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Thomas Weinandy on the Suffering of God

In the course of arguing for the classical divine attribute of impassibility, Weinandy suggests there is a sense in which suffering can be attributed to God. I think it is helpful to keep this in mind, as one of the reasons the doctrine sometimes fails to persuade is the intuitive sense that such a view obviously contradicts biblical portrayals of God. However, if the classical doctrine is understood in its fullness, it does not simply reject depictions of God as suffering; it only notes that the sense in which God, as uncreated Creator, “suffers” must be sui generis.

Sorrow and grief are attributed to God not by way of predicating a passible emotional change within him, but rather by way of denoting that he is all-loving and good. Because he is perfectly loving and good, he finds sin and evil repugnant, and so he can be said to sorrow and grieve in the light of their presence. God does not grieve or sorrow because he himself experiences some injury or the loss of some good, nor that he has been affected, within his inner being, by some evil outside cause, but rather he grieves or sorrows only in the sense that he knows that human persons experience some injury or the loss of some good, and so embraces them in love. This sorrow and grief ascribed to God could contain the note of suffering only if we mean that, as all-loving, he is intensely concerned with the reality of sin and evil, and the suffering that ensues from them. To ascribe suffering to God is not to denote a positive passible emotional state as if such a state were distinct from a variety of other emotional states within God, but solely to specify the truth that God, as all-loving and good, is opposed to and finds abhorrent all that is not loving and good. To ascribe suffering to God does not then imply that God experiences inner emotional anguish or distress because he has experienced some injury or the loss of some good, nor that he has been adversely affected by some evil outside cause, but rather it accentuates the truth that God’s perfectly actualized goodness is wholly adverse to all that is contrary to his goodness, and that in his perfectly actualized love he embraces those who suffer because of sin and evil. ‘Suffering’ would then be attributed to God metaphorically since it has been purged of the passible and emotional connotations found within human suffering, but it would retain and might intensify the authentic truth that God, in his goodness, abhors evil and so repudiates it, and in his love, embraces the sufferer. The innocent who suffer injustice know then that God, in his goodness, is adverse to the injustice suffered, and experience God’s love as a love that is deeply concerned and consoling. As a way of expressing God’s repudiation of evil and as a way of accentuating his loving care for the sufferer God could then be said ‘to suffer in love,’ but God could not be said ‘to suffer in love’ in the sense that he himself experiences some form of inner anguish or distress due to some personal injury or the loss of some good. [Does God Suffer?, 169]

It’s worth considering, too, what it would mean if biblical depictions of God suffering were taken literally without any qualification. Weinandy explains:

Eternally God is immutably and impassibly adapted to every situation and circumstance, not because his love is indifferent and unresponsive, but because his love, with all its facets, is fully in act, and so he is supremely and utterly responsive to every situation and circumstance. God is unconditionally adaptable in his dynamic and passionate love because his love is immutably and impassibly in act. If God needed, sequentially in a potency/act manner, to adapt and re-adapt and re-adapt himself again to every personal situation in every momentary instance, he would be conceived as an infinite mega-computer … continuously and simultaneously processing trillions of conflicting bits of emotional data. He would then be seen to be perpetually entangled in an unending internal emotional whirligig. [162-163]

And being perpetually entangled in an unending internal emotional whirligig is a far cry from biblical descriptions of God as the makarios theos: “—he who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see.”

Theodicy and the Goodness of God

The “problem of evil” has been around for a while, as have responses to it. One of the most perennial (appearing in places such as Job) is these days called “skeptical theism”, or else a “mysterian” reply; putting it simply, it questions the question, pointing out that God’s incomprehensibility, the limits of our knowledge, and the fallibility of our moral sensibilities, along with the positive reasons to believe in God’s power and goodness, and argues these should lead us to conclude God has sufficient reason to allow evil, though we cannot necessarily see what it is. It is a conclusion that God is trustworthy, though his ways sometimes seem inscrutable.

Sometimes, when this response has been provided, the natural question will arise: if this response is correct, what does it mean to call God “good”? I want to provide a brief answer to that question here.

Aristotle provides an intuitive definition of good which covers the various uses human beings have for the word beyond and inclusive of the ethical: “the good is that which all things desire.” In light of this definition, the classical conception of God is that God is the most desirable reality. As Thomas puts it:

But all things, each according to its mode, desire to be in act; this is clear from the fact that each thing according to its nature resists corruption. To be in act, therefore, constitutes the nature of the good. Hence it is that evil, which is opposed to the good, follows when potency is deprived of act, as is clear from the Philosopher inMetaphysics IX [9]. But, as we have shown, God is being in act without potency. Therefore, He is truly good.

I’m not here concerned to provide the arguments for the classical view of God, just to explicate what it said about his goodness. If we follow it’s roadmap, we will also say that God’s goodness means God’s desirability. To put it plainly, God is the kind of thing that, when we might see him (whether with the eyes, or in the figurative sense, with the eyes of the mind), we would want him. Or perhaps to say it yet another way, God’s goodness is what leads us to worship him, to be struck with awe and joy at the sense of his presence.

Now we can connect this back to theodicy. Questions of God’s justice focus more specifically on the moral character of God, i.e., his goodness in the more narrowly ethical sense. But the general doctrine of God’s goodness has implications for this more specific sense, too. It means, at minimum, that nothing in God’s character implies God is anything less than the ultimately desirable reality.

Returning to the “mysterian” theodicy, then, we can explain it this way. The character of cruel and evil people is repulsive; people with healthy consciences find such behaviours morally disgusting, not desirable at all. The argument claims that if we knew all the relevant truths about God and the world, which we do not know, we would be able to see both God and all the evil in the world simultaneously, and still see God as the perfectly desirable reality. Nothing in his character provides grounds to react to him as morally sane people do toward evil dispositions.

For those who want to read further on how the classical conception of God relates to the problem evil, you could do worse than to start with Ed Feser’s various posts on the subject.

The Reaper in the Room

Two remarks I recently came across.

(1) Being unable to cure death, wretchedness and ignorance, men have decided, in order to be happy, not to think about such things. – Blaise Pascal, Pensées, 133.

(2) Ernst Kantorowicz, discussing the palpable contrast seen in funerary rites between juristic theories of the immortality of the king’s dignity and the mortality of his natural body:

In short, one revelled in strong contrasts of fictitious immortality and man’s genuine morality, contrasts which the Renaissance, through its insatiable desire to immortalize the individual by any contrivable tour de force, not only failed to mitigate, but rather intensified: there was a reverse side to the proud reconquest of a terrestrial aevum. At the same time, however, immortality–the decisive mark of divinity, but vulgarized by the artifice of countless fictions–was about to lose its absolute, or even its imaginary, values: unless it manifested itself incessantly through new mortal incarnations, it practically ceased to be immortality. The King could not die, was not allowed to die, lest scores of fictions of immortality were to break down; and while kings died, they were granted the comfort of being told that at least “as King” they “never died.” (The King’s Two Bodies, 437)

I suppose the trope is perennial, the human attempt to avoid and divert itself from its own mortality, but these days nothing represents to me this custom so much as the endlessly renewed but disposable constituents of the celebrity pantheon.

What is Best In Life?

Permit me a bit of amateur psychology. I think we in the Western world would have to try very hard to miss that a lot of us spend time seeking a handful of things. We pursue goods that are easy to reach. Food and alcohol, sex, contest, and music are the most obvious examples.

Food and alcohol do their work immediately, with the taste, and then with the feelings of satiety and/or relaxation.

Assuming one is not starving or dying of thirst, it is fairly common knowledge that the strongest of physical passions is the sexual. Basically everyone thinks sex is good. Just the thought of it can cause people to obsess, and even the lacking of it can satisfy in other ways (e.g., the feelings of having a “crush” can themselves be pleasant). We seek and give sex, broadly considered, in various ways. A good number of regular Western pastimes involve indulging in this, if not always with the intent of actually having sexual intercourse, then at least with the intent of enjoying the sensations that imagination brings. Romance movies generate “crush” feelings; pornography more directly aims at sexual titillation. Advertisements often play on one or both pleasures. The lyrics of much music uses these tropes. The general habits of the clubbing world are obviously all circling around this particular passion.

People also enjoy defeating threats. The hope of victory, the risk of failure, and the adrenaline rush that drives us to seek the first in the face of the second. The two most obvious instruments for creating this sensation are sports events and action films.

Then there’s the good of music. I’ve quoted Richard Hooker before on this blog on the power of music, but here he is again:

The reason hereof is an admirable facility which music hath to express and represent to the mind, more inwardly than any other sensible mean, the very standing, rising, and falling, the very steps and inflections every way, the turns and varieties of all passions whereunto the mind is subject; yea so to imitate them, that whether it resemble unto us the same state wherein our minds already are, or a clean contrary, we are not more contentedly by the one confirmed, than changed and led away by the other.

Music is so beloved because it has the power to alter our moods in a very direct way. Though we may lack a certain good in reality, music can still make a chimera dance on our mind’s stage.  Pop music is certainly not an exception here. As Roger Scruton notes:

This surely accurately describes the way in which contemporary pop—from Crystal Castles to Lady Gaga—is received by its devotees. I am not talking of the words. I am talking about the musical experience. It is surely right to speak of a new kind of listening, maybe a kind of listening that is not listening at all, when there is no melody to speak of, when the rhythm is machine made, and when the only invitation to dance is an invitation to dance with oneself. And it is easier to imagine a kind of pop that is not like that: pop that is with the listener and not at him. … The externalized beat of pop is shoved at us. You cannot easily move with it, but you can submit to it. … And the dance is not something that you do, but something that happens to you—a pulse on which you are suspended.

This aspect of pop music might be one of its main attractions: in its common forms, it overwhelms with the passions. It forces people to feel. Of course, a great deal of it aims at producing one or both of the previously mentioned passions: sexual euphoria or something like what the Greeks would have called thumos.

These goods are the easiest to reach, and so become the highest end for many. As Wittgenstein said in another context, people are captured by an image, a picture of something within their grasp, and often lose desire for any others beyond their immediate reach. But there are other kinds of goods, ones that often have more of a slow burn than a quick sizzle. Yet these kinds of goods can provide a more deep and lasting enjoyment of life than the ones above.

Imagine accomplishing a difficult objective. You decide to do something that seems like a good idea,  you eventually face opposition from nature or other people, you persevere and reach the goal. How do you feel? Bored? Of course not. The experience is often more pleasant than it would have been had there been no resistance at all. The victory through struggle gives knowledge of self as adequate to overcome difficulties, and to know this is to know something good. Further, you will have the good you originally sought.

Another good difficult to reach, but which provides much deeper and lasting satisfaction, is friendship. Knowing and loving another human being in a significant way. Human beings are the height of creation. Their strength, compassion, intelligence, creativity, beauty, humour, quirkiness, majesty, and piety, both in combination and separately, when deeply appreciated, can bring much joy to the people who experience them. But these are things that can only be discovered with time and effort; one must decide to sacrifice time and comfort and, instead of seeking directly pleasurable pursuits, to endure boredom, awkward moments, moral flaws and injuries, weaknesses and insecurities, and any number of other things that make people unattractive. Yet when another person is deeply known and loved, the happiness is almost incomparable.

Then there are intellectual goods. The human capacity to understand reality abstractly, as a coherent whole, to ask and answer the question “why?”, is arguably what distinguishes us most from the kingdom of nature. And curious people fulfill this potential when they encounter an intriguing but difficult question, and then pursue the answer with determination. When they reach their destination, a deeper understanding of the “why?” produces a sensation that artists and poets have long compared to elemental forces of nature: fire, light, electricity, and even a kind of intoxication. To seek and to find wisdom is one of the most exquisite pleasures human beings know.

But the highest good is not any of these things in themselves. It is nothing other than God. The most pleasurable good that human beings can pursue is understanding of the Creator, the ultimate answer to “why?”, and friendship with this being, the one who contains every good quality in its most perfect form. But of all pleasures, this is the hardest one to reach, and it cannot initially be reached through the kind of effort to accomplish that I mentioned above. Indeed, Jesus taught that it was impossible unless God gave us a taste for it first: “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.” “Whoever is of God hears the words of God. The reason why you do not hear them is that you are not of God.” God rescues the soul by giving an experience of God’s goodness: “For God … has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” Once this gift has been given, effort to see it more clearly is also given, and when increased clarity is achieved, the root of joy sinks ever deeper. But that gift is laid on a foundation of the first one; to want to pursue God further one must first have seen why he is indeed worth pursuing. The darkened character of our intellects will prevent us from seeing this until God opens our eyes to do so. When he does, we will forever want to see things in the aura of his light.

Just Lights and Clockwork

One of our culture’s most brilliant contemporary non-Luddite critics of our use of technology must be Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows and more recently The Glass Cage. At the close of a chapter dubbed “White-Collar Computer” he pinpoints the special danger that automation might pose to culture by way of undermining the distinctive feature of philosophical thinking: Wonder. 1

If we’re not careful, the automation of mental labor, by changing the nature and focus of intellectual endeavor, may end up eroding one of the foundations of culture itself: our desire to understand the world. Predictive algorithms may be supernaturally skilled at discovering correlations, but they’re indifferent to the underlying causes of traits and phenomena. Yet it’s the deciphering of causation–the meticulous untangling of how and why things work the way they do–that extends the reach of human understanding and ultimately gives meaning to our search for knowledge. If we come to see automated calculations of probability as sufficient for our professional and social purposes, we risk losing or at least weakening our desire and motivation to seek explanations, to venture down the circuitous paths that lead toward wisdom and wonder. Why bother, if a computer can spit out “the answer” in a millisecond or two?

In his 1947 essay “Rationalism in Politics,” the British philosopher Michael Oakeshott provided a vivid description of the modern rationalist: “His mind has no atmosphere, no changes of season and temperature; his intellectual processes, so far as possible, are insulated from all external influence and go on in the void.” The rationalist has no concern for culture or history; he neither cultivates nor displays a personal perspective. His thinking is notable only for “the rapidity with which he reduces the tangle and variety of experience” into “a formula.” Oakeshott’s words also provide us with a perfect description of computer intelligence: eminently practical and productive and entirely lacking in curiosity, imagination, and worldliness. [The Glass Cage, 123-124]

Notes:

  1. For those who might imagine that a computer could someday replicate even this aspect of human nature, I would suggest reading Edward Feser’s review of Ray Kurzweil’s How to Create a Mind.

Conscience and Revelation

In light of some recent discussions in the blogosphere on these subjects, I thought I would share my views on them, such as they are.

How do feelings, reason, and conscience relate? 

What determines right and wrong is not simply a feeling. Feelings are reactions to perceptions, real or imagined. They don’t give us new data, they are in fact our reactions to what we perceive. But our perceptions can be mistaken, and so our moral feelings partake of that fallibility. What ultimately determines right and wrong is the objective moral order; our conscience is most basically our awareness of that order. It is, in line with the classical definition of “reason”, the adequation of our mind to the moral aspect of reality. However, like awareness of the material world and other aspects of reality, our perception of the moral aspect of the world can be faulty, our reasoning can go off track, and our feelings react improperly to what we perceive (through force of habit or for some other reason). For this reason we should always remain open to correction by the facts.

Does revelation call us to act against our conscience?

This question can actually be understood two different ways. The first is as many people who pose it understand it: can revelation demand that our will choose a course of action that our reason regards as wrong and our emotions find repulsive, and do so without giving us reason to suppose our prior judgment (the source of our emotional reaction) is mistaken? In this case, the Bible, and representatives of the Christian tradition like Thomas Aquinas (cf. ST II-I.19.5-6), would say “no”. Acts against a mistaken conscience are still sinful, precisely because they are acts against the conscience.

The second way to understand the question is as follows: can revelation provide new information that would demand that our former beliefs about reality be abandoned for new ones? And could there be a situation where we are called to do something we previously found repulsive which revelation now gives us reason to regard as right? To this question the Bible and Christian tradition would answer “yes”. A good example of this in scripture would be Acts 10:9-43. But also, general experience would suggest an analogous truth: even abstracting from questions of revelation, it seems any reasonable ethic will have to acknowledge that the conscience can be mistaken, and should change when presented with new facts. One famous recent example of someone claiming this happened in his own experience would be President Barack Obama’s evolution on same-sex marriage.

Are reason and revelation hierarchically ordered? How do they relate?

This is an old and important question, and even within the Reformed tradition there are very complicated discussions and disagreements about this. However, I would suggest that Richard Hooker’s approach to this question is best. He suggested that we must have reason to believe that scripture is the word of God (Laws, 3.8.13), but that once we do have such reason, the word of God provides the strongest evidence we have, even stronger than evidence we have for truths we directly intuit like the law of non-contradiction, because God’s vision of reality is intrinsically more reliable than our faculties of knowledge (Laws, 2.7.5). As Aquinas similarly says (ST I.1.5), “other sciences derive their certitude from the natural light of human reason, which can err; whereas [sacred doctrine] derives its certitude from the light of divine knowledge, which cannot be misled….”

But this is not revelation “trumping” reason in the sense that it demands we believe something we have no reason to believe. Rather, this scheme is rational all the way down, in that reason provides us with warrant to believe that God is infallible and good, and that God in turn has provided us testimony for certain facts that otherwise we might not believe. Given the nature of God as infinite and infallible, and given our nature as partly ignorant, partly sinfully motivated to deny the truth, it is conceivable that God could reveal something to us we may initially not already find to be true. Nevertheless, if we have an antecedent reason to regard the revelation as truly from God, we have good reason to regard our initial lack of a sense of something’s veracity as mistaken, even if we don’t know how we are mistaken.

It is important to note here that this does not commit us to the position that truth is multiple; the point is not that reality can be self-contradictory, but that our mistaken or limited perception of it might lead us not to see how it is actually consistent, though it is ultimately consistent.

If revelation can “trump reason”, does that unleash anarchy or oppression? 

The question that may arise at this point is one that has been raised at least since the aftermath of the Wars of Religion: if revelation can go beyond reason, won’t this unleash anarchy and every evil conceivable? Couldn’t someone use a claim of revelation to justify anything?

The answer to this is partly “yes”, partly “no”. Firstly, yes, in an obvious sense, nothing can physically stop someone from making such a claim. Secondly, no, it does not mean that anyone else is obligated to accept such a person’s claim. People are obligated to believe what they think all the evidence they know of tells them to believe. And Christians can appeal to evidence for their faith, as they have since the beginning of Christianity.

Of course, the hypothetical evil person claiming revelation could simply claim they have direct revelation from God that is stronger than any evidence Christians might appeal to; the question may then arise, “how do we respond to that in a way that will psychologically compel them to agree with us?” The answer is basically: “we can’t”. As epistemologist Michael Bergmann put it:

How can we say that the religious fanatic, who claims that the difference between her belief and ours is that hers is formed in accord with proper function and ours isn’t, is making a permissible move in a proper philosophical exchange? These questions arise, I believe, out of some important misunderstandings. One misunderstanding is the thought that radical disagreement (about such things as fanatical religious views) can be resolved if we follow the rules for permissible moves in a proper philosophical exchange. This thought is a pipe dream, a philosopher’s false hope. The disagreement between clever religious fanatics and those skeptical of their claims, like the disagreement between High Standard moderate nonexternalists and those skeptical of their claims, can ‘bottom out’ in the sort of exchange we’ve been imagining. The High Standard moderate nonexternalist can insist that genuine direct acquaintance with certain facts is sufficient for justification and that the demon victim with merely apparent direct acquaintance is out of luck justification-wise. The skeptic will find that unsatisfying. But the High Standard moderate nonexternalist won’t be moved by the skeptic’s dissatisfaction. The same sort of thing will happen in the case of religious fanatics: they won’t be moved by the skeptic’s dissatisfaction with their externalist response (nor, of course, will the skeptical be moved by their externalist response). …

I say that we can insist the religious fanatic is hallucinating and that those skeptical of introspection are subject to some sort of blindness. But can’t the religious fanatic just respond by saying that those of us who reject her view are subject to some sort of blindness? And can’t those skeptical of introspection responding by saying that we who rely on it are or might be hallucinating (where it seems to us that our introspective beliefs are genuinely infallible or that they are about facts genuinely before our minds, even though they aren’t)? Yes, the religious fanatic and the skeptic about introspection can respond in those ways. But in response to the religious fanatic, we can say: ‘the difference between our claim that you’re hallucinating and your claim that we’re blind is that our claim satisfies the conditions necessary and sufficient for justification and yours does not’. Likewise, in response to the skeptic about introspection, we can say: ‘the difference between our claim that you’re blind and your claim that we’re hallucinating is that our claim satisfies the conditions necessary and sufficient for justification and yours does not’. It’s true that this is unlikely to satisfy the religious fanatic or the skeptic about introspection and that they will likely have similar things to say about us. But the point here is just this: The fact that those with whom we disagree (e.g. the religious fanatic or the skeptic about introspection) can respond with philosophical moves similar in form to our own might keep us from complaining that they aren’t following the proper rules for philosophical exchange. It may even prevent us from resolving our dispute with the methods of philosophy. However, it doesn’t commit us to thinking that their views are sensible or respectable. [Michael Bergmann, Justification without Awareness: A Defense of Epistemic Externalism, 231-2]

To summarize Bergmann: any philosophical or religious disagreement can come to an impasse when one person claims something is obvious, and another says somebody is hallucinating when they claim something is obvious. But even in such a deadlock, people can be rational in holding their beliefs. For knowledge must be of the truth perceived by properly functioning epistemic faculties, while belief can be in error, and the side in the aforementioned impasse with the truth will have grounds for regarding the other person as mistaken. But it will mean that not every disagreement can be resolved by following common position-neutral philosophical rules.

What this means for the social question, “won’t this result in anarchy?”, is a negative answer. Societies are composed of people with beliefs, and they can respond to a minority of religious fanatics according to the evidence as they see it; even if they cannot persuade the minority with position-neutral philosophical arguments, they can still respond to them with other tactics beyond “the methods of philosophy”. They can make laws according to the truth as they see it. Of course, the majority might also be in error, but it is a mistake to think that a philosophical method will ever make such an error impossible. Tragedy is unfortunately always a possibility in this world.

Heinrich Bullinger on Justification by Works

Continuing in my series on Reformed theologians who affirm a sort of final justification by works, it seems to me Bullinger falls into this category in the following text:

So then, as often as the godly doth read, that our own works do justify us, that our own works are called righteousness, that unto our own works is given a reward and life everlasting; he doth not by and by swell with pride, nor yet forget the merit of Christ: but, setting a godly and apt interpretation upon such-like places, he doth consider that all things are of the grace of God, and that so great things are attributed to the works of men, because they are received into grace, and are now become the sons of God for Christ his sake; so that at the last, all things may be turned upon Christ himself, for whose sake the godly know that they and all theirs are in favour and accepted of God the Father.

This comes in the context of a sermon that is crystal clear on justification sola fide. Bullinger does not think it impossible to affirm, in a suitably qualified sense, that “our own works do justify us” or that they receive “life everlasting”, once the more foundational and controlling truth of justification by grace through faith is properly understood.

Craig Keener on Miracles

Dr. Craig Keener is unarguably one of the world’s top scholars on the topic of miracles, and he recently delivered a lecture series on the subject that is well worth hearing if you want to get a fraction of his argument from his massive Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts. This will be of interest to cessationists, materialists, and those who are neither.

HT: Triablogue

The Ubiquity of Kitsch

Scruton

In an old essay from City Journal, philosopher Roger Scruton meditates upon the nature and ubiquity of kitsch. He contends “In all spheres where human beings have attempted to ennoble themselves, to make examples and icons of the heroic and the sublime, we encounter the mass-produced caricature, the sugary pretense, the easy avenue to a dignity destroyed by the very ease of reaching it.” This also, helpfully, gives Scruton’s understanding of the essence of kitsch. He elaborates more fully a little later:

Kitsch is not just pretending; it is asking you to join in the game. In real kitsch, what is being faked cannot be faked. Hence the pretense must be mutual, complicitous, knowing. The opposite of kitsch is not sophistication but innocence. Kitsch art is pretending to express something, and you, in accepting it, are pretending to feel.

Kitsch therefore relies on codes and clichés that convert the higher emotions into a pre-digested and trouble-free form—the form that can be most easily pretended. Like processed food, kitsch avoids everything in the organism that asks for moral energy and so passes from junk to crap without an intervening spell of nourishment.

Scruton contends that a major part of the origin of kitsch in the modern world is the decline of religion, but he also notes that this was precisely the sphere in which we first find it, and that it has persisted there to this day:

This work of the imagination is not possible for everyone; and in an age of mass communication, people learn to dispense with it. And that is how kitsch arises—when people who are avoiding the cost of the higher life are nevertheless pressured by the surrounding culture into pretending that they possess it. Kitsch is an attempt to have the life of the spirit on the cheap.

Hence the earliest manifestations of kitsch are in religion: the plaster saints and doe-eyed madonnas that sprang up during the nineteenth century in every Italian church, the cult of Christmas and the baby Jesus that replaced the noble tragedy of Easter and the narrative of our hard-won redemption. Kitsch now has its pantheon of deities—deities of make-believe like Santa Claus—and its book of saints and martyrs, saints of sentiment like Linda McCartney and martyrs to self-advertisement like Princess Diana. …

Kitsch reflects our failure not merely to value the human spirit but to perform those sacrificial acts that create it. It is a vivid reminder that the human spirit cannot be taken for granted, that it does not exist in all social conditions, but is an achievement that must be constantly renewed through the demands that we make on others and on ourselves. Nor is kitsch a purely aesthetic disease. Every ceremony, every ritual, every public display of emotion can be kitsched—and inevitably will be kitsched, unless controlled by some severe critical discipline. (Think of the Disneyland versions of monarchical and state occasions that are rapidly replacing the old stately forms.) It is impossible to flee from kitsch by taking refuge in religion, when religion itself is kitsch. The “modernization” of the Roman Catholic Mass and the Anglican prayer book were really a “kitschification”: and attempts at liturgical art are now poxed all over with the same disease. The day-to-day services of the Christian churches are embarrassing reminders of the fact that religion is losing its sublime godwardness and turning instead toward the world of fake sentiment.

Is there anywhere we can turn to escape kitsch? Scruton is pessimistic:

Can we escape from kitsch? In real life, it surrounds us on every side. Pop music, cartoons, Christmas cards—these are familiar enough. But the escape routes are also kitsched. Those who flee from the consumer society into the sanctuary of New Age religion, say, find that the walls are decorated with the familiar sticky clichés and that the background music comes from Ketelbey via Vangelis and Ravi Shankar. The art museums are overflowing with abstract kitsch, and the concert halls have been colonized by a tonal minimalism that suffers from the same disease. Nor is the world of politics immune. The glimpses that we see of life in Baghdad show a return to the high kitsch of Nazi Germany, with portraits of the Leader in heroic postures and architectural extravanganzas that outdo the most camp of Mussolini’s stage sets. But look at our own political world and we encounter kitsch of another and more comical kind. The kitsch-fly has laid its eggs in every office of state, and gradually the organism is softening. What is Monica Lewinsky if not kitsch, object and subject of the most expensive fake emotion since Caligula? The epic of which she was a part is in the style of Walt Disney, and the object of her affections was not a president but a “president.”

He does offer a glimmer of hope, or at least a project to be undertaken, at the end of his essay, but I will leave the reader to pursue it at its source.

This year he lectured on the same subject, and added some further thoughts, including a useful reflection on the case of people of sincere faith who value kitsch. See here:

What Questions Are We Asking?

While discussing the place of Christians in contemporary academic and intellectual life, Charles Taylor writes in his concluding reflections to A Catholic Modernity? about how an atmosphere of unbelief has shaped not just the answers given in those places, but even the questions that are asked:

Add to this that beginning students are rarely too clear about what remarks they want to make anyway; we have more in the nature of confused intuitions at that stage (indeed, we have a lot of those at this stage, too), and we can easily understand how a student slides into a pattern of conformity, which may then become a lifelong habit.

A striking example of this preshaped agenda is the aspect of moral theory which I talked about in Sources [of the Self] and again in my lecture here. I argued in the lecture that a key issue for our times is that of moral sources, whether, for instance, we can maintain the high level of philanthropy and solidarity we now demand of ourselves, without these degenerating into their opposites: contempt, the need to control. The issue here is the quality of our moral motivation–in more old-fashioned terms, the quality of our will and the nature of the vision that sustains it.

Plato or Aristotle would have understood what I was talking about, although, of course, not the Christian or modern reference points of my discussion. But modern moral philosophy, particularly in the analytic world, has undergone a drastic foreshortening. These issues just fall off the agenda. For those thinking in the wake of the utilitarians and Kant, for instance, the principal moral question is, What ought we to do? (as against What is good to be? or What should we love?), and the principal task of moral philosophy is to find the principle or principles from which we can derive what we ought to do (the greatest happiness, or universalization, of whatever).

I was struck in some of the comments on Sources by how many people couldn’t seem to grasp what question I was addressing. They took “moral sources” to be another name for the highest principles. They literally couldn’t think outside the contemporary agenda.

But, one wants to protest, don’t you see that it also matters whether people can actually bring themselves to do the right thing? But then your interlocutor looks at you blankly and says: of course, but that’s not moral philosophy; how people actually get motivated, that’s in the domain of psychology, or sociology, or whatever.

In other words, these two issues, what we should do and how we come to do it, which were unproblematically seen as part of the same inquiry by Plato, Augustine, and just about everybody else until the last three centuries, have been neatly sundered and placed in noncommunicating intellectual universes. (119-120)