Another Week Ends

Click here to listen to this week’s episode of The Mockingcast, featuring an interview with […]

David Zahl / 5.20.16

Click here to listen to this week’s episode of The Mockingcast, featuring an interview with theologian and preacher Fleming Rutledge.

1. Never know whether to be heartened or dismayed when a fresh article about free will hits the webs and is immediately forwarded to us from all corners. I read once that debates on the subject were formally outlawed in Elizabethan England, such was the explosive response it could generate. Well, no one seems to have told The Atlantic Monthly, who ran an lengthy bit of journalism titled “There No Such Thing As Free Will” in their most recent print issue. (Then again, they probably knew exactly what they’re doing, given that publication’s penchant for stirring pots.) The article, written by Stephen Cave, gives an overview of the science of human agency, the consensus being that free will, in the sense of conscious and unconstrained decision-making, is largely an illusion. Instead, our thoughts and actions are determined by intricate networks of neurons, which are shaped by both genes and environment, i.e., nature and nurture alike. If you could map those networks (and their chemistry), you could effectively predict a person’s behavior. 

free-willWhat I find both amusing and disheartening here is that the article is essentially reporting on something that theologians have known for ages, from Paul and Augustine to the Protestant Reformers, namely, the human will is bound. (Standard disclaimer: this is not the same thing as saying we have no will–we do, it’s just hemmed in by desires, affections, and biology). I say amusing because of the way certain quarters presume it to be some fresh breakthrough, yet disheartening in the sense in which it betrays just how much theology as a discipline has been sidelined. The whole thing also exposes how much American optimism has infiltrated the religion practiced on its shores.

To its credit, the article goes a bit further, exploring some of the implications of this truth. An increasing number of studies, for example, have confirmed that those who don’t hold to a belief in free will are more likely to act immorally, or give up on projects. They stop seeing themselves as blameworthy or accountable, apparently. But that’s not all:

Determinism not only undermines blame, Smilansky argues; it also undermines praise. Imagine I do risk my life by jumping into enemy territory to perform a daring mission. Afterward, people will say that I had no choice, that my feats were merely, in Smilansky’s phrase, “an unfolding of the given,” and therefore hardly praiseworthy. And just as undermining blame would remove an obstacle to acting wickedly, so undermining praise would remove an incentive to do good. Our heroes would seem less inspiring, he argues, our achievements less noteworthy, and soon we would sink into decadence and despondency…

Of course, that’s not the whole story. The notion of a bound or unfree will may be discouraging in a certain regard (especially if you make the jump to full-on fatalism/double predestination), but when it comes to how we see other people, it can be a wellspring of compassion. To wit, Cave quotes psychologist and prominent atheist Sam Harris:

gilmore-girls-a-year-in-the-life-posterAccording to Harris, we should acknowledge that even the worst criminals—murderous psychopaths, for example—are in a sense unlucky. “They didn’t pick their genes. They didn’t pick their parents. They didn’t make their brains, yet their brains are the source of their intentions and actions.” In a deep sense, their crimes are not their fault. Recognizing this, we can dispassionately consider how to manage offenders in order to rehabilitate them, protect society, and reduce future offending. Harris thinks that, in time, “it might be possible to cure something like psychopathy,” but only if we accept that the brain, and not some airy-fairy free will, is the source of the deviancy.

Accepting this would also free us from hatred. Holding people responsible for their actions might sound like a keystone of civilized life, but we pay a high price for it: Blaming people makes us angry and vengeful, and that clouds our judgment.

I’m not sure I’d go that far, but still, never thought I’d read an interview with Sam Harris and be struck by the similarities to passages of PZ’s Grace in Practice:

One of the reasons we need to embrace the fact of the un-free will is for the sake of its effect on love. A benefit of the un-free will is that it increases mercy in daily relationships and decreases judgment… Forms of Christianity that stress free will create refugees. They get into the business of judging, and especially of judging Christians… It is judgment that drives people away from Christianity. Ironically, it is judgment – the absence of it – which drew people to Christ. (pp. 108-9)

Sadly, the Atlantic article ignores one of the core insights of Christianity: diminished agency doesn’t, by definition, equate to blamelessness. You can be culpable for actions/words/thoughts/feelings that are beyond your ability to control. A lack of choice does not absolve a person. God does. Which is good news precisely because the forgiveness we hear proclaimed in the Gospel extends beyond the realm of conscious decision-making to areas of inherited compulsiveness–usually the most painful, as it turns out. Or as Paul Walker put it in the Church Issue, we are forgiven not just for what we’ve done but who we are.

2. Heavy, but not as heavy as this next item. I’m referring to the documentary Pervert Park, which recently got a stateside release. The film is the work of a brave Scandinavian couple who journeyed to our nation’s ultimate leper’s colony, the trailer park outside of Tampa Bay that serves as a transitions center for sex offenders.Rolling Stone’s review is where I first heard about the film, and The AV Club also voices a few of the challenges:

pervert-park-posterOccupants adhere to strict curfews and guest policies, and many participate in group counseling sessions designed to help them integrate into life outside of prison… All of this seems to have created an environment of self-reflection and repentance. “Accepting responsibility becomes probably the single most important thing that people in my situation can do,” says one subject, and Pervert Park reflects that sentiment in the blunt, often painful confessionals it captures.

It’s heavy stuff, somehow made even more difficult to watch through the implicit compassion of the filmmakers. Whether there’s such a thing as too much compassion is a bigger question.

Oh boy. On the one hand, the film appears to serve as a powerful rejoinder to a culture that recklessly romanticizes the outsider; on the other, and abhorrent as it may be to a parent of young children like myself (I couldn’t even get through the trailer), the park does sound like the kind of place Christ might have spent time. The fact that I cannot fathom that degree of mercy or compassion–and don’t want to–could be evidence that, to the extent that it exists, it must be divine.

Before we move on, the video that Sarah mentions on the cast re: items 1&2 is this one (Porter wrote the song about Pope Francis’ recent visit to the States):

3. On a much lighter note (thank God), the best thing about this next article is probably the title “Fancy Starbucks Drinks and the Special Snowflakes Who Order Them”. In it, Julie Beck explores the psychology behind the absurd levels of food order customization currently sweeping the nation, not just at coffee shops and fast food joints but even gas stations (WaWa). She interviews, among other people, food writer and journalist Sophie Egan who contends that the trend has as much to do with identity formation as tastebuds. Also broached is the topic of secret menus and the not-so-secret forces that make them so popular. It’s a provocative look at how chain restaurants, er, cater to fragile souls like you and me:

This craze of “mass customization,” Egan says, makes people feel both unique and catered to when they are able to have it their way.  It’s a “desire within our hyper industrialized food system to have something that feels like it meets my personal taste profile. We have access to customized and personalized food experiences at the restaurant level, at the fast casual level, and at the packaged food level and it has only increased.” People can personalize their order at Starbucks or wherever else, and they can also purchase whatever weirdly precise flavor of chips they prefer. (For example, Barbecue, Honey Barbecue, Sweet Southern Heat Barbecue, Hot n’ Spicy Barbecue, and Mesquite Barbecue are all available from Lay’s.) Some fast-food chains have “secret menus” which offer both more options and a supercharged opportunity to signal how special you are for knowing about them…

whitOnce you’ve customized your Goldilocks order (you know, the one that’s juuuuust right), you may just stick with it and make it your usual. One way to think about it is that your Starbucks order is to some small degree a marker of your identity, like the clothes you wear or the TV shows you choose to watch. And the more options there are, the more identities are for sale. Each time you order in this case, “You’re reaffirming your identity,” Egan says.

Mallory Ortberg spoofed the identity side of food hilariously on The Toast the other day with The Seven Stages Of Aspirational Produce Shopping.

4. A three way tie for Social Science Study of the Week: First, a large study came out last month finding that there is indeed an empirical link between social media use and depression in young adults. Next, and just as ensconced in Captain-Obvious-territory is “Neuroscience confirms that to be truly happy, you will always need something more“. Last and probably least,  “Selfie-takers tend to overestimate their attractiveness”.

5. Richard Brody gave Whit Stillman’s Love and Friendship a rave in The New Yorker, highlighting not just the religious dimension (“The Twelve Commandments”!), but Whit’s peculiar and charming moral vision:

For Stillman, seeing the rules of society means seeing that they need to be broken—that the right ones (i.e., the ones that are in the wrong) need to be broken, from the inside, without breaking the weight-bearing ones of humanity and decency, of fundamental morality. His films suggest that he believes that there are such things—that he’s a sort of natural moralist and, therefore, essentially conservative. But his films’ conservatism is based firmly on the ongoing work, by society’s most daringly creative and appetitive members, to quietly but decisively overthrow its elements of misrule and to have a hell of a good time in the process—and, as a result, leave a trail of mercurial beauty that others will then imitate to create what is widely known as fashion and is gathered up under the name of style.

More here.

6. In humor, the hits just keep on coming over at Babylon Bee. For example:

I also laughed out loud at The Toast’s guide for How To Tell If You’re In A Robert Frost Poem (e.g., “A crow has given you back a part of the day you thought you’d lost.”).

7. David Dark wrote up Chance the Rapper’s new record Coloring Book for MTV News and if ever there were a review to do justice to what’s being hailed as a masterpiece… The whole thing is fabulous but my favorite paragraphs came toward the end:

tumblr_mv16xypFnd1rj11mho1_500With “Blessings,” Chance voices a state of mind reminiscent of Bob Dylan’s response to the question of his own happiness, put to him by Rolling Stone in 1991 on the occasion of his 50th birthday. Dylan refused the terms: “You know, these are yuppie words, happiness and unhappiness. It’s not happiness or unhappiness, it’s either blessed or unblessed. As the Bible says, ‘Blessed is the man who walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly.’” Blessedness is a very different game from the pursuit of happiness… And for what appears to be a purposefully slow jam, “Blessings” does an awful lot of work, placing a punchy, James Brown–like “Good God!” directly next to a smoothly crooned, slowly enunciated “Good God” as if mulling over the wide spectrum of emotions out of which the goodness of God might yet be evoked… We’re never not worshiping in Chance’s world.

There’s a boldness here, a kind of chutzpah, that might challenge popular conceptions of piety, but Chance’s faith in a God who accepts every emotion and welcomes every form of candor and good humor is every bit biblical. His expression defies marketing and genre, but this, too, is a blessed thing. The divisions of sacred and secular dissolve upon contact with the way a heart really works. But we’ve already received that wisdom from one luminary after another, right? Prince knew it. Johnny Cash knew it. We forget so easily. True witness knows no division. Labels be damned.

8. Finally, this week’s installment of Modern Love, in which Laura Pritchett details the bittersweet dissolution of her first marriage, is beautiful read, extolling the virtues of “having it out” in relationships. Put another way, a (completely) drama free relationship is not much of a relationship; or where there’s no confession, there’s no forgiveness (horizontally speaking); or as the Shakespeare quote she offers puts it: “My tongue will tell the anger of my heart, or else my heart, concealing it, will break.” How’s that for the little-l law in relationships? Alas, abiding love involves risk.