21 Jan

The eclipsing of happiness

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 01/21/21

Reinhard Hütter on the Christian recognition that happiness is only intelligible in light of the end for which we were created

Reinhard Hütter is a guest on Volume 149 of the Journal, talking about his book Bound for Beatitude. Those three words capture the boundless confidence that is the ground for the Christian understanding of human nature. Every human being is created with a desire to be happy. That is given with our nature, but we need to learn what true happiness is. As Hütter writes, “The teaching of Scripture is unequivocal: true and lasting happiness, beatitude, is found only when a person embraces the truth that God reveals, follows the path God thereby opens up to that person, and, through God’s grace, begins to participate in the divine life.” 

The subtitle to Hütter’s book is A Thomistic Study in Eschatology and Ethics. Instructed by the work of Thomas Aquinas, Hütter describes why Christian ethics — indeed all Christian theology — must be grounded in the ends for which persons (and all of Creation) were called into being. 

The culture of modernity — in the seas of which we swim — is marked by a rejection of the claim that there are ends (teloi) for which human beings exist and according to which their lives, privately and publicly, should be ordered. By contrast, the work of Aquinas, explicated in Hütter’s book, reflects the fundamental Christian affirmation of “the principle of finality,” the recognition that “every agent acts for an end,” an end (telos) established by the Creator.

Our age is emphatically anti-teleological, insists Hütter: “[O]ne of the characteristics of the modern era is the widespread rejection of the principle of finality. As it plays out in the anthropological realm, this pervasive dismissal of the principle of finality leads to a crisis in terms of the human being’s understanding of himself as a human person. Due to the widespread and erroneous dismissal of the finality of human nature, the human self-image as rational animal, as person and nature in one, collapses into the irresolvable antinomy between two contradictory and agonistically competing self-images, a neo-Gnostic angelism and a naturalistic animalism. The late modern person vacillates between the self-image of an essentially disembodied sovereign will that submits all exteriority, including the body, to its imperious dictates, and the self-image of a super-primate, a highly advanced animal, gifted or cursed with a developed consciousness that is driven by instincts, passions, and desires beyond its control and understanding into patterns of behavior for which an animal can never be held fully accountable.”

If there are no ends for which we were created — no nature that defines us— then the pursuit of happiness has no transcendent guidelines or points of reference. As Hütter observes, “a partial result of the eclipse of what it means to be human [is that] the understanding of and search for happiness has taken a radical experiential turn. The happiness now sought is the emotional state of joy, delight, and especially ecstasy as the apex of an encompassing feeling of well-being that ideally continues, fed by whatever sequence of objects, substances, and events it takes to sustain it. The a-teleological dynamic of consumption — the trademark of consumer capitalism — collapses action and its purpose to the here and now. Any remaining sense of community and conviviality is no longer based on the common good, let alone on the highest good, God, but rather on sensuality, sentiments, and transient coalitions of proximate interests. Nietzsche announced the return of the Dionysian and what has arrived is the obsession with the body and with orgiastic and analogous experiences of sensual and emotional ecstasy. The fun- and event-centered culture — the most characteristic feature of which is the collection of extraordinary, exhilarating, and possibly transgressive experiences of all sorts — is the direct result of the pervasive search for the feelings of joy, delight, and ecstasy that happiness issues in the here and now. . . .

“[G]iven this existentialist understanding of happiness as the result of the instant gratification of some desire and the resulting sensual or emotional elation, a happiness that consists in the attainment of a specific good, even the highest good, is simply meaningless.”

14 Jan

Merciless moralism bereft of moral reasons

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 01/14/21

Dallas Willard explores how moral passions on campuses — and elsewhere — are now immune to rational examination or critique

On volume 149 of the Journal, I talked with Steven L. Porter, who was one of the scholars who completed a book left unfinished by philosopher Dallas Willard when he died in 2013. Five years later The Disappearance of Moral Knowledge was published, compiled by Porter and his colleagues from many manuscript pages that Willard had completed, along with fragments of notes, partial drafts, syllabi, class handouts, and marginalia written in the books Willard had been reading for years.

In his 1998 book, The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God, Willard had observed that we live in a culture “that has accepted the view that what is good and right is not a subject of knowledge that can guide action and for which individuals can be held responsible.” The Disappearance of Moral Knowledge presents Willard’s thorough exploration of the social and intellectual causes of that deplorable condition, and how it might be confronted.

Much of the book displays Willard's concern that Western institutions of higher education — once significant custodians and conduits of moral knowledge — had repudiated that role and were responsible for the loss of confidence in the broader culture, that there were reasons behind claims about morality, that the Good was True. During my interview, Porter talked about how — despite this repudiation — universities remain the site of intense moral commitments. They still want their graduates to be good and do good. They simply lack the confidence that one can examine claims about what is good with the same rational rigor that one can bring to the study of chemistry, law, or history.

As Willard explains in the following paragraphs from early in his book, the tacit assumption that moral commitments are finally irrational may account for the vicious character of contemporary political disputes.

“What most deeply characterizes the discussions of moral instruction and guidance in the universities currently is failure to understand how such instruction and guidance are actually conveyed. This is largely, but not wholly, an intellectual failure: a failure to observe and understand. Such guidance is rarely conveyed by explicit instruction or anything remotely like ‘course content,’ though these certainly do play a role. Moral guidance is communicated to others, and especially to the young, by how we live with them and around them. Aristotle noted long ago that if lectures in ethics are to be of any use to hearers, ‘they must have been brought up in good habits’ of thought, feeling, and action. It was the business of the legislator, on his view, to see to it that people are well brought up. One hears lectures in ethics, he held, as a preparation to be a legislator or ‘political scientist.’ But habits are formed by living, and a very small part of living is being ‘talked at.’ During the pre-World War II period, students in higher education at all levels were talked at a great deal — and ‘in class’ to boot — along the lines of traditional morality; and university life was fairly closely regulated by that same morality. It was assumed by the general public, as well as by university and college personnel, that there was a body of moral knowledge and that traditional moral rules, virtues, and practices fell largely, not wholly, within it. The ‘talk’ was assumed by all to be of some benefit for moral understanding and practice. . . . It by and large expressed the morality in which the students had been brought up. Higher education was at the time mainly restricted to elite social groups of little diversity; and, for all their moral failures, people from these groups respected traditional morality and thought it fairly well represented ‘how things are’ in reality. They generally acted on it and held themselves and others to it without much reflection.

“Most faculty and nearly all university students today have been formed in a different world. It is a world in which the teachings and practices of traditional morality are scarcely known, and certainly are not understood to any depth. Insofar as those teachings are thought of at all, they are regarded as irrelevant to life, at best, and at worst as oppressive of various real or imagined human goods: ‘success’ or sexual gratification, for example. Indeed, those teachings and practices are often thought of as immoral now, or perhaps just silly, because they clearly do not permit people to live however they might wish — an overriding moral imperative to the contemporary mind. That moral imperative — to allow people to do what they want (so long as others aren’t ‘hurt’) — is one major component in the moral system that is taught and relentlessly enforced in the university setting, and often very blatantly, in the classroom or tutorial situation, as well as in the hallway and the ‘mixer.’ . . .

“How is this moral system taught? Like every morality, every vision of what is humanly acceptable or unacceptable, good and bad, it is mainly taught by body language, facial expressions, ‘looks,’ tones of voice and inflections, off-hand remarks about people and events; by what is presumed to be ‘automatic’ or to ‘go without saying,’ by example, by how we treat people of various types (in class, out of class, our colleagues, and overseers and underlings), by who gets rewarded or punished or dismissed in various ways in the classroom and out, and so forth. In short, it is ‘taught’ by the fine texture of how we live together in the university setting. The implicit approvals and disapprovals by teachers and other ‘authorities,’ and simply how things are arranged in campus life, are the matters most studied by students, for they know that these are the things with which they really have to come to terms. Such things cannot be hidden or fail to have significant influence on the student and others, and they function as indications of how things actually stand in moral reality. This all lies in the 'hidden curriculum,’ well known among educational theorists.

“It should be noted that what comes over in these and similar ways as ‘moral guidance’ in the university setting is never communicated as mere social acceptability or practice, nor as mere personal taste or preference. It is always conveyed, and always comes over, as well-thought out knowledge or conviction about how things really are: in short as moral wisdom and insight — as how intelligent and informed people ‘in the know’ deal with moral reality. It comes over as the considered beliefs of experienced and thoughtful persons who occupy enviable and influential positions in life and society. This is unavoidable if the individual professor or administrator manifests the competence, confidence, and authority required to do their job well and to convey intellectual leadership. They cannot help manifesting their beliefs, and belief is an indication of presumed reality. Thus, in the university context as elsewhere, people who do not follow the prescribed (even if tacit) morality are typically treated by its partisans as stupid or ignorant or ‘unenlightened,’ not just as people who happen to be ‘different.’

“Accordingly, the abundant though non-traditional moral guidance actually conveyed in the university setting . . . is conveyed as moral knowledge, or at least as responsible beliefs about moral reality. And associated with that guidance is the range of emotions, feelings, or ‘moral sentiments’ which always characterize moral judgments among human beings. There is a characteristic type of friendliness, approval, acceptance, willingness to support and reward, and desire to see prospered and imitated, that goes out toward what is perceived to be morally correct and praiseworthy action and toward the character and person thought to be morally good. Conversely, a peculiar sort of resentment (even disgust and anger), blame, exclusion, willingness to avoid or to punish, and desire to see frustrated and not imitated, goes out toward what is taken to be the morally wrong and blameworthy action and toward the character and person thought to be morally bad. The continued presence of these positive and negative moral sentiments in university life, as elsewhere, alerts any thoughtful person to the fact that we remain deeply engaged in moral guidance and moral instruction and judgment, even though we may have abandoned or reversed the traditional content and manner of such guidance and instruction.

“This heavy presence of the range of attitudes, feelings, or ‘sentiments’ peculiar to morality also lets us know that what some try to pass off as political remains stubbornly moral. That in turn casts light on why, in recent years, political processes and political discourse in this country have become so morally embittered, generating a political life dominated by contempt, anger, and even hatred. Political opposition quickly degenerates into hard core moral opprobrium. Confusion of the moral with the political, perhaps fostered in part by the intention of treating moral issues as political (or legal), actually may have backfired with the effect of making political opponents out to be immoral and hence unworthy of the generous regard and cooperation necessary to successful political interactions. . . .

“The real issue, one might think, is how to be intellectually and morally responsible for the moral guidance we cannot help but give — whether we want to or not, and whether we know it or not — by subjecting it to explicit and thorough rational scrutiny and discussion, as appropriate, in the classroom and out. Taking into consideration the official ‘disappearance’ of moral knowledge is one way of understanding why we cannot purposively do this now. There is no recognized body of moral knowledge to serve as a basis for such a pedagogical practice. Or so, at least, it is now generally assumed.

“Beneath the pose of moral neutrality and non-judgementalism, a powerful moral point of view nevertheless runs free and casts an ominous shadow of mindless conformity over the campus and over much of professionalized academic life. The traditional ideal of free, honest, and thorough inquiry into moral issues is not sustained, because it is no longer seen as a part of being responsible for knowledge of how things are — knowledge of what every viewpoint must come to terms with. What is morally acceptable, by rational standards, is overshadowed by emotional and political prejudices concerning what must be good and right. The ‘right’ opinions and attitudes on a fairly narrow range of topics — sexuality, gender, race and culture, social justice, etc. — serve as touchstones of moral standing for individuals, opinions, and actions. But those opinions and attitudes are not themselves subjected to traditional standards of rationality. Indeed, such standards are often disregarded because of some association they are perceived as having with ‘improper’ opinions and attitudes on the favored issues. In any case, if knowledge in moral matters is not an option, then responsible rational critique of moral opinions and practices is not something everyone must practice, and serious inquiry into moral matters is suppressed in favor of what is ‘acceptable’ so far as social pressures (left or right) are concerned.”

7 Jan

Why lectures or scolding won’t change behavior

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 01/07/21

Dru Johnson on healing the scars of community-ritualized violence and uncertainty

In his letter to the Philippians, St. Paul writes “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” Our minds are to be aligned by various excellences, and human nature is such that we need to learn, we need to be taught how to recognize what is just and pure and commendable. The need for teaching is implied in the very next verse, when the apostle writes “What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.”

In The Abolition of Man, C. S. Lewis reminded his readers that the premodern view of education was more about training the emotions or affections than about training analytic reason: “St. Augustine defines virtue as ordo amoris, the ordinate condition of the affections in which every object is accorded that kind and degree of love which is appropriate to it. Aristotle says that the aim of education is to make the pupil like and dislike what he ought. When the age for reflective thought comes, the pupil who has been thus trained in ‘ordinate affections’ or ‘just sentiments’ will easily find the first principles in Ethics: but to the corrupt man they will never be visible at all and he can make no progress in that science. Plato before him had said the same. The little human animal will not at first have the right responses. It must be trained to feel pleasure, liking, disgust, and hatred at those things which really are pleasant, likable, disgusting, and hateful.”

All education is fundamentally moral formation, and not all education happens in classrooms or through words. Our perception of what is really true and really good (not to mention what is really beautiful) is shaped by the routine practices of everyday life. James K. A. Smith calls these practices “liturgies.” They could also be described as rituals.

One of the guests on Volume 149 of the Journal is biblical scholar Dru Johnson, who talked about his book Human Rites: The Power of Rituals, Habits, and Sacraments (Eerdmans, 2019). In our conversation, Johnson stressed the fact that rituals have an epistemic role in our lives; they form the framework of understanding that orient our acting in the world. Our minds — and our loves — are aligned through the practices, usually involving bodily action, by which we have been and are being formed.

Rituals can malform us. Johnson has a chapter in Human Rites titled “When Rites Go Dark,” from which the following paragraphs are taken:

“If warped rituals have shaped our lives, we must be re-ritualized, oriented to true north. When corrupting rituals have gotten their hooks into us, we act and react. Sometimes the corruption comes from unsafe neighborhoods or abusive homes, which show us that dark ritual honors no socio-economic status. For corrupt rituals, the process is the same: ritual in, expected behavior out. And, of course, children can be the most susceptible to such corruptions. 

“Children corrupted by dark rituals act out their ritual lives. We’re often naïve about this, believing that teaching such children to think differently will make them act better. We believe that if a child understands how her reckless actions affect others, she’ll eventually stop misbehaving. But like Vietnam veterans suffering from PTSD, not all children know why they do what they do. 

“Our church in Newark, New Jersey, spends much of its energy with children from the Newark housing authority neighborhoods. Most people, including the people who live there, would call it ‘the projects.’ Many of the kids in that downtrodden neighborhood have been ritualized into appalling practices. Caught in a world ruled by drugs and gangs, these children can’t have PTSD because they continue to live in their traumas, never having the opportunity to get to post-trauma. In many communities, that’s also the case for their parents. These beautiful folks bearing the image of God are often seized by fight-or-flight hypersensitivities.

“When we bring our neighbors in for a meal and time together, fights break out over the slightest infractions. These lovely children, by dint of the rituals shaping them and the white noise of violence surrounding them, often lose control of their faculties. And, like a triggered veteran, a child who has reacted violently to nothing more than an antagonistic smirk from another child can’t be reasoned with. 

“After spending years developing friendships in this community, we began to see the world differently. We all remembered watching the now-infamous videos of grown men from similar communities irrationally freaking out and breaking away from police. We used to think, 'Why would they do that? They know this isn't going to end well.’ Now we see our eleven-year-old friends in those videos. Just a few years from now, that could be them. Now we understand that their traumatized bodies react in a way that even they don’t understand. It’s a mode of panic most of us have never experienced. And years of such violence and uncertainty in a community don’t foster rational responses in the moments of their worst crises. 

“While making friends in that community, we came to realize that if years of community-ritualized violence and uncertainty had burned those reactions into the bodies and minds of those children, then it would take more than a few days or weeks of love and affection to re-orient them.

“In the first few years of our friendships with them, we reverted to the standard therapies for misbehavior: talking through what happened, why it was wrong, how it hurt that person, and so on. And reasoning with someone about their misdeeds certainly has its place. But if they’re completely overcome by ritualized reactions, they simply can’t process such reasoning at that moment. 

“Most often, a caring hand on the shoulder can be the best immediate response to such episodes. That’s no small task when you yourself are upset and pulling apart fighting kids. But research has shown us what we already know: children need regular and appropriate affectionate touch from caring adults. Those who don’t get it suffer dramatically over the course of their lives.

“Looking at these children as bearers of a ‘history of rituals’ has helped us to appreciate what’s great about them and to have patience for what’s not so great. Violent or anxious reactions that seemingly come from ‘out of nowhere’ come from somewhere, and can be re-directed toward something better. 

“If there’s one thing the biblical authors are convinced of, it’s that we need a new view of reality, one that can envision the reign of God charging into a housing project rife with corruption and the background threat of violence. So we walk alongside these kids, sharing food rituals and offering affection. 

“There’s no easy way to spot when good rituals go bad. And people will always find ways to corrupt rites toward the wrong goals. In fact, we’re all using rituals toward our own ends. But unless they have some kind of moral foundation, we will all eventually ritualize our world into a ‘kingdom of me.’ These dark rituals don't warn us about ‘those nefarious folks over there.’ They warn us about ourselves.We’re all prone to bend our rites back in our favor and exploit others in the process.

“When this happens, we need other people who care for us to script our rituals. Only they can see us soberly. Only they can help us think about which rituals we must embody and which we must avoid. A caring guide re-ritualizes us out of addiction or violence or whatever our particular darkness is, without twisting us toward their own agendas. It’s no accident that the Christian Scriptures describe a wise God who cares for humanity and wants to guide us through rituals for our benefit — no twists, no hooks, no addictions.”


6 Jan

Seeing things as they are

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 01/06/21

F. A. Lea on the imaginative vision of G. K. Chesterton

While clearing off some bookshelves in a corner of my basement, I came across a little hardback volume by F. A. Lea (1915-1977) titled The Wild Knight of Battersea: G. K. Chesterton. First published in 1945, the book was completed during the early months of the Second World War. In 2019 it was reprinted by Wipf and Stock in a paperback edition. It was originally part of a series published by James Clarke & Co. called “Modern Christian Revolutionaries,” which also included studies of the work of Søren Kierkegaard, Eric Gill, C. F. Andrews, and Nicolas Berdyaev.

Lea is critical of some aspects of Chesterton’s social and political ideas. For example, he thinks that Chesterton’s rejection of pacifism was “his greatest mistake. Pacifism was, we believe, the logical outcome of both his politics and his patriotism; and it was more than that: it was the natural consummation of his ethics.” 

But on the whole, Lea admires Chesterton’s thought and his style, judging his greatest strength to be his literary criticism. “Chesterton possessed the direct, imaginative vision of a child, and it is this that makes his greatness, as it does that of nearly all really great men: for the power to see things, not as we have been brought up to see them, nor as our preconceived theories demand that we should see them, but as they actually are, is the privilege of creative genius. Many have seen that this is true in the realm of art; and it was in that realm that Chesterton himself most often emphasized the truth.”

Several pages later, Lea describes the characteristic imaginative vision that is present in Chesterton’s writing:

“Chesterton the philosopher is one of the most captivating, and at the same time one of the most bewildering writers in the world. To open any one of his books is to be caught, as securely as a fly in a spider’s web — only rather more pleasantly. Imagine yourself, like a fly, entangled in a web. You are held by a mesh of interwoven threads, all glittering with dew-drops, all stretching far away to some end beyond your sight; you are aware of a pattern uniting them, but what it may be you have no idea. You try to free yourself. If you are impatient you begin by fluttering about, buzzing frantically — and find yourself all the more firmly held. Then you consider the best means of unraveling the knot. The first necessity is to find an end; and with that view you start following one of the threads that envelop you. But as with the threads composing a web, so with the strands of Chesterton’s thought: if you want to find an end, you must needs wind all round the spiral until you reach the middle. Only when you have found that will you be able to break away — and the middle happens also to be the one place from which you may discern the pattern of the whole.

“Chesterton spent a lifetime arguing (he said once that his occupation in life was ‘catching flies’); he threw out his lines of argument in every direction: but he always threw them out from the same standpoint. It was the standpoint of an imaginative vision. There is no direct communication of that vision in his works. What there is is an endless series of rationalizations of its component parts (the rationalization of the whole being thomist). If we wish to share the vision, therefore, we must follow the arguments; but we shall in all probability be unable to follow the arguments unless we share the vision, in some measure, already. ‘To him that hath shall be given, and from him that hath not shall be taken away, even that which he hath.’

“This is a paradox. But things discerned by the imagination can only be formulated, intellectually, by means of paradoxes. That is why Chesterton’s own writing abounds in them. The body of his wit is paradoxical, because the soul of it is truth. That is why, also, some of his most brilliant epigrams were made to crystallize the views of other imaginative men, the most brilliant of them all to crystallize those of the most imaginative of them all. The marriage of wit and insight in his remark concerning Middleton Murray — ‘He is a voice crying in the wilderness, “There is no God, and Marx is his prophet”’ — was surely made in Heaven.”

18 Dec

The first virtue of citizenship: Taking the law seriously

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 12/18/20

Oliver O’Donovan reflects on how the reality of the Kingship of Christ must be affirmed as a present reality  

On May 29, 2020, we released an interview with Oliver O’Donovan about living with COVID-19 and its consequences. The interview was one of a series featured on our app with a number of theologians, ethicists, philosophers, doctors, historians, and others who were asked — early in the world’s experience of this pandemic — to reflect on various practical and theoretical questions raised by the various rearrangements of our lives.

Oliver O’Donovan is one of the world’s leading political theologians, a thinker whose biblical, historical, theological, and philosophical knowledge provides a framework for understanding political order in a thoroughly Christian (that is, Christ-centered) way.

As the interview was conducted a few days before the celebration of the Feast of the Ascension, late in the interview I asked O’Donovan to comment on the consequences of the fact of Christ’s Ascension for how we think about politics. 

The affirmation of the Ascension is the authorizing of human life, ultimately, over against death, by God through the life and death and resurrection of his Son. And the implications of that for our attempts to rule our lives as societies and as individuals has to be this confident belief that this is what God has decreed and established and accomplished.

We’ve become very impatient with politics, and for very good reasons. But we also have to look at the deeper story in which it is part of God’s story and God’s bearing witness to what he has done, part of his maintenance of this human thing for the glory to which he has appointed it — and effectively appointed it. So I think it just might begin to make us a little more hopeful of politics, not in itself or in its powers or in the resources of the people who populate the political parties, all of which are very, very depressing on the whole to look at in the Western world. But in the knowledge that they are merely the servants of an authority that is greater than they. And we must expect that higher authority to take effect in all kinds of ways. That’s the way in, I think, we need to take, I think. We need to grasp what it means that God has exercised his rule, and that he has exercised it in this way, and given it to the human representative who is his Son. If we can focus around that we can perhaps take a little courage that even the horrible mistakes that are made are not out of his control. It’s a start.

So to see politics not as a necessary evil but ultimately as part of eschatological fulfillment?

I would put it this way: that it’s a promise of eschatological fulfillment. What we are shown in the eschatological visions is, as it were, the kings of the earth are casting their crowns before the throne of God and the Lamb. And it’s that to which we look forward. Here they are subordinate to that ultimate purpose, that ultimate rule. So let us take from them the promise that they have to give us. It’s an elusive promise and an indirect promise. It’s often difficult to discern, but it’s there. They represent, as it were, within the structure of society — they represent the command of God which is going in that direction, whether they know it or not. They may well not be conscious of the direction they’re going or the function they’re fulfilling — that is common enough — but for those who have eyes to see God’s purposes, they represent this.

In The Ways of Judgment, you talk about the refusal to acknowledge God as the sovereign authority of any human society — that’s a form of idolatry. And it would seem that late modern liberalism seems intent on not acknowledging God as a sovereign authority of any human society. That may be an over-reading, but it seems that that’s the presupposition that underwrites the endorsement of liberalism for many contemporary people.

I think that’s right. And I think it is because of that that political authority and the way it works remains so ineffably mysterious to us. We, as it were, can’t accept what it’s telling us, what it’s pointing us to, in the way this world works. It’s got a message that we are deafening ourselves to, and hence we are constantly taken aback — disturbed, confused, dismayed — by the way our structures work, because we have never seen the logic.

One question to close. What has the experience of the last several months revealed about the necessary virtues for both political leaders and for citizenship?

Well, for both I want to say that I think that we can learn and need to learn what it is to be a community living under law. I don’t know the mechanics by which the various authorities in the United States have introduced their regulations and their restrictions and their shutdowns. But here it has been done with force of law — a series of emergency regulations passed through Parliament and copycat versions passed through the devolved Parliaments. And the significance of this, it seems to me, is that the terms on which we are to live as necessarily and inevitably decided for us by authority are in all of our possession, and we can know them, and we can live into them and learn how to live with them and accommodate ourselves to them. That is, I think, one might say, the first virtue of citizenship — that it takes the law seriously. And it takes it as its own in an important way. Once the law is made, the authority has located itself. It has located itself in these requirements.

Now, this is actually no longer intuitively natural to a generation that is fed on television interviews, press conferences, soundbites, tweets, and so on. And what we’ve seen here is that the position laid out by these emergency regulations passed into law has constantly been thrown into doubt by what one might call “free improvisation” from all sources. From the sources of the proper government ministers down through the constables and chief constables, individual police, and so on — every one of which is convinced that it’s up to him or her to make the law up. And what began as, one might say, a perfectly clear and, in a sense, liberating relationship of authority to the people — liberating not in the sense that we are free to do what we like, but liberating in the sense that we are free to know where we stand in these difficult conditions in relation to the law — is immediately taken away by everybody’s need to improvise freely on it. And invent new regulations out of the back of their heads, often paraded as “advice” — the difference between advice and law becomes highly uncertain.

In other words, there is a certain lack of a will to live within the constraints of a law-governed society. That lack of a will to live is clearly seen in those who hold authority. Now that then throws back on the populace the need to discern the authority of law and the need to see clearly when a demand or a request is clearly in keeping with the line of authority that law has laid down, and when it is, as it were, simply unauthorized. So, it actually has to make us far more alert — respectful of authority and alert to its pseudo-pretenders. I don’t know whether that has any correspondence to the American experience. But it’s been quite a lesson, I think, for us here in Britain to discover what a law means.

I think [another factor is] the communications media and how our experience of time has been changed, so that there can be instant responses from a variety of voices whose alleged authority is tied to how popular they are in terms of how many people have watched their YouTube video or whatever.

Yes. That’s very interesting. And, of course, when you have a complex structure of government . . . you actually introduce this very difficult element of rivalry and competition, of which we have some obvious evidence here, too, since the government of Britain is by no means as centralized as it once was. In which, as it were, it becomes a sort of matter of pique for those who hold office in one form or another to make sure that their demands are heard over the top of the noise of all the other demands.

•     •     •     

Oliver O’Donovan is Professor Emeritus of Christian Ethics and Practical Theology at the University of Edinburgh. He is the featured guest on two MARS HILL AUDIO Conversations, about which you may read more here and here.