Rod Dreher

Rod Dreher


Tradition, faux and true

posted by Rod Dreher

Andrew Sullivan remarks on my two recent posts about tradition and postmodernity (first one here, second one here). Excerpt:

Welcome to the modern world, Rod. The kind of unthinking cohesion of the past, sustained by elite control of the media and by ancient accommodation to a world before contraception, advances in longevity, and the technological revolution, is indeed gone. We are all subcultures now. This is hard, bewildering for many, too much for some. The reason why Rod is worth reading is that he is not in denial about this – just a mild form of despair. But that the only intelligent response for a traditionalist is retreat into a faux traditionalism tells you something about the problem. It is insoluble. It is our reality. And conservatives adjust to reality; they do not assault it.

I think there are a few things wrong with this response. It’s long, so I’ve moved it past the jump.


1. I don’t think Andrew really got my point in these posts. I was despairing over the shattering of the Western cultural tradition, but also proposing a way to find cohesive meaning in the ruins by pointing out a paradox: that technology, among other factors, has not only exacerbated the effects of the shattering, but has also made it more possible for we postmodernists who live among the shards to reclaim what the modernists cast aside. Ken Myers argues (see post two) that the down side of the shattering is far, far more weighty than any benefits. My response is that even if that’s true — and I think it is — we who lament the dissolution of the Western tradition are not without resources to resist and to reclaim — resources that weren’t available to most of us during the decisive decade of the Sixties, and the decades that immediately followed.
2. What is “faux traditionalism”? How does it differ from the real thing? Are the young Brooklyn hipsters who are reviving traditionalist foodways a bunch of poseurs? Is the twentysomething Catholic who finds the Tridentine mass to be a thing of great value, and who begins to attend that traditional liturgy cast aside in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, a fake? How would one know such a thing? I suppose one aspect of so-called faux traditionalism would be nostalgia for a past that never existed. But by no means can you dismiss all people who favor reviving dead or dying traditions deluded nostalgists — though doing so is often a powerful rhetorical device. You know, you can’t turn back the clock. Of course you can. I mean, you can’t unlearn what you already know, but it is often possible to restore things according to some past ideal thought to be better than the current state of affairs. If conservatives accomodate themselves to reality, and don’t assault it, how can you explain the careers of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, two of the most transformative politicians of the 20th century?
“You can’t turn back the clock” is too often a quasi-metaphysical defense against a proposed cultural, legal or policy change thought to be insufficiently progressive. And it is a modernist truism espoused by people who thing history proceeds in a linear direction, in the direction of secular liberalism and the broader values of Modernism. These days, to be a traditionalist in architecture is to be anti-Modernist — indeed, to reclaim what is most valuable and humane from past eras, when people saw things more clearly than we do today. To believe that the way things are now in every sense represents the pinnacle of human liberty and advancement is a presentist delusion.
3. “And conservatives adjust to reality; they do not assault it.” Huh? It is true that conservatives by temperament are supposedly more realistic than idealistic liberals, but one’s concept of “reality” is a politically and culturally loaded term. Take gay marriage, for example — something I bring up not to have an argument over it, but only because it is particularly important to Andrew. For Andrew and his allies, “reality” means that same-sex attraction is natural and immutable, and the conservative approach is to reconcile society with this reality by recognizing same-sex marriage. But there are many people around the world — indeed, I would say most people — for whom the idea of two people of the same sex marrying is complete unreality, play-acting of the first order. In both cases, you’d have people agreeing on the reality of same-sex attraction, but they disagree strongly on the nature of marriage. From a morally conservative/traditionalist point of view, the campaign for gay marriage is a full-frontal assault on reality, and there will ultimately be serious repercussions for a society that adopts it. For Andrew Sullivan and his allies, it is a matter of basic justice, and changing the laws and culture to harmonize them with what they see as reality. One is reminded of the first line in Richard Weaver’s “Ideas Have Consequences”:

Every man participating in a culture has three levels of conscious reflection: his specific ideas about things, his general beliefs or convictions, and his metaphysical dream of the world.

What he means by “metaphysical dream” is the deep unconscious idea about the way the world works. I blogged about the meaning of “metaphysical dream” here a few years ago, and highlighted the work of the Australian philosopher John Carroll. Carroll is a secularist and an unbeliever who nevertheless sees that Western culture has shattered, and that this portends nothing good for us. He tries to resurrect Jesus, so to speak, as an existential (not divine) hero. As I wrote then, quoting Carroll’s essay:

We cannot live without mythos, without answers to the three big questions. As indigenous Australians put it in relation to their own quite different mythos, the Dreaming, if you lose contact with the founding archetypal stories you wither and die. It is only the conjoining of an individual’s story with the Dreaming parallel that inspires life, transforming it out of profane ordinary time and its banal routines. Jesus is the core of the Western Dreaming.

As I commented at the time:

You can feel Carroll’s urgency here, and his conviction. Yet it is the conviction of a secular materialist heroically trying to resurrect Jesus the Ideal Man, because he grasps that absent cult, culture fails. If we stop dreaming, our culture dies. His heroic attempt cannot but fail, however brilliant, because at the end of the day, if Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, his story is merely interesting. And that’s not enough to bind a conscience, or a culture.

I still believe that. What we are living through now is the aftermath of Christendom, by which I mean Christian civilization in the West. It is not the end of the world, but it is the end of a world. The reality that Ken Myers and I despair of, and that Andrew seems to celebrate, is the end of the idea of a moral hierarchy transcending and undergirding our daily experience. We despair of the death of the idea that Truth is something you discover and conform yourself to, rather than something you construct to suit your own desires and felt needs. I could be wrong, and welcome correction if I am, but I suspect that if you removed sex and sexuality from the discussion, Andrew, insofar as he is truly a conservative, would agree with much of this analysis. But it can’t be done, not honestly, because to cast aside Christian sexual ethics as irrelevant to Christianity is like removing the cornerstone of a building and expecting it not to fall. And this fact reveals something about the nature of our disagreement here.
I must admit that there are times when I realize that despite my misgivings and doubts about modernity, I am more liberal in the cultural sense than I realize. I am reading right now galleys of a forthcoming book of church history. It’s impossible for me to deny that it was a very good thing indeed that the Church had its wings clipped in the 19th century; had I lived at the time in Europe, I probably would have been quite liberal, even as a Christian. The abuse of power of Churchmen was appalling (Edgardo Mortara, anyone?), though the anti-clericalists were as bad or worse. To identify oneself as a “traditionalist” requires explanation, and (alas) explaining away. A 21st century traditionalist is in some important ways a 19th century liberal, it seems to me. Anyway, I would rather live in the postmodern messiness we have now than under the hegemony of modernism and its expression in industrial mass culture, because there is more hope for traditionalists. Look at the Hasidic Jews who emigrated to America. Their leaders in the old country warned them that they’d be lost in the land of pluralism and liberty — meaning that they’d be assimilated, and lose themselves. In fact, they have not only survived, they’ve thrived, because this country grants them the room to be countercultural. That’s the kind of hope I’m looking for for me and my tribe. It may not be much, but it’s all we’ve got.



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John E - Agn Stoic

posted June 3, 2010 at 6:15 pm


…because this country grants them the room to be countercultural. That’s the kind of hope I’m looking for for me and my tribe. It may not be much, but it’s all we’ve got.
Wait…you have the freedom, guaranteed and supported by law, to practice your tradition, and you have a world-spanning internet to bring you information about the history of your tradition and information about what others in your tradition are doing, and you have access to a worldwide market that will bring your artifacts such as, oh say Russian icons, right to your doorstep…
and you say ‘it may not be much’?
Well, gee Rod, what would it take to make you happy about the situation you find yourself in?



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Steve

posted June 3, 2010 at 6:34 pm


John E,
I think that what Rod is getting at is the paradox that this liberal society that allows for free Hasidic, Eastern Orthodox, Amish, etc. communities also insists that none of them have ultimate authority. Instead, the State and pluralism itself are defacto ultimate and transcendent. That is a problem, which becomes quite apparent in certain legal and social situations. At the end of the day, every traditionally religious person is a Barthian or Hauerwasian in that they believe that secular structures are only provisional if not ungodly (see the Hebrew prophets, Jesus, Paul, Dead Sea Scrolls for just a few examples of this anti-imperial tendency early on). In modernity, the nation-state almost inevitably plays God, as the arbiter between traditions, which then become subservient to it.



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JS

posted June 3, 2010 at 6:36 pm


Rob, you should read some of philosopher Ruth Millikan. She is on the cutting edge of reviving ontological realism, semantic realism, and truth as correspondence (moral realism will then follow). There is a nice look to the future in light of the revival of realism as against post-modern nihilism here: http://apoxonbothyourhouses.blogspot.com/2009/07/teleology-and-death-of-liberalism.html



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Peter

posted June 3, 2010 at 6:43 pm


In fact, they have not only survived, they’ve thrived, because this country grants them the room to be countercultural. That’s the kind of hope I’m looking for for me and my tribe. It may not be much, but it’s all we’ve got.
Why can’t you have it? What’s stopping it right now?
Would you be content to be outside the culture and not warring with it, as the Hasidim have done. Would you be willing to strike the balance that the Hasidim have made with the culture, which is understanding that the religious freedom comes with obligations and sometimes your religious freedom doesn’t trump public policy?



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Jon

posted June 3, 2010 at 6:46 pm


Re: but it is often possible to restore things according to some past ideal
Here I have to disagree: No, you really can’t go back in time. You can find a new balance and incorporate many elements that were valuable in the past. But the future is always and everywhere its own creature. And what’s more you should welcome that. I love the tradition of the Orthodox Church, but I regard it as a living tradition, not a museum piece, and I dream of an Orthodox America, not some return to the Byzantine Empire.



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YrName

posted June 3, 2010 at 7:20 pm


I think, by your own lights, what makes it “faux” is that you get to choose. You aren’t, by tradition, Orthodox. You chose it. You’re choosing the tradition because it fits you, rather than fitting yourself to the tradition. (This comes out in some of the complaints about the status of the Orthodox in America. That is, there’s presumably a tradition that you’re still getting accustomed to, and you don’t like certain results, and wonder why you can’t have what you want. To be clear: I know nothing about the theology, politics, demographics, or history at play, so I may have this entirely wrong. It just seemed weird.)



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Broken Yogi

posted June 3, 2010 at 7:22 pm


It’s very hard not to look at these views as simply “faux traditionalism”, even though you are self-consciously aware of it. Clearly you’re not a real traditionalist, as you admit. You’re an old-school liberal who has a longing to belong to some kind of traditional order, which I guess is why you’ve become an Orthodox. I guess you’d like to be a liberal reformer within such a tradition, help steer it into the modern era, without too much breakage. You’re not a radical modernist of the “throw out the past” variety, but that’s actually a fairly rare viewpoint, especially among the more bourgeious modernists who aren’t so much against tradition but merely find it quaint, like a postcard. And you don’t really want to give up the amenities of modern life either, or the income from blogging on the internet rather than, say, getting a traditional job and profession.
I’m not trying to get down on you, I think your choices are sound, but this refrain about the world falling apart and shattering kind of falls flat if you seem to actually be rather happy in the life you’ve constructed from this “catastrphe”. In fact, I bet your life is a lot happier than it could have been as a 19th century liberal. The modern world, despite its confusions, is a far better place for most to build a life and raise a family than its traditional alternatives. The fact that a lot of people don’t raise families any more or have non-traditional family structures doesn’t make it harder overall to raise a family. It’s always been a pretty tough thing to do, but it sure seems a lot easier now than ever before.
Culturally, aside from not having a monolithic cultural standard everyone is expected to adhere to and find their niche within, it’s also really easy to find cultural niches, as you have, that are just about right for everyone. When has that ever been the case? Yes, you have to live with those gay couples you think are an outrage against God and nature, but then again, they have to live with you too, so it’s pretty much a wash. At least neither of you is going to lynch the other over your differences, and that makes a huge difference. This is a step backwards? Well, I guess it might seem that way if you’re from the majority that used to enforce the standards, but if you’re not, it’s quite a step forward. And everyone has something that’s outside the mainstream. Your religious choice would have been impossible in some other country in a previous traditional era, and I bet you are greatful for that freedom to choose, but you just aren’t happy that others get to choose gay marriage, say. Well, you can’t have the one without the other. The advantage we get from having to accept others as they are is that they have to accept us as we are.
Shall we all get together and sing as one from the works of that great modern musician Kurt Cobain:
Come as you are, as you were,
As I want you to be
As a friend, as a friend, as an old enemy



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Scott Lahti

posted June 3, 2010 at 7:58 pm


Alternate title for this blog, and its precursor: Our Dinner With Rodre, or, Rod Quicksoak de la Muncha.
Those who’ve seen the 1981 movie with Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn, My Dinner With Andre, were amused by the set-piece Quixote-Sancho polarity between the two companions at table. The pace-setter was the high-minded spiritual seeker Andre, bungful with breathless dispatches from various guru’d excursions into the Himalayas, communal auto-therapeutic layings bare unto vulnerable metamorphosis with the experimental avant-garde within his theatrical demimonde, each project, however outwardly trendy, arising from a craving shared with our traditionalist brethren here today to flee in repair from the neurotic disintegrations of what Zygmunt Bauman calls “liquid modernity”. Shawn’s “Wally”, on the other hand, was, like many of us commenters here toward our host, was utterly captivated by an interlocutor from whom he could not have differed more in spirit – fully content with the humblest material pleasures of the everyday petit-bourgeois, not excepting the surprise discovery of a leftover cup of yesterday’s coffee, snug in a cozy understanding with girlfriend Debbie, looking forward to putting on with friends his next lighthearted play – and utterly uninterested in metaphysics, grand moral narratives, or anything else to set the Faustian forehead to fretful and fateful furrows.
Since we’re looking at a temperamental and emotional continuum here, rather than some policy dispute susceptible to legislatively brokered compromise, or a scientific quarrel amenable to further empirical testing, there’s not much point in forcing the hedgehog and the fox into a protracted bout of arm-wrestling in hopes of establishing more common ground than already obtains, i.e., our host and his less-fretful interlocutors each love a good rummage through the web-enhanced thrift shop of cultural history, and love to show off their latest finds, and have to know all of them on some base level that whichever way the world in its broad outlines goes, there’s nothing whatever they can do about it save for presenting it with one improved unit out of seven billion, and enjoy the ride in ways that keep them each in his way out of the lee side of trouble, first doing no harm to whatever extent practicable. All else is pretense of the highest water – far more than three feet high, and rising.



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Jon

posted June 3, 2010 at 7:59 pm


Re: what makes it “faux” is that you get to choose.
People have always been able to choose. To be sure, in some times and places it would be dangerous to advertize a choice to go against the grain, so a lot of people still went through the outward motions of conforming while rejecting tradition inwardly– but were those people truly living by tradition? In religious terms, were they true Christians? I think not. No, not at all.
This is why, among many other things, the road to perdition can be paved with the skulls of bishops.



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Geoff G.

posted June 3, 2010 at 8:01 pm


What is “faux traditionalism”?
I’m not sure you understood Andrew’s point here (or maybe I didn’t). It seems to me that the nostalgia is for an extremely broad-based common consensus regarding culture. It’s nostalgia for the 100+ million watching the last episode of M*A*S*H. It’s nostalgia for everyone watching Walter Cronkite read the news. It’s nostalgia for a time when “religious freedom” merely meant that the various Christian denominations would be tolerated (and that toleration mostly grudgingly extended to Jews). It’s nostalgia for a time when everyone would attend a church in their community. And it’s nostalgia for the time when entire communities shared more-or-less the same mores.
Rod is basically pining for Robertson Davies’ Deptford.
But these communities no longer exist. Even if you, yourself, live a life in accordance with these traditional values, even if you create some kind of community of others with similar ideas, you’re still just living as a subculture now. It’s no longer the mainstream. There is no mainstream.
Because there is no broadly shared tradition any more, that’s why clinging to those values is ersatz. It’s a chosen lifestyle, not a community norm. And all the assertions to the contrary won’t change that fact.
And yes, those Brooklyn hipsters are part of a subculture too. (They may very well be poseurs as well…they are hipsters after all) Their culture is no more mainstream than mine is. Hence faux traditionalism.



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Fr. J

posted June 3, 2010 at 8:21 pm


I’m still stuck on the supposed paradox that when a person chooses tradition it ceases to be tradition. That is true if the selection of a tradition is built only on the satisfaction of felt needs. Perhaps I’m just too much of a postmodernist for my own good, but I think that it’s possible to choose tradition in a way that is restorative and does not weaken the claim of tradition. And, as a matter of fact, I wonder how a tradition that is not freely accepted can help but become the catalyst for the kind of cultural backlash that we’ve been experiencing for at least the last hundred and fifty years in the west.
Perhaps a small (and possibly unfitting) example of what I mean…
I am an Anglican. In my tradition, as many of you know, there was a movement in the nineteenth century called the Oxford Movement which sought to reform the Church of England (and by implication the burgeoning Anglican Communion) in a more conservative, sacramental, catholic direction. In its earliest iteration, this was not strictly a liturgical movement but a theological movement, relying heavily on an appeal to lost tradition. It’s always hard to summarize these things without rankling somebody’s feathers somewhere, but in a nutshell the aim of the early Tractarians (as the Oxford Movement Fathers were called) was for the Church of England to reclaim her rightful place as a part of the Church Catholic, as not just another protestant denomination or sect but as the Catholic Church as she was established in England, having in the Reformation gone through a political and ecclesiastical split with the Church in Rome but having otherwise retained the things that make the Church Catholic: sacraments, creeds, an appeal to the ecumenical councils, and most notably the three-fold order of ministers as Deacons, Priests, and Bishops in Apostolic Succession.
The Tractarians argued that the Church of England needed to learn to understand herself in this way again, not because it was a better or easier choice but because it was the true nature of who she was and always had been. And so an appeal was made to the Caroline Divines and to the Church Fathers to make the case. And once that case was made, at least amongst some within the Church, the recovery of things like candles on the altar, more elaborate vestments, and Catholic devotions flowed forth. These were traditions that were recovered, not as a choice for what would be the best necessarily but as a logical consequence of an honest and informed choice to accept the truth of the traditions because they were true. One can quibble about whether or not the Tractarians’ read of the history was accurate or fanciful when it came to the Church of England. But it’s hard to deny that their motives were formed by anything other than a desire to recover the truth which lead them to a humble sense that the holders and guarantors of traditions of the past perhaps held pieces that they didn’t have, and that the truth of the tradition was enough to warrant submission to it even in its more uncomfortable applications, even if it meant persecution (as it sometimes did in the nineteenth century), even if it meant sacrifices that wouldn’t amount to personal glory or satisfaction. And for a time, this faithful, chosen recovery of tradition was blessed with the birth of monasteries, ministries to the slums and the poor, and the salvation of many souls.
Contrast that with today’s Anglican landscape in the west in which so many of us have swallowed post-modernity hook, line, and sinker. Now-a-days, there are eighty different ways of being “Anglo-Catholic.” Many who claim the inheritance of the Tractarians are really only interested in the aesthetic pleasures of sung Masses and incense. There are Affirming Catholics and Anglo-Papalists and Prayer Book Catholics and English Missal Catholics and Novus Ordo Catholics and Forward in Faith Catholics and on and on and on. And while some of these groups argue from a received tradition, many simply argue from a place of personal preference. Particularly in the Affirming Catholic camp, there is a sense that it’s all whatever you want it to be. Being Catholic is about choosing those Catholic things that work best for me, and who’s to say anything different? I’ve actually heard those words come out of the mouth of a prominent English Missal Catholic. Sadly, a movement that once held such promise for the recovery of tradition in the Church and in society has largely been co-opted by the very liberal individualism it sought to correct.
But my point is this: At least for a time, what the Tractarians did was to choose tradition consciously in a landscape in which there was no choice. And despite my lamentation about what has happened, I still think the Anglican Communion and the Church Catholic are the better for it. Today the stakes are much higher and the level of cultural deterioration much greater. Tradition is a dirty word. But as Rod has pointed out, we actually have a choice today. And while that may sometimes manifest itself as an enemy of tradition, I believe that it will ultimately lead to renewal because the possibility is left open to make the choice to accept truth. That truth is not as easy as fiction is undoubted. That truth lacks the sex appeal of absolute consumerist subjectivism is likewise unquestionable. But eventually the well runs dry for those who seek to create a world out of patchwork, and they come looking for the one thing they haven’t tried yet, the one thing they always assumed was the opposite of what they wanted, the very tradition that their parents and grandparents sought to escape.



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John E. - Agn Stoic

posted June 3, 2010 at 8:27 pm


I think that what Rod is getting at is the paradox that this liberal society that allows for free Hasidic, Eastern Orthodox, Amish, etc. communities also insists that none of them have ultimate authority.
And thank goodness for that!



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Richard Barrett

posted June 3, 2010 at 8:37 pm


You aren’t, by tradition, Orthodox. You chose it. You’re choosing the tradition because it fits you, rather than fitting yourself to the tradition.
Speaking as an Orthodox Christian who converted, this is routinely something that is next to impossible to make somebody who hasn’t gone through a similar journey themselves understand (and sometimes that includes other Orthodox Christians).
Without presuming to speak for anybody else, what I will say is that I was not born an Orthodox Christian; I converted, yes. To the extent that my conversion was the result of an act of will on my part, albeit in cooperation with the Holy Spirit, it can be accurately said that I chose it. So far so good, more or less. I suppose.
But to say that I chose Orthodox Christianity “because it fits me” is at once the most ignorant thing that one can say about what happened and yet the leap that virtually everybody makes. I didn’t convert because I thought Byzantine chant was nice (although music was an initial way through which I was exposed), I didn’t convert because icons struck me as kinda nifty, I didn’t convert because I liked incense and domes, I didn’t convert because I thought standing for 3-4 hours at Easter seemed like fun, I didn’t convert because of a deep-seated love for Russian or Greek language or cultural custom.
I converted because I was convinced that it was the fullness of the truth. Orthodoxy, it was very clear from the get-go, didn’t and couldn’t give a damn whether or not “it fit me”. It was, and is, far bigger than me or my “spiritual needs.” As I’ve told people before, if we’re talking aesthetics, give me high church Anglican practice any day of the week. I was expected to conform myself to Orthodox Christianity; if I had been expecting Orthodox Christianity to conform to me, then I would guess that many people along the way would have simply told me to not bother.
But I concede that there’s a problem in that being my answer to what you say — it’s like what Kyra Sedgwick tells Campbell Scott in the movie Singles: “You have an act. Not having an act is your act.” From the postmodern point of view where it’s all about accommodation and what fits you and boutique spirituality and religion being nothing more than the marketplace of ideals rather than cultural common currency, Orthodoxy not “fitting me” is just the way in which I found that it “fit me.” In this reasoning, trying to appeal to something larger than me is simply to widen the circle — there is no “larger than me,” nor can there be.
As I read it, this perhaps part of the conceptual problem of what Rod is discussing and lamenting here. I tend to agree with him.
Richard



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Richard Barrett

posted June 3, 2010 at 8:47 pm


Even if you, yourself, live a life in accordance with these traditional values, even if you create some kind of community of others with similar ideas, you’re still just living as a subculture now. It’s no longer the mainstream. There is no mainstream. Because there is no broadly shared tradition any more, that’s why clinging to those values is ersatz. It’s a chosen lifestyle, not a community norm. And all the assertions to the contrary won’t change that fact.
Well, heck, why use a word as elevated as “subculture”? What you’re talking about isn’t a “subculture” — by this reasoning, all it can ever really be is a “hobby.”
Richard



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Rod Dreher

posted June 3, 2010 at 8:50 pm


I’m not trying to get down on you, I think your choices are sound, but this refrain about the world falling apart and shattering kind of falls flat if you seem to actually be rather happy in the life you’ve constructed from this “catastrphe”. In fact, I bet your life is a lot happier than it could have been as a 19th century liberal.
You don’t understand what I’m talking about here. The question is not whether or not I’m happier. The question is one of cultural meaning, and the long-term survival of a culture that has seen its unity and sense of coherence done away with. A lot went into undoing the West, but it happened, and that’s hardly in dispute. The loss of the West to Christianity is a catastrophe to many, and a blessing to many others, but a fact to all. We live in a post-Christian world in the West. People who say, “Oh, hey, you’re a lot happier today than you would have been in the 18th century because you’ve got the Internet and modern dentistry” completely miss the point. Alasdair MacIntyre, the Marxist-turned-Thomist, gets it. John Carroll, the atheist humanist, gets it. Phillip Rieff, the secular Jewish sociologist, got it. Glenn Tinder, the political scientist, gets it, having written in the Atlantic that all of us living in liberal democracies are in some sense free riders on the legacy of Christianity, and because of that, there’s no guarantee that what is best in our liberal, democratic culture will survive the passing of Christianity.
I am not claiming that what is traditional is by definition good. Because humans are a mixed bag morally, so are our traditions. As a general matter, traditions become traditions because they have stood the test of time, and have been found through wide and long experience to be good and useful. Generally speaking, we should always defer to tradition and prescription, though not treat it as sacrosanct. You should re-read what I wrote. What Myers and I lament is not so much the passing of the Western tradition (though we do) as the passing of the idea that there is any such thing as a tradition, religious and cultural, that should bind and guide our conduct, and inform our self-understanding. The ground has gone out from under our feet, and the fact that we haven’t fallen yet is, I fear, simply a question of the movement of time.
The fact that a lot of people don’t raise families any more or have non-traditional family structures doesn’t make it harder overall to raise a family.
Are you raising a family, or have you raised a family? What you say is very, very wrong. Ever read “A Secular Age” by the philosopher Charles Taylor? In it, he talks about how it is so much more difficult to believe in God today, in a secular age, than it was hundreds of years ago, when it required a huge effort of the will not to believe in God. He’s describing a sociological phenomenon. Today, he says, believers have to make a much greater effort of the will to hold on to beliefs than they did when whole societies were organized around a shared belief in God. We cannot perceive it because it has happened so gradually, over the course of many lifetimes. But it happened. Similarly, it is more difficult to raise a family when there are fewer people doing so, or (as is far more common), there is no commonly understood set of principles for how one is to do that. This is part of the effect of the culture having shattered. Sometimes it’s a gorgeous mosaic; sometimes it’s moral chaos.
The reason I said I’d probably be a liberal in the 19th century (or at least I hope I would have been) is because I don’t see that preserving the Tradition meant fighting for the Papal States, for example, or every aspect of the ancien regime. Though I admit it’s very easy for me to say that now, from the perspective of 2010. My point simply is that to say one defers to Tradition doesn’t mean one is nostalgic for everything in the past. As I and others have pointed out, Tradition is the accumulated wisdom and practices of a culture over time. It is always being refined. I do not see that it’s necessary to affirm the evil legacy of racism to affirm the good things in the Southern tradition, and to draw what is best in that tradition into one’s own life while rejecting what ought to be rejected. Gradual, organic change is almost always better than revolution.
Geoff:
Because there is no broadly shared tradition any more, that’s why clinging to those values is ersatz. It’s a chosen lifestyle, not a community norm. And all the assertions to the contrary won’t change that fact.
I don’t understand your point. Of course Andrew is right: we are all subcultures now. But why does it make it wrong, or ersatz, to live out the values one holds, and to live them out in community? The Amish are very far from mainstream; is theirs a faux traditionalism? You might say no, because the Amish tradition is unbroken, and it has been received and handed on from generation to generation. But say converts to the Amish form of Christianity (I don’t know if they accept converts, but let’s say for the sake of argument that they do) wanted to join their community, and agree to submit to their traditions. Who are we to call their commitment “ersatz” because it was chosen? And at what point does it cease to be ersatz, and become authentic? After five years? After five generations?
That you see no tradition as being authentic or viable in this day and age is the essence of the problem. If the only authentic thing is nothing, where does that leave us, except in a position of ironic detachment from which there is no escape? Who can live by that? This is the kind of thing that Myers and others worry about.



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Rod Dreher

posted June 3, 2010 at 8:59 pm


Lots of good commentary already on this thread. Thanks! One thing I want to add, by way of self-criticism: as regular readers know, I am acutely aware of the problems with my position, and I keep going back to Alan Ehrenhalt’s wise words in his book “The Lost City,” about the transformation of Chicago from the 1940s to today: that people want the good things of the past — the close neighborhoods, the sense of belonging, and identity, and communal solidarity — without the bad (“bad”) things that made that possible — chiefly, the loss of individual choice and privacy. You can’t have one without the other. As much as people like me pine for tradition, it’s a fair question to ask how much individual liberty we’d be willing to give up to get it back.
On the other hand, it ought to be asked of individual libertarians, if that’s the phrase, where they think the further atomization of society is going to end. I suspect they’d say it doesn’t matter, really; all that matters is choice. This is fairly nihilist, because it doesn’t care for what is chosen. We are as capable of choosing the bad as we are of choosing the good.



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R Hampton

posted June 3, 2010 at 9:00 pm


We despair of the death of the idea that Truth is something you discover and conform yourself to, rather than something you construct to suit your own desires and felt needs.
I think this encapsulates Rod’s problem rather well, ironically. The Reformation combined these two opposing statements; a private Christianity that does not need authority to determine Truth, or to decide which traditions keep. America’s religions freedom and pluralist government extended this reality to all regardless of their faith. Given that, is it not Western Tradition to construct a private Truth?
captcha: twined always



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Scott Lahti

posted June 3, 2010 at 9:04 pm


I think that what Rod is getting at is the paradox that this liberal society that allows for free Hasidic, Eastern Orthodox, Amish, etc. communities also insists that none of them have ultimate authority.
That aspect of the American (i.e., liberal) creed at its noblest and most worth the blood to defend reminds me of how I came to view the place in our culture of such doctrinaire-sectarian political publications as National Review and The Nation – I always loathed the kind of people who, from bigotry either left-wing or right-wing, assumed you to be, respectively, either a Nazi or a Communist because you had written for or included the one or the other in your weekly reading stack; by the same token, I shrink in horror to realize that there are many for whom one or the other forms virtually the sole source of political opinion.
Also at the same token-taking turnstile in our cultural overground, I am happy to live (and let live) in a culture where Rush Limbaugh may (small-c) commune – as it were – for 15 (publically-)unmolested hours weekly with as many millions of listeners; I am happier still to live in a country where, thanks to those same freedoms and the same unbounded blue skies of its cultural marketplace, 15 times as many Americans past their 18th birthday are otherwise engaged, and that, whatever those attending from addiction the funhouse mirror of cable-“news” and talk-radio would have you believe, by far the greater part of this American life is nonpolitical – we leave the “Dear Reader” syndrome to those pratform-shoed ronery Papa-san’s boys from the Myterious Yeast – and thus the one universal institution serving us all, from newborn to corpse, visitor, alien and citizen alike, is merely the messenger and not the message – the United States Postal Service.



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YrName

posted June 3, 2010 at 9:18 pm


and that’s hardly in dispute
Um, are you kidding? Insofar as it’s disappearing, it’s because we only just recently believed that the West had won. Everyone was converting to democracy, capitalism, and whiskey sexy.
I’d be astonished if “the undoing of the West” wasn’t in dispute. That –the belief that there’s not even a dispute about this, not that it has happened–strikes me as genuinely crazy. I could be wrong about this–declinism is clearly an area of focus for you–but I’d want to see some sort of letter signed off by…well, everyone…before I believed it.



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Anon prof

posted June 3, 2010 at 9:21 pm


It seems to me that the question is whether or not our tradition-less culture is sustainable. What if technological progress does not increase indefinitely? What if cheap energy becomes a thing of the past? What if our wealth contracts dramatically? The industrial revolution has dramatically altered our values, pushed back our boundaries, and raised our expectations. We’ve been able to cast aside values forged in pre-industrial times and avoid the consequences to some degree with technology. We escaped the Malthusian trap back a because of industrialization (coal). Slavery is impossible to justify when you can stick a straw in the ground and extract the energy of a 1000 men. We can engage in recreational sex and thanks to the wonders of modern science largely mitigate the consequences. But if folks like Sharon Astyk are right, then what?
Ross Douthat pointed out that the Canadians were able to pass a VAT, cut spending and balance their budget back in the 90’s because they trusted their government. We couldn’t do such a thing. The lack of a common american culture/value system makes governing very difficult when hard choices have to be made. It is clear that the west is on a fiscally unsustainable trajectory (and possibly ecological and moral one as well). I wonder if the absence of a shared mythos/tradition/value system is what is making it so incredibly difficult to tackle these problems. Our atomized culture may be fine when things are going well, but what about when we are dealing with a crisis?



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hlvanburen

posted June 3, 2010 at 9:28 pm


“That you see no tradition as being authentic or viable in this day and age is the essence of the problem.”
I’ve just recently started reading about the conversion of the Nordic countries to Christianity at the turn of the first millennium CE. I wonder if I will come across a skald of that era with a message like yours as he watches his social structure crumble from the onslaught of Christianity.
I write that not to be snarky, but merely to point out that we humans have endured countless such changes as people became more mobile and tribes started interacting. I strongly suspect that your reaction has been duplicated by many, many other people at various times in the history of our species.
As Christianity ascended, other religious beliefs faded. Prior to that those fading religious beliefs ascended and overshadowed older beliefs.
And we will continue into the future. It won’t be easy, nor will it be painless. But we will continue forward.



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Richard Barrett

posted June 3, 2010 at 9:44 pm


And we will continue into the future. It won’t be easy, nor will it be painless. But we will continue forward.
Which confirms the hunch I often have about secularists — the question is not whether or not there is a teleological view of history, only what the telos is.
Richard



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david scott

posted June 3, 2010 at 9:45 pm


It should go without saying that a person should be allowed to marry whomever they choose. Until the right-wing, religious fanatics in this country stop trying to control everybody else and force their “morals” down the throat of the country, there can be no real freedom in the United States. Civil rights cannot simply be “voted away,” that is the purpose of the Bill of Rights. Religious activists should be left out of these decisions completely. I invite you to my web pages devoted to raising awareness on this puritan attack on our freedom: http://freethegods.blogspot.com/2009/06/san-franciscos-gay-pride-parade.html



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Andrew

posted June 3, 2010 at 9:47 pm


Bringing up Edgardo Mortara just shows that you are not a traditionalist.
The Mortara affair was all about the meaning and power of baptism. If you don’t believe what the Church did was right, than you clearly don’t believe in the reality of the sacrament and its power to transform in Christ.
The Mortara affair would never have happened had his parents bothered to follow the law of the Papal States.



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YrName

posted June 3, 2010 at 9:50 pm


Actually, I think that there a bunch of problems with this argument, but the primary one regard how we’re defining “tradition.” No cultural tradition is entirely coherent. If what we mean by tradition is “a moral hierarchy transcending and undergirding our daily experience,” we’re still at a loss to identify that hierarchy in all its detail. People within traditional societies disagree all the time. As I recall, Dreher offered an example recently with regard to the Orthodox Church. As I understood it, the Orthodox hierarchy didn’t act in a way pleasing to Dreher (and others), and yet he was able to criticize the hierarchy’s behavior. I don’t know if that’s Dreher standing inside the tradition or standing outside it. If inside, surely that suggests that appeals to tradition don’t immediately resolve all issues.
Or, in this specific case, Dreher says, “to cast aside Christian sexual ethics as irrelevant to Christianity is like removing the cornerstone of a building and expecting it not to fall.” I suspect Sullivan disagrees. That’s not a disagreement about the importance of tradition; that’s a disagreement about the tradition itself.



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Scott Lahti

posted June 3, 2010 at 9:54 pm


Alasdair MacIntyre, the Marxist-turned-Thomist, gets it. John Carroll, the atheist humanist, gets it. Phillip Rieff, the secular Jewish sociologist, got it. Glenn Tinder, the political scientist, gets it
So did Marx, who saw in the volcanic Promethean prodigalities of capitalist, its endless uprootings, a Fall-to-Redemption teleology as old as the Hebrew prophets of the Old Testament, over methodological scaffolding as new as Ricardian economics and Hegelian dialectics. So did Schumpeter, who saw buccaneering capitalist dynamism drained unto socialist-anthill torpor by its very success, in spawning at once the separation of ownership from risk-bearing management, and an adversarial new class disenchanted from its eroding claims to legitimacy. So did the secular Jewish lit critic Lionel Trilling, who also saw in the adversary culture a source of instability running in a three-legged race with its corporate partner in the political economy (as did Daniel “Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism” Bell). So did Trilling’s great-books teaching sidekick Jacques Barzun, whose 2000 masterwork From Dawn to Decadence, spells out in its title and contents alike the tapping out, after 500 years, of the Western cultural mine first drilled in the Renaissance. So did Barzun’s pal the Hungarian Catholic historian John Lukacs, who, before flourishing his end-of-the-modern-age arm to Barzun, tap-danced that very theme in his 1993 book so titled. So did the secular Calvinist and paisan of freeholding petit-bourgeois yeomen everywhere, Christopher Lasch. So did Lasch’s culturally-conservative Marxist colleague and fellow-traveller of the Southern Agrarians Eugene Genovese. So did the right-communitarian sociologist Robert Nisbet, seeing in the acids of radical individualism, egalitarianism, the provider state, and American-exceptionalist nationalism a source of I-don’t-know-h’WHAT-all (Andy Griffith, ladies and gentlemen) mischief. So did…zzz…
The ground has gone out from under our feet, and the fact that we haven’t fallen yet is, I fear, simply a question of the movement of time.
Or of the fact that we haven’t yet glanced into the canyon beneath us, so convinced where we by the sales clerk in the blue polo shirt and kah-hackees in the ACME showroom that their shiny and waycool wifi-enabled rocket skates would see us through every abyss, what with the free upgrades to counter all downgrades…
Captcha: bagpipes Yigal (hope they’ve got earplugs in Tel Aviv)



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Hector

posted June 3, 2010 at 10:11 pm


Andrew,
St. Thomas Aquinas explicitly said that children of unbelievers were not to be baptized without their parent’s concent, and if I recall correctly he made special mention of the Jews. Is that traditional enough for you? All the sacraments require concent of some form or another- in the case of infant baptism the consent is provided by the parents, _not_ by some purported and highly dubious Christian wet-nurse. A forced marriage is no marriage at all, and a forced baptism is no baptism at all.
Re: Generally speaking, we should always defer to tradition and prescription, though not treat it as sacrosanct
Well, here I must disagree. We ought to defer to _Christian_ tradition (if we are Christians) though, again, I don’t believe that tradition is always right. While no tradition is infallible, in the case of church tradition we at least have reason to believe that the church has been, to some degree and in some sense, guided by the Holy Spirit. We have no such reason to believe that secular society has been guided by the Spirit, so I don’t see why we would automatically defer to _any_ and _all_ traditions.



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Broken Yogi

posted June 3, 2010 at 10:13 pm


Rod,
With all due respect, I think I do know what you’re talking about, it’s hardly a rare complaint about the modern world. But I do think the fact of your happiness is very strong evidence that whatever the confusions this world has wrought, it hasn’t prevented you from finding happiness in your life, in your tradition, and in your religion. And the same is true of many people living both traditional and non-traditional lives, or a mix of the two as is most commonly the case. Your concern for others is praiseworthy, but your assumption that only traditional Christian lives can be happy or sustain a human culture and that without these, the world will collapse, is not only presumptive, but not as likely as you fear to come about.
First, we can see that modern Europe has largely abandoned traditional Christianity, both in practice and in belief, and yet it is not falling apart. In fact, it seems to have prospered and become more stable in the process, perhaps because the legacies of traditional Christianity were so brutal on the continent. And yet, basic Christian values of compassion, decency, care for the poor, maintaining civil order, have not been abandoned. In fact, it could be argued that many non-Christians have done a better job at living and propagating Christian values better than most Christians. Certainly the European model of social order is more “Christian” in its basic functioning than America’s social model, even the model advocated by most “Christian conservatives”, which is really a laissez faire free market model with very little Christianity about it. You yourself seem to be not terribly much in favor of that model, but that makes you a non-traditional Christian by current definitions, which is an odd place for a traditionalist to be. You have carved out your own eclectic niche, and which has been a very happy thing for you I gather, but then you want everyone else, including other traditionalists, to emulate you. How untraditional that would be.
I know you think the world is going to hell in a handbasket, and you can get plenty of people who will agree, secular and religious, but if it is, why are you so happy, personally? And why are a lot of people happy with their choices? Not everyone is, to be sure, but that’s why some things become unpopular. You say, “As a general matter, traditions become traditions because they have stood the test of time, and have been found through wide and long experience to be good and useful.” Quite right, and traditions fail because they don’t stand the test of time. If Christianity and the traditional order you want to preserve is failing, isn’t that a sign that it isn’t “standing the test of time”? If it is failing, we have to examine why it is failing, and rather than blame people for not being attracted to it, we have to change the tradition so that it stands up to our times. Traditions got that way, as you note, by building up ways to survive through time, and the challenge here is no different. If it fails, other traditions will take their place. Nature abhors a vacuum.
I’m not of the view that Christianity is in any danger of disappearing from the west. But it will need to change and adapt as it always has if it wants to remain in good standing. We are in the odd situation now that Christianity is like a parent whose children have grown and created lives for themselves, and now it needs its children more than they need it. Add to that the fact that Christianity was not all that good a parent a lot of the time, and did a lot of abusive and hypocritically damaging things along the way, and you can see that there’s some serious reckonings to be had to bring the family back together again. It’s not enough to just say, respect your elders. The elders have to act in such a way as to not only gain respect, but forgiveness. The old traditional order is over, but that doesn’t mean the tradition itself is gone. It simply requires a new order to emerge. And that is going to take a lot of time. Probably another century or three.
The new order is going to have to learn how to accommodate this matter of choice into the picture. Is that not possible, a traditional order that includes choice? I think if you look around the world, you will see many examples of this. Take Hinduism, it takes a much broader, umbrella view of itself, not a rigid and narrow doctrine but a hugely inclusive system that allows for all kinds of variation and choice, but all within the body of a single grand view. I would suggest that Christianity has to take something along the lines of that kind of expansive view of the body of Christ, an inclusive and tolerant view that is able to abide thousands of different views united by a grand vision, but not a single “right” tradition with it. This kind of tradition has the flexibility to allow for individual choice and preference, and at the same time is able to maintain a social order and traditional continuity. It’s worked for them for five thousand years, and it’s a decent model for the kind of transformation which would benefit Christianity in an era of freedom and choice. To me, that’s how the many great traditions of Christianity can and will survive, and so will its place in western civilization. I don’t know if it will ever be as dominant as it once was, but it will remain popular if it can figure out a way to emphasize its real benefits, and embody its core truths within a modern and inclusive world view. Obviously it hasn’t done that, but not for lack of trying.
Now, as for the notion that there is no longer any belief in the value of tradition, or that all values are merely arbitrary or man-made, there certainly are some who believe this, and it’s pretty clear that there’s a lot of truth to this as well, and that even the traditionalists are guilty of this themselves, and just want others to submit, not to truth itself, but to their truth. But if anything, the present world believes to strongly in objective truth, embodied in science, and in our ability to find these objective truths. One of the problems with religion in the modern world is obviously that we’ve discovered that quite a few of its truth-claims don’t stand up to examination and evidence. The problem here is that if you live by the sword you also die by it. By propping up religion by claims of truth and then building whole traditions are upon them, the whole thing does fall apart when those truth claims are falsified. So now religion has to go back, not to square one, but to some relatively basic levels of truth and re-order itself so that it doesn’t look foolish every time science discovers something new about the world. That’s not a bad thing, it’s good for both religion and the world at large.
As for families, yes, I’ve raised a family, and done rather well I think. I had a much easier time of it than my parents did, growing up in the depression with all the interior miseries of “traditional family life” that wasn’t really all that great for a lot of people. Sociology doesn’t mean much on the individual level. It’s always been the case that people have to live their own lives and choose how they are going to do it. It doesn’t really matter whether you live in a traditional world or not, you still have to be a man or a woman about it all, and that’s something no one can really force you into. You always have to make your own way in the world, regardless of what anyone tells you. And that is perhaps the best wisdom any tradition can pass down to you.



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Boz

posted June 3, 2010 at 10:21 pm


Rod,
I don’t want to get personal, but what do you make of the religious phenomenon of conversion? Is it just a sort of arbitrary jump from one belief set to another or, as Christians (of all stripes) have traditionally argued, a step towards something better and even rationally defensible? Just to go back to Macintyre, whom you seem to appropriate in a rather selective (postmodern!) way, what do you think of his study of Edith Stein in which he explores how people move from one tradition, one way of life, to another?



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Hector

posted June 3, 2010 at 10:23 pm


Fr. J,
Thanks for your post. I don’t necessarily agree with it- I’m an Anglo-Catholic and would consider myself at least to some degree in the Affirming Catholicism camp, inasmuch as I’m liberal on the gay issue and moderate to liberal on the women’s ordination issue, though I don’t think it was the right time to ordain either gays or women. But I’m definitely sensistive to the power of your criticism, and it’s an issue I struggle with. Are we trying to have our cake and eat it too? Is it possible to accept a Catholic understanding of, say, transubstantiation or Mariology without accepting its position on gay issues? On the other hand, if I believed everything the RC church believed, then presumably I would be an RC.
These are tough issues, and while I’d consider myself more towards the liberal, Affirming side in many regards (though conservative in some regards, for example on abortion) I definitely think about what you’re saying, and question my side. Your argument is definitely a compelling one, though I can’t say that I agree with it, at least not fully. I’d certainly agree there _are_ some people in the Anglican Communion who want to have their cake and eat it too, i.e. who want all the nice things about the broadly Anglo-Catholic tradition without any of the difficult things, and I’d join with you in criticising that tendency very strongly.



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Hector

posted June 3, 2010 at 10:31 pm


Re: Take Hinduism, it takes a much broader, umbrella view of itself, not a rigid and narrow doctrine but a hugely inclusive system that allows for all kinds of variation and choice, but all within the body of a single grand view.
Broken Yogi,
That’s exactly the reason that Hinduism is losing ground to Islam and Christianity nowadays (and, as well, to atheism): because they haven’t been able to take a firm, dogmatic stand and say, “This is what we believe, this is the Truth that comes down from heaven, and if you don’t like it then take a flying leap.” A religion that seeks to include everybody will in time include nobody.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m from a part-Hindu family, I was raised at least partly in the Hindu tradition, and though I’m a Christian convert now I still find that tradition to contain immense value and truth. It saddens me to see that Hinduism is losing ground, and it saddens me even more to see modern-day, deracinated Hipster Hindus in the west who consider themselves to be Hindu, but live their lives the same way that any postmodernist agnostic would, all the way down to eating beef. That’s the achilles’ heel of Hinduism and of any other religion that defines itself more as an identity then in a creedal, dogmatic sense. The only way Hinduism can defend itself intellectually, is to become more like Christianity, (in the sense of giving more importance to doctrine, dogma, and belief) and by saying, “This We Believe.”



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TTT

posted June 3, 2010 at 10:38 pm


We despair of the death of the idea that Truth is something you discover and conform yourself to, rather than something you construct to suit your own desires and felt needs.
One man’s “discovering Truth” is another’s “empirical analysis,” in which case the people who would today best safeguard the tradition that we can actually learn objective truths about the universe around us are those that would probably be counted as far less “traditional.”



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John E. - Agn Stoic

posted June 3, 2010 at 11:05 pm


On the other hand, it ought to be asked of individual libertarians, if that’s the phrase, where they think the further atomization of society is going to end.
A big blue beautiful planet full of people each doing their own thing, daddy-o…



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Broken Yogi

posted June 3, 2010 at 11:12 pm


Hector,
Hinduism did fine until monotheistic Islam and then Christianity invaded and conquered India. As is commonly the case, many people converted either at the point of a sword or out of convenience and/or simply joining the victors. I’m sure it’s having a hard time coping with the modern secularizing forces of the world, but so is every religion. Add to that the fact that it doesn’t proselytize, and that even if one did, one can’t really “convert” to Hinduism per se. Outsiders can be Vedantist perhaps, in the mode of Vivekananda, or even a follower of a certain Guru or sect, but one doesn’t actually become a Hindu thereby, as I’m sure you know. I find a great deal of value in Hinduism’s many branches and teachings, but I could never become a Hindu even if I wanted to.
And to be honest, though I don’t know Indian religious politics very well, my general sense is that Hinduism is in a lot of flux these days, but that because it has so many sides to it and so much flexibility it can adapt very well, even though the changes it is going through are greater than anything Christianity has had to endure, and all in the space of a few centuries. How it will come out is hard to say, but I think it has a strong future even in a scientific world, precisely because it can shed many elements without losing its core.
On the other hand, one of the developments of the last 150 years since Vivekananda has been the re-codification of Hinduism with more structure and form to it, without losing that umbrella orientation. I think that’s also been an adaptative strategy in the face of the modern world, which likes to see some kind of structure to things. I don’t expect Christianity to lose its fundamental values, but to expand them to be more inclusive. It’s great, for example, that Hindus consider Christ an Avatar of Vishnu and have no trouble accepting Christianity as a valid religious approach. If only Christianity could return the favor, it would find that both benefit from such openness. And within Christianity, a much broader and more inclusive view would greatly help the entire faith, rather than diminish it.



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Franklin Evans

posted June 3, 2010 at 11:52 pm


From the movie “Dogma”:
Serendipity: I have issues with anyone who treats faith as a burden instead of a blessing. You people don’t celebrate your faith; you mourn it.
Serendipity: When are you people going to learn? It’s not about who’s right or wrong. No denomination’s nailed it yet, and they never will because they’re all too self-righteous to realize that it doesn’t matter what you have faith in, just that you have faith. Your hearts are in the right place, but your brains need to wake up.
Rufus: He still digs humanity, but it bothers Him to see the shit that gets carried out in His name – wars, bigotry, televangelism. But especially the factioning of all the religions. He said humanity took a good idea and, like always, built a belief structure on it.
Bethany: Having beliefs isn’t good?
Rufus: I think it’s better to have ideas. You can change an idea. Changing a belief is trickier. Life should malleable and progressive; working from idea to idea permits that. Beliefs anchor you to certain points and limit growth; new ideas can’t generate. Life becomes stagnant.
And, because I don’t mean to be quite so serious…
Serendipity: I’m responsible for nineteen of the twenty top-grossing films of all time.
Bethany: Nineteen?
Serendipity: Yeah, the one about the kid, by himself in his house, burglars trying to get in and he fights them off? I had nothing to do with that one. Somebody sold their soul to Satan to get the grosses up on that piece of sh*t.



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Jan Hus

posted June 3, 2010 at 11:59 pm


RHampton writes:
“Given that, is it not Western Tradition to construct a private Truth?”
Good point.  Sullivan and others who breezily dismiss the value of a unifying cultural tradition often fail to acknowledge that they are also products of a tradition.  The modernist tradition.  The trouble with this chosen tradition, of course, is that it is parasitic.  It needs other traditional cultures to feed from.    Once the host cultures and their ideals are eaten, well…what’s left?  Empty choices.  Nothing.  Once personal autonomy and choice are sufficiently elevated to be the highest cultural aspirations and other values are reduced to mere personal preferences, culture is replaced by the shopping mall.  
Sullivan is a doofus, anyway. Yeah, I said it.  That’s my choice. My tradition.



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YrName

posted June 4, 2010 at 12:04 am


It needs other traditional cultures to feed from.
While the other cultures, what, just magicked into being?



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Jan Hus

posted June 4, 2010 at 12:08 am


Scot Lahti riffs:
“to those pratform-shoed ronery Papa-san’s boys from the Myterious Yeast – and thus the one universal institution …”
Hilarious.  All of it.  



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PDGM

posted June 4, 2010 at 12:09 am


Basically, this being part of a traditional subculture as a choice is only postmodern if people do not have access to truth. If people do (and I would argue that we do; I would also argue that this access is often not rational or even mental, but at some deeper level of being, of which the rational and mental are an epiphenomenon) have access to the truth in whatever form, I suggest that when we convert, or move from one philosophical position to another, we are trying adapt ourselves to what we sense (or in some sense **know**) is real. And I’d likewise suggest that we human beings are complicated, and our motives and reasons are sometimes amorphous and develop over time, rather than being some kind of machine-like static and binary, computer like “program” that has to exist from the very beginning.
On a somewhat related note, the writings of Frithjof Schuon (begin with “The Transcendent Unity of Religions”) touch on this and related topics. Likewise, the Buddhist idea of “upaya” helps understand how traditions can both be blind and capable vehicles guiding humans to truth all at the same time. While I am Christian, Orthodox, I also believe that modernity has forced us to deal with the truth claims of other religions. I highly recommend “Christianity and Non-Dualism” as a respectful, thoughtful, intellectually coherent attempt of a French Catholic monk who devoted much of his life to this modern encounter between religious worlds.
This comparative encounter can result in debased postmodernity (which reduces everything to a consumer style choice, or devolves into New Age silliness by steamrollering all differences between beliefs) or it can result in clear thinking that enlightens one’s own tradition, as this book shows. Here’s the Amazon link:
http://www.amazon.com/Christianity-Doctrine-Non-Dualism-Monk-West/dp/0900588829
I believe it is false to think that all choices are equal. There are choices that are based upon actual apprehension of what is real–upon truth; and there are choices based on other things, usually more trivial things. While modernity in the form of the secular state demands that we do not impose any one religious view in law–though we disagree as a society just where the limits of religion and the state are–this twofold character of choice remains. The secular state cannot demand that we all think alike, even if it can demand that we act in certain ways–or at least avoid acting in harmful ways– towards those with whom we disagree.
Capcha: the hermada



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Jan Hus

posted June 4, 2010 at 12:13 am


YrName
June 4, 2010 12:04 AM
“While the other cultures, what, just magicked into being?”
Yeah.  Precisely. They “magicked”.  



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Cecelia

posted June 4, 2010 at 12:20 am


Anon Prof – I posted exactly the same thoughts in the original essay Rod had on this topic. How we live now is made possible by cheap energy etc. Eliminate that prosperity, the cheap fossil fuels, the constant economic growth and many of the features of contemporary life some find so disturbing will disappear. In more straightened circumstances cohesion and cooperation become how one survives – and that requires a greater sense of common culture to occur.
captcha is getting prophetic: government keep



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J.V. Sharpe

posted June 4, 2010 at 12:20 am


So, according to Sullivan, “We’re all subcultures now”? Indeed, as I’ve said, we have no culture, we have cultures, mainly consumer cultures. Think of it as a kind of market tribalism. this is the position we find ourselves in, and we must deal with it, no?
What’s really at issue here, what’s always at issue, is authority. Tradition implies authority, and authority is something that we moderns simply can’t countenance, be it religious authority, political authority, occupational authority, etc, etc. And ultimately, tradition of any kind is a matter of submission to authority. I reject the idea that “choosing” a tradition no longer makes it a tradition. Submission is a choice, just as rebellion is a choice. One chooses to either submit to an authority or to rebel against it. The seemingly preferred disposition of modern westerners is rebellion.
I suppose anyone who chooses to embrace a tradition (read as traditional belief or activity), be it religious, political, or otherwise, is by definition, a traditionalist. The phrase Faux traditionalist is simply a contrivance, perhaps meant to seem clever, that suffers from being too cute by half and meaningless to boot.
Returning to the increasingly fragmented, tribalized reality at hand, it is indeed something that we must “deal with”. It’s our reality. However, as you indicated, I hardly think we’ve experienced the
more salient consequences of our cultural shedding.
Consider the words of Nietzsche (via Zarathustra) regarding the death of God:
“The tremendous event is still on its way, still travelling – it has not yet reached the ears of men. Lightning and thunder require time, the light of the stars requires time, deeds require time even after they are done, before they can be seen and heard. This deed is still more distant from them than the distant stars – and yet they have done it themselves.”
The death of God, at least the Christian God, is arguably the central feature of our cultural rebellion (One can’t help but smile an ironic smile at the redundancy of history), the bursting star that tears away our atmosphere and scorches our earth. When the greater weight of such an event crashes upon our shores, the weaker elements of the western liberal-democratic tradition will simply be unable to bear it. Indeed we’ve seen this all before; Practical nihilism, technologically augmented savagery, etc. We saw it in pre-Christian Rome, in Robespierre’s France, in Hitler’s Germany, etc.
Of course I could be wrong. Perhaps some watered down version of the western tradition will usher in a Disneyland of ideologically syncretic, ethno-linguistically pluralistic techno-eutopia, but I doubt it.
JVS



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Cazo

posted June 4, 2010 at 1:23 am


This whole discussion makes little sense to me because people are arguing about something that never existed. Rod laments a “culture that has seen its unity and sense of coherence done away with” – which culture was that? Did any European in 1400, 1500, or 1600 share much of a culture with people outside his nation? (Outside of Catholicism, which was never all that coherent from century to century?) Was the U.S. ever really a unified, coherent culture at any point in its history? The reason tradition-devotion has gone out the window is because everyone is exposed to more differences than they were 50, 100, 500 years ago. If you feel threatened by those differences you’ll look back warmly on the past, hand-waving away the inconvenient parts that contradict with the parts of the present you enjoy.
I also don’t want to argue about gay marriage, but Rod’s problem with the modern world is encapsulated by his putting the word ‘reality’ in quotation marks when he’s describing the views of those who support gay marriage. It’s not that they disagree – their views are unreal, their closely held beliefs and emotions are “play-acting”. People who yearn for the traditional past the way Rod does are yearning for a time when their concept of reality didn’t have any competition. You used to be able to safely ignore those different from you – they were barbarians, or heathens, or stupid people from another place. But then they moved next door and turned out to be a lot like you! They probably were all along! And now whenever one of them mentions that your particular Emperor is only half dressed, it’s his fault for noticing.
[Note from Rod: I re-read the entry, because I didn't intend for the quotes around the word "reality" to be ironic; I just put them there to make it clear to the reader that the concept of reality was under discussion. No ironic message is intended by them. -- R.]



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Scott Lahti

posted June 4, 2010 at 2:28 am


You used to be able to safely ignore those different from you – they were barbarians, or heathens, or stupid people from another place. But then they moved next door and turned out to be a lot like you! They probably were all along!
Or even more unlike you than you dared hope dream before the cordon sanitaire of safe distance was rent unto an irritable hothouse sardine-can fraternitizing. From a post at the philosophy-of-religion blog The Immanent Frame (by one John Boy, which I assume is not the nom dat tune of Richard Thomas) devoted to the ideas of Charles Taylor:
“In an essay in defense of fanaticism, [Stanley] Hauerwas argues that attempts to distinguish fanatical from non-fanatical stances, like the attempt to distinguish terrorism from ‘just’ war, is bound to fail. Just as there is nothing intrinsically good about (as Alisdair MacIntyre puts it) ‘dying for the telephone company’ (i.e., in conventional warfare), there is nothing intrinsically bad about fanatically bearing witness to a ‘particularistic’ tradition. Attempts to silence such particularistic traditions in the interest of ensuring the peace are counterproductive ‘because, contrary to liberal sentimentality that assumes if people only come to know one another better violence is less likely, the exact opposite may be the case.’ In fact, he argues, traditions that embody alternate rationalities and trigger ‘epistemic crises’ by questioning the legitimacy of the state’s rights to police, punish, and wage war against outsiders are a greater cause for hope than any universalistic ethic entrusted to the institutions of the state.
“Polemics against ‘fanatics’ thus seem primarily to be motivated by the need to overcome legitimation crises. That would explain the persistence of these polemics in Western modernity: no social and political order has ever been able to claim universal legitimacy…”
So the next time you’re tempted to hate your neighbor because of his race, or his religion, or his nationality, sit down with him over a beer instead – you just might find plenty of perfectly impeccable individual reasons not to like him.
A message from the church of Jesus Christ of Less-Ordained Saints.



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SteveB

posted June 4, 2010 at 6:21 am


First off let me say that I am sympathetic to the Traditionalist argument; in many ways I am one myself.
Politically I veer to the right. Aesthetically I pine for a return of the 50’s (even though I know my image of them never really existed). In terms of religion nothing is more moving to me than watching The Stations of the Cross from the Colosseum each Good Friday. However, with all that said I think Rod may be missing something here.
While I share his affinity for our shared Western tradition, that tradition is only about 2000 years old. Humanity has been living in civilizations for approximately 10,000 years. therefore traditions change. Before the Christian revolution many in the West were firmly rooted in the Greek traditions of Homer. Much of Europe had a rich pagan/Celtic tradition.
I actually watched the CGI version of Beowulf a couple weeks back- hadn’t read it since my old English class in college nearly 20 years ago! I was struck by a single line that dovetails nicely with this post as well as the previous linked ones. Beowulf laments that “the christian god has killed off the old ways”. That reminded me that much of the poetry and art of the early Middle Ages dealt with this period and struggle between the older Celtic/Norse/Pagan traditions trying to deal with the new and unstoppable Christian one.
Are we in a similar place? Should we not try to assimilate the new into our traditions, much like the Renaissance blended Christianity with earlier Greek and Roman thought?



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Jon

posted June 4, 2010 at 6:36 am


Re: I wonder if the absence of a shared mythos/tradition/value system is what is making it so incredibly difficult to tackle these problems.
Anything really new here, at least in US history? Did the US in the 1850s, presumably a more traditional era, have an easy time tackling slavery?
On the larger question let me add this: In “The Orthodox Church” Bishop Kallistos discusses Tradition (of course) but then tells a cautionary tale of an elder who rebuked someone who was obssessed with tradition by saying “The Lord said ‘I am Truth.’ He did not say ‘I am custom’.”
My corollary to that is that my hope is in Christ not in culture. And that is enough for me, indeed it is much more than enough.



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hlvanburen

posted June 4, 2010 at 9:25 am


“I actually watched the CGI version of Beowulf a couple weeks back- hadn’t read it since my old English class in college nearly 20 years ago! I was struck by a single line that dovetails nicely with this post as well as the previous linked ones. Beowulf laments that “the christian god has killed off the old ways”. That reminded me that much of the poetry and art of the early Middle Ages dealt with this period and struggle between the older Celtic/Norse/Pagan traditions trying to deal with the new and unstoppable Christian one.”
Precisely! The traditionalists of that era made many of the same laments that today’s traditionalists are making. As their way of life and its Great Traditions were being changed around them they no doubt felt exactly as Mr. Dreher and others here feel today.
And yet society continued. Not because tradition was abandoned, but because it was replaced with different tradition. I think this is where today’s Christian traditionalists miss the boat. They bemoan the movement away from the traditional (small-o) orthodoxy of Christian social mores and claim that nothing is coming into place to fill the gap. That is not the case. A new tradition is filling that gap, one that adapts and has meaning for today, for the realities we face today. Just as Christian tradition adapted to the realities it found in the northern European countries as it displaced their old ways, the new tradition being born before us will grow and adapt to fill the vacancy left by what is leaving.
There will no doubt be voices who strongly point out that traditional Christian virtue served us quite well for a number of generations, and should not be tossed away so casually. This is exactly the same argument made by those who followed the old gods in Scandinavia as Christianity gained power there.
My answer to them is that we must change, just as humans have changed their traditions and ways over the centuries to adapt to the changing realities around them, so we must change and adapt. If we do not we will be left on the sideline.
Like it or not, that is what history teaches.



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Elena Grell

posted June 4, 2010 at 10:09 am


Hector makes the point that most needs to be made when he points out that what’s most important is not “tradition” per se but the content of whatever tradition one upholds.
The conservative tendency to be in favor of “tradition” per se, independent of its content, is the flip-side of the liberal tendency to be in favor of “progress” per se, independent of its content.
Christians should always be conserving Christian tradition — not “tradition” per se — and working to progress toward a more Christian future state of things — not working for “progress” per se.
For better or for worse, the old Christendom is gone and we are living in a post-Christian and increasingly an anti-Christian age.
That’s simply the cross that our particular generation of Christians and coming generations of Christians for some time to come will have to bear.
In some ways, the stance of a 19th century liberal that Rod describes might be the right stance for Christians now to take, because what’s required is resistance to what has been for some time now the ancien regime of atheist, anti-Christian modernity.
Some generations of Christians have had the option — for better or for worse — to be passive and unconscious traditionalists within cultural conditions more supportive or Christianity than ours are now.
But our generation of Christians and coming generations of Christians for some time to come must *choose* to be so, and in the teeth of potential despair — just as the earliest Christians did in the first three hundred years of the Church.



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Hector

posted June 4, 2010 at 10:49 am


Re: I’m sure it’s having a hard time coping with the modern secularizing forces of the world, but so is every religion.
True. But the particular problem that Hinduism is having (same with Judaism) is that they don’t have a fixed and unchanging creed, and so a person can be modern and secular while still claiming to be Hindu, and so you are having a lot of people who couldn’t care less about God, miracles, and divine revelation diluting the meaning of what it is to be a Hindu or a Jew. There are Hindus who believe very literally in, say, the ten incarnations of Vishnu, and then there are people who buy none of it at all, but still think they’re entitled to call themselves Hindu.
Re: Add to that the fact that it doesn’t proselytize, and that even if one did, one can’t really “convert” to Hinduism per se. Outsiders can be Vedantist perhaps, in the mode of Vivekananda, or even a follower of a certain Guru or sect, but one doesn’t actually become a Hindu thereby, as I’m sure you know.
Depends on whom you ask- some Hindu sects do accept converts. In point of fact, much of Southeast Asia ‘converted’ to Hinduism about 1000-1500 years ago, and then later converted to Islam or Buddhism (the island of Bali is the last remnant of the once-vast Southeast Asian Hindu culture) so clearly it was possible to convert to Hinduism in the past. My grandmother was raised Christian, converted to Hinduism when she got married, and then reverted to Christianity in her old age.
Re: but that because it has so many sides to it and so much flexibility it can adapt very well,
But can any tradition adapt infinitely? Should it? What meaning or value is there in a tradition that’s infinitely flexible? If Hinduism is refdefined to be compatible with atheism and materialism, then what meaning does it have as a descriptor?
What Hinduism needs is to formulate its own equivalent of the Nicene or Chalcedonian Creeds.



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J.V. Sharpe

posted June 4, 2010 at 11:36 am


Re: “But our generation of Christians and coming generations of Christians for some time to come must *choose* to be so, and in the teeth of potential despair — just as the earliest Christians did in the first three hundred years of the Church.”
Elena,
I agree. There’s something to be said for actively choosing to belong to a given culture (religious or otherwise), rather than simply taking a position of passively conforming to it as a matter of course. While each disposition is a choice, the former is far more invested and active than the latter. Perhaps that’s the rub. Without due opposition to keep them fit, ideals fatten, dull, grow decadent.
Specifically as it relates to the body of Christ, it’s been said that “the blood of the saints is the seed of The Church.” Perhaps there’s a needfulness to be surrounded by enemies in order to purge the church of its lower elements, its hangers-on and nominal members.
Indeed, perhaps such is the case for western civilization itself.
This dovetails with the notion that we have cultures rather than culture in the respect that, in a culture of cultures, only those who are truly drawn to a given culture, who truly value its contents, will remain there. Using commercial terminology, when the “marketplace of ideas” is wide enough, only the most stalwart “customers” will exercise strict “brand loyalty”.
Hmmm. There’s definitely something more to be explored here.
JVS
In the spirit of the apparent ‘Captcha’ tradition at work here: ‘resumption unravels’.



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Franklin Evans

posted June 4, 2010 at 1:22 pm


Nicely put, JVS. I would add that in a place like the US where the ideal of pluralism is core to its secular foundation, I would quibble semantically just a bit and use the phrase “society of cultures”. A distinction without a difference, perhaps, but we live in an imperfectly pluralistic society that requires tolerance for multiple cultures, but still permits actions by some cultures that adversely affect other cultures. That “marketplace of ideas” makes some assumptions with which I don’t agree, though the competition metaphor does seem to work.
Captcha: empty position. Ahem.



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MMH

posted June 4, 2010 at 7:04 pm


On the question of Hinduism and Christianity and their respective openness to other traditions, I was going to refer Broken Yogi to, among others, Christianity and the Doctrine of Non-dualism, but I see that someone else has beat me to it. (http://books.google.com/books?id=xfUpTCb_drgC&printsec=frontcover&dq=Christianity+and+the+doctrine+of+non-dualism&source=bl&ots=_5kTtYvath&sig=XqTYZEDw2bqvv13c7Nh-oK3QPWs&hl=en&ei=yIQJTPWUAZXLlAei0tiaBQ&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=3&ved=0CCMQ6AEwAg#v=onepage&q&f=false).



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Michael Heath

posted June 6, 2010 at 3:38 pm


Rod Dreher states, “It is true that conservatives by temperament are supposedly more realistic than idealistic liberals”
Just wow. Conservatives overwhelmingly deny reality, e.g., evolution, anthropogenic global warming, their own failures (tax cuts and talk of spending cuts reduce the debt), rejection of intellectualism and functional experts and fealty to know-nothing “common sense” leads to better results, etc., etc., etc. Liberals have faults as well but claiming they have a disadvantage when it comes to reality is perhaps the most absurd claim I’ve heard this year from anyone not named Sarah Palin or Glenn Beck.
Rod Dreher states, “We despair of the death of the idea that Truth is something you discover and conform yourself to, rather than something you construct to suit your own desires and felt needs.”
The problem here is your denying religionists failure to even remotely approach objective truth. In addition your description of what secularists argue is a strawman. We can easily define good and evil, right and wrong. We also have the distinct advantage of being able to describe what is right/wrong and good/evil without having to justify, reconcile, or excuse evil admonitions coming from holy dogma, providing a far cleaner script. A perfect example, it’s wrong for a government to deny gay people the same rights heterosexuals enjoy.



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rob

posted June 6, 2010 at 3:54 pm


My parents taught me right from wrong. They called it human decency. Rod may feel that he is likely to fall into a pit of hedonism at the drop of a hat and needs some cooked up morality to prevent this, but many of us don’t. There are a lot of good people who don’t buy into mythology



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Russell

posted June 6, 2010 at 4:29 pm


Stoicism, for centuries a popular view in the ancient world, was a more honest philosophy than Chrisitianity. Not knowing where they came from or having much notion of what would happen after they died, people nonetheless tried to answer the question of how to live. Doing that was quite enough to sustain a culture. Now yes, Rome fell. But the ancient world had a pretty long run before it descended into the dark age, and there’s no reason at all to think that it fell because it wasn’t Christian for most of its history.



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Michael Wad

posted June 7, 2010 at 9:44 am


“It is true that conservatives by temperament are supposedly more realistic than idealistic liberals”
You have got to be kidding! This statement is itself a sign of your own poor contact with reality, at least with respect to the political world.
Michael Heath touched on some of the most obvious aspects of conservative disregard for reality. Almost on a daily basis, conservative bloggers run with demonstrably false stories. One that immediately comes to mind is the fevered claim last week that Obama broke with tradition when he didn’t go to Arlington National Cemetery on Memorial Day.
As for the foundational position of sexual ethics in Christianity, all I can say is that I’ve read the entire New Testament dozens of times and sex plays only the smallest part in the NT scriptures, as does “family” for that matter. One of the most reality-rejecting features of conservative Christianity is that it has made sex and family cornerstones of Christianity. In fact, sex plays only a very minor part in the New Testament. Jesus also makes a point that his real family are the faithful, not those with a few similar strands of DNA.
Christian ethics is about loving one another. All else flows from that. When asked to give his disciples commandments, Jesus was reluctant, but when he did, both commandments were about love. Not sex, Mr. Dreher, love. You’d think if Jesus was as wound up as you are about sex, he would have mentioned it along with his two commandments.
As for loving one another, being honest with oneself about deeper motives is tricky business. One does indeed need to look inwardly for the truth about one’s motives. That is the only truth we can know about by looking inwardly. Are we being fully honest with ourselves or are we deceiving ourselves? The truth is written on the heart, but human beings are inveterate self-deceivers. Self-flattering Christians, use their status as believers to settle too easily for defensive, self-deceptive beliefs. If there is one thing I’ve learned, Christians and conservatives are no better at honest discernment than any other human beings. We are all in the same boat, in terms of our pre-disposition to self-deception.
Finally, I must add that I am straight and Christian through and through. I live my faith every waking hour. Sex is of little concern to me. If sex takes place within the context of mature love between two people, gender doesn’t matter. For goodness sakes, the issue is love, not genitals, Mr. Dreher, for there is neither male nor female among those in Christ.



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Michael Wade

posted June 7, 2010 at 9:45 am


Sorry, that should be signed Michael Wade.



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Michael Wade

posted June 7, 2010 at 2:25 pm


Another example of conservative indifference to reality comes to our attention via Mr. Sullivan:
http://thinkprogress.org/2010/06/07/beck-palin-israel-media/
There is a constant flow of reality deficient information circulated by conservatives.



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Your Name

posted June 14, 2010 at 5:51 pm


“From a morally conservative/traditionalist point of view, the campaign for gay marriage is a full-frontal assault on reality, and there will ultimately be serious repercussions for a society that adopts it.”
You keep repeating this mantra, and we’ve asked and asked you to explain exactly what those “serious repercussions” are. Exactly HOW does gay marriage “assault” reality (well, your version of it at least)? Now that I am legally married, are heterosexuals no longer allowed to marry? When you can explain these things more cogently, you will have a lot more on your side. So far, you’ve failed miserably.
“For Andrew Sullivan and his allies, it is a matter of basic justice”
That would be because that’s preciesly what it is.



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