is for the integrity of the church by limiting the claims for truth and morality of the democratic “social state,” which includes the democratic state.

But it’s both futile and even un-Christian to think that there could be, in the modern world, a state that favors or properly appreciates the church. Orestes Brownson, the greatest American Catholic thinker ever, said all the church should need and want from America is freedom to pursue its evangelical mission. That means, of course, that Americans should understand political freedom to be freedom for the church, for an organized body of thought and action. And we can see that the church flourished in America in the relative absence of politicized intrusion or corruption for a very long time.

The danger now, as always, is that the individualistic yet highly judgmental democracy—our creeping and creepy mixture of progressivism and libertarianism—will seek to impose its standards on our countercultural churches. Tocqueville was alive—although maybe not alive enough—to that danger. Who can deny that that the danger is greater now than ever? Today’s issues, Tocqueville would probably say, have their origins in the surrender of our contemplative Sunday to commerce and “seventh-day recreationalists.”

But anyone who thinks today’s remedy would be an established church would do well to remember how the establishments in Spain, Ireland, and Quebec worked out, the hyper-secularist and sometimes nihilistic countermovements in the name of democracy they generated. Those attempts to wield fundamental political influence produced clericalism and a kind of intrusiveness we Americans associate with the Puritans.

Of course, this outlook was not always so agreeable to Rome:

There being, then, an obligation upon the State as such, arising out of the Natural and the Divine Positive Law, to render public Divine worship in accordance with the guidance of the Church, in whose charge Christ has placed the worship due in the present order of things, an obligation also to protect the Church and to promote her interests, the Church clearly has a perfect right to demand the fulfilment of these duties, since their neglect would infringe her right to the benefit proceeding from the fulfilment. To have the further right to command the State in their regard implies that the Church has a right to impose the obligations of her authority in their regard, to exact them authoritatively from the State. Now in purely temporal matters, while they remain such, the Church cannot command the State any more than she can command the subjects of the State, even though these are at the same time her own subjects. But in spiritual and mixed matters calling for corporate action of the State, the question depends upon whether the physical persons who make up the moral personality of the State are themselves subjects of the Church. In case they are, then the Church has in consequence jurisdiction therein over the State. The reason is that owing to the supremacy in man’s life purposes of his eternal happiness, man in all his capacities, even of a civil nature, must direct his activities so that they shall not hinder this end, and where action even in his official or civil capacity is necessary for this ultimate purpose he is bound to place the action: moreover, in all these activities so bearing on this end, since they are thereby spiritual matter, every subject of the Church is under the jurisdiction of the Church. If, then, the physical persons constituting the moral person of the State are the subjects of the Church, they are still, in this joint capacity, subject to her in like matters, namely, in the fulfilment of all civil duties of the State towards religion and the Church. The Church, because of the uselessness of her insistence, or because of greater evils to be so avoided, may waive the exercise of this jurisdiction; but in principle it is hers.