Make Them All the Same!

Thursday, 12-02-2021

 

Over the last few years I’ve heard this more often from my students:  Federalism is problematic because if different states do things differently, they are unequal.  Equality is taken to mean uniformity.  The gist of the complaint isn’t that people in some states may bear greater burdens, or that they may participate less fully in the common good, but just that they don't all act the same way.

I find this view especially interesting, because in other contexts everyone sings the praises of “diversity” – but not in this case, in which diversity may actually count for something.

 

Lowering the Voting Age

Monday, 11-29-2021

 

The coalition that has just taken power in Germany has announced that among other things, it wants to lower the voting age to 16.  The proposal isn’t surprising, because most coalition supporters are young.  Enacting it would require a constitutional amendment.

Needless to say, a lot of people everywhere think the very young should vote.  I’ve heard suggestions to reduce the voting age to 12.  A 2011 article in The New Republic seriously proposed – if any such proposal can be called serious – that every citizen have a right to vote from birth.  Quite a few adolescents are included in the ranks of social media “influencers.”  Consider the career of Greta Thunberg, who has been lecturing the world about what to do about climate change since age 15.

We used to venerate age and experience.  Now we venerate youth and callowness.  But we knew that already.  Let me get to my point.

People who discuss lowering the voting age – not only those for it but also those against – assume that it would mean a transfer of political influence to the young.

That is absurd.  It would mean no such thing.

Although the very young are often very sure of their opinions and convinced that they have made up their own minds, they lack the maturity to form their minds independently.  So to lower the voting age would not mean increasing the political influence of the young.  It would only mean increasing the political clout of those who have influence through the young.

Pop stars.  Sports coaches.  Schoolteachers.  Writers and editors of media aimed at teens.  Especially people in such groups who have no children of their own to take up their time and attention.

I hope none of us were thinking that classrooms full of pre-teens who just happen to write letters about their teachers’ favorite issues to the president are getting the idea on their own.

Increasing the political clout of certain grown-ups through the medium of the young would have a secondary effect too.  It would vastly increase the political stakes in the institutions through which these people gain access to the immature minds whom they seek to influence.  So one could expect further politicization of entertainment, primary and secondary education, youth athletics, children’s and “young adults” books, and teen magazines and media.

Political persuasion would become an even more important motive for entering these fields than it already is – and anyone who thinks it isn’t already a motive hasn’t been paying attention.

In all ages up to this one, the chief influencers of young people have been parents.  Now, not so much.  We seem to be okay with that.  Why we are is a very good question, to which no one seems to have an answer.

 

Do Most People Want the Same Things?

Wednesday, 11-24-2021

 

Recently I spoke with a highly intelligent lady who was puzzled by the divisions of our times.  “I can’t understand them,” she said, “because I think most people want the same thing.”  She reasoned that something must be muddying the picture, giving the impression that people disagree more than they do.  She and other participants in the conversation suggested several possible muddiers.  Biased news reporting.  Twitter, and other social media.  The power of money in politics.

There was a good deal to these suggestions, but even so I was a bit skeptical about the premise that most people want the same thing.  Having been less than successful in explaining why, I probably left an impression of cynicism.  Well, that’s the nice thing about having a blog.  You can have another go.

Do most people want the same thing?  When we discuss this question, we usually talk past each other, because the answer depends on what we mean.

In one sense, all people do want the same thing.  Everyone wants to be happy, and it isn’t even possible to will some course of action except “under the aspect of good.”  Nobody pursues unhappiness, nor anyone evil, for its own sake.

But people may entertain radically different conceptions of what happiness is and how it is to be attained, and they are capable of justifying great wickedness “under the aspect of good.”  Anyone who gives thought to the matter will realize that in fact, there is no other way in which wickedness can be justified.  Evil trades on good; that’s how it works.

Burn down stores in the name of justice.  Mock and oppress those who disagree with you for the sake of toleration.  Pervert the administration of justice so that bad people won’t have their way.  Falsify and suppress history to bring a better tomorrow.  Drag filth into public schools so that children will cherish diversity.

Twitter and all those other things can exacerbate such perversions of the good, and that is important.  But they don’t generate them.  Agreement at one level, with conflict at another, is an inevitable condition of life under the conditions of the Fall. 

There really is a law written on the heart, and this is a permanent advantage of good.  But moral laws can be made engines of their own violation, and this is a permanent advantage of evil.  To forget the former advantage is to risk losing heart.  To forget the latter one is to risk becoming naïve.

 

Can We Believe and Feel Things at Will?

Monday, 11-22-2021

 

Persecutors think we can believe things at will.  That’s why they think that if only they break enough of our knuckles, or yank out enough of our teeth, we may start accepting the teachings of the Party.  However, hardly anyone else thinks we can believe things at will.  “I can’t believe something just because I want to.”

The situation is actually more complicated.  A student told me once that she believed in God but was in terror of losing her faith.  In the course of conversion it became pretty clear that for some time she had been looking very earnestly for reasons not to believe in God, for example by seeking out courses from all of the professors who were most hostile to faith.  She visited me, I think, because success in her enterprise was coming a little more quickly than she was prepared for, and she panicked.

So no, we cannot literally believe or disbelieve things at will, but for better or for worse, we can willfully place ourselves in situations or courses of action that may produce change in our beliefs.  Concerning whether we can feel or not feel things at will, the situation is much the same.  We’ve all heard the mantras --

Feelings are neither right nor wrong.  They just are.

I can’t help how I feel; I just do.

How I feel is who I am.

And it’s true that we can’t shut off unwanted feelings like a switch.  It’s also true that the very effort of trying to suppress them can stir them up.  Even so, our control over our inward life is much greater than we like to admit, just like our control over our beliefs.

Although I may not be able to keep an unwanted guest from entering the house of my feelings, or to force her outside after she has entered it, yet nothing compels me to ask her in.  Nor am I compelled to sit down and admire her, to enjoy her attentions, or to invite her to play with my imagination.  If I ignore her and go about my business, she will eventually leave my mind on her own; but if I pet her, say, “Don’t go yet”, and tell her what a lovely feeling she is, she will return another day in power, and that day she will burn down the house.

The false notion that we are helpless in the face of our feelings is deeply ensconced in popular music, usually in connection with the pleasures and pains of love.  The singer is said to be chained or enslaved to love.  He begs to be set free.  He loves someone inappropriate, but asks “What else can I do?”

Well, by that time the horse has escaped from the barn -- but had he acted earlier, he could have done quite a bit.  The more time I spend with a person, the more likely I am to fall in love with her.  The best way to avoid falling in love with an inappropriate person is to decide ahead of time which sorts of persons are appropriate, and spend time only with them.

 

Postscript and Clarification

From a gracious reader of this blog:  But isn’t faith an act of the will?  Yes, but the virtue of faith is a “infused” virtue, and the act of faith is not an act of the unassisted will, but of the will assisted by grace.  We can cooperate with grace – as we can refuse it -- but we can’t work it up in ourselves by dint of moral effort.

 

Loitering

Monday, 11-15-2021

 

In 1892, the U.S. Supreme Court, acting as censor morum, declared that America is a Christian people.  Sixty years later it modified the claim, calling us a religious people, whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being.  The difference between the two statements is profound, for almost anything can count as religious.  Proof, were it needed, came in 1968, when Justice Douglas, speaking for the Court, asserted a right to use pornography because of the importance of “man’s spiritual nature.”

Where are we now?  Some have gone so far as to characterize contemporary American pop spirituality by the motto ABC:  “Anything But Christianity.”  There is some truth to the portrayal.  Large numbers of us are willing to try Zen, yoga, channeling, séances, astrology, past-life regressions, transcendental meditation, the reading of omens, the chanting of mantras, the casting of spells, the use of charms, the induction of abnormal mental states by drugs, the cultivation of out-of-body experiences, the ritual offering of milk and honey to Sophia or of aborted babies to Artemis -- anything but faith in the one whom Christians call the resurrected Lord.

Because of the strangeness of these practices and associated beliefs, the ABC segment of our folk religion receives a great deal of attention.  I suggest, however, that the attention given this segment is far out of proportion to its numbers.

For the greatest part of American pop spirituality seems to be formed by the confluence of two streams, neither of which can be characterized as simply ABC:  A stream of people fleeing Christian orthodoxy, who have paused, for some reason, on the way out, and a stream of people attracted to Christian orthodoxy, who have paused, for some reason, on the way in.  If these two groups have much in common and are attracted to many of the same authors, it is because they are loitering at the same gate, comparing and exchanging their articles of luggage.  They dabble with the beliefs and practices listed above, but they dabble with orthodox beliefs and practices as well.

Because the representatives of these two streams never offer theological reasons for lingering, one cannot help but wonder just what arrests their respective movements.  One writer I encountered, a best-selling minister who loitered on the way out the exit, seemed to have a sheer sentimental attachment to congregational fellowship.  Another, a best-selling psychologist who loitered on the way in, seemed burdened by the awful weight of sudden and unexpected guruhood.  Having passed in both directions through the portal myself, I am interested by such things.  But because they are not such things as can be learned from books, let us consider the things that can.

Particularly interesting is the selectivity of such writers' borrowings from orthodoxy.  The second of the two fellows I mentioned borrowed a belief in the existence of various created spirits -- some of them angels, others deceivers.  But he had no use for scriptural guidelines for telling them apart, much less for the scriptural prohibition of sorcery; thus he practiced unsupervised exorcisms of the ones he considered bad and “channeled” the ones he considers good.  This is a good deal more than chilling.

The other was also selective, though in a sillier way.  For instance the idea of Holy Communion attracted him, but heaven forbid that it should be undertaken with bread and wine, for the elements Jesus instructed his followers to use might suggest, he said, a “theological interpretation.”  One fine Sunday, therefore, the good reverend sprang tangerines on his congregation, reasoning that the problem of dealing with pits and peels and so forth would encourage cooperation.  Another week he tried animal crackers.  Over time he also experimented with Gummi Bears, jelly beans, M&Ms, and Pop Rocks.  Unfortunately the animal crackers provoked a free-for-all among the children, the M&Ms melted in the hands, and the Pop Rocks produced a lavender froth around the lips.  His conclusion?  “Reformation is never simple, never easy, never quick.”

So it is that people of two such different streams, some of them refugees from something like orthodoxy, the others just arrived from regions adjacent to Zen, converge at the gate and pause.  Contemporary American pop spirituality is a theology of lingering, of loitering, of hesitation, a religion of the vestibule.  It wants connectedness without commitment, reconciliation without repentance, and sacredness without sanctity.  It wants to sing the songs of Zion in the temples of Ishtar and Brahman – or vice versa.  God help us to know what we want and to want what we ought.  God make haste to help us; God make speed to save us.

 

If Man Is the Image of God

Wednesday, 11-10-2021

 

The logic of the matter is that since contingent effects require causes, and contingent causes require causes, there must be a first cause that is not contingent but rather has to exist.

This being the case, if we ask “What if there were no God?” we are trying to draw conclusions from an impossible premise, which is a recipe for nonsensical conclusions.

But of course people do ask the question.  It is not a logical but a psychological enterprise.

Very well, let us consider the psychology.  The sequence of ideas tends to work out something like this.

If God is dead, everything is permitted.

We’re heard that one.

But if Man is the image of God, Man is dead too.

And then everything is even more permitted.

 

It’s MY Purpose. Hands off.

Monday, 11-08-2021

 

Query:

In an explanation of St. Thomas Aquinas’s Treatise on Law, you say that the purpose of the common good “belongs” to the whole people.  Could you tell me how a purpose "belongs" to someone?  Any light you can shed on this would be very much appreciated.

 

Reply:

I don’t mean anything terribly abstruse.  A purpose belongs to me if it’s my purpose, belongs to you if it’s your purpose, and belongs to the community if it’s the community’s purpose.  Terms like “my” can be puzzling because they are used in different senses.  For example, if I speak of “my” car, I mean that I own it, but if I speak of “my” wife, I mean that I am the person who is related to her as husband to wife.

How then is a purpose mine?  It’s mine when I am interiorly ordered or directed to it.  Ordered or directed to it how?  Well, it may be my subjective intention (for example, I may want to get some ice cream), it may be my inbuilt or natural purpose (for example, even if I want to die, I am naturally directed to life and flourishing), or it may be both (I am naturally directed to life and flourishing, but I subjectively aim at a flourishing life too).

We’re also speaking in both senses when we say that the purpose of the common good “belongs” to the political community.  Certainly the community cannot be said to flourish unless it really is enjoying the common good; as Aristotle says in Politics, Book 1, the city “comes into existence for mere life -- but exists for the sake of living well.”   So the purpose of the common good is natural to it.  But unless the common good is the city’s subjective intention too, it is hardly proper to call the city a “community.”  The very phrase calls attention to what it cherishes and pursues in common.  I hope I’ve cleared up the puzzle!