This reminds me of one of the footnotes in David Foster Wallace’s “Datum Centurio,” a short story in the form of an imaginary dictionary entry (for the word “date”) from the future: “Cf. Catholic dogma, perverse vindication of.”
I have long been aware of the way that dystopian and post-apocalyptic fiction tends, whatever effort to the contrary folks tend to exert, to reinforce the stable understanding of humanity that has remained largely unchanged, fads and fictions in popular philosophy notwithstanding, as long as humans have had leisure to reflect on their nature. It is no accident that Aristotle and Aquinas largely agree on what humans are, or that they agree with Augustine and Avicenna, or again with Anselm–and on and on, and A to Z of the epochal thinkers of human nature come down to certain basics.
Those who try to re-invent humanity invariably have to re-invent the same features of humanity with different names, under some preferred mode of control that “fixes” their preferred distortions in place. These built-in features, whose relationship to our biological existence and spiritual significance I describe as “thinking in brains,” mean that we have definite capacities and limitations, definite possibilities of thought and existence and definite boundaries to what conceivable things we can realize. We can often strike a pose, in our minds or in our most ephemeral fictions, that nobody could possibly hold while actively working and living in the complex web of relationships that define our actual existence, the creaturely being of humans.
And because we are often trying to hold a pose that is not well-fitted to our creaturely being, we find ourselves exposed to certain threats, certain horrors, that we must keep at bay in controllable fictions and in “morality plays” whose theme is our power to finally change humanity, to force all our neighbors into the mold that makes us happiest. And these fictions, when they are compelling, spell out our fear of what we cannot actually redesign, our fear of what is too real for us to control leaks out in the nervous laughter that turns into farce whenever we try to “repeat an act” of horror. Horror, it turns out, is “conservative” in its essential underpinnings: It reflects human nature’s reality beneath the level of our social and technological manipulation, the reality that doesn’t go away when we tell civil lies about it.
This idea, both in my days as a radical occasionalist, voluntarist species of nominalist who believed that post-structuralism offered me the best textual strategy for radically relativizing all human authority to the divine Author’s written Word, and in my recovering sanity as a metaphysical realist who believes that only a concretely realized coordination of the Word written and the sacramental Real Presence of the Word Incarnate suffices to ground us in Creation and nourish us in the grace of Redemption, animates my interest in the way that culture changes, often without regard to our stated intentions, as we compete in our efforts to defend and institutionalize our preferred lies and popular errors.
And so I have been interested to watch the following exchange unfold. First, Jeremy Neill with an article that I commented on casually when it came out, arguing that eventually the self-destructive forces of inhumane ideology must give way to a consensus on what humanity actually is, but doing so with some assumptions many of us will find ill-considered:
Karl Marx once asserted that life determines consciousness, and that consciousness does not determine life. He meant that underlying technologies and infrastructures produce corresponding worldviews, at a conscious level, in the minds of people. People might think that they are the ones who are forming their opinions. But, for Marx, the stories that people tell themselves about how they are directing their lives at a conscious level are just-so stories. In fact, people’s conscious opinions are being determined—inexorably and subconsciously—by the deep social infrastructure.
I am not a Marxist. But when it comes to the sexuality wars, I think Marx might have been on to something. It probably was, more than anything else, these mid-twentieth-century technology and infrastructure shifts—that “life” that determines consciousness—that produced the rapid and dramatic opinion shifts we have seen in the last decade.
We humans were the ones who created these changes in technology and infrastructure. But once created they took on a life of their own, with massive and unintended opinion-formation consequences.
I agree that our development and use of various technological means to manage reproduction–and to truncate ourselves sexually, even to the point of surgically mutilating ourselves and slaughtering children–has far-reaching consequences. I do not, however, think that it makes sense to treat ideology as an epiphenomenon of technology; I suspect Neill does this largely to sublimate the natural-law moral argument he might be making to a more “neutral” argument about political economy, and I actually agree that Marx is the right thinker to go to in such a gesture. I disagree, however, that such a gesture is likely to be useful in any but an “Even Marx, who you might not expect me to cite, happens to agree with me here” manner.
Carl Trueman then weighed in with a gloomier, and I think more clear-eyed, perspective. As one might expect from a historian in a confessional evangelical tradition, it mixes a strong thread of realism with a nominalist conclusion:
I agree with Neill that the sexual revolution is ultimately doomed, simply because it will be impossible to deny the given realities of human nature indefinitely with any degree of impunity. Transgenderism is both a specific example of this and emblematic of the whole. A man who believes he is a woman can have his body mutilated and pumped full of chemicals as much as he wants. Yet he remains only a mutilated, chemically distorted man, however much others might encourage him in his delusion. But it is also true that in his fight against reality, such a man has wreaked irreparable and irreversible damage on himself. Thus, in the grand scheme we cannot ultimately deny human nature; But we can do a whole of lot of damage in the attempt.
The fact that the sexual revolution is doomed does not mean that it will give way to older, more traditional patterns, however many alternative communities, Benedictine and otherwise, might continue to resist. Human beings are doing, and will continue to do, incalculable and quite possibly irreversible harm to themselves in their attempts at pretending to be their own little gods. And I believe that we are just insane enough to destroy ourselves rather than accept the obvious fact, that we are not free to be and do whatever we want.
(source: Not So Sanguine)
I basically agree with Trueman that Neill’s “silver lining” to what may be generations of grinding, self-destructive delusion on a colossal and legally-enforced scale is small consolation, and does not account for the possibilities of institutionalized evil and thoroughly pagan ideology and civic religion. The United States of the Blaine Amendments, of evangelicals who “sowed the wind” of public schools designed to breed an Americanist religiosity (and suppress the Catholicism of “those foreigners”) and “reaped the whirlwind” of schools where prayer is banned (increasingly without regard for the caveats that many of us have long exploited), is no stranger to civic religion exalted against authentic Christianity.
Christendom always was a tenuous balance of forces, rarely thoroughly good; and the classical liberal consensus which emerged from Christendom has kept much of the best and the worst in a dynamic tension which has allowed some of each to flourish, and some of each to be forgotten, in fairly radical ways while granting historically unusual peace and prosperity in some corners of the world. But civilizations have been built on paganism before, and I would be reverting to millennarianism if I were to assert as historically certain that the remains of Christendom would never be built over with a pagan civilization again.
(I would also be lying if I did not assert that even a hostile paganism might be preferable to a triumphant secularism!)
Yet Trueman seems to make two incompatible claims concerning the dominant reality in history: the reality of human creatures as such, and the reality of human efforts to rationalize and institutionalize lies and errors. If the former is the dominant reality, then Trueman should be able to provide more hope to those who struggle to systematically reinforce whatever contact with reality our culture will allow; if the latter is the dominant reality, then Trueman’s gloom is not only accurate, but renders his realist assertion meaningless.
And it is with these things in mind that I discover my friend and co-blogger Greg Forster’s effort to find another “way forward” that is neither so mercilessly happy nor so self-defeatingly tragic as these:
As for tradition, we cannot order our lives without it, but it too has never been sufficient for social order – particularly since the Reformation, which rendered all appeals to “tradition” permanently controversial. Religious freedom is flatly incompatible with treating tradition as a source of public authority. If tradition is the basis on which we resolve our public disputes, then disputes between traditions are irresolvable.
All this is to say that neither “conservatism” nor “tradition” is what we’re most interested in. What we really want is justice, mercy and love of neighbor. And those things can be built in ways that are not “conservative” or “traditional.” After the collapse of the sexual revolution, the world will have been remade. Carl is right that there will not be much hope for justice, mercy and love of neighbor if achieving those goals depends upon the reconstruction of an older, pre-sexual-revolution social world.
But why must that be the case? Wherever people are people, human beings made in the image of God, there is hope for justice, mercy and love of neighbor.
(source: Neither Sanguine Nor Resigned)
Now, I am happy to agree that if we define “conservatism” as strictly an American Republican “tapping the brakes on the railroad of Progress” phenomenon, and make no further effort to deal with a Burkean (or Hayekian) preservation of cultural institutions because of their embedded lore, or a Kirkian belief in durable wisdom, or a Catholic view of natural law as always essentially realized in certain human and social principles–that is, if we first assert Progress as the normative myth of our civic religion, and then offer “conservatism” only as a mechanism for adjusting it, then of course we will find it of little value. For much this reason, I rarely bother to publicly identify as “conservative” or debate the nature of “true” conservatism, anymore (if I were to be a merely American ideologue, I would be a libertarian, anyway).
Likewise, if we take “tradition” to be the sort of thing that can be “rendered…permanently controversial,” then we have already foreclosed the discussion: such a tradition lacks potential as a formative social reality. If, however, we believe “tradition” has more senses than this–if there are human possibilities not subject to this deterministic schematization of history–then we would have to question Greg’s formulation.
And I think we do need to question Greg’s formulation, because he seems to be at once resisting historical determinism–Neill’s appeal to Marx, and Trueman’s narrative of ruin–and asserting it. Not only is “tradition…permanently controversial,” but “after the collapse of the sexual revolution, the world will have been remade.” Greg does not seem to be permitting “tradition” to operate unless it operates at the scale of global history, and according to a philosophy of history that imagines Progress as unfolding through successive revolutions. Accordingly, Greg must locate the permanent features of humanity–which, being a Christian, he knows must exist–in areas which he hopes to conceive as untouched by “tradition” or “conservatism” and not “controversial” even in a “world…remade.” He calls these, in a fitting reference to the prophets, “justice, mercy and love of neighbor.”
Now, in one sense, I am happy to agree that we can practice these things in some measure, no matter how totalitarian and secularist, or how pagan, the world becomes. But “in some measure” is not a worthy or sufficient goal for public discourse and public action. The more institutionalized evil is, the harder a culture works to enforce its distortions and silence those who speak truth about reality, the less likely it is that justice will actually be done in a way that can be seen to be such publicly, that mercy can actually be shown in effective and durable ways, that “love of neighbor” will show up as a shared life more often than a prudent silence about the neighbor’s conformity or nonconformity to the prevailing ideological imperatives. If the Obama administration’s entire conduct had been a political cartoon designed to illustrate this truth, it could not have done so more aptly (short of directly re-enacting a dystopian fiction).
To do justice, one needs to know what sort of beings one is dealing with; one must believe that it matters that justice is seen to be done, and not that mere conditioning to deliberately silence reflection with consumerist excess is “justice” if it involves relatively few public acts of physical violence. To have mercy, one must have a conception of “covenant” or solidarity that makes it possible to judge when reconciliation achieves the end of justice–to enable the practice of charity, rather than seizure of the other as an object of desire–better than enforcement of laws, better than a rigid insistence on individual autonomy and self-determination. One must know when a contract is an unconscionable bargain, even if “freely” entered into, to have justice or show mercy; and that requires a frame of reference outside that of nominally free individuals voluntarily entering into agreements. And one must have a sense of what a “neighbor” is–a human creature, like me–and how a human creature can actually be an object and subject of “love,” if one is to practice “love of neighbor.”
And how will anyone learn these things, without a teacher? For there is plenty of law, especially in regimes built on anti-human ideology, that is not “justice”; plenty of happy-faced action, of pleasant bureaucratic intervention, that is in no sense “mercy”; plenty of niceness or amorous activity that is not “love” of someone whose humanity is too ignored or obscured to be considered a “neighbor.” If there is no one to hand on–traditio–the understanding of humanity, and human society, that makes it possible to practice justice and mercy meaningfully, and no scope for their significant public exercise, then what could be the point of asserting the permanent possibility of “justice, mercy, and love of neighbor”? And how could it be “love of neighbor” to fail to advocate for the neighbor’s self-understanding of himself as a proper subject and object of justice and mercy, a potential recipient and practitioner of the theological virtue of love?
And this is why I think it is useful to go back to the prophets:
He has showed you, O man, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?
(source: Micah 6 RSVCE)
Not accidentally, nor at all unusually in the prophets, this passage immediately follows a reminder (one might call it “conservative” to reach back into the past, this way) of God’s historical work in shaping His People, a model of what happens when the powerful suborn convenient lies rather than truth. And not accidentally, the “reproach” of the prophet, here, is taken up in the liturgy in the Impropreria, or Reproaches, of the Good Friday service. The People of God are, after all, in the first instance those who learn that we must “walk humbly with [our] God” because we have abandoned Him, turned away from His justice and spurned His love, and even treated His mercy as an excuse rather than a costly forgiveness and an opportunity to reconciliation with His justice. Only in our self-understanding as the forgiven and Beloved do we become, by the infusion of the theological virtue of charity, capable of “love of neighbor” in a durable sense; only then do we find ourselves participating in the suffering of Christ, who in His suffering turns to those who abandon Him and who scorn Him, crying,
O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to you! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not!
(source: Matthew 23:37 RSVCE)
And so I contend that lament is justified, not least because the “perverse vindication” of truth happens–as Trueman points out–at a constant and damning price in human lives, human beings shattered, human souls lost to Hell without our best efforts to rescue them.
Joy comes in the morning, but weeping does endure for the night. They do come in rejoicing with their sheaves, but they went forth with weeping. However much the misguided press strategies common in my own tradition may seem to mandate a habit of grinning like a jackanapes, the simple truth is that Jesus Christ and his Apostles and the prophets before them knew joy as a present hope of a future reality that granted them a strong reason and desire to continue in their suffering service, not as a complacent cheer or constant projection of smiling unctuosity!
Rather, it is vital that we cultivate our resources for human self-understanding, shore up our institutions on whatever scale we are able, fight rear-guard actions in terms of the prevailing ideology wherever those actually do serve our institutions (without regard for foolish consistency), and never neglect to actually do good and to repudiate every kind of bigotry.
And it is for this reason that I think it is important to notice that, human nature being in fact invariant, efforts to distort it have predictable patterns and consequences.
Responsible men can become more deeply convinced of the truth of the doctrine laid down by the Church on this issue if they reflect on the consequences of methods and plans for artificial birth control. Let them first consider how easily this course of action could open wide the way for marital infidelity and a general lowering of moral standards. Not much experience is needed to be fully aware of human weakness and to understand that human beings—and especially the young, who are so exposed to temptation—need incentives to keep the moral law, and it is an evil thing to make it easy for them to break that law. Another effect that gives cause for alarm is that a man who grows accustomed to the use of contraceptive methods may forget the reverence due to a woman, and, disregarding her physical and emotional equilibrium, reduce her to being a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires, no longer considering her as his partner whom he should surround with care and affection.
Finally, careful consideration should be given to the danger of this power passing into the hands of those public authorities who care little for the precepts of the moral law. Who will blame a government which in its attempt to resolve the problems affecting an entire country resorts to the same measures as are regarded as lawful by married people in the solution of a particular family difficulty? Who will prevent public authorities from favoring those contraceptive methods which they consider more effective? Should they regard this as necessary, they may even impose their use on everyone. It could well happen, therefore, that when people, either individually or in family or social life, experience the inherent difficulties of the divine law and are determined to avoid them, they may give into the hands of public authorities the power to intervene in the most personal and intimate responsibility of husband and wife.
Consequently, unless we are willing that the responsibility of procreating life should be left to the arbitrary decision of men, we must accept that there are certain limits, beyond which it is wrong to go, to the power of man over his own body and its natural functions–limits, let it be said, which no one, whether as a private individual or as a public authority, can lawfully exceed. These limits are expressly imposed because of the reverence due to the whole human organism and its natural functions.
(source: Humanae Vitae, emphasis added)
And, as I have pointed out before, this is in fact what we find. Human nature does not actually change; we merely reflect its realities well or badly in our popular discourse and our laws. And, having decided to do exactly what Humanae Vitae predicted, our society does so quite badly indeed. We have radically subverted the meaning of marital consent, which is precisely the one kind of consent to a sexual bond that it is possible for humans to actually give, and so we are increasingly reliant on absurd and self-defeating simulacra of marriage to restrain every kind of rape, abuse, and false accusation about sexual behavior; our laws are radically subverted by the lies we tell ourselves; our capacity to educate, to form human beings in an intergenerational wisdom that exceeds their commercially useful impulses, is crippled; and in these conditions, does anyone expect “justice, mercy, and love of neighbor” to flourish in any meaningful degree?
No, we can expect to see confusion flourish, at best. And conflict, more likely. And that means that we will have to decide to live as a Resistance, or we will actually be forced to redefine ourselves endlessly to pretend we are “conservative,” or to resign ourselves to irrelevance if we accept that “traditional” is now “rendered…permanently controversial.”
But this is not defeatism. It is what happens when, despite our deep, even almost desperate, grief and sadness–and frustration in our love, and fury at the harm human creatures do to each other in the name of being uncreated–we know that we are triumphant.