Rochelle Gurstein on the loss of “principled debate about the quality and character of our common world”
“'The activity of taste,’ Hannah Arendt once observed, ‘decides how this world, independent of its utility and our vital interests in it, is to look and sound, what men will see and what they will hear in it.’ In our own time, however, taste has no public resonance at all; rather, it has been drastically reduced to mean little more than individual whim or consumer preference. In consequence, judgments about which things should appear in public, speculation about the common good, as well as deliberation about moral and aesthetic matters, have increasingly been relegated to the obscurity of the private realm, leaving everyone to his or her own devices. And in the absence of considered debate about the meaning of democracy, freedom, equality, and justice, or about the good, the beautiful, and the true, the public sphere has degenerated into a stage for sensational displays of matters that people formerly would have considered unfit for public appearance.
“It has become a cliché to notice that our common world is flooded with lurid descriptions, representations, and images of sex and violence. And it is not just the old culprits — movies, television, radio, journalism, best-sellers, advertising, rock and roll, and, more recently, rap music — that shamelessly exploit these subjects. Sex in its most obscene form — pornography — now appears in the most unlikely public places: not only is it an unregulated, multibillion-dollar industry, it has also become a litmus test of the First Amendment, a badge of sexual liberation, a tried-and-true strategy of ‘advanced’ artists, a divisive feminist issue, and the subject of serious academic study.
“The other remarkable quality of our common domain is its sheer triviality: we are persistently bombarded by reports of people’s most intimate affairs by way of celebrity gossip and human-interest stories, confessional talkshows and soul-baring interviews, and by omnipresent television series and movies that treat the most banal incidents of ordinary life with the utmost gravity. Our public sphere, which should have displayed and preserved the grandeur and beauty of our civic ideals and moral excellences, is instead inane and vacuous when it is not utterly mean, ugly, or indecent.
“To render this judgment, so plain to common sense, is to invite the inevitable charge of elitism. For, in contemporary America, to judge at all is to be ‘judgmental.’ To hold out the hope that commercial entertainment might occasionally rise above a puerile, sniggering adolescent level, for instance, is evidence of snobbery or, worse yet, of attempting to inculcate middle-class or ‘highbrow’ values in others. Critics are scolded time after time: ‘No one is forcing you to consume popular culture, but don't interfere with others who have a right to do as they please and are entitled to their tastes.’ It is a sign of our time that this ready-made plea for freedom of choice, and the dismissal of standards as a form of cultural imperialism, is automatically offered not only on behalf of commercial entertainment but also for obscene art and pornography; and it is offered with equal gusto by Hollywood, Broadway, and Madison Avenue as well as by postmodern academics, liberal arts administrators, ‘advanced’ artists, record companies, and First Amendment lawyers. . . .
“[T]o raise objections to so-called free expression — no matter how graphically violent, sexually explicit, perverse, or morbid — is to invite the epithet ‘puritan.’ On the one hand, objections to the moral content of flagrantly obscene images are interpreted as a lack of aesthetic sophistication; on the other, they are treated as a squeamish refusal to confront reality in all its variety and intractability. In the logic that rules this argument, the next move is inevitable: to question the value of the work of any self-proclaimed artist is to endorse censorship, and censorship is the first step toward fascism. . . . ”
“With the powerful weapons of rights-talk and personal ridicule at the command of all forward-looking people today, anyone who tries to criticize anything that can be formulated as a free-speech issue — and free speech has been so overextended that it now encompasses not only pornography but cross-burning — is forced to acquit himself or herself of these charges in advance. This is impossible, of course, since to be critical of these liberal pieties is to be a self-confessed traitor to the liberal cause. All this results in the interminable quality and fruitlessness of our most important controversies over our public life. If we are ever to move beyond these stalemates, we shall need to pose a more fundamental question: How and why have puritan-baiting, which focuses narrowly on a person’s alleged sexual liberation or aesthetic sophistication, and rights talk, which makes the individual right to free expression the only issue, displaced principled debate about the quality and character of our common world?
“[W]e no longer understand debates about the things that occupy our common space as matters of taste and judgment susceptible to public deliberation and speculation. Instead, when they are not simply banished to the private sphere of ‘lifestyle’ choice, they are formulated as legal disputes, in which courts balance and weigh the relative rights and interests of the individual against those of society. This resort to the law has made it impossible to address many vital issues that fall outside its narrow precincts, and thus urgent differences over political, moral, and aesthetic matters are all but impossible to articulate. . . . The faculties of taste and judgment — along with the sense of the sacred and the shameful — have become utterly vacant; yet, without them, it is now clear that disputes about the character of our common world can only be trivial, if not altogether meaningless.”
— from The Repeal of Reticence: A History of America’s Cultural and Legal Struggles over Free Speech, Obscenity, Sexual Liberation, and Modern Art (Hill & Wang, 1996)
Agnes Repplier recalls the knowledge that mattered most in her childhood
Agnes Repplier (1855–1950) was (in historian John Lukacs’s words) the “Jane Austen of the essay.” In his judgment, “not only the quality but the quantity of her knowledge was, and remains, stunning.” Though she was a life-long resident of Philadelphia, many of her essays (which numbered about 400) were published in Boston’s Atlantic Monthly, and later collected in anthologies. The 1916 volume Counter-Currents included an essay titled “The Repeal of Reticence,” in which she criticized the craze for “scientific” sex education for children. This essay lent its title to a 1996 book by cultural historian Rochelle Gurstein, who was interviewed on Volume 24 of the MARS HILL Tapes. Below are some excerpts from Miss Repplier’s essay.
“Knowledge is the cry. Crude, undigested knowledge, without limit and without reserve. Give it to boys, give it to girls, give it to children. No other force is taken into account by the visionaries who — in defiance, or in ignorance, of history — believe that evil understood is evil conquered. . . .
“Dr. Edward L. Keyes advocates the teaching of sex-hygiene to children, because he thinks it is of the kind of information that children are eagerly seeking. ‘What is this topic,’ he asks, ‘that all these little ones are questioning over, mulling over, fidgeting over, imagining over, worrying over ? Ask your own memories.’
“I do ask my memory in vain for the answer Dr. Keyes anticipates. A child’s life is so full, and everything that enters it seems of supreme importance. I fidgeted over my hair, which would not curl. I worried over my examples, which never came out right. I mulled (though unacquainted with the word) over every piece of sewing put into my incapable fingers, which could not be trained to hold a needle. I imagined I was stolen by brigands, and became — by virtue of beauty and intelligence — spouse of a patriotic outlaw in a frontierless land. I asked artless questions which brought me into discredit with my teachers, as, for example, who ‘massacred’ St. Bartholomew. But vital facts, the great laws of propagation, were matters of but casual concern, crowded out of my life, and out of my companions’ lives (in a convent boarding-school) by the more stirring happenings of every day. How could we fidget over obstetrics when we were learning to skate, and our very dreams were a medley of ice and bumps? How could we worry over ‘natural laws’ in the face of a tyrannical interdict which lessened our chances of breaking our necks by forbidding us to coast down a hill covered with trees? The children to be pitied, the children whose minds become infected with unwholesome curiosity, are those who lack cheerful recreation, religious teaching, and the fine corrective of work. A playground swimming-pool will do more to keep them mentally and morally sound than scores of lectures upon sex-hygiene.
“The point of view of the older generation was not altogether the futile thing it seems to the progressive of to-day. It assumed that children brought up in honour and goodness, children disciplined into some measure of self-restraint, and taught very plainly the difference between right and wrong in matters childish and seasonable, were in no supreme danger from the gradual and somewhat haphazard expansion of knowledge. It unconsciously reversed the adage, ‘Forewarned, forearmed,’ into ‘Forearmed, forewarned’; paying more heed to the arming than to the warning. . . .
“If knowledge alone could save us from sin, the salvation of the world would be easy work. If by demonstrating the injuriousness of evil, we could insure the acceptance of good, a little logic would redeem mankind. But the laying of the foundation of law and order in the mind, the building up of character which will be strong enough to reject both folly and vice, this is no facile task. The justifiable reliance placed by our fathers upon religion and discipline has given place to a reliance upon understanding. It is assumed that youth will abstain from wrong-doing, if only the physical consequences of wrong-doing are made sufficiently clear. There are those who believe that a regard for future generations is a powerful deterrent from immorality, that boys and girls can be so interested in the quality of the baby to be born in 1990 that they will master their wayward impulses for its sake. What does not seem to occur to us is that this deep sense of obligation to ourselves and to our fellow creatures is the fruit of self-control. A course of lectures will not instil self-control into the human heart. It is born of childish virtues acquired in childhood, youthful virtues acquired in youth, and a wholesome preoccupation with the activities of life which gives young people something to think about besides the sexual relations which are pressed so relentlessly upon their attention.
“The is world is wide, and a great deal is happening in it. I do not plead for ignorance, but for the gradual and harmonious broadening of the field of knowledge, and for a more careful consideration of ways and means. There are subjects which may be taught in class, and subjects which commend themselves to individual teaching. There are topics which admit of plein-air handling, and topics which civilized man, as apart from his artless brother of the jungles, has veiled with reticence. There are truths which may be, and should be, privately imparted by a father, a mother, a family doctor, or an experienced teacher; but which young people cannot advantageously acquire from the platform, the stage, the moving-picture gallery, the novel, or the ubiquitous monthly magazine.”
Oliver O’Donovan on the sovereignty of love
Oliver O’Donovan’s Entering into Rest (Eerdmans, 2017) is the third in a series of books on “Ethics as Theology.” In these books, O’Donovan explores the ways in which the practice of moral reason — if examined closely — reveals that “Ethics opens up towards theology.” In the initial chapter in this final volume, “The Sovereignty of Love,” O’Donovan remarks that in the “thirteenth chapter of his First Letter to the Corinthians, Paul takes a triad of virtues that was familiar to him and his readers in the form of ‘faith, love, and hope’ and rearranges it: ‘now there remain faith, hope, and love, these three.’ And as though to draw attention to what is done, he adds: ‘The greatest of them is love.’ What did he mean by doing this?”
O’Donovan argues that “when love is taken from its median position and relocated at the summit of the triad, it is a statement about the finality of community. But it is also a statement about the end of time, for love is now placed at the far side of hope, the virtue that ‘anchors’ the endurance of time in a future of promise. An Ethics that had never heard tell of such a future could only end tentatively, in an uncertain hope of endurance for any further goal there may or may not be. Hope acquires its assurance with the word, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God has drawn near’ (Mark 1:15). Yet though anchored to this promise, hope cannot draw the Kingdom near enough to be talked of and experienced, for hope lives only in the dark. An Ethics that concluded in hope would be apophatic, gesturing towards a goal of which it could not speak. The same evangelical logic that brings assurance to hope, then, also implies that hope cannot pronounce the last word in Ethics. The Gospel confirms, but also reorders, practical reason. The Kingdom’s drawing-near offers agency a provisional view of the final point of rest. Failure to reach that point would leave Ethics, with however great an emphasis on hope, a backslider from evangelical joy.
“The drawing-near of the Kingdom is a reality that has first to be announced. It is not merely teleological, projected forward by the logic of moral experience, but eschatological. Ethics must be told of it, and then learn to refer to it in terms of moral reason. But the moral reference is possible only if the Kingdom, which lies beyond the goods of world and time, can somehow be represented within the goods of world and time. How may that be? Paul’s answer to this question, achieved through his shift of focus, is to bring back a second time and a new way, what ethics has already known: love.
“Love’s métier is a world of meaning and goodness. Love is focused on an object, finding its rest in an objective world, not simply in its own exercise. God could have responded to the moral loss of mankind by making new worlds of which mankind was not part; instead, he has restored the world of which we are part, making it hospitable to our purposive action. The logic of Paul’s inverted triad, then, is the logic of salvation and eschatology: no eschaton could be a Kingdom of God for us, if it were not also a redemption and recovery of the created work of God that we are. As we are offered love as the climactic moment in our moral thinking, concluding, ordering, and making sense of what has gone before, we know it as familiar, and yet we have never encountered it before like this. To discover the sovereignty of love is to discover created good given as a foretaste of the kingdom of God, as the future appearing in its present familiarity, the past reappearing with a new message of what God will do.
“Love’s sovereignty is discovered beyond hope by an agent who has accomplished deliberate and purposive action and can include that experience in the good he or she is now given to love. That is to say, it is a reflective love, not simply an enjoyment. The good on which love feeds is the good of what God has done for and through love itself. . . .
“What, then, has Paul achieved by his inversion of the triad, faith, love, and hope? He has indicated, first, an eschatological extension of practical reason, an extension implied by the drawing near of the Kingdom of God. To conceive of an end of action is no novelty; that idea is native to practical reason, and even the idea of a final end is not entirely alien to it. But the end is where natural practical reason finds itself exposed and unsure of its ground, in need of a disclosure to bring to light what it is groping after. In that disclosure is given back what natural practical reason ‘had’ in its abstract ideality, and conferred what it ‘could not have’ apart from promise. The destiny of practical existence is governed by the logic of the resurrection: restoring the world, and opening up a world made new.
“Second, implied in this eschatological extension is an ecclesiological orientation of practical reason. Nineteenth-century moralists, torn between the direction set by Kant and the direction set by Hegel, sometimes assumed that what was new about Christian moral reason was its emphasis on the individual, the ‘personality,’ and that the orientation to community was the hallmark of antique pagan ethics. Behind this assumption lay Aristotle’s conception of the polis as the context where human action is satisfied, a conception vigorously reinstated by Hegel. This opposition overlooked the essential difference between the polis and the church. Augustine knew that the overcoming of pagan ethics involved a movement in precisely the opposite direction. Christian moral reason differed from antique moral reason in understanding community not as the context for practical satisfaction, but as the essential content of it. It achieved its overcoming of the polis, in other words, not by elevating the individual subject over the community, but by accepting community in a commanding position among the moral purposes of agency, a change made possible by the re-foundation of community in Christ. . . .
“The sovereignty of love, then, is bound up with the bestowal of the Holy Spirit, the decisive pledge within history of our last end.”
David K. Naugle on the reordered thinking of the redeemed
The penultimate chapter of David K. Naugle’s Reordered Love, Reordered Lives: Learning the Deep Meaning of Happiness (Eerdmans, 2008) is titled “Reordered Lives: All Things New.” Under the heading, “Reordered Lives of Intellectual Virtue,” Naugle writes:
“A reordered love for God reorders how we think and prompts us to cultivate intellectual virtues, or holy habits of mind, in Christ. A fundamental blessing of redemption is the gift of the mind of Christ (1 Cor. 2:16), and it comes with a commission to develop it. Jesus demands in the greatest commandment that we are to love God intellectually, not only with heart, soul, and strength, but also with our minds (Matt. 22:37). In Philippians 2:5, Paul admonishes believers to ‘Have this attitude [or mind] in yourselves, which was also in Christ Jesus,’ especially when it comes to a way of thinking about service and sacrifice on behalf of others. Paul also asserts in 1 Corinthians 14:20 that naiveté in wickedness but sophistication in thought are essential components of Christian discipleship. ‘Brethren,’ he says, ‘do not be children in your thinking; yet in evil be infants, but in your thinking be mature.' As a part of this rising chorus, Peter also challenges us with the succinct admonition to ‘prepare your minds for action’ (1 Peter 1:13). If we ignore these injunctions, we could fall prey to what John Stott has called ‘the misery and menace of mindless Christianity.’ Rather, we are after, to use Stott’s words again, ‘a warm devotion [to Christ] set on fire by truth.’
“Our minds and imaginations were subject to futility, darkness, and ignorance when unredeemed. Salvation shifts our mental paradigm and changes our intellectual status considerably. As theologian Bernard Lonergan has pointed out, redemption ‘dismantles and abolishes the horizon in which our knowing and choosing went on and it sets up a new horizon in which the love of God will transvaluate our values and the eyes of that love will transform our knowing.’ Or as Paul puts it rather simply in 1 Corinthians 1:5, believers in Christ are ‘enriched in him, in all speech and all knowledge.’ For where there is love for God, there is also love for his truth and wisdom, and where there is love for his truth and wisdom, there is also love for God. In short, we now have a longing to know.”
David K. Naugle talked about this book on Volume 96 of the Journal.
David K. Naugle on the high stakes in sustaining the truth about reality
On Volume 60 of the Journal, I talked with David K. Naugle about his award-winning 2002 book, Worldview: The History of a Concept (Eerdmans). Most of that book examines the history in question in philosophy and the social sciences. In a late chapter, Naugle offered “Theological Reflections on ‘Worldview’,” which included some discussion of “Issues of Sin and Spiritual Warfare.” That section of the book begins with a long discussion of Romans 1:18–32, which is followed by these paragraphs:
“Romans 1 paints a disturbing picture, yet it seems true to life. From Paul’s perspective the human heart is intuitively aware of God and the manifestation of his power and glory in his handiwork. But because of sin-induced corruption, it disregards this intuitive awareness. Yet its native religious impulses prompt it nonetheless to manufacture alternative faiths and philosophies in place of God and the truth. It reconceives religion and reinvents reality industriously, and is responsible for the existence of a multitude of fallacious worldviews in any culture at any time. But these bogus visions of the heart are subject to a forthright apostolic critique. They are an exercise in speculative futility. They cast men and women into profound spiritual ignorance. They are confused with wisdom (and vice versa). They terminate in moral reprobation as divine judgment. These idolatrously based belief systems, in their futility, darkness, foolishness, and depravity, make up what the New Testament calls ‘worldliness.’ As Craig Gay asks, could it not be true that ‘worldliness rests not so much in personal temptations to debauchery, but instead lies in ‘an interpretation of reality that essentially excludes the reality of God from the business of life’? In other words, worldly behavior is the eventual outcome of worldly views that dot the cultural landscape. Therefore, the origin and multiplicity of relativistic worldviews are rooted in the depravity of the human heart as explained by the theology of Romans 1.
“This picture of the human condition is intensified by the fact that the Bible reveals that the entire creation and its human stewards are caught up in the midst of a spiritual war of cosmic proportions. It pits God and the forces of good against Satan and the powers of evil. These finite powers that insanely oppose the infinite God were originally made by him and had to be good, even as he is good. Romans 8:38–39 indicates that angels, principalities, and powers are among the divinely ‘created things.’ Colossians 1:16 teaches that Christ as the agent of creation is responsible for the existence of the entire cosmos, including ‘thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities.’ In short, God through Christ created the whole realm of reality, including the company of the angels. Though they received their being, purpose, and power from God, these spiritual creatures turned against him in a mysterious and monstrous act of pride and rebellion (e.g., Isa. 14:12–14; Ezek. 28:11–19; 2 Peter 2:4; Jude 6). Motivated by fierce animosity, they became his resolute enemies, intent upon subverting his divine authority and destroying all his works. They are good creatures gone bad, and now in an attempt to certify their autonomy they engage God and the angels of light in a fierce fight for universal domination. As the pinnacle of God’s creative work, the human family is directly implicated in this battle of the ages. Not only are all people affected by it — caught in its crossfire, so to speak — but they are also participants in it, aligning themselves consciously or unconsciously with and fighting for one side or the other, depending upon their spiritual orientation. Thus humankind has to struggle not only with an inherited internal depravity, but also with temptations and assaults from without that reinforce their fallen condition. How difficult it is, therefore, to know God and view the world aright!
“Under the vice [sic] grip of the disenchanted worldview of modern naturalism and scientism, many have relegated this scriptural depiction of angels, Satan, the demons, and spiritual warfare to ‘the dustbin of superstition.’ There is no doubt, however, that what Gregory Boyd aptly calls ‘a warfare worldview’ permeates biblical revelation, is foundational to its message, and has been essential to Christian theology throughout the history of the church. Marshaling impressive evidence from cultures worldwide, Boyd [in his 1997 book God at War: The Bible and Spiritual Conflict] demonstrates that Western secularism is perilously unique in its elimination of the ‘warfare worldview’ from its cultural consciousness, especially its biblical version, which he describes in these terms: ‘God's good creation has in fact been seized by hostile, evil, cosmic forces that are seeking to destroy God’s beneficent plan for the cosmos. God wages war against these forces, however, and through the person of Jesus Christ has now secured the overthrow of this evil cosmic army. The church is the body of Christ has been called to be a decisive means by which this final overthrow is to be carried out.’
“‘The world is a battle zone,’ Boyd says, and that ‘is why it looks that way!’ Now assuming the veracity of this perspective, I submit that central to the ‘warfare worldview’ of the Bible is a ‘worldview warfare.’ A worldview warfare is a warfare over worldviews; that is, a megabattle between the forces of light and darkness over the identity or definition of the universe. A key stratagem of the devil, who is the father of lies (John 8:44), is to conceal the true nature of things through the proliferation of multiple cosmic falsehoods in order to secure the blindness of the human heart and its ultimate spiritual perdition (2 Cor. 4: 3–4). In the conflagration that has engulfed the universe, the truth about reality is satanically enshrouded in darkness, and a multitude of idolatries and fallacious conceptions of life, counterfeiting as wisdom and enlightenment, are put in its place. The truths about God, creation, fall, and redemption must forever be banished from human consciousness. What better way for Satan to deflect the light of truth than by corrupting it and replacing it with false visions of realty that dominate the cultural landscape? The control of the zeitgeist, or the intellectual and spiritual climate of the age, is a most effective means of controlling what goes into the hearts of men and women, shaping their interests and ruling their lives. Worldviews are the basis for a zeitgeist and are at the center of this process. If this big-picture strategy succeeds, then there is only an occasional need for personal temptation to sin. How people get their jollies is of little interest to Satan if he has already captured and misdirected their hearts.
“This proposal that a ‘worldview warfare’ is a critical component of the ‘warfare worldview’ of the Bible has been supported in an influential way by Heinrich Schlier [in his 1961 book Principalities and Powers in the New Testament]. On the basis of Ephesians 2:2, he proposes that a worldview, or what he calls the ‘spiritual atmosphere’ of a culture, is the ‘principal source of his [Satan’s] domination.’ In this text, he believes the meaning of the word ‘air’ in the expression ‘the prince of the power of the air’ is best interpreted appositively by the phrase following it, ‘of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience.’ Thus he suggests that the ‘air’ is not only the literal realm in which Satan exercises his powers (in accordance with Jewish understanding), but it also refers in context to the universal spirit which fosters rebellion and unbelievers. Therefore Schlier thinks it has significant sociocultural meaning. ‘It is the general spiritual climate which influences mankind, in which men live, which they breathe, which dominates their thoughts, aspirations and deeds. He [Satan] exercises his ‘influence’ over man by means of the spiritual atmosphere which he dominates and uses as the medium of his power. He gains power over men and penetrates them by means of this atmosphere, which is his realm, the realm of his power. If men expose themselves to this atmosphere, they become its carriers, and therefore contribute to its extension.’
“Ephesians 6:12 would seem to reinforce this interpretation with its reference to the struggle ‘against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places.’ Also, in 1 Corinthians 2:6 Paul implies that there is a wisdom of this age and of the rulers of this age which stands in sharp contrast to the divine wisdom in Christ which he proclaims. Schlier notes, however, that this is not the devil’s exclusive method of control, for he attacks natural life at every level and can even inflict physical harm quite apart from such socio-spiritual concerns. Still he is convinced, based on the authority of the apostle, that the ‘spiritual atmosphere’ is Satan’s principal source of domination, a concept which functions very much like a Weltanschauung.”