The Branch Theory of the Church

From Wikipedia (click image for article)

One of the major contributions the English Reformation made to Christian thought is the “Branch Theory” of the church.  The idea is that there are degrees of unity among Christians, so that not every formal division between groups forces us to label those on one or both sides of the break as un-Christian.  In a blog post last year, The Reverend Mr Jonathan Mitchican, a priest of the Episcopal Church in Pennsylvania, sums up the branch theory quite lucidly.  Mr Mitchican writes:

The issue is not whether Rome, the East, and Anglicans have some secret bond of true catholicity that only the Anglicans seem to be aware of. Rather, it is that what makes a church truly Christian and truly Catholic is not automatically lost even when churches choose to separate from each other. [William] Palmer even makes the point that errors in doctrine, so long as they do not constitute out and out heresy, are not enough to remove a local church from the Catholic whole. “All errors,” he says, “even in matters of faith, are not heretical.”

He goes on to cite the most famous early theologian of Anglicanism, Richard Hooker:

In his Learned Discourse on Justification, Richard Hooker affirms the doctrine that we are saved by Christ alone through faith alone, the doctrine that Martin Luther said was the one which the Church rises or falls on, and he excoriates Rome for teaching a counter message. Nevertheless, when it comes to understanding what the Church is, Hooker took a different tack:

How far Romish heresies may prevail over God’s elect, how many God hath kept from falling into them, how many have been converted from them, is not the question now in hand; for if heaven had not received any one of that coat for these thousand years it may still be true that the doctrine which at this day they do profess doth not directly deny the foundation and so prove them to be no Christian Church…

Quoting from various Reformed sources, Hooker goes on to say that denying the title of church to Rome would be like denying the title of man to a sick man. The existence of error weakens a church but does not turn it into something else entirely any more than having a bad cold might weaken a man but does not kill him. Of course, a disease left untreated can eventually kill, but Hooker sets the bar very high. So long as Rome continues to preach that Jesus is Lord, accept and obey the Scriptures, and celebrate proper Sacraments, she cannot be left for dead.

In this paragraph, Mr Mitchican mentions alternatives to the branch theory:

Several possible options exist. The first is to do what Rome and the Eastern churches have done, to declare that their particular churches are, in fact, the whole Church and that anyone not in communion with them is outside of the Church. On the other extreme is the generic Protestant option, so often employed today under the label “non-denominational,” of suggesting that there is no real division at all, that what matters is solely correct faith and not visible communion, and that the true Church is therefore invisible, not corresponding at all with existing bodies. What Anglican ecclesiology says is that both of these options are inadequate. What we require is a much more dynamic understanding of the Church, one that accounts for the irregularity of the era we live in.

To amplify these remarks, I would quote from rather an old publication of the Church of England, Doctrine in the Church of England: The Report of the Commission on Christian Doctrine Appointed by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York in 1922 (London and New York: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1957; reprint of the original 1938 edition.)  Where Mr Mitchican says that Rome and the churches of the East “declare that their particular churches are, in fact, the whole Church and that anyone not in communion with them is outside of the Church,” the Commission phrased it rather more precisely:

Since the date of the Great Schism, 1054, the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church have each claimed to be the one Catholic Church, at least in the sense of being the sole authoritative guardian of the apostolic tradition. (page 109)

This statement makes it clear that a theory of the unity of the church must address two closely related, yet quite distinct questions: 1, who is a Christian; 2, what is the church?  Among the great strengths of the branch theory is that it makes it possible to consider these questions separately without dismissing either of them.  For example, a friend of mine was once serving as a minister in a church in an area where many people were Hindu.  The place was usually quite empty, but on Christmas Day the neighbors crowded in. He asked them what brought them.  They told him that they had come to celebrate the birth of Jesus.  “He’s one of our gods,” they cheerfully explained.  Were they Christians?  In a sense, yes.  One of the ways Jesus defines his movement in the Gospels, after all, is that where two or more are gathered in his name, there will he be (Matthew 18:20.)  But this sense hardly tells the whole story. For one thing, Jesus himself gives several other, far more restrictive definitions of who his followers are.  For another, I doubt that many of those gathered in the name of Jesus the avatar of Vishnu would be interested in claiming the title of “Christian” for themselves, and few indeed would be the self-described Christians who were prepared to yield to their authority as interpreters of the Gospel. So, “Christian” they may have been, in some special and severely limited sense of the word, but in no sense would we include them in “the church,” still less expect them to function as “the sole authoritative guardian[s] of the apostolic tradition.”

It is the rootedness in history of the branch theory that makes this distinction clear.  The worship of Vishnu, the identification of such major figures of the Hindu pantheon as Krishna as avatars of Vishnu, and the rest of the ideological and ceremonial system into which Hindu devotees of Vishnu-Jesus fit their beliefs and practices long predate the exposure of India to the story of Jesus and the presence in that country of representatives of “the apostolic tradition.”  This devotion, venerable and admirable as it no doubt is, stands apart from “the church” in a way that groups that were once in communion with the Patriarchs of both Constantinople and Rome do not.  The separation of those groups from each other represent a different challenge to followers of Jesus than do the separation of groups, even groups that revere Jesus, that have never been united under any institutional umbrella.

Doctrine in the Church of England includes two lengthy paragraphs about the unity of the church that I would like to quote in full:

The divisions among Christians, as a result of which Christendom is split up into a number of competing and rival “denominations” and “communions,” are not the least grievous among the scandals that have been mentioned.  There is a long history behind them; and in some cases, at least, there are serious divergences of principle involved, such as must needs make the way to reconciliation neither easy nor obvious.  It is, moreover, to be remembered that the life of the Christian Body is enriched by varieties of emphases and interpretation, and that historically these have been developed in their familiar forms in the several communions which have resulted from the divisions in the Church.  Yet it often happens that in developing one valuable interpretation of the Gospel, a particular communion becomes unduly restricted to this interpretation, while others may fail to receive the benefit as a result of their separation from that communion.  Further, there is a natural tendency to form sectarian loyalties, which make men unappreciative of new ideas arising from outside their communion, and prompt them to defend, out of regard for their founders and heroes of the past, traditions for which the justifying circumstances have disappeared.  Thus any gain due to division is offset by loss to the whole Body and to its parts.  The gain can be secured without loss only through a real combination of unity with liberty.

The term “schism” has historically been used with some fluctuation of meaning.  It should, however, be recognised that “schism” is, in fact, a division within the Christian Body.  That Body is not to be thought of as a single true Church, or group of Churches, with a number of “schismatic” bodies gathered around it, but as a whole which is in a state of division or “schism.”  The various “denominations” may and do differ in the degree in which they approximate either to orthodoxy of doctrine or to fullness of organised life; but, just in so far as their very existence as separate organisations constitutes a real division within Christendom, it becomes true to affirm that if any are is schism, all are in schism, so long as the breaches remain unhealed, and are affected by its consequences, at least in the sense that each in its own degree suffers the loss or defect involved in schism; and this irrespective of the question on which side rests the major responsibility for the schism.

(pages 111-112; emphasis added)

Certainly a theory of ecclesiology which identifies “the Church” with a particular organization that has a headquarters, a table of organization, and a pension fund does place some rather severe restrictions on Christian thinkers who survey the world at large.  I would cite Joseph Ratzinger as one who has made clear his dissatisfaction with the view that his particular church is “in fact, the whole Church and that anyone not in communion with [it] is outside of the Church.”  In his 1960 book The Meaning of Christian Brotherhood, the future Pope Benedict XVI wrote:

This discussion of Christian brotherhood has endeavored to apply what the New Testament says to the world today, even when what it says seems unexpected, even alien, to us.  As I followed up the references, sometimes with surprise, in my mind there arose the question of the “separated brethren,” the popular designation of Christians of differing confessions who thus express, across the gulf of their separation, their common adherence in faith to Jesus Christ, their brother.  Must this formula be discarded because the New Testament restricts brotherhood, in the narrower sense, to those who share one table, united through their common communion, which cannot exist among separated Christians?   But then, what is the relation of these Christians to one another?  Is a non-Catholic Christian, for a Catholic, the “other” brother only in the sense in which an unbaptized person is?  Or does the community of baptism and the confession of the one Lord not, in fact, impart to him a greater share of fellowship?  It is not easy to answer such questions, especially as they have seldom been asked in a sufficiently radical way, for fear of touching wounds that are still open.  And yet it is necessary to ask this, just as truth is necessary for love.

The difficulty in the way of giving an answer is a profound one.  Ultimately it is due to the fact that there is no appropriate category in Catholic thought for the phenomenon of Protestantism today (one could say the same of the relationship to the separated churches of the East.)  It is obvious that the old category of “heresy” is no longer of any value.  Heresy, for Scripture and the early Church, includes the idea of a personal decision against the unity of the Church, and heresy’s characteristic is pertinacia, the obstinacy of him who persists in his own private way.  This, however, cannot be regarded as an appropriate description of the spiritual situation of the Protestant Christian.  In the course of a now centuries-old tradition, Protestantism has made an important contribution to the realization of the Christian faith, fulfilling a positive function in the development of the Christian message and, above all, often giving rise to a sincere and profound faith in the individual non-Catholic Christian, whose separation from the Catholic affirmation has nothing to do with the pertinacia characteristic of heresy.  Perhaps we may here invert an old saying of Saint Augustine’s: that an old schism becomes a heresy.  The very passage of time alters the character of a division, so that an old division is something essentially different from a new one.  Something that was once rightly condemned as heresy cannot later simply become true, but it can gradually develop its own positive ecclesial nature, with which the individual is presented as his church and in which he lives as a believer, not as a heretic.  This organization of one group, however, ultimately has an effect on the whole.  The conclusion is inescapable, then: Protestantism today is something different from heresy in the traditional sense, a phenomenon whose true theological place has not yet been determined.

(from pages 88-89 of the 1993 translation by W. A. Glen-Doepel)

Here we see the future pontiff proposing a theory that works in the opposite way of the branch theory.  The branch theory posits a time when Christian organizations were formally united, and holds that a kind of informal unity can survive formal division.   The Ratzingerian theory does not depend on any particular answer to the historical question of whether two denominations split off from an older, united denomination.  For him, the kind of unity that Anglican divines have described from the days of Hooker to Mr Mitchican and his colleagues today can exist even between groups whose organizational structures do not spring from a common genealogy.

In his career since 1960, Joseph Ratzinger has returned to this theory time and again as an attempt to supply the “appropriate category in Catholic thought” which was still missing in that year.  He has done this both in his own writing, and in his influence on others.  We can find the signs of this theory in Pope John Paul II’s letter, Ut Unum Sintissued when Joseph Ratzinger was Prefect of the Sacred Congregation for Doctrine of the Faith, especially in the famous paragraphs about relations between Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Church (paragraphs 50-70, including the line “The Church must breathe with both lungs!” in paragraph 54,) and in John Paul’s comments about the Lutherans in paragraph 72.  And paragraph 87 is pretty nearly a paraphrase of the quote from The Meaning of Christian Brotherhood above:

87. Along the way that leads to full unity, ecumenical dialogue works to awaken a reciprocal fraternal assistance, whereby Communities strive to give in mutual exchange what each one needs in order to grow towards definitive fullness in accordance with God’s plan (cf. Eph 4:11-13). I have said how we are aware, as the Catholic Church, that we have received much from the witness borne by other Churches and Ecclesial Communities to certain common Christian values, from their study of those values, and even from the way in which they have emphasized and experienced them. Among the achievements of the last thirty years, this reciprocal fraternal influence has had an important place. At the stage which we have now reached, this process of mutual enrichment must be taken seriously into account. Based on the communion which already exists as a result of the ecclesial elements present in the Christian communities, this process will certainly be a force impelling towards full and visible communion, the desired goal of the journey we are making. Here we have the ecumenical expression of the Gospel law of sharing. This leads me to state once more: “We must take every care to meet the legitimate desires and expectations of our Christian brethren, coming to know their way of thinking and their sensibilities … The talents of each must be developed for the utility and the advantage of all”.

Here again, we see the idea that Christian groups, separated from the mainstream, can grow beyond that separation, eventually to merge into a new mainstream.

As Pope Benedict XVI, Joseph Ratzinger himself spoke in 2011 to Lutheran leaders at Martin Luther’s old monastery in Erfurt.    Praising Luther’s theological prowess and the depth of his commitment to Christ, the pontiff went on to imply that today’s Lutherans face the same challenge that Roman Catholics faced in 1517:

The geography of Christianity has changed dramatically in recent times, and is in the process of changing further. Faced with a new form of Christianity, which is spreading with overpowering missionary dynamism, sometimes in frightening ways, the mainstream Christian denominations often seem at a loss. This is a form of Christianity with little institutional depth, little rationality and even less dogmatic content, and with little stability. This worldwide phenomenon poses a question to us all: what is this new form of Christianity saying to us, for better and for worse? In any event, it raises afresh the question about what has enduring validity and what can or must be changed – the question of our fundamental faith choice.

Here Pope Benedict shows that he has reached the same conclusion as did the Church of England’s 1922 Commission.  Recall their words, quoted above: “there is a natural tendency to form sectarian loyalties, which make men unappreciative of new ideas arising from outside their communion, and prompt them to defend, out of regard for their founders and heroes of the past, traditions for which the justifying circumstances have disappeared.”  In this passage and elsewhere, Pope Benedict has suggested that the occasional inability of the Church’s human ministers to distinguish between the indispensable heart of the Christian mission and the incidental forms that mission may take from time to time was responsible for the crises that issued in the Protestant Reformation.  Here, he suggests that the same weakness which prevented Rome responding as it may have done to the crises of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries may today be preventing the Roman Catholic and Lutheran hierarchies from recognizing and fully meeting a similar challenge from the global South.  It is precisely the same chronological depth and richness of tradition that has, in Benedict’s view, ennobled Lutheranism that may also have blinded it to the need to cast aside many of the most treasured inheritances in answer to Christ’s call to enter a new world radically different from the ones in which those legacies were crafted.

I am in no position to judge between the Anglican theory and the Ratzingerian theory.  I can express only my personal preferences.  These incline me somewhat toward the Anglicans.   I suspect that Pope Benedict falls between the two stools Mr Mitchican describes.  Certainly he is in no danger of reaching the logical endpoint of the extreme Protestant rejection of historical relations among organized groups as the basis of church unity, that “what matters is solely correct faith and not visible communion, and that the true Church is therefore invisible, not corresponding at all with existing bodies,” since his theory is embedded within a defense of a particular, actually existing Christian denomination as the best venue for the formation and expression of the human person.  That is a point in his favor; if all that unites Christians is “correct faith,” and faith is a matter, not of social action, but of assent to and defense of particular abstract propositions, then the proper life for a human being is that of an internet comment box warriors, sitting alone, prepared to take all to task if they express incorrect ideas.  A path that leads to such a life can hardly be one worth traveling.

However, to the extent that his theory does not draw a distinction between the two questions “Who is a Christian?” and “What is the Church?,” Benedict cannot lead one entirely clear either of that danger or of the opposite danger, the denial that groups with which one is not in full communion are not at all Christian and the refusal to learn anything from them about the meaning of the Gospel and the mission of the Church.  For him, the Church is and can only be what the 1922 Commission explicitly said in the quote above it was not, “a single true Church, or group of Churches, with a number of “schismatic” bodies gathered around it,” since it is that “single true Church” that, however corrupted it may from time to time be by the stupidity or wickedness of its ministers, however richly it may from time to time be instructed by the witness of those outside its communion, must ultimately remain “the sole authoritative guardian of the apostolic tradition.”  The difference between Roman Catholics on the one hand and Protestants or Orthodox on the other, therefore, varies only in degree from the difference between Roman Catholics and Hindus who pay homage to Vishnu-Jesus.  If Benedict concedes that a non-Roman Catholic can be a full-fledged Christian, therefore, he is conceding that Christians can be fully formed altogether outside the influence of the historic Church.  In that case, it is difficult to see how he could explain why the worship of Vishnu-Jesus should not be classified as one of the schismatic bodies gathered around the communion of which he claims for eight years to have been the earthly head, unless by assigning to the creeds a significance that would throw us back into the world of the combox warrior.

Let us consider how Christian groups have justified claims to be “the sole authoritative guardians of the apostolic tradition.”  Many groups have done what Rome does, what Eastern Orthodoxy does, what Oriental Orthodoxy does, and claim that their hierarchies represent an unbroken succession dating back to Jesus and the Apostles, so that they are and have always been The Church.  Others claim, as William Penn claimed of his fellow Quakers, to be the embodiment of “Primitive Christianity revived,” the restoration of the original church as presented in Scripture.  These are the “Restorationists” of the chart at the top of this post.  A few groups, such as the Mormons and the Christian Scientists, claim to have received new revelations that are to be added to Scripture, and base their claim to authority on their status as recipients of these revelations.

The new revelations crowd include some of the nicest people I’ve ever met; honestly, I’ve never had an unpleasant exchange with a Mormon, and I’ve met hundreds of them.  But their founding premises are such that formal union between them and other Christian groups must surely be a most distant prospect.  Perhaps the nearest approach to such union is to be found in the Community of Christ, originally the Reorganized Church of Latter Day Saints, which seems to be well on its way to becoming a liberal mainstream Protestant denomination.  In the course of that reinvention, the Community of Christ has deemphasized all of its Mormon distinctives. It still affirms that the Book of Mormon and the Latter Day Saints’ Doctrine and Covenants are two of the “three books of Scripture,” but places the other of these three, the Bible, above them and no longer mandates the use of the Mormon writings in worship or as tests of membership.  Their name change marked a similar movement.  It may well happen that the Community of Christ will sooner or later enter into some kind of formal union with a Protestant denomination, but if it does, that will likely be because that Protestant denomination is convinced that the Community of Christ has severed all its ties to its Mormon origins.

The Restorationists have had more success in building ecumenical bridges, but they too have had to moderate their founding principles in order to do so.  If two distinct movements build themselves on the belief that they are accurate recreations of the church Christ intended to found, then a merger between them can only represent a concession that at least one of them has been wrong all along.  That seems like rather a steep hurdle in the way of formal union, though perhaps not a major obstacle practical cooperation.

That leaves the Traditionalists as the best hope for Christian unity.  And, in my not especially well-informed opinion, it seems that the branch theory is the best starting point for any project that would turn that hope into reality.

What started me thinking about all of this was a humorous little exchange I participated in yesterday on Twitter.  Nathaniel Torrey tweeted this:

(A spoof of TV’s The Big Bang Theory, in case you didn’t recognize the reference.)

In response to an inquiry from Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry, Mr Torrey gave an example of an episode:

This prompted my reply:

Micah Meadowcroft, a student at conservative bastion Hillsdale College, apparently found in the reference to sexual minorities an issue that might chop some branches off the tree of Christendom; he expressed this in the most effective possible way, through a link to a video produced a couple of decades before he was born:

 

 

 

 

 

 

Some what-ifs

I recently posted a much-too-long comment on Peter Hitchens’ blog.   Mr Hitchens had posted about one of his recurrent themes, that, contrary to what the popular phrase “special relationship” might suggest, the United States does not in fact treat the United Kingdom in a markedly more indulgent fashion than it brings to its treatment of its other allies.  He gave a series of examples of hard bargains the US had driven in its relations with the UK.  The last of these examples was the aid the US gave to Britain in the period 1940-1941, which was conditioned on Britain’s yielding to the US a large portion of its gold reserves, its shares in many US and Latin American firms, and its naval bases in the Western hemisphere. To this I responded as follows:

Well, with regard to US policy towards the British Empire in 1940 and 1941, I do think you are overlooking rather an important point. It did seem quite likely from May of 1940 on that Britain might very well surrender to Germany. The expectation that Britain would surrender seems to have motivated, for example, Hitler’s declaration of war on the USA. Without Britain among the allied powers, the USA would have been as impotent in Europe in the 1940s as Britain and France were in Poland in 1939. In view of that expectation, Hitler would likely have thought of his declaration of war on the USA on 11 December 1941 much as Argentines may have thought of their country’s declaration of war on Germany on 27 March 1945, a costless gesture designed to appease a nervous ally.

If we look back at the events between May 1940 and December 1941, not in the light of the Allies’ eventual victory, but of the United Kingdom’s probable defeat, both Washington’s demands and London’s acquiescence in them become far less of a scandal. Even if Germany had not chosen to occupy Britain after its defeat, it is likely that the Nazi regime would have found ways to help itself to at least as much of Britain’s gold reserves and other financial assets as the USA in fact claimed, making the Reich a major presence in business in the USA and the leading economic power in Latin America. Had the Nazis added Britain’s naval bases and other imperial assets in the Western Hemisphere to this economic power, the USA would have been entirely incapable of making a contribution to any war against either Germany or Japan.

In that light, I think we can see the Roosevelt government’s demands and the Churchill government’s concessions as a kind of super-Dunkirk. Without actually making British surrender more likely, these concessions represented the choice of a postwar environment in which the far Western boundary of German power would in no case exceed the shores of the Atlantic. Even in the event of the absolute worst case scenario for the UK, in which the Germans occupied and subjugated Britain, a great power would still exist somewhere in the world that was neither fascist nor communist, with a population that speaks English and courts that occasionally cite Magna Carta. Such a power might not be in a position to intervene militarily on the island of Britain, but its example could embolden guerrilla resistance to the Germans. A United Kingdom government of the period may even have harbored the fond wish that the continued viability of the USA might foster a certain residue of respect for Englishness even among Nazi occupiers. This fond wish may look silly in retrospect, as we consider what we know of the Nazi regime, but at the time might not have been an altogether contemptible basis for policy.

The alternative surrender scenario, in which the British Empire had held onto enough of its assets for its fall to terminate the USA as a world power, would in the short term have given Germany and Japan free hands in their expansionist programs. Considering how wildly those programs were inflated beyond each country’s ability to support them, in particular with regard to Germany’s invasion of Russia and Japan’s invasion of China, it seems likely that they would eventually have collapsed and brought the regimes down with them.

But that only makes the idea of Germany capturing a more-or-less-intact British Empire the more frightening. On the one hand, the Germans, unbothered by the nuisance of a Western front, would doubtless have had time to complete their extermination of European Jewry and to make great headway in their genocidal plans against Gypsies and others. On the other, the force that would eventually have defeated the Germans would not have included the USA, the UK, or any other democratic governments. The Soviet Union alone would have defeated the Reich, and the Red Army would have swept into all the territories it had once controlled. Perhaps that would have been rather a different Soviet Union than the one that actually existed in the late 1940s or early 1950s; it’s easy to imagine that Stalin, for example, would not have survived had the Second World War gone much worse than it did for the USSR. But even if the Wehrmacht had done as well against the Soviet Union as Napoleon did against the Tsar, surely it would in the end have been defeated even more thoroughly than was the Grande Armee.

And without the USA in the Western Pacific, Japan’s eventual, surely inevitable defeat in China would have come when the Kuomintang forces were even more completely exhausted than they were in 1945. That would have left Mao’s Red Army to pick up the pieces, not only in mainland China, but in surrounding countries as well. With no American forces in the region to offer an alternative, the Japanese occupations may have proved merely a prelude to a domination of East Asia by Chinese Communists, as the victories of the Third Reich may have been a prelude to the domination of the rest of the Eastern hemisphere by the Soviet Union.

A nightmare world, certainly. And, as with all nightmares, it grows from long chains of contingency. But I don’t think that any of these contingencies are either inherently unlikely to have happened, or unlikely to have haunted the minds of British and American policymakers in the period May 1940-December 1941.

This comment far exceeds the Daily Mail‘s limit of 500 words, a limit of which I was unaware when I submitted it.  (I had never posted a long comment to the Daily Mail‘s site before, amazingly enough.)  I am most grateful to Mr Hitchens for waiving that limit and allowing my post to stand as it is.

A few weeks ago, I read, for the first time, Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle.  I suppose the influence of that alternate-history novel can be seen in this comment.  I would add that, unlike Dick, I don’t propose a scenario in which the USA would be occupied by Nazi Germany and militarist Japan, merely one in which German influence in the Western hemisphere and the absence of a staging area from which to launch attacks against German positions in Europe and Africa made it impossible for the USA to fight against the Third Reich.

A few remarks about church-going

I’ve mentioned here that Mrs Acilius and I can often be found among nearby God-bothering societies, notably the Quaker meeting of which she is a member and an Episcopal parish in which we are also active.  Recently, I shared with the readers of some other blogs this fact and a partial explanation for it.

In response to a post by Rod Dreher about an unsightly and not very obviously Christian work of art placed prominently outside an Episcopal cathedral, I wrote the following:

“You know it’s a rockin’ Episcopalian argument when somebody uses the word “ghastly.” That’s like chair-throwing in any other fight.”

One recent Sunday, I was at coffee hour in the parish hall at an Episcopal church whose doors I darken on a fairly regular basis. I happened to be sitting next to a stack of books that were being reshelved. One of the books was the Book of Occasional Services. A couple of parishioners noticed it. “Does that have an Episcopalian exorcism rite?” Another replied, “Free this soul of bad taste!” Everyone laughed.

The seriousness with which they take aesthetics and lightness with which they take themselves are among the things that keep drawing me to the Episcopalians, and to Anglicans generally. Not only do I find that combination attractive in itself, but I think it is a vital corrective to a culture that relentlessly encourages the opposite traits, militantly rejecting any idea that beauty is a real thing that makes demands on us while it rewards and glorifies the weightiest self-importance and the most morbid self-absorption. The Episcopalians are in a position to make a unique contribution to breaking the spell these vices have cast on us, and so I very much hope they thrive.

That said, when I mention the Episcopal Church to people not affiliated with it the single most common response is the question, “Is that still around?” So perhaps it will take some time for their particular share of the Light to overcome the darkness around us.

I went on at even greater length in responding to a post by Alastair J. Roberts called “Hear Me Out: On Sitting Through Sermons.”  While, as a Calvinist, Mr Roberts sees the chief purpose of preaching as instruction in correct doctrine, he also puts considerable emphasis on the value of the physical act of sitting still and listening while another person speaks at length, even when relatively little of the content of that speech stays in the memory of the hearer.  This led me to expound on the role of sermons in the religious gatherings Mrs Acilius and I most regularly attend:

Very interesting. On most Sunday mornings, my wife and I attend two Christian gatherings. At 8 AM, we go to an Anglican service. Then at 11, we go to the Quakers. Different as they are, the two traditions have similar views of the proper function of sermons.

The Anglicans tend to believe that the role of the sermon, like that of each of the other prescribed parts of the liturgy, is to sweep away the distractions that might be buzzing about in one’s mind when one enters the worship space. So the penitential elements sweep away, first, the sinful preoccupations that may have taken root in our minds, then the idle guilt in which we dwell on the fact that we have been in the grips of those preoccupations. The lessons and the creed sweep away any impulse to enter theological or political disputes, reminding us as they do that we not only agree on a great deal, but that whatever disagreements do divide us have been around so long that it is unlikely we will miss anything by taking a pass on any particular opportunity to try to persuade people of the rightness of our views. Hymns and corporate prayers and greetings dramatize the fact that we’re all in this together, sweeping personal resentments aside for the time being. The preacher must have a sense of what is going on with the congregation to know which of these distractions is likely to represent the biggest distraction at any given iteration of the Eucharist and design the sermon to put some extra force behind the broom aimed at it.

Our 11 AM gathering is more of a “Friends Church” than a “Quaker meeting.” They have hymns, accompanied by an organ; a choir, accompanied by a professional pianist; a sermon, delivered by a professional preacher; and other formal practices, all laid out in a printed program and introduced by cues that must be expressed in precisely the correct words. However, the climax of all this formalization is a period of shared listening, in which we sit for ten minutes or so, many times in complete silence, but not infrequently hearing from two or three Friends who feel that the Holy Spirit has entrusted them with a message for us. Quite often this message is something along the lines of, “I forgot to mention it during the announcements, but I brought some cabbages from my garden, please take them home with you.” Be that as it may, each of those liturgical elements found its way into the practice of our branch of Quakerdom as a preparation for that shared silence. As our Anglican friends want to clear their minds to fully experience the direct encounter with Christ they find in the reception of the Eucharist, so our Friends friends want to clear their minds to fully experience the direct encounter with Christ they find “wherever two or more are gathered in [His] name.”

My wife is more of an old-fashioned Quaker than are most in our meeting. For her, the sheer act of sitting still and waiting for the Holy Spirit in a circle of others doing the same is quite enough to achieve the clarity needed for the sacramental experience. If another should speak, or pray, or break into song, that is all the better, but she does not find it necessary. The physical act, as you put it, is sufficient to prepare her for an encounter with Christ.

These two descriptions may seem to depict liturgy as therapy, or perhaps therapy as liturgy.  Certainly in each case the goal is to help people to get themselves out of their own way.  Of all the parts of the liturgy, when liturgy is conceived as preparation for sacrament, the sermon is perhaps the one where the therapeutic is most likely to make itself obvious.  Perhaps this is why sermons so often inspire resentment, because the preacher may stray too far into territory where a psychologist might have a surer touch.  And so rarely does even the most engaged preacher really know what is on the minds of more than a small fraction of her congregation; a sermon perfectly crafted to clear the minds of that fraction may be pointless or even distracting to many others.

Mr Roberts’ post is really quite excellent.  I’d also recommend one of the later comments, from someone called Tapani:

Repetition is the mother of learning. I got an A in A level maths (a long time ago; wouldn’t pass GCSE now, I suspect!)—not because I could draw on this particular lesson or that for the answers, but because I had acquired the necessary knowledge, skills and attitudes over 14 years of mathematical education. I can recall just about one specific lesson (first term of lower sixth), and that because we were being something important (differentiation, from first principles) which I failed to grasp in the lesson and was, therefore, very frustrated. And yet I got that A.

I do wonder how much of this emphasis on memorability is a by-product, or at least sister, of the experiential turn in Christianity. We seek experiences, feelings, in worship in general, so we also seek experiences (feelings, or thoughts to hang on to) in sermons too. And if we don’t get those experiences but merely individual moments of life-long Christian formation, we are dissatisfied.

The phrase “individual moments of life-long Christian formation”  strikes me as a remarkably concise statement of a distinctly Protestant view of the role of preaching.  Anglicans are Protestants too, of course, even though some of them are strangely reluctant to admit it, and Quakerism originated as a radical reimagining of Anglicanism.   I do think that a tendency to equate cases of instruction in points of doctrine with “moments of life-long Christian formation” is native to Protestantism.  Surely that phrase would more naturally suggest, to a non-Protestant Christian, the experience of the sacraments.  In that sense, the emphasis on encounters with the divine and the aversion to systematic theology that characterize Anglicanism and its offshoots marks a point at which those movements part company with the Reformed and Lutheran traditions, and move toward common ground with the Oriental Orthodox, Eastern Orthodox, and Roman Catholic churches.

Anyway, this post has the noun phrase “church-going” in its title, so here is Philip Larkin reading his poem “Church-Going“:

I am not much of a believer myself; my attitude is not really so different from Larkin’s, when one comes down to it.  I do think it would be a shame if a day were to dawn when even disbelief has finally withered away, when the last, the very last person has sought a church for what it was, and all that remains is a vague sense of “a serious house on serious earth.”  If that day never does come, and if at the end of it all there are still those like my wife and our friends among the Friends and the Anglicans who find renewal and transformation and surpassing truth in such places, I suspect the seeds from which that infinite future will have grown are striking their roots deeper in the hushed moments of sacramental encounter than in the ringing words of the dogmatist.

Illegals

On October 15, linguist Neal Whitman wrote a piece on his blog in which he conceded that there are several good reasons to avoid the term “illegal immigrant.”  He cites three of these:

  1. It is politically divisive or inflammatory.
  2. It presumes guilt before due process has been done.
  3. It is inaccurate in characterizing people who entered legally but overstayed their visa, or did not come here of their own accord.

Mr Whitman accepts all of these arguments, and grants that the term “illegal alien” is dehumanizing and should be avoided at all times.  He does register a dissent from a fourth argument, however:

[The phrase "illegal immigrant"] is nonsensical, because illegal refers to acts, not to people.

Mr Whitman categorizes this claim as “just plain silly, and grasping at straws.”  He explains:

When the noun is the agentive form of a verb, and the adjective is the morphological analog of a manner adverb, there is a common, productive rule of semantic composition that gets you to the accepted meaning. Let me illustrate with an example unburdened by controversy. If I were to say, “Sandy is a deep thinker,” it would be willfully obtuse to say, “Hey, wait a minute! People can’t be deep!” If I were to tell you, “Lee is a beautiful dancer,” I could be telling the truth even if Lee’s face, when covered by a paper bag, could still make clocks lose two minutes per hour. In short,

dances beautifully : beautiful dancer :: thinks deeply : deep thinker :: immigrates illegally : illegal immigrant

Object to the term illegal immigrant on ethical, political, or legal grounds if you want to. But don’t resort to claiming the term embodies sloppy semantics, when it’s the most natural way to refer to someone who immigrated illegally. That just makes it look like you’ll accept any old argument that favors your side, and weakens the more valid ones.

On October 17, I commented on Mr Whitman’s post as follows:

I have a reservation about “illegal immigrant.” It is a long, awkward expression (six syllables, two lexical items, several highly abstract notions embedded in it,) so people will naturally want to shorten it. And the form to which it always seems to be shortened is “illegal.” As in, “How many illegals are in the USA?” That usage doesn’t exactly invite the full range of opinions as to what our policies should be with regard to immigration. Granted, a phrase like “undocumented worker” also signals a strong preference in the same regard. Using either term suggests that the speaker has set his or her face firmly against one side of the discussion. Perhaps if we as a society declared both expressions off-limits in polite conversation, people would come up with a truly neutral term. Of course, there would always be the danger that one or both of the expressions would sneak back into the language and steel American jaws, but that’s just something we’d have to guard against.*

On October 22, functional linguist Daniel Ginsberg wrote this comment:

Full disclosure: I’m a functional linguist, so I tend to be skeptical of people talking about what “words mean” in the absence of a person who used those words to encode a specific message. Also, I’m pretty far to the left of mainstream in American politics, and I’ve spent years working with immigrants, so you can guess what my personal choice of phrase is.

That said, my intuition is that the problem with “illegal immigrant” isn’t as much in the semantics of adjective-noun compounds as in the associations with the word “illegal.” The top hits of a COCA** search for “illegal [*nn]” are “immigrants, immigration, aliens,” and after that we get into “drugs, weapons, substances, acts, dumping, gambling, arms,” as well as “workers,” which seems to be a euphemism for “immigrants.” Going down the list, other collocates that refer to human beings are always other terms for *ahem* undocumented workers: “residents,” “entrants” (into the U.S.), “population.” The top 100 collocations in COCA don’t show any “illegal” + person pairings except for “illegal immigrants” and synonyms.

So the question becomes, if the language permits “illegal N” to mean “person who did N in an illegal way,” why is N nearly exclusively reserved to signify “immigrate into the United States”? Why isn’t Bernie Madoff an “illegal banker,” or Jack Kevorkian an “illegal doctor,” or Lance Armstrong an “illegal cyclist”?

The CDA*** researcher in me says, we’re making a class of “illegal things” here, that is implicitly expressing an ideology about the nature of illegality. The contents of that class include assault weapons, addictive drugs, the pollution of waterways with industrial runoff, cutting trees on protected land, running a casino out of your basement … and sneaking across the US border because conditions in your home country are so dire that you have no hope for a better life there.

Mr Whitman’s post and the discussion appended to it presaged a news story that broke a few days later.  On October 19, the Associated Press released a statement announcing that it would continue to use the phrase “illegal immigrant” to refer to people who have entered and established residence in the United States without the permission of the legal authorities.  The wire service‘s defense of this decision reads eerily like what Mr Whitman had posted a few days before:

Finally, there’s the concern that “illegal immigrant” offends a person’s dignity by suggesting his very existence is illegal. We don’t read the term this way. We refer routinely to illegal loggers, illegal miners, illegal vendors and so forth. Our language simply means that a person is logging, mining, selling, etc., in violation of the law — just as illegal immigrants have immigrated in violation of the law. (Precisely to respect the dignity of people in this situation, the Stylebook warns against such terms as “illegal alien,” “an illegal” or “illegals.”)

The press release goes on to describe circumstances in which the AP would avoid the phrase or add qualifications to it, descriptions which again recall Mr Whitman’s agreement that the first three arguments he cites constitute good reasons for using another expression:

The first thing to note is that “illegal immigrant” is not the only term we use. The Stylebook entry on this subject was modified a year ago to make clear that other wording is always acceptable, including “living in the country without legal permission.”

In fact, there are cases where “illegal immigrant” doesn’t work at all. For instance, if a young man was brought into the country by parents who entered illegally, he didn’t consciously commit any act of “immigration” himself. It’s best to describe such a person as living in the country without legal permission, and then explain his story.

There are also cases where a person’s right to be in the country is currently in legal dispute; in such a case, we can’t yet say the person is here illegally.

But what about the cases where we do write “illegal immigrants”? Why not say “undocumented immigrants” or “unauthorized immigrants,” as some advocates would have it?

To us, these terms obscure the essential fact that such people are here in violation of the law. It’s simply a legal reality.

Terms like “undocumented” and “unauthorized” can make a person’s illegal presence in the country appear to be a matter of minor paperwork. Many illegal immigrants aren’t “undocumented” at all; they may have a birth certificate and passport from their home country, plus a U.S. driver’s license, Social Security card or school ID. What they lack is the fundamental right to be in the United States.

Without that right, their presence is illegal. Some say the word is inaccurate, because depending on the situation, they may be violating only civil, not criminal law. But both are laws, and violating any law is an illegal act (we do not say “criminal immigrant”).

Mr Whitman’s blog is titled “Literal-Minded“; its tagline is “Linguistic Commentary from a Guy Who Takes Things Too Literally.”  So when he argues that the rules of English semantics permit a construction like “illegal immigrant,” it is quite believable that his agenda does not go beyond the explication of those rules.  The sheer fact that the phrase is well-formed does not mean that anyone should ever use it, and so his argument is by no means a defense of its use.  He recognizes this; the AP does not.  Its press release offers no defense of the phrase beyond its formal admissibility as a semantic structure, and does not answer any of the objections Mr Whitman had so readily acknowledged.

On October 31, Slate magazine carried a piece by Kerry Howley, associated with the title “Is Saying ‘Illegal Immigrant’ Like Saying ‘Illegal Logger‘?”  Ms Howley reports on the AP’s decision; a photo accompanying the piece carries the caption “Support for undocumented immigrants at the Democratic National Convention. Supporters of illegal loggers never showed.”  Neither Mr Whitman nor the AP had mentioned any particular group or individual that had asked the wire service to discontinue use of the phrase “illegal immigrant”; Ms Howley links to a website associated with the campaign known as “Drop the I Word.”  In response to the AP’s observation that “[t]erms like ‘undocumented’ and ‘unauthorized’ can make a person’s illegal presence in the country appear to be a matter of minor paperwork,” Ms Howley argues:

“Illegal” suggests fault with immigrants rather than the system of laws in which they are ensnared. It’s possible that illegal loggers are illegal because of poorly drawn statutes about public land—maybe they’re really freedom loggers—but that’s not the connotation.

“Undocumented” places the burden on the bureaucracy rather than on the moral integrity of any particular person. That’s the correct position in my view, and I reveal prior judgments when I use the word “undocumented” just as restrictionists do when they say “illegal.” What’s bizarre is that the Associated Press, having deemed “undocumented” a loaded term, thinks “illegal” to be perfectly descriptive, sprung from nowhere, privileging no side of the debate. It may be that there is no objective term with which to describe people guilty of being in a particular space without state permission. You have to pick one and own it, which “Drop the I-word” seems to recognize. They suggest you start saying “NAFTA Refugee.”

Here Ms Howley echoes my comment of the 17th, though without my suggestion that we might try to invent a new term that will be neutral.  Of course, I made that suggestion in less than total earnestness- there doesn’t seem to be any great demand for detached, objective discussion of immigration policy, much less for new vocabulary to promote such discussion.  All sides of the debate are driven by people who favor policies which they regard as indispensable to their livelihoods.  In that position, people look at words as weapons with which to fight the enemies who threaten them, not as laboratory equipment with which to gain understanding.  So when you choose your words, you choose your battles.

*None of the subsequent commenters said anything about “steel American jaws,” a line of which I was somewhat proud.  I would have been happy if they had said it made them laugh, but I’m not upset that they didn’t. 

**COCA = the Corpus of Contemporary American English

***CDA = Critical Discourse Analysis

A possible etymology of the name “Acilius”

I’ve long used “Acilius” as my screen-name, in tribute to Gaius Acilius, a Roman historian who was alive and doing interesting things in 155 BC.  It never occurred to me that anyone would know the etymology of the name “Acilius”; it was quite an old name among the Romans, and they did not really keep track of that sort of thing in those days.

A couple of months ago, I happened onto a post on the blog “Paleoglot” which led me to wonder if there might not be a way to explore the question of where the gens Acilia found its name.  Blogger Glen Gordon analyzes various occurrences of a stem acil- in Etruscan.  In his conclusion, Mr Gordon offers these definitions to cover the occurrences he has discussed:

I think we could define the English translations of the whole word family much better as part of a grander morphological design:

*aχ (v.) = ‘to do, to make, to cause’
> acas (v.) = ‘to craft, to make’
> acil (n.) = ‘thing, act; rite, holy service’ (> acil (v.) = ‘to do rites, to worship’)

The implied underlying verb here, *aχ, reminds me very much of the Indo-European *h₂eǵ-, as if borrowed from Latin agere ‘to drive, lead, conduct, impel’.

This intrigues me very much.  If the Etruscans borrowed such a word from Latin, that would suggest that the usual story about the relationship between Etruscan religion and Roman religion is misleading.  Rather than a situation in which the Etruscans molded the religious practices and ideas of their subjects, the early Romans, the presence of a Latinate word in Etruscan religious vocabulary would suggest a reciprocal relationship between the hegemonic Etruscans and their vassals.

On the other hand, if the similarity between acil- and agere is a mere coincidence, another possibility presents itself.  This is where the Acilii come to mind.  Perhaps the name “Acilius” is a combination of the Etruscan root acil-, with its sense of performing holy service, and the Latinate suffix -ius.  A fairly exact equivalent could be suggested, as chance would have it, in the English name “Priestley,” where the borrowed word priest is combined with the indigenous suffix -ley.  So perhaps all these years I’ve been unwittingly associating myself with such distinguished polymaths as Joseph Priestley and J. B. Priestley.

Without a net

I’ve written long comments recently on two blogs, Secular Right and Kenan Malik’s Pandaemonium.  Both of these blogs are written by and for secular-minded people who value freedom of speech.  As its name would indicate, Secular Right usually favors a conservative political agenda; Mr Malik is a man of the center-left in politics.

A week ago, Mr Malik posted this “Jesus and Mo” strip at Pandaemonium.  Mr Malik said that the strip said in fewer than 50 words what he took more than 4000 words to say in this talk earlier last year:

I for one preferred Mr Malik’s talk, and explained why in this long comment:

I think you and Plato, in the talk to which you link, do a better job of handling this particular question than Jesus and Mo do. The greatest advantage religious codes of conduct have over the philosophical study of ethics is that they are slower to collapse into debates about contrived hypothetical scenarios.

I should explain that in his talk, delivered to theology students at the University of Bristol, Mr Malik had discussed Plato’s dialogue Euthyphro, in which Socrates asks a man named Euthyphro* if it is the will of the gods that makes an act good, or if it is the goodness of an act that makes the gods will it.  Euthyphro tries to answer, and like most of the amateur philosophers Socrates encounters in Plato’s dialogues quickly gets lost in a tangle of abstractions and finds himself making absurd, self-contradictory remarks.  Mr Malik suggests that a rephrasing of the central dilemma in which Euthyphro finds himself would be “Is God good because to be good is to be whatever God is; or is God good because He has all the properties of goodness? If it is the former, then we find once more that goodness is arbitrary, since it would be whatever God happened to be. If, on the other hand, God is good because he has all the properties of goodness, then it means that such  properties can be specified independently of God.”  In the first case, belief in God or in any other kind of supernatural order would not be sufficient to provide a rational basis for morality; in the latter case, such belief would not be necessary to provide that basis.  So the point I was making in this opening paragraph was that Euthyphro has a bigger problem even than that, and that it is one which a believer might be able to escape.

Unlike the cartoon Jesus and Mo, actually existing Christians and Muslims can refer to bodies of law and traditions of practice that have steadily been growing in tandem with conditions of daily life among vast populations for centuries. So they can answer questions like these with “It depends,” and avail themselves of a tremendous amount of material on which the answer might depend.

Someone setting out to create a philosophical system, by contrast, occupies the position in which Socrates found Euthyphro. With only abstractions as building material, such a person cannot distinguish between extreme situations in which moral reasoning is unlikely to produce useful conclusions and normative situations in which we can be expected to achieve moral clarity, Still less can such a person establish a hierarchy of cases and rules that will define some cases as analogous to others, therefore usable as precedents to decide right action in those other cases. That is so even in the case of someone like Euthyphro, whose kit of abstractions includes theological abstractions.

In other words, Euthyphro’s problem is not that he is approaching morality in terms of the wrong abstractions, but that he is approaching it in abstract terms at all.  The occasion of the dialogue is that Euthyphro is prosecuting his own father on a charge of murder.  Socrates wants to know how anyone could have so little filial piety.  In his questioning of Euthyphro, he finds that the man’s devotion to his abstract, and as it happens ill-thought-out, notions of justice has deadened him to family feeling and made him into a sort of monster.  At the close of his talk, Mr Malik seems to have such monsters in mind when he writes “The human condition is that of possessing no moral safety net. No God, no belief in God, no amount of ethical concrete, can protect us from the dangers of falling off that moral tightrope that is to be human. That can be a highly disconcerting prospect. Or it can be a highly exhilarating one. Being human, the choice is ours.”  This follows a discussion of Albert Camus, whose thought Mr Malik seems to recommend we use to help keep our balance as we walk this tightrope.

I value Albert Camus’ works highly, but I think the path to sanity runs not through books, but through human relationships.  As we try to hold onto each other, as we imitate each other, as we take up work that earlier generations began before we were born and that later generations will continue after we die, as we draw on past experience to find analogies that will help us resolve present difficulties, we connect with each other and with the world around us.  It is in those activities and the striving for the immediate that underpins them that we avoid the fate of Euthyphro.  What we need is not the “ethical concrete” Mr Malik disparages, but a concrete ethics of actual experience and loving relationships with people who are close enough to us that it would hurt if they didn’t love us back.

If theological abstractions drift about unmoored to codes of conduct and myth and ceremonial, they are little different from other abstractions. So if instead of Jesus and Muhammad, the cartoon showed Sam Harris declaring that moral questions should somehow be reduced to neurological questions, it would be just as easy to show the cartoon version of Mr Harris presented with some lifeboat scenario, and to conclude with him scratching his head as he tried to resolve that scenario by looking at an fMRI scan as it is to show Jesus and Muhammad stymied in an attempt to find a similar solution in their holy books. That would be no more cutting against Mr Harris than the present cartoon is against Jesus and Muhammad, since his appeal, like theirs, is not to any particular document, but to a deep and rich tradition of shared practice and mutual understanding. In his case, that appeal is to science, in theirs, to religion. At the end of the day, none of these appeals is more convincing to me than it is to you, but they are far more powerful than the sorts of arguments Euthyphro and his heirs make.

In his talk, Mr Malik had mentioned his disagreement with Sam Harris about the role of science in ethical debates.  He claims that there is a dividing line between himself on one side, and Mr Harris and Euthyphro on the other: “Sam Harris, one of the so-called New Atheists, and perhaps the most strident of contemporary critics of faith, in his book The Moral Landscape, attacks both religion and moral relativism, arguing that moral values are in reality moral facts and as facts they can be scientifically understood by studying brain and behaviour. ‘The wellbeing of humans and animals must depend on states of the world and on states of their brains’, he writes, ‘and science represents our most systematic means of understanding these states’.   Science, and neuroscience, do not simply explain why we might respond in particular ways to equality or to torture but also whether equality is a good, and torture morally acceptable. A Christian might look to the Bible to help distinguish right and wrong, good and evil. Harris would look in an fMRI scanner.”  Mr Malik links to a detailed critique of Mr Harris’ views that he offered last year.

I made very similar points in an even longer comment I posted on Secular Right in September.  In a post called “What is it like to be a theist?,” John Derbyshire mentioned this review of a book in which philosopher Alvin Plantinga defends belief in God as defined by the Reformed tradition in Christianity.  I haven’t read that book, but I am familiar with Professor Plantinga’s other works, and so I made some remarks about them.  That brought a friendly response from “Steve Cardon,” which was all I needed to prompt me to post this:

@Steve Cardon: Thanks for the kind words, and for several very interesting ideas.

I’m going off to think more about what you’ve written. All I know I want to say now is this:

“I can make up a story far more sophisticated and satisfying than those that have gone before. The idea that relatively backwards cultures can provide us with the ultimate answers to the universe is patently ridiculous.”

That may well be so, but the stories are only one part, usually a rather small part, of what religions offer their followers. Myths, doctrines, ritual, ceremonial, etc, all work together to help bind generation to generation and create a community with a sense of shared purpose.

Likewise with “the ultimate answers to the universe.” Religions, including ancient religions, can give you some questions about the universe, an expectation that the universe is set up to answer those questions, and a sense that it is urgent to find those answers, but the particular answers people offer are never as important as they seem at the time. So in debates about science or sexuality or economic systems or environmental policy or what have you, believers proclaim opinions in the firm conviction that they are speaking with the voice of the ancients. There we see believers feeling that their generation is bound to generations before and that they represent a project that will continue into generations yet unborn, and in some cases repeating language that they inherited from old texts.

Yet their ideas, however antique the language in which they are expressed, are about topics no one had ever heard of until recent decades. What would Moses have thought of the theory of evolution, or relativity, or the heliocentric model of the Solar System? Probably nothing- these ideas all answer questions he never asked and rely on concepts no one in the time of the Pharaohs had ever imagined. What would Paul have thought of the people in the contemporary West who want to marry members of the same sex? Again, probably nothing, certainly nothing useful. Family structure and sex roles in our time are so radically different from anything known in the Roman Empire that neither side of the debate would have been intelligible to him. Yet there are believers who find it necessary, and evidently find it gratifying, to try to square the findings of science with the earliest Hebrew scriptures and to analyze twenty-first century family formation in accord with formulas drawn from Paul’s writings. Their ideas are not ancient ideas, but their words may be ancient words. That alone seems to suffice to give them assurance of continuity.

*When I was in college, one of my Greek professors pointed out that the name “Euthyphro” is formed from Greek words meaning “broad-browed” or “wide-headed.”  So, when students translated the dialogue in class, he insisted that they call Euthyphro “Meathead.”   That was long enough ago that all of remembered this guy, and we laughed at the image of him as Socrates’ respondent.

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.

Where the action is these days

I haven’t posted much here lately, though I’ve been quite active at our sister site, Thunderlads After Hours (our tumblr.)  Just today, I put up three pictures of dogs riding tricycles, as well as a post that starts with an old Peanuts strip, continues with a quote from Oliver Cromwell, and concludes with a remark about the purpose of theology.  Also today, I put up a quote from Franz Kafka and added a comment in which I tried to explain my attitude towards mysticism.  In fact, I posted a total of fifteen things there today.  Aside from the five I’ve listed, the rest are just photos to which I added little or no comment when I saw them on my dash and hit “reblog.”    That’s the thing about tumblr, it’s so easy to slap stuff up there.

 

“If politicians would stop arguing, they could work together– to get things done! Doesn’t matter what! Just, you know– things!”

The other day, The Monkey Cage featured a post called “Why Does Congress Flail?  Voters Reward Positions More than Success.”  As the title implies, the premise of the post was that the US Congress has been relatively ineffective in passing major legislation of late because its members know that their jobs depend, not on passing bills into law, but on striking poses that resonate with the ideological leanings of their constituents.

In a comment, I challenged the first part of the premise.  In the last ten years, the US Congress has in fact passed a great deal of major legislation, changing American government and American life far more profoundly than in almost any other epoch of US history.  Among this legislation are bills funding several wars, permitting the president to wiretap virtually anyone he likes, maintaining indefinite detention of persons accused of terrorism, creating the Department of Homeland Security, formalizing a variety of terrorism watch-lists, adding a prescription drug benefit to Medicare, requiring citizens to buy health insurance, dramatically expanding the federal role in education, handing a trillion dollars of taxpayers’ money to Goldman Sachs and companies friendly to it, and repeatedly cutting taxes on the largest incomes, to name just a few measures with vast ramifications.  It’s true that members of congress rarely cite these achievements in their reelection bids.  That isn’t because they are unimportant, but because none of them is at all popular.  If these acts constitute “success,” then it is no wonder voters don’t reward it.  Rather, it is a mystery that voters don’t punish such “success” by deserting both the Republican and Democratic parties, and replacing their entire set of political leaders.

Yet one still hears Americans who wish to be regarded as “moderate,” or “centrist,” or “responsible” say that top elected officials in Washington should stop battling with each other so that they can be more effective at “getting things done.”  I’ve found that the people who say this seem puzzled when I point out how much has “gotten done” in Washington since 2001 .  What seems equally difficult for them to grasp is the point Tom Tomorrow makes in this cartoon::

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