At the Intersection of Faith and Culture

At the Intersection of Faith and Culture

Change, Death, and Politics

posted by Jack Kerwick

A few weeks ago, I read and reviewed Ilana Mercer’s Into the Cannibal’s Pot: Lessons for America from Post-Apartheid South Africa.  A week or two after that, my grandmother passed away. 

Considered in themselves, each of these events is entirely distinct from the other.  But, interestingly, reflection upon the loss of my beloved grandmother has deepened my reflection upon the loss that Mercer relays in her book, the loss of her beloved homeland.  Although the death of which Mercer’s compelling Cannibal is an account has occurred sometime ago, the fact of the matter is that it is a death that its author mourns, the death of a country—her country, her world.

Regrettably—shamefully—it is only now, in the light of my own mourning, that this insight has taken hold of me. 

But with it has come others.

Death is deprivation.  The reason that death, whether the death of a person, a country, a marriage, or an era, causes the living as much pain as it does is that death robs them of something that they valued.  When that something was the object of love, death is at its most merciless.  However, death’s sting is felt even by those who lose, not their beloved, but simply something to which they have grown habituated.

Now, change is an approximation to death.  Not every change is for the worst, of course, but every change, like death, inescapably entails loss.  In depriving us of what is, change plunges us head long toward what is not yet and what may never be—i.e. toward what is not.  Western philosophy itself entered the world struggling and wrestling with the phenomenon of change, for both those, like Heraclitus, who believed that there was nothing but change, as well as those, like Parmenides, who denied that change is real, recognized that change extinguishes identity.

Change is something that we have no option but to endure.  Some of us are generally less averse to it than others, and none of us avoid all types of changes all of the time. Still, in addition to the fact that most of us view death—the Change of all changes—as the most dreadful of phenomena, there are other considerations that disclose that to all of us at most times, change is not unlike any other exhibition of untamed nature in that we feel the need to either flee from or domesticate it. 

One such consideration is the obvious fact that we are all “creatures of habit,” as we say.  There is a very good reason for why there isn’t one of us to whom this saying doesn’t apply: habit is steady, reliable, and familiar. 

When we appeal to “human nature,” we see ourselves as appealing to that which is universal, that which is independent of the particularities of history and culture.  “Human nature” is supposed to be intractable, immutable, and, thus, permanent.  As such, invocations of “human nature” can, and undoubtedly do, have the effect of soothing the soul, for the concept of “human nature,” with its semblance of permanence, serves as a sort of fortress within which the change-weary soul seeks refuge.

Habit has been called “second nature” because, as anyone who has ever tried to break a bad habit knows all too well, habit not infrequently feels as incorrigible as nature itself. The effortlessness with which our habits sustain us and the immense difficulty that we experience in trying to free ourselves from them render us forgetful of the fact that they are acquisitions, products of choice.  It is not for nothing that the philosopher Blaise Pascal once subverted the standard conception of the relationship between nature and habit by suggesting that perhaps nature was just “first habit.”

Of course, habit doesn’t literally arrest change.  But it does abate it.  Habit simulates permanence insofar as it prevents change from tearing our lives asunder.

The counterpart to habit in politics is custom or tradition.  Like habit, tradition does not preclude change, but it supplies us with the resources to accommodate ourselves to it. Tradition manages to preserve the integrity of our institutions by insuring that the changes that affect them occur slowly and steadily.  In this respect, tradition is analogous to language, for although language is always suffering changes, those changes are incremental and, hence, readily absorbable. The identity of a language is not impaired by the changes that it experiences.  Neither is the identity of a tradition undercut by the changes that it undergoes.

Given that in our personal lives we cling to habit to manage the relentless march of change, and given the equally vital role vis-à-vis change that tradition plays in the life of our politics, those visionaries among us who never tire of speaking of change as if it is an unqualified good can’t but strike us as the most bizarre of creatures.  Yet at the same time, if we really think about it, we must also judge them the most pitiful of men and women.

As Michael Oakeshott once said: “Changes are without effect only upon those who notice nothing, who are ignorant of what they possess and apathetic to their circumstances; and they can be welcomed indiscriminately only by those who esteem nothing, whose attachments are fleeting and who are strangers to love and affection.” 

Utopia’s champions, whether they are conventional leftists, libertarians of a certain sort, or neoconservatives, dream big dreams, dreams that they would love to impose upon the world and that have all too often proven to be nightmares for those who were supposed to be their beneficiaries.  They are foolish, narcissistic, and, more frequently than not, destructive people.    

Yet what makes these visionaries pitiful hasn’t anything to do with any of this.  That they dream, and what they dream, are irrelevant.  Even the ruinous consequences of their magisterial designs aren’t to the point here. 

The tragic character of the visionary derives from the fact that he doesn’t know love.  He is, as Oakeshott describes the person who lusts for change, a “stranger” to “love and affection.” 

The visionary regards the present as nothing but a device—a “mere means,” to quote Immanuel Kant—to be conscripted into the service of an uncertain future.  Love tends to better the beloved, but it also delights in the beloved for what it is.  Once it insists upon transforming the beloved into what the latter is not it murders both the beloved as well as itself. For the visionary, the present offers nothing in which to delight; it is to be subjugated and exploited, not loved.  For the visionary, the grass is always greener in the pasture of the future.

These reflections on death and change have confirmed for me with new force my sympathy for political conservatism.  Unlike the leftist, the libertarian, and the neoconservative—with which he is all too frequently confused—the conservative knows that the greatest of life’s satisfactions are to be found in the present, however challenging the present may be.  If he is to achieve meaning in his life, it is going to be by way of his current relationships and attachments, for it is only these that can be said to exist: the past is no more and the future is not yet.

 Jack Kerwick, Ph.D.

originally published at The New American 

 

 

 

 

 

The Obama We Have Always Known

posted by Jack Kerwick

Imagine that you discovered the following facts about a stranger.

First, for roughly two decades, he not only attended a church, but donated thousands and thousands of dollars to it. 

Second, this stranger’s church is presided over by a pastor who the stranger regards as his “spiritual mentor,” the person who he credits with leading him to salvation.  It is this pastor who married him to his wife and baptized his children.

Third, this pastor is an unapologetic, unabashed supporter of a racially themed theology.  From this perspective, unless God is a being who aids whites in their campaign to subvert all things black, he is nothing but the worst of ideological fictions by which blacks have sought to manipulate whites into conceding to their own dispossession.  On at least one occasion, during a particularly fiery sermon, he boiled this theology down into one succinct exclamatory line: “God DAMN ‘Black America!” 

Fourth, the stranger’s beloved pastor once granted a “lifetime achievement award” to a man who has repeatedly derided Christianity as “the Black Man’s religion” and a “slave morality.”  This same person believes, or at least claims to believe, that the black race is the creation of an evil white scientist. He further believes that all blacks are “devils.” 

Fifth, the stranger has authored a memoir that he himself characterizes as “a story of race.”  Even though he is biracial—half black and half white—and even though he was raised by his black family after his white father abandoned him at the age of two, the stranger identifies himself as white only.  In it, the stranger relays the hardships that blacks inflicted upon him throughout his life.  The stranger is biracial, but he admits that by the time he was 13 or so, from the fear of appearing that he was trying to “ingratiate” himself to blacks, he quit referring to his Negroid ancestry. 

The stranger’s memoir is chockfull of one indignity after the other that he claims to have suffered at the hands of blacks—including those blacks in his immediate family, like his grandparents, who sacrificed all to make for him a life that was as materially comfortable as it was emotionally supportive.  For instance, once, upon being harassed by an unusually aggressive white panhandler while waiting for the bus that she would regularly ride to work, the stranger’s grandmother indicated a fearfulness that she had never exhibited prior to this episode.  This fear, the stranger wasted no time in concluding, stemmed not from any danger posed by this specific panhandler.  The fear, he remains convinced, stemmed from his black grandmother’s bigotry toward whites.

Yet it isn’t just his irrational, racist old grandmother who hurt him so.  His black high school friends dished out their share of pain as well.  After he took his friends to an overwhelmingly white party, the stranger’s one black friend made an expression of empathy with him.  The young black man explained to the stranger that he now has a better appreciation for the self-consciousness that the stranger experiences being a minority amongst a mostly black population.  This, the stranger says, induced in him a nearly irresistible urge to punch his black friend in the face. 

The stranger’s memoir is replete with other stories of black insensitivity and white suffering. 

Sixth, the stranger does not refuse to associate with all blacks. There are some blacks for whom he feels considerable affection.  But they are blacks who share his conviction that Black America is a bastion of racial oppression that needs to be “fundamentally transformed.”  A couple of these blacks are terrorists who have actually bombed black institutions.  Years later, they openly lamented not having detonated more black institutions.

Seventh, the stranger is friends with several high profile white academics who have routinely, tirelessly, written and spoken of the systemic and systematic abuses to which whites have been subjected by blacks.  In fact, he isn’t only friends with them; they were his own mentors during his time in college.  One of them has even gone so far as to say that he lives “to harass black people.” 

Now, suppose you know all of this about this stranger.  The stranger becomes the President of theUnited States.  If, per impossible, Rip Van Winkle-like, you were to fall into a long, deep sleep, upon awakening years later, what do you think you would discover about the manner in which President Stranger governed?  Consider the following scenarios.

In the first scenario, President Stranger does his best to encourage the elimination of all policies that dispense upon whites preferential treatment so as to insure a race-neutral legal system that treated all citizens impartially.

In the second scenario, President Stranger not only furthers the system in place, but expands it.  He promotes policies that disadvantage blacks at the cost of privileging whites; refers to blacks as “our enemies” while addressing white crowds; and appoints a white man to preside over his Department of Justice who orders his attorneys to prosecute only those potential civil rights violators who are black

Given what you know of the stranger, there is no doubt that it is the second scenario that will resonate most with you.  The first will have no resonance at all. 

The reason for this is obvious: it is by now clear to you that, at a bare minimum, the stranger is a white person who has no small measure of animosity toward blacks.

But if any fool can deduce this about this hypothetical stranger, why is it that when we switch the races around, we refuse to recognize that it is our own President who has—again, at a bare minimum—an animus toward whiteAmerica?

Think about it.

Jack Kerwick, Ph.D.

The Catholic Church, Obamacare, and Social Justice

posted by Jack Kerwick

The question concerning the relationship between faith and politics is one that has arrested the attention of many an American.  But it is during election seasons, particularly presidential election seasons, that it assumes a larger than usual importance in the American consciousness.  It is during this time that candidates exhaust themselves explaining the respects in which their religious convictions inform their political convictions.

Religion and politics, though conceptually distinct activities, do indeed intersect in all manner of ways.  Such encounters are much more frequently than not contentious, and sometimes—as in the present case of President Barack Obama’s confrontation with the Catholic Church—they can be downright acrimonious.

In focusing on this episode, we are able to clearly discern the intimate nature of the connection between “religious liberty” and liberty generally, faith and culture, faith and politics, in American life.

The Obama Administration and the Catholic Church

A couple of weeks ago, while attending mass at my local parish, the priest read from a letter written by the Arch Bishop of our diocese.  The subject of the letter was the Health and Human Services Department’s requirement that Catholic institutions provide “free” contraceptives to their employees. 

My Bishop, along with Catholic clergy and laity around the country, insisted that Catholics could not and would not comply with such a law, for inasmuch as it both infringed upon Catholics’ “religious liberty” and coerced them to act in violation of their “consciences,” it was unjust.

Although President Obama later announced that Catholic institutions would be exempted from this demand, that only insurance companies would be legally compelled to comply with it, the truth of the matter is that health care insurers will have no economically viable option but to ultimately shift the costs of making these provisions onto the employer—i.e. the Catholic Church.  Obama, that is, isn’t making any concessions.  He is simply playing the proverbial shell game. 

Thus, the position of the Catholic Church vis-à-vis Obamacare has not in the least bit altered.

This episode speaks to a range of issues the breadth of which the chattering class, as far as I can determine, has yet to appreciate.  This controversy, as much as any, readily reveals the multiple ways in which faith and politics, the public and the private, relate to one another.   

An Issue of Liberty

Partisans on all sides of this issue tend to frame it in terms of a question of “religious liberty.”  I beg to differ.  Those who speak thus, like those who speak of “economic liberty,” “positive rights,” “negative rights,” and the like, speak confusedly.  What is at issue here is nothing more or less than liberty itself.

The liberty which, as Americans, we claim to prize may very well be a dispensation from God.  I, for one, thank God regularly for it.  But it is something that comes to us directly from the broad dispersal of power and authority of which our constitutional arrangements consist.  To put it more simply, our liberty is comprised of a complex of liberties implied by the federal design that those who framed and ratified the Constitution imposed upon the United States government.  Such explicit “freedoms” as are found in the Bill of Rights and those that are implicit elsewhere throughout the Constitution are the obverse of the federal government’s obligations—namely, its obligations to refrain from undermining its federal character by usurping those “powers” that are reserved to the states.

It has been a long, long time since the federal government has been a genuinely federal government. Still, it is critical that we appreciate the nature of liberty before we proceed to talk about “religious” liberty and the like.  “Religious liberty” is simply the liberty to practice religion.  Because our system of government forbids any person or group from acquiring a monopoly on authority and power, individual Americans are permitted to engage in a staggering array of mutually incompatible pursuits of their own choosing. Religious activity is just one of these engagements. 

In short, what this means is that when the government undercuts the liberty of some Americans to pursue ends of a religious nature, it undercuts the liberty of all Americans to pursue ends of any nature.  Conversely, whenever the government impedes the exercise of liberty for any ends, it impedes the exercise of liberty for religious ends.

This being so, that Catholic institutions will be compelled under Obamacare to subsidize products to which they are opposed is something that should elicit every bit as much outrage from every liberty-loving American as it has elicited from the most orthodox of Catholic clerics.  At the same time, however, Catholics should have been as indignant over the fact that for decades and decades, Americans of all backgrounds have been coerced by a gargantuan federal government to subsidize all manner of practices to which they have been opposed. 

Truth be told, not only is it the case that the Church has been silent; it has actually demanded an ever more intrusive federal government.   

The Quest for ‘Social Justice’

This last point brings me to my present one. 

“Be careful what you ask for, because you just might get it.”   There is a reason that this is an old saying: there is no small measure of truth in it.  It is indeed more than a bit ironic that the very same Catholic Church that for decades has been calling for “social justice” is now reaping what it has sowed. 

The demand for “social justice” is a demand for an ever expansive government.  More specifically, the demand for “social justice” is a demand for an activist government, the kind of government possessed of a large concentration of power sufficient to confiscate the resources of some—“the Haves”—so as to “redistribute” them to others—“the Have Nots.”

“Social justice” is radically incompatible with the Constitutional Republic bequeathed to us by our Founders.  What they referred to as a Republic is what the conservative theorist Michael Oakeshott characterized as a “civil association,” an association whose members are related to one another in terms, not of some grand purpose to pursue, but laws to be observed.  These laws neither specify actions in which the associates (citizens) are to engage nor do they dispense substantive satisfactions for them to enjoy. Rather, the laws are “adverbial,” as Oakeshott put it, in that they assert conditions for the associates of civil association to fulfill while engaging in their self-chosen pursuits. 

In these respects, laws are like grammatical rules.  The latter do not prescribe what is to be said. But whatever it is we say, if it is to be decipherable, if it is to gain a hearing, it must conform to the conditions of our language’s grammar.  Similarly, only those actions are permissible that satisfy the conditions posited by the laws.

An association committed to “social justice” is most certainly not a civil association.  It is not a Constitutional Republic. It is what Oakeshott called an “enterprise association.”  In an enterprise association, the government is expected to “lead” its subjects into a Promised Land of one kind or another, a new dispensation in which some ideal condition is realized.  In this case, the case of “social justice,” the ideal is a condition in which material goods achieve a more equal distribution. 

The problem, though, is that in a Constitutional Republic, a civil association, there is no place for any schemes of “social justice,” for the latter is a purpose to which all others must ultimately be subordinated.  That is, the call for “social justice” is the call for citizens to devote—or, more precisely, be made to devote—at least some of their resources in time, energy, and property to the fulfillment of this one over arching purpose.  The call for “social justice” is the call for less individuality, less liberty, and more government.

Yet in a civil association there is no purpose, grand or otherwise, that citizens are compelled to pursue.  And the federal character with which the Framers of our government originally invested it precludes the pursuit of “social justice” for which the Catholic Church and others have been relentlessly calling for decades.             

Conclusion

This election season, perhaps even more so than during seasons past, promises a fairly salient role for religion.  President Obama’s controversial health care law has insured this.  For the first time in a long time Catholics and those of other faiths are acutely aware of the precarious nature of liberty (and “religious” liberty).  Obamacare is just now beginning to reap what it sowed.  To paraphrase Obama’s former pastor and “spiritual mentor” of over twenty years, Obamacare’s “chickens are coming home to roost.”

My Grandmother and Moral Philosophy

posted by Jack Kerwick

The notion that moral conduct is primarily a matter of “obeying” rules or principles alleged to be universal in scope has figured prominently throughout the modern era.  The moral point of view, according to this line of thought, requires the strictest impartiality.  This idea has been expressed in a variety of idioms, the most dominant of which is the doctrine of “natural” or “human rights.”  Morality, from this perspective, chiefly consists in “respecting” or “protecting” peoples’ “rights.”

In spite of the prevalence of this universal conception of morality, there is an older tradition that has, remarkably, managed to survive to date.  On this older account, morality isn’t about obeying abstract universal principles. Rather, it is about becoming a virtuous person. 

Virtues are not principles to which all rational beings have access.  They are character dispositions that are acquired over time through habit.  And since they are habits, this means that, unlike the knowledge of universal principles, knowledge of virtue cannot be sandwiched between the covers of a textbook or otherwise transmitted through propositions.  Knowledge of virtue can only come through the imitation of a virtuous person.

A virtue-centered approach to morality is, then, the antithesis of a principles-oriented account.  If the latter regards morality as something universal and impartial, the former holds it to be concrete and partial.  We learn about morality, not by being taught about “rights” or “natural law” or “the Form of the Good” or anything else of the kind; rather, we learn about morality through those “little platoons”—our families, churches, and local communities—to which Edmund Burke famously alluded.   

It is against the backdrop of this continuing conflict of moral visions that I find myself thinking about my grandmother, Ferrera Wieser. 

On Friday, March 9, while surrounded by her family, my grandmother—my Nonna, as her grandchildren affectionately referred to her—died at the age of 88.

Born Ferrara Veronica Squarcia, Nonna was the second youngest of six children born to Christofero and Barbara Squarcia, Italian immigrants who made America—and little Lambertville, New Jersey—their new home during the second decade of the twentieth century. 

I would spend hours and hours as I grew older speaking to my grandfather about his youth.  The ease with which he recalled his childhood memories was rivaled only by that with which he relayed them.  “Pop Pop” would get a visible glimmer in his eye as he catapulted me to 1930’sNew York City, where he was born and reared.  With his wife, Nonna, things were, unfortunately, otherwise.  She couldn’t recollect all that much, but the few stories that she did share were enough bring into focus a reasonably coherent impression of her childhood: it was good.

Nonna and her siblings were exceptionally close and they were all devoted to their parents.  Her family’s home was located on a hill—“Cottage Hill”—that led away from town.  In those days, long before television and well before it would become commonplace for every American family to own a car, Nonna and her family would entertain themselves by way of singing songs and playing games.  At Christmastime, they would trek out into the woods to cut down a tree, and on Christmas morning, each sibling could anticipate receiving, among one or maybe two other things, a piece of fruit. 

But all was not fun and games in the Squarcia household.

My great grandfather was a shoe repairman. His shop was in the hub of town, about a thirty minute walk from his home.  As I said, the Squarcias had no car, and so my grandmother, as a very young girl, would sometimes be entrusted with delivering her father his lunch. In addition to this responsibility (and who knows how many others), it was also left to her to cap the bottles into which her father would pour his homemade beer.

When she entered grade school, apparently from a heightened self-consciousness regarding her Italian name, she identified herself, not asFerrara, but as “Mary.”  The name stuck and until this day, most people who know her know her as Mary.

In 1946, she married my grandfather, Frank Wieser.  They would build a life together that would include five children, eight grandchildren, and, eventually, three great- grandchildren.  Sadly, Pop Pop wouldn’t live to meet his great-grandchildren. In 2007, after 61 years of marriage with Nonna, he passed away.

My grandparents lived but five blocks away from my parents’ home.  Thus, along with my siblings and, for that matter, all of my cousins, I essentially grew up in their house. It was nothing fancy, this house of theirs, and it took them nearly twenty years to acquire it.  Being of modest size, my grandparents’ house was typical of the residences of their lower middle class neighborhood.  But it was theirs.  It was the first and last house that they would ever own, for they remained within its walls for the rest of their lives. It is there that they would supply their family with a rich fund of memories.

Family was everything for Nonna (and Pop Pop too, of course).  It wasn’t just every holiday and birthday that we celebrated at their home.  When I was growing up, every weekend—Saturday and Sunday—may as well have been a holiday weekend, for my entire family would gather at my grandparents’ where we would eat—“Mangia!” (“Eat!”) Nonna would order—and the adults would play cards.

Through the family’s struggles and hardships, my grandparents were the glue that would preserve its integrity.

And preserve it they did.

Nonna was not in the least bit politically oriented.  My aunt may have dragged her off on a couple of occasions to vote, but as far as knowledge of current events is concerned, my grandmother had not a speck of it.  She didn’t know what was going on in the world and she didn’t care to know.  What this means is that unlike so many of our contemporaries, she most certainly did not measure her moral standing according to the positions that she took on the political issues of the day.  Nonna had no such positions.

I never once heard my grandmother speak of “rights,” whether “natural,” “human,” or otherwise.  In fact, for that matter, notwithstanding few exceptions, Nonna scarcely spoke about morality at all.

She lived it.

And she lived it well, without any sense of self-consciousness, and certainly not in a manner that would suggest that she was trying to “apply” principles to specific situations.

No one is ever just a person. Each of us is someone’s child. Most of us have friends, siblings, and colleagues.  Some of us are spouses, parents, grandparents, and even great-grandparents.  Each persona that we assume comes with obligations and virtues that are peculiar to it.  It is by way of discharging these duties and fostering these excellences that we become the people, the moral agents, who we are.

Nonna masterfully played out each of the roles into which life cast her.  No one who knew her would even dare to suggest otherwise.

St. Francis of Assisiis said to have admonished his disciples to preach the Gospel—and, when necessary, to use words.  When it came to virtue, Nonna was short on words but long on action.  The difference, though, between the disciples of Saint Francis, on the one hand, and Nonna, on the other, is that while the former intended to instruct others, Nonna acted as if she no more intended to teach others in the way of virtue than rain intends to moisten the Earth.  Her virtue was her nature.

The passing of my grandmother marks the passing of an era.  Our family will miss her more than words can express.  She was among the finest human beings that we ever could have known.  Yet we can thank God that we had her with us, and had her with us for as long as we did. 

Rest in peace Nonna (September 13, 1923-March 9, 2012).   

Originally published at The New American 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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