Thursday, May 18, 2017
Apropos our upcoming Anglo-Russo comparative tradition and traditionalism conference, it seems Time Magazine has a late developing interest as well.
But I'm afraid the conference is closed to the media.
Tuesday, May 16, 2017
Rod Dreher's recent book, The Benedict Option, is an interesting meditation on the future for Christians in what he describes as a post-Christian culture and society. In this extended, candid, and far-ranging interview, my colleague, Mark Movsesian, discusses the book's claims with Rod and much else that may interest MOJ readers. A bit:
Movsesian: I wonder if we could talk about tradition, which runs like a red thread through your book. You argue that it’s necessary for Christians to return to tradition in order to resist “liquid modernity,” which denies the value of all attachments and identities except those individuals freely choose for themselves. In liquid modernity, the only thing that has meaning is momentary individual choice. This is quite destabilizing for individuals and for society; that’s where tradition can be helpful.
As co-director of the Tradition Project, I have sympathy for your view! But I think there’s a paradox about tradition in a pluralist society like ours. In such a society, tradition is itself a matter of individual choice; there’s no avoiding it. Tradition is just one available option among many for an individual to choose; in the end, each of us is free to choose tradition or to reject it; to choose it and then reject it; or to choose some aspects of it and not others. This is true even of people brought up in a tradition—like the kids attending classical Christian schools today. What do you make of this paradox?
Dreher: There’s no escaping it. I am quite aware of the near-absurdity of my own personal case: a 50-year-old man raised a nominal Methodist, a convert to Catholicism in my mid-20s, converting to Orthodox Christianity at 39, and having moved around the country a great deal for my career, writing a book in praise of tradition. Yet … what else is there? Charles Taylor says that we all live in a secular age, which he defines as the awareness of the possibility that we don’t have to live the way that we do. We cannot escape choice.
This is why our St. Benedict, if we are to have one, must be new and very different, as MacIntyre said. The first Benedict emerged in a West that was still new to Christianity. Now we have been through the Christian era, and can’t un-see what we have seen. And the consciousness of an ordinary person living in the 21st century can hardly be compared to the way a 6th century layman saw the world conceptually and imaginatively. This point hardly needs elaboration, but it conditions any approach to tradition we make today.
To bring this discussion down to earth, I think a lot these days about my late father and sister, who were in most respects traditionalists without knowing what they were doing. That is, they assumed that the rural way of life they had in south Louisiana was going to continue forever. They were quite intelligent, but they strongly rejected as alien anything that challenged their way of seeing the world. That meant rejecting me, and the things that I loved and stood for, though I didn’t realize how thorough this rejection was until I returned to south Louisiana after my sister’s 2011 death. My dad died in 2015. The family has not held together, for various reasons – and this was something I never expected. I deeply admired the unselfconscious traditionalism that my dad and sister represented. They didn’t theorize this stuff; they lived it. But I can see in retrospect that they believed that force of their iron wills was sufficient to ward off all threats to the things they valued most, especially family and place. It was a tragic mistake. Their rigidity, by which I mean their unwillingness to adapt and to change certain things that needed to be changed for the sake of holding on to the things that really mattered the most – that was the fundamental flaw that doomed the entire thing. They thought that stoically preserving their fortress-like outer walls would keep the interior safe. They were wrong.
It’s heartbreaking and tragic in the fullest sense of the word, and a very Southern tragedy too. But I try to learn from what happened. I suspect I’ll spend the rest of my life trying to learn from what happened. Right now, I think the most basic lesson is the need for discernment in our approach to tradition. There is no substitute for it. We have to know what we have to change so we can conserve what is essential. This is hard.
On the more optimistic side, though, I believe that we are starting to see more and more people realizing that the future is not determined. Yes, I think we have to be aware of all that is against us in post-Christian modernity, but we also have to be aware that God can surprise us – and we can surprise ourselves. I mean, look, Napoleon closed the monastery in Norcia, St. Benedict’s hometown, after at least eight centuries of constant presence there. For nearly 200 years, there were no monks. And then, at the turn of the millennium, a handful of American Benedictines who wanted to live in the old Benedictine way re-opened it. Now they have a thriving community of 16 monks. The average age is 33. Who could have expected that?
In The Benedict Option, I quote one of those monks, Father Martin Bernhard, who left the Texas Hill Country to follow his calling to Norcia. When I visited him there in early 2016, I told him that they are a sign of contradiction to the modern world. He smiled, and said that anybody could do something out of the ordinary if they are willing “to pick up what we have lost and to make it real again.”
The monk told me, “People say, ‘Oh, you’re just trying to turn back the clock.’ That makes no sense. If you’re doing something right now, it means you’re doing it right now. It’s new, and it’s alive! And that’s a very powerful thing.”
God knows it will not be easy to revive traditional Christian life and practices. But again: what else is there?
Tradition and Traditionalisms Compared: A Joint Program of The Tradition Project and the Post-Secular Conflicts Project
I'm pleased to announce this conference, to be held in Trento, Italy on June 12-13, which my colleague, Mark Movsesian, and I are putting on jointly with Professor Kristina Stoeckl of the University of Innsbruck, Professor Pasquale Annicchino of the European University Institute, and Professor Marco Ventura, the Head of the Religious Studies Program at the Fondazione Bruno Kessler.
The conference will compare tradition and traditionalism in the Anglo-American and Russian historical experience (for those who do not know Professor Stoeckl's very fine book on Russian Orthodoxy and human rights, allow me to recommend it), and we're happy to have MOJ denizens Moreland and Vermeule joining us. There is something fitting about American and Russian scholars descending on the Dolomites and the locus of the Concilium Tridentinum to discuss and reflect on the respective traditions that they study.
Monday, May 8, 2017
From Patrick Deneen's essay, "Ordinary Virtue," in his collection of essays, Conserving America: Essays on Present Discontents 52-55 (2016) (footnotes omitted):
When one thinks back on those men who moved the nation to declare independence, cool reflection forces one to think not of how much they stood to gain by gaining independence from England--for it's not obvious that many, if any, stood to gain much at all--but how much they stood to lose by committing this act of treason in the eyes of England....
These were men with a great deal to lose--including, for most, significant fortunes by the standards of those days....What is all the more remarkable was their willingness to pledge their lives--which several did lose in the course of the revolution. The signers were keenly aware of the likelihood of execution for signing the Declaration....
The willingness to pledge their lives for the sake of independence is remarkable especially because the first part of the document is based extensively on the philosophy of John Locke. Locke famously argued that political community was the result of a social contract that people formed in the State of Nature. Because the State of Nature is eventually so disadvantageous to individuals--perhaps not as awful as Hobbes' conception of the state of nature, who described it as "nasty, brutish, and short," but not a condition that ultimately accords human beings with sufficient guarantees of security, much less justice--natural men sacrifice some of their natural freedoms to form a government that will act as an impartial judge and protector of the contracting agents. The government is charged with preserving the rights of citizens--among them "life, liberty, and property" in Locke's version--and when government encroaches too much on these rights, then we reserve the right to revolt against that government, and revert back to a State of Nature to form a new social contract.
What one has to notice is that there is a basic tension in the basic fabric of this theory. Social contract theory is based on the premise that we value, above all, self-preservation--even more than we value our total liberty, since we give up some liberties from the State of Nature in order to institute a government that can protect our lives from the depredations of others. Hobbes, for one, so feared reversion back to the State of Nature that he concluded that government could demand anything of its citizens except to force anyone to be willing to die....Locke is a bit more ambiguous about what conditions would justify outright revolution, but the conditions have to be much worse than the worst conditions of the State of Nature. And yet, for the men who signed the Declaration, this was clearly not the case--their lives were not personally in danger before they declared independence, and their lives suddenly were in grave peril afterwards.
Liberal theory has always had a bit of a hard time dealing with this conundrum, that is, how to call on the willingness to sacrifice even one's life for the sake of one's core principles of liberty, since liberalism itself places a very high premium on self-preservation. Under such a set of philosophical presuppositions, how can one be encouraged to value liberty even more than self-preservation? Tocqueville noticed this difficulty during his visit to the United States in the 1830s, remarking that democratic citizens had a tendency to justify every act in terms of self-interest, even those acts that might be justifiably construed as inspired out of generosity, sacrifice and duty, even the willingness "to sacrifice a part of their time and their wealth to the good of the state." Tocqueville surmised that, over time, the language of self-interest would exert a formative influence upon democratic man's self-understanding: "for one sometimes sees citizens in the United States as elsewhere abandoning themselves to the disinterested and unreflective sparks that are natural to man; but the Americans scarcely avow that they yield to movements of this kind; they would rather do honor to their philosophy than to themselves."
Friday, May 5, 2017
Though that could certainly describe President Trump's "Executive Order on Religious Liberty" issued yesterday, I have something different in mind in this article. A bit:
Welcome to the rise of fake law. Just as fake news spreads ideologically motivated misinformation with a newsy veneer, fake law brings us judicial posturing, virtue signaling, and opinionating masquerading as jurisprudence. And just as fake news augurs the end of authoritative reporting, fake law portends the diminution of law's legitimacy and the warping of judges' self-understanding of their constitutional role.
Thursday, May 4, 2017
Here's something else from Pierre Manent in a little book of his originally published as Situation de la France and translated as Beyond Radical Secularism (p.55):
In the present configuration of things, the demand for freedom of opinion and expression without restriction, as essential as it may be, as I have repeated, is not sufficient to prepare us adequately for the challenges that await us. This demand, as I have explained, is not even sufficient to produce a sufficiently enlightened freedom. The abstract principles of modern politics may be products of long experience, but they are not by themselves capable of producing the community of life and experience that they help so usefully to organize. Their abstraction, as I emphasized in discussing secularism, tends to distance us considerably from the experience that they are supposed to distill, to make us forget the meaning of this experience, and to give the illusion that we have only to apply them in order to live together freely and happily.
Tuesday, May 2, 2017
It may be a little early, but as calendars tend to fill up, please save the date for Sir Roger Scruton's keynote address for the second part of The Tradition Project, which will focus on "Tradition, Culture, and Citizenship." Sir Roger will open our conference with a lecture on the evening of Thursday, November 2, 2017, at the New York Athletic Club. Further details will be forthcoming in the fall. Please write to me or Mark Movsesian if you are interested in attending the lecture.
Friday, April 21, 2017
From his very interesting article in the latest issue of First Things, "The Tragedy of the Republic," in which Manent explores some of the themes of Shakespeare's Roman plays in describing the nature of a republic:
The first political dimension is especially disagreeable and bitter for us, but for this reason it is particularly useful: The principle of the republic is aristocratic; the spirit of those who govern a republic is aristocratic pride, the pride of the few who are capable and virtuous. Coriolanus takes this pride to the point of insolence and furor, but it remains the general principle of the regime. The life of the republic rests on the emulation of those who judge themselves to be the most capable of governing the city and who expect from the city honors proportionate to their service. This aristocratic character belongs to the essence of a self-governing political body, one that wishes to be governed by the best. The modern device of representation is designed to manufacture artificially, with the consent of the many, a few who are capable, if not virtuous.
Tuesday, March 14, 2017
A couple of further thought in response to Rob, with whom I am greatly enjoying an exchange concerning perceptions of discrimination against Christians.
First, Rob writes that Christians are "lead[ing] the charge" against Muslims in some communities, citing conservative Christian support for so-called anti-Sharia laws and for the denial of zoning permits for the construction of mosques. I wonder if this is true. No doubt some conservative Christians do support these policies. But some say that those leading the charge today against immigrants, and those most hostile toward Muslims (and African Americans, and others, too), from the right tend to be non-Christians, not Christians. Rob suggests that the failure of some conservative Christians to advocate against, e.g., anti-Sharia laws might "smooth the way for the demonization of conservative Christians." Perhaps that is true, but the point assumes that politics rewards a kind of principled, rational consistency (I have disagreed with Tom Berg in a similar way before, regarding his view that politics rewards reciprocality and consistency). Conservative Christians, the argument seems to say, are likelier to be rewarded with non-demonization if they support the non-demonization of another group. But it seems to me that the real reasons for Christian demonization are located in very different places than these, and that the question of whether Christians will or will not be demonized as a political and/or cultural matter depends on much more powerful political and cultural forces. To name two: the cultural desires and aspirations of the secular left and of religiously disengaged conservatism.
Second, Rob says that Christians should be "specific and restrained" in pointing out discrimination against Christians. The reason is that "our too-easy embrace of that narrative [of discrimination and/or persecution]...can limit its power when we need it most." I don't think I agree with this point, but whether I could agree with it or not would depend upon facts I don't presently possess. The point being pressed by Rob could be called "the boy who cried wolf" hypothesis--the more frequently Christians point out episodes of discrimination and/or persecution against themselves, the more likely they are to be labeled "whiners" or some similarly dismissive appellation by their cultural and political opponents, and the less likely they will be to succeed when they invoke the charge of discrimination and/or persecution when it "really" happens. But why should one think that invoking discrimination is like this? To the contrary, why should one not think that the more one invokes the discrimination/persecution charge, the more powerful it becomes. And the less frequently one invokes it, the less plausible it seems (as, indeed, it seemed very implausible to the Washington State Supreme Court in the example Rob cites, notwithstanding what are to me the entirely persuasive arguments that Rob himself makes). You could call it the muscle hypothesis--the more you exercise, the stronger you get. There are many other examples of the power that the charge of discrimination can generate on behalf of a cause as a legal and political matter. Indeed, constitutional law (among other areas) is absolutely stuffed to the gills with them. If the objective is legal or political success, I'm not sure that I would accept the boy who cried wolf hypothesis as just self-evidently true, at least not without further evidence that this is, in fact, the likely outcome of "too many" claims of discrimination/persecution. In this instance, less may not be more. More may be more.
Monday, March 13, 2017
I see things a little differently than Rob does in his latest post concerning discrimination against Christians. I hasten to add that I am neither an Evangelical conservative Christian nor have I ever listened to Christian rock. I also have not read the original piece to which Rob links. The disagreements run to a number of issues, and as to some I am not sure they are disagreements at all. But for purposes of this post, let me point out three:
- Objection from demandingness: Rob says that "[i]f millions of Americans who (should) care deeply about religious liberty fundamentally misperceive where the most potent threats are aimed, religious liberty for all is on shaky ground." I am not sure this argument is correct. A person could perceive certain threats to religious liberty and not others, and still make contributions to the protection of religious liberty. He or she could defend certain principles in certain contexts and not in others, and still help toward the defense of those principles. That person need not have to perceive all threats, as well as the relative strength of those threats, and make all possible defenses. But Rob seems to say that if one does not do this, then one is contributing to the weakening of religious liberty. That imposes a very high standard on people to perceive accurately the quality of all threats and defend religious liberty accordingly. Otherwise they are weakening religious freedom.
- Global context: Rob may not have been saying this, but I also do not agree that Americans should recognize that discrimination and persecution of Christians is, at least as a global phenomenon, of lesser importance or significance or urgency than discrimination against other religious groups. In fact, if anything it is secular Americans, not Evangelical Christians, who fundamentally misperceive where the most potent threats to religious freedom are aimed. Those threats are aimed at Christians in the Mideast. The American political regime that preceded this one consistently, almost willfully, misperceived that threat to religious freedom. Many American Christians seem not to perceive the atrocities that have been and are occurring to their co-religionists, and that my colleague, Mark Movsesian (among others), has documented. But I am not sure that I blame them for this. Here again, I revert to the first point of disagreement. It will be very difficult to protect religious freedom if every person has to accurately assess the relative strength of various threats to religious freedom and protect them in corresponding proportion. Whose metrics will be used? What happens when we disagree about the relative power of the threats? Is it not better to allow for different constituencies to emphasize and advocate for different problem issues? Is it not a more realistic approach that might result in the collective strengthening of religious freedom?
- Just Wait Until It's Worse!: Finally, I disagree with an implication of Rob's post: that until Christians in this country have it as bad as other constituencies, they need to recognize their own relatively insignificant lot and wait for things to get worse before they can really start to complain. Rob almost certainly did not mean to say this, but the argument he makes reminds me very much of the 'now that's real persecution' style of argument. It is of course true that people ought to be concerned with severe violations of religious freedom. But I do not think it is true that people ought to measure or evaluate the state of their own religious freedom only by comparison with its worst violations. There is inevitably a kind of recursion to the lowest common denominator in these kinds of arguments, a suggestion that until American Christians endure the same sorts of threats as others, they are just "whining." I must say that this argument (as I've written before) has always been mysterious and borderline perverse to me. Assuming the threats to religious liberty (as in point 1) to be of differential urgency, why is it necessary for those threats to become much, much worse before we will acknowledge their legitimacy?
UPDATE: Apropos, an interesting column by Damon Linker today on the very subject of "Why so many conservative Christians feel like a persecuted minority."