woensdag 17 december 2008

Some silliness

The Dutch Reformatorisch Dagblad has a gushing review of Creationist biochemist Duane Gish's book about dinosaurs. Judging from the review, it seems to be standard OEC boilerplate with a dose of cryptozoology (dinosaurs are, apparently, still with us). I should note that the Reformatorisch Dagblad is in general a quality Calvinist newspaper, if you look away from their quirks such as shutting down their website on Sundays.

Some quotes of Gish I just can't leave alone (my translation):

Have you ever seen the tail of a hippo?

This is, of course, of the Behemoth, which is argued to be possibly a brachiosaur. The article has a helpful article about a man (presumably Job?) staring at three brachiosaurs (aren't brachiosaurs supposed to have been semi-aquatic, though?).

The relevant passage from Job (40: 15-19)

Look at the behemoth,
which I made along with you
and which feeds on grass like an ox.
What strength he has in his loins,
what power in the muscles of his belly!
His tail sways like a cedar;
the sinews of his thighs are close-knit.
His bones are tubes of bronze,
his limbs like rods of iron.
He ranks first among the works of God,
yet his Maker can approach him with his sword.

Now, at I understand, the reading of "hippopotamus" is based on the etymology of "Behemoth" which does seem to be a loan from an Egyptian word for hippo. Also, some of the other verses talk about the Behemoth hiding in swamps and under reeds, which fits the hippopotamus as well. But I agree that the 'tail'-part does not suggest a hippopotamus.

Then again, one might remark that cedars, as trees generally do, grow from the ground upward. Not sideways. So I can't see a brachiosaur reflected in the text either.

And look at the surrounding verses. First, we have amazement at the Behemoth's strength in the loins, then at the close-knit sinews of the thighs. 'Thighs' happen to be 'stones' or 'testicles' or 'male organs' in some other translations. The New International Version has a footnote that the 'tail' might be a trunk (supposing the Behemoth is an elephant) but, looking at the verse in context which reads as a praise to the creature's power and virility, my thoughts are drawn to a different organ.

I do not know whether 'tail' was a usual metaphor for that-other-thing in Biblical Hebrew (and can't be bothered to look up right now) but it seems natural enough (see for example German Schwanz which has both meanings).

For the record, I think it is fairly useless to speculate on what creature the Behemoth is supposed to mean. When the Bible talks about Behemoth, or Leviathan, it does not do so in quite the same way as it talks about sheep or camels - we do not find any Biblical figure encountering a herd of Behemoths. Rather, they are very specific monsters in the Biblical narrative as well. And I think that's what they basically are: monsters.

Elsewhere in the article Gish is quoted against the existence of transitional fossils:

None of the animals is on its way to change for 25, 50 or 75 percent; they are all complete 100 percent. Fossils are strong evidence against evolution.

The point of transitional fossils is one I have never understood.

It seems self-evident that if species A is the ancestor of species B (after a number of evolutionary changes) and that species B is an ancestral form of species C, that then species B is a transitional form between A and C, and fossils of it are 'transitional fossils'. Thus Homo Erectus is a transitional form between Homo Habilis and ancestral modern man. Which does in no way have to imply that species B (say Homo Erectus is in any way incomplete. It is only from the perspective of its ancestors and its descendants that it is a transitional fossil. As far as Homo Erectus was concerned, it probably was the pinnacle of creation. And of course Homo Erectus was a full-blown species, interbreeding with its companions, and persisting over a given quantity of time (perhaps some time after its modern descendants entered the scene. Most any creature is a representative of a species.

Likewise, from our contemporary perspective, we might state that Middle English is a transitional form between Old and Modern English, which does not mean Middle English was in any way an 'incomplete language'. Alternatively, if Monk A copies a Bible, makes a few mistakes, and leaves the copy to Monk B who adds some copying mistakes of his own in the copy he, in turn, is making, the intermediary form is a 'transitional form' from a historical perspective. It's still a Bible, too.

What has always remained entirely unclear to me is what, if my reading above is wrong, 'transitional fossils' are supposed to look like? Dinos with feathers? Check. Hairy reptiles? Check. Ape-men? Check. Ah, but all those are species in their own rights! But what else would we expect?

zaterdag 13 december 2008

This ain't the summer of love: Marxism, Christianity and the glorious nature of suffering.

This ain't the garden of Eden
There ain't no angels above
and things ain't like they're supposed to be
and this ain't the summer of love

Blue Öyster Cult

One of my favourite blogs in the Swedish blogosphere is Bloggelito's. This is because the writer is a heretic against what I regard as the "Swedish ideology" - the weird mixture of Social Democracy and moralistic feminism. And on many single political issues, I find myself in wholehearted agreement with him. With regard to worldviews, however, the distance could not be greater: being a libertarian secular humanist, the writer has an understanding of Christianity which makes Christopher Hitchens look like a subtle thinker. One example is Kristendom är fascism ("Christianity is Fascism").

The title is a response to a piece written by a Christian called Självmordshjälp är fascism ("Assisted suicide is Fascism"). I don't want to go into the question itself. I am rather leery of the state either banning or legislating euthanasia and assisted suicide.

Rather, I want to go off on a tangent based on the sneer at the end of the post (my translation):

Christianity is the mother of all fascism, with its insane emphasis on suffering (its symbol is a tortured carpenter on a cross). Whereas euthanasia is at home within the domain of humanism, with its outspoken aim to alleviate suffering..

Yes. YES. Y E S. Exactly. Guilty as charged! (Not about the fascism, mind you. That's nonsense of course. But on the suffering).

Suffering and the celebration of suffering lies at the heart of Christianity. We do indeed worship a tortured and wounded carpenter executed in one of the nastiest ways the local authorities could come up with. And depending on the exact denomination, we also worship a whole regiment of saints who faced down suffering, torture and death with death-defying, insane courage.

Again, there's various kinds of Christians. Some protestant churches are adorned with an empty cross, something I've always been puzzled at. The Roman Catholic and Eastern churches are an entirely different matter, of course. And then there are the Anabaptists, who have a glorious (and I mean precisely: glorious) history of martyrdom stretching into early modern times.

But Christianity, at heart, is about suffering and dying. It is about God, in the person of a carpenter from Galilee, showing us what it means to be human. Which as it happens includes a lot of suffering and dying. There's no way out from that. Christianity provides no spiritual painkillers, no escape from the harsh realities of the world. If you dream of immortality as a ball of pure life-energy circling the planets around Sirius or some such dross, join the New Agers. Christianity is about the suffering and dying. Which is serious business. Sure enough, as a matter of faith and hope, we may believe we will be resurrected before God - but as Christ himself showed, the suffering and dying has to be gone through first.

(The case of the Dutch Anabaptist Dirk Willems has baffled me since I first read of it. In 1569, Dirk Willems tried to escape the Church authorities across the ice. His pursuer fell through the ice, and apparently without a second thought, Dirk Willems turned around and helped him out. According to some reports, his pursuer was unwilling to arrest him but ordered to do so by the bailiff who stayed safely on the land. Dirk Willems was duly burned as a heretic.

Willems' case baffles me because he does not exemplify what a good man, or a morally upright man, or a "good Christian" should do. Only an utterly insane version of ethics would prescribe Willems' actions. Rather, through his actions, Willems transcended the logic of action and benefit, of practical rationality itself.

Willems' case keeps me awake at night. Because he exemplifies what I must intellectually accept what Christianity is about. At the same time, there's no question I'd have left the guy in the water. I'd probably have never gotten myself in that situation in the first place. It's not so much that I would break under torture, but that the mere suggestion of torture would be quite enough. And give up my friends and loved ones in the process. Because in the end, witnessing or causing the pain of others would be easier to bear than suffering oneself. It's not nice, but there it is.

This causes me to be quite hesitant in my own embrace of Christianity. Because if to be a Christian means to be a "follower of Jesus", I want to read the small print. Others may think of the miracle healings, the Sermon on the Mount, the parables. My thoughts are immediately drawn to nails.)

Back to the point: Christianity is about suffering and dying. It's about learning how to suffer. There's no way around it.

At the basis of Christianity is the understanding that the world is somehow radically not-as-it-should-be. There is a wrongness about things which goes right down to our cells, to the very heart of our being. Things are not as how they are intended to be. We are not as we're supposed to be. For the Christian, living in the world as it is is pretty much like holding a mirror which cries out: "Look at you! How hideous!".

This is of course not unique to Christianity. Marxism has a notion, in estrangement or alienation, which very much mirrors the Christian notion of the Fall.

Secular liberals are a different story. Secular liberals have a notion of wrongness, to be sure, but not radical wrongness. The wrongness of the world, in the mind of the secular liberal, often seems to lie in the rest of the world being reluctant to accept the political and social ideals formulated during the Enlightenment and exemplified in Western Europe and the U.S. But through the gradual approach between nations through free exchange of ideas and material goods, through the gradual emancipation of the autonomous, rational individual in China and Afghanistan as it is in America or Sweden, or, alternatively, encouraging the process along through U.N. sanctions or carpet-bombing, the values of the Enlightenment may yet spread around the world.

The Marxist and the Christian would probably find common ground in rejecting this notion, for not entirely dissimilar reasons.

In any event, there are a few possible responses to the radical wrongness of the world. The first would be to utterly reject and renounce the world, or to regard the world as ephemeral and illusionary, the underlying reality being a much better spiritual and ideal world which we may approach through religious ritual and contemplation. This is pretty much the road that the Gnostics took.

Another alternative would be to accept the world, but reject the self that sees the wrongness of it all. The ultimate ideal would not be an ascension of the self to some kind of better, ideal world, but an elimination of the self. My understanding of Buddhism is very limited, but I believe that there is at least some of this in Buddhism.

For the Christian (or the Marxist) neither alternative are open. We cannot liberate ourselves from this particular universe in favour of a better one. But neither can we eliminate our sense of the wrongness of things. The solution lies in the world-to-come. For the Marxist, this means the end of the alienation between man to man, and between man to nature, through abolishing the economic circumstances (methods of production, etc.) which perpetuate such alienation. For the Christian, the world-to-come is the Kingdom of God as announced and exemplified by Christ, which is at the same time here (in a community of followers of Christ) and not-yet-here - but contains the promise of reconciliation between us and the Creator which we, in our inherent 'wrongness', are estranged from.

At first sight, the Christian notion of Fallenness appears more thoroughgoing, and the notion of the Kingdom more radical. This may be true, but the decisive break in history which the advent of socialism would bring with regards to basically all human history that went before should not be underestimated.

I am reminded here by a quote of Marx presented by the blogger "Lenin" in a discussion following a post on the "New" Atheists. A discussion which demonstrates, in my opinion, why the Marxists are so much more serious and interesting intellectual opponents than secular-humanist atheists such as Dawkins or neocon atheists such as Hitchens or Harris. (No less than both my favourite philosophers - Collingwood and MacIntyre - got a mention). Anyway, the quote:

Atheism, as the denial of this unreality, has no longer any meaning, for atheism is a negation of God, and postulates the existence of man through this negation; but socialism as socialism no longer stands in any need of such a mediation. It proceeds from the theoretically and practically sensuous consciousness of man and of nature as the essence. Socialism is man’s positive self-consciousness, no longer mediated through the abolition of religion, just as real life is man’s positive reality, no longer mediated through the abolition of private property, through communism.

Briefly, to the Marxist, both religion as well as atheism as a stance occurring in modern society are products of alienation. Religion, the 'heart of a heartless world', will no longer serve a function when that alienation is overcome - but neither will atheism, i.e. the denial of God. Truthfully, I am not sure whether, from my own religious viewpoint, I disagree with this.

In any event, neither Christianity nor Marxism can be easily reconciled with the Enlightenment discourse of inherent rights and disembodied moral principles, as it figures rather prominently in Bloggelito's post.

For the Marxist, the ideology of any given epoch (such as the ideology of secular liberal individualism) is the ideology of the ruling class of that epoch, and serves the interests of that ruling class. The eternal principles of the Enlightenment - such as the universalist notion of human right, of eternally valid moral principles which we have access to through a 'moral instinct', etc., are to a Marxist part of a historically and culturally specific ideology which serves a specific notion of society and a specific class interest. The Catholic (ex-?)Marxist Alasdair MacIntyre, in his Whose Justice? Which Rationality? makes this clear in tracing the development of property as an a priori, untouchable principle in Hume's thought. This does not mean, obviously, that Marxism needs to be implacably hostile to Enlightenment principles. The bourgeoisie was progressive in its time, and the development of a universal notion of human rights at the end of the 19th century was progress. However, the bourgeoisie is not progressive anymore, and it is its 'ruling ideology' which needs to be overcome.

Christianity is, I believe, neutral to the specific ethics and 'rights' accorded to people in a specific society. Because for the Christian, the ultimate end and goal of the human being is Christlikeness, the standard presented to us by God; and the example of Dirk Willems should make pretty clear what this takes. It is obviously impossible to dictate Christlikeness as the prevailing norm in a given society (if you doubt this, consider the example of a perhaps rather less admirable Anabaptist, namely John Bockelson van Leiden). Aside from this, there is a strong disengagement from political power in the New Testament:

The devil led him up to a high place and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And he said to him, "I will give you all their authority and splendor, for it has been given to me, and I can give it to anyone I want to. So if you worship me, it will all be yours."
Jesus answered, "It is written: 'Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.'"

(Luke 4: 5-8).

(I think that, arguably, 'Christendom' as the notion of a Christian polity represents Christianity's own 'fall from grace', regardless of the benefits it may have brought society, or the probable inevitability of the historical process).

So Christianity has been combined with Enlightenment-based notions on morality and rights as happily as it has been with virtue ethics before. An example of the former is the employment of a 'moral instinct', an apprehension of eternal moral principles, in apologetics. Mind you, I believe this may well be wrong; that an underlying notion of ethical traditions which may differ a lot in time and place may be superior, and that the basic Christian notion of Christ-as-human-telos may have validity in a variety of such traditions. There is not one single Christian politics, or one single Christian morality; and the moral-political vision often represented by political Christianity often seems to go back to just the conventional morality of the turn of the 19th century. In other words, the 'Christian right' are just as much children of the Enlightenment as their secular opponents.

In any event, my understanding is that, from a Christian viewpoint, God owes you nothing. He created you in His image, and for every instant of your life, you depend on Him totally. What He has given you He can take away, just like that - and you have no cause to complain (which isn't to say you can't complain - there is a long and honourable Old-Testamentic tradition of complaining to God - just that you don't have any inherent right to). You may have rights granted by the society you live in - but before God, you have none.

And on my understanding of the Gospel, 'alleviating suffering', which Bloggelito regards as a hallmark of humanism, figures rather low in the whole plan. To the contrary, suffering and the endurance and overcoming of suffering and death through suffering and death figure rather prominently in the New Testament and early Christian history (as well as later Christian history if you're an Anabaptist). This puts Christianity at odds with a kind of humanistic utilitarianism which regards the maximum of happiness, or the minimization of suffering, as the moral standard of an action. As indeed it should be. If the purpose of life, for the Christian, is to follow Jesus, and to 'glorify God' through his actions, such utilitarian concerns should fall by the wayside.

These are not very pleasant thoughts. I believe that Christianity can co-exist with a lot of varying political viewpoints. David Heddle is a libertarian; a position that to me seems indeed to naturally flow from some New-Testamentic passages, notably those on the renunciation of political power. Others may be conservatives or socialists. I myself find myself drawn back to the hard left and to a Quixotic radical conservativism at the same time. And as it is, I happen to agree with a lot of the individual standpoints the secular libertarian Bloggelito takes. But from a Christian standpoint, I must put my hopes for the world-to-come in the Kingdom of God, and acknowledge that there will be suffering and death before.

There's the old notion of 'Lunatic, Liar or Lord', in that an honest appraisal of Christ must come down to one of the three. But perhaps a good way to put it is that to understand the New Testament, one must in a way adopt all these viewpoints. Because a lot of it is quite insane, offensive, scandalous to modern-day sensibilities. And it should be. There is nothing particularly comforting about the lines Whoever tries to keep his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life will preserve it. (Luke 17:30). And the more I think about it, the less comfortable I feel. What does it mean to be human? The answer is right there, right in front of me. And to be honest, I don't like one bit of it. But I nonetheless think it's true.

zondag 9 november 2008

The demise of the Netherlands

I want my country back. Venerable and anarchic Amsterdam, the glorious arse-hole of Europe, seedy and hungover, blinking at the harsh morning light. Or suspiciously modest Groningen, ill at ease in a countryside most of its denizens never see, bathing in the waft of tobacco factories, marijuana, and the scent of Surinam groceries. Or my hometown of Oude Pekela, teenage pregnancy capital of the country, jovial and violent, the dirty water of the river a deep and warm green in the afternoon haze. Living in one of the most orderly and squeaky-clean countries of Europe, I miss all that. And while I'm at it, I want my Guilder back, too, with the face of the Queen (a friend of mine reminds me that the Euro has the face of the Queen, too. But it's not the same). And the smoking sections in the trains. And a Communist Party which I can vote for once in every four years and rail against for the rest of the time.

I write this post after having read that the Christian Democrat Party wants to shut down the Coffeeshops, that most Dutch of Dutch institutions. First, they take away our real money and substitute it for fake money. Then, the moralist Mayor of Amsterdam starts a crusade against the red light district (okay, it's more complicated than that, but allow me to vent my spleen). Then, the Christian Democrats ban smoking in pubs - destroying the bruine kroeg, our Dutch equivalent of the British local pub. From now on, pubs in the Netherlands will be trendy hell-holes with abstract art on the wall, filled with non-smoking twits eating sushi and drinking drinks that glow in the dark. And now, they come for the Coffeeshops. For clarity: this is not going to happen. I do not believe it will be possible to introduce a prohibitionist mentality in a culture congenitally hostile to prohibitionism. But the very idea is enough to arouse my anger (ever-simmering as of late) at the direction the Dutch government has been taking.

Dutch culture has always had its own dialectic, a covenant between pencil-pushing bureaucracy and anarchism, between vicious social control and toleration, between finger-wagging moralism and libertinism. But the covenant has now been broken, and for the moment, the prigs and prudes and puritans seem to be in the ascendancy.

Secular-minded leftists often rail against communalism, the viewpoint that religious and cultural minorities in the West should be left, to a large extent, to handle their own affairs. The irony is that what is still the most liberal society in Western Europe is also deeply, thoroughly communalistic. After the reformation and the foundation of the Dutch republic at the end of the 16th century, Dutch Calvinism became the state religion - which it remained until halfway the 19th century - but Protestantism never attained the absolutely dominant position it did in Scandinavia. The Catholics remained a very sizeable minority (and currently, a majority among the religious part of the nation). The Calvinists very quickly fractured into orthodox and Arminian factions and continued to fracture. And Calvinist protestantism was never alone to begin with: the Anabaptists were the first organized protestants in the Netherlands, and the Doopsgezinde congregation remains (even if small).

Coupling this with the fairly weak state during the Republic (Orange-minded groups and institutions constantly competed for power with republican groups and institutions) goes a long way in explaining the Republic's tolerance for outsiders and dissidents. Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews came to the Netherlands and were left alone; philosophers and scientists such as Descartes and Linnaeus studied and worked in the Netherlands; protestant Huguenot refugees from France found a refuge in the Netherlands in the 17th century as did Catholic refugees from Germany in the 19th century.

The system that would gradually emerge in the Netherlands has been called pillarisation: any particular religious, cultural or political community had its own institutions, media, political organizations, etc., creating a 'pillar' of clubs and institutions surrounding the individual from birth to death. A Dutch reformed boy would go to a Dutch reformed school, join a Dutch reformed football club, work most likely for a Dutch reformed boss, marry of course a Dutch reformed girl, and would quite likely end his life in a Dutch reformed nursing home. For individuals, the system may well have been quite suffocating: at the same time, it worked - there was very little violence or strife between various religious groups (outside from maybe the traditional village-to-village brawls in the countryside). And communities would work together when needed. During the Second World War, the Communists and the hardcore Calvinists were both very active in the resistance, and they developed a curious respect for each other.

The system began to crumble and decline in the 1960s and later. The ruling Christian Democrat party is itself a symptom of that decline: being based on a 1980 fusion between a Catholic and two Protestant political parties. My own youth is pretty much a picture of the survival of 'pillarised' institutions in a secularizing society: I visited a Catholic primary school, a ecumenical (but largely Protestant) high school, played in a Dutch reformed marching band and attended meetings of the Communist Party.

Dutch television is still largely 'pillarised': public television airtime is divided between a Catholic station, an Evangelical one, a Social Democrat one, etc. But marking the demise of pillarisation, for example, is the fact that the liberal protestant television, after the 1960s, turned into the most artistically radical and countercultural station (the first to show full frontal nudity, etc.). We would watch their children's television when we were little, which was pretty edgy (I recall one show where the Monster of Frankenstein underwent a sex operation). But my parents preferred us watching that than watching the American children's animations on the other stations where people would be shot up and so forth. In any event, the station is currently protestant in name only - and where the other religious stations maintain a stronger identity, even the Evangelical one has been under pressure to secularize.

But even as the individual 'pillars' crumbled, the Dutch policy of leaving people pretty much alone to settle their own affairs flourished. A verb that entered politics was gedogen, literally 'tolerate' but specifically referring to the policy of neither legalizing a particular area of vice, nor prosecuting it. Prostitution has been 'tolerated' for a long time before legalization which meant simply that it remained technically illegal but the state refused to prosecute. The same still goes for the possession of small quantities of most drugs (quite aside from the regulated sale of marijuana in Coffeeshops). The policy remains, in my opinion, a fairly brilliant one: I still wonder whether gedogen is sometimes actually preferable to full legalization. Legalization is a double-edged sword: it tends to favour larger operations and companies which can deal with the regularizing and state intervention inevitably following rather than, say, the individual grower having a backyard full of weed plants or the individual prostitute. Also, legalizing a sphere of activity such as prostitution and bringing it under government control may lead to policy decisions not necessarily in favour of the persons involved: in the city of Arnhem, the red-light district (central, well-attended and therefore quite safe) was shut down with the official 'prostitution zone' removed to some kind of industrial zone at the edge of town.

In any event, the Dutch political equilibrium, and its toleration policy, was decisively disturbed with the meteoric political rise and murder of Pim Fortuyn in 2002. Fortuyn's movement channelled immense unrest and discontent about multiculturalism, the problems of which had been covered up with a suffocating blanket of political correctness for decades; with softness on crime; with globalization and the European Union which remains highly unpopular in the Netherlands; with the government constantly crowing on about economic good times which, somehow, surprise surprise, did not really trickle down to the poorer layers of society, etc. Fortuyn's jerry-rigged political 'party' did not survive his death for very long, but right-wing populism remains a force to be reckoned with in Dutch politics.

(As does, incidentally, left-wing populism: the Social Democrats have been bleeding supporters into the hard-left, economically socialist and culturally conservative Socialist Party, which is on the verge of overtaking them).

Basically, the feeling is that the Dutch policy of gedogen has also extended to 'tolerating' crime, vandalism, youth gangs and the ghettoization of parts of the big cities. At the same time - and this is a peculiar and interesting feature of Dutch right-wing populism - there is a (not unjustified) feeling that the muslim minority does not share the general Dutch tolerance for gays, alternative sexual lifestyles, etc. Pim Fortuyn was much more a libertarian than a conventional European nationalist.

Toleration in Dutch society has never been an enshrined principle in the way secularism is in the French republic, or constitutional values and individual liberty in the United States. Precisely because the Netherlands for such a long time has been a collection of various cultural and religious groups, living their own lives and pulling together as needed, depillarisation and its consequences have left us, I believe, grasping for such a basis: liberalism and toleration itself is not enough when dealing with the integration of a minority which has in some aspects quite illiberal values. At the same time, one might state that the integration of islamic minorities has been mismanaged from day one: guest-workers from the 1960s were discouraged from assimilating too much into Dutch society in order to discourage them from staying - and yet they stayed, leaving a second generation to grow up with one foot in a culture which is not theirs anymore, another in one which has never been quite welcoming and is currently utterly hostile.

The 2006 elections were, in some way, a revolt of the 'countryside' against the political elites of the big cities. The winners were the hard-left Socialist Party, with its base in the Catholic south and also strong support in the traditionally socialist/communist North-East; the culturally conservative and economically leftist Christian Union (itself a fusion of two denominationally different Calvinist groups: another example of depillarisation) which has its support in the Dutch Calvinist 'Bible Belt' from Zeeland in the Southwest to Kampen and Staphorst in the East; the Christian Democrats which always have been strong all over the countryside; and the hard-right Freedom Party of Geert Wilders, which has strong support in Limburg where Wilders is from. Losers were the Social Democrats, the liberal democrat D66, the right-wing liberals of the VVD - all parties with their power base in the big cities and the suburbs.

The resulting government has for the first time involved the Christian Union. I actually like the Christian Union (and the openly theocratic SGP) as opposition parties: they are excellent conservative watchdogs. I am less enthusiastic about their participation together with the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats in government, which has driven an increasingly illiberal line. The apex of which are justice secretary Hirsh Ballin's efforts not just to preserve but to broaden Dutch anti-blasphemy laws (which were last used sometime in the sixties). As well as his efforts in having a Dutch cartoonist lifted from his bed and arrested by 10 armed coppers for violating 'hate speech laws'. Interestingly, there seemed to have been little pressure from the supposedly offended muslims at work here - rather, the Christian Democrats are using them as an alibi for their own campaigns.

What they want is turn the Netherlands into just another squeaky-clean, nannyist European country in which any actual discontent is covered with 'hate-speech' laws, we all step in line, obediently filter our internet, do not indulge into such unhealthy activities such as smoking joints, and correspond perfectly to the Brussels bureaucrats dreams of what Europe is supposed to be. It won't work of course. The illiberalism of the Christian Democrats is, ultimately, foreign to the Dutch mentality as a whole. Laws people don't see the sense behind are simply ignored. The same is already starting with the smoking ban, which is openly ignored by an increasing number of pubs.

On an optimistic note, here's rap group THC's patriotic hymn to Amsterdam:

vrijdag 7 november 2008

Another very long post on sexuality

Forged in Jesuit logic and tempered in the cold bath of science. I nevertheless understood at that second the ancient obsession among the God-fearing for another kind of fear: the thrill of exorcism, the mindless whirl of Dervish possession, the puppet-dance ritual of Tarot, and the almost erotic surrender of seance, speaking in tongues, and Zen Gnostic trance. I realized at that instant just how surely the affirmation of demons or the summoning of Satan somehow can affirm the reality of their mystic antithesis - the God of Abraham.
Father Paul Dure in Dan Simmons' Hyperion

This is a post that I've been woolgathering about for a while. It's going to be one of those long chaotic ones. It's about sexuality, pornography, prostitution and sadomasochism. And religion. Consider yourselves warned.

Up front: I have no issue at all with homosexuality, am in favour of legalizing prostitution forthwith in the rest of the world as it is in the Netherlands, my main gripe with pornography is the poor quality of a lot of it, and I find sadomasochism relentlessly fascinating. This put me at odds, in part or in whole, with the mainstream of Christian opinion, as well as with the feminist-influenced Left (the standpoints of both overlap to some extent).

By 'mainstream of Christian opinion', I mean that body of opinion which tends to relate critically towards homosexuality and gay marriage, pornography, and legal prostitution. I am thinking here in terms of generalities which of course may belie the complexities of individual thoughts on the issue. Also, the underlying ideological basis of criticism is very different in case of the Protestant and Evangelical right than it is in case of the Catholic Church (or mainline Protestants, or Evangelical progressives, etc.), which tends to anchor its criticisms of, say, porn, into a general criticism of the commodification of humans and of human sexuality which relates to the Catholic Church's latent uneasiness with capitalism (in contrast, the Protestant right, especially in the US, seems to be extremely fond of capitalism).

Especially the Protestant and Evangelical right seem to be, at times, obsessed with such things as the photographic depiction of the girly parts of girls and the tendency of some men to scorn the girly parts of girls for the manly parts of men. As an example, take this letter from the Christian right group Focus on the Family warning about the horrors an Obama presidency would have inflicted on the United States by 2012. A remarkably large part of it is, you guessed it, about gays. I would bet that, regardless of their actual position on homosexuality, most European Christians would wonder why the gayness issue receives so much attention in comparison with, say, economic hardship and exploitation, environmental destruction, warfare, etc.

The unpleasant truth, I suspect, is that organizations such as Focus on the Family do not really mind such trivial issues as the slaughter of hundreds of thousands in Iraq, the legitimization of torture and dehumanization of prisoners by their own government, and so forth – not as much as the paramount issue of gays doing gay things with each other and wanting to get married.

The question which presents itself to this particular socialist-minded Dutchman is to what genuine extent James Dobson-style Christianity is 'Christian' and to what extent it is a rather idolatrous legitimization of American aggressive militarism and laissez-faire economics. It is, in any event, of rather slight religious interest to me, and my internal ideological 'sparring partner' in the sections below would be, instead, a Roman Catholic or a representative of traditional Protestantism or maybe a Christian feminist.

There is very little, if anything, about sexuality in the Gospels – only that Jesus seems to have been extremely critical towards divorce. The main passage in the NT which can be used to support a conservative sexual morality would be Paul's first letter to the Romans:

For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.
Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.
Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion.
(Romans I: 21-26).

As basis for condemnation of homosexuality, I find it unconvincing. Paul was commenting here on sexual libertinism in Roman society, which cannot be unquestioningly identified with homosexuality in modern society – concepts such as ”homosexuality” as a sexual orientation in addition to heterosexuality did not really exist for the Romans and Greeks, but sexual relationships between men were widespread in addition to male-female marriage, rather than exclusive of it. Male-male relationships often enough involved a slave on one side of it (who did not necessarily have much say in the matter). The modern conception of homosexuality as a lifelong orientation was quite foreign to this mentality.

A sin is not a simple infraction of any specific rule from the Old and New Testament – the message of the New Testament is indeed precisely that it is not. Sin as a turning from or alienation from God is both condition and activity – and as an activity, it much more refers to one's intentions and motivations rather than the outward features and consequences of that activity. Love between persons cannot be sinful – but to the extent that sin as a condition prevents the lovers from loving each other perfectly, that some of the alienation between us and the other can never be quite overcome. But nonetheless interpersonal love is a heroic attempt to overcome sin-as-condition and in that sense revelatory of God (regardless of whether you believe in Him or not). I am convinced that love for gay men or lesbians is not of a different nature than that of heterosexual pairs and that's the end of it, as far as I am concerned.

This is an interpretation. I am not sure if it is the correct one (though I hope it is). But there is no level of reading the Bible without interpreting it in some fashion – and it is better to do so explicitly. The Bible is not a recipe-book with abstract rules and generalities (and it seems to be that Christ's message was precisely one of moving beyond such an understanding of Scripture).

My imaginary sparring-partner would have an immediate reply ready, and state that where I exempt safe, normative and socially acceptable homosexual relationships, the Pauline condemnation of sexual debauchery still stand – and with it, pornography, prostitution, darkrooms, a pretty significant part of the inner city of Amsterdam, etc. The above would be quite compatible with an interpretation of sexuality as a symbolization of interpersonal love but a simultaneous rejection of lust as a perversion of such a symbol. With my fondness for symbolism in concrete life and acts, my sparring-partner would suggest, I end up at an interpretation of sexuality which is quite compatible with that of the mainline Protestant Churches such as the Swedish Church, which are quite ”sex-positive” in that they will celebrate sexuality as a gift from God, will abandon moralizing about, homosexuality or, say, masturbation or premarital sex - but will still tend to resist pornography or prostitution as commodifying and objectifying.

I would answer that in this sense, the mainline Protestants follow general secular liberalism in looking at sexuality through rose-tinted glasses. In other words: sex is great, as long as it's consensual and safe and so forth – but let's not look at the seedy sides, the sex industry and its objectification of women, prostitution, etc. I think this is precisely idealizing sexuality too much. I do not believe ”lust” to be a sin in any kind of simple sense, but neither do I believe sexuality and sexual lust to be in any simple sense a gift from God – except for all the bad stuff.

Pornography is notoriously hard to define and I am not going to make any bad jokes about defining it. But the depiction of sexual acts and naked human beings in picture and text goes back quite a bit (though the cordoning off of such from mainstream society as precisely pornography may well be a very modern phenomenon). I generally have little time for feminist objections against pornography: I agree, to a large extent, that pornography deals with the commodification of sexuality, and of the human body, and that in this sense pornography very well reflects the values of modern capitalism (just as the sex industry itself is part of a capitalist economy, though still a fairly marginal one with a strong countercultural element at its more ragged edges). I want to be careful here for taking an overly Eurocentrist view (the Japanese had a flourishing pornographic culture, complete with the trademark tentacles and monsters etc., before Japan's forcible ”opening” to the West) but this is simply the way it looks from my neck of the woods. Where I would disagree is whether pornography is just that, or indeed, whether the focus on objectification, humiliation, etc. in some pornography (mostly the one focused on the most by critics of pornography) is even a bad thing. A liberal Christian take on pornography mentions that ”The critical feature of all pornography is not that it deals with sexual themes, but that it eroticizes violence, humiliation, degradation and other explicit forms of abuse.” and that no images are neutral. Indeed, they are not – but images have also a habit of meaning more than they mean at face value, or are intended to mean.

Opinions on pornography are often formed on filmed and photographed stuff from the post-Deepthroat era. But before that, of course, there were the erotic comics of the 50s and 60s such as the bondage-themed comics of Georges Pichard, erotic novels such as the hilarious 1907 slapstick Ten Thousand Rods of Apollinaire, etc., etc., etc. - I'm not interested in objections to the extent of ”this is not porn, it's art!” since I don't see how the two are mutually exclusive, and if the objection means that pornography should be more artistic, well, yes, that would be nice. In any event, go back to the end of the 18th century and you meet with Sade, who was both a pornographer as well as an artist and a philosopher. In fact, I think Sade is probably my favourite atheist philosopher, and this relates very much to the contradictions inherent in the man – which I believe is reflected, to an extent, in the contradictions inherent in pornography as well.

I've never been able to read Sade's classic 120 Days of Sodom from beginning to end. The book contains a catalogue of perversities and cruelties which is still utterly ”out there” (it is probably for the best that videocameras were not yet invented in Sade's day). But in all its relentless focus on dehumanization, objectification, cruelty, something interesting happens. The villains of Sade's texts (usually members of the aristocracy, or priests, which are depicted with slightly more venom) are pretty much empty shells. To the extent that they have internal worlds, that is not what Sade is interesting in. He's interested in the internal worlds of the victims, in their thoughts and feelings. Sade remarked rather darkly somewhere that women are capable of more refined cruelty than men because of their more delicate nervous system. He hit upon something important here: the basis of cruelty and sadism is indeed empathy. The ability to identify with the other, and with the other in pain (and I've wondered whether at least in some cases, sadism may not be a variety of masochism). And the fascinating thing about Sade is that he relentlessly criticizes conventional morality and conventional religion in his novels (seeing it as simply one more way of keeping the weak and oppressed in their place) precisely through exploiting the titillating, prurient aspects of cruelty and oppression. For all the bloodthirstiness in his novels, Sade detested the very real bloodthirstiness of the French revolution (and succeeded in averting quite a few executions during his time as a functionary in the revolutionary government).

This humanistic strain in Sade's writings is captured very strikingly in Pasolini's film adaptation of the 120 Days, Salo. The Marxist Pasolini's version is the best film I will not want to see again in the foreseeable future. By which I mean that the film (in which the plot is transplanted to Fascist Italy: four Fascist functionaries round up boys and girls to a remote mansion for a final debauched escapade before the inevitable defeat of the regime) is brilliant but quite hard to watch. It is ultimately strangely optimistic, in that a certain essential ”humanness” is shown as surviving against terrible odds. The four predators force two of their slaves to get married in a perversion of a marriage ceremony; then, they sit down to watch the boy rape the girl. It doesn't happen: the two shily shuffle towards each other, try to cuddle, but to not follow their masters' script. One of the guards starts an illicit affair with a servant at the mention: they are caught and their sexual action is of an all-too-human, all-too-affectionate nature for the four masters. As they put the boy against the wall to shoot him, he makes a defiant raised-fist salute before he is riddled with bullets, and in that fashion exposes the weakness of the masters: they can kill him, but they cannot defeat him. And most strikingly at the end of the film, as part of the slaves are brutally murdered in the courtyard, two of the guards find a record of dancing music, put it on, and start dancing. One of them asks the other what his girlfriend's name is. The answer is ”Margerita”. Here, ”humanness” survives in a place where the four Fascists are not even looking. For all their trying, they cannot stamp it out.

There is an element – explicit in Sade but often potentially in a lot of pornography – which subverts traditional gender roles, oppression, humiliation and dehumanization precisely through its depiction of it. Of course, a great deal of it is dross – but the part that is dross is often the safer, softer kind, the surgically or digitally enhanced American beauties of Playboy (and even Playboy retains a love for the subversive and countercultural in its writing, if not in its photography). The dross is not the focus of much of the criticism against pornography. Anti-porn activist Nikki Craft's pages are adorned with bondage pictures and Hustler cartoons. Which, to me, suggests that Craft has a tin ear for the media she rails against.

Sadomasochism (and here, for clarity, I am speaking of consensual sadomasochistic practice) plays with some very dark symbolism – the ropes, the display of power and submission, the controlled infliction of pain etc. - but in doing so, it tends to subvert and transcend that symbolism. Being bound up and gagged may, if taken at face value, signify loss of freedom, loss of agency and objectification – but for the participant, it may also signify the deep trust put in the partner. Love may be the ultimate end of sadomasochistic practice just as of any ”normal” sexual practice – precisely because the symbols involved sometimes seem to mean very much the opposite of love. By acting them out, they are disarmed. It need not be that serious of course. But even when Max Mosley went around spanking prostitutes while dressed up in a Nazi uniform, the meaning of the ritual was not that Max Mosley is, or wanted to be, a Nazi. Instead, he was making fun of authority figures (another mainstay in ”kinky” sexual practice as well as in pornography). Which is a rather anti-authoritarian thing to do.

Another example: mainstream pornography has been criticized a lot for the supposed racism inherent in its depiction of blacks. Suffice to say that 'interracial' is indeed a subcategory in pornography and that there are whole lines of movies whose title I shall not mention but refers simultaneously to the blackness of the black actor's member and the whiteness of the female actor. Here too there is no simple, face-value ”message”. It can be seen as reinforcing the stereotype that blacks are well-hung and sexually active. At the same time, it should not be forgotten that this is depicted as desirable from the white female actor's point of view. I think the bottom line is that stereotypes about blacks do exist among white males, and that these stereotypes focus on various aspects of the supposed masculinity of black men. What pornography does here is not so much create the stereotype as take it and make a joke out of it.

I'm not saying here that in no way pornography reinforces conventional role-models and sexual stereotypes. It does, but at the same time pornography in the West has always been countercultural, has always developed in opposition to the sexual mores of the day, and even with the commercialization and growth of the porn industry in recent decades, it cannot entirely lose that edge. It is part and parcel of the attraction. This point has has not been lost on some of those discontented with conventionalized gender roles and their reflection in pornography.

What, then, of the dark stuff? What of the quoted liberal christian notion that pornography ” eroticizes violence, humiliation, degradation and other explicit forms of abuse”? The bottom line is, that I am a complex person and I assume other men (hetero or gay) are no less complex. There is part of me that likes the eroticization of power-play, violence, humiliation and degradation. And if these are indeed as prevalent in pornography as claimed, I am hardly unique. At the same time, I am more than a collection of turn-ons. The dark sides of my and others' sexuality are not in themselves, I believe, sinful, but a relentless focus on them to the exclusion of the other person as a person, to approaching of and sharing with the other, which is love, which is very much the opposite of sin – rejecting all that is indeed sin.

At the same time, if the demonic side of me is not a place where I want to live, neither is the angelic. I also reject the high-minded sex-positive notion of sex as a simple and straightforward symbol of love. Because, things aren't like that. Things aren't that simple. I am simply not the person that the sex-positive but anti-pornographical liberal christians claim that I am.

(I'll have to save working out my position on prostitution for sometime later. But it flows pretty naturally from my somewhat jaundiced view on sexuality. And here, at least, I have tradition on my side).

zondag 2 november 2008

An unusually atrocious New Scientist article

Via Victor Reppert, a pretty atrocious piece in New Scientist about the looming threat of Creationism to neuroscience.

First, I have to state I intensely dislike both the big pop science mags, New Scientist and Scientific American. For two reasons. First, they seem to be attracted to pseudoscience like flies are to shit - at least in as far as non-physics subjects such as linguistics are concerned. And I can only state this because I know nothing about physics. About subjects that I do know a bit about, both mags seem to have a tendency to colossally mess up. This is worrying.

Second, both of them represent the suave American liberalism that is the intellectually least interesting and most superficial of stances - coupled with a good bit of self-congratulatory "brave scientist saves the world from Republicans" nonsense. Which reached its apex in SciAms disgusting hatchet job on Bjorn Lomborg.

And if the "Global Warming Denialist" is the one perennial bugbear of suave American pro-science liberalism, the other is certainly the "Creationist". Both keeping the not-quite-highbrow sometimes-thinking left-leaning-but-not-too-far part of the population perpetually busy with their attacks on Science and Reason.

It is the latter that is the bad guy in this particular New Scientist article. Apparently, Creationists are now mounting their attacks on Reason and Science through neuroscience and philosophy of mind:

Schwartz and Beauregard are part of a growing "non-material neuroscience" movement. They are attempting to resurrect Cartesian dualism - the idea that brain and mind are two fundamentally different kinds of things, material and immaterial - in the hope that it will make room in science both for supernatural forces and for a soul. The two have signed the "Scientific dissent from Darwinism" petition, spearheaded by the Seattle-based Discovery Institute, headquarters of the intelligent design movement. ID argues that biological life is too complex to have arisen through evolution.

The first problem with the piece - and it's a very big one - is that dualism or the position that "matter and mind are two fundamentally different kinds of things" (which does not necessarily imply Cartesian dualism, but anyway) has been a respectable minority position within philosophy of mind for God knows how long. I assume it is a minority position; my subjective impression is that most philosophers of mind hold to some kind of property dualism or emergentism which in effect acknowledges mind to be irreducible to matter while at the same time holding to some kind of ontological materialism. Then there's a minority of hard-core materialists (the Churchlands, Daniel Dennett) and a minority of dualists, panpsychists and idealists (Galen Strawson has defended a panpsychist account, which he regards as a kind of materialism, in a special issue of Journal of Consciousness Studies).

Briefly, the viewpoint that there is a "hard problem" of consciousness, that mind cannot be scientifically explained or reduced to matter is pretty widely accepted. And various arguments go back a long way. The argument that the (normative) ground-consequence relationships of reasoning cannot be reduced to the (non-normative) spatiotemporal relationships of matter in a manner that is not self-refuting has been proposed with great clarity by Popper in The Open Universe back in the fifties but goes back to, as Popper mentions, to Descartes and Augustine.

The second problem is that the article stays firmly within the framework of "neuroscience". There is an irony here, in that in doing so, it repeats the main conceptual error of the ID/Creationist bogeymen (assuming that it originates with them):

To properly support dualism, however, non-materialist neuroscientists must show the mind is something other than just a material brain.

(Aaargh! No they don't!!! Conceptually, the mind is something other than a material brain! The challenge is precisely to argue that dualism, or non-material causation, or whatever is explanatorily more comprehensive than materialism)

To do so, they look to some of their favourite experiments, such as research by Schwartz in the 1990s on people suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder. Schwartz used scanning technology to look at the neural patterns thought to be responsible for OCD. Then he had patients use "mindful attention" to actively change their thought processes, and this showed up in the brain scans: patients could alter their patterns of neural firing at will.

From such experiments, Schwartz and others argue that since the mind can change the brain, the mind must be something other than the brain, something non-material. In fact, these experiments are entirely consistent with mainstream neurology - the material brain is changing the material brain.

The crux of the issue is, of course, that the relationship between mind and matter - the problem of qualia, intentionality, and so forth, and how these are to be placed in a material world of law-governed spatiotemporal entities, or the other way around - is a philosophical problem, not a scientific one. The natural sciences (such as neuroscience) must by necessity stay within their naturalistic, non-teleological explanatory framework. The human sciences (such as semiotics, linguistics, psychology) must by necessity stay within their teleological non-naturalistic explanatory framework. And neither science is able to justify the basic philosophical framework by itself. So looking for neuroscience to provide for a justification for materialism is an exercise in question-begging.

Just one example of this is the way in which Libet's experiments have been regarded as either an indication for the illusory nature of consciousness, or for the existence of retrocausal, non-materialistic phenomena with regards to the human mind.

Because, of course, things go both ways. For biological ID to succeed, it would need to argue for a shift in metascientific perspective: that a framework borrowed from the human sciences is more explanatory for biology than one borrowed from the natural sciences. It is often forgotten that there is a whole body of inquiry, in some areas at least as old as the natural sciences, in which "supernatural" concepts such as free will, goal-directed agency and so forth are methodologically presupposed even by those who would philosophically reject them: linguistics, history, psychology and the like.

The irony I referred to lies in the fact that scientism and it's ID/Creationist opponents often tend to take the same kind of post-Enlightenment one-dimensionalism for granted: there is a single world, and a single set of facts (scientific facts). Creationism tends to simply substitute the Bible as a replacement for the results of scientific inquiry.

But back to the article. I have a nasty feeling that at least some of the thinkers mentioned in the article as Creationist enemies have a viewpoint on some of the issues I mentioned above quite a bit more subtle than reflected in the writer's myopic focus on neuroscience. I haven't read J.P. Moreland, but glancing from the contents of his book, I would hazard a guess his place is within fairly mainstream philosophy of mind, rather than within some ID fifth column of neuroscience. And of Henry Stapp I know that he is working on a Whiteheadian process-philosophical interpretation of quantum mechanics, which has again everything to do with philosophical and metascientific frameworks and absolutely zilch with ID or Creationism.

Not to mention that process philosophy, which has been applied to mind-matter problems by others as well, such as Stuart Hameroff, is as far from Cartesian dualism as you can get. Farther, at least, than eliminative materialism. (Not to speak of conservative Christian theology).

And ultimately, upon the basis of what I can only see as an exercise in non-understanding, the article devolves in familiar scare-mongering. The ragtag bunch of non-materialist neuroscientists, quantum physicists and philosophers mentioned in the article are a Danger to Science and Reason, no less:

And as Clark observes: "This is an especially nasty mind-virus because it piggybacks on some otherwise reasonable thoughts and worries. Proponents make such potentially reasonable points as 'Oh look, we can change our brains just by changing our minds,' but then leap to the claim that mind must be distinct and not materially based. That doesn't follow at all. There's nothing odd about minds changing brains if mental states are brain states: that's just brains changing brains."

(Presupposing a materialist conception of the mind-matter issue, yes. Which is precisely the issue. See previous remarks about blatant question-begging.)

That is the voice of mainstream academia. (No. It. Is. Not.) Public perception, however, is a different story. If people can be swayed by ID, despite the vast amount of solid evidence for evolution, how hard will it be when the science appears fuzzier?

What can scientists do? They have been criticised for not doing enough to teach the public about evolution. Maybe now they need a big pre-emptive push to engage people with the science of the brain - and help the public appreciate that the brain is no place to invoke the "God of the gaps".

I have a better suggestion. On second thought, it would be too obscene to mention here. (I need to get outside and calm myself down with a cigarette).

(Back). I have a better idea. Neuroscientists should study neurology and not pretend they do philosophy. Philosophers of mind should study philosophy and not pretend to do natural science. Incidentally, I have a feeling that most of either group are already doing this and not need my advice.

Popular science journalists, on the other hand, should try their hand at reporting science. Not pseudo-science. Not politics or the intellectually barren perspective of left-liberal culture warriors. Not distort genuine, and interesting controversies through the lens of anti-religious hysteria.

Things like this almost make me root for a McCain victory, out of sheer spite.

zaterdag 25 oktober 2008

The Devil's ransom. The problem of Evil, Morriston, Mitchell and Job.

For my work, I am currently dealing with the Finnish bishop Eric Sorolainen (1546-1625) and his Postilla, his collection of sermons that was published in two parts in 1621 and 1625, and is the largest non-translated text in Old Finnish. I am mainly working on the linguistic features of the text, of course, but I can't really keep from forming an opinion on the man and his theology. Eric defends a pretty moderate Lutheranism throughout his texts - arguing not only against Roman Catholicism (obviously) but also against more radical protestant currents in Swedish society of that time - of course, religion was intertwined with politics: Eric, together with most of the Finnish nobility, supported the Catholic Swedish-Polish king Sigismund against the Calvinistically-minded duke Charles IX and was imprisoned for a time after his side lost.

In general, Eric's texts represent a sensibility and moderation which I find quite sympathetic. But one recurring feature which makes me groan is Eric's tendency (doubtlessly hardly unique to him) to regard sickness and worldly calamity as a punishment for sin:

We learn of the many ways in which God punished sins in this world. And in addition to the many punishments that are dealt out to Man, such as many diseases, Wars, frozen harvests and famines, fires, the plague and many others, he punishes also through Leprosy. As the fifth book of Moses mentions, where God threatens to punish all those that will not obey him, with all kinds of punishments. And this disease called Leprosy is one particular kind of punishment which God inflicts on people, as we see from many examples from both the Old and New Testament. (II, p. 393).

At another point Eric agrees with Hieronymous on that people who show charity and mercy will die a pleasant death:

For this, they will pray for those that have shown works of charity to them, that God will grant them a good end in this world and their reward in heaven. And indeed, their prayers are not in vain. As the old Teacher of the Church, Hieronymous, says: Non memini me legisse, mala more eum periisse, qui liberalitatem exercuit erga egenos & pauperes. This means: I do not remember having read anywhere that someone who has shown charity to the poor and needy has died a terrible death.

To be a bit snarky, I do remember of having read of one such case. A figure rather central, if you will, to Christianity.

But I should be more nuanced. As a Christian, I do hold that God reveals Himself in human history, that he works in and through the historical events that concern us people. At the same time, I believe those workings are only understandable in particular, concrete cases. And I cannot assent to elevating God's work to some kind of law-like regularity, in which the sinful are punished in this world, and the righteous rewarded in this world - even by a comfortable death. The world, with all its cruelties, in which the wicked prosper and the innocent suffer, in which the powerful do as they want and the powerless suffer as they must, seems to mock any such picture.

I've written before on the argument from Evil. I myself moved to theism mainly through contemplating some apologetic or near-apologetic philosophical arguments, and I still believe some of them may be valid. The irony is that I also believe the anti-theistic argument from Evil to be valid, but that it is precisely its validity which lends Christianity its strength as a worldview. In other worlds, the radical disconnect between the world as-it-is and the world-as-it-should-be, between the "here" and the "there", our intimation of the eternal and the divine and our consciousness of our own impending death and suffering, is precisely what lies at the root of prophetic religion such as Christianity is. The Cross and the Resurrection are answers to the argument from Evil, but answers which proceed from the essential validity of the argument: that there is a radical disconnect between the creation we see and the creation that God saw and called good. Therefore, I think any philosophical solution not referring to the gospel and its central events tends to conflict with Christianity - as Christianity proceeds from granting the argument part of its strength and saying that precisely because of the existence of Evil we believe in God, and the Cross, and the resurrection, as a sign of hope, as an answer to the evils of this world.

In other words, the reply to the argument from Evil would need to be narrative, or dialectical, in nature, rather than philosophical or logical. It does not "explain" Evil by subsuming and defusing it into some kind of philosophical order but by granting it its place in a story - the end of which is still to come.

Crucial for this is that the existence of evil as such, the suffering of the innocents and righteous, is fully recognized. Seeing sickness and terror as some kind of cosmic justice, as bishop Eric seems to have done, draws out the carpet from under the story. If the wicked are punished, and the righteous are rewarded in this world - then what of the next? Where lies hope for the poor, the hungry, the meek? Eric's notion draws out the eschatological "sting" from the Christian narrative - the hope for the Kingdom of God at the end of history - in a manner which I find almost paganistic.

And, of course, the logic is especially dangerous when inverted: why are the poor and the sick suffering? Surely they must have done something wrong. This argument, of course, is up-ended in the book of Job.

Now, I am in a troubled spot here. I affirmed before that I do believe in a God who is working in this world and at the same time I affirm that there is evil in the world which cannot be regarded as a consequence of God's works. In other words, I have exposed myself to the full bite of the anti-theistic argument from Evil. And the logic in bishop Eric's statements, as that of Job's three friends who come to console him but cannot imagine he did not, in some way, deserve his suffering is present in the Bible (as mentioned by Wonders for Oyarsa in his excellent posts on Job).

Also, I do not yet comprehend the book of Job wholly. To be sure, I understand why Job's consolers are wrong. But I do not yet quite comprehend the force of God's answer to Job. What does God mean when answering Job from the whirlwind, elaborating on the wonders and the vastness of His creation? How does this answer satisfy Job - as it obviously does?

Of course, following the storyline, we know why Job suffered: God delivered him to Satan in order to test the strength of his faith in adversity. But this is not what God answers to Job while speaking in the whirlwind. Was God being dishonest? Yet Job seems very satisfied with the answer he receives:

My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you. (42:5)

So the writer of Job is making a deeper point here. But one that is somehow still obscure to me.

One obvious interpretation is, of course, that God's sardonic challenging of Job - Where were you when I laid the earth's foundation? Tell me, if you understand. Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know! Who stretched a measuring line across it? is just that: Job should not endeavour to know precisely why God does what He does - God is transcendent, and works in ways beyond Job's imagining. Evil, and suffering, and the suffering of innocents exist - but we should not challenge God to justify His ways before us. There is an anti-rationalistic streak in this interpretation that I find quite attractive.

Yet Job, in his response to God, does not act like someone who has just been put into place, but as someone who has gained a great insight:

My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you. (42:5)

In his paper on Job, Wes Morriston dubs the above reasoning the "standard interpretation" of God's answer, and argues that either there must be hidden but good reasons for Job to be treated as he is (but the whole point of the story is that there are none), or God's justice (if God is indeed just) is a justice very far removed from and irrecognizable from our notions of justice.

Morriston works out the consequences of the second possible answer:

Whatever Job may have had in mind in chapter nineteen, the fact remains that the God who speaks out of the whirlwind in chapter thirty-eight to forty-one does not promise to raise Job from the dead, and does not offer him any assurances about the future. Instead, God changes the subject, forcing Job to step outside himself, and to see the world from a perspective that wholly transcends the normal human way of looking at things. What Job sees when he listens to God is a world of elemental forces, inhabited by creatures who eat one another. It is a world of terrifying beauty. It is not, or at least not obviously, a Moral Order.

He then turns to the interpretation of Stephen Mitchell in the introduction to his translation of the book of Job (which can be read here). Mitchell regards the answer from the whirlwind as allowing Job to share into a series of visions of creation from God's viewpoint - a viewpoint that stands beyond good and evil:

The content of the Voice’s questions, aside from their rhetorical form, gives another kind of answer. Each verse presents Job with an image so intense that, as Job later acknowledges, he doesn’t hear but sees the Voice. He is taken up into a state of vision, and enters a world of primal energy, independent of human beings, which includes what humans might experience as terrifying or evil: lightning, the primordial sea, hungry lions on the prowl, the ferocious war-horse, the vulture feeding his young with the rotting flesh of the slain. Violence, deprivation, or death form the context for many of these pictures, and the animals are to them as figure is to ground. The horse exults because of the battle; without the corpses, the vulture couldn't exist in his grisly solicitude. We are among the most elemental realities, at the center of which there is an indestructible power, an indestructible joy.


The Voice, however, doesn’t moralize. It has the clarity, the pitilessness, of nature and of all great art. Is the world of flesh-eaters a demonic parody of God’s intent? And what about our compassion for the prey? Projecting our civilized feelings onto the antelope torn apart by lions, we see mere horror: nature red in tooth and claw. But animals aren’t victims, and don’t feel sorry for themselves. The lioness springs without malice; the torn antelope suffers and lets go; each plays its role in the sacred game.

This is a disturbing interpretation. Mitchell emphasizes the disturbing nature of it by arguing it is actually a vision of paradise:

What the Voice means is that paradise isn’t situated in the past or future, and doesn’t require a world tamed or edited by the moral sense. It is our world, when we perceive it clearly, without eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. It is an experience of the Sabbath vision: looking at reality, the world of starving children and nuclear menace, and recognizing that it is very good.

According to Mitchell, the vision provides Job with a kind of liberating self-obliteration: by sharing in the terrifically beautiful viewpoint of creation (and all its apparent cruelties) that God provides him, he steps outside himself and recognizes the futility of his own personal pain and suffering.

Morriston finds Mitchell's vision compelling, but at the same time regards Mitchell's vision of Job's God as wholly transcending moral categories - as 'just' only in a way that it utterly beyond our comprehension - as deeply problematic and incompatible with a large part of the scriptural tradition within which the book of Job is placed. In the end, Morriston regards the book of Job as inherently paradoxical: at the same time, the book of Job presents a wholly transcendent, wholly other God to whom our categories of good and evil, of justice and injustice, simply do not apply; on the other end, a God who takes a deep and personal interest in his creature Job:

The Hasidic teacher, Rabbi Bunam, said that 'A man should carry two stones in his pocket. On one should be inscribed, "I am but dust and ashes." On the other, "For my sake was the world created." And he should use each stone as he needs it.'41 The experience of the Whirlwind has taught Job to use the first stone. But what we need, and what the book of Job tries, with only partial success, to teach us, is how to use them both together.

One could regard the Christian framework - in which God became man, was crucified, and resurrected - as a kind of dialectic in which the two poles of the paradox are reconciled: Job conquered his suffering by placing himself within - annihilating his selfhood into - an all-encompassing vision of creation with all its beauty and cruelty, but this vision seems to not allow for the God of justice and mercy that we find in the prophets (and who is, implicitly, present throughout the book of Job as well). The paradox is resolved when God himself takes on a human nature, suffers and dies on the cross and thereby conquers suffering and death - by undergoing it, facing it and looking through it as it were: the transcendent God of Job hereby shows Himself to be an immanent God as well, one willing to take our sins upon himself - that is, our alienation, our awareness of pain and suffering and the pointlessness of it all that Mitchell regards as the consequence of eating from the fruit of the tree - by suffering the worst that the world could throw at him, and emerging at the end of it.

In other words: where Job was allowed to view the world, for a while, from God's point of view, the "chasm" between us and God, the result of eating the fruit of the tree, was bridged for a while. But the Edenic viewpoint Job was granted had little place for post-Edenic human notions of right and wrong, justice and injustice. Christ, however, unites the two viewpoints in a single person.

I'm not too happy about this particular line of thought, however. I'm allright with the identification of Job and Christ - in some fashion (for another approach, see Wonders for Oyarsa) but I think it does no justice to the voice in the whirlwind. On Mitchell's interpretation, the voice in the whirlwind does not provide us with the kind of eschatological hope central to the Gospels. Briefly, Job found his liberation through losing himself into the grand vision of God's creation; the Christian narrative grants us a possibility of redemption from sin and a resurrection at the end of history.

Taking Mitchell's interpretation at face value, we are dealing here with two incompatible answers to the problem of Evil. In the first one, Evil is essentially denied; in the second one, it is conquered and defeated. The first one allows us to reject thinking of disease and misfortune and some such as punishment from God - but at the cost of denying the existence of Evil (from God's perspective) and affirming an image of God that is frightfully transcendent and alien. The second answer, the Christian narrative basically, is based on the problem of Evil in the sense that the paradox of the world - that of a good God and a suffering, sin-laden creation - is essential to its own framework.

So for the moment, I must stick to some kind of anti-rationalistic "standard" interpretation of the book of Job. We should not ask God to justify himself before us: He owes us nothing. At the same time I need to meditate a little more on Mitchell's interpretation. It is profoundly disturbing - but I am very fond of disturbing thoughts.

vrijdag 19 september 2008

Twenty seconds

Lately my thoughts have turned to such cheerful things as the severed heads of eels, still reflexively snapping. Beheaded chickens running into whatever direction they were running. The rumours that when one is decapitated, consciousness is not lost immediately - you remain aware for twenty seconds or so. Twenty seconds - a disquietingly long time.

Andre Brink's description, in An Act of Terror of crayfish, their bodies crushed, helplessly crawling around in their basin. And through that very futile action it curiously defies death. There is a melancholy inertia to life. When the lights finally go out in my particular case, my cells will continue to go about their business for a little while, not knowing I am dead. I have even read somewhere that the brain keeps on aimlessly shooting about neurons for a while - days, even. Death is a process, not an event.

Systems die too. And ideologies die. And for a while the outward workings, the rituals and symbols, keep going on but the spirit is dead.

The past few days, I have been alternatively convinced that market liberalism was dying and that market liberalism joined Communism and Christianity in the group of ideologies that have not to much failed but never been tried. There is the panicked behaviour of governments - or not so much governments which have been all but absent these past days but government bureaucracies which behave with an inconsistency and a substitution of strategy for immediate survival tactics which bespeaks the absence of any ideology. Reminiscent a bit of maybe Guenter Schabowski, the hapless East German functionary misspeaking on the television news and accidentally causing the downfall of the Berlin Wall. Leadership departed and gone, at the helm a fumbling bureaucrat who lost his rulebook and makes it up as he goes along.

Because that's what happening, isn't it? The ship of fools constantly being patched, jerry-rigged, held together by new threads which fall apart as soon as they are put into place - but the truth is, only the shell of an economic system is left. Only the inertia, the reflexive movements. The spirit has departed. I know a dangerous little about economics. But just enough to see that this isn't capitalism, this isn't markets sorting themselves out however painful the process may be. Rather, there is something of a pretense of a market being kept functioning - or pretending to function - by massive government intervention. (And I know just enough to understand that simply printing money and throwing it at the problem isn't a long-term solution, nor is forbidding investors to bet on stocks going down. Just enough to get a quaint sinking feeling).

I wonder where we're heading. In the end, all the big economic systems - feudalism, the various stages of capitalism, Soviet-style socialism, Western European social democracy - are just various ways of constraining and organizing exploitation and rapacity. So I guess is when the system fails, you end up with a rather less constrained and less organized form of exploitation and rapacity.

We'll see. This is going to be an interesting winter.

donderdag 11 september 2008

Something more cheerful...

Nothing to do with any kind of religious point to be sure, but Tom Waits' God's away on business is in my head a lot these days. The lyrics have this nice uplifting pre-apocalyptic ring to them:

I'd sell your heart to the junkman baby
For a buck, for a buck
If you're looking for someone
To pull you out of that ditch
You're out of luck, you're out of luck
The ship is sinking
The ship is sinking
The ship is sinking
There's leak, there's leak,
In the boiler room
The poor, the lame, the blind
Who are the ones that we kept in charge?
Killers, thieves, and lawyers...

And the video clip is way cool:

An internal exile reads MacIntyre's After Virtue

I've politically described myself as a 'conservative anarchist', which does not make much sense, but makes more sense than just about anything else. I don't feel much at home with left-wing anarchism because it remains focused on direct democracy, egalitarianism, etc. - replicating the utopia of Marxism. And I'm not sure anymore whether democracy is the superior system it is so often thought to be. Or whether people are really equal. I don't feel at home with most right-wing individualist versions of anarchism either. Or libertarianism, or paleoconservatism. Because of the uncritical attitude towards capitalist rapacity, and the notion of the individual and its liberties as the atomic cornerstone of society. I remain too much of an ex-Marxist not to acknowledge that even if individuals may transcend society, they are at the same time constituted by society, social traditions, norms and ideologies. Then there's the national-anarchists, who are right in both rejecting capitalism and recognizing that people are unlikely to voluntarily enter an egalitarian, communist brotherhood of man. It's just that the Neo-Nazistic roots, including blood-and-soil mysticism and antisemitism, are sometimes still showing.

I'm also far from juvenile slogans about "No God, No Master!" There is a God, and there will be masters, too - some perhaps even worthy of service. At the same time, I believe that the modern national state is no longer a serviceable vehicle for human civilization - if it ever really was. The national state is dead - it just doesn't know it yet. Hollowed out by the disintegrative, commodifying forces of capitalism just like the family, the village, and any other civilizing institution (the Church may be a partial exception, but looking from the most secularized country in Europe, a very partial one). And no coherent political alternative to current political conditions can be formulated within the framework of the national state. We need to move on - perhaps by looking back to older forms of social organization. So 'conservative anarchist' is what it'll be.

I've been reading Alasdair MacIntyre's After Virtue: a study in moral theory. (Notre Dame 1981). It's a persuasive and very disturbing look at ethical discourse in modern society, and at modern society through the prism of ethical discourse. In a (doubtlessly very inadequate) nutshell: MacIntyre argues that the Enlightenment project to find a absolute, universal standard for morality - whether it is in deontological ethics such as Kant's categorical imperative, or in utilitarian formulations of ethics - has utterly failed. The result is an incoherence in modern discourse about ethics - we retain fragments of the moral systems of earlier times, but no way to integrate them - and the rise of viewpoints such as "emotivism" in the 20th century, which regarded ethical discourse as basically emotional in nature: an ethical judgement no different, so to say, than a preference for a particular kind of food. MacIntyre connects the latter with the nature of human relationships in modern-day management capitalism: instead of basing human intercourse on rational argument, we see manipulation of human beings as so much more means to an end on a massive scale (to MacIntyre, the bureaucrat and the manager are iconical characters of the modern age).

In MacIntyre's view, the failure of the Enlightenment project in ethics faces us with a stark choice: accept the moral nihilism of a Nietzsche or go back to a teleological, virtue-based morality of Aristotle. MacIntyre rejects the first alternative, and argues instead for a teleological view on morality in which the concept of 'virtue' embodied in practices, traditions and historically local social and cultural groups is paramount (rather than the concept of a universal and abstract 'rule'). So, the basis of ethics is the self-actualization of a human being as-he-should-be, the development of the human being towards a specific goal: but this requires the integrity and coherence of the human life as a 'narrative structure' (a story, with a 'where do we come from' and a 'where are we going?' so to speak) as well as the integration of that human life within the life of a tradition, a historical community acting as the vessel of basic values and ideals. MacIntyre thus defends the local nature of morality and 'virtue', and their rootedness in the life of a community (for Aristotle, the Hellenic polis), yet this does not imply moral relativism, as it does not imply that there is no basis for a dialogue between traditions and the rejection of one conception of virtues to the other (just the absence of a disembodied rule-based morality).

There is a lot to say about MacIntyre's book (and a lot more for me to think, too). MacIntyre is, as I understand, a Roman Catholic with Marxist roots, and the book is aside from a essay on ethics a trenchant criticism of liberalism which is not afraid of being conservative without being backward-looking. But at the same time, its conclusion is unremittingly bleak.

Some fairly disconnected fragments and comments:

Before MacIntyre deals with Aristotle, he treats virtue as it appeared in 'heroic societies': the kind of society that survives in epics such as Homer's Iliad and the Icelandic sagas. Specific to heroic societies, according to MacIntyre, is a lack of alienation as it were: there is no way for the individual in society to 'step outside' its role and the ethical precepts and obligations which that role brings with it, which allows MacIntyre to make a contrast between the very close connection to the self and a role (with accompanying ethical precepts and ideals) in heroic society and modern-day pluralism, and thus between a local, tradition-bound virtue ethics and the failed Enlightenment project of socially and culturally disembodied universal morality:

There is thus the sharpest of contrasts between the emotivist self of modernity and the self of the heroic age. The self of the heroic age lacks precisely that characteristic which we have already seen that some modern moral philosophers take to be an essential characteristic of human selfhood: the capacity to detach oneself from any particular standpoint or point of view from the outside. In heroic society there is no 'outside' except that of the stranger. A man who tried to withdraw himself from his given position in heroic society would be engaged in the enterprise of trying to make himself disappear.
Identity in heroic society involves particularity and accountability. I am answerable for doing or failing to do what anyone who occupies my role owes to others and this accountability terminates only with death. I have until my death to do what I have to do. Moreover this accountability is particular. It is to, for and with specific individuals what I must do what I ought, and it is to these same and other individuals, members of the same local community, that I am accountable. The heroic self does not itself aspire to universality even although in retrospect we may recognize universal worth in the achievements of that self.
(...) Nobody now can be a Hector or a Gisli. The answer is that perhaps what we have to learn from heroic societies is twofold: first that all morality is always to some degree tied to the socially local and particular and that the aspirations of the morality of modernity to a universality freed from all particularity is an illusion; and secondly that there is no way to possess the virtues except as part of a tradition in which we inherit them and our understanding of them from a series of predecessors in which series heroic societies hold first place.

(p. 118-119).

MacIntyre explores the problem of conflicting moral claims in Greek Tragedy, and argues that the presentation of this conflict in Sophocles' tragedies is of a very different nature than the presentation of moral heterogeneity in modern society by for example Karl Weber and Isaiah Berlin, in that the protagonist of Greek Tragedy had no way to step 'out' of his role and had no choice but to acknowledge the validity of both claims. There is thus no way of viewing the heterogeneity of virtues as somehow 'relativizing' them or seeing them as being neither true or false:

The interest of a Sophocles lies in his presentation of a view equally difficult for a Platonist or a Weberian to accept. There are indeed crucial conflicts in which different virtues appear as making rival and incompatible claims upon us. But our situation is tragic in that we have to recognise the authority of both claims. There is an objective moral order, but our perceptions of it are such that we cannot bring rival moral truths into complete harmony with each other and yet the acknowledgement of the moral order and of moral truth makes the kind of choice which a Weber or a Berlin urges upon us out of the question. For to choose does not exempt me from the authority of the claim which I chose to go against.
(...) the moral protagonist stands in a relationship to his community and his social roles which is neither the same as that of the epic hero nor again the same as that of modern individualism. For like the epic hero the Sophoclean protagonist would be nothing without his or her place in the social order, in the family, the city, the army at Troy. He is she is what society takes him to be. But he or she is not only what society takes him or her to be: he or she both belongs to a place in the social order and transcends it. And he or she does so precisely by encountering and acknowledging the kind of conflict which I have just identified.

(p. 134)

This subtle and dialectical formulation of the relationship between society and the individual enables MacIntyre, I believe, to assert the localness and rootedness of virtue traditions without moral relativism: moral relativism implies we take a vantage point which we in reality cannot take. We can transcend society in that we can recognize the validity of rivalling moral claims; yet we cannot place ourselves out of society as individuals whose life is a 'narrative structure' which is rooted the social transmission of ethical traditions. The consequence of this is that the good may be something which in practice is unattainable to us: yet the moral obligation remains. In other words, that we may not be able to do something doesn't mean we shouldn't:

One way in which the choice between rival goods in a tragic situation differs from the modern choice between incommensurable moral premises is that both of the alternative courses of action which confront the individual have to be recognised as leading to some authentic and substantial good. By choosing one I do nothing to diminish or derogate from the claims upon me of the other; and therefore, whatever I do, I shall have left undone what I ought to have done. The tragic protagonist, unlike the moral agent as depicted by Sartre or Hare, is not choosing between allegiance to one moral principle rather than another, nor is he or she deciding upon some principle of priority between moral principles. Hence the 'ought' involved has a different meaning and force from that of the 'ought' in moral principles understood in a modern way. For the tragic protagonist cannot do everything that he or she ought to do. This 'ought', unlike Kant's, does not imply 'can'.
(p. 208)

The same recognition of genuine conflict is implicit in the harsh way MacIntyre, through Aristotle's eyes, sees a conflict between patriotism and friendship as put forward by E.M. Forster:

Friendship, of course, on Aristotle's view, involves affection. But that affection arises within a relationship defined in terms of a common allegiance and to a common pursuit of goods. The affection is secondary, which is not in the least to say unimportant. In a modern perspective affection is often the central issue: our friends are said to be those whom we like, perhaps whom we like very much. 'Friendship' has become for the most part the name of a type of emotional state rather than a type of social and political relationship. E.M. Forster once remarked that if it came to a choice between betraying his country and betraying his friend, he hoped that he would have the courage to betray his country. In an Aristotelian perspective anyone who can formulate such a contrast has no country, has no polis; he is a citizen of nowhere, an internal exile wherever he lives. Indeed from an Aristotelian point of view a modern liberal society can appear only as a collection of citizens of nowhere who have banded together for their common protection. They possess at best that inferior form of friendship which is founded on mutual advantage. That they lack the bond of friendship is of couse bound up with the self-avowed moral pluralism of such liberal societies. They have abandoned the moral unity of Aristotelianism, whether in its ancient or medieval forms.
(p. 146-147)

These are hard words, and MacIntyre's emphasis on the rootedness of morality in a historically local society - the Greek city-state in Aristoteles' case - has severe consequences for the survival of virtues in the modern liberal pluralistic society. Hence patriotism as a virtue becomes increasingly questionable:

In any society where government does not express or represent the moral community of its citizens, but is instead a set of institutional arrangements for imposing a bureaucratised unity on a society which lacks genuine moral consensus, the nature of political obligation becomes increasingly unclear. Patriotism is or was a virtue founded on attachment primarily to a political and moral community and only secondarily to the government of that community; but it is characteristically exercised in discharging responsibility to and in such government. When however the relationship of government to the moral community is put in question both by the changed nature of government and the lack of moral consensus in the society, it becomes difficult any longer to have any clear, simple and teachable conception of patriotism. Loyalty to my country, to my community - which remains unalterably a central virtue - becomes detached from obedience to the government which happens to rule me.
(p. 236-237).

Earlier MacIntyre has a sharp characterization of political disagreement in modern society: (...) modern politics cannot be a matter of genuine moral consensus. And it is not. Modern politics is civil war carried on by other means (...) (p. 236). MacIntyre distances himself from anarchism, but his rejection of the modern state seems nonetheless radical:

(...) this necessary distancing of the moral self from the governments of moral states must not be confused with any anarchist critique of the state. Nothing in my argument suggests, let alone implies, any good grounds for rejecting certain forms of government as necessary and legitimate; what the argument does entail is that the modern state is not such a form of government. It must have been clear from earlier parts of my argument that the tradition of the virtues is at variance with central features of the modern economic order and more especially its individualism, its acquisitiveness and its elevation of the values of the market to a central social place. It now becomes clear that it also involves a rejection of the modern political order. This does not mean that there are not many tasks only to be performed in and through government which still require performing: the rule of law, so far as it is possible in a modern state, has to be vindicated, injustice and unwarranted suffering have to be dealt with, generosity has to be exercised, and liberty has to be defended, in ways that are sometimes only possible through the use of governmental institutions. But each particular task, each particular responsibility has to be evaluated on its own merits. Modern systematic politics, whether liberal, conservative, radical or socialist, simply has to be rejected from a standpoint that owes genuine allegiance to the tradition of the virtues; for modern politics itself expresses in its institutional forms a systematic rejection of that tradition.

This is radical stuff - in as far as MacIntyre is a kind of paleoconservative (and I think it is arguable that he is), he is a paleo-paleo-paleoconservative, and he chides modern-day conservatives for rejecting parts of modernity, liberalism, and the social disintegration wrought by the omnipresent market; but remaining faithfully committed to the market economics that has produced modern liberalism:

The individualism of modernity could of course find no use for the notion of tradition within its own conceptual scheme except as an adversary notion; it therefore all too willingly abandoned it to the Burkeans, who, faithful to Burke's own allegiance, tried to combine adherence in politics to a conception of tradition which would vindicate the oligarchical revolution of property of 1688 and adherence in economics to the doctrine and institutions of the free market. The theoretical incoherence of this mismatch did not deprive it of ideological usefulness. But the outcome has been that modern conservatives are for the most part engaged in conserving only older rather than later versions of liberal individualism. Their own core doctrine is as liberal and as individualist as that of self-avowed liberals.
(p. 207)

Though MacIntyre has some warm words for certain Marxists, in particular Trotsky, he firmly rejects Marxism as a political alternative to liberal individualism as well:

Marxist socialism is at its core deeply optimistic. For however thorough-going its criticism of capitalist and bourgeois institutions may be, it is committed to asserting that within the society constituted by those institutions, all the human and material preconditions of a better future are being accumulated. Yet if the moral impoverishment of advanced capitalism is what so many Marxists agree that it is, whence are these resources for the future to be derived? It is not surprising that at this point Marxism tends to produce its own versions of the Uebermensch: Lukacs' ideal proletarian, Leninism's ideal revolutionary. When Marxism does not become Weberian social democracy or crude tyranny, it tends to become Nietzschean fantasy. One of the most admirable aspects of Trotsky's cold resolution was his refusal of all such fantasies.
(p. 244)

I do not share MacIntyre's positive valuation of Trotsky on this count. Though MacIntyre is right in praising Trotsky's analysis of Stalinism (The Revolution Betrayed, 1937), I am not at all sure Trotsky ever departed from the 'Nietzschean fantasy' inherent in Leninism's emphasis on the revolutionary vanguard with its correct and 'revolutionary' consciousness, etc. Indeed the Trotskyists have always claimed to be the rightful inheritors of the Leninist tradition and as far as I can see, they are correct to do so.

MacIntyre ends his work with a gloomy and disquieting look to the future:

It is always dangerous to draw too precise parallels between one historical period and another; and among the most misleading of such parallels are those which have been drawn between our age in Europe and North America and the epoch in which the Roman empire declined into the Dark Ages. Nonetheless certain parallels there are. A crucial turning point in that earlier history occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium. What they set themselves to achieve instead - often not recognising fully what they were doing - was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness. If my account of our moral condition is correct, we ought also to conclude that for some time now we too have reached that turning point. What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us. And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope. This time, however, the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament.
(p. 244-245)

MacIntyre published those lines in 1981, at a time when the Cold War was on its last leg, a wave of neo-liberalism was to set in in the United States and Britain, but at the same time leftist ideology seemed still in fairly good shape and multiculturalism as a political ideal was just being articulated. Now multiculturalism, at least in Western Europe, is something of an expletive: an acknowledgement that there are competing and incommensurable moral systems living side-by-side and that liberal individualism as an ideological basis for the modern state is simply incapable of integrating those systems is setting in. In that sense, MacIntyre was pretty far-sighted.

As I understand, MacIntyre converted to Catholicism not long after the publication of After Virtue. This arouses my curiosity as the Catholic Church has perhaps at least partially constituted a bastion against modernity - never quite accepting the Enlightenment and the concomitant 'dehellenization' (to use Benedict XVI's term) in the sciences and religion, and never accepting modern capitalism and its elevation of greed as a founding principle of society either. I earlier briefly mentioned the disintegrating effects of capitalism on society: the alienation between the worker and its work (currently, now that 'flexibility' is such a buzzword, involving even the dissolution of the long tradition of one person having more or less one trade or profession exercised at more or less one place; capitalism has turned the workforce into professional nomads); the commodification of everything - of art, of sexuality, of religion, and even of political radicalism; the slow but certain dissolution of national states (in Europe, through their incorporation into a faceless and bureaucratic entity named the European Union); the dissolution of the family - I could go on. Marx held capitalism to be a revolutionary force and for good reason. He may have been wrong to have held that capitalism contained the seeds of its own destruction, of its transcendence by a superior socialist order. And if he was wrong, and if MacIntyre's right, capitalism is a force of mere destruction, a 'revolutionary' force that should make us all embittered counterrevolutionaries.

Religious traditions have hardly been immune to co-optation, through the acceptance of religious pluralism, the spread of New Age and other fad religions, etc. The great Protestant churches in Europe stand empty or cling to a dwindling local base such as the surviving reformed communities in the Netherlands. The Evangelical movements in contrast seem to be brimming with life. Though at least some of those movements have embraced modernism and especially capitalism a bit too enthusiastically (I am thinking, in particular, of the hideous 'God likes me, so I have a lot of money' monstrosities of prosperity theology). Though I think there is some kind of genuine vitality among Evangelicals, and also signs of some loss of attachment to the American Christian right. And the Catholic Church exists tenaciously on, almost as if to mock the modern world...

I wonder how the Christian tradition will develop and will survive the 'dark ages' which I agree with MacIntyre are upon us. And especially how the two strains that seemed to have steered clear of theological liberalism best (the Catholic Church and the Evangelicals) will do.

As to the larger political scene, some kind of alliance between the erstwhile political Left and elements of the political Right has developed over the last decade or so, specifically between the anti-globalist and anti-interventionist left and the paleoconservative (to a lesser extent libertarian) strains of the right. I am interested to see at least some elements of this same hybridity in MacIntyre's work: an uncompromising critique of modern capitalism (by implication also involving globalism, imperialism, etc.) coupled with a rejection of some key Enlightenment notions and a revaluation of tradition as the necessary vessel of ethics, virtue and civilization (counterposed to the traditional Left/Enlightenment ideal of progress). In that sense too MacIntyre's book is quite appropriate for times like these.