Worth Reading - 5/26

Here are some links worth reading this weekend:

1. A post by a woman who was pushed from atheism into Christianity by her sojourn at Oxford and the influence of atheist Peter Singer:

After Cambridge, I was elected to a Junior Research Fellowship at Oxford. There, I attended three guest lectures by world-class philosopher and atheist public intellectual, Peter Singer. Singer recognised that philosophy faces a vexing problem in relation to the issue of human worth. The natural world yields no egalitarian picture of human capacities. What about the child whose disabilities or illness compromises her abilities to reason? Yet, without reference to some set of capacities as the basis of human worth, the intrinsic value of all human beings becomes an ungrounded assertion; a premise which needs to be agreed upon in before any conversation can take place.

I remember leaving Singer’s lectures with a strange intellectual vertigo; I was committed to believing that universal human value was more than just a well-meaning conceit of liberalism. But I knew from my own research in the history of European empires and their encounters with indigenous cultures, that societies have always had different conceptions of human worth, or lack thereof. The premise of human equality is not a self-evident truth: it is profoundly historically contingent. I began to realise that the implications of my atheism were incompatible with almost every value I held dear.

2. I've benefited significantly from my study of patristic theology (though it is at an elementary level to date) despite my earlier reticence to trust the early church fathers. Brandon Smith discusses the value and possibility for recovery of early Christian theology in our present, orthodox, Baptist context:

The Baptist tradition and other similar evangelical groups are not—or at least should not be—disconnected from the great Christian tradition. Personally, I’d rather be a catalyst from within than a critic from without.

The “allegorical” readings of the Patristic Fathers, the Catholic flavor of the first thousand or so years of church history, etc. are not reasons to abandon pre-Reformation theology. And yet, so many evangelicals immediately bristle at this notion on the principle that we should care more about the five solae of the Reformation. These five truths recovered the gospel in many minds. I recently wrote a study on the five solae, so I understand this sentiment and greatly appreciate the correctives that came with it. The Reformation was an act of God—I truly believe that—but we should consider two things.

Primarily, we should be willing to learn from those in the midst of the expansion, canonization, and creedal development of Christian orthodoxy. If we’re truly orthodox Christians, then we affirm major creeds like the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed(s), and the Chalcedonian Creed. The affirmations forged and fought for in these creeds are essential to Christian faith and practice, and yet we take for granted the time and context in which these theological foundations were laid. We act as though we can take the creeds and leave everything else, however the creeds didn’t happen in a vacuum.

3. This past week a significant conservative thinker, Peter Lawler unexpectedly died. This essay, which critiques modernity, and argues that his perspective, which is critically and chronologically postmodern is consistently conservative, and has a place for Christianity.

What has distinguished the modern world, above all, is a particular definition of what a human being is. That definition does not describe a real or complete human being. It was not even meant to be completely true, but mainly to be useful as a fiction in the pursuit of unprecedented freedom, justice, and prosperity. Modern thought has held that a human being is an individual, and the modern individual is an abstraction, an invention of the human mind. That individual is made more free from social and political constraints, and less directed toward duty and goodness by God and nature, than a real human being ever could be. The modern individual is distinguished from the political animals—the citizens, statesmen, and philosophers—described by the Greek and Roman philosophers, and from the social, familial creatures described by Christian theologians. The modern individual is liberated from the philosopher’s duty to know the truth about nature, from the citizen’s selfless devotion to his country, from the creature’s love and fear of God, and even from the loving responsibilities that are inseparable from family life. Conservatives today oppose liberal individualism both because its understanding of the human being is untrue and because that definition erodes all that is good about distinctively human existence.

The modern world has now ended only in the sense that we have now seen enough of it to judge it. Although we have reason to be grateful for the wealth, health, freedom, and power that modern achievements have given us, we know that the individual’s pursuits of security and happiness will remain always pursuits—and not possessions. So even as the modern world continues to develop, we can be free of its characteristic delusion, its utopianism. We can speak of its strengths and its limitations from a perspective “outside” modernity, and that perspective is the foundation of conservatism today. Conservatives can be (perhaps the only) genuinely postmodern thinkers. The reason we can see beyond the modern world is that its intention to transform human nature has failed. Its project of transforming the human person into the autonomous individual was and remains unrealistic; we can now see the limits of being an individual because we remain more than individuals. The world created by modern individuals to make themselves fully at home turns out to have made human beings less at home than ever.

4. Derek Rishmawy wrote an interesting post on the personal essay and argumentation. The key point of this essay is noting that personal essays tend to be structured to restrict argumentation by ensuring that an argument against the ideas of the person are perceived as an attack on the person.

I’ve been thinking about arguments again, but this time with respect to the turn to first-person narratives in the broader internet landscape, and within the online, Evangelical world. One of the persistent features of these sorts of essays is the move from “personal story to general point.” You tell your harrowing, or odd, or funny story, etc. and then move to what you learned from it (and maybe what we can all learn). In church circles, we often make theological points this way, especially if we can tie it to a major change of mind on some issue.

It’s an engaging way of making a point and so it has come to dominate much Internet publication culture. But more than any other style, it also tends to tie people to their positions in a way other modes of writing (a persuasive essay, inductive argument, etc.) do not. That’s true in the broader cultural phenomenon as well as theological writing in Church circles.

5. A personal essay in which a woman documents her rejection of her far-left ideology and walking away from her identity as a (self-styled) Social Justice Warrior.

I see increasing numbers of so-called liberals cheering censorship and defending violence as a response to speech. I see seemingly reasonable people wishing death on others and laughing at escalating suicide and addiction rates of the white working class. I see liberal think pieces written in opposition to expressing empathy or civility in interactions with those with whom we disagree. I see 63 million Trump voters written off as “nazis” who are okay to target with physical violence. I see concepts like equality and justice being used as a mask for resentful, murderous rage.

The most pernicious aspect of this evolution of the left, is how it seems to be changing people, and how rapidly since the election. I have been dwelling on this Nietzsche quote for almost six months now, “He who fights with monsters, should be careful lest he thereby become a monster. And if thou gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into thee.” How easy is it for ordinary humans to commit atrocious acts? History teaches us it’s pretty damn easy when you are blinded to your own hypocrisy. When you believe you are morally superior, when you have dehumanized those you disagree with, you can justify almost anything. In a particularly vocal part of the left, justification for dehumanizing and committing violence against those on the right has already begun.