Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Pope allows Anglicans back into the fold -in droves!

For years, small numbers of Anglicans have been quietly trickling back into Catholicism. But the Vatican's new policy, announced Tuesday, opens the flood gates to allow scores of new cross-overs. The new arrangements would allow not just individuals, but entire groups -parishes with their own priests, to enter into the Catholic Church. The Vatican's position addresses the increasing number of Anglicans, dissatisfied with their own church's liberal shift (ordaining women/gay clergy and blessing homosexual partnerships), seeking to return to Catholicism.

According to CNN, "...'hundreds' of Anglicans around the world have expressed their desire to join the Catholic Church. Among them are 50 Anglican bishops...",8599,1931193,00.html?xid=rss-world-cnn

On the surface, this may seem joyous news: 450 years after the Catholic/Anglican rift, a bridge forms across the chasm! Yet beneath the hype, the story carries an ominous message. The bridge is formed out of necessity, as disillusioned conservatives drift back into Catholicism, leaving behind more liberal Christians which may evolve or drift away from Christianity. In the developed world, Christianity is consolidating. It's contracting, not expanding.

European and US modern societies depict religions as irrelevant vestiges of our past. The faithful are leaving. Churches face a choice: either evolve with society to remain relevant, or double down on beliefs, knowing many may leave, but the remaining core, unwavering, will make it more likely that beliefs be handed down to the next generation. American Episcopalians have chosen the former, while the Catholic Church maintains the latter.

Which direction best guarantees the survival of Christianity? A lesson can be drawn from the current crisis in American Jewry. Depending on how strictly they observe Jewish laws/customs, Jews traditionally divide into three branches: Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox. Being a minority in a Christian nation, American Jews are facing an increasing identity crisis. Many are marrying non-Jews, and having children that do not identify themselves as Jews. But this is primarily a problem for Reform/Conservative Jews. Orthodox by and large do not marry out. They preserve their beliefs and pass them on to their children. Orthodox also are far more likely to have multiple children, versus one or two for Reform/Conservatives (below the level of replacement). The predicted result is that within three generations, non-Orthodox Jews' offspring will be few, and most will not identify themselves as Jews, while the Orthodox will produce a large bounty of believing (Orthodox) Jews. 50 years from now, Judaism in America will be greatly diminished, and far more Orthodox than it is today.

Could a similar pattern arise in Christianity? Most Americans still consider themselves Christian, so this is unlikely to occur here -yet. But consider Europe. How many truly see themselves as Christian versus atheist/post-modern what nots? Those who practice a "light" form of Christianity could soon see their children marrying out with other religions or perhaps simply no religion at all. Only the more conservative European Christians will continue to pass on the faith to their kids. The fate of Christians in the developed world could parallel that of American Jews: Those who remain will be conservatives, while the rest may eventually disappear.

In this context, the Anglican defections foreshadow a possible Anglican rift, where those who chose to remain liberal Christians could eventually disappear, while the conservatives migrate into Catholicism, or another conservative Christian branch. Our current gain could eventually imply Christianity's loss.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Bumper Sticker

I was driving in to work this morning and came across a bumper sticker from someone ahead of me that read "Artists are here to disturb the peace".  Now, admittedly this might have had some resonance with me when I was younger.  But today it felt more like something akin to a deadpan "thud".  The thought expressed in the bumper sticker has been stated and expressed, packaged and repackaged, by so many in so many venues and in so many different ways, to the point of becoming cliche.  For all its attempt to be "transgressive" it simply comes off as an unoriginal regurgitation of certain rarely examined notions of our times.

Which leads me to ask: why should transgression be the presumptive value, the default premise of the artistic enterprise?  What about technique, ability, content?  How often is it merely a crutch, indicative of intellectual laziness or lack of genuine creativity masquerading as profundity and substance? 

It also makes you wonder what this implies about the role of the artist in society?  (Or even about the owner of the bumper sticker?)  By this standard, must every artist strive to become a self-appointed shaman, prophet, seer, disturber of the peace?  By this, haven't we turned the exception into the rule and thereby defeated the very reality of transgression itself?  It's a little like speaking to a "heard of non-conformists", as someone once put it.  If non-conformity is the rule, is it still non-conformity?  Isn't this line of questioning itself more transgressive, given the cultural context, than the aforementioned banal bumper sticker? 

The fact that we can play this type of rationalization to the point of reductio ad absurdum is demonstrative of the shortcomings of this line of thinking.  Not that art shouldn't break new ground, but to consider trangression and controversy as ends in themselves is to take values that are highly dependent on context and decontextualizing them, thus robbing them, ironically, of their power.  Something to think about next time you hear someone speaking about something being controversial, as if this by itself constituted an achievement.

Marxist Gnosticism

Continuing from my previous post's P.S. comment concerning the radical Left's dreams of the unbounded self, the British philosopher R.T. Allen writes about the connections between Marxism and Gnosticisim as follows: is 'no accident' that Marx and the Marxists have failed to give a determinate content to 'alienation' which could be empirically tested.  For alienation is ultimately the metaphysical malady of being finite, determinate and differentiated, of being 'this' and not 'that'.  And there cannot be any cure for that in this world and so there cannot be any empirical tests for detecting freedom from 'alienation'.

To understand this we have to go back behind Hegel, the immediate source of Marx's ideas, to Hegel's own ultimate source: viz. Gnosticism.  For alienation is the central theme of Gnosticism, along with the saving knowledge of how we became alienated, and from what, and of how we can escape from it...

Interesting that by Allen's definition of Gnosticism, Freudian psychoanalysis might also qualify...  Perhaps his point is overstated, but I do think it carries some currency.  Elsewhere, Allen comments further with respects to modern radicalism and its roots in the French revolution (including a quote in French for those who want to practice their parlez vous...):

It is this Gnostic element, rejecting everything which limits the individual and makes him 'this' rather than 'that'-- roles, relationships, the accidents of time and place of birth and upbringing, customs, traditions, the plans and actions of others, which principally accounts for the destructivism of radical libertarians.  For not only are their positive plans bound to fail and to bring disappointment, but they are primarily oriented to destroying whatever exists just because of its finite nature.  Secular Gnosticism has no way of escape from the world, and so its hatred of the world can be expressed only in 'smashing the system'.  Burke (Reflections, Works, vol. 5, p. 303) quotes Rabaud de St. Etienne as saying in the National Assembly: 'Toutes les etablissements en France courennent le malheur du peuple: pour le rendre heureux il faut le renouveler; chnger ses idees; changer sese loix; changer ses moeurs; ...changer les hommes; changer les choses; changer les mots... tout detrurire, oui, tout detruire, puis-que tout est a recreer."

Is this then a manifestation of the Faustian temptation that Goethe identified as constituting the dark side of modernity: its limitless appetites and ambitions? 

Sunday, October 18, 2009

A Determined Life

I was reading an interesting article written by Matthew Crawford, a philosopher/ mechanic who teaches at the University of Virginia while also running a motorcycle repair shop.  The article, Shop Class as Soul Craft, was recently extended into a book length form of the same title.  Combining his various interests, Crawford makes a philosophical pitch for the value and dignity of manual work in an increasingly virtual world.  He traces the economic and social reasons for the decline in importance of shop class in schools in favor of information technology based courses, arguing against the current conventional wisdom of giving vocational training short shrift.  The article is quite brilliant and worth the read in its own right, but what struck me in particular was this short section where he attempts to find some of the underlying reasons for the generalized decline of the vocational trades:

Today, in our schools, the manual trades are given little honor. The egalitarian worry that has always attended tracking students into “college prep” and “vocational ed” is overlaid with another: the fear that acquiring a specific skill set means that one’s life is determined. In college, by contrast, many students don’t learn anything of particular application; college is the ticket to an open future. Craftsmanship entails learning to do one thing really well, while the ideal of the new economy is to be able to learn new things, celebrating potential rather than achievement.

One’s life is determined… celebrating potential rather than achievement… What struck me about these thoughts was their similarity to thoughts I had had some years back, though in my case not within an economic but a cultural context and relating to certain personal difficulties that had dogged me.  In the degree to which, when I was younger, I had a problem with commitment, of various sorts: to what I would major in college, to my profession, to marriage, to family, it one day struck me that my real difficulty had to do with, at heart, a latent fear of death.  I wonder to what degree this “need to keep options open” coincides with the experiences of others?  

Most of us, it seems to me, deal with the problem of death by seeing it as a problem for another day. This is especially easy to do when you’re young.  We live with the illusion that our lives will extend, if not forever, at least indefinitely into the future.  In other words, a certain vagueness of limits is called for.  The more our lives become bounded by those life defining commitments, the more our lives become determined and predictable, the clearer its trajectory becomes from beginning to its ultimate end.  In other times, children or the comforts of faith might have afforded better solvents for these fears.  But in a me-centered age, we are left far more vulnerable to the vicissitudes of time.  From a purely egocentric perspective, the next best thing to immortality in this world is living a life without limits, a life unbound.  Is that why we need the security of feeling that even the life defining commitments we do make these days can, at any moment, be unmade?  Does the difficulty of believing in an afterlife make us that much more, not less, frantic about the commitments we make in this life?  I wonder if some of the nervous energy of our contemporary consumer society is not a reflection of these latent anxieties?  Is this need for endless change, the horror of a determined existence, the celebration of potential over achievement, beyond its economic logic, materialism’s secret longing for the eternal?

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Our Great Recession

The press constantly reminds us that our current recession is the worst since the 1930's. Though it must surely feel this way for many, the economic data suggest that the Dark Ages of the late 1970s were probably worse. Fortunately, those days were followed by bursts of economic growth, first in the 1980s under Reagan, then in the 1990s with the tech revolution. Perhaps one of the reasons this recession feels so bad is that we've been blessed to have it so good for so long...

Here's an interesting article by a Cato Institute fellow, regarding our current economic crisis, and how it compares historically to others in the 20th century:

And for those who compare the Great Depression with our current so-called Great Recession, here are a few numbers to chew on:

Great Depression vs. Great Recession

Bank failures: 9,096 – 50% vs. 57 – 0.6% of banks

Unemployment rate: 25% vs. 8.5%

Economic decline: -26.5% vs. -3.3%

Biggest drop in Dow Jones IA: -89.2% vs. -53.8%

Change in prices: -25% vs. +0.5%

Emergency gov't spending: 1.5% of GDP for 1 year vs. 2.5% of GDP for 2 years

Money supply increase by the Federal Reserve: 17% vs. 125%

Friday, October 9, 2009

Nobel Prize?

I just heard the amazing news that our newly minted President Barack Obama won the Nobel Prize for Peace.  My first reaction... is this a joke?  What tangible accomplishments can the Nobel Committee point to at this early stage of his presidency?  If I commented to Cristian in his previous posting that it's too early for the kind of recriminating rhetoric he expressed, the same holds true in reverse.  It's too early for prizes!  Nobel prizes are notorious for being politically tainted toward the left, especially those awarded for peace and for literature (*), but I think any pretense of objectivity has gone out the window with this one.  I suppose on some level, it is a rather heartwarming, if childish, display of impetuousness, though more than anything, I actually feel embarassed for the Committee.  I guess they couldn't contain themselves for at least another year or two, when it might have been more credible... or maybe not, depending on... results?

(*) Look at the case of Jorge Luis Borges for example, the Argentine author who, because of his right wing leanings, never got a Nobel prize for literature, while authors of inferior abilities did; or on the other hand, the case of Yasser Arafat, who actually did end up getting a Nobel Peace prize...

Monday, October 5, 2009

My Hopes for this Blog

My hopes for this blog?  To serve as a personal journal and a forum for discussion, a place to spell out ideas and open avenues for reflection.  Given Cristian's and my specific outlooks, conservative and Catholic, the blog promises to definitely have a marked point of view.  Nevertheless, though it's only natural that blogs will tend to reflect the perspectives of their authors, I think I speak for both of us when I say that we hope to involve and engage as diverse a set of opinions and ideas as possible, asking only that the exchange be kept on at least a minimally civil plane.

The title of the blog is meant to draw attention to the importance of faithfulness in an age of moral relativism and qualified commitments.  It alludes to a constancy, a steadfastness to values and traditions which, for many of us, inform a fundamental part of our lives, our real lives, in community, our family lives and our spiritual lives. The title alludes to fidelity as connectedness not only to those around us, but to those who came before us and those who will come after us, because in turn, it implies connectedness to a deeper and older faith that does not depend on the changing winds of intellectual fashion.  Not surprisingly, this is an essentially conservative impulse.  Conservatism at it's core, I've heard it said, is about an "epistemological modesty".  Perhaps this is why conservatives seem to have a natural propensity toward realism and away from utopian schemes or questionable idealism.  Perhaps this is also why they tend to be, more often than not, people of faith.  Doubtful of the ultimate perfectiblity of this world, many naturally gravitate toward a hope that transcends this world.  The burden of proof, in this instance, falls on those who would radically alter the basis of this age old fidelity, extraordinary claims requiring extraordinary proof. 

The subtitle uses the term "the naked public square", taken from Father John Richard Neuhaus' critique of today's prevailing view concerning the separation of church and state, which often has had implications well beyond the enforcement of an essentially good rule of governance.  The scrupulosity with which church and state are kept apart today has seemingly lead not so much to a state that is religiously neutral, but to one which treats religion like a contagious disease and which tends to stigmatize religion's rightful role in the public square.  The square is "naked" not because it lacks diversity, but because it consists of a sanitized diversity, where often the most real and significant differences among people are kept from finding public expression, relegated to an exclusively private sphere.   Instead of a separation of church and state, we end up with a separation of religion and public life, a secularism by default. Religion, the thing of most value for so many people, seems relegated to little more than a private eccentricity.

I do believe that people of faith, in order to participate in this public square, have a responsibility to present their arguments well and within the bounds of its secular discourse.  However, people of a more secular orientation also have a responsibility not to reject ideas out of turn, simply because they may have a religious origin.  In other words, may ideas rise or fall in the public arena based solely on the merits of their argument and not on the genus of their origins.  

This blog will paint its interests with a broad brush.  Current events, politics, religion, culture... everything that bears on the attempt to live faithfully, the adventures, the journey of particular persons of faith in a secular age.  In contrarian times, where rebellion, non-conformity, transgression, controversy and scandal are valued as ends in themselves, it is good, I think, to present truelly counter-cultural voices to shake up a little the often self-satisfied complacency of the age.  I believe it was Chesterton who once wrote that "in an age of heresy, the only real heresy is orthodoxy."  And so, let us begin.  Cheers!

Friday, October 2, 2009

When France chides you for appeasement, you know you're scraping bottom...

A scathing Krauthammer article on Obama's miserable foreign policy, and I must sadly agree with Krauthammer. It's amazing how, after months of criticizing Bush's foreign policy, Obama has settled comfortably into continuing that which he thought was wrong. His war policy is a copy of Bush's. And despite all his talk of change here at home, he continues to support friendly dictators, like Egypt.

Where Obama has changed our foreign policy, it's been for the worse. His new policies can be summed up as "sacrificial appeasement": we must sacrifice those who should be our friends, in the hopes of making peace with our enemies.

- We sacrifice Israel to appease the Arabs.
- We sacrifice the Iranian protestors to appease the Ayatollahs.
- We sacrifice Honduras to appease Chavez.
- We sacrifice the Sudanese refugees to appease the Sudanese government/the Arab League.
- We sacrifice the Cuban protestors/exiles in order to appease Fidel/Raul & Co.
- And finally: we sacrifice our Polish/Czech allies to appease the Russians.

It all makes sense when you see it through Obama's looking glass. It's sad he doesn't realize that "sacrificial appeasement" will simply leave us with fewer friends and bolder enemies. It's even sadder when our own allies have taken notice, but Obama has not.