Thursday, April 02, 2020

We Trust In Your Goodness...

Prayer is a wild thing, when it is real. I just prayed the craziest thing. I asked for some things, and then I said, "We trust in your goodness, even if we die." It's true, isn't it? I won't lie to you and say I'm fruitfully reflecting on my eventual death at every moment. But indeed, faith in Christ and in the resurrection of all of us from the dead means that death is not the end. This is exactly why St. Paul boasts and sings, "O Death, where is your victory? O Death, where is your sting?" It doesn't erase the human experience of loss and its pain, but we do not grieve as those with no hope. And the substance of hope is exactly this: to move forward, in the reality of God's goodness. God is trustworthy. In simplicity, this is living faith distilled.

I've been saying "we" a lot in prayer lately. I suppose that if we really do have "mystic sweet communion with those whose rest is won," I never am praying alone.

I'm just a sinner, without doubt or qualification. Yet I believe. I do not see, but I believe. We'll get through this, to goodness on the other side. We know this because Goodness has said so. If you can't take that to the bank, there is nothing you can.

Jesus, Hope of sinners, have mercy on us!

"Star Trek: Picard" And Me

Everyone knows I am a Trekkie. I may not even be a good one, given the fact that I haven't even seen Voyager and Deep Space 9 all the way through. And if you don't know what I'm talking about, that will begin to show you just how deep and abiding the Star Trek canon now is, as it is being added to as we speak.

Star Trek would not have endured, if not for the success of Star Trek: The Next Generation. "TNG," as it is lovingly abbreviated, allowed the Trek family to finish the feature films involving the original Star Trek cast with some coherence, and a tie to the present, which was being made by TNG. I digress.

One of the more inspired casting choices back then had to be Sir Patrick Stewart as Capt. Jean-Luc Picard. Stewart is and was a Shakespearean actor, but not unknown to science fiction fans as Gurney Halleck in the film adaptation of Frank Herbert's novel, "Dune". I myself have also enjoyed in recent months his cameo turn as the Russian spy chief Karla, in the miniseries film adaptations of the John Le Carre books, "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" and "Smiley's People," both venerably fronted by Sir Alec Guinness in the protagonist role of George Smiley.

Anyway, as it turned out, Stewart added a certain gravitas that was needed, before TNG earned the loyalty of Star Trek fans. In the process, he helped create an amazing character, a 24th century Renaissance man, who, even within the strictures of Gene Roddenberry's atheistic humanism, is admirable, and worthy of emulation. I think even the weakest of the TNG feature films at the conclusion of the series is a worthy addition to the Star Trek canon, and I know the fans are pleased that such a beloved character still endures. It will be interesting to see what happens, if and when the character is "rebooted," to see who is chosen to fill such large shoes.

"Star Trek: Picard" is set in terms of our calendar in 2399, some 28 years after the end of TNG, and 14 years after Adm. Picard has resigned in protest, for reasons we do not know when the series begins. There is always a tension between what film and TV critics call, "fan service" and good storytelling. Bad storytelling mistakes fan service for good storytelling, and often ends up with neither. Star Trek: Picard suffers no such flaws. I think that you will find if you love TNG that it treats your love with great reverence, even as the writers and other creators have a story to tell. It's sentimental, but not cheap; it's familiar, but not worn. Stewart still inhabits this character. My deepest wish right now is to introduce the non-familiar to the character of Jean-Luc Picard.

I know that I have been pretty rough in recent posts on the philosophy of existentialism. It is indeed some sort of false binary to be forced to choose between existentialism, and nihilism. Revealed truth in Christ is so liberating, because Christ is the meaning of all things; I have no need to make a meaning out of my life. Even as suffering remains the great mystery in this life, that even the experience of revealed truth on this side does not decipher or make plain, there is a coherence and a purpose that becomes clear.

There are no spoilers in this piece, or at least very small ones, because if you have an opportunity to watch the show, nobody likes a show or movie to be ruined by someone else. At the same time, Star Trek in all its incarnations including this one still serves as something of a medium for my self-expression, and one of the ways that I lean into the world. Science fiction in particular--as I have mentioned before--serves as a kind of parable in the present day to talk about what matters in a subtle, hopefully inoffensive way. This is especially important when we often find that speaking directly about things that are contentious often doesn't go very well. Our Lord used parables to great effect, wanting to teach his audience, while favorably disposing them to receive what he had to say.

To say that I have enjoyed the show so far is almost perverse. I don't judge Star Trek on the simple terms of whether it was momentarily diverting. It's a medium, a story to tell another important story. Most immediately, it helps me tell my story, and with mercy, how my story intersects and joins the great story of God's love for humanity.

The show is far from philosophically perfect, but it is philosophically relevant, and that is nearly all you can ask, when faced with life's most important questions. I recommend the entire first season of this show, especially if you can find 11 hours to spare.

Wednesday, April 01, 2020


I keep seeing the first ten minutes of a documentary about the 1995 Chicago heat wave that killed 739 vulnerable and poor people in 5 days. In light of the current moment, I'm having some thoughts. Let me get the caveats out of the way first. I know that politics is often a choosing between two or more less than ideal scenarios. I know that people of goodwill can legitimately disagree about the best way to reach an agreed upon end.

The thing is, I'm hearing a voice again, and it sounds an awful lot like Dr. Bryan Cross, my friend and a professor of philosophy at Mount Mercy University. The voice is a little more direct than Dr. Cross tends to be in most arguments, but it's saying, "Who would you have to tax, and how much, to provide every poor person in Chicago with at least a window unit for air-conditioning at no cost to them?" You could say that death comes for us all, and that some people in Chicago would not have been able to escape heat related death that summer. On the other hand, Mayor Daley wasn't going without air-conditioning. The Chicago Bulls didn't go without air-conditioning. And if you're asking me if I favor some sort of social democracy to prevent some of these things from happening the way they have, the answer to that is an emphatic "yes!"

Now don't hear what I'm not saying. I'm not saying that people aren't responsible for willing choices that they make. I'm not saying that we all owe $100 to every drunkard we meet on the sidewalk. I'm definitely not saying that we should look the other way as the closest thing we have to a social democratic party in the United States promotes abortion, euthanasia, divorce, broken families, and whatever else. I am saying that in the abstract at the level of principle, I believe that any one of us can stand to be slightly less rich, if we can make our poor less desperately poor.

At bottom, I reject individualism, especially as it pertains to wealth. I believe that we have moral obligations which transcend and supersede an absolute claim of "my rights". I recognize as a matter of course the inefficiencies of government, and that any attempt to assist the vulnerable will become an occasion for graft and corruption. Too many times, however, a philosophy of anti-politics and anti-government has raised the specter of inefficiency and corruption to maintain the status quo of radical individualism, and bluntly, radical selfishness. The American people pay taxes to support things that we need and share as citizens. Quite frankly, it is time to ask if we are getting anything close to what we pay for.

Given the difficulty of convincing so great a number of people to stay home for the protection of others while a deadly virus attacks the vulnerable, I would say that we are infected with a stubborn individualism. No ghost of statist socialism erases that moral problem, and we should say that there must be a middle ground. It's time to stand up and claim that middle ground.

Someone could argue that I'm just a sentimental fool, but my retort is that we have chosen to be governed for decades by heartless fools. I will take the sentimental fools over the heartless fools every day, and twice on Sunday.

Why Liberalism Failed (Deneen) Preface (III)

Deneen begins by telling the reader that this book was finished three weeks before the US presidential election in 2016. He goes on to say that its main theses matured over the last decade or more, and in light of recent events like Brexit, and the election of Donald J. Trump, he may have written a different book indeed. Still, Deneen thinks that his main contentions shed light on current events, and that current events vindicate those contentions much faster than he would have anticipated.

Deneen argues that liberalism undermines culture and the mores which instruct people in their obligations to one another, and to God in the virtuous life. Meanwhile, the ravages of individualism and capitalism demand an ever-active state to redress its injustices. This cycle repeats and escalates. Politics then becomes the arena for the venting of rage, rather than the considered deliberations of virtuous people in pursuit of a common good. He believes that the current widespread yearning for an illliberal strongman represents the frustration of deepest desires as a result of the liberal order.

None of this, he says, has caused the power-brokers of the liberal order to question the undermining of traditional values, customs, and family bonds. Deneen believes that increasing amounts of force will be used against those to continue to resist the prevailing liberal zeitgeist. He will argue that both left-progressive and right-conservative versions of liberalism undermine the social bonds and systems by which people derive purpose and fulfillment.

I could not help but think that the authoritarian strongman has arrived in the person of Donald Trump. Many scoff at this idea, since certain segments of his critics also behave as though he is a totalitarian mastermind, while others highlight his ignorance and stupidity. But Europe's fascists in the time of the second world war were equal parts mind-bogglingly inept, and well-practiced in evil and grave injustice.

At the same time, there is a profound lack of neutrality with respect to values in the progressive-left paradigm of today. Liberalism's insidious nature hides this progressive intolerance behind the appearance of neutrality, fashioned by the regular routine of apparent democratic elections. For my part, it appears that the end-point of this postmodern liberalism is exactly as John Rawls suggested: Nietzschean will-to-power, and majoritarian positivism.

I should also say that I have become aware--without reading Russell Kirk, as yet--that he himself was fearful that libertarian capitalism would undermine traditional value systems. It is intriguing that Deneen has caused such a splash in these latter days, if critics of capitalism from a traditionalist viewpoint had prominence for many decades. On the other hand, this "fusionism" was politically expedient, and hardly questioned in right-conservative circles.

Able-Bodied People Are Smart, Too

This is what clueless people don't realize. Yeah, a confident person with a physical disability says, "I guess I'll get a 'brain' job," but yeah, it's not as easy as it sounds. We're still competing with all of you.

I will literally punch the next person who calls me any form of "lazy," because you have no clue. Not only do I have to convince people that I'm not an idiot, or mentally challenged in some way--not that we're doing well treating them with dignity, either--but I'm human, too. I get scared of taking a risk for the big job, etc. And that doesn't even count the discrimination of physical barriers.

If I'm a little cantankerous--even arrogant at times--in arguments, just know that I have a generation's worth of being ignored, pushed aside, or being patted on the head. It's a work of grace not to resent the lot of you, most of the time.

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Why Liberalism Failed (Deneen) Foreword By Hunter and Owen (II)

It is interesting that the authors of this foreword call Deneen's critique "radical". I don't think they intend to say necessarily that it inspires passionate reactions--though it does--but that it goes to the root of unexamined assumptions about our political and socioeconomic system. The authors note that people of various ideological positions will find things to cheer, and to lament, in Deneen's work.

We should resist the temptation to categorize the book in the terms of which we are all familiar, if we have participated in the political process at some point. I do dare to say that Deneen aims to conserve something, or even more radically, to rebuild something that has been lost. Well, if nothing else Professor, you've earned a positive blurb on the back from President Obama.

One interesting question I have that won't leave me is this: is it possible to re-establish the very foundations of a society without destroying all that we know?

Why Liberalism Failed, By Patrick J. Deneen, Introductory Comments And Prologue (I)

I had the occasion to meet Professor Deneen at a recent conference, and to hear him speak twice. His essays in the collection, "Conserving America?…" are provocative, to say the least. This is the second book of Prof. Deneen's that I have reviewed. I think it fair to say that Why Liberalism Failed is a distillation of the professor's thoughts over a couple of decades now. It is interesting to me that the most contentious reaction to Deneen's thesis come not from the Left, but from self-described conservatives. In a certain way, though intellectuals are intellectuals, able to understand highly complex and nuanced arguments, perhaps those of us who find much value in Deneen's critique underestimate his thesis in its capacity to be an assault on patriotism itself. The good professor does not intend to attack the virtue of patriotism, but indeed it goes a long way to proving his thesis, that attacking liberalism is perceived as an attack on our country.

For my part, I sensed a certain intellectual unease with my own participation in the political process, leading up to the time of reading Professor Deneen for the first time. Something was wrong; there seemed to be a disconnect between what I desired, and what my robust participation in the system was able to deliver. For me, it is more than vaguely reminiscent of the fundamental contradiction inherent in Mayhew's work, Congress: The Electoral Connection. We want solidarity; we want unity. We want our representatives to act for the common good, even if we don't know what that is, or we wouldn't say it quite that way. The frustration of politics owes itself to mores and structures that have been obliterated. We both loathe and celebrate the individualism that makes solidarity and collective action virtually impossible. More than this, the sensation of complete futility with respect to the political process owes to the fact that a certain consensus about the world and our polity does not exist. We will never--at least on these terms--indwell that consensus, or enjoy its fruits. We have social and emotional needs that liberalism was never meant to bear. In fact, Prof. Deneen argues that liberalism denies the social nature of the human being, and of his political nature as a social creature.
This Audible edition of the book begins with a kind of prologue, where Deneen tells us that medieval society collapsed because of the gap between the chivalrous ideal embraced by the elite of society, and the lived reality of most people in society. We can say in brief that he is setting us up to understand that the collapse of liberalism will be owed to the gap between elite ideals and professions, versus the lived reality of ordinary people.

This Audible edition is not well labeled or marked out; you will have to trust me, or to follow along with a paper copy, to be sure that I have not left anything out.

Once more, I take up the posture as a learner, a student, and as a friend of the author. Deneen will not find a savage review here. I told him I was a fan actually, and he seemed a little shocked. So much the better. I know I would rather be celebrated than mocked.

Monday, March 30, 2020

Reality? Let’s Talk About Reality

I just saw a magazine headline: “Reality Has Endorsed Bernie Sanders.” I don’t like when people de-personalize their preferences. Moreover, I admire Bernie in many respects, but I don’t like that there is this idea that OBVIOUSLY the good people support Sanders and his whole program. Politics is the art of the possible, isn’t it? Setting a vision and inspiring others is one thing; governing is another.

Biden will be the most progressive party nominee in history, despite the chatter that he’s some Manchurian crypto-Republican.

Aside from all that, in any sane world, the Democrats would pay a dear price for their abortion and sexual radicalism. Then again, their opponents wouldn’t be a bunch of nationalist, fascist Know-Nothings, in any sane world.

Come quickly, Lord Jesus!