May 17 2017

Christopher Landrum: the Pretend Priest

Part I: Confessions

I have a confession to make: I am no priest, but I receive confessions from others.

I hear confessions from Dale Dudley (a socially liberal, economically conservative radio talk show host in Austin who broadcasts over 30 hours a week on KLBJ fm and KLBJ am). I also daily read confessions from Rod Dreher (a socially conservative, economically liberal (?) writer from Baton Rouge who blogs at least 10 posts a week at The American Conservative).

Like me, they are Southern white men. Unlike me, Dudley is a victim of sexual abuse and religious shame who grew up in east Texas; Dreher is a victim of a bureaucratic resistance to the sexual abuse scandal of the late twentieth-century Catholic Church and grew up in southern Louisiana. But they talk/write about every anxiety/excitement/crisis/joy in their lives on a daily basis. They cannot help but confess.

Although, I recently pretended to be a priest at a Renaissance festival, I generally hate the fake. I don’t want to be an actual priest. I don’t want to be a monk. I want to drink the beer, not brew it as a friar might.

Name of heroes.

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Me pretending to be a priest/monk

It seems like there’s something sick about wanting to pretend to be a priest but not wanting to be an actual one. Perhaps it’s similar to Rod Dreher’s latest book The Benedict Option (2017) whereby he advocates establishing not “literal” Benedictine monasteries but analogic ones. Then what’s the difference between pretend and analogy when both actions strive to not be too literal? On this point, I feel perplexed.

Similarly, I take pretty pictures in cemeteries but I don’t pray for the dead. But also I don’t deny acknowledging the majority in the graveyard while remembering a few outliers who happen to catch my eye. Some ask only to be remembered, and not prayed for:

A unique specimen #cemetery #Dublin #catholic

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Read the Tale of Edward Duffy #Dublin #Ireland

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Part II: Citations

The nineteenth chapter of Oliver Goldsmith’s (1728–1774) Vicar of Wakefield (1766) is entitled: “The description of a person discontented with the present government, and apprehensive of the loss of our liberties,” and involves a butler pretending to be the master of the house who wants to argue with his guests about politics. This chapter has the wonderful phrase “apprehensions of my own absurdity,” which may aptly describe my anxieties about pretending to be a priest.

250 years after Goldsmith, George Costanza just wanted to pretend to be an architect:

Aristotle points out in the fourth chapter of the Poetics, humans are imitative creatures, but Oscar Wilde (1854–1900) (who is almost always right) says: “The first duty in life is to be as artificial as possible.  What the second duty is no one has as yet discovered.”

After readings some bits by Alasdair MacIntyre, I wonder: is such pretending part of the lost art and effectiveness of argument? Do we pretend because we can no longer argue with anyone about anything? Or perhaps we have lost only affirmative arguments; because negative arguments still hold strong. Modern moral philosophy, according to MacIntyre, defines itself for what it is not, not for anything it might be.[1]

Is my pretending to be a priest an example of seeking the sacred?––a search for some lost community as mentioned in Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age? Do I seek to understand the abstract concept of “community” because I feel like most tangible examples of it have been lost? Or is it something along the lines of what Baylor University’s Alan Jacobs wrote the other day about how part of being in a world that doesn’t feel human is to pretend to be human—and what is more human than being religious?

Anthropocene describes what we are doing to our environment, while posthuman is largely phenomenological, a condensed articulation of what it’s like to live in a world where we are constantly making and remaking ourselves, especially via biotechnology. And surely there is some truth in these points, but I want to suggest that the apparent disjunction obscures a deeper unity. A world in which we remake our environment and ourselves is a world that does not feel human to us. We do not know how to play the role of gods, and on some level perceive that to act as gods is to betray our nature.

NOTES

[1] MacIntyre Alasdair. “Why is the Search for the Foundations of Ethics So Frustrating?” The Hastings Center Report. Vol. 9. No. 4 (August 1978.) 16–22 at 17.


Aug 4 2015

An Epistle to Cousin Paul: or, How to Subvert Irreconcilable Differences

bookbread Canterbury

Hola, Primo:

Oft (how oft!) do I don my contrarian cap and criticize something only for the sake of criticism rather than as a way to pursue truth. Yet I recall your observation from July 18, 2015:

It’s really a shame how low things have gone in our country, with each side of whatever issue willing to demonize the other and vilify anyone with a difference of opinion. Our time in this world is short and winning an argument is pointless. I’m tired of all the anti-Obama AND the anti-Republican stuff out there. It’s hard being a teacher trying to teach kids to treat each other with respect when adults behave even worse.

Now even though I pursue the truth in my spare time, I cannot call myself a philosopher. I’m a student, and while actual philosophers and scientists have the advantage of peer review, students can only review their own self-understanding. Actual philosophers and scientists contribute to everyone’s understanding, but students can only contribute to their own. Students pursue truth but do not speak, write, present, or publicize anything about their pursuit. Students can, however, read (alone or aloud) texts and quotations from actual philosophers as well as take notes. So to be absolutely sincere, I must first admit that I’m really not writing to you, but only to me, and only for my own understanding.

 NEED FOR THE SCHEME

A philosopher might have the capability to organize their thoughts into a formal model, but since I am a student, an informal scheme should suffice. Being informal, I write in a casual manner in proposing a scheme to solve some disagreements between citizens of our country who are divided on particular political issues. I propose this scheme because “agreeing to disagree” does nothing to prevent the rash of resentment from spreading over the entire body politic.

But I also believe a scheme is needed simply because the sages (at least the male ones) point out over and over how it is so much easier to tear things down than rather to build them up. So often do folks make divisions, even when they know there are none:

To offer objections against a discourse which has been delivered is not difficult, but very easy; but to set up a better against it is a very laborious task.

––Plutarch[i]

And generally let this be a rule, that all partitions of knowledges be accepted rather for lines and veins than for sections and separations; and that the continuance and entireness of knowledge be preserved.

––Francis Bacon[ii]

The greater part of our success & comfort in life depends on distinguishing the similar from the same…. It is a dull and obtuse mind, that must divide in order to distinguish; but it is a still worse, that distinguishes in order to divide. In the former, we may contemplate the source of superstition and idolatry; in the latter, of schism, heresy, and a seditious and sectarian spirit.

––Samuel Taylor Coleridge[iii]

Be afraid to destroy the unity of people by stirring bad feelings amongst them against another with our words.

––Leo Tolstoy[iv]

Must you again divide the indivisible?

––Martin Buber[v]

Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.

––Albert Einstein[vi]

But because we must divide, to reduce the emphasis on any one traditional division must, in the long run, mean an increase of emphasis on some other division. And that is the subject I want to discuss. If we do not put the Great Divide between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, where should we put it? I ask this question with the full consciousness that, in the reality studied, there is no Great Divide.

––C. S. Lewis[vii]

CONTEXT OF THE SCHEME

My scheme requires four “givens” or assumptions, that is, the immediate context, or brute facts concerning political disagreements between groups of citizens. These four givens are:

1. Group A and Group B disagree to an irreconcilable degree (so much so that they cannot even “agree to disagree”).

2. A group is bound together by a “declared cause,” which is the idea that binds and makes its members part of the group. The declared cause is also the principle issue of disagreement between the two groups:

 By a faction, I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community….

So strong is this propensity of mankind to fall into mutual animosities, that where no substantial occasion presents itself, the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their unfriendly passions, and excite their most violent conflicts. (Madison, “Federalist 10”)

3. Because all causes, including declared causes, are derived from other causes, all causes can be deconstructed in terms of their prior causes. Hence there are no monolithic or indestructible causes. Nor is a group monolithic––not even in an age when human bodies can be cloned––for while a group is united around its declared cause, each member of that group has a distinct, individual perception of the declared cause. In other words, if a group was monolithic, it would cease to be a group of anything, and would only be one, indivisible thing. (Again from “Federalist 10”: “As long as the reason of man continues fallible, and he is at liberty to exercise it, different opinions will be formed.”)

For example, groups that advocate gun control and groups that advocate gun rights both have a declared cause of “guns.” But an analysis (or deconstruction) of the rhetoric of both sides reveals that whatever they’re arguing over has very little to do with actual armaments. The word “guns,” for all of these groups, really refers to the conflict of mental illness and its alleged relationship to crime as well as the question of its limitations and intrusions on privacy; the word “guns” for these groups means the lack or surplus of law enforcement in the immediate lives of the members of these groups; the word “guns” for these groups also means reading the Constitution literally, pragmatically, practically, critically, cynically, or skeptically.

4. The history of humanity shows that resentment from one group toward another group increases the resentment both groups have toward each other. No matter the origins, the aim of one group’s resentment toward another ends only in “mutually assured resentment.” Or as Baylor Professor Alan Jacobs has recently put it:

Both sides agree that morality is a matter of rules; but one side thinks that since rules require elaboration and enforcement, and other people are the ones elaborating and enforcing them, they would prefer what they see as the only alternative, a rule-rejecting, morally minimal commitment to freedom.[viii]

 STEPS OF THE SCHEME

My scheme proposes that the two groups might come to an agreement via a technique of subversion, or more specifically, a counterintuitive method of divide-and-conquer. Through this method all members of all groups can arrive at the goal of united disagreement. United disagreement then makes for a new foundation to build understanding upon.

So if the four givens are met, a four-step scheme is proposed:

1. One member from Group A subverts the opposition by “joining” Group B; and one member from Group B subverts its opposition by “joining” Group A. The subversion is driven by each group’s mutual will-to-grudge (the drive to resent the opposition). These subversives are called “undercover members.”

2. The undercover members of each group cannot be blatant in their subversion. Instead, each undercover member “preaches to the choir” or, in other words, promotes the declared cause of the subverted group so tirelessly as to induce ennui within that subverted group. Through rhetorical bombast, the undercover member invokes boredom in the minds of the actual members. Each undercover member should recall Tolstoy’s advice:

When you are in company, do not forget what you have found out when you were thinking in solitude; and when you are meditating in solitude, think about what you found out by communicating with other people.[ix]

A counter-intuitive subversive approach by undercover members fosters faction within the actual group, because boredom among members of the subverted group will eventually spur those actual members to deconstruct the declared cause of their group. In other words, if the undercover member holds up the whole, sooner or later other actual members of the group will pick it apart. Actual group members will start to “split hairs,” championing exclusivity among themselves. By then, the undercover member has successfully divided-and-conquered. For:

3. As both Groups A and B become more inwardly divided, soon enough no one within either group will agree on their particular declared cause, and the majority from both groups will begin to disagree within their own group as well as continue to clash with the group they originally opposed.

4. If no one from either group agrees on anything, then both groups are united in disagreement. An equilibrium of resentment will have been achieved.

 CONCLUSION

“What was the one thing?” asks Oedipus, for: “One may be the key / To everything, if we resolve to use it.” Perhaps counter-intuitive subversion is not the one thing. For Plato, at least according to Aristotle, the mind is the one thing, while knowledge (science) divides into infinite specializations. Neither knowledge nor science can ever be one thing, because they are collaborative group activities requiring peer review.[x]

Nearly 2000 years after Aristotle, James Madison saw property as the one thing:

From the protection of different and unequal faculties of acquiring property, the possession of different degrees and kinds of property immediately results; and from the influence of these on the sentiments and views of the respective proprietors, ensues a division of the society into different interests and parties. (“Federalist 10”)

This is probably why Ben Jonson pointed out, a century before Madison, that––no matter the faction, or the direct cause of the faction, or the strength of its resentment––the whole of humanity remains united in greed, which can be a synonym for property.[xi]

But Tolstoy taught a century after Madison:

 If you see that some aspect of your society is bad, and you want to improve it, there is only one way to do so: you have to improve people, you begin with only one thing: you can become better yourself.[xii]

I hope to read more and think more and write more––that I may one day improve my community.

Obscurely,

Cousin Christopher

wood-h

NOTES

[i] Plutarch, “On Listening to Lectures” Moralia. Vol. I. Translated by Frank Cole Babbitt. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP. 1927. § 6, p. 221.

[ii] Bacon, Francis. Advancement of Learning. 1605. Edited by William Aldis Wright. 1858. Fifth Edition. Oxford UP. 1957. II, ix, 1, p. 129.

[iii] Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. “Chapter XXII.” Biographia Literaria. 1817; “Introductory Aphorism XXVI.” Aids to Reflection. 1825.

[iv] Tolstoy, Leo. A Calendar of Wisdom. Translated by Peter Sekirin. NY: Scribner. 1997. January 5, p. 17.

[v] Buber, Martin. I and Thou. 1922. Translated by Walter Kaufmann. NY: Scribners. 1970. I § 10.

[vi] Einstein, Albert. “On the Method of Theoretical Physics.” The Herbert Spencer Lecture, delivered at Oxford (10 June 1933); also published in Philosophy of Science. Vol. 1, No. 2. (April 1934.) 163–69.

[vii] Lewis, Clive Staples. “De Descriptione Temporum.” [“A Survey of Time.”] Inaugural Lecture at Cambridge. 1954. So They Asked for a Paper. p. 11.

[viii] Jacobs, Alan. “Code Fetishists and Normolaters.” The American Conservative. July 29, 2015. (http://www.theamericanconservative.com/articles/code-fetishists-and-normolaters.)

[ix] Tolstoy, Calendar, March 28, p. 100.

[x] Sophocles. The Oedipus Tyrannus of Sophocles. Edited with introduction and notes by Sir Richard Jebb. Sir Richard Jebb. Cambridge: Cambridge UP. 1887. l. 120; Aristotle, De Anima. Translated by John Alexander Smith. Oxford: Clarendon. 1931. I, 2.

[xi] Jonson: “The great herd, the multitude, that in all other things are divided, in this alone conspire and agree—to love money.” (Timber: or Discoveries Made Upon Men and Matter. Edited by Felix E. Schelling. Boston: Ginn & Co. 1892. p. 47.)

[xii] Tolstoy, Calendar, March 17, p. 89.