Pope Francis, Bullshit Artist

•May 27, 2017 • Leave a Comment


It is difficult to recall now what my life was like before I was baptized into the Catholic Church as an adult, fourteen years ago, but some things never quite vanish from the memory.  Life is always filled with confusion, but I was in graduate school at the time, being exposed the vagaries of postmodern thought was a of rite of passage for graduate students in humanistic disciplines.  (I was studying history.)  I had entered university with no faith in a benevolent, transcendent God, and my graduate study did little to quell my sense of cosmic ennui:  that the whole word was basically chaos, randomness.  I was like the ancient tourist who visited the Pyramids in Egypt, and upon encountering Egyptian hieroglyphs scrawled graffiti on one of them that declared, “I, Dioskorammon, looked upon this nonsense and found it bewildering!” If you had asked me at that point in my life what my personal philosophy was, I would have said “Nietszchean” or something like that, though I doubt I knew what that meant at the time.  Knowledge was not certain, could not be; as Nietzsche put it, “truth” was little more than an “army of mobile metaphors” marshalled for one purpose or another, none being more “true” than the rest. It was all nonsense, all the way down.

I did not know it then, but I was suffering from anxiety and depression, something that I realize now began when I was a teenager.  It is only in recent years that I have begun to receive treatment for them, and only now do I see clearly the connection between my emotional disorders and the agonizing unbelief I experienced during my early adulthood, before I underwent my conversion.  My turning to Christ in the Catholic Church had much to do with the belief that the teaching of the Catholic Church was consistent, and clear, capable of being understood by an ordinary person over oceans of time, going back to the ancient world.  I believed, and still believe, it is the Church that Jesus Christ founded, and the primary vehicle by which God offers his salvation to mankind. The sense of permanence the Church conveys is, as you can imagine, a great consolation for someone suffers from these sorts of afflictions.

If you have read this far, you are probably wondering about the title of my essay, and how this personal history relates to the current Bishop of Rome.  My focus as an historian was on the history of the press, and so I am interested in communication, how ideas get expressed, and received.  Moreover, I have been a teacher now for many years, and as a matter of habit I think about these things obsessively. This essay is about Pope Francis’ communication style, and what it portends for his portrayal of the Catholic faith to the world—with the help of a modern philosopher, whose premise does indeed have to do with “bullshit.”



Readers may be familiar with the work of the late Harry Frankfurt, a philosophy professor at Princeton, whose essay “On Bullshit” he turned into a small book in 1986.  The term, though a vulgar one, was the one he chose to denote that category of statements that were not true but also not outright lies.  For Frankfurt, the essence of bullshit, as opposed to lies, is that the former is concerned with truth:  to lie, someone must believe there is a truth that he/she wishes to conceal.  But in the case of bullshit, that is not the point:  whereas the liar wants to conceal the essential reality behind his lie, but the bullshitter doesn’t care if what he saying matches up to objective reality.  That is not the purpose of his utterance. Nor need bullshit necessarily be false, as the lie must be, precisely because of its lack of concern for truth.  “The essence of bullshit,” writes Frankfurt, “is not that it is false, but that it is phony.”  The bullshitter is a fake, whose main purpose is to hide, not the truth, but his intentions:  the bullshitter wants to conceal his lack of concern for the truth, his unwillingness to submit to the constraints of reality to which both the truth teller and the liar in their own way must submit.   Frankfurt compares bullshit to humbug, a related term, and finds it is similar in that though it comes short of lying, it is a form of misrepresentation.  But it cannot be a misrepresentation of truth, or knowledge. Frankfurt gives the example of politician whose Fourth of July speech prattles on at length about the Founders, the greatness of the country, its divine destiny, and so on.  The speaker, Frankfurt says, cares little about the accuracy of what he is saying.  “He is not trying to deceive anyone concerning American history,” writes Frankfurt.  “What he cares about is what people think of him.  He wants them to think of him as patriot, as someone who has deep thoughts and feelings about the origins and mission of our country.”  Bullshit, then, differs from lies in that it is not about truth, or knowledge, but about the subjective state of the speaker and his intended audience.  Bullshit is not necessarily deceptive, though it can be, but even that is almost irrelevant: what matters is the effect (or affect?) it has on the audience.  The speaker might be quite sincere in his depiction of his subjective state, and still be bullshitting you.  Indeed, Frankfurt identifies “sincerity” as the correlative of an anti-realism which presumes that we cannot know what things truly are in themselves, about objective reality.  And hence, we cannot judge people on the accuracy or coherence of their ideas or beliefs, but only on the sincerity or lack thereof in their self-representations.

The kind of person who excels at this sort of thing does not care about the objectivity, the truth or falsity of the things he or she says, but about whether his statements gain him the approval of his audience.  This kind of person, though he or she is not exactly master craftsman, does possess a certain amount of discipline to pull off their bullshitting.  This is captured by the colloquial phrase “bullshit artist,” which implies not a systematic line of thought but rather the practiced improvisation of an actor or stand-up comedian.  No one cares if an actor or comedian believes what he or she says either, as long as their performance is convincing.  And this what leads me to Pope Francis.



It is no secret that Francis likes to talk, and that many of things he says publicly are, to say the least, confused and often contradictory.  This obviously has not affected his popularity.  When they elected Francis, some Cardinals were reportedly concerned about what some have called the “Catholic Brand.”  What the Church needed was not another academic or theologian, but someone with a “pastoral” touch who could burnish its image and make the Church “marketable” again.  And at least personally, this has worked: if one believes the polls, Francis is quite popular, both within and without the Church. (The Church itself? Not so much.)

The Pope’s garrulousness recalls Frankfurt’s discussion of a “bull session.”  A bull session is an informal gathering in which the participants are encouraged to say whatever is on their minds about sensitive subjects, with the understanding that nothing that is said in it should be taken too seriously.  The purpose of the bull session is to clear the air on sensitive topics, and not to communicate specific beliefs or ideas.  At the beginning of his pontificate, Pope Francis said that he wanted to encourage “parrhesia” in the Church—openness of speech.  His Holiness has not been shy about exercising “openness” in his manner of speaking, and it is in this that I think lies the key to understanding the way he communicates.

Linguists use the term “phatic” communication to refer to expressions people use when they “make a connection” with someone, but don’t communicate anything in particular.  For example, if I run into a friend I’ve not seen for some time, I might say to him, “hey, what’s up?”  And he’ll respond, “nothing much.  How about you?”  This is phatic communication; we exchange no real information, and I don’t expect him to tell me anything new.  It is just a way of “reconnecting” after not having seen someone for a while.  This is one way of interpreting Pope Francis’ otherwise puzzling statements: they are not meant to convey knowledge of the faith, but only to reconnect with those who have been estranged from it.  This seems to me the best way to understand Pope Francis’ often confusing attempts to communicate the Catholic faith to the wider world.



Except: can this communication style also be—I beg your pardon, dear reader—“bullshit,” in Frankfurt’s sense of the term?  I do not think the two are mutually exclusive.  He could be “phatically” attempting to communicate in different ways with different audiences, and yet still saying things without much care for their truth.  This is certainly what his more acerbic critics would accuse him of.  It’s worth noting he has another mode of communication he uses quite often; we could call it his “declamatory” or “prophetic” style.  He frequently denounces “Pharisees,” the “rigid,” the “doctors of the law,” the wealthy, and this plays a prominent part of his communication style.  It would be hard to argue that he doesn’t care about the content of what he is saying in that mode.  He does think those who emphasize “rules” at the expense of mercy are hindering the spread of the gospel.

But Pope Francis is vague most of the time about what “rules” he is referring to, or who those “Pharisees” are, and one could make the case that his inflammatory statements should not be taken literally.  He recently compared the detention camps for immigrants in European countries to Nazi concentration camps, and insisted when asked that they were erected for the same purposes.  This analogy is so obviously false that one hopes he was merely mistaken, and not malicious in making it.  But there is another explanation:  Julian Sanchez dubbed public statements made by partisans about former President Obama’s birth status as “symbolic beliefs.”  He meant by this that the people who said things like “Obama is a Muslim” didn’t care about the truth of the statement, but only the feeling it expressed—in that case, the feeling that Obama was not authentically American.  (In the blog post in which he coined this phrase, he cited Frankfurt.) Similarly, one could argue when the Pope denounces “Pharisees” and the like only means to convey his feeling that such people are not authentic Christians.

One other aspect of his “prophetic” mode is his emphasis on spontaneity.  Francis appears to believe that speaking in an unplanned, non-deliberative manner is more open to the Holy Spirit than planning what you say ahead of time.  This is a questionable idea; Jesus says something very like this to his disciples in the Gospels, but He was talking about a specific situation (being brought before kings and all that) where Francis appears to think this is the way you should communicate everything.  Francis contrasts this with more traditional ways of understanding the faith, and has stated that the Holy Spirit cannot be confined to past forms; to deny this in his mind seems to deny the power of God to influence the world now.  Hence the Pope’s attempts, sometimes subtle, sometimes not so subtle, to present himself to the world as a prophet, delivering direct God’s message of mercy to the people, while also “speaking truth to power.”  To give one recent example of this, during the ceremonies marking the one hundredth anniversary of the visions at Fatima, Francis declared he came as “a pilgrim of the Hope that the Spirit awakens…as a prophet and messenger to wash the feet of all.”  Whatever his actual intentions, Francis often gives the impression he is in direct contact with God via the Holy Spirit, rather than merely protected from error by it.

Francis’ conception of communication is almost entirely personal, as one would expect from a speaker who considers his speech to be “prophetic”:  what matters is not the specific details of what a person is saying, but rather their sincerity, their authenticity, their “spirit”—whether they are open, warm, smiling, rather than closed, cold, rigid.  This would explain why Jorge Bergoglio as a cardinal could make statements affirming John Paul II’s teaching on divorced and remarried Catholics not being admitted to communion in Familiaris Consortio in 2005 in the most absolute terms, but as Pope make statements that confirm the opposite, even while allowing the traditional ban on communion to remain where bishops call for it.  This is also consonant with Francis’ rhetorical emphasis upon mercy: mercy is preeminently a personal act, whereas justice is supposed to be blind, impersonal.  Mercy is an elective virtue, dispensed as the giver of mercy pleases, as opposed to objective standards.  This personal style is evident in one other aspect of Francis’ rhetorical strategy: silence.  When it comes to making objective, definitive statements about doctrine, he is almost wholly silent, as in his refusal to answer the dubia the four cardinals put to him last year. Making definitive statements would, of course, restrict his freedom to say whatever occurs to him in the moment.



That, at least, is the most charitable rendering I can muster to describe the way Francis communicates.  One could certainly construct a more cynical interpretation.  His most fervent English speaking defender, Austen Ivereigh, has stated in several outlets that Francis is as much a politician as pastor, and learned much of his craft as a “leader” from Argentine politics.  This would make sense, given the fact that Francis was never a pastor of an ordinary parish, and his time as superior general of the Jesuits in Argentina was a divisive one by all accounts.  Moreover, one can easily see a good deal of deliberate purpose in many of his “spontaneous” remarks.  Issuing confusing public statements is a good way to hide one’s real beliefs; a good politician will always keep his cards close to his chest.  If one wanted to believe Francis’s method was to hide his opinions till he could express them openly (to change the irreformable teachings of the Church), there is ample circumstantial evidence to support this idea.  And Francis knows that most people care for the details of what he is saying almost as little as he does.  Indeed, it is probably one of the reasons he is so popular.  His photo-op gestures, his off-the-cuff remarks, his bumper sticker like “tweets,” to say nothing of his general disdain for any sort formality or self-discipline in communication, unite him to his admirers as much as the content of his magisterium, if not more so.  His style suits the almost autistic informality of our present age to near perfection.

And yet, there is still room for ambiguity, even in this picture.  One could call Francis a politician in a more positive sense of the term:  someone who wishes to unite a fractious body divided over points of doctrine, to unify the Church with his personal leadership.  One could paint his critics as an embittered minority, whose opinions are not worth considering.  (And they are a minority, to be sure.) After a long period in which the Church has publicly taken a beating, you could argue that an extended bull session is just what the Church needs to spread its message, to let people air their grievances free of concern for condemnation.  After three decades of Supreme Pontiffs who were both academics and insisted on a strict adherence to doctrine, communicating the faith in a more informal style was not automatically a bad idea.  One could make the argument that one must win hearts first, then instruct them later in the finer points of doctrine—to start in a “phatic” mode and then move on to more formal means of communicating the faith, as a means of evangelizing a skeptical modern world.

Except that Francis never seems to get around to the second part of that equation.  A certain amount of “bullshit” is inevitable for everyone (“each of us contributes his share” wrote Frankfurt) but Francis acts as if the papacy were merely an ongoing bull session, one in which he and his close advisors can bruit anything they like about Catholic teaching without serious consequence.  The papal office is a priestly, not a prophetic one; he is not the President of the Mormon Church.  The First Vatican Council defined the charism of papal infallibility in stark terms: “the Holy Spirit was not promised to the successors of Peter so that by His revelation they might disclose new teaching, but that, by His assistance, they might devoutly guard, and faithfully set forth, the Revelation handed down through the Apostles, the Deposit of Faith.”  (To be fair, Popes have been sounding off on seemingly every “issue” under the sun long before Francis.  There is a reason St. John Paul II was called “the Pomo Pope,” and since Leo XIII, Popes have issued endless encyclicals, exhortations, and verbal interventions of every kind, as if they need to prove that the papacy is still important in world affairs to compensate for the loss of the papacy’s temporal authority.) Garrulity is no sure sign of inspiration, by the Holy Spirit or anything else.  Rabbinic commentators after the destruction of the Second Temple employed the euphemism “words of prophecy” to refer someone who spoke nonsense.  There is a reason why the Church long ago declared the era of public prophecy ended with the death of the last Apostle.  By contrast, Francis seems bent on reopening it again in his own person.




To return to Frankfurt, he ended his original essay by attacking the ideal of “sincerity” as it related to the anti-realism mentioned above.  “One response to this loss of confidence has been a retreat from the ideal of correctness to a quite different sort of discipline, which is imposed by the pursuit of a quite different ideal of sincerity. Rather than seeking to arrive at accurate representation of a common world, the individual turns toward trying to provide honest representations of himself.”  He noted how difficult our subjective selves are to fathom, and expressed incredulity at the idea that it is “the truth about himself that is the easiest to know.”  Our own personal natures are “elusively insubstantial—notoriously less stable and less inherent than the nature of other things.  And insofar as this is the case, sincerity itself is bullshit.”  I know good and faithful Catholics who swoon over nearly every soundbite, every photo-op, every gesture of the Pope with rapture, and the difference between their reaction and my own baffles me. What sound to me like the most trite and banal slogans dredged up from the miasma of the post-conciliar Church of the 1970s, seem to them signs that Francis is a genuine man of God, an authentic Christian voice.  Everything about Francis’ public and private statements screams “ersatz” to me, but rings in their ears as sweet music to them.

If it is not clear already, I believe the Pope models Frankfurt’s description of a “bullshit artist” to a tee. I do not doubt his sincerity at all.  I am sure he believes every word he says, but his articulation of what constitutes the Catholic faith is so personal, so subjective, that it severely distorts it, with consequences that he either is not aware of or simply indifferent to.  A fair observer who disagrees might object, not wrongly, that it is unseemly, not to say irreverent, to characterize the words of a Pontiff of Rome as “bullshit,” or himself as a “bullshit artist.” I can only aver that I do not make such statements lightly.  And for the sake of those good and decent Catholics, who likely will not understand my objections, I think I owe an explanation for why I am willing to do so.

I began these reflections with an autobiographical detail about my conversion.  I should state that when Francis was first elected, and started giving his jarring interviews on airplanes, to Antonio Spadaro, to Eugenio Scalfari, and the like, I nearly through something of a crisis of faith.  To hear the Bishop of Rome saying things like converting people to the faith is unnecessary, that it is better to be a “good” atheist than a “bad” Christian, and, in general, acting as if the only thing that distinguished being a member of the Catholic Church from other Christian denominations, perhaps even from other religions and even from those of none, was personal preference, and not a matter of obedience to the truth; and, worst of all, seeming to directly contradict infallible statements made by previous popes—I felt sure I was going to lose the Catholic faith altogether, if not my mind.  In time, as I realized the Pope’s disdain for formality and rules likely preclude him from ever issuing a statement that rises to the level of an ex cathedra declaration, such fears have subsided.  But his continuous denigration of the “rigid,” of those who need “rules,” those who are too attached to tradition, etc., often feels as if it is directed toward me personally. I believe in the Catholic Church, not because of the personality of its leaders, but because by faith I believe that what it is and what it teaches is not merely “authentic,” but true. My inner life is chaos; but “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, and today, and forever.”  To hear the Pope of Rome, whose office is to protect the faithful from errors of belief, denigrate as “rigid” or “pharisaical” those who fear that the Church might alter the faith that God gave her—well, it sure sounds like bullshit to me.


The Revenge of the Laymen

•May 17, 2017 • Leave a Comment

A few years ago, there was a horrible crime committed in the city of Seattle, one that rocked the 24 hour news cycles to their foundation, meaning they replayed it endlessly and breathlessly for days, with talking heads railing about the injustice of it all.  What was this crime, you ask?  The officials at the end of a NFL game had botched a call that gave the game to the hometown Seattle Seahawks over the Green Bay Packers.  The deep meaning to this tragedy was the incompetence of the officials, who were replacements for the regular officiating crews, who were on strike at the time.  Commentators bewailed the incompetence of such “scabs” and demanded the return of real expert officiating.  I remember remarking to someone at the time that the professional football players who were complaining about the replacements had learned a valuable lesson about the sort of incompetence that non-millionaires have to deal with regularly, and hoped the strike would go on even longer.  Sadly, it did not.

Max Weber pointed out years ago in his lecture “Science as a Vocation” that modern societies’ knowledge was in principle open to everyone, but that in practice only experts actually possessed that knowledge.  Unlike primitive peoples, who knew all the simple tools and mechanisms by which their society operated, modern people are, by and large, dependent on The Expertise, as I like to call them–the doctors, lawyers, academics, scientists, educators, media consultants, bureaucrats, etc.–for its functioning.  There has been much discussion, with the election of Trump and Brexit, as to the distrust that many of the people who voted for them hold of The Expertise, and whether this is a good or a bad thing.  I mention this because there have been a rash of articles appearing recently in the media, decrying Donald Trump’s incompetence and general lack of knowledge about, well, most everything.

There are a great many dividing lines between peoples in the United States these days–between races, between the classes, between globalists and nationalists–but I would suggest there is another.  And no, I don’t mean that between the expert and the layman. Most people in our society, as Weber indicated, are laymen.  The distrust of The Expertise is not, I think, the result of a knee-jerk rejection of expertise as such.  Rather, I think it comes from knowing how inequitably the benefits of such expertise are distributed in our society.  The professionals whom working class people tend to distrust are precisely academics, lawyers, doctors, etc.–people who do possess real expertise upon which our society depends. Since Trump’s election, many have pointed this out.  But what many don’t seem to realize is that such expertise can be purchased by those who have wealth; those who don’t, have to deal with substandard legal representation, healthcare, and the like. This is something The Expertise only discovers when things go wrong, as in the NFL officials strike, but my guess is that working class people have to deal with this everyday, and that this, rather than any rejection of real expertise (which is hard to distinguish from the numerous counterfeits in our society, unless you are an expert yourself) is at the heart of the backlash against The Expertise.

This shouldn’t be surprising.  The failures of The Expertise in the past fifteen to twenty years have been very obvious ones–the numerous disastrous wars in which our government have involved us, the economic crisis which not only did they not predict but did little to remedy, as well as the failure to safeguard things like healthcare, and other benefits for that class of people who cannot easily afford access to such expertise. This is why I don’t think crying up Trump’s incompetence will get the media branch of The Expertise very far, at least not with the people who voted for him.  I imagine they look on his bungling as a fitting reward for those that have reaped the benefits of such expertise while denying it to them, all the while looking down their noses at the laymen who are in practice denied such benefits.  It probably won’t do them much good in the end–the media, the party elites, seemed to have learned very little from the results of the election, preferring to obsess over Trump’s personal failings rather than addressing the real problems that led to his election–but I doubt they will lose any sleep over people in the media and elsewhere getting a taste of the incompetence their fellow laymen are subject to on a daily basis.

Diamonds in the Rough (ly Secular)

•May 2, 2017 • Leave a Comment


Recently, Adam de Ville over at Eastern Christian Books extolled the virtues of studying Marx and Freud as guides to understanding modern society.  He is criticizing Rod Dreher, among others, for their lack of attention to the early work of Alasdair MacIntyre, which focused in part on Marx.  I have to confess I never found Marx to be terribly illuminating or insightful.  My impression is that truly great thinkers, even if their general philosophies are wrong will still yield many particular insights in their works. This is something I haven’t found much of in Marx’s works.  Marx had one big idea, and was right on one major point–the influence of capital in modern society–but his prescriptions for the ills he diagnosed were all wildly off the mark because of his blinding adherence to deterministic materialism.  Freud, on the other hand, I think yields some valuable observations about human nature, even for Christians, though I obviously disagree with his philosophy overall.

All of which got me to thinking:  which books by atheists/secularists (defined broadly) do I think would benefit a faithful Christian?  I came up with a provisional list which does include Marx):

  1. Sigmund Freud, Future of an Illusion; Civilization and its Discontents
  2. Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols; The Anti-Christ
  3. Max Weber, “Science as a Vocation”
  4. Bertrand Russell, “The Worship of a Free Man”
  5. Michel Foucault, Madness and Civilization; Discipline and Punish; Power/Knowledge
  6. R.G. Collingwood, The Idea of History
  7. J.J. Rousseau, Discourse on Inequality; The Social Contract
  8. Karl Marx & Frederich Engels, The Communist Manifesto
  9. J.S. Mill, On Liberty

Most of these you would find familiar from college surveys on philosophy, or history. Freud has some interesting things to say about human psychology, which I think hold up even outside of his dreary view of human sexuality and society.  Nietzsche is probably the most profound, and important thinker on this list; I can’t recommend him highly enough. He is a dangerous critic of Christianity, because he knew it so well, but is worth listening to for that reason.  Weber is best known as the theorist of capitalism and bureaucracy, but his little essay on what the vocation of a “scientist” (an academic, basically) contains several keen insights on the nature of modern life.  Michel Foucault is worth reading, although for the layman or woman I recommend the set of interviews with him entitled Power/Knowledge, which gives a much more digestible view of his overall philosophy, but the two works above contain valuable insights about two modern institutions, the clinic and the prison.  I admit that Collingwood’s book is something of an outlier; I am a British historian by training, so that is how I know the book.  It is partly a history of history as a discipline, but I list it because of the latter part of the book where Collingwood makes observations about the modern academic discipline of history that are important for understanding modern society.  Rousseau should not need much justification, I think, though both his and Mill’s works are more important for knowledge about modern philosophies than modern society.

Anyway, that is a short list off the top of my head.   What books would you recommend? Feel free to list them in the comments.

On Closeness to God

•April 26, 2017 • Leave a Comment

In the German film Die Stille Grosse (The Great Silence), which filmed the monks of the Grand Chartreuse over a period of several years, the filmmakers interviewed the ancient abbot of the monastery.  Grey haired, blind, with bushy, overgrown eyebrows like an untrimmed vine that overreaches a dividing wall, the old man, in a weak voice, said that “happiness is being close God,” or words to that effect.

I am like most people easily distracted, and the stimuli that can disorient me are legion, and never ending.  Sometimes, I like to make being closer to God more complicated than it actually is; it is doing his will, and accepting our dependence upon him.  I hate being dependent upon anyone, and like most people I naturally crave the immediate satisfaction of my desires.  This is why ascetic practices, prayer, fasting, charitable works, are so necessary to a Christian life.  We cannot “taste and see that the Lord is good” until we have reset our palette, and rescued it from the dullness that comes from the desensitizing pursuit of immediate pleasures.  We must cultivate a certain sort of “taste”–a sensitivity to God and his presence–and a certain sort of insensitivity, to immediate stimuli (food, sex, etc.,) in order to come closer to God.  This is the painful labor of a Christian life; it requires faith, because we have certain knowledge that if we eat enticing food, or make love to someone, we will have a sense of immediate satisfaction from it. Whereas we have no knowledge of eternal life, only the faith that comes from God.  And yet, from our own experience we know that certain types of pleasures are more rewarding, even if less intense, because they can be properly fulfilled and completed. Our desires for food and sex are never completed, for their purpose is not to fulfill but to spur us on to those things that can–the highest and greatest being God, whom when (if) we come to enjoy him eternally, will fulfill us forever.  St. Augustine wrote in his Confessions that God was “nearer to me than I am to myself,” and I pray that all who seek may draw closer to him, that they may “taste and see” the One who is able to fulfill every longing of our hearts.

The “Sith Effect” & the Religious Left

•April 20, 2017 • Leave a Comment
Anathematization of Nestorius

The Condemnation of Nestorius, c. 1502

A recent post at the New York Times site Fivethirtyeight contemplates the viability of the “religious left,” and makes some interesting points backed up by data on demography and trends in the negative opinions of liberal voters concerning organized religion. The headline is a bit misleading—the story acknowledges there is a religious left, but the thrust of the piece is that it  will not be a political force going forward to match the religious right. This is an interesting observation, since the current consensus  stemming from the last couple of election cycles (as far as there is one) is the likely decline and possible death of the religious right. The author makes some good points, but I wonder if he isn’t missing a key element, something I like to think of as the “Sith effect.” My impression is that a good number of liberal Christians became so as a rejection of a more conservative religious upbringing, rather than having grown up in a liberal Christian household or church. (Just as it does in the Stars Wars universe, where the Sith seem to get most of their members from former Jedi who rejected their training.) Thus if, as some trends seem to suggest, conservative congregations keep growing (or at least surviving) in defiance of a wider decline in religious belief and practice, there will continue to be a religious left, even if the author is correct in assuming demographic changes will prevent it from becoming a political force.

I’ve always wondered why some religious liberals didn’t just go the whole way, and abandon their religious faith completely, but I guess we are finally seeing the fruits of what John Henry Newman called the “halfway house” to atheism (his word for theological and religious liberalism).  Of course, unlike the Blessed Newman, the author of the article was mostly concerned with religion in a political sense—his sense of the religious left’s worth is primarily how much it helps advance progressive political goals.  This is surely a big reason why the “religious left” does not jump ship entirely from organized religion:  religious institutions are valuable for things like political organizing, distributing resources, patronage, etc., and most people whose goals are primarily political are loathe to part with such things.  But it may also have to do with the “Sith effect”:  having rejected “fundamentalism,” the new adherents to liberal congregations may feel the need to overcome the old faith too strongly to abandon the new one, especially if, as is the case in America, the old faith in question is a powerful political force standing in the way of your political goals—even more so if those political goals are the fulfillment of your most cherished religious beliefs or theological principles.  And however false or heretical those beliefs may be, they are genuine religious and theological beliefs, and not *merely* political ones.  It’s true that the next generation of liberal Christians will not feel the same pull, but then as long as there are strong “conservative” religious communities, I suspect their will always be those brought up within them who come to reject it.  The more clear, and well defined the identity is, the easier it is to define oneself against it.  And this is not a phenomenon that is limited to religion, obviously.

I have sometimes remarked to friends that I wished those people of faith who had liberal or progressive political views could separate them from their theological positions (not necessarily their religion as such, but only those theological positions that are irreformable–the indissolubility of marriage comes to mind.  But this does not seem to suit most religious liberals, though there are of course exceptions.  In any case, I don’t see the religious left going anywhere any time soon.  Though left/right, liberal/ conservative, are not immutable categories, for a dogmatic religion like Catholic Christianity, the distinction between orthodoxy and heresy pretty much has to be, and I suspect those other, binary political categories are parasitic upon it—which would explain why they are so hard to separate in practice.   And because many liberal Christians become so by a rejection of their conservative upbringing, they often arrive at their liberalism while still members of “conservative” religious bodies, and so have access to resources and networks they otherwise would not have, even if “liberal” religious institutions are in demographic decline.  The Catholic Church—not to say the papacy itself these days—is a good illustration of this.  It ought to give Christian traditionalists like myself pause to consider that the Church, though she is the mother of saints, is also the mother of heretics, too.

Trump & the End of Republicanism–Finale

•February 3, 2017 • Leave a Comment


In the first three installments of my look at the election of Donald Trump, who as of today is America’s 45th president, and how it marks the waning of the republican ideology that has sustained much of American life since the late 18th century.  In the last installment, I took at look at Rod Dreher’s idea of “the Benedict Option,” and why it might and might not be a good idea for those Christian communities seeking to preserve their heritage and beliefs from an increasingly secular society.  In this last post, I want to try my hand at predicting (egad!) what a Trump presidency might portend for the future of those types of communities, as well as for the country as a whole.

United in Division

If you recall my first post, it rested upon the idea that the essential aspect of American republican ideology was an extreme valorization of independence.  The reason I say Trump’s election marks a great shift is that politicians of both major political parties have developed a politics of dependence over the past sixty or seventy years, but the rhetorical inheritance of republican ideology–“liberty” and all that–have prevented this from being proclaimed openly.  What make Trump transformative is that he not only practices a politics of dependence–i.e., acting as a strongman on behalf of his dependents–but he proclaims it openly.  And if you doubt me, take a look at his inaugural address, which mentions “protection” repeatedly.

All of this horrifies Republican commentators such as George Will and others, but it is nothing new. It is clear that Barack Obama also acted as a patron for “dependent” clients:  in his case, minorities groups (blacks, hispanics, gays, etc.) who felt threatened by their fellow citizens.  That’s what the whole push for gay rights is really about, protection.  (I’m not saying this is necessarily based on an accurate understanding of their position in society, just that this is the actual reason for most LGBTQ policies.)  Harassing the opponents of one’s clients is part of the deal:  hence the efforts to criminalize opposition to gay rights, gay marriage, etc.  And there can be little doubt this is part of the reason so many Evangelicals voted for Trump, despite his obvious lack of religious conviction.  More to the point, this type of patron-client relationship has existed in American politics at least since the time of Martin Van Buren’s machine in New York in the 1820s, if not earlier.  What is new is not the actual practice, but the acceptance of it as a legitimate way of conducting public affairs by what appears to be a majority of American citizens. And so, in way, we are so torn by conflict not because of what divides us but because we all implicitly agree on the form our political life should take.  And this form, strictly speaking, is one which is no longer republican in a meaningful sense.

The Wages of Dependence

As I write this final post, there is a tempest brewing over the first measures of a Trump presidency–his executive order concerning refugees.  This is the type of thing that I started this blog to ignore, in order to focus on eternal verities, so I had best explain myself as to why I am addressing this whole subject now.  I am a Catholic Christian, and the most distinctive thing about this belief is that God, in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, truly became man, and yet remained truly God.  While we are in this world, we suffer all manner of evil, and yet be at peace.   I cannot ignore what is going on around me, as much as I want to.  But I can do one thing:  as Pascal wrote, our first duty is always to think clearly, and in this case, to think clearly about how we may still focus on our eternal destiny in the midst of such turmoil.

And so, what will be the consequences of this “politics of dependence” as I have termed it, and how should a thinking person respond to it?  Well, first of all, much of what this amounts to is already present; the shit storm over the Syrian refugees is a good example of it.  For a long time, at least since the 1960s, the middle classes have been utilizing under privileged groups as proxies for their own political battles.  The whole brouhaha over the working classes during the election is a great example of this:  most of Trump’s supporters were, depending on how you define it, middle class.  And yet the problems of the white working class became a rallying cry for those who feel their middle class security threatened by economic, cultural and legal change going on around them, and have been used a symbol by the new Trumpian right to bash the left as upatriotic, unsympathetic to the plight of their fellow countrymen.  Of course, the left has been doing this for decades with black Americans, making them symbol and source of all the evils in American life.  In short, our politics depends upon rhetorically identifying a dependent group, identifying with them, and convincing enough of our fellow citizens that, unless they choose “our” policies (whoever “we” happens to be) we will suffer the fate of those dependent groups.  Again, this has been going on for quite awhile. What is different now is that much of the middle class–I define that term broadly–now feels so insecure that they fear they lose their economic or social status, and so now are willing to cede much of the actual practice of self-government to patrons who promise to protect them.

This new instability has so many sources, it would be pointless to try and enumerate them here.  They are economic, cultural, even spiritual; perhaps it is the consequence of living in a society so (in theory) committed to openness, mobility, to the idea that you can go grab what you want, obstacles be damned, that this has finally created the psychological condition where the vast majority feel as if they are able to get what they want or already have it but feel like it could be taken from them at any moment economic, legal or cultural powers beyond their control.  Whatever the case, it is clear that many believe that some sort of patronage is required to maintain the political and legal independence that was once taken for granted.  How does that affect those of us whose primary goal is eternal life?

After Republicanism

I have already discussed Rod Dreher’s “Benedict Option” in the last post, and I can only reiterate here what I think the fatal flaw in it is.  Dreher seems is desperate to believethat you can manage a different way of life–different culturally, morally speaking–without the political patronage of, well, people like Trump.  Trump is of course not really much of a Christian, prone to reckless behavior, and likely to involve his Christian supporters in policies that compromise their faith–again, the executive order is a good example, though I am myself am troubled more by the lack of competence in it, rather than its morality, which I think can be defended.  But I do not think the types of “traditionalist” communities Dreher and others have in mind can avoid this.  I firmly believe their way of life will be too off putting to the vast majority of Westerners to attract much of a following any time in the near or distant future, unless major changes occur in Western society almost over night, changes of a cataclysmic nature.  I do not see this happening, and thus I am guessing that such communities will be distinct minorities going forward, and hence, dependent politically and socially for their survival on political alliances.

I imagine this means something like Dr. Joseph Shaw, the chairman of the Latin Mass Society in the UK, has suggested might be the future of the Church. I suspect something like Shaw’s idea that the Western Church will have to be organized around the Extraordinary Form of the liturgy (the old Latin Mass) will be true of traditionalist communities more generally.  It will take something very specific, very concrete for them to hold together, something that will mark them out as distinctive–that, and some sort of powerful political patron.  In this sense, I suppose, I agree with Rabbi Sacks:  the future for Christians in the West will look a lot more like the fate of Jews in, say, medieval Europe, when Christian bishops or kings sometimes acting as protectors.  For  these communities now, it means dealing with people like Trump. His belligerence, recklessness, megalomania and disregard for the rule of law are a danger to all, even if Hilary Clinton and her cultural allies were a more direct threat to traditional religious believers (which they are, and still remain).  But Trump has delivered thus far, so early on in his administration, to pro-lifers and religious voters.  As long as he needs their votes, he will probably continue to do so.  Otherwise, he is a loose cannon that cannot be trusted.  But as long as he can, he will fight for his clients, and religious believers should have no illusions about the dangers or the necessity of such alliances.  It is probably true that in the long run this type of politics will contribute to a more “authoritarian” bent to our politics, although perhaps one of the more “everyday authoritarian” variety that this essay astutely recognizes.  I am not suggesting that people should go all in and become ardent Caesarists, but they should recognize that the nature of the dangers and temptations they will face under this new dispensation are different from those of the republican era which is now past.  Among these dangers will be persecution, as these traditional communities will not be able to hide behind its patrons all the time.  At other times, it may be simply being forced to do things to retain the loyalty of their political protectors that they had rather not do.  But the greatest danger  of all is that they will succumb to the anger that has driven Trump’s rise–much of this anger is justified in my opinion, but all one has to do is consider the history of the far left (especially the cultural left) in the past fifty years to see how justifiable anger can shade ever so easily into an all consuming rage that makes no distinctions between true evils that cannot be tolerated and minor grievances.  Vigilance against these and other  will be the price of preserving those beliefs, and the belief that the ultimate stakes in life are not determined by history or some sort of material determinism, but by our eternal choice between life and death.  Perhaps sometime in the distant future, our communities may regain the independence that American republicanism provided it with. Perhaps not.  But for the time being they will have to adapt to a very new, and very daunting world.

Trump & the End of Republicanism Cont’d (again)

•January 16, 2017 • Leave a Comment


A Note on Language

In my second installment on the consequences of the election of Donald Trump for republicanism, I wrote of what it might mean for the religious landscape in the United States, and sketched ever so briefly and inadequately what I took to be the history behind the relationship between Christianity and republicanism hitherto.  In this blog, I want to discuss what his election might mean in concrete terms for Christianity in the U.S., as well as what might be done to shore up its institutional independence in the face of an increasingly hostile and uncomprehending society.

But I wanted to first explain why I use the terms that I do to discuss this whole issue.  Very frequently, conservative religious or cultural commentators will bemoan the rampant belief in the unfettered “autonomy” of the individual that modernity (or modern society, or modern something or other) have unleashed, and this idea is applied as an explanation of whatever said commentator finds objectionable in contemporary life.  Now, there are of course a great many things that are objectionable about contemporary life, but I doubt that “autonomy” has anything much to do with those things, or that the word itself is an adequate descriptor of such phenomenon.  I have a couple of reasons for this.  The first is that “autonomy” is a rather airy abstraction, and though abstract thought is a necessity for serious reflection, in this case the term conveys a sense of solidity and absoluteness that is not present in daily human experience.  For “autonomy,” as I take it, means something more than mere independence; it means quite literally what the original Greek suggests, that of being a law unto one’s self—self-governing, complete and total, without any hint of external influence.  Such a thing, of course, is a fantasy:  as I indicated in the first blog on the subject, our human nature is defined by our dependence, though even that has it limits as well.  I favor the independence/dependence binary because it conveys both the ineradicable nature of dependence in human life, but also its relative nature as a feature of human society.  Dependence should not be hated so excessively nor independence prized so highly as it often tends to be in our public life, and if possible, the way we talk about such things ought to reflect that.

I know such concerns may sound pedantic, which is why I feel obliged to explain my word choices.  In my experience, both as a teacher in an academic setting and merely as someone observing modern political discussions in the media, I would say that modern political/philosophical ideas tend to be more about talk than anything else.  Since you cannot eradicate dependence and inequality from human life, most moderns seem to want either to ignore it altogether or treat any obvious instance of it as an aberration that they can easily remedy with some sort social engineering, by a gradual historical evolution that they themselves will direct and of which they represent the vanguard.  Mostly, in practice, this means enforced rules about not mentioning social dependence or inferiority of any kind—or officially redefining it so that those who are don’t feel insulted about it.  This is the origins of “civility” in the 18th century and “political correctness” in the 20th—indeed, it is a rather logical consequence of the hyper-awareness of any sort of dependence that modern life produces.  Usually anything that attaches the word “modern” to itself these days I automatically assume to be a bullshit advertising gimmick, until I have good reason to think otherwise, for that very reason: “modernity” is a partisan metaphysical and philosophical point of view, and is just as questionable as any other; its votaries’ attempts to convince me otherwise almost always amount some sort of special pleading, designed to shield a sacrosanct element of “modernity” (whatever it may be) from the criticism they so boldly direct at the beliefs (usually religious) of others.  I hope that by using more accurate terms I can at least be open to such criticism, as I know my opinions here are eminently questionable, to say the very least.


Problems With the “Benedict Option”

Religious conservatives have been concerned with the decline of a religious sensibility in the West for at least the last fifty years, if not more; philosophers as irreligious but profound as Nietzsche and Heidegger have been lamenting it in very different ways for much longer.  But no one has been as solicitous for the future of Christian community as a journalist over the past ten years as has been Rod Dreher, the writer and blogger now currently wielding his pen for the site The American Conservative.  There, he has been documenting and attempting to raise the threats to religious believers of the conservative, traditional type, and in general inveighing against the dominant cultural elites that threaten them.  Dreher has written for the National Review and other more mainstream conservative publications, but has evolved toward farther and farther in the direction of “crunchy conservatism,” a phrase which served the title of one of his books, and which denotes an environmentally friendly, communitarian, small-is-beautiful sort of philosophy on society and politics.  Over the years, he has connected all sorts of threats that he believes are related and threaten the integrity of religious communities in the U.S.:  Islamic terrorism, mass immigration, the Sexual Revolution, transhumanist and aggressive secularism, to name a few.  For the past few years he has been thinking out loud about what he calls “the Benedict Option”:  the idea that, rather than seeking to uphold the larger polity in which they live, faithful, small “o” orthodox Christians should focus on living out their faith in small communities, where they can practice the virtues and hold onto their traditions in the face of the cultural solvents threatening them on every side. In a recent blog post on mass immigration entitle “Blindly Staggering to the Precipice,” Dreher sums up the situation thus:

My sense is that it is going to get much worse before it gets better, and that those who stand a better chance of surviving the dark age upon us without losing our children and our humanity are going to be those who respond by committing themselves to solidarity through strong forms of religious community that produce strong families. This is what I mean by the Benedict Option. It’s not religious escapism; it’s a general strategy for surviving and even thriving in chaotic and tumultuous times.

Critics have charged Dreher with being unnecessarily defeatist or, as the above paragraph indicates, with being escapist—of abandoning the world to its fate while religious believers huddle together and cultivate their gardens.  Most of these criticisms miss the mark; Dreher has been quite explicit that he does not mean everyone has to enter a monastery or become Amish (though his idea does sound a bit like Dostoevsky’s notion of the “monasticization” of society, put into the mouth of the Elder Zosima in The Brother’s Karamozov).  His idea is that Christian and other religious communities need to live in a consciously different way from the rest of American and Western civilization, in order to transmit their beliefs to future generations.  This is in some ways a truism, and Dreher has been at pains to make clear he is sketching a general outline for what these communities should do, and help to start the conversation about the necessarily difficult task of hammering out specific recommendations.  To that end, he has just sent the manuscript of a book to his publisher, which will be published before the year’s end.  I eagerly look forward to reading it.

Despite my general agreement with Dreher, I have two major issues with his “Benedict Option.”  One is that, in all his discussions of the topic, you never hear the word “power” mentioned once.  That is a problem.  I say this reluctantly, because I have listened to undergrads pen the most trite and silly things in their papers over the years, the essence of which can be summed up in that idiotic phrase, “it’s all about power.”  That is a peculiarly modern pathology, to think that all that matters in human life is power.  But this error is a response I think to an equally modern one:  that all human relationships can be arranged in terms of mutuality, equality, love, without any reference to power or authority at all—in short, to a sort of utopianism which, though it has antecedents, seems to be particularly strong in modern societies.  This side of eternity, all human relationships are marked by some sort of power dynamic, and anyone who wishes to think seriously about human community must come to terms with this. Dreher has talked at length about the need for authority, solidarity, tradition, customs, etc., but nothing of how power would be structured in “Benedict Option” communities.  Will these communities be patriarchal in nature?  Will they subordinate in a fairly restrictive manner the freedoms of individual members, for the sake of solidarity and community? Perhaps these are questions Dreher will address in his book, but I do recall reading anything of them in his blog on the subject.  But until he does, his idea will be susceptible to the charge of utopianism; there is, after all, and long and even venerable tradition of building utopian communities in American history, and the “Benedict Option” will probably amount to little more than “religious escapism” if Mr. Dreher cannot articulate how workable power structures might be constructed to sustain his “BenOp” communities.

There are of course historical examples might serve as guide for such communities.  The very name “Benedict Option” derives from a famous passage in Alasdair MacIntyre’s book After Virtue about the supposed analogy between the fall of ancient Rome and late modernity, and he is quite fond of monastic institutions (as am I).  One might also mention in this regard medieval Jewish communities, which have a long history of trying to sustain themselves amidst generally hostile societies.  (Interesting in this regard is the Erasmus Lecture given to the First Things crowd a few years ago by Lord Jonathan Sacks, a Rabbi from Britain who talked of what could be called a “Jeremiah Option” in contrast to a “Benedict Option.”)  But there is an even more apposite example from within American history itself:  the Church of Latter Day Saints.  Whatever one thinks of their theological beliefs, there can be no doubt about the organizational genius of Joseph Smith and the other founders of that body.  Scorned and persecuted for their beliefs wherever they went, Smith and Brigham Young founded a hierarchical and firmly patriarchal community which was able to not only sustain a community of thousands on the move from persecution, but to move it across thousands of miles into an arid wilderness, settle and then flourish there, all within a generation or so.  Small-o “orthodox” Christians might balk at looking to the Saints as a model, but if they are serious about preserving their traditions, they could find much worse to imitate.  My point is not that these historical examples represent ready made solutions without dangers or problems.  It is the fact they succeeded in transmitting their faith, their minority culture, in spite of internal and external struggles, fairly well.  Whatever the internal problems of communities run by rabbis, such as the Hasidim, or the Mormon church, with its entrench patriarchy, they have managed to keep their beliefs intact while keeping the wolves at bay.

And this has meant they had to deal with the governments and polities in which they lived more intimately than they would have liked.  This is the other sense in which Dreher’s project doesn’t deal with the realities of power:  his BenOp communities, in order to live the manner of life to which they have been called, will need political protectors.  Which is another way of saying, they can no longer count on being independent in the manner that perhaps we think they should be.  They will have to make hard choices in exchange for that protection, and some hard reflection will have to be done in order to do that without compromising the beliefs that they are meant to protect.

All of which leads me back to Trump, and the present moment.  The other major issue I have with Dreher’s idea is that it seems to rest too much upon the analogy of contemporary America with ancient Rome.  The differences between the late republican or late imperial eras of ancient Rome (both scenarios get thrown around a great deal, and both are wrong) and our situation that I think it is dangerous to proceed upon this analogy.  Which is why a clear appraisal of what is possible at the present moment is urgent.  And that means finding political protection from the legal, cultural and political forces that would dissolve those communities.  And that means dealing with Trump, and what his presidency might mean for the future of what is left of that Christian, republican tradition in this country.  As this post has gone on longer than I had planned, I will address this last topic with one final post.

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