Thursday, July 31, 2008

Nietzsche, Atheism and the Eucharist

Nietzsche is indispensable in understanding the dynamics of atheism.

Mocking religion, undermining the authority of its institutions, and evacuating the meaning of its symbols is the easy part for atheism, just as the easy part in constructing a new building is knocking down the rickety old one occupying the lot. But there is a moment of danger once that old building is destroyed; while it existed, it at least provided some modicum of shelter however unsatisfactory. After its destruction, there is no shelter at all until the new building is constructed. The challenge for the building's occupants is to somehow make it through that transitional period of time between the destruction of the old one and the construction of the new.

Like an old building, traditional religion provides a system of meaning, a "building", within which man can live, however unsatisfactory any particular religion might be. The real challenge for atheism is to build a new system of meaning and significance to replace the one that disappeared with the destruction of religion, an event known as the "death of God." Just as homelessness is the threat that faces man after the destruction of his old dwellings, so nihilism is the threat that faces man after the destruction of his old systems of meaning. Nietzsche saw that facing and overcoming the threat of nihilism was the true task of atheism, not merely mocking religion.

How is nihilism to be overcome? By the creation of a new system of meaning. This is the task of Zarathustra, Nietzsche's "uberman." Nietzsche was not himself Zarathustra; he did not and never attempted to create a new system of meaning. He was Zarathustra's prophet, the way John the Baptist was the prophet of Jesus Christ, pointing the way to the One who would come. Nietzsche thinks of Christ as a kind of earlier incarnation of Zarathustra; far more than a merely political rebel, Christ managed a revolution in meaning, a "transvaluation of values." Christ managed to overturn the allegedly "noble" pagan virtues of strength, virility, ambition and pride in favor of the "slave" virtues of humility, mildness, patience and submission; Christ's victory is attested by the fact that we now look on the old Roman virtues as practically vices.

Just as Christ was not really a political figure, although he was mistaken for one, so Zarathustra, when he comes, will not really be a political figure. The revolution Christ effected went much deeper than politics, and a similar sort of revolution will be necessary if atheism is to succeed. What will be the measure of Zarathustra's success? Zarathustra succeeds to the extent that he is able to create a new system of meaning that is substantial in its own right, and in which people can live; to the extent that he fails in his act of creation, the threat of nihilism becomes ever more pressing - and people come to resent Zarathustra as a mere destroyer and become nostalgic for the old building they left.

There is another Biblical image relevant here, and that is Moses, an earlier incarnation of Zarathustra. The key to Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt was convincing them that they were meant to be free, that God Himself was behind their liberation. The best way to keep a slave a slave is to convince him that it is in the nature of things that he is in bondage; the only way to really liberate him is to overturn the system of meaning that places the noble master over him. Thus Moses effected a revolution by proclaiming Yahweh, the God of the Slaves who was more powerful than the Gods of Pharoah (a revolution that was finally completed by Christ, the New Moses and thus a New Zarathustra.) But Moses and the Israelites had to wander in the desert for forty years while their new system of meaning was built; a time when nihilism threatened, Moses was regularly denounced as a destroyer, and the Israelites pined to return to Egypt and slavery, where they would once again be in bondage but be comfortable in their old system of meaning. As Nietzsche saw, man finds nihilism unbearable and would rather be enslaved than endure it.

Atheism succeeded a long time ago in liberating man from religion's systems of meaning; in fact, the Enlightenment can be thought of as this very project, and it had largely succeeded by the turn of the 19th century. What followed was a wandering in the desert; a stroll that was initially fascinating and thrilling as new lands were explored, but one that became increasingly anxious as man was unable to make a home for himself anywhere. Nietzsche, writing at the end of the nineteenth century, understood the spiritual situation of man and the looming threat that nihilism posed.

The difference between John the Baptist and Nietzsche is that the Baptist knew that Christ was coming, whereas Nietzsche only recognized the need for a Zarathustra, whether one was actually coming or not. As it turned out, the twentieth century was full of false Zarathustras, tyrants who played on man's desperate need for meaning to impose their own degenerate visions through a combination of seduction, intimidation and unrestrained violence. A Hitler, a Stalin, and a Mao are only possible in a world made vulnerable by the threat of nihilism, a world prepared to submit to slavery if only the void in its center is filled.

The true Zarathustra is not a tyrant. He does not need to be; men follow him as sheep follow a shepherd, because his voice speaks to the meaning they so desperately need. But no true Zarathustra has appeared, and the experience of the twentieth century has made us wary of the false Zarathustra and better at recognizing him. We begin to wonder if perhaps God is not dead after all, and if maybe it is Zarathustra (or the myth of Zarathustra) that is really dead. Maybe Moses was not a Zarathustra, a creator of meaning, but truly what he said he was: A prophet of the One True God.

And who are the most visible faces of atheism today? They are Richard Dawkins, P.Z. Myers, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, etc., who don't even attempt to address the real problem of atheism. Instead, they avoid the problem altogether by returning to a thumb-in-the-eye-of religion atheism of the early days of the Enlightenment. It's as though Moses, after twenty years in the desert and lacking anything better to do, but hearing the increased grumbling of the Israelites, decided to crack his staff on the ground and call down a plague of locusts on Pharoah, hundreds of miles away and whom they hadn't seen in decades, if he was still alive at all. I scratch my head when I hear the fulminations of Hitchens, Myers, etc. against allegedly oppressive religion. Has Voltaire been caught in a time machine and unknowingly transported from 1750 to 2008? The chains, my friend, were broken a long time ago and melted down to make machine guns and barbed wire.

Sam Harris, one of the "new atheists" who is actually a reincarnation of very old atheists, wrote a book called "The End of Faith." The title is apt, but the faith that is ending is more likely faith in Zarathustra than faith in God. When atheists, after having a clear field for two hundred years, having nothing better to say than a return to the mocking of the Sacraments with which they started, but without the style, we know that atheism as a significant cultural force has about run its course.

I think the most appropriate response to P.Z. Myers'Eucharist stunt is not outrage, but laughter.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

The Desecrated Host

I commented here on P.Z. Myers' request for a consecrated host so he can desecrate it. Well, he has gone ahead and done it. (Notice that his announcement of his sacrilege is on a "science" blog.) Here is a youtube video of the man stealing the Eucharist at Mass, which he later sent to Myers.

Some more or less disjointed thoughts about this act of desecration:

I am surprised this act is not getting more attention. We are not talking about some backwoods wacko here. Myers is a tenured professor at a mainstream university, a representative of the intellectual class in our society, and a prominent supporter of Darwinism. His act reveals the final bankruptcy of purely secular reason. He has come full circle back to Pontius Pilate, saying Quid est veritas and destroying the Word made Flesh.

Kierkegaard, in Philosophical Fragments, describes atheism as an acoustic illusion. It is an echo.
While therefore the expressions in which offense proclaims itself, of whatever kind they may be, sound as if they came from elsewhere, even from the opposite direction, they are nevertheless echoings from the Paradox [the Paradox is the Paradox of the Eternal Word made flesh in a particular Man -dt.]... the offended consciousness can be taken as an indirect proof of the validity of the Paradox; offense is the mistaken reckoning, the invalid consequence, with which the Paradox repels and thrusts aside. The offended individual does not speak from his own resources, but borrows those of the Paradox; just as one who mimics or parodies another does not invent, but merely copies perversely.
An echo requires resistance to be heard. The Grand Canyon gives an echo only because there is a cliff face to provide resistance to sound and bounce it back. Absent resistance, there is no echo. Atheism is essentially a shouting into the void; absent resistance, it is a shouting into nothing and falls into silence. The atheist needs the resistance of the Catholic Church. Without the resistance of something that is in itself substantial, atheism is revealed for the nothingness that it is. So while the atheist publicly calls for tolerance, he secretly wishes the Church to be intolerant. He must increase his offense until he draws a response of opposition from the Church. In that opposition he can convince himself that he is something substantial. But it is merely an acoustic illusion; it is the Church that is substantial, his own voice but an echo.

The nihilistic freedom of atheism is always just out of sight, over the horizon. In fact there is no freedom in nihilism, but the atheist can avoid facing this fact by rationalizing that some form of opposition prevents him from experiencing it. True freedom is on the other side of opposition and will be experienced when opposition is overcome. Yet when opposition is overcome in fact, atheism remains just as meaningless, boring and slavish as it was before. The advent of freedom should be at hand but it is not. Why is freedom not manifest? The moment this question is asked constitutes a moment in the Kierkegaardian sense: An opportunity for faith or offense with respect to the truth about man and God. If the atheist responds in offense, then he will suppose that freedom is not at hand because some new or overlooked form of opposition is preventing its advent. Freedom, in effect, retreats over the horizon behind this new opposition. The atheist is able to carry on in the hope that freedom will, finally, be found if this latest opposition is overcome. But, of course, nihilistic freedom, like the pot at the end of the rainbow, is always just out of reach.

We should ask ourselves why an atheist finds it necessary to desecrate the Eucharist. The Catholic Church is at a low ebb in its influence, especially in the United States. The United States has been in a "secular moment" since the 1960's. The last forty years have been the golden opportunity for secularism to show that it can, in fact, deliver a substantial alternative culture to the traditional religious culture of the West. The masses in the United States were ready to hear such a message. I was ready to hear such a message. But the message never came; the secular project, in nearly every respect, has been a dismal failure, which no one really denies. Freedom did not become manifest, only nihilism and new forms of slavery. Secularism can never admit this, so it must prod and poke the Church back into opposition so it can feel itself alive in the conflict. It is only in opposing the substantiality of the Church that atheism can avoid facing its own nothing.

Mao Tse-Tung understood the dialectic of nihilistic freedom. Since nihilistic freedom only exists in the search for it, in the unfailing hope that it is just over the next hill, there can be no rest for the atheist. The Revolution is not a means to the end of a classless society, as Marx and Lenin thought. The Revolution is an end in itself; true freedom is only found in Permanent Revolution. Thus the Cultural Revolution was a revolution against everything and nothing, an orgy of death and destruction not ordered to anything beyond itself, even in theory. But even the Cultural Revolution must come to an end, when everything is destroyed...

God is eternal and so transcends space and time; therefore His acts are eternal and for all time. In the Sacrifice of the Mass, we Catholics are literally present at the Death of Christ on Calvary. P.Z. Myers drove a nail through the Host and threw it in the trash, just as the Roman Guards drove nails through His hands and feet, and disposed of Him as so much trash. Even atheism testifies to the truth of the faith, and to the eternal nature of the Sacrifice of Christ.

There is a sort of negative wisdom in atheism. P.Z. Myers, with no theological training, understands what many Catholics do not: The Eucharist is the Source and Summit of the Catholic Faith. Destroy the Eucharist and you destroy the Catholic Faith. Myers did not trash a Bible, or a Crucifix, or a Rosary, let alone a contemporary felt banner or wooden Chalice. No, with the insight of hate, he went right to the beating heart of the Faith in the Eucharist.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

The Power of Evil

St. Thomas has taught us that evil is a deprivation of the good. It is not a metaphysical substance in its own right; it is a defect in a substance that is good insofar as it is. Evil, in itself, is nothing. Yet evil is also powerful. This leaves us with a paradox. How can nothing be powerful? Why is evil a force in the world at all?

I made a start at addressing this question here. In that post, I pointed out that evil, in the sense of deprivation, can make one apparently strong through insensitivity. A long-time smoker has damaged lungs, but even though his lungs are weaker than healthy lungs, through that very weakness they can better endure a smoky environment. An evil man will become insensitive to the nature of his deeds, and so find them easier to perform. In that sense he is more "powerful." 

The Western philosophical tradition, starting with Socrates, taught that such "power" is not really power at all. The argument is teleological. Every being is created with an end (or hierarchy of ends) that is an expression of its nature (or, if you don't like creation, every being simply has an end that is an expression of its nature.) Power is a measure of the extent to which a being can fulfill its end through itself. Beings that are entirely dependent on other beings to fulfill their ends are not powerful; beings that are entirely independent of other beings to fulfill their ends are supremely powerful (e.g. God). The end of a tree is to grow tall, become a home for birds and other animals, become wood for man, and make more trees. But the tree is dependent on the wind to spread its seed, the nature of the soil in which it grows, the degree of competition from other trees, and the amount of sunlight in its environment. If the soil is bad or larger trees shade it from the sun, the tree cannot pick itself up and move to another location. To that extent it is not powerful. An animal, on the other hand, if the conditions are not right, has the power to move itself to a better location. It can also actively seek out and hunt its food, where the tree can only passively absorb it. 

Man is the supremely powerful terrestrial creature because he not only has an end, but he has the power to know that end and consider various means to achieve it. The dog needs food and can move himself to find it, but he cannot analyze how different foods effect him, let alone ask himself why he eats food in the first place. Man is more powerful than the dog because he is not limited to acquiring food through instinct; he can understand what food is and why he needs it, and can consider other ways of getting food. He can also consider food in the light of the hierarchy of ends that constitute his own nature. He may deprive himself of food (e.g. in fasting) for a higher end.

Man can know his own end. He is ultimately free to accept or reject that end. But even if he rejects it, his end is still his end; his relationship to his end will be one of despair (the sickness unto death.) When man acts with moral evil, he is acting in a way that cannot be conducive to his end; for Socrates, this means he acts without power, for power is the capability to fulfill an end. In thwarting his own end, therefore, man only acts with apparent power.

Since evil does not act according to a being's end, it is necessarily destructive. 

"It came to me suddenly that evil was, perhaps, necessarily always more impressive than good. It had to make a show! It had to startle and challenge! It was instability attacking stability." (Agatha Christie, The Pale Horse).

But evil can destroy only to the extent that it is, and is therefore good. It is only to the extent that evil is stable that it can cause instability. Socrates uses the example of the criminal gang that, while unjust to others, must be just within its own ranks to be effective. It is only because the gang fulfills its true end to some extent that it has power at all. 

The government has used this principle to destroy the Mafia. Fifty years ago, the code of omerta was strong and mobsters lived according to a strict code that made them powerful. The Mafia was largely destroyed, in the 1980's and 1990's, when the government was able to get mobsters to turn on each other. The FBI destroyed the stability of the mafia by turning its instability inward rather than outward.

The difference between the modern and the classical view of power is that modern power is simply "the ability to make things happen," whatever their nature. The classical view is more restrictive. Power is not merely the ability to make anything at all happen, but only things that are conducive to a being's own end. True power is essentially creative rather than destructive. The classical view has this going for it: The difference between the good man and the evil man is not one of raw capability; it is that the good man orders his actions to his own true end while the evil man does not. The good man rationally refrains from certain actions that the evil man is willing to perform. But the good man has the raw capability to perform the same actions as the evil man; he can "make those things happen" in the modern sense, but he refuses to because they are not ordered to his true end. So the evil man is powerful, yes, but it is not in his evil that he is powerful.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The Church of the Holy Ego

Boston leads the way once again, playing host to a women's "ordination" ceremony in Back Bay. What's interesting about the affair is how clearly it reveals the faultline separating Catholicism from the dominant modern sensibility. In a nutshell - Is there any authority higher than our own egos?

The "Catholic bishop" who "ordained"  (OK - enough of the quotes, you get the point) the women says that "today they have been called and they are following Gods' guidance and direction for their lives." How does the bishop know that God is really calling them to be ordained? Well, because they say so. Gabriella Veladi Ward says "she wanted to be a priest ever since she was 5 years old." There you have it. There can be no higher proof in the Church of the Holy Ego. The length and depth of desire is its own sanctification; the suggestion that our own desires may not be identical with God's desires is the only blasphemy.

The Church of the Holy Ego, of course, makes a hash of any notion of sin. If what I want is sanctified by the mere fact that I want it, then it is impossible for my will to be mistaken with respect to its object; in other words, there is no such thing as sin. But if there is no such thing as sin, what is the point of Redeemers, Churches.... or priests?

The article manages to note that the Catholic Church "always said women cannot be priests because Jesus did not have female apostles." That is nicely hedged. The Church says it cannot ordain women, but it doesn't follow that the Church actually can't ordain women. Well, if the Church doesn't know if she can ordain women, who does? Perhaps Jesus Christ? But the Church does not ordain women for the reason that Christ Himself did not ordain women. At least the comment shows the difference between the non-egocentric reasoning of the Church and the egocentric reasoning of the newly "ordained" priests (there's those quotes again.)

Of course, the Church's opponents will say that the Church's reasons are but a cover for the true reasons women are denied ordination: So that power-hungry men can retain their dominant positions in the Church. Here we see the true issue at stake in the question of women's ordination: Is the Church ultimately grounded in the love of God or the power relations of mankind? And that issue is ultimately about reality itself: Is the fundamental metaphysical truth of the universe that of love or of power?

Were the Church to concede on the issue of women's ordination, it would be conceding that power is the primary reality in its constitution, not love. The feminist case against the all-male priesthood is that an all-male Church hierarchy is necessarily exploitative, however virtuous any of the particular men might be. Whatever "love" men show or however selfless they might act (or appear to act), nothing can overcome the essentially exploitative nature of an all-male hierarchy. All things might be possible for God (Matt. 19:26), but a Church constituted in love rather than power is just too much for Him.

The more liberal religious communities, which have gone along with egalitarian causes like women's ordination, have died a long, slow death over the last fifty years. The demise of Mainline Protestantism is well documented. The reason is that egalitarianism implies that human relations are fundamentally about power; to make everyone equal, they must be equal in power, and that means everyone must be interchangeable throughout society. But a world that is fundamentally about power is not a world that is a creative product of the Christian God, Who is Love. In other words, egalitarianism implies atheism. A religion that concedes to egalitarianism in effect concedes to atheism, and removes its own reason for existence.

In the Church of the Holy Ego, everyone is equal, but their equality is drained of meaning.

Friday, July 18, 2008

P.Z. Myers and the Eucharist

Perhaps you have heard by now of Minnesota professor P.Z. Myer's request to be sent a consecrated host so that he can desecrate it. Bill Donohue of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights is attempting to get the secular authorities involved, both from the university and the Minnesota legislature.

I do think it is appropriate for Catholics to protect the Eucharist. But I am not sure using force to do so, or getting secular authorities involved, is always the wisest course in these circumstances. The Eucharist is the Body of Christ, literally. When Peter drew a sword to defend Christ in the Garden of Olives, Christ rebuked him. Those who live by the sword die by the sword. Cannot Christ call down twelve legions of angels to defend Himself, in the Garden or in the Eucharist? Christ is helpless in the Eucharist because He chooses to be helpless; in His helplessness He exposes the violence and sin in the heart of man.

The irony of Christ - which man seems unable to fully accept - is that He is rich in His poverty, glorious in His humility and strong in His weakness. A man who desecrates Christ in the Eucharist can only defeat himself, not Christ; just as those who mocked and spat on Christ, and who crowned Him with thorns, only defeated themselves and not Christ.

The cocky arrogance of P.Z. Myers is only a mask to hide the emptiness of atheism. Christ and the Saints do not need cockiness or arrogance because they know themselves and the truth. An atheist like Myers must provoke the Christian because he needs the Christian's outraged response. It is only in the ringing echo of that outrage that the atheist can convince himself that atheism is something rather than nothing. In silence the atheist only knows.... nothing, and it is the blankness of nihilism that is truly terrifying.

Why does the atheist mock Christ and not, say, Thor or Odin or Buddha? As far as the atheist is concerned they are equally fictitious. Yet no one has ever mocked Thor as they mock Christ, as far as I know. The atheist's mockery of Christ is an unintentionally ironic testimony to the transcendent significance of Christ. He mocks Christ as the Roman soldiers and the Pharisees mocked Christ. The Eucharist is the sacrifice of Christ on Calvary made ever-present; Christ, through the priest, makes Himself present on the Altar. Prof. Myers, in his hatred, completes the scene by making the Romans and the Pharisees ever-present. This is how Christ completes His victory through weakness.

Ultimately the only thing atheism and the secular world know is power. Power is the metaphysical absolute. But the atheist, deep down, knows the emptiness of a world that is nothing but power. Christ reveals that the truth of the world is the love of God, not power, and He does so by coming to man, including atheists, in His weakness. The atheist has no answer for Christ other than mockery and rage; his only hope (if it can be called a hope) is to "expose" Christ as a fraud, as someone who is really about power rather than love. This was Nietzsche's theme. For while the atheist can just barely tolerate a world based on power (and tolerate it only for a time, before he desires to destroy the world and himself - that is the lesson of the 20th century), he cannot stand the possibility that his "realism", his "facing the cold hard facts," is really nothing but foolish pride. He can take nihilism, but not the knowledge that he is a fool in his nihilism.

And so the whole point of the atheist is to provoke the Christian into betraying his secret faith in power rather than God. He baits the Christian into a battle, any kind of battle, legal or rhetorical(*). For, whether he wins the contest of power or not, by provoking a contest of power he succeeds in making his point that power is really the absolute, both for himself and for the Christian. The Devil still tempts the way he tempted Christ in the desert. All his temptations are temptations for Christ to abandon His helplessness and take up His power again, in one form or another.

Far more damaging to the Catholic faith than the disrespect of P.Z. Myers to the Eucharist is the disrespect of Catholics to the Eucharist. How often do we take Communion without the prior benefit of Confession, or treat the Eucharist in an indifferent or sloppy manner, as though it were nothing but a french fry? I see the Eucharist regularly dropped on the floor by communicants barely paying attention to what they are doing, others taking it while chewing gum, others who jam it into their mouths with the palms of their hands. The finger is pointed at myself as much as anybody; it is a struggle to give Christ the respect He deserves in the Eucharist.

In a way, a provocative atheist like Myers has more faith than do we Catholics, for he at least believes disrespectful treatment of the Eucharist is something significant, something about which Catholics should be outraged. We Catholics seem to have grown insensible to the entire notion of "disrespect" to the Eucharist... perhaps our true philosophy is from Love Story, and we think love means never having to say you are sorry, even to Christ.

* I am not talking about genuine philosophical dialog here, which is a shared journey to truth. Most of what passes for philosophy these days is really sophistry, or a contest of power fought with words rather than swords.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Holy Trinity Finally Closed

On June 30, the Archdiocese of Boston finally locked the doors of Holy Trinity Church in Boston's South End. This is a grand, old, beautiful church built by German immigrants. I'm not one of those who thinks that every church in the Archdiocese should remain open in perpetuity. The fact is that the number of mass-attending Catholics is much smaller than it used to be; at Holy Trinity, they were getting about 50 people for the English Mass on Sunday and about 100 for the Tridentine Mass at 12 noon. Church closings are but a symptom of a much deeper and more serious problem - the general loss of faith. Keeping surplus churches open won't solve that.

But it doesn't mean we can't lament the loss of our Catholic heritage in Boston. Over the last three or four years, I would periodically take my kids to the Tridentine Mass at Holy Trinity. The blood, sweat, and tears that the original immigrants poured into this church are palpable. It is filled with traditional artwork of the saints on the walls and ceilings, giant stained glass windows, marble and oak. Lord knows what sacrifices the immigrants made to build it. The building is a testimony to what Catholic faith in Boston used to be like, devout and unapologetic and, in that sense, stands as a rebuke to the contemporary Church.

We need these old, immigrant Churches around as the voice of tradition, a "sermon in stone." I sometimes wonder if it is a relief to the contemporary Church to close down these grand old Churches, so we don't have to be reminded just how far we have fallen and how flaccid the faith is compared to what it used to be. Things don't look so bad from the perspective of the suburban church-in-the-round, which testifies to its own transitory and superficial nature; perhaps this is why we are anxious to bulldoze Holy Trinity but not the shopping mall church. Visiting Holy Trinity, especially in the context of the majesty of the Tridentine Mass, is like meeting your grandfather after indulging in a lot of self-pity over how difficult your own life is. It makes one ashamed for the lame excuses we offer for not being more faithful Catholics. Better to just shut grandpa up altogether.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Materialism and Human Dignity

Outstanding article at First Principles on materialism and human dignity (via Whirlpool's Rim.)

The Sickness Unto Death

Over on my reading blog, I am posting notes I make as I re-read Kierkegaard's The Sickness Unto Death.

20th Century summary.

The lesson of the twentieth century is that when man tries to kill God, he ends up killing himself. Probably someone has said this already.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Eugenics and Junk Science

Over at National Review Online, there is an article on the recent Louisiana law regarding science education. What interests me is what the author says about eugenics:
During the first decades of the 20th century, the nation’s leading biologists at Harvard, Princeton, Columbia, and Stanford, as well by members of America’s leading scientific organizations such as the National Academy of Sciences, the American Museum of Natural History, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science were all devoted eugenicists. By the time the crusade had run its course, some 60,000 Americans had been sterilized against their will in an
effort to keep us from sinning against Darwin’s law of natural selection, which
Princeton biologist Edwin Conklin dubbed “the great law of evolution and

Today, science is typically portrayed as self-correcting, but it took decades for most
evolutionary biologists to disassociate themselves from the junk science of eugenics. For years, the most consistent critics of eugenics were traditionalist Roman Catholics, who were denounced by scientists for letting their religion stand in the way of scientific progress. The implication was that religious people had no right to speak out on public issues involving science...

...It is also short-sighted. The history of the eugenics crusade shows that religiously motivated citizens can play a useful role in evaluating the public claims of the
scientific community. It is worth pointing out that unlike such “progressive”
states as California, Louisiana was spared a eugenics-inspired forced-sterilization statute largely because of the implacable opposition of its Roman Catholic clergy.

What does it mean to call eugenics "junk science?" Junk science generally means science that is not good as science. It is "science" that doesn't do what science is supposed to do - give us an accurate appreciation of the empirical state of world, an appreciation that is generally vindicated by successful practical application. Newton's physics was good science because it accurately rendered the physical character of the solar system and allowed us to fly to the moon and back. But Newton's science, as science, has nothing to say about whether going to the moon is a good or bad thing. Similarly, eugenics, as a science, is not junk science. It works. Eugenics is simply the selective breeding of the human race as forcibly imposed by government. Mankind has been successfully breeding animals for thousands of years; making it work is not "rocket science." The question of whether we should impose eugenics is similar to the question of whether we should go to the moon; it isn't a question that can even be addressed by science, but only by philosophy (in the broadest sense, including political philosophy.) Science can tell us whether going to the moon or conducting eugenics is possible and practical (they both are), but not whether they should be pursued. In other words, sterilizing 60,000 Americans isn't wrong because it is bad science (it isn't); it is wrong for philosophical reasons that transcend science altogether.

I argued against Jim Manzi that it is a mistake to base the case against eugenics on scientific grounds, or grounds of general ignorance, as though eugenics is wrong merely because the science is not (yet) good enough. This concedes that eugenics is fine in principle if we could just get the technical details right. And the fact is that the science is already plenty good enough. It has been good enough for hundreds of years.

The real problem behind eugenics is the inversion of science and philosophy; the view that science rather than philosophy is the final arbiter of truth and our knowledge of reality. If science is the pinnacle of human intellectual achievement, then science is self-justifying; for what lesser intellectual endeavor (philosophy, for instance) dare criticize the grand scientific program as construed by scientists?

But science is not self-justifying; it must be justified in terms of philosophy and, yes, possibly religion. John West says that Roman Catholics were denounced for letting their religious beliefs stand in the way of scientific progress. That states the situation nicely. "Progress" is not itself a scientific term; it is a philosophical interpretation of the movement of history. (The Soviet Union and the West, for instance, differed on the meaning of "progress.") When scientists go from declaring the empirical state of the world to making claims about the character of history, including scientific history, then a philosopher or priest knows they have overstepped their bounds. It is at just such a point that religious beliefs should "stand in the way of scientific progress", for there is no such thing as "scientific progress", only scientific results philosophically or religiously construed.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

More on Gopnik, Chesterton, and St. Thomas Aquinas

Here I commented on Adam Gopnik's article on G.K. Chesterton in the July 7 edition of the New Yorker. In this post, I will say something more about materialism, Chesterton and St. Thomas.

It is very difficult for the modern materialist to get a grip on what Chesterton/St. Thomas are getting at. Back at the beginning of the modern era, philosophers effected a split in being that has been with us ever since, one that has become so familiar and close, so apparently self-evident, that it is difficult for the materialist to see it for what it is. This is the split in being into material and intellectual components, with the material component granted ontological priority. The truly "real" is matter; the intelligibility we find in the universe is a secondary existent, perhaps only read onto the universe by our minds. In effect, modern materialists are inverse Platonists. Plato also saw being as split between material and intellectual components, but he gave the intelligible component priority rather than the material. The truly "real" for Plato was the intelligible; matter was a secondary, shadowy sort of existent, just what we see as the intelligible today.

Chesterton/St. Thomas disagree with both Plato and the modern materialist. They deny the primary split in being effected by both parties. Being is one, matter and intelligibility being but aspects of unified being. Our nature as embodied knowers makes the Platonic and materialist mistakes an ever-present temptation, one that we must always guard against. An embodied knower knows being materially through the senses and intelligibly through the mind; depending on which aspect captures his imagination, he will be led to give priority to one rather than other. But the mistake is more than this; it is the mistake in even thinking that the intelligible and material aspects of being are somehow in a competition for priority. Neither is ultimately prior to the other; what has priority is the being of which they are both aspects.

The yield sign down the street is made of steel and conforms to geometric laws. Materially, it can be bent out of shape or shot full of holes. Intelligibly, it is a triangle, and so its angles add to 180 degrees. But the yield sign is not primarily steel nor primarily geometric laws; it is primarily itself, the steel and the geometry merely aspects of primary being. The materialist/Platonic mistake consists of mistaking an aspect of being for primary being itself. Chesterton/St. Thomas are not in the debate between the materialist and the Platonist; they transcend the debate entirely.

Because the materialist takes the split in being for granted, as virtually self-evident, he sees the debate between the materialist and the Platonist to be a primary philosophical question, perhaps the primary philosophical question. He instinctively places every philosopher on one side or the other of the question. Since Chesterton/St. Thomas are obviously not materialists, he concludes that they must be Platonists, these being the only categories he knows. Thus Adam Gopnik can only understand Chesterton's philosophy in terms of "fact" (material reality) and "illusion" (intelligible reality), his understanding embodying the very split in being Chesterton spent his career denying. Gopnik, reading Platonism into Chesterton, states the alternatives like this:

We can take the belief in that puppet to be a delusion, as the rationalists did. Or we can take it to be an intimation, as Chesterton did, of the existence of another world, in which the things that we sense as shadows will become real, and we will see ourselves as puppets that have come alive in the hand of God.
Talk of "another world", of "shadows will become real", ourselves as puppets who are not really alive now but will "come alive" when we finally exist in the real world, is pure Plato-talk. Gopnik's charge may hold some water against C.S. Lewis, who was much more a Platonist than Chesterton ever was (one reason I am a Chesterton rather than a Lewis fan), but it is certainly not appropriate to Chesterton. It is just Chesterton's point that the insights of childhood are not illusions, for the child, in his unconscious and innocent manner, takes being as it comes to him, in its fullness. It is only later, when the child has been educated into the falsehoods of materialism or Platonism, that the split in being becomes a problem for him, that he is faced with the false either/or between the material puppet and its mystical interpretation.

Chesterton talks so much about childhood because he understands that, once the split in being is made, there is no repairing it. Humpty-Dumpty cannot be put back together again no matter how many of the King's philosophers are set the task. The philosophical answer to both materialism and Platonism, then, is to attack the split in being in its origin; it is to bring the reader back to childhood, if not in reality then in imagination, and make him see the original mistake of modern philosophy. Chesterton describes the primary encounter with being this way (from Ch. 7 of St. Thomas Aquinas):

Without pretending to span within such limits the essential Thomist idea, I may be allowed to throw out a sort of rough version of the fundamental question, which I think I have known myself, consciously or unconsciously since my childhood. When a child looks out of the nursery window and sees anything, say the green lawn of the garden, what does he actually know; or does he know anything? There are all sorts of nursery games of negative philosophy played round this question. A brilliant Victorian scientist delighted in declaring that the child does not see any grass at all; but only a sort of green mist reflected in a tiny mirror of the human eye. This pieces of rationalism has always struck me as almost insanely irrational. If he is not sure of the existence of the grass, which he sees through the glass of a window, how on earth can he be sure of the existence of the retina, which he sees through the glass of a microscope? If sight deceives, why can it not go on deceiving? Men of another school answer that grass is a mere green impression on the mind; and that he can be sure of nothing except the mind. They declare that he can only be conscious of his own consciousness; which happens to be the one thing that we know the child is not conscious of at all. In that sense, it would be far truer to say that there is grass and no child, than to say that there is a conscious child but no grass. St. Thomas Aquinas, suddenly intervening in this nursery quarrel [the quarrel between the materialist and the idealist - D.T.], says emphatically that the child is aware of Ens [being - D.T.]. Long before he knows that grass is grass, or self is self, he knows that something is something. Perhaps it would be best to say very emphatically (with a blow on the table), "There is an Is." That is as much monkish credulity as St. Thomas asks us at the start. Very few unbelievers start by asking us to believe so little.... Thus, Aquinas insists very profoundly, but very practically, that there instantly enters, with this idea of affirmation, the idea of contradiction... Aquinas has affirmed that our first sense of fact is a fact; and he cannot go back on it without falsehood.
Chesterton was no mystical advocate of "another world;" he was always an advocate of the mystery of this world. He wished to have us re-experience that original encounter with the fullness of being that we experienced as children, before we had it educated out of us. For someone who manages to retain the wonder of primary being, ordinary reality is fascinating enough and no alternate world is necessary. Both the materialist and the Platonist yearn for that alternate world, the materialist thinking he has the advantage through his hard-headed "realism" that denies its reality, even if he appreciates its appeal. Since the ordinary world is no more mysterious for the materialist than it is the Platonist, the materialist thinks the comparison of something to a mundane, ordinary reality to be a devastating criticism. Thus Gopnik thinks he has devastated Chesterton's Catholic apologetics by comparing Chesterton to someone who has just learned of the post office:

A Frenchman or an Italian, even a devout one, can see the Catholic Church as a normally bureaucratic human institution, the way patriotic Americans see the post office, recognizing the frailty and even the occasional psychosis of its employees without doubting its necessity or its ability to deliver the message. Chesterton writing about the Church is like someone who has must made his first trip to the post office. Look, it delivers letters for the tiny price of a stamp! You write an address on a label, and they will send it anywhere, literally anywhere you like, across a continent and an ocean, in any weather! The fact that the post office attracts timeservers, or has produced an occasional gun massacre, is only proof of the mystical enthusiasm that only the post office provides! Glorifying the postman beyond what the postman can bear is what you do only if you're new to the mail.
Chesterton, of course, would entirely agree with the comparison of the Church to the post office. Only he would find it a compliment rather than a criticism. For Chesterton, the post office was not evacuated of mystery and romance with repeated visits, as it apparently has been for Gopnik. Gopnik doesn't think the postman can bear much glorifying because the postman is mechanical, dull and boring. Chesterton found the postman mysterious and romantic, the mystery increasing rather dispersing with repeated visits to the pillar box. For the post office is a dramatic instance of being, of matter and form, mechanics and intelligibility, manifesting themselves in a wonderfully dynamic interplay. The details of paper and ink, vehicular transport, and the ordinariness of postal workers did not dispel the mystery for Chesterton because Chesterton did not see the material and intelligible aspects of the post office as at war with each other; they complement each other, just as the material and divine aspects of the Catholic Church complement each other.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Gopnik on Chesterton

Adam Gopnik has an article on "The troubling genius of G.K. Chesterton" in the current issue of The New Yorker (I don't think you can get the whole article online, I have the print version of the July 7 edition.) From the subtitle, you can probably guess what is coming. Gopnik will make a pretense of giving a balanced assessment of Chesterton by proclaiming himself to be one of his fans and then, oh so reluctantly, delve at length into the regrettable dark side of G.K.

As usual with this sort of critic, even Gopnik's compliments to Chesterton are backhanded. He writes that "Chesterton is an easy writer to love - a brilliant sentence-maker, a humorist, a journalist of endless appetite and invention." Gopnik praises Chesterton's technique but is careful not to praise any of the ideas it supports. But as Chesterton himself wrote, he never made a joke for the sake of being funny or propounded a paradox merely for the sake of itself. In fact, "mere light sophistry" was one thing he particularly despised. If Gopnik's assessment of GKC is that he was fundamentally wrong in his ideas, but was a clever wordsmith, then the only compliment Chesterton would have appreciated would be to chuck him out entirely. The point is not that Chesterton must be either abandoned or taken entirely and uncritically; it is that, if you are genuinely a friend of Chesterton, then judge him strictly on his ideas, and if you find those ideas wanting, them bid GK farewell. To praise him merely as a technician is to give him the only legacy he wished to avoid.

Chesterton had such a wide-ranging intellect that it is often difficult for the critic to get his own mind around him. The consequence is that the critic typically mistakes his own one or two favorite Chestertonian ideas as not only the keys to understanding his own view of Chesterton, but of Chesterton's view of Chesterton. In Gopnik's case, he boils Chesterton down to two ideas: "... that childhood is not a time of illusion but a time when illusion and fact exist (as they should) at the same level of consciousness...", and "the other epiphany concerned limits, localism... [it] is not that small is beautiful but that the beautiful is always small..." It is not a coincidence that these are also about the only Chestertonian ideas Gopnik finds congenial. Gopnik finds Chesterton's formal religious beliefs tiresome (his Catholic apologetics are "gassy"), and what we find tiresome we tend to ignore.

Gopnik is not mistaken that the two ideas of localism and the perceptions of childhood are fundamental to Chesterton. But there are many others that are equally fundamental, and without them our picture of Chesterton will be limited and distorted, as GK himself would look if we tried to force him bodily into a suit made for a man of ordinary size. Where are these ideas? Chesterton set them forth most directly and completely in his 1908 book Orthodoxy, the work generally acknowledged as the centerpiece to his career. Yet Orthodoxy does not merit a mention in Gopnik's article, nor does the book that preceded it, Heretics, even though Heretics is the work that really launched Chesterton's career as a polemicist. Instead, Gopnik concentrates on Chesterton's fictional works The Man Who Was Thursday and The Napoleon of Notting Hill, as though Chesterton were primarily a novelist rather than an essayist.

Gopnik's Chesterton comes off as clever but dangerously parochial, as might be expected when GK is shoehorned into one or two ideas: "It's harder to excise the spirit that leads to it - the suspicion of the alien, the extreme localism, the favoring of national instinct over rational argument, the distaste for 'parasitic' middlemen, and the preference for the simple organ-grinding music of the folk." If Gopnik's Chesterton sounds like a Nazi, it is no accident. The charge Gopnik really wants to make stick is that Chesterton was an anti-semite and a proto-Nazi, indirectly responsible for the Holocaust. This is a difficult charge to sustain given that Chesterton was an early, forceful, and explicit opponent of the Nazis, but Gopnik does his best.

Chesterton, however, only seems like an advocate of "extreme localism" if the broader context of his work is ignored. In Orthodoxy, for instance, he states his principle of democracy: "That the things common to all men are more important than the things peculiar to any men. Ordinary things are more valuable than extraordinary things; nay they are more extraordinary... This is the first principle of democracy: that the essential things in men are the things they hold in common, not the things they hold separately... the most terribly important things must be left to ordinary men themselves - the mating of the sexes, the rearing of the young, the laws of the state." (This is from the chapter The Ethics of Elfland.) Chesterton's localism is a localism that finds its meaning in terms of a universal human nature that must be respected. The laws of England can be left to Englishmen and the laws of France left to France because the ordinary men and women of England and France are essentially the same; and ordinary men and women have a natural respect for universal human nature. (This is evidenced recently in the same-sex marriage campaign. It has been a universal failure when put to democratic vote; it only succeeds when a small unelected tribunal, like the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, imposes it by force on the Commonwealth. Ordinary men and women have a common sense understanding of natural law; it takes a great deal of expensive higher "education" to blot it out, which is why "progressive" revolutions are always imposed by force through an intellectual elite.) Gopnik notes Chesterton's opposition to the Nazis, but for Gopnik it is merely an anomaly out of character with Chesterton's general anti-semitism, an anti-semitism Gopnik proves, strangely, by the fact that Chesterton was a Zionist. But GKC hated the Nazis for the same reasons he opposed the Boer War and supported Zionism - because local and familiar democratic government, based on general common sense, the natural law and tradition (the "democracy of the dead"), will always be more humane and rational than a progressive uberstate based on the alleged wisdom of an intellectual elite (and the Nazis had their own intellectuals.)

Some of what Chesterton wrote can appear to us to be parochial and trading in stereotypes. Chesterton had no problem in describing people in terms of what he saw as universal national characteristics, the German as "slow and reverent" and the Frenchman "swift and experimental", for instance. These characterizations were not always positive. In our contemporary cultural context, we see any sort of trading in stereotypes as extremely dangerous because we no longer believe in the natural law or universal human nature. Unity and morality is, for us, entirely conventional; therefore the conventions of speech and society carry an absolute significance, as do the variety of human racial characteristics. Chesterton was not embarrassed about writing of a "swarthy" Jew with a "hooked nose", anymore than he was of a beefy German or a skinny Italian (or a fat Englishman!), because he saw such characteristics as trivial in light of the deeper, universal human nature. Since we do not believe in a universal, permanent human nature, the hooked nose, like the conventions of speech, takes on absolute significance. This makes us a lot closer to Nazis than Chesterton ever was. We sense that the only thing separating us from something like Nazism are fragile societal conventions, conventions that are threatened by rather than guaranteed by common natural wisdom (in which we don't believe.) This is the essence of political correctness, and is likely to lead to fascism, one of the few cures for which is a good does of Chesterton.

Gopnik's blinkered view of Chesterton also leads him to misunderstand GK's understanding of the wisdom of childhood. Chesterton did not write of the "illusions of childhood" because he never considered them to be illusions, either in childhood or after. That is Gopnik reading his own view of Chesterton into Chesterton's view of Chesterton. The passage Gopnik quotes from Chesterton's autobiography is enough to disprove it:

"... I was subconsciously certain then, as I am consciously certain now, that there was the white and solid road and the worthy beginning of the life of man; and that it is man who afterwards darkens it with dreams or goes astray from it in self-deception. It is only the grown man who lives a life of make-believe and pretending; and it is he who has his head in a cloud."

Gopnik's reference to a "time when illusion and fact exist (as they should) at the same level of consciousness" is a reflection of his own deep-seated materialism and his inability to see it for what it is (facts = the material world; illusion = the mystical interpretation of the material world). Because he takes his own materialism as self-evident and fundamental, he takes it for granted that Chesterton must have seen it that way as well. But it is just Chesterton's point that he never accepted the materialistic split in being; it is the materialistic split of the world into a realm of material "facts" and mystical "illusions" that is man's straying into self-deception. For Chesterton the world is sacramental; its material and intelligible aspects being but two sides of one being, just as a book is a unity of form and matter.

This is not deep Chestertonian insight for anyone familiar with the broad character of Chesterton's work, especially anyone who has read Chesterton's St. Thomas Aquinas. But GK's book on St. Thomas (a saint guilty of "pedantic religiosity", according to Gopnik) comes from the later years in GK's life, the period when, according to Gopnik, GK had morphed into the "bad Chesterton." The "good Chesterton" was the early Chesterton who, according to Gopnik, may have been religious but was not "neatly dogmatic", the only unforgivable sin in the modern intellectual's eyes. The "good Chesterton" was clever and brilliant, showing an admirable modern reluctance to draw general conclusions; the later, "bad Chesterton" became a vicious anti-Semite and a dogmatic Catholic, which of these fates being more lamentable Gopnik leaves to the decision of the reader.

But, of course, the later Chesterton is the same man as the early Chesterton as, again, Gopnik's quote from Chesterton's autobiography shows. The difference between Chesterton as a man and as a child is that he became consciously certain of the same things he was subconsciously certain of as a child. In other words, as a man he understood his early sacramental perception of the world for what it was. Orthodoxy, a book written during the period of the early, allegedly "good" Chesterton, is a systematic exposition of Chesterton's childhood perceptions interpreted through his mature philosophical vision. It is as Catholic a book as any Chesterton ever wrote; anyone reading Orthodoxy can see that Chesterton was already a Catholic in spirit at that point. Chesterton's eventual formal conversion to the Church involved a lot more than a solution to the problem of anarchism. Gopnik writes, "If you want a solution, at once authoritarian and poetic, to the threat of moral anarchism, then Catholicism, which built Chartres and inspired Dante, looks a lot better than Scotland Yard. If you want stability allied to imagination, Catholicism has everything else beat." This again, reads Gopnik's own voluntarism into Chesterton rather than appreciating Chesterton on his own terms. Gopnik can only see egotistical motivation in Chesterton because it is the only sort of motivation he recognizes; but Chesterton did not convert to the Church to satisfy his "wants." He converted because he came to believe the Church to be true. From chapter 9 of Orthodoxy:

"I have another and far more solid and central ground for submitting to it as a faith, instead of merely picking up hints from it as a scheme. And this is this: that the Christian Church in its practical relation to my soul is a living teacher, not a dead one. It not only certainly taught me yesterday, but will almost certainly teach me to-morrow. Once I saw suddenly the meaning of the shape of the cross; some day I may see suddenly the meaning of the shape of the mitre. One fine morning I saw why windows were pointed; some fine morning I may see why priests were shaven. Plato has told you a truth; but Plato is dead. Shakespeare has startled you with an image; but Shakespeare will not startle you any more... The man who lives in contact with what he believes to be a living Church is a man always expecting to meet Plato and Shakespeare to-morrow at breakfast... This therefore, is, in conclusion, my reason for accepting the religion and not merely the scattered and secular truths out of the religion. I do it because the thing has not merely told this truth or that truth, but has revealed itself as a truth-telling thing. All other philosophies say the things that plainly seem to be true; only this philosophy has again and again said the thing that does not seem to be true, but is true."

Gopnik's summation encapsulates his deficient understanding of Chesterton and his own fundamental materialism:

"We can take the belief in that puppet to be a delusion, as the rationalists did. Or we can take it to be an intimation, as Chesterton did, of the existence of another world, in which the things that we sense as shadows will become real, and we will see ourselves as puppets that have come alive in the hand of God. Or we can believe that the credit we give the puppet show is the credit it deserves, that the wonder of it cannot be explained, up or down, but only experienced; that the side we see is the side there is to look at, and that the white radiance of wonder shines from inside, which is where the light is."

Hopefully by now the reader will recognize that Chesterton was not a Platonist; he did not believe in the "existence of another world." Chesterton was a Thomist, and he believed in this world, only he held that this world is a lot more than materialists say it is. Chesterton's puppet show was not an intimation of another world; it expressed the magic of this world. Chesterton was always saying that ordinary things are more magical than magical things; that a nose is more wonderful than Roman nose.

But wonder is naturally directed beyond itself; a wonder that has given up the search for its own meaning is wonder no longer. There is no practical difference between Gopnik's mystical materialism and ordinary materialism. The puppet show is not sacramental for Gopnik. Its fundamental reality is material, onto which he permits us to project mystical illusions, if such things please us. They never pleased Chesterton.