Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Why the Pontificator and I Don't Agree What the Issue Is

Fr. Kimel ("the Pontificator") has replied to my post "'How Do I Get a Gracious God?' in the Intertestamental Era." Unfortunately, since neither appear to see each others' reply as at all relevant to the points originally raised there isn't so much dialogue as a mere exchange of opinions.

But let me try to analyze why we aren't on the same page. The main reason, I think, is that we use different loci to analyze Luther's theology and especially his anfechtung (roughly "temptation"). For me, the place to go to for an understanding of the role of anfecthtung in Luther's theology is public writings like the Bondage of the Will, which contains several discussions of the temptation to hate God and reject Him. (His commentaries on Romans contains similar passages). The Pontificator, as he shows in his reply, sees the place to go as Luther's autobiographical comments in which he describes his six hours of confession, and so on.

This difference in starting point has an important influence on our conclusions. In his published works, Luther's temptations are presented in their theological context, as things that flow out of his right or wrong view of God and man. His temptations thus appear as personal versions of general theological dilemmas, such as the theodicy question. As I have tried to show (if you're interested you can follow the links in my original post), Luther's intense thoughts on this question, as seen in his published works such as Bondage of the Will, show parallels with those in, for example, Harriet Beecher Stowe and the apocryphal Jewish writing 2 Esdras. Common themes include the injustice of the world in which the wicked flourish and the innocent are tormented, the fact that we are born with ignorance, lusts, and hatreds that so often damn us, and these burdens weigh so much heavier on some than others, the contrast of happy animals with miserable man whose superior gifts are not a gift but a curse because virtually all misuse it, the agony of having no way to intercede for one's loved ones : these are all common themes in this "temptation" to curse God and die. Reflections of many of these same themes can be found in the writings of Paul. (I forbear to cite Job and the Psalms.) By contrast, when one focuses on Luther's autobiographical reflections, the issue naturally becomes one of Luther's personal peculiarities, seemingly unrelated to any theological issue. As usual in reading a explanation of one's personal history, one naturally plays up the introspective angle, when Luther as a theologian (as opposed to a recounter of his own story) played up the extrinsically presented occasions for doubt and unbelief.

The problem with this focus on autobiography is that, of course, we have no way of knowing if Paul or any other figure of the time was similarly introspective. None of them have left us anything like Luther's "Tabletalk." What was Paul like as a Rabbinic Jew? Did he obsessively wash his hands? Was he morbidly afraid of contact with Gentiles? Who knows? After all, we don't even know what his "thorn in the flesh" was. As a result, we are free to imagine Paul or the early Christians as being entirely free from all of the personal peculiarities we find in all the people around us, simply because there was no genre for a "warts and all" biography in the Judeo-Christian world of the time.* And when we ask about the everyday pastoral realities in the early church (say first four centuries) -- e.g. "was conviction of sin a big part in their conversion?" -- the fact is, unless there is some vast body of material I don't know about, we are all dealing mostly in speculation. There just isn't a whole lot of evidence to go on, and accusations of projection point in many different directions.** Thus it seems to me to be far fairer and more likely to produce enlightenment if we compare like with like: Paul's writings about divine justice in the damnation of those we love in Romans, with that in (for example) Bondage of the Will or 2 Esdras, rather than comparing the apple of Paul's theological writings with the orange of Luther's autobiographical comments at the dinner table.

As indicated in his title, Fr. Kimel thinks the crux of the issue is "who is responsible for Luther's anfechtung"? This is another outgrowth of his seeing such anfechtungen as a species of spiritual illness. Perhaps it is relevant to some other debate over Luther's anfechtung, but I don't think it is relevant to my reading of it. Why? Because I don't blame the catalogue of "temptation"-inducing thoughts I presented above on late medieval Catholicism, on Judaism, on double predestination or any other culturally/theologically contingent phenomenon. I blame them on the facts of life that anyone can see around them. One can eliminate such thoughts only by eliminating injustice, unbelief, and immorality in the world, or else by abandoning belief in a just and good Creator who orders all things and is holy and condemns sin. (Let me just state, as I have a number of times, I don't believe free will solves the issue at all. Uriel's comfort is no comfort to those who mourn.)

What might solve it, of course (while presenting many other problems) is universalism (as the frequent universalist commentator Joel points out). Perhaps I should not have implied that Fr. Kimel is unusual in his leaning to universalism, when of course we all have this tendency which is the tendency of the era (I've changed that in the original post). (It is fair to point out that of all the "conservative" Christian church bodies, the Catholic one appears to be the most accomodating to universalism.) But if one believes in one's gut the potential reality and danger of hell for the whole world that scoffs at Christ, then anfechtung will come. (And with it psychological explanations: "Oh, you're just projecting your hostility at people who won't conform to your rigid ideas of goodness.")

To me the question is not "Who is (the bad guy or doctrine) responsible for Luther's anfechtung?" but given that pretty much all believers in a good, just, and holy Creator God will feel that way if they are sensitive to the weight of sin and suffering in the world, what do we do about it? What is the proper theological response?

*Augustine's Confession are the exception that prove the rule; and even that is, it seems, rather evasive on many points.

**Is there a common human nature, such that people in the past are fundamentally like us, or rather should we say that "the past is a foreign country"? This is one of those big questions on which historical fashion floats first one way and then another. Perhaps another basic difference between Fr. Kimel and myself is that I am fairly skeptical of the "discovery of the self" or the "invention of childhood" or "the rise of the modern" or the "origin of consciousness in the break down of the bicameral mind" and all the other Hegelian narratives of unconscious exteriorizing past to conscious introspective present.

Monday, May 29, 2006

"How Do I Get a Gracious God?" in the Intertestamental Era

The Pontificator has recently voiced a sentiment I've heard expressed before: that Luther's agonizing search for a gracious God was a personal eccentricity, or perhaps a sickness of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but in any case not a question that would have made sense to the Apostle Paul from whom Luther sought to find the solution to his great question.

“How do I get a gracious God?” . . . I cannot imagine the question being posed in the early centuries of the Church. Christians then simply knew God was gracious. They rejoiced in his paschal triumph over death and the Pentecostal gift of the Spirit. They were confident they would share in his Kingdom. They had been made new creatures by water and Holy Spirit. They now shared in the divine life of the Holy Trinity. Each Sunday they ate the Body and Blood of their Savior. They knew their God was a God of love and mercy, and so they lived their lives in hope. There were no guarantees, of course. They knew they possessed the power to turn away from salvation and enslave themselves once again to sin and death. And so, like the Apostle, they worked out their salvation in “fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12). Yet as far as I can tell, few suffered from a “terrified conscience.” There was no crisis of assurance.

Well, this is very odd. Apart from the fairly obvious counter-examples in the New Testament, one of the great pieces of doubt and despair of God's justice and mercy can be found as an appendix to Jerome's Vulgate as 4 Esdras. (Esdras is the Greek form for Ezra; in the Vulgate, what we call Ezra is called 1 Esdras, and what we call Nehemiah is 2 Esdras. Today 4 Esdras is generally termed 2 Esdras or the Apocalypse of Ezra). This is a Jewish text of the first century or so, preserved in Jerome's Latin translation and considered canonical in the Old Church Slavonic and Ethiopian Bibles. (RSV Text and NRSV text)

The work begins* with "Esdras" praying to God about how the Gentiles sin but Israel does not, yet God allows the Gentiles to oppress Israel:

"Then I said in my heart, Are the deeds of those who inhabit Babylon any better? Is that why she has gained dominion over Zion? For when I came here I saw ungodly deeds without number, and my soul has seen many sinners during these thirty years. And my heart failed me, for I have seen how thou dost endure those who sin, and hast spared those who act wickedly, and hast destroyed thy people, and hast preserved thy enemies, and hast not shown to any one how thy way may be comprehended. Are the deeds of Babylon better than those of Zion? Or has another nation known thee besides Israel? Or what tribes have so believed thy covenants as these tribes of Jacob? Yet their reward has not appeared and their labor has borne no fruit. For I have traveled widely among the nations and have seen that they abound in wealth, though they are unmindful of thy commandments. Now therefore weigh in a balance our iniquities and those of the inhabitants of the world; and so it will be found which way the turn of the scale will incline. When have the inhabitants of the earth not sinned in thy sight? Or what nation has kept thy commandments so well? Thou mayest indeed find individual men who have kept thy commandments, but nations thou wilt not find."

Uriel the angel first tells "Esdras" that he could not understand the ways of God, but then gives him signs of the Apocalypse to come. There is much discussion of the sufferings of Israel and creation, leading "Esdras" to cry out:

"All this I have spoken before thee, O Lord, because thou hast said that it was for us [i.e. Israel] that thou didst create this world. As for the other nations which have descended from Adam, thou hast said that they are nothing, and that they are like spittle, and thou hast compared their abundance to a drop from a bucket. And now, O Lord, behold, these nations, which are reputed as nothing, domineer over us and devour us. But we thy people, whom thou hast called thy first-born, only begotten, zealous for thee, and most dear, have been given into their hands. If the world has indeed been created for us, why do we not possess our world as an inheritance? How long will this be so?" (6:55-59)

In the end, "Esdras's" sorrow for Israel seems to be swallowed up in a greater pain as he contemplates the misery of all the children of Adam:

I answered and said, "O sovereign Lord, I said then and I say now: Blessed are those who are alive and keep thy commandments! But what of those for whom I prayed? For who among the living is there that has not sinned, or who among men that has not transgressed thy covenant? And now I see that the world to come will bring delight to few, but torments to many. For an evil heart has grown up in us, which has alienated us from God, and has brought us into corruption and the ways of death, and has shown us the paths of perdition and removed us far from life -- and that not just a few of us but almost all who have been created!"

He answered me and said, "Listen to me, Ezra, and I will instruct you, and will admonish you yet again. For this reason the Most High has made not one world but two."

Uriel goes on to say that obviously the precious is rare and the base is common, just as with metals and stones, concluding thus:

So also will be the judgment which I have promised; for I will rejoice over the few who shall be saved, because it is they who have made my glory to prevail now, and through them my name has now been honored. And I will not grieve over the multitude of those who perish; for it is they who are now like a mist, and are similar to a flame and smoke -- they are set on fire and burn hotly, and are extinguished." (7:60-61)

Somehow, "Esdras" isn't comforted and cries out:

I replied and said, "O earth, what have you brought forth, if the mind is made out of the dust like the other created things! For it would have been better if the dust itself had not been born, so that the mind might not have been made from it. But now the mind grows with us, and therefore we are tormented, because we perish and know it. Let the human race lament, but let the beasts of the field be glad; let all who have been born lament, but let the four-footed beasts and the flocks rejoice! For it is much better with them than with us; for they do not look for a judgment, nor do they know of any torment or salvation promised to them after death. For what does it profit us that we shall be preserved alive but cruelly tormented? For all who have been born are involved in iniquities, and are full of sins and burdened with transgressions. And if we were not to come into judgment after death, perhaps it would have been better for us." (7:62-69)

Uriel's answer is that it is precisely because people have mind but misuse it, so almost all of them will be destroyed, and that "Esdras" should not mourn for them, as if he were one of the lost.

But this answer does not satisfy him, and he asks, perhaps in hope that there might be some intercession of the just for the unrighteous on Judgment Day. No such luck, Uriel informs him:

"The day of judgment is decisive and displays to all the seal of truth. Just as now a father does not send his son, or a son his father, or a master his servant, or a friend his dearest friend, to be ill or sleep or eat or be healed in his stead, so no one shall ever pray for another on that day, neither shall any one lay a burden on another; for then every one shall bear his own righteousness and unrighteousness."

I answered and said, "How then do we find that first Abraham prayed for the people of Sodom, and Moses for our fathers who sinned in the desert, and Joshua after him for Israel in the days of Achan, and Samuel in the days of Saul, and David for the plague, and Solomon for those in the sanctuary, and Elijah for those who received the rain, and for the one who was dead, that he might live, and Hezekiah for the people in the days of Sennacherib, and many others prayed for many? If therefore the righteous have prayed for the ungodly now, when corruption has increased and unrighteousness has multiplied, why will it not be so then as well?"

He answered me and said, "This present world is not the end; the full glory does not abide in it; therefore those who were strong prayed for the weak. But the day of judgment will be the end of this age and the beginning of the immortal age to come, in which corruption has passed away, sinful indulgence has come to an end, unbelief has been cut off, and righteousness has increased and truth has appeared. Therefore no one will then be able to have mercy on him who has been condemned in the judgment, or to harm him who is victorious
" (7:102-115).

At this news "Esdras" cannot forbear to lament again over mankind,

I answered and said, "This is my first and last word, that it would have been better if the earth had not produced Adam, or else, when it had produced him, had restrained him from sinning. For what good is it to all that they live in sorrow now and expect punishment after death? O Adam, what have you done? For though it was you who sinned, the fall was not yours alone, but ours also who are your descendants. For what good is it to us, if an eternal age has been promised to us, but we have done deeds that bring death? And what good is it that an everlasting hope has been promised to us, but we have miserably failed? Or that safe and healthful habitations have been reserved for us, but we have lived wickedly? Or that the glory of the Most High will defend those who have led a pure life, but we have walked in the most wicked ways? Or that a paradise shall be revealed, whose fruit remains unspoiled and in which are abundance and healing, but we shall not enter it, because we have lived in unseemly places? Or that the faces of those who practiced self-control shall shine more than the stars, but our faces shall be blacker than darkness? For while we lived and committed iniquity we did not consider what we should suffer after death" (7:116-126)

Uriel says simply that they knew the rules and broke them, so no one will grieve over their destruction, and in any case, Esdras should talk as if he was one of the lost.

Esdras then appeals to Uriel for a word of comfort in the name of God's mercy, and the angel replies,

He answered me and said, "The Most High made this world for the sake of many, but the world to come for the sake of few. But I tell you a parable, Ezra. Just as, when you ask the earth, it will tell you that it provides very much clay from which earthenware is made, but only a little dust from which gold comes; so is the course of the present world. Many have been created, but few shall be saved" (8:1-3)

It goes on, and always Uriel emphasizes that "Esdras" must not feel bad for the vast majority of humanity, for whom hell-fire is all they were ever good for anyway.

Doesn't this remind you of Luther saying, in the Bondage of the Will:

Doubtless it gives the greatest possible offense to common sense or natural reason, that God, Who is proclaimed as being full of mercy and goodness, and so on, should of His own mere will abandon, harden, and damn men, as though he delighted in the sins and great eternal torments of such wretches. It seems an iniquitous, cruel, intolerable thought to think of God; and it is this that has been a stumbling block to so many great men down the ages. And who would not stumble at it? I have stumbled at it myself more than once, down to the deepest pit of despair, so that I wish I had never been made a man. (That was before I knew how health-giving that despair was and how close to grace.) This is why so much toil and trouble has been devoted to clearing the goodness of God, and throwing the blame on man's will. It is at this point that distinctions have been invented between God's will of appointment and absolute will, between necessity of consequence and of things consequent, and many more such. But nothing has been achieved by means of them beyond imposing upon the unlearned by empty verbiage . . . (Bondage of the Will, p. 217).

Or doesn't it sound like the agony of Mrs. Marvyn voicing the misery of Harriet Beecher Stowe over the loss of her child in an accident before he had become regenerate?

Or like Paul, wishing and hoping that he could die for his Jewish brethren:

I say the truth in Christ, I lie not, my conscience also bearing me witness in the Holy Ghost, that I have great heaviness and continual sorrow in my heart. For I could wish that myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh.

And who feels the terrible weight of Adam's sin:

I find then a law, that, when I would do good, evil is present with me. For I delight in the law of God after the inward man, but I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?

And hopes for the end of time as the release from our misery:

For we know that the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now. And not only they, but ourselves also, which have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for the adoption, to wit, the redemption of our body.

Or the disciples who asked (surely they weren't worried, were they?):

Then said one unto him, 'Lord, are there few that be saved?' And he said unto them, 'Strive to enter in at the strait gate: for many, I say unto you, will seek to enter in, and shall not be able.'

And who heard warnings like this:

"Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven. Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity."

And responded like this:

When his disciples heard it, they were exceedingly amazed, saying, "Who then can be saved?"

And this:

When Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus' knees, saying, "Depart from me; for I am a sinful man, O Lord."

Of course, one could claim that none of these figures are mature Catholics nourished with the fullness of Catholic doctrine. But remember, the argument is, "Luther's agony has nothing in common psychologically with Paul's." But the writings of Esdras form a remarkable middle term between the two, making a contemporary and historically plausible explanation of the temptations to doubt and blasphemy that laid the biographical background of Paul's theology, just as it lay behind Luther's. Imagine a Jew like the author of 2 Esdras being met with a Christian -- how would he respond? With hatred, quite likely, as one who threatens the one plank left of the shipwreck of humanity on which Israel alone -- and only a remnant of Israel at that -- clings forlorn in the gathering waves. But what if he came to see Jesus on the cross and resurrected to life as the answers to his questions -- answers much better than those of the brutal and callous angel Uriel. Would he not be born again?

And of course, Uriel's answer is that of the Erasmus: if anyone doubts about God's justice, apply a big fat dollop of "they had free will so they deserve it" and call me in the morning. Who will free me from this body of death? What's the answer? Free will -- or "Thanks be to God -- through Jesus Christ our Lord!"

And I really wonder if the Pontificator's description of the early church is not a fantasy. Where is Origen's self-castration? Where is the eagerness to seek martyrdom? Where are the monks feeling that total renunciation is the only way to really seek salvation? This is of a piece with modern explanations about monasticism that somehow salvation is not at stake in the choice to become a monk, that its just a different vocation. But I've never read any early monastic biography that doesn't make renunciation an existential matter of eternal life or death (Here's a medieval example).

To the extent that the Pontificator's portrait isn't a fantasy, the reason is not hard to seek: where conversion involves a renunciation of clearly non-Christian belief and integration into the church with which one has had no previous connection, that very breaking with the old Greco-Roman idols, or Wells-ian atheism, or African spirit worship gives an immediate reference to challenge of Christ. I have given up everything for You, I have counted up the cost. But for those born in the faith, the answer isn't so obvious.

What will be the answer of what I can do to show I have committed myself to Christ? 1) Mortification of the flesh -- like Origen castrating himself or the monks hearing the call to cast away all their goods. Or 2) intensified hatred of the outside world. This is an odd one, but it seems to have been widely practiced. Look at the reception of 2 Esdras. It was treated as a Christian work, but only after a "Christian" preface had been added. One "solved" its puzzle by speaking of how the end is coming soon, and we will all be martyred soon. That's mortification. The preface added a story in which Esdras's lament over Israel is answered preemptively by saying that Israel is a really bad nation, so she deserves what she gets. Or 3) taking refuge in Christ as the savior of sinners, who suffers all that men suffer for all men.

It is a bit absurd really, to pretend that contemplation of the injustice God seems to allow in the world, the waywardness of our hearts, and the doubtful destiny of the vast majority of mankind could only bring the occasional neurotic close to despair, that the vast majority of well-adjusted Christians will always find Uriel's responses perfectly satisfying, and will never have to ask "How Do I Get a Gracious God?"**

*Chapters 3-14 are seen as a single, Jewish work, to which has been added a Christian preface, chapters 1-2, and a conclusion, chapters 15-16.

**[UPDATED] Perhaps the real reason why this question doesn't seem sensible to people today is that we, including the Pontificator, have much more sympathy with universalism than the church before the Romantic era. I'm not sure this is entirely a bad thing, but I'm also pretty sure it is not an entirely good thing.

UPDATE: The Pontificator has a response here.

Observations from Oldtown Folks

Harriet Beecher Stowe's Oldtown Folks is her most professedly historical novel. In it, questions of narrative voice are at their most complex. The narrator, "Horace Holyoke," writes in his preface:

Though Calvinist, Arminian, High-Church Episcopalian, sceptic and simple believer all speak in their turn, I merely listen and endeavor to understand and faithfully represent the inner life of each. I myself am but the observer and reporter, seeing much, doubting much, questioning much, and believing with all my heart in only a very few things. ("Preface" Library of America edition, p. 884).

And with that fair warning, let me cite a few of her/his most memorable observations.

Here, in chaper 29, "My Grandmother's Blue Book," he discusses the theology of Jonathan Edwards, President of Princeton College:

President Edwars had constructed a marvellous piece of logic to show that, while true virtue in man consisted in supreme devotion to the general good of all, true virtue in God consisted in supreme regard for himself. This "Treatise on True Virtue" was one of the strongest attempts to back up by reasoning the old monarchical and aristocratic ideas of the supreme right of the king and upper classes. The whole of it falls to dust before the one simple declaration of Jesus Christ, that, in the eyes of Heaven, one lost sheep is more prized than all the ninety and nine that went not astry, and before the parable in which the father runs, forgetful of parental prerogative and dignity, to cast himself on the neck of the far-off prodigal.

Theology being human and a reflection of human infirmities, nothing is more common than for it to come up point-blank in opposition to the simplest declarations of Christ (Library of America edition, p. 1247).



Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Random Thoughts on the Immigration Debate

I have never been able to figure out where I stand on the immigration business. I have some very strong ideas about it, but the ideas never add up to a policy, because they are contradictory. So I'm just going to throw them out in no particular order, and maybe someone can tell me what my policy is.

1) The idea that admitting vast numbers of the unskilled workers doesn't depress wages, particularly for low skilled workers, is baloney. If it didn't depress wages, why is business so in favor of it? On the other hand, cheap labor makes a country's economy more competitive. Again, any one who denies that is just playing games.

2) King Stephen of Hungary said that a kingdom should have people of many nations, for a kingdom of only one nation is a weak kingdom. If evey ethnic group has a "trick" then a country with only one ethnic group is a "one-trick pony." There is a certain narrow-mindedness that one finds in the intellectual climate of monoethnic countries that is not very attractive.

3) If your concern is with having an America be more egalitarian and more caring as a community, importing lots of poor people with whom many people already here have little sympathy seems to be a funny way to go about it. I had a student from Texas, who once told me that it is basically impossible for a teen to get a manual labor job where he grew up, because the work was being done by Mexicans. Of course, that's only his side of the story, but it sounds plausible that as more manual labor is being by experienced adult men willing to work for teenager wages, fewer teenagers will be hired for that type of work. What will that do to society when a growing class of persons, for reason of birth alone, feel exempted from manual labor? Will it create sentiments of privilege and unconscious "economic royalism"? Probably. Will it fuel guilt, belief that society is fundamentally unfair, and redistributionist schemes? I wouldn't be surprised.

4) It is essentially speaking impossible to immigrate legally to the United States, unless you have a relative here as a citizen already.

5) Mongolia had zero permanent residents in the USA in 1989, now there are approximately 20,000 (Mongolia's consulate's estimate). If more than 50 got their visas to the US on the basis of being "immigrants looking for a better life" I'd be surprised.

6) So add it up and you get a bizarre paradox: the President says the immigration is all about "people coming to America to make a better life for their families, because they believe in America." Well, go to any US consulate in the world, and say, "I want a visa because I want to make a better life for my family, because I believe in America." Unless you have a relative already here, you will not get a visa. But say: "I'm so well-off here at home, I don't really want to stay in America, just visit/go to school, and then return" or "I just want to make some money as a guest worker in America and then come home and be rich in my home country" or "I never wanted to leave my country, but I have to for fear of persecution" or any other story at all, except the one immigrant advocates say immigration is all about, and you can get a visa.

7) Ever noticed how the most intense opponents of illegal immigration are often immigrants themselves, but non-Latin American ones who had to come in on visas (as opposed to walking across the border)? Why is that? Could it be that unlike native-born Americans they understand the Alice-in-Wonderland nature of the actual visa game and so are not susceptible to romanticizing immigration? Or that they see finally a chance to strike back at the queue-jumpers who use the unfair advantage of geographical proximity that would-be immigrants from Britain or the Phillipines, or Russia could only dream about? Or are they importing the zero-sum, government-control thinking they grew up with in their home countries?

8) The idea that the open border is some special liability in the age of terrorism doesn't hold water. If terrorists were going to "strike" across the border from Mexico they would have done so already. Think: what's the one thing you can add to the building blocks for a terror attack by going through Mexico? Foreigners without a visa. Now, the only scenario under which that is an important component, is one in which a) there are no home-grown would-be mooj already US holding green cards or passports; and b) it is impossible for a foreign would-be mooj to get a visa. I'd love to think these are both true, but I really doubt it.

9) From the point of view of assimilation, unskilled labor is not necessarily a problem. A poor Mexican or Chinese or Nigerian worker coming to the US is likely to experience upward mobility and a dramatic improval in life for his or her children. Nor are they likely to have the kind of profound understanding of their home culture that could survive the transplanting process and inculturate their children. That means assimilation (into the pop culture, unfortunately) is rapid. A Mexican or Chinese or Nigerian professor of sociology is likely to experience humiliating downward mobility (from respected professor to despised taxi-driver, for example), and have all the theories of imperialism and underdevelopment in his head already to explain it as the result of American imperialism, and the intellectual equipment to pass that resentment on to his children.

10) Many journalists and politicians would be astounded to know that in certain strange corners of the USA, lots of people mow lawns who aren't Mexican -- and they do it for pay! I pass by kids as white as me doing that for landscaping companies every day walking to the office. And white people will even drive cabs too. Once I had a Mexican-American grad student from San Jose, California, come to IU. He took a taxi from the bus station to his dorm and told me what surprised him most: "It was the first time I'd ever seen a white guy driving a taxi."

11) We all want to reward those who play by the rules, right? Why do we never do so? Why has there never been an "amnesty" for those who apply to immigrate legally, some of whom have been chumps enough to sit on the waiting list for twenty years -- and let them get off the wait list by just giving them a visa and a green card? Wouldn't that be legal cheap labor?

12) One can make an analogy with the "time out" in immigration that occurred from the 1920s to the 1960s. But there has never been any period in US history when a concentrated effort was made to push back non-citizens resident in the US to their home countries (directly or indirectly). Never.

13) Illegal immigration isn't really a crime in the same sense that, say, stealing a car, or even speeding, is a crime, because it isn't an indication of moral turpitude. Take two people of equal education, demographics, background, income, residence, etc. -- one is an illegal immigrant, one is not. I doubt that the illegal immigrant would be any more prone to other criminal activity than the other one. The laws on immigration are based (rightly or wrongly) on government policies, not morals (as the laws against, say, armed robbery, adultery, or drunk driving are). It is natural that if the country decides to change the policy, then those who haven't been caught by the time the policy changes are no longer treated as criminals. In other words, amnesty for illegal immigrants is not such a shocking thing.

14) Mexico's birth rate is falling -- total fertility's now about 2.6 per woman. The sound waves of the Mexican baby boom will still keep echoing around for a few more decades, but it's over. The situation in the rest of Latin American is not much different. Does this mean that if we just hold the line for a few more decades the problem of massive immigration will be over? Or does it mean that we only have a few more decades to import hard working labor for a growing economy, before the shortage becomes pan-American?

15) If every single Mexican moved to the United States tomorrow, the US would be about 1/3 Mexican. But of course that's not going to happen. Given the declining birth rate mentioned earlier, the idea that Mexico is every going to be able to "swamp" the USA is a bit hysterical.

16) The idea that America might end up with Europe's immigrant problem ignores the rather obvious fact that Latin Americans are almost all Christians of one sort or another, and dress like, and entertain themselves like, and marry like and with non-Hispanics at a pretty high rate.

17) English is never going to be replaced as the overwhelmingly dominant US language of public discourse. It isn't. Believe me.

18) What about Aztlan? What about it? I see no evidence that it is anything other than the kind of idea that kids in the age of 15 to 25 play with as a way of seeking their identity and "sticking it to the Man." With the exception of those who become professors of sociology and Chicano studies, they will grow up, get married, get a job, and let Aztlan fade. Sure, they will mostly (but not entirely, by any means) vote left, they will still let the old feelings flow on boozy occasions, but no, it is not a serious point of view, and its proponents are not serious people.

19) On the other hand, there is a significant divide in Latin, especially Mexican, identity. Are Mexicans basically Spanish Catholics, with Indian blood mixed in? Or are they basically Aztecs and other Indians, who have been forced by imperialism into speaking Spanish and being Catholic? The former point of view is a lot more assimilable (as well as being, culturally any way, a lot truer) than the latter. But it's the latter that drives the Aztlan idea and Quetzocoatl statues in parks in California. About the latter a judge appropriately pointed out that it's not really religion, it's feelings of ethnic pride masquerading as religion; by the same token Aztlan is a feeling of ethnic pride masquerading as political thought. When Mexicans start seriously thinking about the world, life, and whether they really are good people, in other words, when they "get religion," Quetzocoatl isn't whom they turn to, it is (of course) Jesus -- and the only question is exactly what kind of Jesus. So when Cardinal Mahoney turns his diocese into a shill for immigration activism, it's annoying and pathetic, but in the long run, it's not harmful to America.

20) It is just impossible to deny that the Bible's message on immigration is, over-all, pro-immigrant. "I got mine" nationalism just has no place in it. But it is also pro-assimilation; God's law asks us to welcome the stranger and the alien, but also assumes that the stranger and alien will remain that until he or she adopts the ways and beliefs of the native community and is assimilated (ultimately through intermarriage -- see Ruth, Rahab, etc.). Of course, after Israel loses independence and becomes a hierocratic client kingdom of the Persian empire, intermarriage becomes a bad thing (see Ezra and Nehemiah).

21) Linguistic assimilation is crucially dependent on diversity of language among immigrants. Go back to the fabled nineteenth century wards of New York, Chicago or whatever sepia-tinted nostalgia locale you wish. The Italians, Jews, Poles, Germans: why did they learn English? To speak to the Anglo-Saxons already there? Partly, but just as much to speak to the other immigrant kids from a different homeland. If all or most of the immigrants speak one language, assimilation will be that much slower.

22) I wonder what building a wall will do to populations of jaguars, and other endangered animals along the frontier. Probably nothing good.

23) Loyalty to the US is probably affected by the attitudes people have to the country they left, which in turn relates to their status in the country. If for example, they left their home country because they were a hated and persecuted minority (like Jews in Tsarist Russia), then dropping that loyalty and picking up loyalty to the US is going to be easy -- they've probably already done it before they've gotten on the boat. If the belong to the majority society in the country they left and have always been taught to see the US as an imperialist power that has mistreated their country in the past, then presumably it will be a lot more protracted. In other words, the more successful self-determination and nationalism is in the world at large (and it's been riding high since 1914), and the more the USA intervenes abroad (for good or ill), then the less rapid transfer of loyalty will be, all other things being equal.

24) If immigration is the source of American drive, hard work, and success, why not have a rule? Three generations here, and if you're not a millionnaire yet, we'll deport you.

25) It's not true that America is "a nation of immigrants" still less that "all Americans are descendants of immigrants." At least it's not true if we define "immigrant" in any reasonable way. An immigrant is an individual who comes into an existing society and adapts to that society's way of doing things. (If immigrant means simply people who came to live in a place where at some point in the past they didn't live, then every country outside of Eden is a "nation of immigrants.") American Indians, Aleuts and Eskimos are not immigrants. Those whose ancestry in America goes back to the colonial era are not, in any meaningful sense, immigrants. If America is a nation of immigrants, then they are not really Americans. And involuntary immigration -- the slave trade -- is also not immigration in any real sense. Is it really true that, for example, Washington, Lincoln, and Martin Luther King were fundamentally alien to what America is all about? Immigration is a very important part of the story of America, no question. But it isn't the whole thing, or even the most important part.

UPDATE: Two more

26) If you can't enforce the law, you have no business making it. If it is impossible to keep immigrants out, as so many proponents of slightly more open laws insist, then one has a duty to say, "We should abolish all general restrictions on immigration." But if you are going to be setting numbers, no matter how high, simple honesty should compel you to support enforcement of those numbers.

27) The line between those who see themselves in the immigrants of 1835-1925 and those who see themselves in the native-born population of that time, is the most important and least talked about divide in understanding our common country's past -- and present -- and future.



Monday, May 22, 2006

Is Fermented Mare's Milk Unclean?

One of the common contentions about Luther's "justification by faith alone" is that its implication, that the Catholic and (implicitly) the Orthodox churches had gotten the intent of Paul's letters fundamentally wrong is just unbelievable. In recent years this is frequently also be buttressed with claims that various modern scholars (N.T. Wright, etc.) have shown that Paul's real issue was not "how can I get a gracious God" but "how can there be table fellowship between Gentile and Jews believers in Jesus?"

As I have argued before, I do not think that "justification by faith alone" being the answer to the second question precludes it being the answer to the first. Moreover I think that even on the second question, the church was giving a very different answer by the fifth century than what Paul gave. (You'll have to follow the link to find out why I think that.)

It is fascinating confirmation of the problem that misinterpretation of Paul had led to in the Orthdox Church that by the thirteenth century, the Russian clerics were erecting new boundaries of clean and unclean foods to distinguish themselves for the heathen nations. William of Rubruck, a Latin cleric of amazing fortitude and great pastoral skill encountered this problem while passing through the lands of the Mongol empire in today's Ukraine and southern Russia. There he met Christian people, such as the Alans or As (descendants of the Scythians, ancestors of today's Ossetes), as well as fugitive Russians (or Ruthenians) and Hungarians. The good priest found that these Christians living on the steppe had a serious problem:

They [i.e. the Ossetes] also asked, as did many other Christians -- Ruthenians and Hungarians -- whether they could be saved, as they had to drink cosmos [this is Rubruck's term for koumiss or fermented mare's milk] and to eat carrion and animals slaughtered by Saracens [i.e. Muslims], and other infidels, which indeed those Greek and Ruthenian priests consider the same as carrion or as sacrificed to idols; and also seeing that they did not know the times of fasting nor could they observe them even if they did know them. Then I put them on the right path as well as I could, teaching them and comforting them in the faith (from the translation in Mission to Asia, chapter 11, p. 110).

Such food laws were a sometimes insuperable obstacle to evangelism:

On the day of Pentecost a certain Saracen [Muslim] came to us, and while he was talking to us we began to explain the faith to him. Hearing of the favors of God shown to the human race in the Incarnation, of the resurrection of the dead and of the Last Judgment, and hearing that sins are washed away in baptism, he said he wished to be baptized. While we were getting ready to baptize him he suddenly got on to his horse, saying he was going home to discuss the matter with his wife.

When he spoke with us on the following day, he told us that by no means dare he receive baptism, seeing that then he would not be able to drink cosmos; for the Christians of that district said that no one who was truly a Christian ought to drink it, and without that drink it would be impossible to live in that desert. By no manner of means could I shift him from this opinion. This story will prove to you that they are far removed from the faith on account of this opinion, which has flourished among them because of the Ruthenians, of whom there are very great numbers in their midst (from Mission to Asia, chapter 12, p. 111).

The contrast with the Church of the East is striking -- they not only allowed fermented mare's milk, but appear to have had a certain ceremonial role for it (more here). Indeed the priests of the Church of the East were compelled to participate in the seasonal offerings of "first fruits" from white horses:

On the ninth day of the month of May the soothsayers [shamans, or bö’e] collect all the white mares of the herd and consecrate them. The Christian priests are also obliged to assemble there with their thurible. Then they cast new cosmos on the ground and they make a great feast on that day, for that is when they count on drinking fresh cosmos for the first time, just as with us in some places they do with the wine on the feast of Bartholomew or Sixtus and with fruit on the feast of James and Christopher (from Mission to Asia, chapter 35, p. 198).

Undoubtedly it was this association with the Mongol native religion which was the occasion for the Eastern Orthodox priests to ban all consumption of koumiss for their flock. (I think there are deeper reasons, which I will get to below.)

William of Rubruck does not tell us what arguments he used this proscription, but that he enjoyed the drink is clear from his description of its taste:

As long as one is drinking, it bites the tongue like vinegar; when one stops, it leaves on the tongue the taste of milk of almonds and greatly delights the inner man; it even intoxicates those who have not a very good hear. It also greatly provokes urine (from Mission to Asia, chapter 4, pp. 98-99).

In fact when he was passing through the Caucasus region on his return he looked longingly at the "cosmos" that one of the Mongol commanders in Georgia was drinking in his presence:

I was in Baachu's [=Baiju's] house and he gave us wine to drink; he himself however drank cosmos, which I would have preferred to have, if he had given it to me. The wine was new and special, but cosmos is a more satisfying drink for a hungry man (from Mission to Asia, chapter 37, p. 212).

I wonder if Baiju had just assumed that, as a cleric, of course William of Rubruck wouldn't drink koumiss.

The Eastern Orthodox treatment of fermented mare's milk as unclean was not some theologically unreflective folk opinion. William of Rubruck's statement that the Greek and Ruthenian priests treat koumiss "as sacrificed to idols" shows that they were using New Testament categories to analyze this cross-cultural issue, but coming to conclusions exactly opposite of what Paul was saying.

In fact the Russian church formalized the uncleanness of koumiss in decisions that made Christian sacramental life on the steppe flatly impossible. In 1274, the Metropolitan Cyrill called a synod to deal with important issues. At it, Feognost' the bishop of Pereyslavl' and Saray (the capital of Mongol rule in Eastern Europe) had to ask whether priests who have lived on the steppe -- and hence had consumed Mongol food -- and priests who had committed murder could celebrate the liturgy (see Charles Halperin, Tatar Yoke, pp. 73-74).

What possible reading of Paul could make sense of treating a normal and healthy food (fermented mare's milk) as unclean, and the drinking of it an offense in God's sight on something of the same level as murder? The reading in which Paul in Galatians and Romans is primarily attacking the Jewish adherence to the law of Moses as something that is out of date and to be replaced by the new law of Christ. In other words, it is not that religious practice (special days and foods and drinks) is in itself unconnected to salvation, but that Mosaic law now needs to be replaced by Christian religious practice. In other words the problem of the Galatians was not that they were observing days and years and foods, but that they were observing the wrong, Mosaic, days, and years, and foods, not the right days, and years, and foods, as proclaimed by the church.

Such an interpretation was the long-standing reading of Paul in the Greek churches. In the thirteenth century, it was especially attractive to an oppressed Russian people. They eagerly associated their position under Mongol rule with the Jewish position under Greco-Roman rule, and like the Jews, treated the exclusion of the "Gentiles" from table fellowship with God's people as a central part of their defense against the conqueror. To the Judaizers, any Gentile who wished to be part of God's family would have to live just like a Jew, food, calendar, dress, and all, and likewise to the Russian Orthodox, any Mongol who wished to be saved would have to come to live like a Russian, as indeed a few Mongols did.

Nationalist attitudes in the Eastern Orthodox church have long been recognized as damaging to evangelism, but it is worth noting that an important condition for their flourishing stems from this reading of Paul that sees him as not saying anything about Law in general, still less the moral law, only the particular Jewish laws. Paul's understanding of culture was passed by and the exclusivism of Jewish kosher law was replaced by a new exclusivism of a particular ethnic Christian culture.

A church that has done has indeed fundamentally misunderstood Paul.



A Master at Work

John H shows why he's the Da Man, in discussing Da Vinci. It's an impressive two-fer that really gives you something more than the usual talking points. (By the way, click on Da and Man -- it's two posts).

Maybe I ought to stick to posting about . . . well, something else.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Blocks Shaping Up

It hasn't made much news, but there is an important development with Iran requesting to join the "Shanghai Cooperation Group," even as that group takes the first steps in becoming a military alliance. (The account in the Kommersant is best, as well as being a good sample of the much racier, more tabloid style of Russian journalism. Only in Russian papers do foreign ministers "snap" their comments about other countries. Another account here.)

The organization was previewed in 1996, and became formal in 2001, a few months before 9/11. By all accounts the driving force was China, who was seeking to cooperate with Russia and the new Central Asia republics on her border (except for isolationist Turkmenistan). (Boring, but important, facts from Wikipedia here.)

The question from the beginning was, is this an anti-American alliance? After 9/11, there was a(short-lived) change of US attitude towards Chinese presence in Xinjiang and Central Asia: human rights and geopolitical rivalries were temporarily downplayed, while anti-terror cooperation was put first. The Shanghai Cooperation Group suddenly focused on terrorism and Islamic radicalism, something that all members felt threatened by.

Another thing that unified the members, soon enough, was an increasingly hostile attitude to democracy. Significantly, Mongolia, the only country in the region that is democratic, has no significant Islamic issues, and is friendly to the US, did not join at first, although she became an observer in 2004. India, Pakistan, and Iran became observers a year later. Belarus shares nothing with these countries except hostility to the United States and democracy and it too wants to become an observer. Of these countries, Pakistan and Iran seem strongly interested in full membership, with India's attitude a bit more stand-offish. (As far as I tell Mongolia seems uninterested in raising her status to membership.)

China in particular seems concerned that broadening the organization's membership will diffuse its focus and slow progress in its intensification of cooperation. It was in 2005 that the organization held its first formal joint military exercises, and they are being repeated this year.

Iran is now formally been considered as a member. The organization focus is fighting "terrorism, extremism, and separatism" -- the irony of Iran's current government being pledged to fight terrorism and extremism seems lost on many. The admission of Iran would be a virtual public admission that the organization's real purpose is as a counter-block to the United States.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

What Do Americans Mean When They Say "Family Values"?

Jaska has asked some really good questions in the comment box:

Chris, could you give me some short explaining of a 'conservative family and values' in America or direct me to some good net source? Not being an American it's sometimes hard to get an idea of what you are meaning with some terms like 'conservative' etc. You have a very interesting blog, it's been a pleasure to read it. Although sometimes I completely miss the point because I'm not familiar with American (christian, conservative, liberal) culture.By the way, what do you mean by 'big family'? Four children or ten? Does it include more generations than two?

This is something I've been wanting to write about for a long time. As I've mentioned here already, I think not only do a lot of non-Americans not understand the American scene, I think a lot of Americans don't understand it either, because so much of our political conversation is conducted through terms and texts that have no meaning in the American context. I could go on about this for a while, but let me try to cut to the chase:

The dominant understanding of the American family (and despite the fact that large chunks of American society challenge it, I would argue it is still the dominant understanding) is structured around

1) nature (understood as the idea of sexual intercourse producing children),

2) self-determination (understood as abilities to control one's own desires), and

3) mobility (understood as the freedom to move to a new situation to better one's own life)

as the key values. Understand how these work and you understand how Americans think about the family. One of the sources of the enduring strength of the Hamiltonian / Whig / Republican / conservative tradition in America is that it is "tuned in" to this tradition in a more integral way than any other American political tradition. In that sense, any American living what we mostly define as a successful family life has a kind of "inner Republican" trying to come out, although of course not all allow it to.

But note what this means: that the American (and Whig/Republican) family ideal cannot be treated as being "conservative" (in the sense of purely traditional) or "libertarian" (in the sense of purely individual or autonomous). People who write often make the mistake of trying to situate American family life along a continuum with a "medieval" "tradition" on one had and a purely individual life as a single, sexually liberated unisex person on the other, with only the two poles being actually intellectually consistent. This way of thinking makes it impossible to understand how most Americans really think about families.

Let me illustrate this with an example: are you one of the people who find it outrageous that a single woman in her twenties would have an abortion and then talk about it as if pregnancy just happened to her without any will on her part? And are you also outraged that in many foreign countries, girls in their early teens can be married off by their parents? The continuum idea suggest that this is contradictory: if you are a conservative (i.e. secret Taliban supporter) outraged by abortion, you must actually secretly wish all women to be barefoot, pregnant, and illiterate, while if you are against child brides (i.e. secret radical feminist), you must actually support sexual liberation and full individual autonomy. The fact however that half or more of Americans are quite sincere in (in theory) abhoring most abortions and also child marriage suggests that this does not actually track the way we think about family issues.

Let me unpack this with reference to nature, self-determination, and mobility.

I. Of these concepts nature is the most fundamental. The American family operates (and here I'm borrowing heavily from David Schneider's American Kinship: A Cultural Account, which I've already discussed a bit here) with certain implicit ideas of what is "natural." (Some of this understanding is contested today, but let's not deal with that for now. The complex of ideas I am describing will appear very familiar and coherent even to those who oppose it.) Sexual intercourse is natural, as is the fact that through sexual intercourse children are produced. The children by nature share "blood" with their parents and with each other. Sexual intercourse naturally goes with conjugal love (which unites opposites, and is expressed by kissing on the lips), while sharing blood naturally goes with cognatic love (which unites likes, and is expressed by kissing on the cheek). Both forms of love are joined in sexual intercourse, that expresses conjugal love and produces cognatic love; those two loves conjoined make a family. Nature also makes men and women different. The primary difference lies in the genitalia, which fit men and women, as "opposites," to engagein sexual intercourse (i.e. be a husband or a wife) and procreate (i.e. be a father or a mother). But there are other, less distinguishing features: men are stronger, women are weaker, men are active, women passive, men are aggressive, women more nurturant, men are mechanically minded, women are verbal. But one can be an aggressive woman and still be a woman, a verbal man and still be a man: genitalia, not personality, are the distinguishing mark of sex.

II. At the same time, self-determination emphasizes that men and women are persons, and gives them all the characters of persons. (This personhood is also natural -- all non-defective members of H. sapiens naturally desire to be persons and are most naturally treated as persons.) These include most importantly the right not to be compelled, particularly compelled into conjugal love. But just as persons have the right not to be compelled into conjugal love, they have the duty to live by and express love to those whom they are or have become connected by natural ties (i.e. intercourse or blood), a duty that is virtually absolute in the case of cognatic love and not quite so absolute for conjugal love. (Cognatic love being in the "blood" cannot really be compelled at all, since it is anterior to one's own being. This is why divorce is different from "disowning" your blood family -- the one is possible, frightening, and allowed, the other is mostly a matter of bad jokes.) Society must protect this personhood in three ways:

1) Most importantly, society or the state has the obligation to see to it that no person is allowed to force any other person into a conjugal/familial relationship. This is the basis not just behind the age of consent laws, but even more behind the abolition of slavery, which is fundamentally a type of non-consensual family relationship predicated on the denial of personhood to some, and the creation of duties of love that have no corresponding right of self-determination. You may note then that it is no accident that the Republicans, the party of "family values" today, was the party that abolished slavery. Both are/were extensions of the idea of the American family to the political realm. The literature of abolitionism was most effectively precisely when it emphasized that slavery did violence to the natural feelings of slaves, preventing them from expressing their natural sentiments of conjugal and cognatic love, which grew out of their natural -- and hence undeniable -- personhood.

2) Nature makes it so that people naturally desire sexual intercourse, just as they desire food, rest, excitement, alcohol, etc. But as persons we all have the ability (unless we are in some sense defective persons) to control and resist these urges, and hence avoid becoming gluttonous, lazy, gamblers, alcoholic, or promiscuous. Moreover, each family should be capable of supporting itself which is why "having more children than you can support" also jeopardizes the fundamental self-determination of the couple -- they become dependent on others through their inability to control their own urge to have sex. Yet nature has a kind of weakness in that certain persons can be so weak or subtances can be so powerful as to be addictive; in some cases this is so natural as to be not blameworthy. In such cases, society has a duty to fence about this personhood, to protect weak persons or all persons from substances addictive in certain degrees (children are to be protected from alcohol, but all are to be protected from heroin). Again this is why the party that abolished slavery, was also the party of Prohibition of alcohol, and is still by and large the party of the war on drugs.

It is also worth noting that this important ideal of sexual self-control makes the Whig / Republican tradition strikingly different from the "traditional" Mediterranean ethos in two important ways: a) men are considered to be capable of voluntary sexual restraint and therefore women do not need to be sheltered from unrelated men; and b) women are considered to be capable of a permanent, chaste singleness, which means there is a place for the career woman, albeit as a minority option. At the same time, the belief in the ability to control one's sexual urges also means that abortion is an unjustifiable escape-hatch from facing up to the consequences of one's actions.

3) Since personhood unites both nature and self-determination, society has some obligation to see to it that people do not attempt to go against nature by seizing rights without fulfilling the corresponding duties. Self-determination that goes against nature ultimately destroys personhood and hence subverts its own basis, by making the person no longer a self-determining unity and moral agent, but a mere passive experiencer of his or her desires. The prime danger here is to engage in sexual intercourse without the corresponding ties of conjugal and cognatic love. Politically speaking this is what "family values" today is all about: preserving the pre-conditions, seen as "natural" for the exercise of true personhood. On the other hand, neither love nor personhood can be forced, so political intervention in this sphere cannot be as direct and categorical as in the two previous ones.

III. Finally, we come to mobility, horizontal (moving from place to place) and vertical (moving up or down on the socio-economic ladder). One could emphasize practical factors in the birth American social mobility*, but I think mobility is, in a sense, simply an outgrowth of self-determination. The neolocal ideal (each married couple lives separately) means that each generation essentially marks a new start, created by the fundamental act of choice of a marriage partner (as opposed to the idea of the son being a replica of the father that is fundamental to patrilineal marriage; see here). As Frederick Le Play (see here and here) put it, the joint family (all married sons stay in the family), the stem family (one married son stays in the family), and the nuclear family (no married son stays in the family) each represent a different balance between the idea of continuity and change -- one can see within continuity and change an analogous concept to Schneider's conjugal and cognatic love. The neolocal, nuclear family means each person in the American ideal creates (in part) his family, while the inescapability of cognatic ties, means that the family so created are still tied to "outside" relatives cognatically, that is on both husband's and wife's side. This "starting over" every generation is of course congruent with the American/Whig ideal of continuous upward mobility and self-improvement, although the cognatic structures of blood affiliation also allow this same system to be used to conserve and store resources in a non-market fashion, whether those resources are family trust funds, money pooled among relatives to buy a shop, or the time Grandma spends taking care of the baby while Mom works.

Such a use of family to control resources can become problematic, however, since sexual intercourse establishes ties of love (conjugal and cognatic) that are either way fundamentally different from contractual, profit-making ones. Home and work are thus fundamentally different realms, which means that even when the family runs a business, the family shouldn't be a business. The family is based on love (spiritual, indestructible, and personal), while work is based on money (material, transient, and impersonal). In work, we master nature and our natural selves, but in family we aim to be in harmony with our natural selves. This normative detachment of family and work and the relations proper to each means that American society cannot naturally be reduced to individuals in the market; no, it is (nuclear) families and the market.

Ultimately, the point of American child raising as Schneider emphasizes is to create an independent person capable of forming a new family. When that happens the relation of the parent and adult family will not be one of direct reciprocity: it would be wrong to demand that the child support the parent, although the child of course loves the parent. As a result the child is raised to be ready for some degree of mobility, although this is, more than nature or self-determination, something that differs by social class, with the upper classes and the lower classes being more embedded in persisting cognatic kin ties, and the opposition of love and work less sharply drawn and the middle classes being the most mobile and least "cognatic." It is perhaps not a coincidence that the middle classes have the smallest families (fewest children).

So in summary, Jaska, if you're still with me, here are the answers to your questions

Q: What is American conservatism? A: Most of the time it means the Whig ideal: business and upward mobility, nuclear families held together with love and self-control, and the defense of American unity and prestige. There are other forms of American conservatism, but this is the one that's built to last.

Q: What does "family values" mean in America? A: It means the social protection and promotion of the nuclear (=mobile-able) family formed by the combination of mature and responsible choice (=self-determination) within the framework set by nature. (Most of the dispute over "family values" in America centers on whether and if so in what ways nature contrains mature and responsible choice.)

Now many may be very critical of all this, may see it as wrong and bad and awful. Christians may notice that the American family is not exactly the Biblical family. I agree. But I submit, all Americans know exactly what it is when we criticize this picture of "family values," despite the fact that we pretend not to know.

*I.e. contrary to what you sometimes hear, the first colonial settlers in the 13 colonies already had a pattern of neolocal residence (i.e. when a new couple marries they are expected to set up a new household and not live under the roof of the bride or groom's parents). The joint family had disappeared from England (if it ever existed there) long before the first ships sailed for Jamestown and Plymouth. Secondly, the settlement of the USA by immigrants has meant that essentially all Americans have an experience sometime in their family's past of massive horizontal mobility. Thirdly, the pattern of constant and rapid increase in population density has resulted in a correspondingly rapid and constant increase in property values, which has meant that buying land and reselling it has pretty much always been a lucrative business -- and for those with limited means living on that land in the meantime before you sell it is a financial necessity. That means repeated (if not necessarily very large scale) horizontal mobility.

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Saturday, May 13, 2006

The Inklings Were (Qualifiedly) Anti-Natal

It is fair to say that almost all Christian conservatives, regardless of where they stand on birth control, are pro-natal. That is, they like big families and they think big families are an important part of being Christian. Moreover big families are seen as having an important role in making the world Christian.

It is also fair to say that almost all Christian conservatives, regardless of where they stand on other literature, love the fantasy writings of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, the most famous of the inter-war "Inklings" at Oxford.

Given that fact it is curious that no Christian conservative that I know of has noticed that both J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis were (qualifiedly) anti-natal, that is they saw small families as the ideal, and viewed unchecked reproduction as in fact a sign of at best coarseness and crudity and sometimes even evil. Now, they certainly both regarded birth control as evil ("the usages of Sulva", refering to the perverted inhabitants of the moon, C.S. Lewis called it, in That Hideous Strength). Rather like the earliest Quakers, they believed that a kind of "mild sexlessness" within marriage would by reducing the sexual drive, also reduce the number of children. Tolkien himself had four, and since I find it hard to believe this was limited by birth control, it seems most likely that he and Edith had a largely chaste marriage (in Christmas Humphreys's biography, he notes that they slept in separate rooms, as J.R.R. preferred to work at night).

C.S. Lewis in his Out of the Silent Planet, has Ransom (based on Tolkien himself) question Hyoi, one of the Hrossa, a race of unfallen rational creatures on Mars, about conflict. He is trying to understand if they have war, and then tries to get to the idea of scarcity:

"Hyoi, if you had more and more young, would Maleldil broaden the handramit [the inhabitable "canals" on Mars] and make enough plants for them all?"

Hyoi replies by asking why should they want to have more young.

Ransom replies:

"Is the begetting of young not a pleasure among the hrossa?"

"A very great one, Hman [=man]. This is what we call love."

"If a thing is a pleasure, a hman wants it again. He might want the pleasure more often than the number of young that could be fed."

It took Hyoi a long time to get the point.

"You mean," he said slowly, "that he might do it not only in one or two years of his life but again?"


"But why? Would he want his dinner all day or want to sleep after he had slept? I do not understand."

"But a dinner comes every day. This love, you say, comes only once while the hrossa lives?"

"But it takes his whole life. When he is young he has to look for his mate; and then he has to court her; then he begets young; then he rears them; then he remembers all this, and boils it inside him and makes it into poems and wisdom" (p. 73-74).

The conversation then turns to the issue of pleasure and its potentially excessive repetition, which for the hrossa seems an idea as much absurd as it is "bent". "Ransom" concludes that:

Among the hrossa, anyway, it was obvious that unlimited breeding and promiscuity were as rare as the rarest perversion. At last it dawned upon him that it was not they, but his own species, that were the puzzle. That the hrossa should have such instincts was mildly surprising; but how came it that the instincts of the hrossa so closely resembled the unattainable ideal of that far-divided species Man whose instincts were so deplorably different? What was the history of Man? (p. 75).

The implication is unescapable, that not only promiscuity and polygamy, but unlimited breeding are a part of Man's fallenness. (A very different -- although equally speculative -- perspective on pre-fall fertility is touched on here.)

With this key, it is interesting to return to Middle Earth and note that the nobility of any given race seems inversely proportional to its fertility. Elves seem to be always declining, and their once populous lands empty. Among men, Numenoreans were few and getting fewer, the Rohirrim and other semi-good "men of the twilight" somewhat flourishing, and the evil Haradrim and Easterlings constantly overflowing in numbers. The Ents of course have no Entlings because they have lost the Entwives (which like the tale of Aldarion and Erendis reflects the quarrels that marred the Tolkiens' own loving but difficult marriage). About the only demographically healthy population of more or less good people are the Hobbits, who are explicitly said to have large families. This is an important qualification, although one must also notice that Tolkien is rather more ambivalent about hobbits and their ways than most of his admirers (Peter Jackson not least) are willing to admit.

Overall, however, Tolkien and Lewis both present an image of family life that is quite different from that of modern Christian conservativism. It is perhaps not unconnected (as in the passage cited from Lewis) to their economic ideal, one which is anti-growth, and oriented toward stasis and maintenance. As a livable ideal, it would seem that this would necessitates small families and static populations, which given the rejection of contraception, would in turn necessitate a much less "earthy" (i.e. eroticized) vision of ideal marriage.

So much-discussed low growth rates in the industrialized world would not bother the Inklings -- except of course for the small matter of the "usages of Sulva" (and worse!) by which they are being achieved.

UPDATE: Eric Phillips has pointed out the line said by Faramir in his description to Frodo and Sam of the ills of Gondor: "Childless lords sat in aged halls musing on heraldry; in secret chambers withered men compounded elixirs, or in high cold towers asked questions of the stars." To this we could add Beregond's statement that "There were always too few children in the city." Point well taken: actual decline in population was not seen as a good thing by Tolkien and voluntary childlessness among, for example, the Numenoreans, he saw as symptomatic of a spiritual illness. But opposing childlessness, does not mean advocating large families, even when the Edain were healthy and vigorous, as, for example, in the First Age. I still maintain that the marketing of Tolkien as a proponent of large families and "earthy" Christianity (see here and here) is simply mistaking that author's viewpoint. (I would add that only in the movie are the hobbits "the only ones who can resist the Ring’s seduction" -- in their own ways Gandalf, Galadriel, Faramir, and others all resist it. Nor is Frodo a particularly hobbit-like hobbit. But don't get me started on the movie . . . )

UPDATE II: As Friedrich Foresight pointed out, Tolkien had four children, not three. (I've corrected that). This brings up the point of Jaska's about how many children make a "big family." I was really thinking over four, but as Dave Armstrong pointed out, today any over two is usually seen as big.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Tolkien's Genesis

Fantasy writing today has become a major method of inculcating theological ideas: just think of the role that the fantasy novels of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien play in popular theology today.

But there is one side where J.R.R. Tolkien's theological insights have not (as far as I know) been remarked on: creation. Perhaps it's because Tolkien's Genesis was only published in the Silmarillion, which was not a favorite of many people. (I am strange enough to have loved it.) This is unfortunate, because I believe that his reading of creation has important implications for the understanding of creation in light of biology that I have previously tried to expound here.

In one of his letters Tolkien reflected sadly on how Genesis has been relegated to the woodshed of (presumably Catholic) believers. As a child he said that he found stories of dinosaurs to be much more redolent of "faerie" than the beast fables often confused with it. Yet in discussing the flying mounts of the Nazgul, he agreed with a correspondant who asked if it was intended to be a pterodactyl, remarking that that would be the name for it in what he called our modern-day legendarium. It seems that Tolkien did not see an iron divide between paleontology and the Biblical account of creation. Without being specific about dates and years he could write about a pterodactyl surviving long after its time, to be used as a flying mount in the world of men.

In the Silmarillion, Tolkien's "creation myth" is expounded in detail:

1) God (=Iluvatar/Eru) proposes to the angels three themes,* which they are allowed to develop and embroider. In each theme successively, Lucifer/Satan (=Melkor/Morgoth) inserts his own discordant themes. The music is then halted by God who informs all the angels that "No theme may be played that hath not its uttermost source in me, nor can any alter the music in my despite. For he that attempteth this shall prove but mine instrument in the devising of things more wonderful, which he himself hath not imagined" (p. 17).

2) There is a vision of what is in the song unfolding, which contains much, but not all of the history of the world, except the Last Days. The angels thus have partial, not full, knowledge of the future of the world, with the most extraordinary things kept in God's wisdom until their revealing.

3) The vision is ceased and God speaks forth with His word to create the unformed earth.

4) Certain angels (including Lucifer and those he will/has seduced) go down into the unformed earth. Thus some angels are attached to this world for as long as it shall exist, while others are not.

5) These angels then labor to prepare the world for the coming of men and elves: "So began their great labours in wastes unmeasured and explored, and in ages uncounted and forgotten, until in the Deeps of Time, and in the midst of the vast halls of Ea [= the World that Is] there came to be that hour and that places where was made the habitation of the Children of Iluvatar [=children of God=men and elves]" (p. 20).

6) During this process of sub-creation, the good angels of sky, fire, and water had the main part, but Lucifer "meddled in all that was done, turning it if he might to his own desires and purposes; and he kindled great fires. When therefore Earth was yet young and full of flame, Melkor coveted it . . ." (p. 20).

7) Eventually there came to be open war between Lucifer and the good angels for control over the World (Arda):

They built and Melkor destroyed them; valleys they delved and Melkor raised them up; mountains they carved and Melkor threw them down; seas they hollowed and Melkor spilled them; and naught might have peace would come to lasting growth for as surely as the Valar began a labour so whould Melkor undo it or corrupt it. And yet their labor was not all in vain; and though nowhere and in no work was their will and purpose wholly fulfilled, and all things were in hue and shape other than the Valar [good angels] had at first intended, slowly nonetheless the Earth was fashioned and made firm (p. 22).

This passage is strikingly similar to that between Legolas and Gimli in Minas Tirith after the battle of Pelennor about how the works of men always begin well, but eventually are withered, yet never cease of their seed. But it is very important to note, that while the good angels' purposes are not completely fulfilled, those of God are fulfilled completely and to the letter.

About this back in stage 2, God had already spoken to Ulmo, good angel of the waters:

"Seest thou not how here in this little realm in the Deeps of Time Melkor hath made war upon thy province? He hath bethought him of bitter cold immoderate, and yet hath not destroyed the beauty of they fountains, nor of they clear pools. Behold the snow, and the cunning work of frost! Melkor hath devised heaats and fire without restraint, and hath not dried up thy desire nor utterly quelled the music of the sea. Behold rather the height and glory of the clouds, and the everchanging mists; and listen to the fall of rain upon the Earth! And in these clouds thou are drawn near to Manwe [the good angel of air and sky], thy friend, whom thou lovest."

Then Ulmo answered: "Truly, Water is now become fairer than my heart imagined, neither had my secret thought conceived the snowflake, nor in all my music was contained the falling of the rain."

It is also important to keep in mind that this First War had multiple stages. In the Silmarillion proper, we read that in the middle of the first stage of the war, Lucifer/Melkor had the upper hand, but a new good angel, Tulkas, came into the World/Arda from outside in the heavens and helped drive him out. The good angels then "brought order to the seas and the lands and the mountains" and then plants ("mosses and grasses and great ferns, and trees") and beasts (of the plains, rivers, lakes, and woods), but no flowers or birds, began to grow.

But after a while, during the angels' rest, after their creation, Lucifer again appeared, built his own domain in the far north and began corrupting the creation:

The blight of his hatred flowed out thence, and the Spring of Arda was marred. Green things fell sick and rotted, and rivers were choked with weeds and slime, and fens were made, rank and poisonous, the breeding place of flies; and forests grew dark and perilous, the haunts of fear; and beasts became monsters of horn and ivory and dyed the earth with blood (p. 36)

One may imagine this was the time when pterodactyls were created. The good angels then try to attack Lucifer again, but he attacks first and another outbreak of war:

lands were broken and the seas rose in tumult; and . . . . destroying flame was poured out over the Earth. And the shape of Arda and the symmetry of its waters and lands was marred in that time, so that the first designs of the Valar [=angels, although not, of course, of God] were never after restored (p. 37).

8) Unable to fully defeat Lucifer, as they tried to "restrain the tumults of the Earth" and unwilling to try to remake the world when they didn't know where men and elves would be created, the good angels then retreated to the land of the far West and made it a kind of heaven on earth. Middle Earth then waited in a kind of suspended animation until first elves and then men appeared, according to the time known by God alone, in the far East.

This cosmology strikingly yokes the basic Christian theological narrative of Genesis with a kind of transposition of scientific geological and paleontological history. The basic theology is read this way: Something good is created by God's will and through the angels. This good thing is then marred by an evil angel. Death and corruption result. God then plans a yet greater and more breath-taking action which will both repair the effects of the marring, and demonstrate how God intended the marring to work for a greater, as yet unimagined, good beyond the first good.

What is new about this cosmology is the following:

1) This pattern, far from being a single event, is repeated several times. Instead of one marring fall, there are several: the marring of the continents and mountains, the marring of the plants and animals, and (later) the marring or Fall of the elves and men.

2) The Fall is thus the specific human case (see pp. 41-42, 141 for Tolkien's thoughts on this) of a general pattern of marring, which occurred at each level of creation.

3) In contrast to the scheme of "Paradise Lost" which seems still residually governing much cosmology and angelology of the Christian world, Satan was active in the World, both before and after human creation.

The "very good" of creation in this view is thus given by God, not directly but mediately. Creation was created good at the beginning at each stage. Yet its creation was likewise marred at each stage. In the end, however, that marring led, through sadness and suffering, to a much greater good in the next stage. As Iluvatar said to the gathered angels when he made their song into a vision:

"Behold your Music! This is your minstrelsy; and each of you shall find contained herein, amid the design that I set before you, all those things which it may seem that he himself devised or added. And thou, Melkor, wilt discover all the secret thoughts of thy mind, and wilt perceive that they are but a part of the whole and tributary to its [i.e. the world in all its vast array, that was secretly designed so by the One] glory."

I have at some points "de-mythologized" the Tolkien story (the lamps for lights, the trees for lights, the creation of the sun and moon after that of elves, etc.). But it seems that the mythological elements mostly lie somewhat deeper in the stratigraphy of Tolkien's thinking, when his mythology was seen as just that, while the more explicitly Genesis-like events are more recent, after he began (around in the 1940s) to rethink his mythology within the categories of Catholic Christianity. As such, this Genesis is clearly Tolkien's own way of reconciling the Biblical Genesis with the geological time, the evidence of successive collossal volcanic or other catastrophes on earth, and the paradoxes of animal life that I already dealt with in my previous post on this topic (here). As such it demands our consideration, most importantly because it takes seriously both the goodness and the evil that is marbled through creation as we see and experience it.

The picture, by the way, is of Tuor meeting the Valar of the ocean waters, Ulmo. It was painted by John Howe.

*Exactly what these three themes are is unclear, except that the last is the theme of men and elves. The two previous ones seem to be angelic creation and then the world (material creation, plants, and animals). But this is unclear.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

The iMonk Discovers That There Is No One Who Seeks God

The iMonk points out that young people just aren't very interested in God. They don't seem to have a "God-sized hole" in their souls, or if they do they don't know it.

When I turned off the “Christian stream of consciousness” in my head and just listened to the young people I work with, it was quite obvious that most of them had no interest in God at all. I mean no interest in God at all apart from practical, pragmatic results in very “this worldly” matters. . . .

I do hear about God. I get those Bible questions and the questions that go along with a Christian school full of kids made to go to church and forced to adopt the values of their families. Occasionally someone will ask me about an unbelieving relative who has passed away, but I have never seen anyone truly disturbed about their own relationship with God or worried about what God thought of them. . . . there is almost no interest in spiritual things. The great majority of interest in “God” or “the Bible” or “religion” comes down to wanting to know how this might make life here and now more interesting, satisfying or pragmatically effective.

I don’t meet people concerned about sin, and my crowd hears about sin all the time. When I have question and answer sessions, I hear church kid questions and a bit of curiousity about this and that. I’ve begun to realize that when a Christian begins talking about a Biblical story or text, the vast majority of the people I know see these texts having absolutely no relevance to their lives at all. These are things Christians talk about. A Christian giving the meaning of a Bible passage is like a student of the red-winged woodpecker explaining its habitat and habits. If he/she weren’t making you think about it, you would never think about it.

In response, he makes the common Emerging church points about incarnational ministry. He knocks down the straw man of bait and switch ministries (Joe Photo and all that).

In response to his emerging points, let me make some of my (submerging?) points:

1) Well, what do you expect? They think they're going to live forever. They're kids, and the delusion of immortality is a prime part of youth. But somewhere, sometime, someone's going to have to tell them that they're going to die and at that moment. Puritans used to take kids to funerals and show them corpses. You can say that's morbid -- but how have you told kids about death?

2) And what else do you expect? If you don't preach the Law and sin to people, they aren't going to think they are sinners. Who tells them that? Whose function is it?

3) The whole point of original sin is We don't need God to be happy! That's what the Augsburg Confession and its Apology define as original sin: want of original righteousness shown by the fear, love, and trust in God.

Also they teach that since the fall of Adam all men begotten in the natural way are born with sin, that is, without the fear of God, without trust in God, and with concupiscence.

We, therefore, have been right in expressing, in our description of original sin, both namely, these defects: the not being able to believe God, the not being able to fear and love God; and, likewise: the having concupiscence, which seeks carnal things contrary to God's Word, i.e., seeks not only the pleasure of the body, but also carnal wisdom and righteousness, and, contemning God, trusts in these as good things.

4) So if people can be happy without God, how can we approach them? Well, by telling them that it is evil to be able to be happy without God. God is our creator and the creature has a moral obligation to love his creator. Let me ask you, what if you found a eight year old child living at home with a good mother and father who do all the things for that child that mothers and fathers do. And what if you found that this child was well-adjusted with his peers and seemed to be happy, but never spent any time thinking about his parents. Didn't want to talk to them, didn't feel any gratitude to them, didn't care about them in any way. Not hostile, just wholly and collossally indifferent. What would you think about such a child? I for one would think the child was a sociopath, a monster inside, and that the only question was to what degree the monstrosity will crack through the facade of social life. But even if it didn't, that would just mean the pathology was very well hidden.

God is our parent, our creator, and the author of all good things. We have a supreme moral obligation to love Him. To not feel the sense of that obligation is to be a monster.

We are all born as such moral monsters. Very pleasant monsters, with excellent manners, and a winsome attitude.

I don't know if telling people this is "effective evangelism". But at least it's true.

UPDATE: Go here and scroll down to the closing quote, where a Catholic theologian offers an apparently maximalist version of the idea "everyone seeks God."

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

"Othercott" the Da Vinci Code

Barbara Nicolosi talks about the Da Vinci Code here.

An ELCA blogger talks about it here (based on an interview with the Emergent guru Brian McLaren.)

I know which one I was agreeing with heartily as I read it -- and it's not the ELCA blogger.

Read Barbara Nicolosi -- and "othercott" the Da Vinci Code now.

OK I'd better stop this post real soon or I'm going to start ranting . . . .

I can't help it! Let's just say this: the world thinks Christians are STOOPID. I disagree, but I have to say, the evidence is against us when you see Christians being so clueless as to jump into this rigged game of "dialogue."

Well, gotta go. You see, I've never played pool before, but this real pro guy, well I played him once and can you believe it? I beat him. So we're going to play again, and I've just put $100 bucks on it, and he's put a $1,000. Well, this is going to be one fun game . . . Bye, now!