Archive for the ‘Anthropology’ Category

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)

Richard Hooker on Music

Hooker’s Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, 5.38.1 and 3 (with some extra paragraph spacing to make it more readable), on music:

Touching musical harmony whether by instrument or by voice, it being but of high and low in sounds a due proportionable disposition, such notwithstanding is the force thereof, and so pleasing effects it hath in that very part of man which is most divine, that some have been thereby induced to think that the soul itself by nature is or hath in it harmony. A thing which delighteth all ages and beseemeth all states; a thing as seasonable in grief as in joy; as decent being added unto actions of greatest weight and solemnity, as being used when men most sequester themselves from action.

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. In harmony the very image and character even of virtue and vice is perceived, the mind delighted with their resemblances, and brought by having them often iterated into a love of the things themselves.

For which cause there is nothing more contagious and pestilent than some kinds of harmony; than some nothing more strong and potent unto good. And that there is such a difference of one kind from another we need no proof but our own experience, inasmuch as we are at the hearing of some more inclined unto sorrow and heaviness; of some, more mollified and softened in mind; one kind apter to stay and settle us, another to move and stir our affections; there is that draweth to a marvellous grave and sober mediocrity, there is also that carrieth as it were into ecstasies, filling the mind with an heavenly joy and for the time in a manner severing it from the body.

So that although we lay altogether aside the consideration of ditty or matter, the very harmony of sounds being framed in due sort and carried from the ear to the spiritual faculties of our souls, is by a native puissance and efficacy greatly available to bring to a perfect temper whatsoever is there troubled, apt as well to quicken the spirits as to allay that which is too eager, sovereign against melancholy and despair, forcible to draw forth tears of devotion if the mind be such as can yield them, able both to move and to moderate all affections.

…In church music curiosity and ostentation of art, wanton or light or unsuitable harmony, such as only pleaseth the ear, and doth not naturally serve to the very kind and degree of those impressions, which the matter that goeth with it leaveth or is apt to leave in men’s minds, doth rather blemish and disgrace that we do than add either beauty or furtherance unto it. On the other side, these faults prevented, the force and efficacy of the thing itself, when it drowneth not utterly but fitly suiteth with matter altogether sounding to the praise of God, is in truth most admirable, and doth much edify if not the understanding because it teacheth not, yet surely the affection, because therein it worketh much. They must have hearts very dry and tough, from whom the melody of psalms doth not sometime draw that wherein a mind religiously affected delighteth.

Be it as Rabanus Maurus observeth, that at the first the Church in this exercise was more simple and plain than we are, that their singing was little more than only a melodious kind of pronunciation, that the custom which we now use was not instituted so much for their cause which are spiritual, as to the end that into grosser and heavier minds, whom bare words do not easily move, the sweetness of melody might make some entrance for good things. St. Basil himself acknowledging as much, did not think that from such inventions the least jot of estimation and credit thereby should be derogated: “For” (saith he) “whereas the Holy Spirit saw that mankind is unto virtue hardly drawn, and that righteousness is the less accounted of by reason of the proneness of our affections to that which delighteth; it pleased the wisdom of the same Spirit to borrow from melody that pleasure, which mingled with heavenly mysteries, causeth the smoothness and softness of that which toucheth the ear, to convey as it were by stealth the treasure of good things into man’s mind. To this purpose were those harmonious tunes of psalms devised for us, that they which are either in years but young, or touching perfection of virtue as yet not grown to ripeness, might when they think they sing, learn. O the wise conceit of that heavenly Teacher, which hath by his skill, found out a way, that doing those things wherein we delight, we may also learn that whereby we profit!”

The Preestablished Harmony of Pop

adorno1

Theodor Adorno, a member of the Frankfurt school, analysed pop music from the perspective of Critical Theory in his 1941 essay “On Popular Music”. Among his many reflections on the subject (of varying worth), he considered the reason for the hold of popular music on the masses. Part of his answer was the following:

The frame of mind to which popular music originally appealed, on which it feeds, and which it perpetually reinforces, is simultaneously one of distraction and inattention. Listeners are distracted from the demands of reality by entertainment which does not demand attention either.

The notion of distraction can be properly understood only within its social setting and not in self-subsistent terms of individual psychology. Distraction is bound to the present mode of production, to the rationalized and mechanized process of labor to which, directly or indirectly, masses are subject. This mode of production, which engenders fears and anxiety about unemployment, loss of income, war, has its “non-productive” correlate in entertainment; that is, relaxation which does not involve the effort of concentration at all. People want to have fun. A fully concentrated and conscious experience of art is possible only to those whose lives do not put such a strain on them that in their spare time they want relief from both boredom and effort simultaneously. The whole sphere of cheap commercial entertainment reflects this dual desire. It induces relaxation because it is patterned and pre-digested. Its being patterned and pre-digested serves within the psychological household of the masses to spare them the effort of that participation (even in listening or observation) without which there can be no receptivity to art. On the other hand, the stimuli they provide permit an escape from the boredom of mechanized labor.

The promoters of commercialized entertainment exonerate themselves by referring to the fact that they are giving the masses what they want. This is an ideology appropriate to commercial purposes: the less the mass discriminates, the greater the possibility of selling cultural commodities indiscriminately. Yet this ideology of vested interest cannot be dismissed so easily. It is not possible completely to deny that mass consciousness can be molded by the operative agencies only because the masses “want this stuff.”

But why do they want this stuff? In our present society the masses themselves are kneaded by the same mode of production as the arti-craft material foisted upon them. The customers of musical entertainment are themselves objects or, indeed, products of the same mechanisms which determine the production of popular music. Their spare time serves only to reproduce their working capacity. It is a means instead of an end. The power of the process of production extends over the time intervals which on the surface appear to be “free”. They want standardized goods and pseudo-individualization, because their leisure is an escape from work and at the same time is molded after those psychological attitudes to which their workaday world exclusively habituates them. Popular music is for the masses a perpetual bus man’s holiday. Thus, there is justification for speaking of a preestablished harmony today between production and consumption of popular music. The people clamor for what they are going to get anyhow.

Dallas Willard on the Nature of Feelings

Dallas Willard wisely instructs his readers on the nature of feelings:

Much of the great power of feelings over life derives not just from the fact that they touch us, move us, but from the fact that they creep over into other areas of our life; they pervade, they change the overall tone of our life and our world. They spread like an unstable dye or a viral form or a yeast. They may take over all else in us, even that to which they have no relevance. Things and people around us then look different, take on a distinctive tone or meaning. And that can even determine the tendency and outcome of our life as a whole.

This explains why it is so hard to reason with some people. Their very mind has been taken over by one or more feelings and is made to defend and serve those feelings at all costs. It is a fearful condition from which some people never escape. We have noted how thoughts generate feelings. If we allow certain negative thoughts to obsess us, then their associate feelings can enslave and blind us—that is, take over our ability to think and perceive. …

Beyond the individual level, poisonous emotions and sensations often take over entire social groups, blinding them and impelling them on terrible courses of destruction. This is nearly always what has happened in cases where repression of ethnic groups or genocide occurs. Thus, to the onlooker the participants (the Nazis, and so on) seem to be deaf, blind, and insane – which, in a sense, they are. They, too, are imprisoned.

Feelings can be successfully “reasoned with,” can be corrected by reality, only in those (whether oneself or others) who have the habit and are given the grace of listening to reason when they are expressing violent feelings or are in the grip of them. A feeling of sufficient strength may blot out all else and will invariably do so in one who has not trained himself or herself, or been trained, to identify, to be critical of, and to have some distance from his or her own feelings. Combined with a sense of righteousness, strong feeling becomes impervious to fact and reason. …

Abandonment to feeling, allowing oneself to be “carried away” by feeling, is actually sought by many, and on a regular basis. That is a testimony to our epidemic deadness of soul. People want to feel, and to feel strongly, and in the very nature of life they need to do so

The opposite of peace is really not war, but deadness. The “dead soul” is one waiting to explode or fall apart, and one that will seek out trouble for reasons it cannot understand. In its desolate life away from God, there is no drama to provide constructive feeling tones that would keep life from being a burden. Such persons really have no hope. This is the key to those “lives of quiet desperation” Thoreau attributed to “most men.” Feeling will then be sought for its own sake, and satisfaction in feeling alone always in turn demands stronger feeling. It cannot limit itself. [Renovation of the Heart, 124-125]

Chronicles In The Abolition Of Man

A woman wants to give birth to a shark.

The prophet C.S. Lewis once wrote:

My point may be clearer to some if it is put in a different form. Nature is a word of varying meanings, which can best be understood if we consider its various opposites. The Natural is the opposite of the Artificial, the Civil, the Human, the Spiritual, and the Supernatural. The Artificial does not now concern us. If we take the rest of the list of opposites, however, I think we can get a rough idea of what men have meant by Nature and what it is they oppose to her. Nature seems to be the spatial and temporal, as distinct from what is less fully so or not so at all. She seems to be the world of quantity, as against the world of quality; of objects as against consciousness; of the bound, as against the wholly or partially autonomous; of that which knows no values as against that which both has and perceives value; of efficient causes (or, in some modern systems, of no causality at all) as against final causes. Now I take it that when we understand a thing analytically and then dominate and use it for our own convenience, we reduce it to the level of `Nature’ in the sense that we suspend our judgements of value about it, ignore its final cause (if any), and treat it in terms of quantity. This repression of elements in what would otherwise be our total reaction to it is sometimes very noticeable and even painful: something has to be overcome before we can cut up a dead man or a live animal in a dissecting room. These objects resist the movement of the mind whereby we thrust them into the world of mere Nature. But in other instances too, a similar price is exacted for our analytical knowledge and manipulative power, even if we have ceased to count it. We do not look at trees either as Dryads or as beautiful objects while we cut them into beams: the first man who did so may have felt the price keenly, and the bleeding trees in Virgil and Spenser may be far-off echoes of that primeval sense of impiety. The stars lost their divinity as astronomy developed, and the Dying God has no place in chemical agriculture. To many, no doubt, this process is simply the gradual discovery that the real world is different from what we expected, and the old opposition to Galileo or to `body-snatchers’ is simply obscurantism. But that is not the whole story. It is not the greatest of modern scientists who feel most sure that the object, stripped of its qualitative properties and reduced to mere quantity, is wholly real. Little scientists, and little unscientific followers of science, may think so. The great minds know very well that the object, so treated, is an artificial abstraction, that something of its reality has been lost.

From this point of view the conquest of Nature appears in a new light. We reduce things to mere Nature in order that we may `conquer’ them. We are always conquering Nature, because`Nature’ is the name for what we have, to some extent, conquered. The price of conquest is to treat a thing as mere Nature. Every conquest over Nature increases her domain. The stars do not become Nature till we can weigh and measure them: the soul does not become Nature till we can psychoanalyse her. The wresting of powers from Nature is also the surrendering of things to Nature. As long as this process stops short of the final stage we may well hold that the gain outweighs the loss. But as soon as we take the final step of reducing our own species to the level of mere Nature, the whole process is stultified, for this time the being who stood to gain and the being who has been sacrificed are one and the same. This is one of the many instances where to carry a principle to what seems its logical conclusion produces absurdity. It is like the famous Irishman who found that a certain kind of stove reduced his fuel bill by half and thence concluded that two stoves of the same kind would enable him to warm his house with no fuel at all. It is the magician’s bargain: give up our soul, get power in return. But once our souls, that is, ourselves, have been given up, the power thus conferred will not belong to us. We shall in fact be the slaves and puppets of that to which we have given our souls. It is in Man’s power to treat himself as a mere `natural object’ and his own judgements of value as raw material for scientific manipulation to alter at will. The objection to his doing so does not lie in the fact that this point of view (like one’s first day in a dissecting room) is painful and shocking till we grow used to it. The pain and the shock are at most a warning and a symptom. The real objection is that if man chooses to treat himself as raw material, raw material he will be: not raw material to be manipulated, as he fondly imagined, by himself, but by mere appetite, that is, mere Nature, in the person of his de-humanized Conditioners.

We have been trying, like Lear, to have it both ways: to lay down our human prerogative and yet at the same time to retain it. It is impossible. Either we are rational spirit obliged for ever to obey the absolute values of the Tao, or else we are mere nature to be kneaded and cut into new shapes for the pleasures of masters who must, by hypothesis, have no motive but their own `natural’ impulses. Only the Tao provides a common human law of action which can over-arch rulers and ruled alike. A dogmatic belief in objective value is necessary to the very idea of a rule which is not tyranny or an obedience which is not slavery.

Objective Good, Economics, And Politics

There is at least one fundamental tension between the thinking of some Austrian economics and some libertarian political philosophy, and classical Christian social thinking. Consider this excerpt from von Mises’ magnum opus, Human Action:

When applied to the ultimate ends of action, the terms rational and irrational are inappropriate and meaningless. The ultimate end of action is always the satisfaction of some desires of the acting man. Since nobody is in a position to substitute his own value judgments for those of the acting individual, it is vain to pass judgment on other people’s aims and volitions. No man is qualified to declare what would make another man happier or less discontented. The critic either tells us what he believes he would aim at if he were in the place of his fellow; or, in dictatorial arrogance blithely disposing of his fellow’s will and aspirations, declares what condition of this other man would better suit himself, the critic.

Mises stands within a long tradition of thinkers assuming Hume’s separation of value and fact, a repudiation of the premodern tradition (in which Christianity finds itself) which said there was such a thing as an objective good and evil for human action, and that it could be known by everyone. In participating in the modern tradition, Mises assumed the modernists’ rejection of formal and final causes in the world, and so left humanity without any objective good purpose toward which it was intrinsically directed. What is left in the vacuum is bare will, and perhaps the passions, to which Hume said reason was always a slave. Certainly, there is no objective good that can be rationally discovered by all people of good will.

And, of course, Mises and likeminded Austrians (and libertarians) are not alone amongst the economic and political schools of today in holding this view of ethics and human nature. But they are all clearly in opposition to Christian doctrine at this point.

Reasonable Fasts

The season of Lent is upon us, and so Christians are talking once again about fasting. Among Protestants, this is always a touchy subject. Some among the sons of the Reformers strive to distinguish themselves from Papists by glorying in feasts; others, for various reasons, seek to regain some part of the church’s tradition surrounding fasts.

I’m not particularly interested in hashing out this debate here, though I have my opinions. However, I would like to share Scot McKnight’s argument, from his little book on fasting, about the logic of fasts in general. I read this years ago, but it has stuck with me ever since as eminently reasonable.

He defines fasting as follows:

Fasting is the natural, inevitable response of a person to a grievous sacred moment in life. [xx]

That is, he argues that fasting is a natural response to a particular kind of moment, a grievous, or serious, sacred moment. In other words, fasting is not done (at least in the Bible) for the purpose of achieving some response. It is not done, primarily at least, with prospective vision, but rather with retrospective [xx-xxi].

The Jews and the early Church, of course, also practiced stationary fasts, which are fasts that are practiced regularly, often two days a week (Jews on Mondays and Thursdays, Christians on Wednesdays and Fridays). McKnight admits he does not know exactly what the purpose for these fasts was, but he argues that, given the survey of fasting he had given by that point in the book, it was reasonable to assume that they, too, were retrospective acts. As he puts it:

Even if we cannot always discern why the earliest Christians fasted, we can be confident that some grievous sacred moment prompted the fasting. In light of the themes we’ve already discussed, it is reasonable to think that body discipline was a response to the presence of sin, to the reality of a broken world, and to the yearning for holiness and love. [73]

And how can it be otherwise? Until the Lord comes, there will always be evil and pain to cause us grief, both in others and in ourselves. There is thus always reason to fast, if we are sensitive enough in heart to perceive it.

Some Listening Material For The Guys

It’s probably not a secret that I’m a fan of The Art of Manliness. I think it’s a fantastic resource, and its mission of trying to make men better (and not just sexier or richer) is desperately needed.

On occasion, Brett McKay also does podcasts, and there are a few that might be of general interest. Firstly, they did an interview with Nick Offerman, who plays Ron Swanson in Parks and Recreation. Secondly, they interviewed Rich Sommer, who plays Harry Crane on Mad Men. Other interesting episodes I’ve listened to: Stew Smith, a former Navy SEAL, talks about training; Sam Sheridan, an MMA fighter, who talks (for obvious reasons) about fighting; and Dr. Frank Farley, a professor of psychology, talks about his studies on heroism.

The iTunes page for the podcast is here, though I should note, it is missing many of the episodes. It would probably be best to just do a search on the website itself for “podcasts” if you want to find them all.