Friday, August 16, 2019

Straddling Two Worlds

Walking the fine line between pagan and Christian

-          For the Love of God, Steve Vai

Jordan Peterson had a discussion with Steven Pinker; it was posted recently although it seems to have been recorded several months ago.  The topic was Progress, Despite Everything. 

Steven Pinker is an unabashed champion of the Enlightenment.  If one can point to the defining characteristic of the Enlightenment – the one idea that identifies it as an event, as an idea that has captured the West – it would be the death of God.  Man’s reason elevated above all else – pure reason.  From Immanuel Kant:

Enlightenment is man's release from his self-incurred immaturity. Immaturity is man's inability to make use of his understanding without direction from another. This immaturity is self-imposed when its cause lies not in lack of reason but in lack of resolution and courage to use it without direction from another. Sapere aude! "Have courage to use your own reason!" -- that is the motto of enlightenment.

Reason without direction from another.  Secondarily (or maybe a derivative), to be considered science, the study must now be objective – testable, touchable, provable, falsifiable.  Pinker is a big fan of the Enlightenment and sees nothing but, and only, the good in it.  Peterson certainly is a student of the Enlightenment, but it is clear by the intellectual path he is walking that he questions some of the premises and results.

There is another side to the Enlightenment, of course.  N.T. Wright reminds us that the guillotine and the Gulag are also products of the Enlightenment.  It is a side about which Pinker is – or chooses to be – ignorant.

I won’t dive deep into the discussion between Peterson and Pinker, but there are a few points worth touching on – everything paraphrased.  First…overall, I had the feeling that this conversation was a result of Peterson running the risk of fully losing his “card” – the one that all respectable intellectuals carry – and that Pinker was sent on a task to try and rescue Peterson from this catastrophe.  But it was just a feeling.

They begin the discussion commenting on the pushback Pinker has received – pushback given his praise of the Enlightenment.  Perhaps due to it being attributed to white history or some such, it is not clear.  Given the significant material progress, Pinker cannot understand at all the pushback.

Peterson also appreciates the progress, but seems hesitant – at least early in the conversation – to properly challenge Pinker on the negatives.  This, it seems to me, should be easy for Peterson: he gets caught up in the material progress discussion with Pinker, but this is really the wrong battle.  Peterson knows that the drawback isn’t the material progress.  It is in the lack of meaning brought on by measuring life merely on the basis of material progress. 

With God removed, man has lost meaning.  This has been Peterson’s message for more than a decade – and quite publicly for two years; it is resonating with a significant audience.  In any case, we see the results: count suicides or opioids, just as a start; or, witness the lack of desire in defending Western Civilization.

Peterson raises the point: what about the loss of Christianity?  Pinker shoots this down hard: Christianity is irrelevant – sure, a few tidbits leftover from that barbarous relic got through the filter of the Enlightenment, but it was just a little picking and choosing, nothing that was meaningful.  It all had to be dumped in order to finally see the light.

Doesn’t Peterson remember the wars of religion, asks Pinker.  Peterson properly refers to such wars as wars of tribalism.  I recall Hans Hoppe describing these wars as wars of state – the various nobles and princes used religion as a pretext to break free from the competing authority of Rome.  Pinker throws out the tired exaggerations of burning witches and the like (a speck in the eye of the political imprisonment and tortures since the Enlightenment); Peterson, unfortunately, has no response to this.

Of course, Pinker is both right and wrong about the value of Christianity.  The Enlightenment, after all, killed God.  So Christianity didn’t come through.  But Enlightenment ideas are built on a Christian foundation, and without this foundation we have Wright’s guillotine and gulag – and today’s despair in the West.  What we are living through is the inevitable outcome of a house without a solid foundation.

Pinker points out: there is no right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness in the Bible; no all men equal, etc.  Or if there is, it isn’t unique to the Bible.  Peterson tries to explain that all of this works in the West only if we believe that man is made in God’s image.  It was sadly pathetic to watch Peterson try to explain this to Pinker – as if they are speaking two different languages.

Peterson asks – well, then…where do all of these rights come from?  Pinker offers: our common humanity.  All you need in order to figure out ethics is to be a human!  Pinker’s Enlightenment is piled up with the bodies of this common humanity.

Remember, Pinker doesn’t see the guillotine or gulag in his paint-brushed world; these belong to another world.  It is even more pathetic, because while defending this golden age, Pinker decries the violence globally of the 1960s, ‘70s, and ‘80s.  in other words, his case of progress rests on about the thirty years of history since the fall of the Soviet Union. 

Not even half a lifetime.  But if you are only concerned about pure reason – reason without direction from another – half a lifetime is about all you can count on.

Peterson ends by suggesting that it would be good to have a three-way conversation next time – to include Ben Shapiro for the religious perspective.

I really gagged on this.  Shapiro?  I know that there is a paucity of Christian thinkers on such topics, but Shapiro?  N.T. Wright could certainly do better; Peterson just talked to Bishop Barron – he could also do better; Edward Feser could certainly do better.  The thing is, none of the critics today tangle with Augustine or Aquinas or any of the dozens (hundreds) of brilliant minds that Christianity gave to the West…well, until the Enlightenment. 


All the best minds used to take this educational route – the route that included the metaphysical, the supernatural, the spiritual…whatever term you want to put on it.  No more – the best and brightest are not grounded in proper philosophy and theology.  The best and brightest today are trained precisely to avoid proper philosophy and theology.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

The Garden

The future disappears into memory
With only a moment between
Forever dwells in that moment
Hope is what remains to be seen

-          The Garden, Rush

The Screwtape Letters, C. S. Lewis

The humans live in time but our Enemy destines them to eternity.  He therefore, I believe, wants them to attend chiefly to two things, to eternity itself, and to that point at which time touches eternity.

Religion and politics.  I will look at two different letters to examine this topic of religion and politics.    I am glad that Lewis has introduced this topic in this way, because this song from Rush is – in my opinion – one of the most beautiful and meaningful songs from this band.  I have long wanted a reason to include it in a post.

Given this destiny of eternity for man, the task for Wormwood is to get the patient thinking about anything other than eternity or the present moment.  Understandable about eternity, but why is the present of concern to Screwtape?  The present is the only “point at which time touches eternity.”

Thinking about the past is OK, but not great, for Screwtape’s purposes – it is already done and the patient already knows it.  It is on the future where the patient should be led to obsession.  Not in terms of planning for the future – Lewis offers that planning for tomorrow is a task for today.  But it is planning for “acts of justice or charity which will probably be their duty tomorrow.”  It isn’t a call to change the world, but to plan for one’s own action toward one’s own duty.

Lewis offers that the future is least like eternity – less than the past and less than the present: the past is frozen and no longer flows; the present is most like eternity, “all lit up with eternal rays” according to Lewis.  “Forever dwells in that moment,” according to Rush. 

Gratitude looks to the past and love to the present; fear avarice, lust, and ambition look ahead. …But we want a man hag-ridden by the Future – haunted by visions of an imminent heaven or hell on earth – ready to break the Enemy’ commands in the present if by so doing we make him think he can attain the one or avert the other….

Get man focused on the future – schemes that will bring heaven down to earth: “Creative Evolution, Scientific Humanism, Communism, which all fix men’s affections on the Future.”  We can add things like global warming to Lewis’ list.  Communism (meaning all manners of socialism) is going to bring heaven down to earth; dealing with global warming is intended to avoid hell on earth.  Both have man obsessed with the future instead of working on the present.

We want a whole race perpetually in pursuit of the rainbow’s end, never honest, nor kind, nor happy now….

We certainly have a political system geared toward this, a system that enables almost unlimited resources to be focused on such pursuits – driven and supported by those who for whom avarice and lust are highly valued characteristics; for those who are never honest, kind, or happy…not now and not ever.

For this, the patient must be filled with anxiety or hope: “it doesn’t matter which.”  This gets the Patient out of the present, where “all duty, all grace, all knowledge, and all pleasure dwell….”   A very undesirable situation, according to Screwtape.

About the general connection between Christianity and politics, our position is more delicate.  Certainly we do not want men to allow their Christianity to flow over into their political life, for the establishment of anything like a really just society would be a major disaster.  On the other hand we do want, and want very much, to make men treat Christianity as a means…even social justice.

The first task is to get man to “value social justice as a thing which the Enemy demands…” after which man is convinced to value Christianity as a means to this end.  But “the Enemy will not be mocked.”  Neither men nor nations can revive the Faith in order to make a good society.  Get humans to believe Christianity is true for any reason other than the true reason: “That is the game.”

This will take some unpacking.  On the one hand, Lewis seems to be suggesting that Christianity should flow into political life, yet he warns that Christianity should not be used as a means to any end other than the “true reason”: (he offers: “a single historical fact (Resurrection) and a single theological doctrine (the Redemption)).  How to deal with this?

I read Lewis’s words as a call to action – Christian action, action consistent with the actions of Jesus.  Such action is not conducted by force or coercion.  There is nothing is Jesus’s teachings that supports such an idea.  It has taken a bad interpretation of Romans 13 and avoidance of the numerous Biblical passages that are contrary to this bad interpretation of Romans 13 to come to such a conclusion. 

But where is Jesus in this bad interpretation?  Nowhere to be found.


Christianity cannot be elevated by force – political or otherwise.  Augustine doesn’t make this right, Constantine doesn’t make this right, Charlemagne doesn’t make this right.  It is the meek that shall inherit the earth; it is the peacemakers who are blessed.

There is a “true reason” for Christianity, and it is for the Faith.  It is not for political power; it is not for theocracy.  That Christianity also offers the only foundation for man’s liberty to flourish on this earth is a welcome effect (and the reason for my focus).

I cannot read Lewis’s words in any other way.  As Screwtape said: “The Enemy will not be mocked.”

Monday, August 12, 2019

Doing What I Must

Maximus: Do you find it difficult to do your duty? 
Cicero: Sometimes I do what I want to do. The rest of the time, I do what I have to.

-          Gladiator

I had just finished writing the Appendix for the book when I came across this Jonathan Pageau video, “René Girard: Desire and Sacrifice - with Craig Stewart.”  Now, nothing Pageau posts I would describe as easy listening, so after listening to a few minutes of this video I felt overwhelmed and stopped – not thinking about if this was a permanent or temporary stop.  It was just too much for me after just finishing the book.

I then started going through a couple of the more involved emails I had received over the last weeks; I will reply promptly, but some are so involved that I am not always able to immediately get into them thoroughly.  One of these I received after writing the first couple of chapters of the book – the chapters on Plato, Aristotle, the Form of the Good, etc.  The email opened “Welcome to the Journey.”

I know, it sounds pretentious.  But it is one of the more sincere and thorough emails I have received.  Very long, packed with many links, and involving much deeper content than I could handle – not only because I was just starting the book, but because it is much deeper content than I could handle.

Well, I thought to casually read it – not yet willing to get into it.  Lo and behold, one of the sources mentioned in this email is René Girard!  Well, this now got my attention and moved me to go back to the video.  I have watched it several times, and still can only scratch the surface – but it is a topic worth discovering.  I will also draw from an essay about René Girard from the peer-reviewed Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Girard was a twentieth century philosopher.  His fundamental concept is ‘mimetic desire’.  This is more than imitation.  Students of Plato understand that humans are the species most apt at imitation; per Girard, we also imitate desire and this can sometimes lead to conflict as we desire the same things.  My focus will specifically be his views on the scapegoat and the victim, and how this mechanism was used to reduce conflict in early societies and how this evolved via Christianity.

For those still confused about what any of this has to do with liberty, might I suggest that liberty has a chance to be sustained in a peaceful society; it stands no chance in a society consumed by conflict.  Property rights, let alone life, stand no chance against a societal mob.

When Girard first presented his work, the academy was ecstatic – in this work, we finally had a scientific, anthropological theory of religion.  Once he worked through the Bible and became a Christian apologist, the academy would reject him.

So, what of this work?  When it leads to conflict, this imitation of desire must be mediated.  How did communities overcome this internal strife?  From the essay:

Whereas the philosophers of the 18th century would have agreed that communal violence comes to an end due to a social contract, Girard believes that, paradoxically, the problem of violence is frequently solved with a lesser dose of violence.

I would often comment that a punch in the nose for the guy who insulted my wife might be the best mechanism to reduce the possibility of further, increased violence.  I know it is considered a violation of the non-aggression principle, but it might be useful in keeping the peace.

But this isn’t what Girard is getting at.  Instead, he sees this as communal violence aimed at a single individual – the scapegoat.  The entire community focuses its violence on one individual, and once the deed is done (the scapegoat is sacrificed), the community can move forward in peace. 

But the act must remain unconscious.  The victim cannot be considered by members of the community as a victim, innocent – rather he must be looked at as the monster; once purged, the community would again be clean.  Girard offers that, prior to Christianity, the idea of an innocent scapegoat was an oxymoron.  By definition, the individual was the source of the strife and therefore guilty.

This scapegoat mechanism was the foundation for the development of civilization and culture.  Through the repetition of the scapegoat cycle, societies reduced internal violence and conflict.  From the essay:

The murder of a victim brought forth communal peace, and this peace promoted the flourishing of the most basic cultural institutions.

These murders would be reenacted in rituals – the earliest form of religion – and these rituals were developed into myth.  The myth had to follow the narrative – the scapegoat is never a victim, but the cause of conflict.  Mythology was meant to legitimize violence against the scapegoat – stripping him of any victimhood.

Girard’s most often used example is that of Oedipus, expelled from Thebes for murdering his father and marrying his mother.  But, per Girard, the myth should be read with Oedipus as the scapegoat, accused of parricide and incest, and thus justifying his persecution.

This is all background to Girard’s Christian apologetics.  From the essay:

…whereas myths are caught under the dynamics of the scapegoat mechanism by telling the foundational stories from the perspective of the scapegoaters, the Bible contains plenty of stories that tell the story from the perspective of the victims.