Wednesday, June 22, 2016
Michael Perry linked here to John Gehring's recent post at Commonweal, "False Choices & Religious Liberty." Michael says the piece is "terrific" and "balanced." I'm afraid I cannot agree, notwithstanding my appreciation for Mr. Gehring's past work with the USCCB.
Now, I tend to prefer center-right policies on most issues, and Mr. Gehring works for a progressive public-policy agency, and so it's not remarkable that he and I evaluate differently some of the current policy debates in which the right to religious-freedom is implicated. (Certainly, we both agree that there is a place for -- as his agency's title puts it -- "Faith in Public Life.") Still, my disappointment with the piece is not, I think, a result of this difference. In my view, the piece to which Michael linked does not accurately describe -- indeed, it tendentiously describes -- those debates. As I see it, Mr. Gehring labels certain very real choices as "false" as a kind of short-hand way of contending that one choice rather than another should be made.
For starters, after saying that the debate over religious liberty is "unhinged" -- though his criticism is clearly directed only at the USCCB's "side" of that debate -- he writes:
At the same time, the perversion of religious liberty into a bludgeon against women’s health, workers’ rights, and LGBT equality has caused some progressives to forget that religious freedom is a fundamentally liberal value. Finding a better approach that rescues religious liberty from the culture wars is challenging, essential work.
It's hard to see this sentence as an invitation to dialogue, balance, or re-hinging. This sentence simply repeats activists' talking points -- it is, in fact, not the case that, generally speaking (there are always exceptions), religious liberty has been "perver[ted]" into a "bludgeon" for any such purpose. It is, instead, being employed, defensively, against activists and powerful interests who are invoking "women's health, workers' rights, and LGBT equality" in order to marginalize, and often demonize, traditional religious believers and to interfere with the religious missions of religious institutions. It is all well and good to bemoan the "culture wars" -- I regret them, too, and wish they would cease -- but, despite what some commentators say, the fact is that these "wars" are being waged more by Apple and Planned Parenthood than by the USCCB.
Next, Mr. Gehring's piece's claim that the "choice" between a meaningful right to religious freedom and equality, health care, etc., relies heavily on an implicit assumption that religious institutions -- like Catholic schools and hospitals -- are simply wrong in their religious commitments. So, he lists among the perversions of religious freedom those schools that have fired teachers who have entered into legal same-sex marriages, but doesn't seem to acknowledge these schools' argument that, as Catholic schools, they have as part of their mission forming students in the Church's moral anthropology and understanding of marriage and that -- no doubt with great regret -- they don't have many options in these situations.
Then, Mr. Gehring pivots and observes that "progressives also need a better approach that fosters dialogue and common ground instead of division." And, indeed they do. I've been a part of a number of legislative and other efforts -- in partnership with scholars who identify as progressives -- to find such common ground, but I'm afraid it's been very challenging. The reality is that even reasonable accommodations, let alone genuine appreciation for what my friend John Inazu calls "confident pluralism," doesn't hold much appeal for progressive activists and politicians at the moment. For many, it's easier, it seems, to call people "bigots" or to insist that religious-freedom must yield to the demands of the current understanding of the antidiscrimination norm. (More on this point, from me, in this paper.)
Unfortunately, it is quickly back to unhelpful and incomplete accounts of the issues at stake. Particularly unfortunate is his embrace of the partisan and inaccurate descriptions of the various state-level RFRA proposals that have become so controversial. He repeats the false claim that these laws would allow public-accommodations discrimination against gays and lesbians and so are like odious Jim Crow laws. (For a more accurate account of the Indiana proposal, in particular, see this . . . by me.) He concludes with this:
It’s wrong to pit religion against equality for all Americans. False choices box us into suffocating corners. Saving religious liberty from the quicksand of reckless rhetoric and political posturing won’t be easy. Progressives and conservatives squaring off in public debates have a choice. We can continue to exchange dueling press releases and self-righteous tweets—or sit down, humble ourselves, and search for common ground. “Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord,” the prophet Isaiah tells us. The comfortable and convenient path is well worn. Taking a harder road is worth the struggle if it leads to principled conversations and respect for the complexity of conscience.
There are some good ideas here but, again: The fact is that religious-freedom claimants are seeking accommodation, not a complete win. Respecting the "complexity of conscience" doesn't mean fining bakers and photographers, or pulling religious colleges' accreditation, or denying federal funds and contracts to religious social-service agencies that adhere to orthodox Christian teachings on sexuality and family, or requiring Catholic hospitals to provide abortions, or mandating that religious universities change their student-life and housing policies to match the current Administration's views on gender. Lord knows I'm sick of smug, snarky, and self-righteous tweets. But, to "humble" oneself means to not dismiss efforts to resist religious-freedom-burdening mandates and penalties as "perversions" and "bludgeons."
For my own part, I'm entirely open to working and talking with Mr. Gehring, or anyone else, about the "search for common ground." But the search won't get far if one characterizes one's interlocutors' positions and aims in the language of "dueling press releases."
Saturday, June 18, 2016
"The Coming Crisis in Psychiatry" (1957):
What has gone wrong? A clue is perhaps to be found in Fromm's ambiguous treatment of transcendence. If there is any one feature which all existentialists agree upon as an inveterate trait of human existence, it is transcendence. . . . In Friedrich Nietzsche's words, man is he who must transcend himself. . . . [E]ven the atheistic existentialists would be candid enough to admit man's incurable God-directedness[.]
God is absent, said Johann Christian Holderlin; God is dead, said Nietzsche. This means one of two things. Either we have outgrown monotheism, and good riddance; or modern man is estranged from being, from his own being, from the being of other creatures in the world, from transcendent being. he has lost something--what, he does not know; he knows only that he is sick unto death with the loss of it.
Friday, June 17, 2016
From "Diagnosing the Modern Malaise" (1985):
Christendom began to crumble, perhaps most noticeably under the onslaught of a Christian, Soren Kierkegaard, in the last century. Again I am not telling you anything new when I suggest that the Christian notion of man as a wayfarer in search of his salvation no longer informs Western culture. In its place, what most of us seem to be seeking are such familiar goals as maturity, creativity, autonomy, rewarding interpersonal relations, and so forth.
It's all anthropology . . . Or, as Percy says in "Rediscovering 'A Canticle for Leibowitz'" (1971):
[T]he mystery has to do with conflicting anthropologies, that is, views of man, the way man is. Everyone has an anthropology. There is no not having one. If a man says that he does not, all he is saying is that his anthropology is implicit, a set of assumptions which he has not thought to call into question. . . . One still hears, and no one makes much objection to it, that "man is made in the image of God." Even more often, one hears such expressions as "the freedom and sacredness of the individual." This anthropology is familiar enough. It is in fact the standard intellectual baggage of most of us. Most of the time it doesn't matter that this anthropology is a mishmash, disjecta membra. . . .
Wednesday, June 15, 2016
From "From Facts to Fiction" (1966):
If the first great discovery of my life was the beauty of the scientific method, surely the second was the discovery of the singular predicament of man in the very world which has been transformed by this science. An extraordinary paradox became clear: that the more science progressed, and even as it benefited man, the less it said about what it was like to be a man living in the world. . . . After twelve years of scientific education, I felt somewhat like the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard when he finished reading Hegel. Hegel, said Kierkegaard, explained everything under the sun, except one small detail: what it means to be a man living in the world who must die.
From "How To Be an American Novelist in Spite of Being Southern and Catholic" (1984):
The Christian ethos sustains the narrative enterprise in ways so familiar to us that they can be overlooked. It underwrites those very properties of the novel without which there is no novel: I am speaking of the mystery of human life, its sense of predicament, of something having gone wrong, of life as a wayfaring and a pilgrimage, of the density and linearity of time and the sacramental reality of things. The intervention of God in history through the Incarnation bestows a weight and value to the individual human narrative which is like money in the bank to the novelist.
Tuesday, June 14, 2016
Our dear friend and MOJ colleague, Fr. Araujo, left behind -- among other things! -- a really nice interview, with Fr. Paul Kenney, S.J., which has been preserved thanks to the New England Jesuits Oral History Program. You can get it here (and you should!). Among (many) other things, Fr. Araujo reflects in the interview on his participation in the Mirror of Justice project over the years. Check it out.
Rusty Reno wrote, recently:
What does it mean to be an intellectual? The word comes from the Latin word for understanding, intellego. Lego has dense, multifaceted meanings: to choose, select, collect, and gather. It also means to read. When inter gets added, which means “between,” we get a compound meaning, something like “to read between the lines.” Intellego translates the Greek wordkatanoesis, which can be translated as “knowing across.” If we put these clues together, we come up with a basic working definition of an intellectual. He is someone who can see the differences between things (choosing) and the connections between them (collecting). He attends to reality as it presents itself, but penetrates deeper as well. An intellectual can read not just words and books, but reality and the world. He knows the stories things tell or the ideas they express. In the case of the Christian intellectual, he knows how reality directs us towards the logos, which is the person of Christ.
The goal of the intellectual life, therefore, is to see things as they are, in themselves and together. The fullest kind of knowing knows across as well as about, among as well as in. The same applies to reading, the lectio in the word “intellectual.” We are always reading across words; we read individual words in relation to the others. Discerning an argument or message requires synthesis, a “knowing across.” . . .
Is "pluralism" a given, to be "dealt with" or "managed" -- or, is it a good thing in itself? The answer depends, I suppose, on what we mean by "pluralism." With the question in mind, here's an interesting essay by Peter Berger, in First Things, called "The Good of Religious Pluralism." (The essay summarizes Berger's recent book, The Many Altars of Modernity.) Here's a bit:
Secularization theory was not completely false; it was a massive exaggeration of what was a correct insight. It is beyond dispute that secular discourse, probably originating in modern science and technology, has transformed human life. (One such transformation: In premodern societies, almost half of all children died before age five; today most children, even in poor countries, live to adulthood.) The distinguished Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor wrote a big book with the title A Secular Age (2007). He gives a rich description of what he calls the "secular frame," a view of the world without religious transcendence. But he exaggerates the degree to which this discourse has pushed religion to the margins. We don't live in a secular age; we live in a pluralist age.
This pluralist age has important implications for religion, but they are different from those of secularity. We can speak of two pluralisms. The first concerns the fact that many religions and worldviews coexist in the same society. This is not unique to the modern era. The second kind of pluralism involves the coexistence of the secular discourse with all of these religious discourses. This pluralism, which is uniquely modern, has tended to accentuate the first kind, the pluralism of religions and worldviews. When I'm sick and my doctor is Jewish or Hindu, our shared secular vocabulary gives us a commonality that makes our religious differences something almost scandalous. How is it that we can agree on medical and other scientific or technical questions, yet not on ultimate matters?
There are some people who avoid the scandal of pluralism because they operate exclusively within a secular or a religious discourse (say, atheist Swedish sociologists, or Russian monks who practice the perpetual Jesus Prayer). However, most people of faith today manage to operate within both discourses. The question is not whether this can be done; we know that millions of people do it. The interesting question is how they do it.
In the April 2016 issue of First Things, there's a short notice in Rusty Reno's "Public Square" section on Russell Moore's new book, "Onward: Engaging the Culture Without Losing the Gospel." As Reno describes, Moore proposes an alternative both to the older, "Moral Majority" notion of "taking back" "Christian America" and to the almost-certainly-naive notion that it's possible and necessary to "move beyond" the "culture wars." "As [Moore] knows, we can't avoid them. . . . The battle is coming to us, even if church leaders wish to avoid controversy." Moore: "If we do not surrender to the spirit of the age -- and we must not -- we will be thought to be culture warriors. So be it. Let's be Christ-shaped, Kingdom-first culture warriors." I take it that "Christ-shaped" means, necessarily, charitable, humble, merciful, etc.
Interestingly, almost a year ago, Moore warned his fellow Protestant Christians about Donald Trump and the costs of endorsing or embracing his campaign:
Jesus taught his disciples to “count the cost” of following him. We should know, he said, where we’re going and what we’re leaving behind. We should also count the cost of following Donald Trump. To do so would mean that we’ve decided to join the other side of the culture war, that image and celebrity and money and power and social Darwinist “winning” trump the conservation of moral principles and a just society. We ought to listen, to get past the boisterous confidence and the television lights and the waving arms and hear just whose speech we’re applauding.
Here, Rod Dreher compares Moore's stance and tone to his own "Benedict Option" work.
Monday, June 13, 2016
From a 1986 essay by Walker Percy:
Everyone remembers exactly where he was and what he was doing when Kennedy was shot -- how places and things and people and even green leaves seemed to be endowed with a special vividness, a memorable weight. But what the novelist is interested in is the in-between times, the quality of ordinary Wednesday afternoons, which ought to be the best of times, but are, often as not, times when places, people, things, green leaves seems to be strangely diminished and devalued.
Could it be that his paradoxical diminishment of life in the midst of plenty, its impoverishment in the face of riches, is the peculiar vocation of the novelist to catch a glimpse of, by reason of his very dislocation, but also because none of the experts seem to recognize its existence, let alone explain it? There is something worse than being deprived of life: it is being deprived of life and not knowing it.