Another Week Ends

1. I wish more dying people would write about dying. That’s a thought I had […]

CJ Green / 3.12.21

1. I wish more dying people would write about dying. That’s a thought I had while reading Tim Keller’s recent essay in the Atlantic, because I sensed I was finally reading something on the internet that mattered. Keller, the well-known pastor at Redeemer Presbyterian in NYC, writes that, despite his ministering to people about the resurrection for more than 45 years and having writing a book called On Death, his own terminal diagnosis destabilized him and his wife in an unexpected way. “I felt like a surgeon,” he writes, “who was suddenly on the operating table.” All this prompted him to re-examine his faith.

As the early American philosopher Jonathan Edwards argued, it is one thing to believe with certainty that honey is sweet, perhaps through the universal testimony of trusted people, but it is another to actually taste the sweetness of honey. The sense of the honey’s sweetness on the tongue brings a fuller knowledge of honey than any rational deduction. In the same way, it is one thing to believe in a God who has attributes such as love, power, and wisdom; it is another to sense the reality of that God in your heart. The Bible is filled with sensory language. We are not only to believe that God is good but also to “taste” his goodness, the psalmist tells us; not just to believe that God is glorious and powerful but also to “see” it with “the eyes of the heart,” it says in Ephesians.

On December 6, 1273, Thomas Aquinas stopped writing his monumental Summa Theologiae. When asked why by his friend Reginald, he replied that he had had a beatific experience of God that made all his theology “seem like straw” by comparison. That was no repudiation of his theology, but Thomas had seen the difference between the map of God and God himself, and a very great difference it was. While I cannot claim that any of my experiences of God in the past several months have been “beatific,” they have been deeper and sweeter than I have known before.

Personally I get a little antsy when I hear people parsing “real” faith from fake(?) faith, a pursuit that seems destined for greater self-doubt. But in Keller’s case, perhaps due to the gravity of his illness, it brings many revelations. A particularly good one:

Since my diagnosis, Kathy and I have come to see that the more we tried to make a heaven out of this world — the more we grounded our comfort and security in it — the less we were able to enjoy it.

2. In the Guardian, Oliver Burkeman picks up the thread of suffering and death but in the guise of a review of Jordan Peterson’s new book. Peterson is a figure about whom I’ve resisted reading until very recently. I had sensed a tension in any room where his name was mentioned and didn’t have the energy to get involved. Burkeman’s article is perceptive in that he understands that any discussion of Peterson must begin with some disclaimer about others’ disclaimers about Peterson and whether he is the misogynist his critics make him out to be. The review is so good, I’ll let Burkeman take it from here:

The confused public conversation about Peterson arises, if you ask me, from the fact that there are two main kinds of suffering. There is the kind that results from power disparities between groups: racism, sexism, economic inequality. Then there is the universal kind that comes with being a finite human, faced with a limited lifespan, the inevitability of death, the unavoidability of grief and regret, the inability to control the present or predict the future and the impossibility of ever fully knowing even those to whom we’re closest. Modern progressives rightly focus much energy on the first kind of suffering. But we increasingly talk as if the second kind barely counts, or doesn’t even exist — as if everything that truly matters were ultimately political. Peterson, by contrast, takes the second sort of suffering very seriously indeed. […]

The widespread reluctance among progressives to see life as anything but a matter of power struggles helps explain, among many other examples, why a writer for Vox might perceive Peterson to be telling his followers that “the world can and should revolve around them and their problems.” He isn’t; but he does write as if each reader had a moral responsibility to treat their own situation, and the development of their own character, as a matter of life and death for them, because it is. […]

Peterson’s biggest failing as a writer is one he shares with many of his loudest critics: the absence of a sense of humour. He takes the agonising human predicament seriously — but boy does he also take it seriously. This is understandable, in light of what he’s endured; but the effect is to deny his readers another essential tool for coping with life. We need courage and love, but it also helps to find a way to laugh at the cosmic joke. It’s often been observed that Peterson has a religious attitude toward life. But he is, you might say, overly Protestant and insufficiently Jewish about the whole business; he has none of the wry forbearance in the face of pain of the man in the Henny Youngman joke, helped on to a stretcher after a car crash. Paramedic: “Are you comfortable?” The injured man, shrugging: “I make a living.”

Still, in the end, it’s a good thing that there’s space on the self-help shelves for a book as bracingly pessimistic as this one. Ours is a culture dedicated to a belief in the perfectibility of social institutions, in our limitless capacity to know the world, and to bring it under our control, and in the infallible rightness of present day moral judgments. Peterson offers an invaluable reminder that we’re finite and inherently imperfect; that we can’t control everything, or even very much – and that every generation of humans since the ancient Sumerians of Mesopotamia has thought itself morally unimprovable.

3. “Two kinds of suffering” seems a fitting, concise way to understand why so many people are talking past each other “nowadays.” Burkeman’s framework acknowledges that both types are suffering, and worth talking about, but also that it’s a mistake to confuse the two. That is, in essence, the topic of Shadi Hamid’s excellent article, “America Without God,” in which Hamid beats a drum long heard from this website: that in America, politics has replaced religion, the immanent for the ultimate.

[…] if secularists hoped that declining religiosity would make for more rational politics, drained of faith’s inflaming passions, they are likely disappointed. As Christianity’s hold, in particular, has weakened, ideological intensity and fragmentation have risen. American faith, it turns out, is as fervent as ever; it’s just that what was once religious belief has now been channeled into political belief. Political debates over what America is supposed to mean have taken on the character of theological disputations.

The political theorist Samuel Goldman calls this “the law of the conservation of religion”: In any given society, there is a relatively constant and finite supply of religious conviction. What varies is how and where it is expressed. […]

Unfortunately, the various strains of wokeism on the left and Trumpism on the right cannot truly fill the spiritual void — what the journalist Murtaza Hussain calls America’s “God-shaped hole.” Religion, in part, is about distancing yourself from the temporal world, with all its imperfection. At its best, religion confers relief by withholding final judgments until another time — perhaps until eternity. The new secular religions unleash dissatisfaction not toward the possibilities of divine grace or justice but toward one’s fellow citizens, who become embodiments of sin — “deplorables” or “enemies of the state.”

4. I vaguely remember a meme from, I think, March 2020, in which Zach Galifianakis is calculating the imminence of a stay-at-home-induced baby boom. It seemed plausible at the time, yet a year later it’s safe to say the opposite happened. We referenced the sex recession a few weeks ago (and also on the Mockingcast), but according to this week’s Wall Street Journal, the term is “baby bust”: this year, potential parents decided to wait, while some have begun asking whether having children is a good idea at all.

A combination of health and economic crises is prompting many people to delay or abandon plans to have children. Demographers warn the dip is unlikely to be temporary, especially if the pandemic and its economic consequences drag on. […]

Liu Xiaoqing, a 32-year-old from Beijing, said the pandemic turned her against the idea of having a second child, which she and her husband had been considering. The mother of a 2-year-old said, “I can’t even protect one child from a big disaster like this with absolute certainty, let alone two children.”

I mused on some of this a couple years ago, and one thing that remains obvious is that no parent has ever been able to protect any child with absolute certainty at any point in history, yet it’s a peculiarly modern expectation that parents should. It’s representative of, as in Burkeman’s analysis, the collective turning-away from suffering type two, the deeper suffering that life and death are largely out of our control. And here it comes at the cost of parenting, a relationship that, like all relationships, offers a major opportunity to witness grace in practice — love that gives life meaning beyond transactions and deserving.

I could opine further, but this week no one made the point better than the Onion: Health Officials Warn It’s Still Too Early To Stop Languishing In State Of Unceasing Despair:

“We know it’s been a challenging year, but if we start feeling like life might possibly be worth living at this stage, then this pandemic may never end.”

And those who participated in this year’s relatively limited baby-making will probably enjoy these pregnancy jokes, courtesy of Andrew Hutchinson’s the Enlightened Millennial Father.

5. But my favorite piece of humor comes from the Reductress: “Woman Who Thought She Was Sad Fine After Eating Prosciutto.”

Aditi was reminded that true happiness doesn’t come from fame or wealth, but rather knowing that a delicate, cured ham is only a grocery store trip away.

“I went through my twenties thinking I was just sad and anxious all the time, but I was really just going through life without prosciutto,” adds Aditi. “It’s great to know that as you get older, you know yourself better.”

Friends are relieved that Aditi is eating prosciutto right now.

6. This week, my parting gift to you is a jewel-riddled criticism of Weird Catholic Twitter by Justin E. Smith, author of Irrationality: A History of the Dark Side of Reason. Come for the commentary on Twitter and culture, stay for Smith’s voice and soul, bared so beautifully in his prose. Especially enjoyable is the first half, where he details his confused conversion (“I am Catholic,” he writes, “but in a weird, uncertain way.”). Smith goes on to wonder whether his personal weirdness is compatible, or even similar in any significant way, to the trending “subculture” of weird Catholics on Twitter — WCT for short.

[W]hat strikes me when I compare weird Catholics of the past to those who have adopted that label on social media is how much less flexible these latter are, how, for all their proclaimed weirdness, they are mostly preoccupied with the enforcement of official doctrine, even if their interpretation of this doctrine is often highly idiosyncratic. As for myself I find I respond better to some points of dogma and theology than to others. What is most attractive to me about Christianity is the doctrine of original sin, in virtue of which I can look at the most wretchedly evil person, the murderer or rapist, and see him as my equal and my kin. This is so much more profound an anthropological model than anything proposed in the past 500 years of secular humanism, all of whose variants seek in some way or other to account for the difference in our fates by differences in how well we conduct ourselves in this life. In a mundane sense, there are indeed some things we can do to improve our lot; from the point of view of eternity, however, “There but for the grace of God go I” is a singular and unwavering truth.

Some would say that the lack of understanding [of some doctrines] is appropriate, since here we are dealing with “mysteries”, and every faith needs those. Yet when I check in on the WCT “Discourse”, what I find, notwithstanding the general safety-in-irony strategy, is a positive relish for dogmatic affirmations and denial of uncertainty. The believers of WCT will tell you, for example, that they “literally believe in the hierarchies of the angels”, or that “Christ was literally born of a virgin”. But the expression of more certainty than is warranted is a form of pride, and pride, as we know, is a sin.

It may be that while this drive to dogmatic affirmation is intended as an expression of devotion, it in fact follows the broader logic of social media discourse that pushes members of all of its many communities (equestrians, knitters, Trumpists, Catholics) perpetually to up the ante, to affirm commitment to whatever it is one is committed to in ever bolder ways. This logic is, surprisingly, compatible with irony; in fact, the two go hand in hand. […]

But you cannot shitpost your way through a confessio fidei. That the profession of faith in social media so often takes such a form is the surest sign to me that what I am seeing on Weird Catholic Twitter is not, to say the least, a coming together in His name.

Strays: