Dim enlightenment


The internet is to catchy phrases what shag carpet is to unwrapped hard candy.  Put a catchy phrase online, and you’ll be horrified to see what ends up attached to it.

What brings this to mind is a phrase much discussed in certain quarters recently, “Dark Enlightenment.”   When Curtis Yarvin started blogging under the name “Mencius Moldbug” in 2007, I looked at his site occasionally.  I gave up on him sometime before the average length of posts began to suggest the Russian novel, though you’ll find the name “Acilius” in the comment threads there in the first several months.  I mentioned Mencius Moldbug on this site a couple of times in those days (here and here, in posts that reveal the origins of this site as a continuation of a long conversation among some old friends.)

My interest in Mencius Moldbug stemmed from time I’d spent studying thinkers like Irving Babbitt, intellectual historians who found that ostensibly up-to-date ideas were hopelessly dependent on obsolete theology, while some apparently antiquated doctrines accord surprisingly well with the most thoroughgoing application of the critical spirit.  Mencius Moldbug claimed to have reached similar conclusions, though his windy and unstructured writing, coupled with the vagueness of his references, ultimately made it impossible to determine what, if anything, he had in mind.

I had hoped for a popularized version of the kind of thing Babbitt did, but that may be impossible.  You have to have an editor, and footnotes, and lots of time for redrafting and revision to accomplish a project like that.  As a recent example I’d mention a book I’m still reading, Brad S. Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society.  Professor Gregory’s book is obviously not likely to reach a mass audience, anymore than Professor Babbitt’s did, but it will likely give whatever readers it does attract a deeper understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of democracy as an institution and as a fetish than Mr Yarvin could offer writing as a pseudonymous blogger.

Since 2007, I’ve adjusted my expectations for blogs quite a bit.  No longer do I look for a writer who will offer daily doses of the kind of insight Irving Babbitt developed in his magisterial studies;  now I’m content with a pleasant style punched up by occasional flashes of insight. A blogger who usually meets these criteria is Mark Shea.  His “Catholic and Enjoying It!” is usually cheerful, with a steady stream of self-deprecating humor and links to provocative, well-developed pieces by writers whose views are similar to his.  It is impossible not to conclude from regular attention to it that Mr Shea’s heart is in the right place, even if he himself rarely shows any particular flair for sequential reasoning.  Of late, Mr Shea has posted a series of items about the “Dark Enlightenment.”  In these items, I must say that Mr Shea has allowed his emotions free rein, so much so that it is a bit difficult not to laugh at some of his more hyperbolic statements.  At least one of Mr Shea’s readers has laughed hard enough to dupe him into publishing as fact a breathtakingly ridiculous tall tale about an imaginary cult of Dark Enlightenment enthusiasts.  Mr Shea has gallantly admitted that he was fooled, even though he continues to insist that the phrase “Dark Enlightenment” should always and only be understood by reference to the very worst elements that have attached themselves to it.

Some of those who embrace the label are appealing enough that Mr Shea’s attitude must be called, not only intemperate, but wrong-headed.  I would mention hbd* chick, whose response to Mr Shea made me laugh out loud.   Even a few minutes spent on her blog should suffice to disabuse Mr Shea of a notion he asserts persistently and rather obnoxiously, that “Human Biodiversity” is absolutely nothing but a euphemism for racism.  Not that I am convinced that we need the term- why not just call it “Physical Anthropology”?  The newer phrase, like that unwrapped hard candy in the shag carpet, is sure to stick to something disgusting, while an old label like “Physical Anthropology” points us toward an established academic field with generally accepted professional standards.  Be that as it may, hbd* chick is clearly much closer to the canons of Physical Anthropology than to the sort of online bigot-bait Mr Shea supposes users of the term “Human Biodiversity” to be peddling.

I’d also mention Foseti, who has recently started a series of posts reviewing Mencius Moldbug’s output (see here and here.)  His reviews are as punchy and clear as Mencius Moldbug’ originals are meandering and opaque, so I would recommend them as the first stop for someone looking to see what the “Dark Enlightenment” is really all about.  Also, you can turn to Mencius Moldbug’s sidekick Nick Land for a relatively coherent explanation of their shared ideas.  And there are some good links in this article by Nicholas Pell.

A blog post by Rod Dreher, again in response to the hoax for which Mark Shea fell, includes a reader comment that I’ve stewed over a bit:

Most of these “Dark Enlightenment” bloggers (and that’s really all they are) are fantasists and contrarians with a weakness for obscurantist and melodramatic language. However, many of the writers whom they’ve claimed (e.g., [Steve] Sailer) are serious thinkers who are challenging all of the above–all that is unchallengeable in politics, law, art, mainstream/mass journalism and most tragically, academia. If these are discussions that the elites of our society continue to suppress, I do think that we are the verge of a new political movement–one that will hopefully be led by cooler heads.

I would hesitate call Steve Sailer a serious thinker who is challenging the basic presuppositions of the age.  I do think he’s worth reading, and I read him every day, but he always puts forth a great deal more top-of-the-head speculation than careful reasoning.  Which is all right- that’s one of the strengths of the internet, the sort of thinking out loud that used to lead nowhere unless it took place in just the right room when just the right people were listening can now lead to great things even if you are far from any center of innovation.  But that only makes it the more important to to remember that the first stage of the scientific process, as of every other form of knowledge-making, is bullshitting.  The next phases all refine out the bullshit and isolate any particles of non-bullshit that may be among it.  Mr Sailer’s particular brand of bullshit includes lots of aggrieved white guy defensiveness, which attracts racists, but I think there is more to him than that.

Speaking of Rod Dreher and Steve Sailer, I should mention a post Mr Dreher put up a couple of weeks ago about Mr Sailer and my response to it.  Mr Sailer’s writing has so convinced Mr Dreher that evidence of variability in inherited characteristics related to socially desirable behaviors among humans will shake the world-views of people committed to equal rights that he wishes we could forbid such knowledge, as if it were some kind of witchcraft.  I think this fear is grossly overdone.  I wrote:

I read Sailer all the time and I grant you that he has his unattractive sides, but I’m not worried that he’ll relegitimize racist scientism a la Madison Grant. For one thing, he engages deeply enough with the relevant science that a regular reader can see that any sort of utopianism, including racist utopianism, is not something that nature is going to allow to work. Secondly, his own self-aggrandizing B.S. (continually presenting himself and his favored authors as a plucky band of truth-tellers set upon by the unreasoning hordes of the politically correct establishment) wears thin pretty quickly. If anything, several years of reading Sailer on a daily basis have moved me to the left politically.

I’d mention just one more piece, a critique of Mencius Moldbug’s positive ideology that Adam Gurri put up the other day (I’d seen it, but hadn’t really read it until Handle recommended it.)  It leaves me with the same conclusion I keep coming back to, that the goals the “Dark Enlightenment” types are trying to achieve on their blogs are goals that can really be achieved only in conventional academic writing.  That conclusion frustrates me, in part because I do think that these bloggers have some points to make about civic religion in the West that should be discussed among a broader public than is likely to look at scholarly publications and in part because few scholars are willing to tackle to questions that they raise.  But I don’t see any way around it.

10 Things I Don’t Know About Christianity

The other day, a commenter on Alison Bechdel’s website called my attention to this list by Jim Rigby, as it appeared on Patheos:

I thanked that commenter, the redoubtable “NLC,” and added this remark:

Hanging out with mellow progressives like Episcopalians and Quakers it’s tempting to forget or understate the sheer bloody-mindedness that so often thrives under the sign of the cross.

As for the focus of the “Ten Things” on the Bible, one thing I think the Bible makes crystal clear about homosexuality is that homosexuality wasn’t a particularly controversial topic when the Bible was taking shape. The Bible is hundreds and hundreds of pages long, and the antigay crowd can find only six brief verses in the whole thing that support their position at all explicitly.

What’s more, most of those six verses are actually about something else, and none of them contemplate anything like the same-sex relationships that exist in today’s world.

Sure, the tone of the six snippets make it clear that same-sex sex was not well-regarded in those days, and neither the law nor the prophets nor anything in the Christian scriptures pushes back against that hostility. But so what? None of those writings push back against slavery or any of a number of other institutions familiar in those centuries, but Christians nowadays seem confident that they have disassociated their religion from those things, and in fact often propose it as a bulwark against them. I fully expect the Christians of the 22nd century to be united in a smug sense of superiority over the homophobes of that day, just as their counterparts now are quick to cite the Christian Abolitionists of the 19th century.

The more I think about it, the more I find to disagree with in the “10 Things.”  For instance: (more…)

Presidential Deathmatch

Blogger Geoff Micks has asked the question that has long been on everyone’s mind: “In a mass knife fight to the death between every US President, who would win and why?”   Considering this query, I decided that a truly well informed answer must consider six variables:

Coalition-Building Ability: Perhaps the most important criterion for determining survival in the early stages of the battle.  A very high standard here; we are talking about 43 of the most successful politicians in history.  Assuming that they retain their memories as they enter combat, we would have to give points to someone like Thomas Jefferson, whose personality dominated James Madison, James Monroe, and to some extent the Adamses.  Considering the strengths of those men, that would have been quite an intimidating combination.  George Washington, recognizing all of them, would likely have joined them at the outset; many of the others, all admirers of Washington, would likely have fallen in with his group.  Jefferson’s crew would thus dominate the early stages of the battle, giving Jefferson himself him an excellent opportunity to shape later stages for his own benefit.  It’s a knife fight, so a president who built powerful coalitions in politics wouldn’t get points if he built them over many years of intricate political maneuvering.  Only coalitions he builds instantly, by the sheer force of his personality, count.

Visual Inconspicuousness: Tall men like Lincoln and Lyndon Johnson would have little chance of surviving the early stages.  No accommodation for his disability would keep Franklin Roosevelt from being an obvious target; if his cousin Theodore came to Franklin’s aid, he too would likely be killed in the early stages.  Barack Obama’s skin color would not only make him conspicuous, but also would incite the hatred of several presidents, including some of the most lethal fighters.

Expertise in Hand-to-Hand Combat:  Important at every stage of the battle, probably the single most important criterion in determining who still has a chance in the later stages.  Some presidents grew up on the untamed frontier; some were professional soldiers and presumably received training in hand-to-hand combat; some were amateur athletes who pursued combat sports.  Some, notably James Monroe,  Andrew Jackson, and Zachary Taylor, were in more than one of these categories and deserve very high scores.

Badass Quotient: Demonstrated willingness actually to stick bits of metal into people.  Andrew Jackson is in a class by himself under this heading, although George Washington, James Monroe, Zachary Taylor, William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, and Harry Truman also have strong scores.  As a boy, Millard Fillmore walked away from a shop where he was an indentured servant.  He later explained that if he hadn’t left, he would have picked up an ax and chopped his boss to bits.  So he might be entitled to some points for homicidal rage.  Several of the generals and lawyers who look good under other headings fall down here.  For example, Ulysses Grant had a famous distaste for the sight of blood; Richard Nixon had a tremendous amount of difficulty telling people they were fired.  It’s hard to imagine that either of those men would act without hesitation when called upon to stab George Washington.

Physical Fitness: Mr Micks specifies in his hypothesis that the presidents will meet “in the best physical and mental condition they were ever in throughout the course of their presidency. Fatal maladies have been cured, but any lifelong conditions or chronic illnesses (e.g. FDR’s polio) remain.”  This criterion tends to favor early presidents.  Someone like James Madison, for example, never showed an inclination to athleticism, but would routinely ride a horse for many miles through conditions of near wilderness, simply because there was no other way to get around.

Spatial Awareness: Very important for judging the likely outcome of the later stages of the battle, when the field would be littered with corpses and slick with blood.  George Herbert Walker Bush qualified as a Navy fighter pilot in World War Two; presumably that reflected a high level of spatial awareness.  Jefferson and Franklin Roosevelt could both take credit for notable achievements in architecture, earning them some points (but not telling us all that much about how they would do in an extremely fluid, spontaneous situation.)  Washington, Monroe, Jackson, William Henry Harrison, Taylor, Grant, James Garfield, and Truman all showed sufficient tactical ability as field commanders that we can safely say that they should be ranked no lower than the middle of this category.  Football players Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan should also receive fairly high scores here.  “Motor moron” Richard Nixon is among those who should receive the lowest rankings under this heading.

So, I whipped up a spreadsheet, rating each president on a 1 through 5 scale under each of those six headings.  The six lowest totals went to Grover Cleveland (8,) William Howard Taft (8,) Chester Arthur (9,) Richard Nixon (11,) and Barack Obama (11.)  The seven highest went to Abraham Lincoln (22,) James Garfield (22,) Harry Truman (22,) Theodore Roosevelt (23,) James Monroe (24,) Andrew Jackson (24), and William McKinley (24.)

Here’s the whole spreadsheet, for what it’s worth:

President Coalition Building Visual Inconspicuousness Hand to Hand BQ Physical Fitness Spatial Awareness Total
Washington 5 2 4 4 3 3 21
J Adams 2 5 1 2 4 2 16
Jefferson 5 2 1 2 5 4 19
Madison 2 5 1 1 4 2 15
Monroe 3 3 5 4 5 4 24
J Q Adams 3 3 1 2 5 3 17
Jackson 5 1 5 5 3 5 24
Van Buren 3 3 1 1 4 3 15
W Harrison 2 3 3 3 1 4 16
Tyler 1 3 1 2 5 3 15
Polk 1 4 1 2 1 3 12
Taylor 2 2 4 4 2 5 19
Fillmore 2 4 2 3 3 3 17
Pierce 2 2 1 2 3 3 13
Buchanan 2 4 1 1 2 3 13
Lincoln 5 1 5 4 4 3 22
A Johnson 2 3 4 3 3 3 18
Grant 3 4 3 3 4 4 21
Hayes 3 1 2 2 5 4 17
Garfield 4 3 3 3 5 4 22
Arthur 2 1 1 1 1 3 9
Cleveland 1 1 1 1 1 3 8
B Harrison 1 3 1 1 5 3 14
McKinley 3 4 4 4 4 5 24
T Roosevelt 4 1 5 4 5 4 23
Taft 1 1 1 1 1 3 8
Wilson 1 3 1 1 5 3 14
Harding 3 3 1 1 2 3 13
Coolidge 2 4 1 2 3 3 15
Hoover 3 4 1 1 5 5 19
F Roosevelt 3 1 3 3 1 4 15
Truman 2 3 3 4 5 5 22
Eisenhower 4 2 3 3 3 4 19
Kennedy 2 1 2 2 2 3 12
L Johnson 4 1 2 3 2 3 15
Nixon 1 3 1 1 4 1 11
Ford 3 2 3 3 5 4 20
Carter 1 3 2 2 5 5 18
Reagan 3 2 2 1 1 3 12
G H W Bush 2 2 2 3 4 5 18
Clinton 3 3 1 1 4 3 15
G W Bush 2 2 2 1 5 4 16
Obama 1 1 1 1 4 3 11

The Battle of the Acilian Chuckle

Victor Mair is one of the most distinguished scholars of Chinese language and literature in the United States.  Among his many services to the enlightenment of his countrymen are Professor Mair’s frequent contributions to Language Log.

I mention Professor Mair’s great eminence because he and I recently engaged in a remarkably absurd conflict.  (more…)

Things I’ve been saying

Recently I’ve posted comments on several blogs and forums.  In response to a Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal comic strip, I mused about James P. Carse’s theories of religion and Michael Oakeshott’s political theory.  At Dart-Throwing Chimp, I proposed that political scientists might be able to make use of work done by economists to strengthen the concept of “legitimacy” to which they often appeal.   At The Monkey Cage, I suggested that a survey which appears to show that Americans who support the Republican Party are somewhat likelier than their Democratic compatriots to harbor anti-African American sentiments might, if interpreted more carefully, show that the difference is actually much more dramatic than the raw data shows.  And at Secular Right, I expressed reservations about the idea of awarding $100,000,000 to every woman who carries to term a pregnancy begun in rape.

A long comment at 3QuarksDaily

A moment ago, I posted a very long comment in response to a post by Quinn O’Neill at 3QuarksDaily.  Ms O’Neill’s post was a response to criticism that she had received after saying, in an earlier piece on the same site, that the most effective strategy for increasing the likelihood that schools will teach a biology curriculum based on sound scientific research might not consist of atheists making displays of personal hostility toward religious believers.  Much of the criticism Ms O’Neill received was based on the premise that anyone who questions the efficacy of such displays has betrayed the holy cause of Science and opened the gates to the Satanic hordes of Creationism.  In her response, Ms O’Neill felt obligated to reassure everyone that she is a True Unbeliever who renounces religion and all its works, and said among other things that she does not “believe that science and religion, as worldviews, are compatible and I don’t believe that evolution is logically compatible with theism.”  I had to respond to that statement, and did so at a length that is really quite unreasonable for a blog comment.  Here it is:

“I don’t believe that science and religion, as worldviews, are compatible and I don’t believe that evolution is logically compatible with theism.”

That sentence includes some pretty broad terms.  I grant you that a religious sect which demands that its followers believe the earth to have been created in October 4004 BC is not likely to be pleased by the findings of geology, or biology, or astronomy.  But what about a religion like Confucianism, which, to the extent that it represents a worldview, does so not by preaching doctrines but by guiding its followers through ceremonies and structuring their social relations?  Where is the faith/ reason battle there?

To the extent that “religion” is a meaningful category, I suspect that its defining features have far less to do with the belief systems that many religions  have than with the social bonding that they all promise.  I’m inclined to agree with James P Carse, longtime professor of religious studies at New York University, who in his 2009 book THE RELIGIOUS CASE AGAINST BELIEF argues not only that religious can get along perfectly well without having belief systems attached, but that their belief systems often keep religions from achieving their real value, which is their ability to bind people together into communities that endure for many generations.

Professor Carse’s argument may seem odd, but if we draw an analogy with science I think we can see more clearly what he’s driving at.  The point of science isn’t to uphold certain doctrines or theories, but to challenge all doctrines and theories with evidence and logic.  A scientist who would rather defend a pet theory than face the facts that cast that theory in doubt isn’t making the most of science.  Likewise, religious believers who wage holy war in the name of militant ignorance in order to protect a cherished belief aren’t breathing life into the past and binding the present to the future; they are condemning past and present to the contempt of the future.

So “religion” is a problem.  “Theism” is a problem, too.  So far as I can tell from the Oxford English Dictionary, “theism” was first coined in 1678 by Ralph Cudworth as a contrary to “deism.”  While deists affirmed the existence of some sort of god but denied that the god they believed in had communicated directly with the world, Cudworth wanted a word to name persons who, like himself, believed in divine revelation.  Later it was used as we would now use “monotheism,” and presented as a contrary to “polytheism” and “atheism.”  Nowadays “theism” sometimes embraces polytheism and deism, and is defined in smaller dictionaries as “belief in a deity, or deities, as opposed to atheism.”

Does this attitude actually exist?  Is there, anywhere in the world, anyone who, as a matter of pure intellect, simply believes that there is at least one deity in existence?  I suspect not.  On the contrary, it seems likely that every person who would sincerely agree to such a proposition would also be a supporter of some particular religion, and of various other ideas and practices that come bundled with that religion.

However, let us assume, for the moment, that there is some point in talking about “theism” and “theists” in the very broad sense of agreement with the proposition that at least one deity exists.  Is it true that this proposition is not “logically compatible with” evolution?  Surely not.  An ancient Greek like Hesiod would fervently agree that at least one deity exists; however, in his THEOGONY, Hesiod describes the origin of the physical world as a spontaneous process that predated the birth of any gods, and frames the origins of the gods within the processes of nature.  It is admittedly unlikely that science will show Hesiod’s claims to be factually sound.  However, they are not only logically compatible with evolution, but are in the strictest sense of the words a story about evolution.

What about monotheism?  Is it logically inconsistent to say, on the one hand, that a single personal God created the world and rules over it, and on the other hand to say that life as we know it is the result of an evolutionary process.  I don’t presume to know why you think that these ideas are logically incompatible, but I can think of some other people who hold them to be so.  What I say next is directed at them, not at you.

In the early modern era, the idea took hold that the physical world operates like a machine.  It came to be widely expected that, given adequate knowledge, it would always be possible to predict what output would result from any given input.  In time, this idea became so familiar that it was fashionable to claim that reason could function only if events in the world were all predetermined.

When determinism of this sort reigned supreme and nature appeared to be a grand machine, theologians often described God as a grand machinist.  For thinkers like Jean Calvin or William Paley, reason demanded determinism and so faith demanded a God whose plans were complete before the creation of the universe and were bound to be realized in every detail. For people still invested in these theologies, evolutionary theory is profoundly disquieting, since it suggests a world in which events not only need not be predetermined to be described rationally, but in which many events may be in principle impossible to predict.  Obviously, quantum mechanics is a problem for them as well.

Is an unpredictable world logically incompatible with monotheism?  It seems not.  Not only was the idea of a universe that operated like a machine as alien to the ancient Hebrews as it was to everyone else before modernity, but the idea of a God who has nothing to learn from nature is absent from the record of their religious ideas preserved in scripture.  At several points in the Hebrew scriptures God changes his mind in response to appeals from the prophets and patriarchs.  Evidently these men, members of nature as they are, have told God something he did not know.  As a result of what he learned from them, God alters his plans.  These passages were a scandal in the early modern era, but they don’t seem to have bothered the Jews before the West had its encounter with mechanistic determinism.  Now that evolutionary theory and quantum mechanics have shown that reason can get along quite well without determinism, why should the idea of a God who can learn from the world and change his mind as a result of that learning bother any believer?

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Why Live?

YouTube user Religious Fiction considers a question that she has heard from many believers: If there is no God, why live?  The question itself puzzles her, and she suggests that YouTubers should have a big conversation about it:

She says that no theist has ever explained to her “why living with the assumption that there is a God is so great.”  She finds it “hard to imagine that there are gobs of theists out there who would honestly think that they have no reason to live if their assumptions and their doctrine just slipped a bit or maybe even had a profound change.”

It’s true that quite a lot of people do talk as if belief in God were the only thing that made life tolerable, and that it is quite strange of them to do so.  Few people, after all, commit suicide, and most of those who do exhibit one of a very small number of psychological disorders.  The idea of suicide may have a compelling power over many imaginations, but in terms of actual practice suicide is an eccentricity.  When Albert Camus opens his Myth of Sisyphus with the claim that the  only serious philosophical question is whether life is worth living, therefore, it is as if he had said that the only serious philosophical question is whether one ought to ride a unicycle.

That much said, does the frequency with which believers suggest that life would not be tolerable without their beliefs show that they are mentally ill?  I say not.  I think Thomas Fleming’s “Five Good Reasons Not to Be an Atheist,” discussed below, explain why a happy, well-adjusted person could believe that a loss of religious faith would mean a loss of the will to live.

I would focus on the third and fourth of Fleming’s five reasons.  “Atheists have no religious calendars” and “Poor atheists… have no sacred spots.”  These points show, first, that it is not as propositions that the doctrines of a religion have power for its adherents, but as narratives.  The doctrines of a faith are a story in which the believer is given roles to play; the calendar is set of occasions on which the believer will enact those roles one by one, and will join with others as they play their own roles in the same story.  The sacred narrative consecrates particular places, places where key events in the narrative have taken place or will take place.  People can bond with each other as they share a relationship to these places.  Thus, the sacred narrative gives structure to a believer’s  experience of both time and space.  Discard the sacred narrative, and we may choose between a life with no sense of narrative structure or the acceptance of a new master narrative to create a new sense of structure.  “Life with no sense of narrative structure” sounds like a definition of clinical depression.  If we experience life as just one thing after another, we may very well wonder what the point is of living.  “The acceptance of a new master narrative,” on the other hand, sounds less like the outgrowing of illusions for which atheists strive than like a conversion from one religion to another.

The most interesting reply to ReligiousFiction’s invitation that I’ve seen is from QualiaSoup.

QualiaSoup usually does an excellent job explaining where arguments against a secular interpretation of physical phenomena go wrong; there’s a fine example here.  Addressing this question,  he proposes a master narrative about knowledge vindicating ignorance.  Scientific advances and antiracist action make life worth living because they both represent blows against ignorance.  QualiaSoup in fact takes on something of the character of a prophet when laying out this narrative.  Indeed, he presents himself as a prophet who brings not peace, but a sword; his image of a family is a group of people divided by various dark lines, such as “prejudice” and “hate”; these lines cannot be erased until all submit together to the liberating power of knowledge.  Otherwise, our prophet will set a man at variance with his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law, and the enemies shall be of one household.  He makes this point at greater length here.

Many commenters on QualiaSoup’s video say that people should be hurt if their relatives say that life would be intolerable without religious faith.  I disagree with this position, for two reasons.  First, it is through narrative that family relationships are defined.  Two people may have common ancestors within living memory, and yet feel no kinship at all.  Meanwhile, many people quite seriously regard pets with whom they have no common ancestor in the last 100,000,000 years as family members.  Change the narrative you accept, and your relationships with others will change in ways that cannot be predicted.

Second, let us assume that some person (say, a man named Bob) does live simply for the sake of his or her family.  Let us assume further that Bob lives in a society where it is a great advantage to be classified as “white,” and that the people Bob recognizes as close kin are all classified that way.  How could Bob justify working to abolish that advantage?  Indeed, if Bob considers his life worth living solely or chiefly because he wants to serve the interests of his family, would it not seem natural to him to lay down his life for the sake of perpetuating discrimination in favor of whites?  I certainly agree that Bob ought to find value in his family and enjoy sharing his life with them, but unless he adopts a narrative that can sometimes override that value in the name of a broader kinship he will be doomed to support white supremacy.

Need an unstructured life be dismal?  Certainly there are experiences that are pleasurable whether or not we see them as connected to any other experience.  The physical satisfaction that follows a vigorous workout is pleasurable even if we never give a thought to the benefits it might have for our health; a successful sexual encounter is enjoyable even if it does not strengthen the bond between the partners; solving a problem brings a thrill even if that problem is not part of an important research program.  To keep those self-contained pleasures fresh, however, we must continually increase our level of activity.  For example, when I was in graduate school I was a postmodernist.  The first few years I worked happily, convinced that what I was doing was of value because it was part of the postmodernist contribution to the study of ancient Greek and Latin.  There came a time when I decided that postmodernism was a dead end.  Rather than give up, I began to work much harder.  I found that if I put in 100 hours a week, each piece of work I did still gave me a thrill, even though I no longer believed in the overall project that had once justified it.  I couldn’t sustain that frenzied pace, but many do.  And isn’t frenzied activity one of the worst problems our world faces?  What is behind war, what is behind the destruction of our natural environment, if not people who have thrown themselves into ever-more frenzied activity rather than taking pleasure in the traditional rewards of life?

Irving Babbitt used to say that peace was a religious virtue.  This was a bit of a paradox, since Babbitt himself was not all religious and not at all warlike.  I think the paradox is resolvable, however.  A sacred narrative, with its religious calendar and its holy places, gives its believers something steady and finite.  If the world around them is at peace, they can find meaning and satisfaction without disrupting it.  On the other hand, those who try to live without a sacred narrative cannot be still, regardless of the conditions in which they find themselves.

Forgiveness again

One of our favorite bloggers, fotb Maggie Jochild, has posted a terrific essay which she was kind enough to say resulted from thinking spurred by a post I put up a couple of days ago.  My post was a fumbling attempt to say something useful about what it might be like to forgive someone who has hurt you in ways you still don’t fully understand.  Maggie’s essay, titled “Forgiveness as a Radical Way of Life,” addresses that same question with real learning and with powerful examples drawn from her own experience.

What is forgiveness? What is not forgiveness?

A friend said that she’d been having nightmares.  She knew why.  It was the birthday of a man who had been important to her.  He treated her brutally, viciously.  Years after their last encounter, years after his death, she is still finding more ways that his abuse has hurt her.  Each discovery of another complication hits her like a fresh injury.  It’s as if he is still attacking her.  She asked what forgiveness would look like in a situation like hers.  What would it mean, exactly, for her to forgive him?

I didn’t get to know her until after this man was dead.  I don’t know the first thing about their relationship.  So the only answer I could possibly offer to her question would be a purely abstract one.  Since I have no background in psychology, that abstract answer would not be grounded in science.  I don’t want to babble, but maybe I can come up with something helpful to say.   

Often when we think of forgiveness, we think of a single event, a single act that resolves a conflict once and for all.  That clearly isn’t possible for someone in the situation  my friend finds herself in.  She never knows when she will find another wound.  So whatever forgiveness is for her, it can’t be a single act.  It has to be an ongoing process.    

In the course of the conversation, a famous line from Hannah More came up: “Forgiveness is the economy of the heart… Forgiveness saves the expense of anger, the cost of hatred, the waste of spirits.”  If an abstract discussion of the nature of forgiveness would be helpful, perhaps we could use that line as a test.  In the first place, More (or the character in her play) seems to be saying that forgiveness benefits the forgiver.  That makes sense of my friend’s interest in the idea of forgiving the man who hurt her.  He’s dead, after all; what she does won’t affect him one way or the other. 

Second, to qualify as forgiveness my friend would have to save herself  “the expense of anger, the cost of hatred, the waste of spirits.”   The story of a once-for-all act of forgiveness can end with this savings.  An ongoing process in which a person copes with one loss after another sounds like it would be a very demanding thing to keep going.  Could it also be “the economy of the heart” in More’s sense?            

I wondered what else one could say, again at the abstract level available to those of us who weren’t there and don’t know what happened between my friend and the man who wronged her.  My near-total ignorance of psychological science keeps me from forming an intelligent opinion about the theories of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, but it doesn’t keep me from thinking of her terminology, no more than my ignorance of what happened to my friend keeps me from trying to come up with something helpful to say to her about it. 

You may or may not remember Kübler-Ross’ name, but I suspect you’ve heard of one of her ideas.  In her 1969 book On Death and Dying, Kübler-Ross analyzed the process of grieving into five stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.   

“Acceptance” was Kübler-Ross’ term for the period when a person facing an irreversible loss has dissolved all the aggressions and fantasies that have driven his or her first reactions to the loss.  This is a quiet period in which the person comes to terms with the new reality and prepares to make the most of it.  This would seem to fit Hannah More’s description of forgiveness. 

It strikes me that three of the other stages might be mistaken for forgiveness.  Denial, bargaining, and depression might all leave a person calm while someone who has done him or her wrong goes unpunished.  But they do not meet Hannah More’s test.  While they may not involve anger or hatred, they do restrict the person’s emotional and cognitive life.  If a person tries to stay in one of those stages longer than necessary, it will not represent the economy of the heart, but a vast and ever-growing expense. 

Kübler-Ross did not regard the first four stages as disposable; one cannot go directly to acceptance of a major loss.  There are inner battles everyone who suffers an irreversible loss must fight.  Those battles may not always come according to the plan of campaign the five stages of grief model lays out, but to believe that one can simply come to peace with an irreversible loss without going through such battles is to engage in magical thinking.  

If we identify forgiveness as a function of acceptance, then we can see that injunctions to forgive can get in the way of growth towards forgiveness.  A person who believes that s/he must grant forgiveness immediately might try to stay in denial rather than deal with anger, or might turn his or her aggression inward and plunge ever deeper into depression. 

So, if my friend has to go through the whole grieving process every time she finds another wound, her “ongoing process” of forgiveness is going to be a way of life.


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