At the Intersection of Faith and Culture

At the Intersection of Faith and Culture

Facebook and Narcissism

posted by Jack Kerwick

For quite a while, I contemplated opening an account with facebook.  A few months ago, I set aside what reservations I entertained and decided to go for it.

Admittedly, neither the desire to “reconnect” with old acquaintances nor any other such sympathetic desire figured at all in helping me arrive at my decision.  Rather, I had just launched a blog and was hopeful that through facebook I could increase traffic to it.  But lest my motives come under fire, let us be honest with ourselves: there isn’t one of us who participates in facebook merely for the sake of reestablishing lost relationships.  For that matter, very few of its users care a lick about restoring old relationships at all.

Unquestionably, there is a complex of motives that drive facebook users.  Yet from what I have been able to gather in the short amount of time that I have counted myself among their number, the desire to be acknowledged, to be heard, is most fundamental.

Now, not only is this by itself not a vice, it is not infrequently the spring of virtue.  But lest this all too understandable, even justifiable, longing to be heard be conscripted into the service of an insatiable ego, lest it be consumed by an inflated sense of self-importance, we should attend to it with all of the care that we would show an infant, for this aching for affirmation is on perpetually perilous ground.

Regrettably, it is my considered judgment that we have been not just careless, but reckless, as far as our treatment of this desire is concerned. 

Good manners demand that upon being granted the hearing from others that one seeks, one repay this good turn with something worthwhile saying.  What constitutes “worthwhile” utterance is, of course, going to vary with context; but however it is determined, worthwhile utterance is the coin we pay for the hearing we’ve achieved.

Yet the problem with facebook, though, is that this hearing is no achievement at all; nor is it viewed as such by those who obtain it.  There are facebook account holders with hundreds and, in some instances, thousands of “friends.”  At least as obvious as the fact that the vast majority of such “friends” are not true friends at all is the fact they aren’t even genuinely known: most of these “friends” never communicate with one another at all. 

We are all impressed with the fact that the creators of facebook were only college-aged when they gave birth to their brain-child.  But I now wonder whether their invention of facebook occurred, not in spite of their youth, but because of it.  After all, outside of high school kids themselves, who better than kids barely out of high school have such a keen awareness of the intensity of the desire for popularity?  In other words, the phenomenon of “friending” was born, not from any sort of philosophical reflection on the longing to abate one’s loneliness that dwells within the breast of every human being, but of the facebook creators’ intimate knowledge of the pride of place that their peers gave to being popular.  Their genius, however, was to recognize, or to assume, that regardless of how old people get, this adolescent impulse to achieve popularity never altogether leaves us.

Granted, it can be used for multiple purposes, some of which are innocuous, if not valuable in their own right; but the “friends” option intrinsic to facebook and the unmanageably large lists of names that it is utilized to accumulate render it exceedingly difficult to circumvent the conclusion that if not for the union of an inordinate love for popularity and a hyper-inflated sense of self-importance, facebook never would have seen the light of day. 

Like the “reality television” that is its counterpart and, for all of that, countless other features of our generation that promise to reserve for it an unprecedented place in the annals of narcissism, facebook boils down to a celebration of me. 

Jack Kerwick, Ph.D.

The Obsession with Physical Well Being

posted by Jack Kerwick

For quite some time now, such representatives of the conservative movement as, say, Rush Limbaugh, have charged the environmentalist left with insincerity.  Far from having a genuine concern for the environment, as he claims, the environmentalist is motivated, rather, by a desire to assume unto himself as much power as possible, the power, that is, to achieve his true objective: the destruction of “capitalism” as we know it. 

For however pervasive it may be among my brethren on the right side of the political divide, this notion that the environmentalist is, at heart, Machiavellian, is not altogether correct.  In fact, there are a couple of considerations that militate decisively against it.

Over the last few decades, Americans have grown exponentially more health-conscious, and in no respect more so than with respect to their bodies.  From counting calories and trans-fats to spending hundreds of dollars each month on “supplements” of various sorts, the obsession that legions of Americans have with perfecting their bodies knows no bounds.  This phenomenon is both idolatrous and, from the perspective of traditional Christianity, blasphemous: it is idolatrous because the body has eclipsed all potential competitors—including God—for the health zealot’s focus of attention; it is blasphemous because it presupposes that, by their own efforts, individuals can arrest their own mortality.  Granted, everyone grasps intellectually that one day will be their last here on Earth, but the health zealot speaks and acts as if as long as he does this and avoids that, he will live indefinitely. 

The obsession with physical health reflects the growth of a secular, materialist culture.  Yet the environmentalist movement is also a product of that very same culture.  In other words, the environmentalist is as much moved along by our culture’s impulse to ever greater safety and health as anyone.  The difference between him and those whose central concern is the perfection of their own bodies is that the environmentalist centers his attention on the safety and health of the planet. 

This is the second reason why I take issue with the conventional analysis of environmentalism.  While I do indeed agree that the environmentalist craves lots of power, I doubt that there is any self-conscious desire on his part to undermine “capitalism”—i.e. an economic system.  Regrettably, his aims are much more troublesome than that.   The environmentalist is the enemy, you see, not merely of a peculiar set of economic arrangements, but of just those political arrangements delineated in the U.S. Constitution. 

He is the enemy, that is, of civil association. 

Since their emergence near the beginning of the modern era, there has been much confusion regarding the character of the “nation-state.”  America is no exception here.  But given our Constitution’s numerous restrictions on our government, “checks and balances” within the interstices of which the individual’s liberties are to be found, there can be no quarrel with the verdict that America was at least originally conceived as a civil association.  The Constitution refrains from specifying, not only grandiose purposes for the country, to say nothing of the world, but even actions for citizens to perform.  What it does establish are laws, conditions that citizens are obligated to observe while pursuing their own purposes, the engagements of their own choosing.

The environmentalist is at once bored and frustrated with this idea of America.  He would never come right out and say this, of course, but the environmentalist is a visionary, and neither the Constitution nor the idea of civil association that it embodies can be anything but anathema to the visionary.  The environmentalist, like all visionaries, sees the nation-state, with all of its resources in citizens’ time, energies, and money at its disposal, not as a civil association, but—as Michael Oakeshott described it—an enterprise association. 

An enterprise association derives its identity from the ends to which the eyes of its members are focused.  For the environmentalist, the end of the enterprise that is the United States is the well being of the environment of the entire world. 

This longing for community, a world community, is something with which most of us can sympathize.  The problem, however, is that it is fundamentally at odds with something else for which many of us have developed quite an affection: individuality.  The individuality that many of us prize and that is presupposed by the U.S. Constitution is neither innate nor eternal; it is an historic achievement made possible by the indefatigable efforts of our European, especially English, ancestors.  This individuality is, then, an inheritance, an artifact of a sort that, like any other, can be lost if we are careless with it.

The environmentalist, like every other ideologue who seeks to impose upon the United States the character of an enterprise association or community, has no appreciation for any of this.  His dreams can come true only at the cost of throwing this inheritance to the wind.

Jack Kerwick, Ph.D.

The Church and the Left

posted by Jack Kerwick

Recently, the pastor of my church—a priest who I love and who my wife and I requested to marry us—gave a homily on the relationship between “justice” and “charity.”  Sadly, this sermon supplied none of the inspiration of which his other sermons were ridden.

This, though, isn’t to say that it wasn’t provocative; unfortunately, however, what it provoked—or what it provoked in me—was a melancholic effect.

My pastor’s homily was but the latest confirmation of that what many an astute observer has long observed: the “progressivism” of secular leftism has made sizable inroads into the Catholic Church.  This is no mean feat.  In fact, the significance of the left’s infiltration into this institution has gone largely unnoticed. 

Whatever one may think of its theology and ecclesiology, the cold heart fact of the matter is that the Catholic Church is not just one more institution among others.  Structurally and doctrinally, it is the emblem par excellence of the ancient world, a continual reminder to our generation that its life did not begin yesterday, and that Western civilization would be unrecognizable, and probably nonexistent, without it, the Catholic Church reminds us as well that we are living off of a cultural capital that was millennia in the making. Its unabashed affirmation of the centrality of tradition to right conduct, its hierarchical conception of authority, its exclusion of females and homosexuals from the priesthood, and its demand that its clergy take a vow of celibacy are some of the more salient respects in which the Catholic Church has not only distinguished itself from the leveling impulses of our age, but resisted them. 

In other words, the Catholic Church is the most formidable line separating what we may call, on the one hand, “the traditional morality” of which it is has always been the preeminent bulwark and, on the other, “the secular morality” that is forever striving to drive it into extinction.  If the Church permits itself to be subjugated by the left’s moral vision, then it is inevitable that every other institution will be wholly consumed by it also.

Make no mistakes about it, the issue that my pastor addressed is an invaluable one.  And it seems to me that there can be no question that the position to which he gave expression—the position that, in spite of what we may uncritically suppose, charity is in reality a form of justice—is indeed the only position to which a Christian can subscribe. 

What concerns me, though, is that he insisted upon equating “justice” with “equality.”

Now, “equality” is a term ridden with ambiguity.  Like the “justice” in conjunction with which my pastor spoke of it, it is a “concept” susceptible to multiple “conceptions,” to use Ronald Dworkin’s distinction.  And some of these conceptions of “equality” are mutually incompatible.

As conservatives and classical liberals have usually understood the concept, “equality” refers to a formal procedure (or set of procedures) to which all members of a legal association (“a state” or “society”) are equally bound.  These procedures are laws, and they are theoretically consistent with more than one kind of constitution: neither monarchy, oligarchy, aristocracy, democracy, nor some combination of such arrangements preclude equality in this sense. It is also consistent with much individual freedom or very little of it. 

On the leftist’s account of it, equality is a substantive condition in which material discrepancies between “classes” of people are resolved, a condition to be imposed by government through any number of “redistributive” schemes.  This understanding of equality is not only different from that held by the conservative and the libertarian, it is radically incompatible with it, for it is necessary that people be treated according to different sets of standards if the leftist’s dream of equality is to come to pass. 

There is a third conception of “equality” according to which all human beings are equal by virtue of being made in the image of God.  But it only those who take exception to its theological ground who would want to quarrel with it; it is logically compatible with both of the forgoing statements of equality. Thus, my pastor must have had one or the other of them in mind when coupling “equality” with justice in his sermon.

Although “the rule of law” is an immense historic achievement, it is the freedom or liberty that it makes possible—not the equality intrinsic to it—that has made it the stuff of sermons and speeches (even if mostly in times past).  In identifying “justice” with “equality,” it was clearly the leftist’s vision of equality with which my beloved pastor was sympathizing.  His reference to the “root causes” of poverty which Christians have a “duty” to address is the one clue that dispels all doubt.

Yet in all of my readings of the New Testament, to say nothing of the Old Testament, I at no time recall Jesus or any of His apostles commanding “equality.”  He demands of us that we attend to the needy, for sure, but it is far from clear that His commandment to love neighbor as oneself arises from a desire to see material inequalities ameliorated.  If my neighbor has a more lucrative job and bigger home than me, these are inequalities, but they certainly don’t oblige him to part with his legitimately acquired goods so that he and I can be on the same material footing.  Even if I had no resources while my neighbor possessed more than anyone could need for a lifetime, this in itself still wouldn’t constitute an injustice: while he would have a duty to try to help me to help myself, he would have no duty to divest himself of his holdings just to satisfy some abstract criterion of equality.  To suggest otherwise is to read back into Scripture a bias that it doesn’t possess and which is arguably anathema to it.

The left has penetrated the Catholic Church. This I have known for quite some time.  What saddens me, however, is that among its carriers are genuinely good men and fine priests like my pastor. 

Jack Kerwick, Ph.D.

Change, Identity, and “the Fundamental Transformation” of America

posted by Jack Kerwick

While on his campaign trail for the presidency, Barack Obama talked to no end about the “change” that would visit upon America, a change so profound, so sweeping, that it would “fundamentally transform” America.  To understand the implications of this, we would do ourselves a good turn to subject the concept of “change” to philosophical interrogation.   

“Change” is a concept with a storied history in the annals of Western philosophy.  In fact, it is no exaggeration to account for Western philosophy itself as an enduring conflict over the nature of change and its place in the world.  From its inception in ancient Greece 2600 years ago to the present day, philosophers have realized that inquiries regarding “change” are inseparable from those concerning “permanence,” “identity,” “knowledge,” “belief,” “particulars,” “universals,” and, in short, a plethora of other philosophical concepts. 

The pre-Socratic philosophers set the stage for the issues that would arrest the attention of their successors for the next two-and-a-half millennia.  Parmenides thought that change must be an illusion, for change is identity-extinguishing: if change were real, than neither the objects that constitute our world nor our knowledge of them would be possible.  Heraclitus, on the other hand, thought that it was “permanence” that was illusory: it was he who famously said that “you can’t step in the same river twice.”  Another partisan of “the flux,” Cratylus, grabbed hold of the logic of this reasoning and ran with it further: if change is the only constant, so to speak, then you can’t step in the same river even once, for nothing remains itself from one unit of time to the next.  Thus, nothing can be known. 

Plato thought that Cratylus was correct, that change precludes both identity and knowledge. And he agreed as well that there isn’t a single entity in our world that is immune to change.  But to avoid Cratylus’s skeptical conclusions, Plato posited another world, a supra-sensible or “intelligible,” heavenly-like world constituted by, not the corruptible and temporal “particulars” that compose empirical reality, but invisible, incorruptible, immutable, and eternal “Universals.”  What stability and identity each particular possesses it derives from its “participation” in the Universal to which it corresponds.  Knowledge, then, is attainable, for its objects are Universals that, as such, remain exactly one and the same forever. 

Plato’s premiere student Aristotle was among the first to identify the problems with his master’s “Two Worlds” theory.  He rejected it, but the language of “universals” and “particulars” that were its central terms he preserved, even if in a significantly modified form.  Still, Aristotle refused to abandon the belief that “the universal” is the immutable essence that ultimately invests each particular with its identity and renders it a possible object of knowledge.

Western philosophy had assumed an identifiable shape and the argument over change and permanence, particulars and universals, was well underway.

Along with others, I do not think that change is necessarily incompatible with identity.  Because neither “change” nor “identity” is a theory-neutral term, it is indeed possible to construe each so as to reconcile it to the other.  Only a conception of identity that equates it with exactness finds it impossible to accommodate change: if something doesn’t have exactly the same properties at any one moment as it has at any other, then it isn’t the same thing.  But why endorse this understanding of identity?  More plausibly, identity doesn’t preclude change but, rather, requires that whatever changes occur be continuous with one another.  Since changes that are gradual or incremental are readily absorbable by the entity that undergoes them, the identity of that being isn’t impaired by them.

However, to paraphrase the twentieth century philosopher Michael Oakeshott, change that promises “fundamental transformation” is emblematic of death.  Every change involves loss, it is true, but dramatic changes of this kind are designed to destroy the being upon whom they are visited.  It is crucial that this is grasped.  When Obama pledges to fundamentally transform the United States, he is not pledging to improve upon his country, but to replace it with another entity altogether. 

This is what a “transformation” involves.  It is but a euphemism for “death,” really.  Anyone with any doubts on this score ought to ask himself how his wife would respond to him if, in addition to vowing to love and cherish her, he as well vowed to “fundamentally transform” her?  The desire to “fundamentally transform” one’s wife is nothing more or less than the desire for a new wife. 

Similarly, the desire to “fundamentally transform” a country is the desire for a new country.  

Jack Kerwick, Ph.D.

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