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.

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.

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Off to retreat….

 

 

 

 

The Legacy of Bioshock – Why Video Games Can’t Be Art

Once again, back from blogging after a long hiatus due to school. This may have to be a periodic phenomenon but don’t worry, this blog isn’t going anywhere.

Back in February I commented on the oft-asked question “Can Video Games Be Art?”. I was reminded of this question again earlier this month upon hearing that Irrational Games – the studio behind the infamous Bioshock series – was closing down shop. Apparently, the move was motivated by lead producer Ken Levine’s desire to retire from mainstream game development in order to focus on smaller art-house video games. It seems that Levine counts himself among the many contemporary designers who see small-scale independent games as the means by which video games can establish themselves as capable of being truly artistic. Given my skepticism that video games can ever really communicate artistic ideas, some commentary seems necessary. I loved Levine’s Bioshock but it was his franchise, more than any other, that convinced me that video games could never really be art.bioshock

But first, some history. Bioshock was a 2007 first person shooter (fps) game set in a gothic underwater city. However, there was a twist. The dystopian metropolis in which the player found himself was none other than the ashes of Ayn Rand’s imagined utopia of ultra-entrepreneurial supermen. What followed was a bizarre mixture of survival-horror, psychological thrills, and political commentary ending with a dark turn that has had critics and fans singing its praise ever since.

But this wasn’t the end of the franchises’ success. The original Bioshock was followed in 2013 by an even more critically acclaimed sequel – Bioshock Infinite which incredibly justified its hyperbolic title by adding an existentialist tilt to its social commentary. By linking its broader plot of existential doom to a pair of well developed characters, Bioshock Infinite seemed to exceed its predecessor in scope and storytelling. The game pushed the envelope in all dimensions showing that original and creative worlds could be used to present a tragic and challenging story to audiences.

But at the height of the Bioshock’s critical and popular success, the foundations of Levine’s creation were creaking. In fact, the very success of Bioshock Infinite exposed many of the limitations inherent to the medium. Most obviously the game’s the First Person Shooter format (FPS) ( a format, which worked well in the original Bioshock) seemed horribly out of place in a more sophisticated story. It was one thing to use violence liberally in the Gothic horror environment of Bioshock’s underwater dystopia. It was quite another for such violence to be the driving force behind a character-driven story about personal redemption. .

The critics were quick to catch the jarring discontinuity between the game’s aspirational plot and its casually gruesome gameplay. Some fans seemed almost viscerally offended and as Bioshock Infinite grew in popularity its problems crystallized into an all-out backlash. Hindsight is 20-20 and the internet was fast to come up with a laundry-list of ways by which the gameplay might have been designed in a more tasteful, thematic, and intelligent way. However, despite the much-discussed shortcomings, it was obvious from the onset that there was really no way to make a game like Bioshock Infinite without many of its flaws.

Games are expensive, more expensive than movies ( just imagine having to spend hundreds of hours with an AI to stop your lead actress from staring off in random directions like a robot). In order to get the multi-million dollar budget with which to hire artists, designers, animators, and talented voice actors necessary for such such ambitious project, the game needed a large ready-made audience. For a market still dominated by 438934young men this meant big guns, big action, and big violence.

From this perspective Ken Levine’s eventual decision to shutter his production company in order to shift focus onto to small scale independently funded games makes a great deal of sense. The problems, inherent in games like Bioschock Infinite might at once be solved with a smaller audience only interested in narrative appeal. Levine was sensitive to critics complaints, and certainly the easiest way to rectify the problem was to find an audience more interested in art than violence.

But I remain skeptical. The studio’s desire to produce something marketable as a game was not entirely irrational (no pun intended) and the conflict between gameplay and narrative structure that plagued Bioshock Infinite was really less the classic “auteur” versus “deep-pockets” conflict and more an indicator of the inherent difficulties of turning any game into what might be classically called “art”. Although there are trade-offs in any media, video games are uniquely constrained in ways that movies and books are not. This primarily has to do with the fact that video game audiences are, well, not audiences.

Video games are games and games don’t have audiences. Games have players. This is a much deeper problem than having to appeal to a lowbrow and a highbrow audience simultaneously. The critic who analyzes The Empire Strikes Back in light of Joseph Campbell and the hoi-polloi who watch it for the cool explosions are still participating in the medium in the same way. The same cannot be said for a video gamer trying to crank-out shooting achievements in Bioshock and an audience member trying to absorb its story and theme. Even in classic games like Chess, as a player grows in appreciation of the game the allegorical representation of the pieces as soldiers recedes into the background. The experience of an audience and a player are not only different, they are fundamentally opposed.

One can see this problem even in independently-funded games where issues over creative control are less prominent. Here, once again, critically acclaimed narrative schemes (such as last year’s Gone Home or Kentucky Route Zero) often leave players feeling cheated by a non-existent gaming experience. Even most of the popular indi-games like Braid or Limbo seem like copies of their corporate counterparts with some post-modern veneers tacked on to make the experience more deep. Some argue that independent games have led to a number of different approach to gameplay and story-telling, but in my experience these are marginal victories at best.

Of course, I am not the first person to bring this up. Roger Ebert mentioned similar problems in his famous take down of the “games are art” concept several years ago. However, while Ebert’s analysis was intended as a dismissal of the medium, the problem is becoming more tragic as one sees video games telling more compelling stories than most mainstream movies. We all want artists like Ken Levine to succeed in finding a ways to express themselves, but the limitations inherent in the medium may make this effort ultimately futile.

In fact, Bioshock’s greatest moments were when it broke the fourth wall and critiqued the limitations of the player’s role in the story. But this in itself was a weakness. It’s one thing to use a game’s narrative limitations to critique free will, but eventually audiences are going to demand an experience that is not so self-referential. There is a trade-off. A game creator must make a choice in favor of his players or his audience and there is really no way to get around the consequences. Every attempt to shift the gamer out his role as a player and into a role as a critic will diminish the gaming experience. Every attempt to buff the complexity of the game mechanic hurts the narrative structure of the story.

Here I am reminded strangely enough of a conversation from Austen’s Pride and Prejudice in which Caroline and Mr. Elizabeth-635x357Bingley are discussing dancing.

Caroline: “I should like balls infinitely better, if they were carried on in a different manner…..It would surely be much more rational if conversation instead of dancing were made the order of they day.”

Mr. Bingley : “Much more rational, my dear Caroline, I dare say, but it would not be near so much like a ball.”

Austen provides the critical insight. It would be much more artistic if narrative and storytelling were made the order of the day in computer entertainment, but then this would not be near so much like a video game.

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.

Blogging Orthodoxy 5: Why do the Heathen Rage?

Blogging Orthodoxy continues with:

Chapter 6: The Paradoxes of Christianity

There are chapters of Orthodoxy that require a certain amount of self-examination, especially for Christians. So it’s ironic (and a bit relieving) that The Paradoxes of Christianity has very little to do with Christianity itself. More its opponents. Though one can learn quite a bit about a creed from its enemies, there are problems with this approach. It is often easy to set up straw men that ultimately illuminate nothing. Here, I think Chesterton avoids the pitfall by making the examination of atheism autobiographical. Like many in the church (myself included), Chesterton knows the opponents of Christianity since he had for so long been among them.

The Paradoxes of Christianity documents how Chesterton’s own disillusionment with atheism was achieved through many of the inconsistencies of its adherents. Certainly all creeds, including Christianity have their fair share of hypocrisy. But in the attack on Christianity, Chesterton notices a particular frenzy of critiques whose inconsistencies are not so easily explained. The critics seem less interested in damming the faith for a particular vice than using any given vice as a reason for objecting to the faith’s very existence.  As Gilbert writes: It looked not so much as if Christianity was bad enough to include any vices, but rather as if any stick was good enough to beat Christianity with.

Of course the disorganization of the opposition does not make Christianity necessarily right. But the nature of the atheist objections suggest a quality in Western anti-theism that cannot easily be explained by the skeptic narrative. There seems to be a strong desire to replace Christianity with a brand of secular humanism. Atheists, by in large, seem to have less a problem with Christianity’s qualities than Christianity’s place at the heart of Western ethics. A place atheism itself would like to occupy. In fact, there seems an underlying conspiratorial quality in the endeavor of  modern anti-theism. It is less a argument for the abolition of the monarchy and more a battle to replace the sitting king with a rival claimant.kindown

But strangely enough, as Chesterton is quick to notice, even in victory, atheism seems unable to make use of the crown it has pried off the head of the Christian Church. It is, as if, once the king had be dethroned, his detractors remained orbiting the empty throne each unwilling to take the seat themselves and yet unable to continue as they had done before. Once again, the situation would not immediately support the original claimant, but it would make any onlooker ask himself some very particular questions about the rightness of the original conspiracy to unseat the monarch.

I know many cradle Catholics in the reading group who have never left the faith; whose Catholicism comes handed down in an unbroken chain since the 6th century. Needless to say, they got very little from The Paradoxes of Christianity. Still, I have long had a difficult time in general communicating to people with no experience of apostasy. Just as for Chesterton, the experience of non-belief was so central my journey that it remains very hard to discuss without a similar frame of reference. But I digress, while I can’t speak for others in the group, The Paradoxes of Christianity seemed to perfectly encapsulate my own experience with unbelief. It certainly wasn’t clear to myself why faith had a place in modern life without an involved experience with atheism.

I have often wondered how anyone could get through their adolescents without questioning faith. I certainly couldn’t. Even setting aside the numerous rules and miracles that my adolescent-self so detested, I remember rebelling against religion’s sonorous and self-righteous tone. The stiff wording of “thou”, “sin” and “heathens” seemed antithetical to critical thought and I was certain that, regardless of any incidental wisdom contained in Christian doctrine, no original ideas could be communicated in the laborious language of the Bible.

For seven years I remained an agnostic. However, as the years of the second Bush administration drew to a close, I found it more comfortable to identify with a kind of atheistic-skepticism popular to students of the sciences. I liked the cool attitude of de-bunkers like Penn Gillette and the increasing insatiable violence displayed by Islamic radicals in the wake of the Danish cartoon scandal solidified my opinion that faith was either soft-headed, violent or, very likely, both. I felt, more than ever, that what was needed was a strong skeptic movement that could confront the sloppy thinking of Christianity and the violent indifference of Islamism.

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It was in late 2006 that my hopes were answered by the emergence what would soon be called the New Atheist movement. Richard Dawkins published the God Delusion and this book was followed swiftly by similar fare by Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens. Naturally, I devoured these tomes, but, in spite of my hopes, I was deeply disappointed. In place of a reasoned skepticism I found the most simplistic arguments against faith I had heard since my years in Catholic middle school. Perennially fascinated by every misdeed of the Catholic Church, the atheists had blinders over any atheist massacre from Mao to Robespierre; all the while failing to elucidate any positive principle that could separate them from past atheist failures. Even from my anti-theistic perspective at the time, the objections from Dawkins and Hitchens seemed tainted with a kind of poisonous vain glory only found in tirades against rival religious groups.

But, despite being negative, it was, quite ironically, hard to determine what the New Atheists were against in principle. Fundamentalism to be sure, but beyond flogging the specter of Intelligent Design (which had been dead for years) or the Religious Right (which had been in decline for decades) the atheists, with possible exception of Christopher Hitchens, made only mumbled objections to the Islamic violence that had gripped the world between 2005 and 2006. The silence was made even more ironic in the wake of Pope Benedict’s address at Regensburg where a pontifical call for religious peace was criminally mangled by Islamic Clerics to sponsor an anti-Christian pogrom in the Middle East. Eagerly I awaited push back from the skeptic leaders. However, despite being the news regularly, Dawkins had no words against Islam, only condemnation for the Pontiff who at the time was making every effort to procure a reasonable end to the violence.

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Here I found myself in much the same place as G.K. Chesterton a century earlier. The atheist hypocrisy was so glaring it could not easily be explained by skepticism. If Dawkins were upset with religious violence generally, why the focus on the crimes of Christianity? I had to ask myself whether the atheist objections were in fact more political than principled. The relative silence of progressive atheists towards Islam had the same cynical undertone of the infamous non-aggression pact between the USSR and Nazi Germany. It seemed Atheism was less a new idea than old rival faith seizing an opportunity to displace the ruling creed. For both radical Islam and radical atheism, eliminating Christianity was the first step in securing their dominance. Their rival in this endeavor, however detestable, could be ignored.

The problem only reemerged later when, attending a debate on God, I was able to talk to some of the new atheists converted in the wake of Dawkins book. I must confess that the interaction only confirmed my worst suspicions. In addition to voicing only the most juvenile stereotypes of believers (a group I was not yet associated with), the atheists seemed enthralled by a sort of magical thinking all their own. I met a group who sincerely believed that if religion were abolished (and here they meant Christianity) a new golden age of science would immediately erupt; a sort of atheist messianic age. I even met an atheist who, upon hearing a discussion of death, un-ironically commented “By the time I’m eighty death will likely be cured. I expect to live forever”. Atheism, it would seem, had its own millenarian afterlife. Once again none of these absurdities led to my reconversion, but I could feel many of my distastes for the old traditions creaking in their foundation.

One night, having these very frustrations much on my mind, I retired with a book of short stories. Clumsily thumbing through the volume, I chanced on a preface citing Psalm number two and written in the long archaic tone of the King James Bible. This time however the language, instead of offending, gave voice to my frustration. The old speech made the words ageless and carried with it the brevity of an avenging prophecy. The Psalm reads :

Why do the heathen rage, and the people imagine a vain thing?

At that point no answer was forthcoming, though, like Chesterton, I was following quickly down the path of something greater.

Blogging Orthodoxy 3: Of Ethics and Elves

Blogging Orthodoxy continues with the next chapter :

Chapter 4: “The Ethics of Elfland”

If isolated from the rest of the book,“The Ethics of Elfland” is the chapter of Orthodoxy I wish more people would read. The chapter contains a revelry  that’s hard to express and even harder to imagine from a book titled Orthodoxy. I’d like to think that no one can read the chapter without coming away moved by Chesterton’s awe of ordinary things. It is probably unlikely, in the modern age, that anyone will find awe in a book; but getting a sense of wonderment is the only reason anyone ever started reading books in the first place. It is not surprising then that Chesterton begins his exploration of wonder with the first books everyone first read: fairy tales.legolas

To Chesterton the good life is one is lived like it were a fairy tale; as if all encounters were wondrous and all decisions were heroic. Fairy-tales are wonderous not simply because they contain strange things, but because, in them, we are reminded of what it is like to experience the world for the first time. In a fairy-tale anything can happen and there is both mystery and discovery. In fairy tale, while there may be stark dangers and hard odds nothing is ever hopeless. If life were like a fairy-tale it would not simply contain miracles, it would be miraculous.

When discussing Orthodoxy, skeptics frequently take issue with Chesterton’s belief in miracles. Chesterton’s much more interesting attitude towards the miraculous is rarely mentioned. It would be far more germane if it were. The attitude towards miracles (not their existence) is what truly separates the religious from the irreligious. Both atheists and theists agree that highly improbably extraordinary events occur. The religious person just sees the special event as entirely apart from the natural order while the atheist sees the event necessarily subsumed by it.

But Gilbert would like both parties to go one step further. The problem is not that the theist regards improbable events as sacred or that the atheist regards improbable events as ordinary. The problem is that  neither consider ordinary events to be sacred. Modern people have convinced themselves, that because an event repeats, it cannot be special and therefore is lifeless. But why should we imagine that ordinary things are dead just because we have seen them frequently? We associate repetition with death and old age, but the association may derive from the tiredness and old age in ourselves.

A child never tires of repetition. A­s Chesterton points out, when a child sees something he likes, he will want it repeated, shouting “Do it Again!” until his parents are exhausted. God, like a child,  may also never tire of repetition. What if the mundaneness we associate with ordinary life is simply our inability to appreciate the vitality of an ever youthful God? As Chesterton says: 

 It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.”

Could the key to exaltation be so simple? Might we, with one decision, see things through God’s perspective and forever wash-away the drabness and drudgery of ordinary life?

I do not believe spiritual breakthroughs can be reached by reading philosophy, but what followed the group’s reading of “The Ethics of Elfland” seemed to come close. For a moment, all ethics became clear. Every moral action was profound and every personal obligation heroic. In the eyes of God no action could ever be boring. Monogamy was no longer challenging but a challenge to defy the stifling human urge to regard the familiar as mundane. Duty was no longer arduous but a defiant rebellion against the entropy of time. The words “Do it again” were quoted again and again throughout the night and the group finally broke with a feeling of comradely rare for philosophy discussion groups .

The next Sunday, I was unsurprised to hear our patron use Chesterton’s words in his Sunday homily about Christ’s teachings to become like children to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. I found it quite insightful. But, like most homilies, it fell on the tired ears of parishioners hearing yet another exhortation to be pious at 8 am in the morning. Even the members of the book group appeared much less affected than during the previous night’s discussion. Some things that seem revolutionary over books and beer never appear quite as real in the light of day. This certainly made me wonder if anyone could live as Chesterton describes, feeling constantly as though ordinary people and objects in the universe were special and romantic. Certainly Chesterton wasn’t the first to preach about the joy that can be found in every-day life. This is a common enough trope from any new age Guru. 

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But there is more to Orthodoxy than mere romanticism. Almost lost in Chesterton’s paen to the wonder of ordinary life is his assertion that ordinary miracles must be sacrificed for. The ordinary can be just as valuable as the extraordinary. But nothing will seem valuable unless we are grateful for it. The modern world is replete with spiritualists telling us to be happy about existence. Absent are spiritual leaders telling us to fast, pray, and feel thankful for existence. But we cannot glory without sacrifice. There is no way to make the ordinary part of the romantic fabric of our beings without first sacrificing our egos on the altar of everyday life.

It’s apropos that this blogpost falls on Thanksgiving, the only holiday still firmly moored to it’s roots secular piety. It’s no accident that, second only to Christmas, this holiday occupies a very special place in most people’s hearts. When we feel thankful we cease to take our lives for granted and begin again to see the universe as a wonderful and exciting place. It is only by being thankful that we become like children and feel young again.