Bill and I continue our discussion about parish life and communication. We discuss using the tools of sociology (and just awareness of the broader culture) to understand what is going on in parishes without getting carried away and forgetting that Christianity was always meant to change us (avoiding the Andrew Greeley mistake). We talk a bit about where podcasters like us fit into the ecosystem, or the Kingdom of God for that matter, and in that context I mention the great Catholic Feminist podcast. In the end we return to the question of what we should do as parishoners at the bottom of the ladder of subsidiarity...the only spot where we can truly make a difference.
In this episode, Bill and Paul discuss the role of deacons and others filling the role of "elder" in the Catholic Church, and the need for parishes to work hard at learning how to communicate with each other in this new technologically mediated cultural world. Bill mentions new work by the McGrath Institute to help parishes with this task.
Photo: a deacon wearing a dalmatic, from Test Everything.
Apologies for the sound quality today; Zencastr wasn’t working, so we recorded on Zoom, and even then there were problems with the audio especially in the latter half of the podcast.
The question we take up at the beginning of the Easter season is this: Why has Western society gone to such pains to throw away the best thing going, intellectually and otherwise?
In his ongoing podcast research, Paul has come across the Pat Flynn Show, and listened to some really good interviews with Fr. Robert Spitzer (a TSSM interviewee) and Ed Feser (whose talk at the 2018 Society of Catholic Scientists conference was the topic of one of our most popular episodes). Bob Spitzer’s interviews in particular were some of the most inspiring things I’ve encountered recently and really led me to propose this series of conversations with Bill about how Catholic Christianity is the best way of looking at the world.
Of course, Western society has drifted hard away from its roots in classical Greek and Jewish/Christian heritage. Ireland is the most recent example of a society, one of the last to retain a semi-traditional cozy relationship between the Church and the state, now deciding to punish the Church for the crimes of the hypocritical members of its clergy by trying to erase its very history. Progressivism in general replaces traditional dogmas with dogmas-of-the-day, and the record up to this point has been pretty dismal.
We spend some time discussing the roots of what the contemporary West seems to consider its greatest achievement, modern science, in the critical tradition of Scholasticism (knowledge of which was practically the first thing to go after the Reformation began the process of intellectually punishing the Church). We would do better to have a broader memory of the Scholastic tradition even among us Catholics...to recall that it was a movement in which Thomas Aquinas was embedded, rather than remembering only him. In our time as well we don’t need single hero figures, we need a community. The scientific community knows this very well.
We go on to consider what this fraught term “dogma” really means. The Christian dogmas are really testimony, and they can’t change without repudiating the unrepeatable testimony of the events of salvation history. This is the context of the warnings at the end of the Apocalypse of John, “cursed be he who adds or takes away from the words of this book.” As Chesterton and many others have pointed out, these dogmas are not a straightjacket but a foundation and structural members that allow us to build both intellectual structures and actual human lives that don’t sink into the morass of changing human inventions. Admittedly there are many Christians, Catholics included, who seem to take comfort in the false idea that the Bible, or Tradition, provides us all the answers we could possibly want to know and there is no need or use in further growth. That is not the teaching of Jesus when he commented that the Spirit would [future] lead us to all truth.
The high Middle Ages confronted the question of harmonizing Aristotle with Jesus Christ. This was both a creative and a logical process that led to great works of criticism and synthesis… excellent practice for the scientific process as we now know it.
A reminder that the Society of Catholic Scientists Conference is approaching June 7-9. Registration is open through May 15.
Two weeks ago I went with some friends to Kansas City. I drove through Kansas City once in I-70 in 2016, but I had never stopped before. Turns out it's a wonderful place, and I really want to haul my brother and his family there sometime to catch a game at Kauffman Stadium, with all the attractions directed toward children, and eat a lot of barbeque and drink some Boulevard beer.
We went to the jazz museum and the Negro Leagues museum, as well as the World War I museum. When we asked why it was in Kansas City of all places, the answer was that no one else had one, so they figured why not. Given Kansas City's location, an enormous number of soldiers passed through by rail on their way to and coming back from Europe, an enormous fraction of the total number from the West, so there's at least that much connection. In any case Kansas City dedicated a prominent hilltop to this museum. It has an enormous pillar that you can ride up to get the most elevated view of the city (aside from aircraft).
With Darcia Narvaez' words about egalitarianism in my mind, I reflected (as I have often done in the past) on the absolute madness of World War I. Understanding how it started seems easy to me, but I cannot imagine how the war continued through the end of 1915, let alone ground on for three additional years. The question of why the leaders of the countries involved kept ordering their men to fight I set aside for today; the question I am interested in is why the common soldiers and civilians did not revolt years earlier than they did. What gave them such durable loyalty to the aristocratic and oligarchic governments that sent them to such fruitless slaughter?
Based on what I know of ancient and medieval Europe, I find the men of World War I far more ready to acquiesce to authority than their forebears. Can you really read the history of the Hundred Years' War, the Wars of the Roses, or the whole sorry tale of the Holy Roman Empire and its "rights of private warfare" and imagine that those states could ever have forced their subjects to such extremes? How long would any army of Crusaders have stayed in those trenches, with nothing better than the War Ministry's authority to compel them?
There are far too many reasons to discuss in a blog post, but I want to bring up one axis before I close. The states of Europe of the early 20th century were fired by nationalism, tribalism writ large. I have heard that although many, many aspects of human culture are mutable, one unshakable aspect of sociology is our tendency to identify in-groups and out-groups, to designate some human beings as our enemies and in essence to deny them humanity. Europe of the Middle Ages had their national identifications, but their local identity was in many cases stronger and more important, and they also had the overarching sense of brotherhood in a common faith, family, and indeed in the most visceral Christian image, they had an awareness of themselves as one body in Jesus of Nazareth. They betrayed this understanding regularly, but they balked at the kind of slaughter that makes World War I stand out as a satanic spectacle in the history of our species.
Episode 056 - Darcia Narvaez on the (other) tragedy of the commons and moral/economic disengagement in civilized society
Today we present the second half of the interview with Darcia Narvaez, social scientist at Notre Dame and a specialist in childhood inculturation, attachment, and bonding issues.
We start out this half of the interview with a discussion of what Karl Polyani called the "great transformation" of European society, involving the breakdown of the pre-modern order and its safeguards for a stable population by means of understandings about community use of land, perhaps resulting in the popularity of emigration to the New World by dispirited, dispossessed, and to some extent dangerous people.
Several times Darcia disparages "hierarchy," understood in its general sense of social stratification, which she or other who have influenced her theorize to have caused huge social catastrophes, including the corruption of the Christian Church by its integration into the late Roman state and the collapse of populations and cultures in the New World on contact with the colonizers from Europe. Late in the podcast I ask her explicitly whether there is any benefit to civilization... let us know in the comments on Facebook or Podbean what you think about the answer!
Darcia's claim is that humans are by nature more egalitarian than other animals. This goes right down to childrearing, where human children, born so completely needy, have an innate expectation that their requests for assistance will be met. She comments that there is a Native American word, "wetiko," that was used to describe an attitude thought of as akin to a sickness that characterized those who acted in an aggressive and exploitative way toward others. Whether or not premodern peoples were all more free of this, it's certainly a common feature of civilized peoples. The Old and New Testaments certainly testify to this, and the need to confront it with compassion and an egalitarian attitude. We discussed the specific example of the disease of the large organization, society, business, or government, in which those at the top are simply disconnected, both intellectually and morally, from those at the bottom.
We mentioned subsidiarity, and might have mentioned clericalism... the social science of these concepts will hopefully be fodder for future podcasts.
Find Darcia's writings and resources across the internet:
Topics we discussed in this podcast:
The human need for socialization from the very beginning, and ways that goes awry in contemporary society.
Things we can do to learn some of these lessons later in life:
- Self-calming via breathing, meditation, prayer. (Does our contemporary culture of outrage stem from a lack of the ability to calm ourselves that we are meant to learn starting in infancy?)
- Build a social network. We were meant to have interaction with an extended family that spans all age ranges for proper socialization. It's not too late to play with children, talk to the elderly, interact with people at other stages of life.
- Learn new languages and interact with people in different cultures. What are their reasons for doing the things that they do?
- Spend time with nature.
- Practice going outside yourself, defusing rigid thinking and attachment to "it has to be done this way." Intelligence is a measure of flexibility as much as anything.
Bill asked about social media and our tendency to seek out those who already agree with us. Darcia noted that we need guidance on how to socialize. Up through age 30 or so, it's natural for human beings to get that kind of guidance from others. Unfortunately we get that guidance through TV and video games now.
As usual, this was the first half of our interview. More discussion and more questions than we could possibly answer next time!
0:00 - The question of relativism vs. hyperrationalism
1:00 - God's love is not a "fact" but, say, hominid ancestry is
1:30 - Tapping into the belief in the rationality of science to bring back belief in reality in faith
2:30 - "Kicking in the back door of relativism"
4:00 - Linkages between theology, philosophy, and science: e.g. logical consistency
5:30 - Effects on the rest of schools that participate in the Science & Religion Initiative
6:30 - Encouragment to integrate, say, history, economics with faith as well
7:00 - Congregation for Sacred Doctrine 1977 "The Catholic School"
8:00 - Faith & literature, arts
9:30 - The true limits of dogma; need to understand how limited Catholic dogma really is, and how non-restrictive
13:00 - Teachers woefully overworked and underpaid, not given the ability to succeed
14:30 - Blessed to have excellent but also humble panelists & experts intending to listen to one another
19:00 - Story of the second & first editions of Baglow's textbook
A return to the idea of frequency dovetails with the influence of the images and other sensory inputs we allow into our minds that Patricia Bellm spoke about yesterday. It also converges with the topic of the NPR Invisibilia podcast episode Post, Shoot from earlier this month.
In that episode, the interviewer spoke with African-Americans, mostly high school age, in Wilmington, Delaware. It examined the situations created by their heavy use of social media, playing around with the imagery of gangster culture and engaging in diss wars with each other that remain confined to their social platforms... except when they don't, and someone gets shot.
I'm aware I am barred from speaking about anything going on in African-American culture beyond the barest facts. So I won't. I don't need to, in any case. I can cruise the streets of Milroy, Indiana, a rural community about as white as white can be, and see my young fellow German-Americans and Euromutts dressing themselves as if to try to fit into that style or listening to that music.
Patricia, how did she put it: "If you eat doughnuts, you will look like a doughnut. If you consume violent video games, you will become a violent person." The cautious scientist in me has to note that of course it's not that simple. Human beings are maddeningly complicated to evaluate and manage from the outside. [Reasonably apropos, and too good a quote to pass up: "Communism would be a wonderful system if only there were no people, and communism would be wonderful in Poland in particular if only there were no Poles."] We have a lot of influences, and no one cultural stimulus is going to dominate the outputs of our behavior except for a small minority of people.
Very few of the white kids watching the video for Trap Queen on YouTube are going to go out and cook up some crack or join a gang so as to have a rival gang with members to shoot. Does that mean that it doesn't have any influence? That would be more of that all-or-nothing thinking that helped our foremothers survive in life or death situations, but didn't help all that much in creating the philosophy or science that have allowed us not to be in life or death situations nearly so often. Of course it has some influence, and of course to tell exactly what nature and how much we are stuck with the uncertain means of statistical social science or the cumbersome ones of brain scanning, but we can look at ourselves and those closest to us and get some sense of the situation.
It should be too obvious to need stating, but once we are in the presence of a song or a movie or decide to start reading a book, we can't consciously choose what elements will influence us and leave the others behind. I'm kind of upset at American culture for feeding me enough stimuli, with no conscious cooperation on the part of myself, my parents, or my teachers, to imbibe the whole gospel (malispel?) of the sexual revolution and have it as an unwelcome part of my mental furnishings. I can't entirely shake the sense that burdened me so heavily as a teenager that if only I was doing what everyone else was supposedly doing (getting laid), I would be happy and my life would be worth living. It takes effort to keep it at bay, and used to take enormous effort that crippled me as far as the work of growing up and finding my vocation was concerned. I watch my diet of AC/DC or Crazy Town (remember th... no, of course not, never mind) or country music in general, because it's just not worth it making things harder on myself.
This all also comes back to the question I posed myself about knowingly filling my mind with fiction. If you're watching Scarface snort cocaine and shoot people, you're distancing yourself from reality. (I sure hope. There is help if part of that is your reality.) Add up enough distance, and it starts to make sense to call it dissociation.
How does this relate to "frequency"? I'm going to go out on a limb here with my modest familiarity with the term "frequency" and my considerable experience with dissociation and say:
Theorem. If surrounding oneself with reminders and expectations of good things and affirming the good that has been placed within you is vibrating at a high frequency, while surrounding oneself with mediocrity and telling yourself you're a fraud and barely getting by is vibrating at a low frequency, then losing oneself in fantasy and living apart from reality is not to be vibrating at all... zero frequency.
Just like absolute zero, no living person is all the way down at zero frequency, but some of us are only at a few millikelvin.
The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries saw a massive change in economics and intellectual culture, centered on Europe, but rapidly affecting the entire world.
A significant part of that massive change was the fact that it was centered on Europe, a point that I thought was well made by Donald Herreld in his Great Courses lectures on economic history. At no time in prior world history had Europe come to stand in such a position of dominance. By the end of the period, the European states--fractured and warring states, in no way unified in their goals--were unquestionably the military and scientific rulers of the planet. It had never been that way before. In prior centuries, India, China, the Muslim states, or pre-Muslim Persia and Egypt had been peers or obvious superiors to any European state, even unified Rome.
The effects of this on Christian thought should not be understated. In the early centuries, Christian thinkers were continuously occupied with apologetics, the laying out of arguments for the intellectual credibility of Christianity as opposed to the other philosophical traditions at large in the Mediterranean and wider world. Even after Constantine, pagan thought gave ground only slowly. Persian thought remained non-Christian, and Persia remained a political and intellectual rival to Rome, all the way up to the Muslim explosion of the seventh century.
In the medieval era, Christians were in constant tension with Muslims, intellectually as well as politically and in the most basic tenets of faith in God. Thomas Aquinas was hardly alone in dedicating considerable time to his Contra Gentiles, a set of arguments for an intellectual outlook fully consistent with orthodox, catholic Christianity as opposed to the intellectual traditions forged from ancient philosophy within the culture of the early centuries of Islam.
Yet by the thirteenth century, things were already changing. The Crusades marked the beginning of the military counterattack by Christendom against Muslim states, as uneven as that would be. Although the Turks remained dangerous foes into the seventeenth century, and came close in the sixteenth to wreaking tremendous havoc in the Mediterranean, they were no longer serious intellectual rivals of Italians, Spaniards, and Northern Europeans.
Precisely because there were no longer perceived to be serious intellectual rivals to European, Christian thinkers, I would propose that various ridiculous ideas reached the height of fashionability, and have left distorted schools of Christian thought in their wake down to the present. They did not start in the sixteenth or even fifteenth century, nor did they completely rule the scene even in that period, but they flourished and bore the largest share of their bad fruit then. I mean ideas like:
- The Christian scriptures are to be taken as literally [read: simplistically] as possible.
- God's will is entirely "sovereign" [read: arbitrary] and people are chosen for salvation or damnation essentially at random.
- Human beings are entirely corrupt and hateful...
- ...except for a very few people who actually respond to God's grace, or
- ...entirely, and "salvation" is just a matter of God choosing to ignore this fact for certain people.
- In any case, everyone outside the Christian Church is definitely a moral zero.
- God is basically interested in the public statement of adherence to some doctrine of salvation through Jesus of Nazareth and not in human beings choosing to do good for one another.
I am certainly a Roman Catholic, and I look with horror back at many of the doctrines of the first Protestants, but it is most assuredly true that many Catholics at the time followed them or even led them down these very paths. I think that other Catholics felt driven to express themselves in similar language or else risk losing their audience.
In the centuries since, members of these same Christian societies began to be so scandalized by these ideas that they rebelled against Christianity--really, the distorted version of it where these ideas are so prominent, but in their minds, that was all Christianity was.
The Post Christian meditations address the larger question, "Why do people believe science and the Catholic, Christian faith are mutually contradictory?" by considering the background reasons why people in the modern West desire to punish the faith of their ancestors and deny it credibility, apart from any cogent reasons to reject its actual dogmas and teachings.