Another Week Ends

Tiny Puritans, New Malthusians, Toxic Fans, Downward Spiral Dogs, and the Supreme Governor of the Church of England

Bryan J. / 6.3.22

1. “Long live the Queen!” Those of us with an Anglican spiritual heritage often have a soft spot for the Supreme Governor of the Church of England, and on this Platinum Jubilee weekend, we wish her majesty many more years of service to God and country. Anglophilia aside, Elizabeth II is a remarkable monarch. Despite the bad press from her family and decades of public slings and arrows, Elizabeth herself still remains a beloved figure worldwide, weathering generations of societal and technological upheaval. How has she done it? Andrew Marr at the New Statesman has a thought:

In all this, she has been a survivor of earlier ways of being. British culture, like other European and Asian cultures, was long based on the subservience of the individual character to the role, or job, required. People were born to be farmers, or leatherworkers, mothers, shopkeepers, clerks or priests. Until modern times this was a caste society. The good life was a life in which you performed the duties and tasks which had fallen to you — while also, of course, trying to look after those around you, and obeying the laws of God and man.

Does that sound weird? Even a little creepy? Insofar as it is possible to think ourselves back into earlier consciousnesses (some historians insist it isn’t) this appears to be roughly how many people thought for many generations. It was a way of being that was only upended with the arrival of romanticism, socialism, feminism, Freudianism and the other modern “isms”. But the Queen is pre-ism. She has chosen to serve her role rather than her individualism. Yes, of course, it’s a very grand role. But it’s hard to find many other examples in the modern world — beyond a scattering of hold-outs in religious communities and rural people who have doggedly turned their backs on modern times.

Is it ridiculous to suggest that this is one of the secrets of her popularity — that, in the midst of the swarm and buzz of consumerist individualism, we want to recognise the value of other, earlier ways of being alive? Modern times are so frantic and solipsistic. Put it another way, all our eggs are in one basket. She is a lonely egg in a different basket.

2. Long live the lonely egg! Speaking of the Church of England, one of its less-than-beloved members, economist Thomas Malthus, gets put in his historical context by Lyman Stone over at Plough. Malthus is rightly maligned for his predictions of ecological catastrophe by overpopulation, but modern Malthusians have raised new concerns: is it morally responsible or reprehensible to bring a child into a world that is so overwrought with problems and dangers? Those kind of comments are as common in upper class living rooms as they are on popular reddit threads, but Stone has little time for them. After an overview of Malthusian philosophy and the burdens it places on the poor, Stone makes the case for life:

Yes, humanity is broken, suffering, and destructive — yet it is worth carrying on. Humanity is indeed flawed; it never quite gets things right; it creates new problems for itself all the time — yet it is worth preserving. We can do this with any number of policy changes. But the main way we ensure that humanity endures is by having children. We can determine to pass on the light of life as it was passed to us. We can respond with a clear confession in deeds as well as words: human life is worth it.

This is not to say that everyone must have some given number of children, or any at all. There are any number of medical or situational reasons why people may forgo childbearing. My point is simply that the argument made by today’s new Malthusians, that life is at the point of becoming unbearable, is factually and morally wrong, even as it becomes increasingly prevalent.

Often it is couched in climate terms. But often it is explained in others: the culture has become too hostile, politics too intractable, or the economy too unfavorable to families. The arguments vary, but ultimately, the response is the same. It is the response of Qoheleth to all those who despair: there is nothing new under the sun; enjoy your spouse, your children, and the world as it is. Yes, it is fleeting: all things given us are so.

There have been hostile cultures before. The Hebrews in Egypt defied their oppressors, and by fertility became too numerous to control. There have been intractable politics before, and yet the Jews in the Babylonian Captivity built homes, got married, and started families in an expression of faith that God would keep his promises. There have been bad economies before, and yet through the Dark Ages, the lights of Christendom did not go out, and in innumerable peasants’ homes and country churches of Europe, the catechesis of life conquering death continued. Their example is the counter to despair. […]

Perhaps the definitive modern Christian writing on despair, and thus on a Christian’s reasons for hopefulness, is Søren Kierkegaard’s The Sickness unto Death (1849), a book-length meditation on that occasion where, confronted with the serious disease of his friend Lazarus, Jesus said, “This sickness is not unto death, but for the glory of God, that the Son of God might be glorified thereby.” Kierkegaard’s preface suggests that Christian teaching “must bear some resemblance to the address which a physician makes beside the sick-bed.” He goes on to say that the true sickness of which Jesus was speaking was not Lazarus’ illness, but the despair that afflicts so many human hearts, and, in that instance, the despair of those who had no faith that Jesus could raise Lazarus from the dead. This hopelessness, says Kierkegaard, is truly the sickness unto death: to abandon the hope of life, because you believe that things simply cannot get better. Faith, the antidote, asserts — sometimes with reason but sometimes without — that it can be done: life can be lived.

3. A fantastic writeup from Pysche addresses part of Stone’s writeup about New Malthusian ideas: if someone lacks religion, how can we expect them to believe that there is hope in life itself? Is there a secular answer to the benefit religion provides? Michael Primzing offers some pessimistic research: secular communities can mirror the social benefits of religion (the social mattering hypothesis) but cannot replicate its existential meaning (the cosmic mattering hypothesis):

Across these four studies, the results consistently supported both the social mattering and cosmic mattering hypotheses, but also suggested that the cosmic mattering hypothesis was by far the stronger of the two explanations. In other words, the correlation between religiousness and perceived meaning in life was statistically accounted for by both forms of perceived mattering — but perceived cosmic mattering accounted for a much larger proportion of that association. This suggests that the primary reason why religiousness is associated with perceived meaning in life is because it is also associated with perceptions of cosmic significance.

It’s worth reiterating that these studies were conducted in the US, where most religious people are adherents of Abrahamic monotheisms (Judaism, Christianity and Islam). Things might look very different in other cultures. But, if these findings are correct — at least in this Western context, where being religious typically means believing in a creator God — they raise the question of whether secular Western society is in a position to reproduce the existential benefits of religion. […]

 In fact, a number of ‘atheist churches’ have already been established with this goal in mind. Such communities are likely to be very beneficial for their members. Yet our research suggests that these secular substitutes will be less powerful sources of perceived meaning than religious faith because they are unlikely to support perceptions of cosmic significance.

Is it possible to cultivate a sense of cosmic significance without adopting religious beliefs? One might contribute to science (ie, attempt to comprehend the Universe), or work to protect Earth from the climate crisis or other global threats. These are enormously important and good things to do with one’s life. Yet the impacts of such endeavours are confined to the comparatively humble scale of our planet – which, again, is a very small part of the cosmos overall. Moreover, even if one’s efforts were successful, these secular sources of significance are likely to require an enormous amount of hard work, dedication and opportunities that are not available to everyone. Hence, religion might be a unique source of perceived meaning in life.

It’s not some vague notion of community, it’s not the liver-shiver of a rockin’ worship band. Psychological wellbeing derives from a direct interaction with a creator that is in charge of a universe beyond comprehension, one who actually likes us enough to seek out a relationship with us. Go figure. 

4. Lots to laugh at this week, not the least of which being “Yoga Poses to Help You Feel Closer to Death:

The Downward Spiral Dog

The less emotionally well-adjusted cousin of the classic Downward Dog, this is a move that helps you to open your soul to the fact that you will never be a “morning routine” person, but that you will definitely be a “morning existential crisis,” person, and they might as well be the same thing.

How to do it:

Set your alarm with the intention of at least trying to start that morning routine you read about, the one that’s guaranteed to transform you into a self-made billionaire who takes cold showers for fun, and eats raw kale as a cheat snack. When you realize that this is not only unrealistic, but also stupid, lay on the ground with your body directly in the sun, just like a dog. Take deep breaths in and out, soaking in all that free vitamin D people are always telling you will cure your depression forever. When you realize how great this feels, continue laying down, with no plans to get up until you start to get hungry, also not unlike a dog.

See also “‘Stranger Things’ Kids Aging Faster Than Normal Children Just to Make You Feel Old” and “Fun Uncle Regrets Every Life Choice He’s Ever Made,” along with this piece of absurdist fun: “Seven Times I Was Fooled by a Julia Child Deepfake.”

5. We’re at the midseason with the new Obi-Wan Kenobi show on Disney+, and as a long-time Mockingbird and Star Wars guy, I have thoughts:

Strong opinions about that galaxy far, far away always flair up when I watch the show, but then all the press comes out about actress Moses Ingram getting racist threats, and it puts those big emotions into perspective. There’s a kind of dark side that exists within so many Star Wars fans, the kind of dark side that drove Ahmed Best (Jar Jar Binks) to consider suicide and likely contributed to Jake Lloyd’s (child Anakin Skywalker) adulthood paranoid schizophrenia. See also Kellie Marie Tran and John Boyega from the Disney trilogy. To quote Yoda himself, “the fear of loss is a path to the dark side” (SWIII, RotS). Let’s charitably consider these strong emotions the fear of loss.

To clarify, I have not crafted any social media accounts to harass Star Wars actors. But what exactly are these fans, or what exactly am I, losing that drives us to such heights of fandom rage? It takes a special kind of emotional energy to create an anonymous Twitter account and hurl racist epithets at a black woman who was doing what the script and director and editor asked of her. I can only guess it’s something as powerful and meaningful as religion, but it’s been entrusted to a narrative too frail to bear its weight.

That said, the Obi-Wan show itself has been fantastic, a real character study in regret and fear and despair. It’s not the show I expected, but in many ways, it’s the show Star Wars fans have hoped for: old beloved characters in new and surprising situations. Also, streaming is likely the future of Star Wars, and I am here for it. The prequel trilogy ran for 415 minutes total runtime, and this series will run around 300 minutes by the end. That’s a lot more time for things like character development and world-building, two things that Star Wars fans will really come to love.

6. Over at Christianity Today, Joy Marie Clarkson has diagnosed your real spiritual problem: there’s a Tiny Puritan living in your head.

I am convinced that most of us have a Tiny Puritan who lives in our heads. He sees all pleasure as temptation. He thinks the safest way to stay morally pure is to be chronically wary of one’s own enjoyment. When we find ourselves enjoying something (be it a particularly overripe peach, an amazing piece of music, or a first kiss), he furrows his brows, grumbling, “Sinner! Be careful! You might get carried away!” The Tiny Puritan is a nuisance, but we’re afraid to get rid of him, because we really do want to be good.

The Tiny Puritan believes all pleasures are guilty pleasures. Did you enjoy that movie? The Tiny Puritan suggests you could/should be doing something more productive or spiritual. Did you love those donuts? The Tiny Puritan suggests that you are a glutton.

We all handle the Tiny Puritan in our own special way. Some people learn early in life to lock the Tiny Puritan in a box and bury him somewhere deep in their subconscious, boldly enjoying pleasures both innocent and salacious. Some of us try to bargain with the Tiny Puritan, enjoying some small pleasures, but not without being flattened slightly by his derisive scoff. We end up trying to follow all the Puritan’s demanding rules, just so he’ll shut up. […]

God has set a feast for us in the world. He invites us to taste his love in every perfect apple pie, to feel our souls brush infinity in the consolation of human love, to be drawn through music into worship. In each generous pleasure, each plucking of the strings of desire in our hearts, the Holy Spirit whispers of the new creation. So I dare you to take great pleasure in things. Tell the Tiny Puritan to get lost. Eat the feast.

7. Tiny Puritans are no font of love, contractual or unconditional, though love is what we find modeled for us in Dickens’s classic David Copperfield. The last word today goes to Alan Jacobs, who confesses that the love given to Lil Em’ by her uncle has him cutting onions:

What most people want, or think they want, is affirmation. Indeed, many people demand it, and seek to punish those who do not give it to them. But affirmation never comes without conditions, even if they’re unstated. Thus I think it’s fair to say that Mrs. Steerforth, by explicitly indulging her son’s every wish while forever hinting that by so doing she is binding him contractually to her, is enriching the soil in which anomie [a vice inspired boredom] flourishes. […]

What people need, whether they know it or not, is not affirmation but rather unconditional love — because only with unconditional love can there be genuine honesty. What Emily needs is not the fiction that she has done no wrong; what she needs, and what she receives, is the double truthfulness that she has indeed sinned but is wholly forgiven. It’s what she needs; it’s what we all need, and from those who genuinely love us we just may get it.


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One response to “May 28-June 3”

  1. DLE says:

    The major beef of the current critics of the direction Star Wars has taken under Disney: the deconstruction of every hero, and their re-assembling into something sad, weak, regretful, and anti-heroic.

    This not only ruins heroes but it weakens heroism as an ideal in the wider culture and society. Ask where you’ve seen the consequences of this recently…

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