1. Aquinas followed Aristotle in claiming the end (telos, purpose) of biology is medicine. Science has long been a technical discipline designed primarily to promote human flourishing / well-being. Of course, it was always contemplative to a degree, satisfying curiosity or even, as Aquinas also notes, teaching us about God. The study of creation reflects upon the Creator. One wonders what the role of science is today, what a panel of researchers would say if asked. My best guess would be something along the lines of increasing knowledge for knowledge’s sake; if pressed further, one might say that pure knowledge works to bolster happiness and/or it’s part of what it means to be human.
Somehow, perhaps because science has (unquestionably) advanced further and enjoyed more success than other disciplines in the last century or two, it seems to have become a default mode for speaking about meta-physics, the thing Aristotle suggested people study ‘after physics’. A result is that the scientist sometimes believes she can speak of more things than she can, just as the theologian, in a era when theology was ascendant, mistakenly persecuted heliocentrists. In the world of ideas/thought/etc, few things evidence original sin (“lust for mastery”, Augustine) quite like scope-creep, the tendency for any denizen of the field in power to colonize other fields. Dramatic misunderstandings ensue.
Philosophy may have as much to fear as theology from scope-creep from the scientific quarter; the difference is that Christians as a body have brought this largely upon ourselves. Heliocentrism, evolution, etc: we made incursion on science’s turf long before Dawkins boldly crossed the border (Mr Ramsay in Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, anyone?). (Some might say a certain Christianity is itself an offshoot of science, too.) Apologetics, as in primum mobile et cetera, isn’t really our field, but an always-recalcitrant human spirit is. Agnostics-leaning-atheist or open-minded atheists (or however each would define himself) after the heart of people like Tim Kreider (replacing religion ain’t so easy), John Gray (progress-minded humanism is as irrational as religion ever was), and (woefully) few others are a welcome and immensely important voice. God knows back when Christians had a monopoly on truth, the internal voices of caution did much good. It’ll likely be the agnostic/atheistic philosophers, humorists, and novelists who have to establish the boundaries of scientific imperialism – a thankless task, like as not.
All of which to say, kudos to Slate.com for choosing to publish a favorable review of a new book by Nick Spencer, Atheists: the Origin of the Species. Spencer, though seemingly a theist, is gracious enough to buy credibility for the eponymous species, distinguishing ‘new’ atheists (a group who, like Dawkins, remains startlingly ignorant of academic philosophy and theology of any stripe, rather like the Pope designing a TB vaccine) and ‘old’ atheists, those who’ve engaged religion with an open mind and, for whatever reason, rejected it, those who would find Dawkins every bit as embarrassing as a Christian would find, well, I don’t know. Joel Osteen? Anyway, overdue excerpt below:
In the third century Origen of Alexandria wrote:
To what person of intelligence, I ask, will the account seem logically consistent that says there was a “first day” and a “second” and “third,” in which also “evening” and “morning” are named, without a sun, without a moon, and without stars, and even in the case of the first day without a heaven (Gen. 1:5-13)? …. Surely, I think no one doubts that these statements are made by Scripture in the form of a type by which they point toward certain mysteries.
Well, no one but Richard Dawkins. As Marilynne Robinson writes:
The notion that religion is intrinsically a crude explanatory strategy that should be dispelled and supplanted by science is based on a highly selective or tendentious reading of the literatures of religion. In some cases it is certainly fair to conclude that it is based on no reading of them at all.
The point is not that a coherent morality requires theism, but that the moral language taken for granted by liberal modernity is a fragmented ruin: It rejects metaphysics but exists only because of prior metaphysical commitments. A coherent atheism would understand this, because it would be aware of its own history. Instead, trendy atheism of the Dawkins variety has learned as little from its forebears as from Thomas Aquinas, preferring to advance a bland version of secular humanism. Spencer quotes John Gray, a not-New atheist: “Humanism is not an alternative to religious belief, but rather a degenerate and unwitting version of it.” How refreshing would be a popular atheism that did not shy from this insight and its consequences.
I’m not holding my breath. What’s most galling about evangelical atheists is their epistemic arrogance—and their triumphalist tone: If religious belief is like belief in the Easter Bunny, as they like to say, shouldn’t they be less proud of themselves for seeing through it? Gray put the matter starkly:
Driven to the margins of a culture in which science claims authority over all of human knowledge, [religious believers] have had to cultivate a capacity for doubt. In contrast, secular believers—held fast by the conventional wisdom of the time—are in the grip of unexamined dogmas.
Upshots, among others, are Slate taking a risk and John Gray once again being awesome.
2. While we’re fueling our self-justification by kicking the misguided, a new question comes up: how do we fill the faith-shaped hole in modern life? Probably by Jesus, but fortunately the New Statesman takes a more nuanced approach to the question, polling the likes of Rowan Williams and Julian Baggini. The Archbishop has a penchant for mindfulness, citing the sort of breathing exercises which have deep roots in the Christian tradition and are, mercifully, gaining some popularity again via a potent combination of new-age interest and soaring anxiety:
The mature practitioner (not me) will discover a steady clarity in the vision of self and world, and, in “advanced” states, an awareness of unbroken inner light, with the strong sense of an action going on within that is quite independent of your individual will – the prayer “praying itself”, not just human words but a connection between God transcendent and God present and within. Ritual anchors, ritual aligns, harmonises, relates. And what happens in the “Jesus Prayer” is just the way an individual can make real what is constantly going on in the larger-scale worship of the sacraments. The pity is that a lot of western Christianity these days finds all this increasingly alien. But I don’t think any one of us can begin to discover again what religion might mean unless we are prepared to expose ourselves to new ways of being in our bodies. But that’s a long story.
More Rowan, more!! Let us know when someone completes the Bishop’s (fascinating) thought. Then there’s Lucy Winkett, an Anglican priest:
In theological terms, rituals are performed at the crossroads where time meets eternity; where chronos meets kairos. We live our lives earthbound and rushing: metaphorically looking at the second hand on a clock. It’s accurate, but not a good way of telling the time. Rituals are performed, as it were, by the hour hand; imperceptible movement, no less true but a lot less anxious. Rituals help us do nothing less than live a different kind of time.
Beautiful, and one has to think that a yearning of this sort lies behind the Evangelical new liturgical movement in the USA (just use the BCP!). Anyway, Julian Baggini was pretty good too:
The key is simply to attend as much to how we do things as to what we do. Take eating. We do not need to say grace to get into the habit of being grateful for what we have. Indeed, if we cultivate a proper sense of appreciation, we could do better than those autopilot believers who parrot their grace before mindlessly chowing down. There is nothing special we need do to achieve this, no incantation we need repeat before lifting fork to mouth. All we need do is to practise a kind of mindfulness when we eat.
The anthropology seems high, but a post-religious world needs something to occupy us.
Jean-Luc Marion, a good Catholic philosopher, takes on Descartes in his Erotic Phenomenon, arguing that we can have all the knowledge and certainty in the world, but the haunting questions “so what?”, posed as eloquently in Ecclesiastes as anywhere else, returns; so too does the question, “does anyone love me?” These will be questions that a genuinely post-religious sense of meaning must answer if it is to be found adequate, and the Church will be waiting in the wings to provide its take on the matter whenever the question arises. Marion’s a Catholic, but the dour Lutheran too raises his eyebrows – what about guilt? I think of Julian Barnes’s wonderful novella, The Sense of an Ending, in which a consummate humanist commits suicide out of existentialist rebellion: but (spoiler alert!) we later learn it was guilt which plagued him. So what? Does anyone love me? What about my guilt? As long as those questions persist, the Church will have lots to say.
In the tone of triumphalism and end-of-history illusionism which marks progressive humanism, we might take the line Kierkegaard took against the flourishing Danish culture and sophisticated Hegelian consensus of his day: things may be wonderful in culture, in society, but what about me? What about the alienated individual? How do I enter into an eternal happiness? The cracks in life put such questions to us, regardless of how we answer them.
3. D.G. Myers, a critic and historian, offers a reflection on Patheos about his experience with prostate cancer:
For half a century now, American culture has been a culture of self-fulfillment. Interests must be pursued, talents developed, desires expressed, needs met: the self is conceived as a string of imperatives. But cancer exposes these as arbitrary and extravagant. The staples of selfhood, it turns out, have been neglected.
A diagnosis of cancer might be the “rift or revelation” which, as the Romanian philosopher E. M. Cioran says, dries up illusion and begins the true self. And yet the exact opposite is what usually happens:
When you no longer believe in yourself, you stop producing or struggling…whereas it is the contrary which should have occurred, since it is precisely at this moment that, being free of all bonds, you are likely to grasp the truth, discern what is real and what is not…
The self that lived for fulfillment may have collapsed like a pretense at the first word of cancer. This is not a loss, however, but a refinement. You are no longer defined by the interests you pursued or the desires you expressed: you are no more or less than the person whom your wife (or husband) and children love.
Your capacities may be diminished—you may not be able to dance with your wife, play catch with your sons, pick up your daughter—but they do not love your capacities; they love the person. And whether you accept the responsibility of being that person, or acquiesce as the cancer proves itself to be stronger than love, is a decision entirely within your command.
4. On the Net this week, there’s the potato salad guy on Kickstarter: the Web’s ironic set have contributed $46,000. A more worthy project, by our (nepotistic) judgment is the Cville-based band Nettles, making an album and perhaps some salad on the side. Also on the Net, Ice and Fire author continues to be Exhibit Alpha in the crippling effects of the law. The A.V. Club‘s Sean O’Neal has become the world’s pre-eminent expert on sardonic GRRM commentary, and we’re all richer for it [language warning]:
George R.R. Martin continues to crank out words at a feverish pace on why he isn’t cranking out words at a feverish pace, and every time he does, someone floats the same morbid hypothetical: What if he dies before he finishes A Song Of Ice And Fire? And in one of his seemingly daily interviews, this time with Swiss newspaper Tagesanzeiger, Martin has responded. “I find that question pretty offensive, frankly, when people start speculating about my death and my health,” he says. “So fuck you to those people.” Martin punctuates his declaration with a defiant middle finger, in a clip that has already become a GIF you’ll see now see affixed to every discussion of his productivity, his storytelling decisions, and any time a character dies on Game Of Thrones from here on out.
Speaking of which, for any Ice and Fire fans out there, the Net has also produced The Dornish Master Plan (spoilers through TWoW releases, ht CD), a tad nerdy but, in terms of plot analysis, fearfully and wonderfully made, indeed. I could be wrong, but I think GRRM was just given a previously unconceived way to tie up his manifold loose ends.
5. America’s finest news source has been on a roll recently, again rivaling the likes of John Gray and the Reformers with its bleak take on human nature:
BARTLETT, IL—Turning his back on the opportunity to learn from countless erstwhile mistakes, 29-year-old resident Jason Connolly reportedly failed to heed the many harsh lessons of the past Thursday and instead opted to order a Bacon Cheeseburger Toaster from a local Sonic restaurant. “I’ll have the Toaster with extra BBQ sauce, please,” Connolly said in a blatant disregard of history’s cruel but obvious truths, thereby dooming himself to repeat the seemingly endless cycle of misery and pain. “Actually, let’s make that a combo. With a Coke. Thanks.” At press time, in a stark and sobering reminder of the human condition itself, a sweating and visibly uncomfortable Connolly had just begun to comprehend the tangible consequences of his careless ignorance.
6. In social science, The Economist posts a worthy article on kids. Turns out sex, drugs, and the like are going down, not up – wildly unrealistic portraits of high school parties from the (otherwise great) Leftovers notwithstanding – but for all that, well, the kids still aren’t alright:
For much of the 20th century, children were largely ignored and allowed to roam free. If they acted up, they were typically punished with violence. Now, however, parents are expected to be intimately involved in their children’s lives, says Ms Gardner. They supervise homework; attend parents’ evenings; go to prenatal and parenting classes; read blockbusters about child psychology. These improvements are not restricted to parents working as a team: single parenting has improved even more. A British survey shows that in 1994 almost 70% of lone parents did not know where their children were after 9pm—roughly double the rate of nuclear families. By 2005 the rates had almost converged.
What this adds up to is a generation that is more closely watched and less free to screw up. So perhaps it is unsurprising that better behaviour has not, as yet, translated into greater happiness. For all their disavowal of inebriation and criminality, young people are still proving more likely to be diagnosed with depression and anxiety. They are often obsessed with their careers—and rarely satisfied.
Cutting down on sex and drugs is certainly a net win, but the vices of careerism are, it turns out, no more productive of happiness. Remember Augustine seeing the drunk beggar and noting how much happier he seemed than our precocious hero? Forde warned that the main danger of the Law isn’t its tendency to produce rebellion (which holds) but rather its psychological effect on the one who manages to actually keep its letter. Pride, myopia, the usual suspects.
7. In more serious Internet matters, a screenplay envisioning a 20th-century St Paul recently was translated (ht MS), Rolling Stone talks U2, and The Atlantic‘s Emma Greene, like Slate above, delivers some welcome nuance on the religion question:
In one of the most ambiguous poll questions ever, Gallup has asked Americans to once again act as a tenuous bellwether for the impending death of religion. In a May survey, more than 1,000 people were asked to pick between two vague sense impressions of faith: “Do you believe that religion can answer all of today’s problems, or that religion is largely old fashioned and out of date?”…
But more importantly, these options are conceptually meaningless. When the poll says “all of today’s problems,” is it referring to political gridlock? America’s inefficient healthcare system? “Mo’ money”? The concept of “out-of-date” or “old-fashioned” is even more troubling: It’s built on a very particular idea of history, which is that human civilization has been progressing linearly toward a modern age. The underlying assumption is that secularization theorists are at least somewhat correct: Religion is somehow “old” or pre-modern or even anti-modern, whereas secular life is “new” or fully modern or post-modern. Even though the poll is ostensibly asking respondents to say whether they think this is right, the premise of secularization theory is baked into the way they asked the question. That’s why it’s framed in terms of “new” and “old”—or, in other words, relevant and irrelevant…
Even though it’s one question in one poll in today’s utter ocean of survey data, this is a perfect example of the impulse to try and measure every aspect of belief and ideology, as though quantitative social science is the only legitimate way to gain insight about the world. In the worst case scenario, what we get instead is a vague impression of people’s vague impressions of a huge, complex concept—and a neat, clean graph to make us feel more in control of the truth.
8. Citroëns make excellent hovercrafts! (At least they would, aesthetically, ht JAZ.)
This is interesting, ht SMB:
Some lines form Moby Dick in Emoji, ht ER: