Friday, March 24, 2017

Conserving America? Essays On Present Discontents, Patrick J. Deneen (VII)

The essay "Progress and Memory" posits that liberalism and related philosophies introduce temporal discontinuities into the lived experience of people; that is, giving an absolute primacy to either the past, the present, or the future, as opposed to respecting each.

Liberalism, says Deneen, prioritizes the present. It seeks the satisfaction of the currently living signatories, as it were, of the social contract. As we have noted from previous essays, liberalism sees the individual as free and autonomous, unhindered by any obligations to ancestors or descendants. Its economics is market capitalism. Anything that posits such an obligation is discarded.

Progressivism shares many of the same assumptions as liberalism, but it idealizes the future. As a result, any contentment in the present is attributed to a false consciousness which must be corrected. Progressivism is the most amenable to despotism, because it harbors an equal hostility to the past as it does to the present. Morality and dignity are dependent on memory and obligation.

Deneen calls the idealization of the past "nostalgism." Nostalgists advocate what Deneen believes to be the mirror image of progressivism, because they have an intense antipathy for the present, and an unwillingness to learn from the past, in the sense of using some wisdom to correct problems in the present.

Deneen identifies "hope" as the answer to these dilemmas. It should not be confused with optimism about the future, since that is the hallmark of progressivism. Rather, it's best said as a steadfast expectation of justice. What is good will be preserved, and what is evil discarded. Memory is the willingness to learn from the past without idealizing it.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

I Believe In Miracles

I was realizing this morning that I am a witness to a miracle nearly every day. Most days of most weeks, I hear and see a man bring forth bread and wine, and by the Holy Spirit, change it into the Body and Blood of Christ. Oh, there isn't much to see, in human terms. It's a miracle, nonetheless.

I'm particularly thankful for the prayers during the liturgy of the Eucharist. In a sense, we are told why Jesus has chosen to come. God has made promises, all throughout recorded history, and the Eucharist is the ultimate promise: "And surely I will be with you, even to the end of the age."

I guess I worry about declining numbers in the pews. But if you don't believe, acting on that unbelief in the form of not showing up is more honest. There is no good reason to be a "church" person, unless it is true. People must have fond memories of fish-frys and youth group, because all these people--who don't appear to be contemplating the niceties of epistemology and revelation--used to be "practicing" Catholics, and now they are not.

For my part, it seems like I am in a movie, and then I realize it's real. "May our voices, we pray, join with theirs..."

If this is true, this is the greatest action movie ever.

If grace is really raining down on us from this altar, I should do this all the time.

I don't feel like much of a saint, but then, how much worse would I be if I were not here?


Tuesday, March 21, 2017

An Addendum To The Previous Post

One of the reasons you would teach manners, Deneen reminds us, is to habituate those good behaviors that you want. He describes how young children start out in no way habituated to eating with good manners. It can be a frustrating period of time, as parents correct and model the better way. They must refuse to give up, because if they do, the proper ways of eating and interacting will become second nature to them. You no doubt have noticed a few breaks in between posts regarding Conserving America?... Yet I find that those posts somewhat unwittingly are grounded in Dr. Deneen's observations. One of the great benefits of Dr. Cross' comments with respect to my infelicitous phrase "what comes naturally to a person" is that it gives us a chance to clarify what we mean when we talk about "human nature," as the professor noted. [You want to link to the Michael Jackson song so bad, don't you?--ed.] Yes.

And here is a provocative thought: Aristotelian virtue ethics makes little sense in a Protestant context. If the Reformers had been right about the impact of the Fall on human nature, the habituation of virtue is a waste of time, at best. The notion of "natural virtue" is a mockery, a contradiction. If man's nature is totally corrupt, he is steeped in vice, and cannot be otherwise. Recognizing this difference, I cannot be surprised at even the liberal Protestant default position on moral claims in public policy: "Why do you expect non-believers to act like Christians?" That question hides an assertion that there is little or nothing to be gained in promoting virtue as such. It's perceived as a theocratic imposition, because theologically and practically, there is no "human nature" to preserve. Thus, no human community worth preserving, except the Church, in this view.

If democratic man is impatient with forms, is this because he is Protestant? Or is he Protestant because he is impatient with forms?

Monday, March 20, 2017

Conserving America? Essays On Present Discontents, Patrick J. Deneen (VI)

Dr. Deneen begins his essay "Manners And Morals" with a reflection on eating. Actually, the picture of eating a meal serves as a metaphor for most of what he says here. He says that manners--and specifically table manners--developed as both an acknowledgment of our animal nature, and an attempt to transcend it. We need to eat, but we eat in a manner reflecting a desire not to be enslaved by our passions. Eating together both symbolizes and actualizes a new solidarity born from the recognition that we ought not eat each other.

Our propensity to eat flesh meat, and Deneen's reflection on that fact, may be disconcerting to the reader, but it gives us the opportunity to reflect on our limitations, as well as our dignity. One intriguing aspect of these reflections--which Deneen does not make explicit, or at least to the extent that he could--is the connection between meal time solidarity, and politics as such. A healthy politics, he does say, delicately balances the recognition of personal needs with our duty to the other.

For my part, I recall many accounts of the "good old days" in American politics described the smoothing out of disagreements literally over beer. We do not eat and drink together because the forms of civility that such things indicate are viewed with outright hostility. Indeed, Deneen is not the first to note a kind of anti-politics at work. I join in his lament over this anti-politics, mourning much of what has been lost.

Deneen's sharp critique of the economics of "fast food" stings a little, and I hope not only because of my frequent trips to the neighborhood Arby's. [They know you by name, dude.--ed.]