An Idea that Might yet Save America, a Modest Proposal

“Experts” can agree on one thing. 2016 is a populous moment in America. But really, this just means that our proclivity to complain about problems has momentarily surpassed our delusion that American leaders are interested in solving them.

But this perennial problem has been compounded. After decades of mindless culture and plummeting collective intelligence, the nation has finally descended into a state somewhere in between degenerative brain disease and Stockholm syndrome. And, like an intoxicated Titania stumbling towards an unsuspecting Bottom, our country has now fastened its gaze on a motley crew of senile-lunatics and conmen that we call Presidential contenders. It’s all the farce of an Elizabethan drama, with none of the comedy.

tumblr_lspq8sncgn1qdba2po1_500.jpg

Our collective delusions live on…

It would be one thing if this panoply of pusillanimous politicos had a single idea as insane as their hairstyles, but uniformly their proposals are the same microwaved earwax run through the anal-retentive strainers of every focus group this side of Jupiter. Want yet another round of tax cuts paired with entitlement expansions? How about more drone strikes? Oh – and get ready for a new round of health-care reforms, whether it’s Crazy Cruz-flavor, Hairbrained Hillary-style, or the patented “Yuge Trump” edition.

Frankly, it has been obvious to everyone with a neckline unbruised by their own sphincter that these endlessly propounded policies don’t work worth a hill of beans. Everyone has a different take on why, but for my two-cents, it is nothing less than political cowardice. Our leaders don’t really have the gumption to take on new ideas, so instead we get ever more grandiose versions of the same tired tripe. Surgical strikes not working? Let’s have carpet bombing! Don’t like Medicaid? Well, let’s expand it to everybody! Social security not solvent? Oh well, I guess that will have to be the next generation’s problem.

But there are indeed simpler solutions available to leaders with more robust constitutions. We don’t need confiscatory tax rates, we don’t need to slash regulations and entitlements, and we don’t need draconian new immigration policies.

We just need to ban birth control.

Or, at least ban birth control for people who make over $200,000 a year. For the rich,  illegalize it all! Abortion, the pill, condoms, the sponge, it all must be sent into the cleansing fire of reform. Let the contraceptive-flames blaze ever higher!

Trust me. If you want a path to the golden unicorn-filled fields of true equality, if you want America to once again climb the silver-lined mountains of national greatness, this is the only way. It’s time to loose the latex from the laps of luxury and pry the pill from the palates previously occupied by silver spoons. Yes, that means you Koch BrothersGeorge Soros and Bill Clinton, don’t think I’m letting you off the hook!

Credit Card Wrapped in Chains and Padlocked --- Image by © Royalty-Free/Corbis

Perhaps only for those of modest means…

But seriously, let’s take our nation’s problems head on. Do you want growth? Do you want generous and solvent entitlement programs? Do you want an unending era of American innovation and military dominance? Well then we need more young people and that means more children. And who better to have said children than those with the ample resources to raise a new generation? Heck, we already know from Tiger Woods and Amy Schumer that the copulation habits of the wealthy can hardly be contained. Take a bite out of their contraception cache and watch the progeny of the prosperous pour forth faster than cocaine from Lil Wayne’s duffle-bag unzipped at customs. I bet the economic boom on baby products alone will be a driving force in our economy within the month.

And that doesn’t begin to cover the cultural benefits. How many times have you heard about the impossibility of balancing work and family life?  Well, this is because contemporary corporate culture is designed by billionaires who are uninterested in raising more than a single designer baby. But, those mindsets will be forever banished by my new policy. No more Sheryl Sandberg books labeling a 70-hour workweek “leaning in”, more new Sheryl Sandberg books about balancing the demands of corporate leadership with a family life that includes 5 kids. And need I mention the likely surge in demand for hyper-educated Mary-Poppins style super nannys? Employment crisis be gone!

But before I get carried away, I will admit that there are some drawbacks. I am certainly not looking forward to Kim Kardashian becoming the next Octomom (though I suspect she will name her new children East West, South West, Due West, Key West, Best West, and Kanye West West). The government would also need to implement extensive enforcement to keep the contraceptives out of the hands of mistresses and other unorthodox outlets. But I believe that this too might be overcome with zealous policing, improved paternity tests, and child support laws ramped up on steroids. In the end, philanderers like Bill Clinton may well have a bumper crop of bastards in tow; but they could always be put to work on Hillary’s campaign.She would appreciate the help at this point.

2227388-richierich

Sorry Richie, no rubbers for you.

But I can already hear the whining from the naysayers- “It’s not faaiirr….muh social justice!”

I will be blunt here. This policy IS justice, or at least as close to justice as a political proposal will get. In fact, banning contraception for the rich, is the only solution that stabs at the great hearts of modern hypocrisy. Hypocrisies that persist, no matter how our media tries to ignore them.

The first great hypocrisy is that our perennial efforts at redistribution – be they taxes, regulation, inflation, or confiscation – never really upset the position of the powerful. This is because our current elites do not depend on liquid assets. They store their privilege in social networks, education, and other intangibles not easily seized by authorities. Taking wealth – true wealth- away from the powerful is near impossible in our era of global capital, and privilege can only be undermined with the cooperation of the privileged themselves.

But what better way to voluntarily lighten the entitlement of our elites than afflicting them with their own fecundity? No birth control means bigger families and bigger families mean diminishing-returns on privilege. An Ivy League might accept one family member as  legacy, but ten? Get ready to buy Yale a new football stadium, Daddy. And as 2-centuries of British comedy as well as the career of MC Hammer attest, nothing drains a bank account like a pack of perfidious poor relations. An endless supply of grasping grandchildren is enough to send even the most flush silicon valley billionaire running to his private chambers to count the family doubloons. If that isn’t poetic justice, then I don’t know what is.

6

Poor relations, the bane of privilege

And that brings me to the second great hypocrisy of our age. It is a fact that the poor never shared in the sexually-liberated utopia promised by the birth control pill. This has been obvious to anyone who’s perused the demographics of fatherlessness and suicide among America’s lower classes in the last 40 years. In fact, it has taken all the intellectual power of our academy to ignore that plain truth.

Effective birth control depends on lifestyle choices and upward mobility. In short,  you need stability to effectively contracept and this is something that the poor have never had access to. Observe that not many rich people need Planned Parenthood and don’t expect Mark  Zuckerberg’s daughter to ever be in danger of single-motherhood. The sexual revolution was a project of the privileged and -short of sterilization (reversible or otherwise)- there is really no way for poor people to participate.

But before my brief allusion to sterilizing the poor causes the followers of Peter Singer to spontaneously salivate, could I point out the last and possibly most delectable irony of my simple solution? It would -for once in human history- invert the pattern of wealthy people dictating to the poor, the structure of family life.

We’ve seen this a thousand times in the 20th century. Between the forced sterilizations of India, the one-child policy of China, and the recent campaign to shove birth control pills down the throats of Africans, elites have have never once tired of forcing their reproductive preferences on the impoverished. But perhaps it’s time to turn the tables. The wealthy can check their privilege, punt their progesterone pills, and ante up to a lifestyle where they’re no longer in complete control of their reproduction. It might be vindictive, but it certainly smells like fairness to me.

And don’t feel too bad for those rich people. Given the populist rage brewing across the globe, we might be doing them a favor. Who knows, this radical measure might be the only stopgap to a complete revolution, and, in condemning the wealthy to a life of caring for toddlers today, we might be sparing their necks from the guillotine tomorrow (though from my understanding this might only be a marginal improvement). Still, as their descendants multiply, those same scions might be at a loss for what to do with such a great number of children. A difficult question indeed. But if things ever get too confusing, I suppose they could always eat them.

Capture

 

The terrible lizards of times past, and those yet to come

Childhood memories are difficult to pin down, but one that still remains vivid was my early love of dinosaurs. Of course a childhood fascination with dinosaurs is not unusual, but the distinct image of “the dinosaur”- depicted universally in dinosaur-themed paraphernalia through the 80s- is difficult to explain to those born after 1991kong9. Long before Jurassic Park introduced realism to cinematic dinosaurs and well before revised scientific images added feathers and contours to make them distinctly animals, depictions of the ancient beasts vivified their Greek name. They were terrible lizards. Ravenous, dimwitted, cold-blooded, and above all primitive, “the dinosaur” existed as a nothing less than a primordial monster. Between the lethargic herbivores and unceasingly ravenous carnivores, there was nothing about the creatures that wasn’t rampant, unconstrained , and dominating. Less some animal that lived a long time ago, more a demon from a chaotic age that might not even exist in our epoch of reason without contaminating it with its own primordial nature.

One image in particular persists in my mind as an icon of what “the dinosaur” once was in the popular imagination. It is a painting of a late-Jurassic battle between an allosaurus and a brontosaurus. Depicted in a children’s book of dinosaurs, the image was nonetheless more gruesome than anything I had encountered as a young child. Even now, looking at the image as an adult, it is brutal. As the allosaur talons cut into sauropod’s flesh, streams of blood trickle down to the swamp and the gentle giant sways in agonizing throws. There even seems to be a sadistic joy in the countenance of the carnivore.

1960-allosaurus-attacking-brontosaurus-by-rudolph-f-zallinger.jpg

The caption originally included beneath the picture only added to the scene’s poignancy. Stuck in quicksand, the sauropod had been overtaken by an allosaur, a predator it could have otherwise fended off with ease. Though unable to escape its doom, in death the brontosaurus had collapsed and crushed its assailant. Thus, the futility of the scenario was further underlined. The agonizingly cruel death of the brontosaurus was mirrored seconds later by the ironically cruel death of the allosaurus. There was nothing that justified the fate, it existed as a product of the futile prehistoric world.

I have found myself reflecting more and more on such futility, not the least when contemplating our country’s current political situation. Sure enough, there might be much in the way of a comparison between the image of two fighting prehistoric beasts and the prospect of a Hillary vs Trump race this Fall. Perhaps, a more apt analogy yet might be the opportunistic and carnivorous Trump sinking his teeth into the immobilized and bloated body of a Republican establishment (probably only to be later crushed under that establishment’s decaying husk). But still, a more disturbing comparison is on my mind.

At this point in 2016, a significant amount of commentary has comprised of “experts” castigating this election’s descent into coarseness and violence as “unprecedented”. More historically-minded pundits have been quick to point out that this might be better characterized as a throwback to a type of politics historically common in 19th century, but long since out fashion. While rare in our modern advanced age, the narrative goes,  2016 is a temporary lapse into a violent populist mode, likely never to be repeated again. But even as I am assured that our politics will momentarily return to their mundane pattern of stale choices and consistent growth, I am troubled once more by a vision of “the dinosaur”.

There was one way that the antediluvian  depictions of “the dinosaur” were accurate. There was a certain insight in the visions of unfeeling titans battling in the shadows of dimly-lit volcanoes. For all their manifest inaccuracies, the old pictures captured a truth neatly hidden away in our modern understanding of living creatures, ancient or otherwise. The truth is nothingimg9006.jpg less than the fact that animals, in their natural element, embody all the cruelty and callousness of the universe that spawned them.

It is easy to forget that when most of our interactions with animals are filtered through the lens of domestication, science, or art. The subtle censorship of the textbook encourages us to think of animals as dissected specimens, just as our experiences with domesticated companions encourages the view that they are anthropomorphic furry humans. But these fictions are paper thin, made obvious in any encounter with a wild animal. The cruelty of animals is one of the truest things about them because their violence is a product of the Darwinian forces that shape every moment of their natural lives.

Nature has a demonic element in its core, and it is a nature that humans share, no matter how our culture tells us otherwise. In modern times perhaps Nietzsche did the most to remind us of this base reality. But it was a fact well known to the ancient Greeks. Even the medieval craftsmen were aware of this chaotic nature in man and beast, and carried it forth in their depictions of animals and wildmen. Could the 20th century popularizers of  dinosaurs have unwittingly rediscovered this oft-forgotten truth?

This brings me back to our present political reality. Although I am not one prone to alarm, there is indeed a reason to be unsettled by auspices hinted at in the rise of Trump, Putin, and ISIS. Regardless of what we might be tempted to think, these actors are not historical anomalies, the persistence of our civilization is. And while it might be true that our present crop of strongmen are passing,

v0033596 (1)so too is the long illusion of continuous progress and ever-increasing economic growth that sustained the previous order. We are in a dying era and everyone, left, right, and center feels the foundations shifting beneath their feet.

It is fashionable to talk of the advancement of human civilization and the spirit of the age. But wise philosophers have long known that Olympian edifices are built upon the bones of the chaotic giants. In fact, the truly wise have known that the giants are not dead, but merely sleeping. When we hear the rumbling of their disquieted slumber, we might be reminded that on any given day the demons of the ancient world may rise in rage against our modern illusions. Because, whatever part of our own lives are folly, their hunger for dominance is real.

I struggle with expressing this sentiment, mostly because I am aware how unoriginal it is. As such,  I hope to close my speculation with words from the poet W.B. Yeats, who said it best of all.

That Dragon, Cancer….

Despite the unending internet controversy, I remain resolute in my stance that video games cannot be art. Games contain a fundamental opposition at their core between players and audiences that cannot be resolved. Failing some huge revolution in Western culture where we suddenly conceptualize beauty as something you can “win”, I wouldn’t expect the next Picasso to be releasing his work at a GameStop.

Still, every now and again I see a new title that makes me question my conviction. Enter That Dragon, Cancer, a small indy game being released this winter. The game is an auto-biography that tells the story of a young Christian couple and their struggle with the extended sickness and death of their infant son, Joel.

Yes, I know this sounds like a macabre subject for a video game, but it makes more sense when the entire story is told. The NPR show ReplyAll does a good job explaining:

This is by no means the first artsy viewpoint-style video game. But from what I can tell, That Dragon, Cancer takes the form one step further. It contains genuine emotion that I just haven’t seen in titles like Gone Home or Life is Strange. Moreover, there is a raw power apparent in the story. It’s certainly art, even if it’s ultimately not much of a game.

But the strangest component of this game is its apparent focus on religion. Christianity is at the heart of That Dragon, Cancer. The central layout is a cathedral, the family’s own spiritual beliefs are a driver of the plot, and the original purpose of the game was to express the emotions felt during a moment of prayer. Ultimately, I will be very interested to see how these themes are expressed in the medium of video games.

The central problem of art in video games has always been player choice. Video games put the player at the center of making decisions beyond the creator’s control. Thus there is an interplay between the two where the desire of the artist to challenge assumptions and the desire of the player to escape reality are at odds. The more the artist introduces a strong narrative and challenging messages, the more a constraints are needed to steer players away from their natural inclination towards self-affirming fun.

In the past artsy video games like Limbo and Bioshock have addressed the problem of choice by making the futility of the player’s decisions a central theme. With enough existential “Waiting-For-Gidot style” doom, a player can be artfully compelled towards an art-house ending without damaging the realism. A seemingly open world where the character’s minor decisions cannot assuage their final doom might be the plot of every French existentialist novel, but it’s also an easily programmable format for a video game.

But the subject of futility and choice also have a direct relationship to prayer. Prayer is a difficult thing to explain to most non-religious people. Do believers really believe they are influencing the will of God? Do the pious think they can bend the universe with the force of supplication? If not, isn’t the whole endeavor futile?  All these questions are fair, but very difficult to answer without extended analogy. To the religious prayer comes naturally, and there is is an ineffable flow and logic to those who practice it regularly.

During more religious ages powerful scenes of prayer in fiction were passed over with little commentary. Our contemporary age is quite different. When so few people practice devotion themselves, a depiction of such requires explanation. But is any verbal explanation adequate?

The central inspiration for That Dragon, Cancer was a prayer of a father for his son when nothing else seemed to make a difference. Certainly, the prayer neither stopped the cancer nor ceased the pain, but was it futile? Perhaps prayer might be better thought of as something that brings rational order to a reality that would otherwise seem cruel and futile. It might even be possible that this side of prayer is better expressed in a video game than in written theology.

I’ll be looking forward to “playing” That Dragon, Cancer when it comes out. However, I might have to force myself to play all the way through. A strange problem for such a typically addictive medium.

The Distributist’s Guide To Home Brewing

A great article about the arch-Distributist’s own trip to Prohibition-era America. Expecting a puritan hell-hole, G.K. Chesterton was instead greeted with a DIY culture that was handling the illegality of alcohol Macgyver-style. The art of modern home-brewing had been born. Chesterton gleefully reported:

“…with this widespread revival of the old human habit of home-brewing, much of tc7e53dfac1d57d4c7136e904bfad0fc4hat old human atmosphere that went with it has really reappeared… Prohibition has to that extent actually worked the good, in spite of so malignantly and murderously willing the evil. And the
good is this: the restoration of legitimate praise and pride of the creative crafts of the home.”

The episode was all the more ironic considering that Chesterton had previously wrote a teetotaler horror-story entitled “The Flying Inn” in which an Islamic-progressive coalition’s push for prohibition is defied, and eventually overthrown, by the wit and charm of a small town pub. Chesterton was prophetic.

Illegalization does create a certain camaraderie. Ask any Washington State or Colorado pot-head who is now watching their cherished sub-culture become mainstream. Still, Chesterton does take the concept a little too far in the name of romantic community building.

“This being the case, it seems that some of our more ardent supporters might well favour a strong, simple and sweeping policy. Let Congress or Parliament pass a law not only prohibiting fermented liquor, but practically everything else. Let the Government forbid bread, beef, boots, hats and coats; let there be a law against anybody indulging in chalk, cheese, leather, linen, tools, toys, tales, pictures or newspapers. Then, it would seem by serious sociological analogy, all human families will begin vigorously to produce all these things for themselves; and the youth of the world will really return.”

Prohibition is one way to encourage home-grown production and defiant subcultures. Still, it’s quite clear that G.K. Chesterton’s romantic travels in 1920s America never led him to cross paths with the likes of Al Capone.

Blogging Orthodoxy 8: Levity and the Great Adventure

I while back I started a series called “Blogging Orthodoxy” which documented my Newman Center’s reading group as we worked our way through Chesterton’s grand treatise, “Orthodoxy”. This series dropped off during my blog’s long hiatus but now that I have finally gotten around to blowing the dust off all my old posts, it feels only right to finish the series.

In fact, all that remains is to put a capstone on the project and I can easily do that in the hour I have before I head out to my parish’s annual retreat. Here it goes….

Chapter 9: Authority and the Adventurer

It is hard to overstate the effect that a book like Chesterton’s “Orthodoxy” has had upon my life. Of all the books that gradually took me back through the doors of the Church, this was the lynch pin. The point at which I knew that something had to be done. Faith had to be lived. Passivity was no longer an option.

Even revisiting the book seven years later, Chesterton’s conclusion was powerful. Reading the last lines, I could feel my group intently anticipating the inevitable finale. But this time, as the conclusion came, those same words felt very different.

“His Mirth”

The words that shocked me as a non-believer fell lightly this time around. Chesterton’s conclusion was still profound but it was no longer abrasive. When once the image of the mirthful Christ had come into my imagination like an thundering army,  it was now like a returning hero being welcomed home. I could feel the same emotions all around.

In fact, there was very little discussion of this final section within the group. It felt as though nothing more needed to be said. The book had ended and we were left with a sense of anticipation. Something was about to happen. And, in fact, it did.

A year passed. Spirituality grew. Friendships formed. Our patron, an inimical Dominican Friar, was able to raise up a thriving young adult community that would be the envy of a much larger parish. Even our weekly reading session grew to become a bit of an institution among the Catholic young adults in North Seattle. Much has been learned and looking back, I find myself reflecting on where it began, our reading of “Orthodoxy”.

Much has been said about the line that ends “Orthodoxy”, and certainly the image of God’s levity is what I remember when thinking back on the book. However, among all the very spiritual images conjured by the author, perhaps the plain message of the chapter is lost; the message that, in order for our struggles to transcend our own personalities, we must first acknowledge an authority over ourselves who competent to judge us. Our lives might be adventures but only if we acknowledge One greater still who can act as an author.

At one point in my life I would have balked at this sentient. I am a natural contrarian and the concept of authority does not come easy to me. But I think that it was this lesson that I did indeed learn over my last year working with the Newman center. There is a time for trust. There is a right place for faith. Once one accepts the authority of the spiritual, the worldly struggles that were at one point meaningless and setbacks that at one point seemed insurmountable become simple features in a larger story. When one wanders aimlessly even the slightest breeze feels like a cruel and irrational blow. Once a person has the right direction even the strongest headwinds can be braved with ease.

I return to the question of authority today, as my Parish bids farewell to the Dominican Friar who had been our group’s leader and the founder of our book group. Certainly it has been the pattern of modern Christian communities to crumble once their founder is reassigned and I can sense that there is a similar fear that our community will slowly break once separated from its founder.

Far from me to be an optimist but I am more encouraged than most. The spirit that brought our community together and animated it is more than the force of one saintly soul. The authority that directs us forward is much older. The adventure that has bound us together is much deeper. We hear the great laughter Chesterton described and its prospect is as terrifying as it is terrific. We are traveling for that end alone and the force of that prospect binds us together as a community even if we do indeed physically drift apart.

And so, the task is set. The path is before us. The adventure is upon us and I believe still that we have the courage to see it through to the end.

10006960_824665190882575_559404041_n

Off to retreat….

 

 

 

 

How to Suck At Your Atheism

A few years back I came across a rather condescending web-comic by the ordinarily entertaining “The Oatmeal” entitled

“How to Suck at Your Religion”

The comic was tirade of anti-religious stereotypes and inspired a bit of anger on my part, not the least because I felt that the jabs were not only untrue but altogether unworthy of the author who should have known better.

Indeed, there have been Catholic responses, most notably here, but at the time I felt that a more direct counter-punch was in order. So, I began to set my pen to the obvious counter-point : “How to Suck at Your Atheism”.

Needless to say, constructing a web comic was much more difficult than I had anticipated. Although I had drawn the outline and the first draft of the panels while recovering from surgery, it took me almost 2 years to complete the entire production.

Once you start on a project it’s hard to stop and although I am satisfied in the quality of the production, I have to admit being a little embarrassed about the final message. This must be the most condescending straw-man laden argument that I have ever made. My only excuse is that it was written (if not entirely produced) in anger and meant as a satirical response to equally condescending source material.

And, if nothing else, it’s just a bit of good fun…

PANE_INTRO

p0

p1

p2

p3

p4p5

p8p6

p7

p9

p10p11p12

p13

pane_end

Just so I don’t get called out, there is an accompanying set of footnotes. The permalink can be found here https://datadistributist.wordpress.com/how-to-suck-at-your-atheism/

-Footnotes-

  1. This panel refers Dawkin’s advocacy of rational dialectic between secular and religious individuals. His speech at the 2012 “REASON” rally betrayed this conviction when he called on atheists to mock and bully religious individuals.
  2. Bill Maher has been one of the highest profile atheists since his 2008 film “Religulous”. His opposition to vaccinations has been well-documented. http://www.salon.com/2015/04/25/bill_mahers_bizarre_anti_vaccine_rant_stop_calling_these_people_kooks_and_liars/
  3. Dawkin’s has mentioned his opposition to fairy-tales at The Cheltenham Science Festival. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/professor-richard-dawkins-claims-fairy-tales-are-harmful-to-children-9489287.html
  4. Tyson has voiced his opposition to philosophy as a discipline several times. https://scientiasalon.wordpress.com/2014/05/12/neil-degrasse-tyson-and-the-value-of-philosophy/
  5. The science-meme revelers are indicative of many of the threads on the Facebook page : https://www.facebook.com/IFeakingLoveScience
  6. The Atheism Bohr Atom is used by the American Atheists http://www.religioustolerance.org/atheist6.htm
  7. The slavery panel references the well-documented scientific racism of the 19th and early 20th century
  8. There is a general reference to internet fights between left and right-style atheists.
  9. Christopher Hitchens advocated for the Iraq War and was one of the war’s biggest defenders. Subsequently, there were soldiers who did enlist due to his advocacy. One of those soldiers famously perished in 2007 http://www.vanityfair.com/news/2007/11/hitchens200711. Hitchens transformation from geopolitical commentator to anti-religious firebrand occurred at roughly the same time.
  10. This is a reference to the history of the French Revolution when the idealistic atheist Maximilian Robespierre turned draconian tyrant in an attempt to strip traditional and religious culture from France. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maximilien_Robespierre
  11. The relative body count between the 20th century communists and the inquisition has been well documented not least by García Cárcel, (inquisition) and Jean-Louis Panné (communism).

https://datadistributist.wordpress.com/how-to-suck-at-your-atheism/

Blogging Orthodoxy 7: An Eternal Golden Thread

Blogging Orthodoxy continues with :

Chapter 8: The Romance of Orthodoxy

I consider The Romance of Orthodoxy to be the weakest chapter of Chesterton’s Orthodoxy. At first glance there doesn’t appear to be anything that we haven’t heard in the previous chapters. To this point Chesterton has already talked at length about how a mystical love of the universe is needed to value life and how mystical skepticism is needed to reform it. He has reviewed in detail the dangers of trying to conceive of the world as purely rational and visited the mistakes humanism has made when attempting to achieve reform without understanding the concept of the ideal. With all of this already said, one might wonder why Chesterton spends his eighth chapter rehashing many of these same points. But although The Romance of Orthodoxy may seem entirely redundant, I think Gilbert does have a point. However laboriously, by the end of the eighth Chapter, Chesterton has built towards a singular question, perhaps the question for anyone reading a book about Catholicism and not Catholic themselves: Despite the fact that there may be some, possibly incidental, truths in the Faith, why actually be Catholic?

Though Chesterton answers this question mainly in his last chapter, it was this question that dominated our reading group’s discussion on The Romance of Orthodoxy. And for good reason. Our patron was certainly speaking for everyone when he pointed out that this question was the question that our modern age has saimtsfor the Catholic Church. Not Why do You believe in God? not Did Jesus really rise from the dead?  not even Why are you Christian? but Why be Catholic?  It’s a question that Catholics hear all the time. And no one ever has a really good answer.

I admit, it is a hard question because the question is inseparable from historical record. God and Jesus may be eternal and unsullied, but the Church is very much a being of history and as most people are aware, it has had quite a long one. Moreover, unlike Muslims, Atheists, and Buddhists, Catholics for, the most part, are singularly conscious of their Church’s historical misdeeds. I’ve noticed that, despite believing in the Church’s mission, Catholics tend to avoid asserting that their Church has historically bore witness to the gospel of Jesus. And, given this record, it’s probably no surprise that secular people can’t take the concept seriously either.

Even after coming to believe in God, I found the concept of the Catholic Church being a force for any kind of good in history to be utterly ridiculous. Of course I knew enough history to discount many of the common atheists myths surrounding Catholicism spun by those like Christopher Hitchens and it was not necessary to dispel common exaggerations about the relative violence of the Church to other factions in history. But nonetheless, beyond statistical nitpicking, there was human reality of the Church’s terrible role in history that had to be confronted. It may be true that the Spanish Inquisition killed only around 3000 people, but, for an institution that claims every human is the image of God, the inquisition was an atrocity more revolting than the 20 million souls trod under by Genghis Khan. And so the central question remained.

A common, and not entirely inadequate, response is that the Church itself is fallen and flawed like all other human institutions. I have to say, this perspective, while truthful, didn’t satisfy me initially. If the Church was truly the cornerstone of Christ’s teaching on earth then it must be much more than one fallen entity among many. If the history of human existence is one long line of tarnished treasures, why should one particular piece be worthy of adoration?

I began to see a better explanation when reading The Screwtape Letters where the demonic Screwtape counsels his understudy on how the Church on earth can stand in contrast to the divine Church as seen from time immemorial.

One of our great allies at present is the Church itself. Do not misunderstand me. I do not mean the Church screwtapeas we see her spread out through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners. That, I confess, is a spectacle which makes our boldest tempters uneasy. But fortunately it is quite invisible to these humans. All your patient sees is the half-finished, sham Gothic erection on the new building estate. When he goes inside, he sees the local grocer with rather an oily expression on his face bustling up to offer him one shiny little book containing a liturgy which neither of them understands, and one shabby little book containing corrupt texts of a number of religious lyrics, mostly bad, and in very small print. When he gets to his pew and looks round him he sees just that selection of his neighbours whom he has hitherto avoided. You want to lean pretty heavily on those neighbours. Make his mind flit to and fro between an expression like ‘the body of Christ’ and the actual faces in the next pew.

Though C.S. Lewis’ target with this passage was pettiness among parishioners and not grand historical crimes, his thoughts formed in me the first inkling of a concept I later came to accept. There might be something in the Church beyond what is superficially seen in the institution. The true Church might be less like a tarnished golden chalice and more like a small golden thread, that while almost invisible against the backdrop of the soil that covers it, still leads onward towards its luminous source. And as I looked at the Church in history, there did seem to be just such a thread running through it. The Catholics referred to it as The Lives of the Saints.

Often times the word Hagiography is used loosely to condemn whitewashed and arduously positive biographies. But I found nothing arduous or whitewashed about the lives of the Saints. The Saints were flawed individuals but in their moments of grace they became something far greater than themselves and the times in which they lived. The saints were real. More real than other historical figures and more real even than the figures that occupy our contemporary StatueTriumphjpgworld. Most people, from politicians and celebrities to ordinary grocers and policeman, are carried along with the flow of history, working from within their time and place to do the best they can. But the Saint stands still, the ebb and flow of their time and culture folding around their lives like the waters of a stream against a stationary rock. In communion, the Saints stand apart from history like a series golden links. The institutional Church, as we see it today, acts simply as a container for this more glorious witness. It keeps the doctrines, the sacraments, and the records of the Saint’s coming. But in the end, it is simply an observer, in waiting, and in anticipation of something greater than itself.

At this point I have probably lost my secular audience and I’m sure someone is going to accuse me of looking at Catholic history with rose-tinted glasses. Couldn’t one take the most shinning examples of any institution and hold them aloft? How would this then justify the Catholic Church above other institutions? Again, without answering these objections directly, I would like offer a caveat. From my own experience, it is actually rare for institutions to justify themselves by pointing to a past communion of truly good people. Much more common is to look back at the powerful and argue that their evil actions weren’t really evil, or that their evil actions were necessary do to the particular situations of the age. But the Saints have no reason to be recognized but for their goodness. Some are meek and others powerful, but their common communion is only virtue. Here, there is something truly unique: a link to the past that is more divine and accessible than any other past heroism can provide. Few have the intelligence to be an Einstein, the power to be Caesar, or the wealth to be a Rockafeller, but the goodness of a Catherine of Sienna or a Saint Francis of Assisi is available to every person at every moment of their lives. We have but to reach forward and accept it.

It seems the modern world is sorely in need of just this conception of Saintly continuity. We all have an innate desire to look back and see an unbroken chain of idealism leading from the past on into the future, and of course we fasten upon the great leaders and thinkers of our history to serve this purpose. Right-wingers have their obsession with Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, while the left has their devotion to Margaret Sanger and Harvey Milk. But modern history is none too slow at finding the flaws in any of the great idols of our past. Behind every Jefferson there is slavery, Northern rose window of the cathedral Notre-Dame in Chartres, Francebehind every Sanger there is Eugenics. The great leaders and thinkers of the past are all compromised just as every empire that is old is also brutal. So modern man is left, looking back at a history of moral ambiguity, disconnected from any concept that his ancestors had anything to teach him.

I believe it is this very disconnect that enables the progressive view of history to become so popular. With a past of unmitigated misery and evil, we may want to believe in a present and future that will inevitably be better, not just in material comforts, but in human goodness. But this progressive vision does nothing but impede our ability to live as good people in our daily lives. With the idea of goodness inevitably expanding, we forget the very important reality that, in any age, being virtuous is difficult. To be good, truly good, is a task so herculean as to be almost impossible, and we discount this fact at our own moral peril.

I must now return to the question posed at the onset of the discussion: Why Be Catholic? For myself, it is because I see the Church as a historic moral teacher, not through the institution, but through the narrow paths walked by the saints in obscurity. The Catholic Church has committed many crimes, but this does not set it aside from any other historical institution. Every cause and great leader is flawed from Pericles and the Athenian Democracy to George Washington and our current Republic. I get the sense that when most people look back on their ancestor’s history they are in fact looking for some progressive thread through which to learn moral lessons. And here the institutional Catholic Church has played a prophetic role. It has discovered just such a thread in the live of the Saints. And although it is flawed as an institution, the Church may act as a sign post for the greatest moral teachers the world has ever known.

At the close of this article, I am reminded of an oft-repeated Catholic adage-“there is only one true tragedy in life and that is to not be Saint”. There is certainly truth in that statement, but if it is entirely accurate then the world is quite a tragic place. Of course, we have all known great individuals living selfless lives of grace, but they are quite rare. For the most part we plod along, not willing to fight against the current of our modern age and personal desires. The path of true righteousness is narrow. It is not a golden carpet that will roll out easily in front of us. We are not good by nature and, as such, teachers are needed. So Christians must tirelessly search for the good people in the narrow and dirty places of the world looking for the living Saints that can continue to guide us. As in all ages past, we will stumble and struggle to find this thread of true human compassion, but as difficult as the task may be it is absolutely necessary. For if we desire to be bring any true goodness, the loss of that golden thread of Sainthood may be the world’s only true tragedy.

Blogging Orthodoxy 6 : Eternal Inevitability and the Idealist Revolution

Blogging Orthodoxy continues with…..

Chapter 7: The Eternal Revolution

Orthodoxy can be quite idealistic at times. This is probably no surprise coming from a man like Chesterton who preferred to talk about fairies over general elections. The preference was not simply fanciful. To Chesterton, it always was more worthwhile to discuss ideals. Ideals were more honest. I know this can alienate modern  readers who prefer realism to discussions over first principles. Probably many people get this far in Orthodoxy and wonder what Chesterton’s assertions aboutChesterton loyalty, optimism, and pessimism have to do with real-world policy. In the chapter The Eternal Revolution, Gilbert addresses this point of practicality. The key, to practical success, Chesterton says, is to have a clear and unchanging ideal. Only with a fixed and abstract vision of the good can anyone ever get anywhere.

Though frustrating to realists, I think most people will agree that an unchanging ideal is the first step to reform. First we have an ideal vision and only then can we work diligently towards its realization. Regardless of how hard, if we persist we will get closer to seeing our ultimate goal finally realized. But modern society has made two blunders that have clouded this common sense approach to reform. The first is to imagine that “progress” is inevitable. The second is to assume that if something has failed many times then it cannot rightly be considered ideal. Though these conceptions are looked on as “progressive” they are in fact huge bulwarks against any reform. Certainly if we are evolving inevitably, no action would ever need be taken. Moreover, if the standard of progress itself were changed every time difficulty was encountered, society would remain practically immune to alteration. Reform can only proceed when we understand a common and unchanging vision of what the future should be like.

Our reading group seemed more or less content with this definition of reform. But of course what type reform? Even the emergence of “reform” as topic in the context of the Catholic Church briefly sparked controversy. This, I think, embodies the first and foremost objection that a skeptic would raise to Chesterton. Reform towards who’s ideal? A skeptic might rightly ask. People speak about having a common vision but when it comes down to it, there is no agreement. For now I will not directly answer this objection; but I offer that our own group’s disagreement, while adamant, did not indicate a true division. The argument like most arguments, was actually an indication of a common ideal.argue

In fact, it didn’t take more than a few reminders that we all sought the same thing –  a Church carrying forward the teachings of Christ – to bring the argument to a close and move the litigants to a renewed feeling of comradery. Of course, we all knew that the disagreement still stood but ultimately what was being argued over wasn’t the ideal but the means to achieve that ideal. In fact, if there was no shared ideal, the disagreement never would have taken place. I would submit that one can only really argue with people who share common core values. When we argue over means to achieve an end, we can, in the heat of the argument, accuse our opponents of being obtuse and regressive. But when the fundamental values are not held in common argument itself cannot be mustered. We usually just scratch our heads in incomprehension.

Chesterton predicts that any loss of common values will lead to social and political to stagnation. Certainly this is in keeping with common political complaints from both the left and right in modern times. It is easy to see how two sides, unable to properly communicate about ends, will never come together to forge a political means. But here I must disagree with Chesterton’s concern about the endpoint of a society unable to believe in unchanging ideals. Rather than stagnation, I have come to anticipate the exact opposite; a sort of implicit and unthinking progress where the human race gradually slouches into an easy future that no sane person in their right mind would endeavor to create.

Though rare, there are those that believe that the principles of right and wrong can change. I used to believe this myself. It seemed only logical at the time. If human society were to evolve, the morals and principles of humanity should evolve with it. I had only a vague notion of what it would mean for core principles to  “evolve” (since there would be no principle by which to judge its evolution). Still, the idea seemed logical enough. Since all other human qualities could be improved upon, and our ideals were among human qualities, our ideals themselves could therefore be improved. I didn’t finally come to interrogate this idea until I found myself face to face with those who held it more consistently than I ever could. 

In my last post on Orthodoxy, I recalled a discussion I had with an atheist who firmly believed that he would live forever due to technological extensions on life span. Surprisingly enough, as I grew familiar with the atheist community, I learned that these sentiments were not uncommon. The followers of similar ideas called their coming utopia “The Singularity”. There is much to say about this concept, but in a nutshell it recommends the construction of a omnipotent and omniscient AI that can solve all known problems in the world. This AI will then hee1bestow immortality and unlimited pleasures upon the human race. The only thing holding this grand vision back? You guessed it, Christianity, religious superstition, and naive humanistic values that restrain “progress”.

I remember being taken back by this idea, though at the time, I couldn’t put into words why. I answered snarkily to one adherent that if the future AI were advanced enough to change human biology, it might more easily remove the survival instinct and eliminate the human race. It is one thing to make humanity live forever. It is much cheaper to make them no longer care about death. But again quite strangely, my interlocutor seemed unshaken by this response. He simply stated that If the AI master exterminated humanity this would simply be the course of evolution and any sentimental attachment to our existence was simply naive primitive ethics.Of course, the other members of the group greeted this answer as being very “evolved” (whatever that means) and I remember being caught speechless and flatfooted by the entire situation. I still haven’t thought of a good counter to the argument that humanity should be exterminated by malicious AI and I don’t expect to find one soon.

But the bizarre anti-humanist techno-utopianism of the Singularity wasn’t even the end of the matter. There also was a sort of Luddite equivalent called the Voluntary Human Exctinction Movement. Born from a sort of uber-Malthusian environmental sentiment, this movement dreamed of a utopia that would be born when the human race was, not just reduced, but completely exterminated. Nature would then reclaim the planet. The members would go about encouraging self sterilization (and sometimes even suicide) all in the name of the rebirth of some garden of Eden sans Adam and Eve. Again, what I felt was not exasperation but a sort of non-verbal befuddlement.

In the imagination of the Singularity Movement and the Voluntary Extinctionists the visualizend point of the universe was bleaker than any dark age. It was an endless morass dominated by nothing that could feel compassion, wonder, joy, gratitude, or love. The vision of utopia had been so streamlined that the dreamers themselves had whitewashed themselves out of it. But there was one caveat. Even when talking to the radicals themselves, they seemed very unenthusiastic about the ultimate outcome of their journey. A much more passionate topic was how “inevitable” their vision of the future was and how they were “more evolved” for embracing this philosophy before everyone else was brought to heel by the merciless force of history. Frankly, I couldn’t help thinking of an enslaved native bragging to his still free brethren that he was the first to wear the shackles that the master would inevitably clasp on every one of them. It certainly would be a bitter victory.

I don’t want to represent the Singularity crowd or the Voluntary Human Extinctionists as representative of the atheist community at large; but in some way they have taken the conception of the evolutionary philosophy to its logical conclusion. Most atheists are very devoted to an idea of evolutionary progress. They start with the humanist morality taken from Christianity (and earlier pagan religions) and then claim that this ethic has evolved to its current state and will continue to evolve beyond its modern incarnation. The goal of humanity, on this account, is to push this force of progress forward, evolving ethics to its necessary and inevitable culmination.

But the members of the Voluntary Human Extinction and Singularity Movements have called this bluff. They have evolved past humanism. The less advanced atheists tell people to embrace the ultimate goal of progress because it is inevitable. The advanced atheists of the Singularity Movement have made the final leap and have embraced what they see as inevitable as the ultimate goal of progress.

And here we come to the core of all naturalistic and “evolutionary” argumentation: inevitability. I make no claim to know whether humanity is inevitably doomed to be destroyed by a super-powerful AI or inevitably doomed to be destroyed by a natural catastrophe and the earth is reclaimed by vegetation. But I can say, quite firmly, a future so devoid of human struggles and joys would be quite disappointing to my own values. We have made a giant mistake by imagining our ideals are something simply natural. Of course they may have developed from nature, but in our hands they are much more than simply nature.

If humanity is reduced to simply nature, no human can be free. Nature is completely deterministic and if we enslave morality to naturalistic justifications then we will eventually discover we have exchanged a real mode of reform for a truism that excuses any random emergence as either “natural” or “evolutionary”. Once we say “the good is inevitable” we are only a short way away from saying “the inevitable is good”. The tyranny of determinism will have secured its final victory. But before one stares to long into the abyss of determinism, we should remember that nothing in the future is actually inevitable. We only have to work for an ideal and the future can be exactly what we make of it.

Humanity’s ideals can define them apart from nature, but only if we conceive of those ideals as above nature. If indeed the values that guide us are supernatural then we can shake our fist at any future apocalypse however likely. More and more I believe  the eternal state of humanity may be to stand on the precipice of certain doom.liberty Of course, the believers in deterministic extermination will talk all they want about the course of “natural progress”. But as strong as their inevitability is, it can be shattered by a single ideal that stands beyond nature’s power to alter it. All that is needed is one supernatural dream and we can wage an eternal revolution against the tyranny of the inevitable.