A Breath of (needed) Fresh Air

After months of being wary of the air that I breathe, I inhaled a breath of fresh air yesterday.  The rejuvenating experience came in the form of Speaking Peace & Seeking Reconciliation in a Fractured Culture, an online conversation with David Bailey and Marilyn McEntyre, sponsored by The Trinity Forum and Coracle.  David Bailey (12:00 ff) quoted an African proverb that gives a needed perspective in these unsettled and unsettling times:

 When I saw them far away, I thought they were demons

When they got closer, I thought they were animals

When they got close, I saw they were human

When they got face-to-face, I realized they are my brother and sister

That proverb reminded me of something I had read in Roger Scruton’s On Human Nature. There, he wrote of “the kind to which we belong”:    

We are the kind of thing that relates to members of its kind through

interpersonal attitudes and through the self-predication of its own mental

states. . . . To understand your emotions I must understand how you

conceptualize the world.  I cannot simply describe your behavior as though it

were a response to the-world-as-science-would-describe-it.[1]

Scruton pointed out that Milton used Genesis to create an allegory that was not only “a portrait of our kind,” but also “an invitation to kindness.”  That portrait, said Scruton, shows us as humans what we are and what we must aspire to be.  When people are deprived of religion, philosophy, and the “higher aims of art,” however, Scruton saw dire consequences:

Human nature, once something to live up to, becomes something to live down to instead.  Biological reductionism nurtures this “living down,” which is why people so readily fall for it.  It makes cynicism respectable and degeneracy chic.  It abolishes our kind—and with it our kindness.[2]

Amidst the divisions evident in our culture in recent days, it seems timely to take the advice offered in yesterday’s online conversation by Marilyn McEntyre.  She talked about how poetry introduces truth in subversive and surprising ways; it plows up the ground or soil of our language.  She recommended that we spend time listening to others, and “call each other’s attention to the very words we are using.”  (14:54 ff)

This is advice worth heeding, and now is not too early to begin.

[1] Roger Scruton, “Human Kind,” in On Human Nature (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2017), p. 45.

[2] Scruton, pp. 48-49.

No Place for Reasoned Discussion?

Current events have provoked personal concern that we are losing our ability, willingness, and even desire to engage in respectful, rational debate about the critical issues of our day, especially when significant disagreement exists.  Anger, threats, and violence have replaced cool heads seeking common ground in the pursuit of truth.

Officials at UC Berkeley, considered the birthplace and bastion of the Free Speech Movement, canceled a speaking engagement by conservative pundit Ann Coulter, arranged by College Republicans and scheduled for April 27.  Citing security concerns, Chancellor Nicholas Dirks said police had “very specific intelligence regarding threats that could pose a grave danger” to Coulter should she show up to speak.  Perhaps there were genuine reasons to worry about Coulter’s safety.  After all, the same campus suffered more than $100,000 in property damage caused by protestors expressing their displeasure over the visit of controversial former Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos.   Of course, no one planned to force students, faculty, or guests to attend Coulter’s lecture, much less to agree with her.  Neither attendance nor agreement was required.  Even liberal comedian Bill Maher came to Coulter’s defense, likening the cancellation of her speech to “the liberals’ version of book burning.”

Even more disconcerting is the rise of an ideology that views “hate speech” as a kind of “violence” that deserves to be met with actual physical violence in the name of “self-defense.”  I’ll grant that there might be speech that actually qualifies as “hate speech.”  To what degree it should be silenced, when it falls short of making actual threats, is another matter and another discussion.  However, many people view “hate speech” as the expression of any viewpoint with which they disagree.  In the April 12 edition of the “Wellesley News” (Wellesley College), student editorialists ventured to make the case for using physical force to stifle free speech.  Offering an intellectual defense of a very narrow reading of the First Amendment, the authors argued: “The spirit of free speech is to protect the suppressed, not to protect a free-for-all where anything is acceptable, no matter how hateful and damaging.”  Yet, the “free-for-all” about which they express such vehemence may be nothing more than a reasoned viewpoint or an opinion on a critical issue with which they disagree.  It is as if someone (who the someone is always concerns me) has already been decided what viewpoint you must hold before you have a discussion about an issue.  To hold another viewpoint is in itself “hateful.”

I’m not exactly sure how we got to the point that actual physical violence in justified to protect people from exposure to words and arguments that they might possibly find objectionable or even wrong.  Words with which a person disagrees is “unjustified violence,” but actually breaking windows, torching buildings, and physically assaulting people is justifiable “self-defense” to save people from exposure to a viewpoint that has already been rejected before it is expressed or discussed.

In such a climate, I fear that reasoned, respectful debate will be less and less welcome.  Considering the important issues which warrant such debate, I am discouraged by the practice of silencing—by threat and actual violence—the voices that disagree.  To be honest, I am sometimes intimidated.  And that is frightening because it means raw power is winning out over respectful reason.



For Want of a Letter…

If one were seeking to transform our culture, he would aim for approving proclamations from officials to codify his desired belief system. The example that comes easily to mind is the President, which would then mean, of course, the Executive Branch of the federal government. Next, perhaps, would be the judicial system. Even more demonstrative of transformation would be the official policy of the US military, which lives or dies on whether it has a clear-eyed view of the world. Add to that the medical profession, which acts as a “Bureau of Standards” for the physical and psychological states of man. If the topic at hand is the redefining of gender identity, then today we have a fait accompli.

Recently, however, I witnessed a more striking albeit less public marker. At a recent conference I heard someone give a brief testimony of her daughter’s transition from female to male, and in describing her daughter, the speaker used the word, “he.”

What on earth, I thought, could make a mother speak so, a mother who carried the kicking fetus, sonographically identified as female, then birthed the child among witnesses who declared her identity, then nursed, clothed, fed, taught, loved, all with a knowledge of her identity so certain that to question it would have been too ludicrous to even come to mind?

The answer came shortly, as the speaker told of her daughter’s subsequent suicide attempt. The mother’s loss of her child–a story told countless times in print, on stage, and in film, is the greatest of tragedies. So tragic that a mother would give anything to prevent it–her own life, or her own concept of her child’s gender.

The suicidality itself is revealing, in that the rejection of self that finds its ultimate expression in suicide is preceded by the attempt to destroy one’s identity. But don’t wait for the medical profession to explain it. Gender reassignment is made increasingly with little more than a request, as a result of prompt referrals to those quite willing to facilitate the changes. It is a tragedy in itself that the profession abandons difficult inquiry in favor of declaring that the fault lies in organs that can simply be removed.

One writer who grasped the enormity of modern cultural transformation was Whittaker Chambers (1901-1961). Although the enemy he faced was Communism, make no mistake about it–Communism and this transformation of the meaning of gender are but two branches of the same philosophical vine. Chambers’ unique experience and talent made him powerfully insightful and articulate about the state of modern Western civilization. He quoted the German psychiatrist Karl Jaspers (1883-1969): “Quietly, something enormous has happened in the reality of Western man: a destruction of all authority, a radical disillusionment in an over-confident reason, and a dissolution of bonds that makes anything, absolutely anything, seem possible . . . ”

A mother drops a single letter in describing her child. It might as well have been an earthquake. Yet the significance will slip past us, we who are too busy trying to keep our frenzied lives together to recognize the fragmentation of the very cultural foundation upon which we stand. As Chambers said, “I am constantly baffled because so few seem to grasp the enormity of our situation, which is defined by the certainty that there is no way out of it that can possibly be simple, easy, familiar, usual, in terms of anything we have known before. ” Chambers saw us as, “a civilization foredoomed first of all by its reluctance to face the fact that the crisis exists or to face it with the force and clarity necessary to overcome it.” (Witness, p. 155. Regnery Publishing)

And why?

“It is the first century since life began when a decisive part of the most articulate section of mankind has not merely ceased to believe in God, but has deliberately rejected God. And it is the century in which this religious rejection has taken a specifically political form, so that the characteristic experience of the mind in this age is a political experience. At every point, religion and politics interlace, and must do so more acutely as the conflict between the two great camps of men— those who reject and those who worship God— becomes irrepressible. Those camps are not only outside, but also within nations.” (Witness, p. 386)

Man declares himself the Creator. Or perhaps the “Re-creator.” He exercises all political authority to achieve social conquest. But as this case reveals, the transformation of gender identity is far more than the simple exercise of personal liberty. It is the destruction of human identity itself. Small wonder that gender identity transformation too often precedes suicidality. Unless we make a stand, our civilization may be close behind.

Evil Invades the Postcard-Perfect

Again. Another smack in the face from violent evil. Many have spoken and written on the nightmare in New England last week. I don’t have great new insights, but I have a sense that the reaction with which I greeted the news (openly weeping in front of the television, which I have never done before) was not unique to me. Yes, another mass shooting that I daresay has become commonplace—half of the mass shootings in the entire history of the United States have occurred since 2007. But this was more visceral, the horror more pronounced because the victims were so utterly innocent and the setting so entirely “safe”—an elementary school in a postcard-perfect Connecticut town that once was the bucolic setting for a Spencer Tracey-Katherine Hepburn film.

The now-typical reactions were there, of course. Gun control or gun rights, how do we best handle mental illnesses, what do violent video games do to our minds, are our schools really safe enough? These are all good conversations to have, in due course. But I have a sense that America may be on the cusps of something more, deciding that something is definitely not right in our society. That is more painful than the eventual acceptance of the prior mass killings as the product of lone misfits and madmen, and, ultimately, more healthy. That this can happen—again—and this time in such horrific fashion begs the question, “What in the world is wrong with us?”

I have been reading slowly through the book of Jeremiah, in hopes of better processing what the prophet’s message meant, why he agonized so terribly, how to relate to this ancient people in a way that helps me in the world in which I raise my two ten-year olds and an eight-year old. I have often struggled to picture the sort of societal sinfulness that would drive Jeremiah to such spiritual depths and God to such fury; today I have an image. Replace the sacrifice of children in the Valley of Gehenna with gunshots in Connecticut (which John Podheretz does in Commentary Magazine, with some success—an article worth reading), and I now read Jeremiah with new eyes.

The people in Jeremiah’s day, shockingly, did not react to the sacrifice of children to pagan gods, just as many in Nazi Germany looked past the slaughter of the innocent centuries later. While I grieve for children whose last actions in this world were huddling in corners of classrooms virtually identical to the ones in which my children spend the majority of their days, I take some comfort. My society, troubled as it is, still attributes dignity to human life. We are not a people that may have a majority mourn the losses of millions of aborted fetuses or the commoditization of human embryos for scientific inquiry or (increasingly) fight for the protection of the elderly suffering dementia or other chronic illness, to be sure. But there is a strong spark of respect for human life that continues to offer us promise here. Let’s have a conversation about gun control (and indeed we will, and this time much will come from it, in my opinion), but let’s talk about what human life means, too. Our visceral reaction comes, in part, because of the violence done to 6-and 7-year old human beings created in the image of God. We still have some ability to say that something that is clearly evil is, indeed, evil. There is hope.

One other thing is possible, I think. Perhaps our culture’s passionate somersault into abject narcissism will be recognized. When we deal with “yet another” mass shooting, the media first look to a shooter’s Facebook page. The “anti-social” are not, it appears, to be ignored on social media (though, apparently uniquely in this case, the shooter left no record there). I have no beefs with Facebook myself (whatever that says of me); I can connect with friends from Texas to Tanzania using the blessing of technology. But it reflects on the fact that we have a desperate need to be recognized, acknowledged. Even our anger and disappointment with God must be expressed in infamous ways. If our “good” must be recognized, often ad nasueum in trivial postings, we must express our rage, too, in ways so public as to provide vindication for our existence and actions. While I am less optimistic that our culture at large will see narcissism as a cancer worth treating before we fall off several cliffs, only some of them fiscal, I have some confidence in one thing. This recognition may eventually offer enough dissatisfaction to convince this culture, one that can still be driven to tears by the evil visited on the postcard-perfect, that we need something beyond ourselves to answer the existential questions of “why are we here?” My pastor, a gentle and wise man, yesterday did not criticize the decisions of the mourning in Connecticut to pull down their Christmas decorations after the murder of the innocents. He did, though, implore the mourners to embrace the message of rescue from evil that Christmas represents, this promise that we may often best hear within the deafening silence of our grief.

May God truly bless those who mourn this day, and in this difficult season. Jesus, You alone can rescue.