The Underground Thomist
I’m Just Not Going To
An interviewer wanted to know what I have to say to people who "just aren't going to" believe in God.
That sounds more like a statement of intention than a statement of disbelief. There isn't anybody who "just isn't going to" believe in God. If someone as wretchedly far out in the cold and dark as I was could be drawn into faith, anyone can be. But he has to consent.
If instead the interviewer had asked what I might say to someone who was personally convinced that he “just wasn’t going to” believe in God, I might say this.
First, understand your motives. The philosopher Thomas Nagel wrote in his book The Last Word, “I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.”
If Nagel is right, then it isn’t just belief in God that can be a crutch. Nonbelief in God can be a crutch. So keep your mind open. Follow the evidence wherever it leads. Don't stop asking questions. Cultivate friendships not just with other nonbelievers, but also with people who do believe in God. Listen to your mind and your heart.
In the meantime, be open to the possibility of an answer by living as though you did believe in God and you trusted Him. Perform the experiment of praying at though you thought He was listening, of worshipping as though you thought He existed, of asking Him to illuminate your mind as though He wanted to do so, and – this is the hard one – of living as He is said to direct. After all, you’ve already been living as though He isn’t real -- what have you got to lose by trying out living as though He is?
But don’t do these things now and then. Be persistent. Do them all the time. Do them even when you don’t feel like it. See what happens.
This is how you find out whether you really want the answer, or you are just pretending.
Was Lincoln Woke?
Some years ago, before the word “woke” was so widely used, a student asked me in class “Are you woke?” I had never heard the expression before. Puzzled, I asked “Are you asking whether I’m awake? I try to be.” He said no, that wasn’t what he meant. “Then are you asking whether I’m enlightened?” No, it wasn’t that either.
We had been reading Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address. Apparently my student thought I might be woke because I took Lincoln’s idea of collective responsibility for the sin of slavery seriously. For as I eventually found out, wokists too believe in collective responsibility – but not the way Lincoln did. My student didn’t grasp the difference, and so I was confusing him.
Was responsibility for the sin of slavery shared? According to Lincoln, yes. But Lincoln didn’t say, as wokeists do, that Southerners or white people were collectively responsible, even if they didn’t own slaves. And he was far from saying that another eightscore years later, the descendants of white immigrants would be collectively responsible, even if their ancestors hadn’t been in the country at the time. No, he said that the whole nation was collectively responsible, everyone, because no matter what their divisions might be, Americans composed a single moral community.
That’s why he rejected the view of people like Julia Ward Howe that the terrible swift sword of the Civil War was God’s way of punishing the South. He thought the War was God’s way of punishing both sides for complicity in the sin of slavery, using each side to chastise the other.
Was repentance for the sin of slavery necessary? According to Lincoln, yes. But Lincoln didn’t say, as wokeists do, that some Americans needed to repent. He thought all Americans needed to repent. No group had the right to be self-righteous, to point fingers, or to demand punitive reparations from the others. Instead, repentant former sinners, both North and South, needed to come together to bind up the nation’s wounds.
The calamity of Lincoln’s assassination still burdens us. Had Reconstruction gone his way instead of the way it did, by now the nation might have been healed of racial divisions. Wokism can only tear us apart, but it’s not too late to start thinking about collective responsibility in Lincoln’s way.
It was, by the way, a profoundly Christian way, even though Lincoln’s personal religious views are somewhat obscure. From this point of view, wokism, despite its neopagan connections, might even be viewed as a sort of Christian heresy. In Adam, all humans fell. Just because we are all of one kind, we all share in some fashion in the shame of his sin, and we all stand at the doorway to other sin. But in Christ, all sins are atoned. He took our sins upon Himself. We don’t have to project them onto each other.
Justice must always be done, certainly. Yet also mercy and humility.
The Key to Happiness: First Thoughts Interview
I’ve just posted “The Key to Happiness,” Mark Bauerlein’s interview with me in March, 2022. Mark Bauerlein is host of the First Thoughts podcast at First Things.
You can go to it directly here, or you can launch it from my Talks page.
Happy listening! And I do mean happy.
Children Who Lose Their Faith: What Can You Do?
True story. There once lived a woman whose son had abandoned the faith in which she had raised him. She was far from perfect, and married to a difficult man, but had striven to bring up her son well. Yet he had fallen in with a bizarre ideology which was considered “woke” in his circle, and had begun living with a woman who was not his wife. His mother prayed, but nothing seemed to happen. He was willing to talk with her, but she couldn’t get through. In tears, she sought out a wise and holy man. If only he would talk to her son! If only he would take the young man in hand, refute his errors, and rebuke him for all the wrong in his life!
Curiously, the wise man refused. He said that her son was still too full of himself to listen -- still too puffed up with pride, still too infatuated with the newness of his woke beliefs, for the wise man’s intervention to do good. He advised her to pray for her son, and since the young man was still seeking the truth, he would eventually find it himself. Those who seek with all their hearts will find.
The woman pestered, weeping and imploring the wise man to change his mind. Finally he lost patience, saying "Go, go! Leave me alone! Continue what you are doing! It is not possible that the son of all these prayers and tears should be lost."
That must have sounded too good to be true, but it happened. The wise man, who was the local bishop, is known to us as St. Ambrose. The woman is known to us as St. Monica. The woke ideology that had ensnared her son was called Manichaeism. Her son, called Augustine, returned to the faith and became one of the greatest saints in the history of the Christian Church. Not a bad result of prayers and tears.
All this happened at the end of the fourth century and the beginning of the fifth. For generations, the story has encouraged parents of children who lose their faith. Even so, it raises questions. For example, even during the most wanton period of his life, Augustine didn’t lose interest in finding the truth. Today the young are told that there is no truth, or that truth is “whatever works for you.”
Yet from this and countless other stories about “reverts” who return to their faith, parents of wandering children can draw many more helpful lessons than one might think, lessons applicable even in times like our own.
Why do people lose their faith? Some are raised in an excessively emotional form of faith, which doesn’t satisfy their minds, or a cold form, which doesn’t satisfy their hearts. Some never had faith in the first place, but only thought that they did. Some were treated badly by religious phonies. Some -- I am describing my own young self – didn’t want God to be God, and arrogantly preferred to make gods of themselves ….
[Continue reading my article at The Daily Wire – sorry, there’s a paywall, so I am not allowed to show you the whole thing here]
Recently, a colleague took issue with the suggestion that Abraham Lincoln believed in natural law. My colleague’s reasoning was that it’s “hard to see how Lincoln’s pragmatic response to Dred Scott – ‘I oppose spread of slavery to the territories but will not urge abolition in the existing slave states’ -- is an example of natural law philosophy.”
I hear the same argument so often that it’s worth a brief response. Such arguments are offered not just about Lincoln, but about every early American who detested slavery without agitating for instant abolition.
The classical natural law tradition has always distinguished three questions: What is evil (the moral question), what can be done about it (the pragmatic question), and who has authority to do it (the constitutional question). Lincoln made same distinction.
One may disagree with Lincoln’s pragmatic judgments concerning how best to put slavery on a path to extinction, or with his constitutional judgments concerning what he as president could or could not do about it. But he plainly thought slavery was a great evil which ought to disappear from this world as soon as possible.
Babies as Parasites
We are allowed to remove the typical parasites from our bodies because of the harm they cause. Some argue a child is a parasite inside the mother's body. It takes away nutrients from her and treats her body as a host. The child brings no benefit to the mother when it is inside her body. So if it is okay to remove a parasite, why is it not okay to perform an abortion?
When you say “some argue” this, do you mean that you might be attracted to the argument too? Please reconsider. Mothers and fathers naturally love for their babies, care for them, and desire to sacrifice for them. If we find it plausible to view unborn children as parasites, I suppose that we must also find it plausible to view born children as vermin. Should we be attracted to this view too? Are toddlers something like rats, creeping around their parents’ houses and eating up their food? We may be coming to think that way. More and more, children are viewed as disposable. But do you want to go there?
You seem to assume that the interests of mothers and children are naturally opposed, but by nature, their interests are in harmony. Do you think that when you were developing in your mother’s womb, safe and protected, preparing to enter the world, you were no more than a tapeworm to her? Did she think you were a disease? Were you a disease? Something is dreadfully wrong if we can think of children like this.
Since nobody “chooses” to host a real parasite, if we did view babies as parasites, we would eradicate them. Your generation would be the last. You would die, alone, unmourned, because you would have prevented the birth of all those whom you might have loved and cared for, and who might love and care for you in turn.
Besides, the womb is the place nature intended the baby to be. It is the temporary natural home of every human being. Providing such a home is the only reason women have wombs at all: So that babies can be in them. It’s true that babies steal into our hearts, but they belong there too. We welcome them in, as you were once welcomed in. You were not a heartworm, but a precious child.
Think of all that you must work not to think about in order to forget all these things.
And if you have had an abortion yourself, please don’t be afraid to remember these things again. There is no surcease from the accusations of conscience in putting our fingers in our ears. Instead, acknowledge wrong, turn away from it, and seek forgiveness from the merciful God of all life, including yours.
Happiness Is a Warm Company? COMPLETE
The following op-ed appeared in The Wall Street Journal on 15 April 2022. Several weeks ago, I posted the first three paragraphs, but I am now permitted to post the entire text.
Happiness Is a Warm Company?
“A hot course at Harvard Business School promises to teach future leaders an elusive skill—managing happiness,” according to a recent Wall Street Journal article. This development was expected. After languishing for decades in philosophy departments, the study of happiness has become a growth industry.
Paying more attention to human well-being is a good thing, and those who try to teach happiness “skills” deserve an A for effort. But does the “happiness studies” approach get its subject entirely right?
Having written a new book about happiness, I admit I have skin in this game, but allow me to be contrarian. The classical philosophers did know something about happiness—and the happiness-studies crowd has forgotten not only most of their insights but also most of their questions. Let’s review some things they would have taught us.
In the first place, having a good life isn’t about skill. It’s about virtue. A skill is directed to producing or obtaining something separate from itself, as skill in carpentry makes wooden things, and skill in rhetoric obtains votes. But virtue isn’t a means to happiness in that sense. It isn’t separate from happiness but intrinsic to it. I might practice the skill of clever pickup lines to “get” girls, but the virtues of friendship don’t “get” friends; they are about the very practice of friendship. In the same way, a happy life will feature the practice of virtues, but virtues such as prudence, courage, temperance and justice aren’t ways of getting happiness. Rather, they are constituent parts of it.
Second, happiness is something pursued for its own sake. It’s good for managers to care about the happiness of their work team members, and probably true sometimes that happier workers are more productive. But although we might promote productivity for the sake of happiness, it would be silly to say that we should promote happiness for the sake of productivity.
A more charitable view is that the happiness-management folks are using the term “happiness” for something short of the ultimate end, using it for something that can be at least partly a means. Harmony among workers? Fewer absences? Fewer gripes? At the least the relation among means and ends needs to be reconsidered.
Third—this is a harder one, but the classical thinkers insist on it—happiness is not an “emotional benefit” or a “positive emotion,” as happiness-studies scholars like Martin Seligman and Jonathan Haidt view it. It isn’t an emotion at all. It isn’t something that we feel, but something that we do. It is the activity of flourishing, of living well and doing well. I don’t mean that happiness has no connection with feelings. We wouldn’t call a person suffering misery “happy.” Still, people can have all sorts of good feelings without being happy. Happiness is not so much about having the greatest possible quantity of good feelings, but about feeling the right things, on the right occasions, toward the right people, in the right ways, for the right reasons and to the right degree—which brings us back to virtue.
Last, although a good manager is admirable, and although doing well in one’s calling is a component in a good life—still, not even good management will lead to fulfillment. One of the great questions of history has been whether power or rule leads to happiness. Curiously, few in our day admit to believing that it does. Yet the same everyday people who deny that readily admit their passion to be administrators, join management, enter public service, be guides, motivate team members or have broader responsibilities. If someone says he wants to rule, we think he is a bad fellow, but if he expresses a need for empowerment, has ambition or aspires to leadership, we think he is a fine one.
Far be it from me to call this entirely wrong. All human beings need the portion of authority appropriate to their callings and stations in life. Businesspeople should seek appropriate authority to direct their enterprises. Teachers should seek appropriate authority to teach their students. Parents should seek appropriate authority to guide and direct their families for their children’s own good. In each of these little realms, the right kind of power can be exercised moderately and humbly, even if some people overreach.
But like wealth, like achievement, and like the respect of others, even the right kind and degree of authority is not happiness itself. Those drawn into management can be happy, but not if they think that managing skillfully will bring them ultimate fulfillment. It won’t. Not because the skills of managing happiness are “elusive”—but because happiness is not a skill and its ultimate sources lie elsewhere, such as the practice of the virtues and connection with the true meaning of life.