Thursday, August 25, 2011

(Liberal) Skepticism vs. (Orthodox) Doubt

There are certain streams of "emerging" Christianity which seem to think that doubt is some revolutionary new stance that has finally had permission to emerge now that we are "new kinds of Christians." Formerly oppressed by fundamentalisms that quashed any hint of uncertainty, such Christians are at pains to point out that we can never be certain. But having still accepted the modern equation of knowledge with certainty, they also end up professing that we can't know. So what we're left with is not doubt, but skepticism.

It seems that those who think permission to doubt is some radically new possibility for Christians are the same people who think that a concern for justice is some "secret message" of Jesus heretofore hidden from Christianity--when, in fact, it just means that it was hidden from them in the pietistic enclaves of their early formation. In a similar way, doubt is as old as faith. As Kierkegaard suggested in one of his journals, "doubt comes into the world through faith." As I've suggested elsewhere, some of our greatest saints have been our greatest doubters, too. Some of our exemplary believers have also been masters of suspicion. The new kind of doubters have nothing on the likes of Graham Greene or Mother Teresa or Bernanos' country priest or Endo's Jesuit missionaries.

But there is also an important difference between emergent skeptics and catholic doubters: The new kind of skeptics want the faith to be cut down to the size of their doubt, to conform to their suspicions. Doubt is taken to be sufficient warrant for jettisoning what occasions our disbelief and discomfort, cutting a scandalizing God down to the size of our believing. For the new doubters, if I can't believe it, it can't be true. If orthodoxy is unbelievable, then let's come up with a rendition we can believe in.

But for catholic doubters, God is not subject to my doubts. Rather, like the movements of a lament psalm, all of the scandalizing, unbelievable aspects of an inscrutable God are the target of my doubts--but the catholic doubter would never dream that this is occasion for revising the faith, cutting it down to the measure of what I can live with. It's not a matter of coming up with a Gospel I can live with; it's a matter of learning to live with all of the scandal of the Gospel--and that can take a lifetime. Graham Greene's "whiskey priest" doesn't for a moment think that the church should revise its doctrine and standards in order to make him feel comfortable about his fornication--even if he might lament what seems to be a denial of some feature of his humannness. All of his doubts and suspicion and resistance are not skeptical gambits that set him off in search of a liberal Christianity he can live with; they are, instead, features of a life of sanctification, or lack thereof. And no one is surprised by that. The prayer of the doubter is not, "Lord I believe, conform to the measure of my unbelief," but rather: "Lord I believe, help thou my unbelief."

For just this reason orthodox, catholic faith has always been able to absorb doubt as a feature of discipleship: indeed, the church is full of doubters. It is the grace of our scandalous God that welcomes them.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

On Misunderstanding David Brooks Redux

Misreading Brooks' The Social Animal seems to be all the rage. To H. Allen Orr's skewed interpretation, we can now add this aside from one of my favorites, James Wood:

These days, one is continually running up against a crass evolutionary neuroscientific pragmatism that is loved by popular evolutionary psychologists and newspaper columnists (of the kind who argue that we are happiest living in suburbs and voting Republican because neuroscience has “proved” that a certain bit of our brain lights up upon seeing Chevy Chase or Greenwich; or that we all like novels because stories must have taught us, millennia ago, how to negotiate our confusing hunter-gatherer society—I exaggerate only a little).

Now first let me admit: that's pretty damn good. Classic Wood: a tightly compressed insight laced with acerbic wit. I'll give him that.

But Wood is guilty of missing the same point as Orr: Brooks is decidedly not out to argue that we are biologically wired to be Bobos in a moderate Republican paradise. His point is that the "new sciences of human nature" account for how we are formed and habituated by the ethos in which our dispositions are incubated, and that our account of--and orientation toward--a vision of "the good life" is acquired, inscribed in us by the rituals and practices of a culture that then prime us (dispose us) toward certain ends.

We don't think our way through the world. And contrary to the functional libertarianisms of both left and right, we are not fundamentally choosers: our action in--and comportment to--the world is the product of unconscious dispositions and habit which are NOT (repeat: NOT) biologically hardwired but rather acquired on the platform of our biological makeup. We are not conservative animals; but we are habitual animals. That's why our policies and educations need to broach the question of formation. But wherever there is a project of formation, there is also the specification of a telos--and it is precisely that "imposition" on the myth of autonomy that is refused by the ideologies of left and right.

Brooks isn't offering some new-fangled version of B.F. Skinner; he's exploring how contemporary cognitive science confirms the insights of Aristotle. The Social Animal isn't trying to offer "scientific proof" for conservatism; it's trying to show that science confirms a Burkean (and Ruskinian?) conservativism long-forgotten--a concern for virtue formation.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

On Misunderstanding David Brooks

The review of David Brooks' The Social Animal in the most recent issue of The New York Review of Books was a disappointment. Since there's pretty much zero chance that the letter I sent will ever see the light of day, I reproduce it here as a small effort to counter this common sort of misreading (or under-reading) of Brooks' argument.

To the Editors:

H. Allen Orr seems to have missed the central concern of David Brooks' engagement with the new sciences of human nature. Orr reads the appeal to "science" as if Brooks were trying to reduce us to our hard-wiring--which is why Orr homes in on those passages that are concerned with pheromones and the genetic information absorbed when couples are swapping saliva.

But Brooks is not engaged in the sort of reductionism that Orr seems to think characterizes a "scientific" account. More specifically, Brooks doesn't give us a biologized story of some kind of "hard-wired" human nature. Instead, Brooks sees the new sciences of human nature offering an account of how we absorb our second nature--what Aristotle called "character." The core argument of The Social Animal--and the one that impinges on how we make policy and organize social institutions like schools--is that we are creatures of habit and we absorb fundmental, orienting habits through embodied but unconcious routines and rituals. Orr seems to have missed this argument entirely.

It is just this attention to formation, habituation and virtue which makes Brooks a classic conservative in the spirit of Burke--a voice much needed amidst the so-called "conservative" ideologies of liberatarian self-invention that will assail us over the next season of Republican presidential campaigning.


James K.A. Smith

Monday, August 15, 2011

Warren Buffett: Stop Coddling the Super-Rich

It is surely telling that Warren Buffett's important editorial, "Stop Coddling the Super-Rich," did not appear in the Wall Street Journal. Indeed, I find myself wondering whether it was floated there, then rejected. Wouldn't that have been most conspicuous place for Buffett's offing?

In any case, one wonders how the Tea Party ideologues in the Republican party--all those busy little e-traders with copies of Rich Dad, Poor Dad under their pillows at night--could possibly counter the logic of Buffett the investment guru. For here is the poster boy of a "job maker" debunking the myth that taxation frustrates investing. As Buffett succinctly puts it,

Back in the 1980s and 1990s, tax rates for the rich were far higher, and my percentage rate was in the middle of the pack. According to a theory I sometimes hear, I should have thrown a fit and refused to invest because of the elevated tax rates on capital gains and dividends.

I didn’t refuse, nor did others. I have worked with investors for 60 years and I have yet to see anyone — not even when capital gains rates were 39.9 percent in 1976-77 — shy away from a sensible investment because of the tax rate on the potential gain. People invest to make money, and potential taxes have never scared them off. And to those who argue that higher rates hurt job creation, I would note that a net of nearly 40 million jobs were added between 1980 and 2000. You know what’s happened since then: lower tax rates and far lower job creation.

Buffett's entire editorial repays reading (and sharing). In it he documents the ridiculous exemptions from tax burden enjoyed by the super-rich--people who, as he puts it, "make money with money."

But you'll have to go to the New York Times to find it: not a word has been breathed about it at WSJ. Correction/update: Dieter Bouma pointed out to me that the WSJ blog is home to some discussion of this editorial.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

The Medium is the Message

In giving talks around the country about Desiring the Kingdom, one of the themes I regularly press is the refusal of any form/content distinction when it comes to Christian worship. This is central to my argument: when I claim that Christian worship forms and orients our loves, it's not just any old version of Christian worship that does this. Indeed, much of what evangelicals think of when they think of "worship" (=music) does not have the potential to be formative in this way. What we need is Christian worship that embodies the unique logic of the Gospel, practicing and enacting the specificity of the Christian narrative. This is why, over time, the church, led by the Spirit, has communally discerned a certain given "shape" for core elements of Christian worship (which can then be "indigenized" in different ways in different contexts at different times).

The Gospel is not a "content" that can be distilled and just dropped into any old "form" that seems hip or relevant or attractive. You can't distill Jesus from Christian worship and then just drop him into the mall or the coffee shop or the concert: while you might think you're "Jesu-fying" this medium, in fact you just end up commodifying Jesus.

As I try to unpack this argument in various contexts, I sometimes allude to Marshall McLuhan's famous claim that "the medium is the message." The intuition is the same: there is no neat and tidy form/content distinction because we can't sort out the message from its medium: the medium is the message. That's not a bad shorthand for the point I'm trying to make--it's just that I think catholic Christianity discerned this long before McLuhan.

Turns out, however, that McLuhan's intuitions owe something to Catholic Christianity. When I was staying in Toronto earlier this summer, this was confirmed for me on two separate occasions. First, while visiting my brother and joining his family on a trip to the local library, I sat down with a recent issue of The Walrus, sort of Canada's version of Harper's or The New Yorker. Lo and behold, the issue contained an article by Jeet Heer, "Divine Inspiration," in which Heer unpacks the significance of McLuhan's conversion to Catholicism as the "background" of his theorizing. Fascinating stuff.

Then just a couple of days later, in a basement bookshop on Bloor Street, I hit upon another little gem (this is why I believe in bibliographical providence): The Medium and the Light: Reflections on Religion which is a collection of McLuhan's essays and interviews on religion, particularly Roman Catholicism, with some illuminating reflections on liturgy in particular.

There's work to be done here.