Humanize

I joined the Discovery Institute last month as a Research Fellow with their Center on Human Exceptionalism, which exists to affirm and uphold the intrinsic nature of human dignity, liberty, and equality. Wesley J. Smith, Chair and Senior Fellow of the Center, has just launched Humanize, a blog for news, analysis, and opinion. Wesley writes:

America is living with the ghosts of the 1960s, the ambition of that time as much as its hubris. In equal measure, those qualities shape our ethically and morally haphazard approach to human dignity and human rights, and particularly bioethical issues that have the potential to harm or damage our liberty and equality with one another as human beings.

Humanize will offer news, opinion, and analysis to spark and participate in conversations about all of these issues and more, in the spirit of a time when we believed that we could achieve success in every field with ambition tempered by honor—in short, in a way that both advances science and society and promotes human dignity, liberty, and equality.

As long as we remain fractured across philosophical and intellectual fault lines, issues of human life generally and bioethical issues specifically can only grow more vexing. We’re establishing Humanize with the hope that we can be a home for spirited and robust conversations that address the many ethical or moral issues that currently denigrate human life, as we promote a human-centered wholeness that is the only true hope for a better future.

Humanize is as much about recognizing new frontiers in science, medicine, and biotechnology, as it is about recognizing that there are perennial frontiers in the human heart that must always be addressed in our conscience as much as our law and policy. …

The work we thought we were finishing with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has turned out simply to be a starting point for new frontiers in a timeless conversation on the exceptional importance of being human.

I’ll be contributing to Humanize as often as I’m able.

Extreme optimism and fatalistic pessimism

Peter Theil reviews Ross Douthat’s forthcoming book The Decadent Society, wherein Douthat defines decadence as:

…stagnation and complacency, a dissipation of creative energy, a jaded will merely to muddle through. …

Douthat outlines four aspects of decadence: stagnation (technological and economic mediocrity), sterility (declining birth rates), sclerosis (institutional failure), and repetition (cultural exhaustion). …

Choosing agency over boomer complacency, The Decadent Society sets the stakes for the most urgent public debate of the 2020s: How do we get back to the future? …

A renaissance will require motivational goals. To be motivational, a goal must be both ambitious and achievable. For this reason, I suspect that we should hesitate to put our faith in distant star systems. The fountain of youth and the Tree of Life are not waiting for us in Tau Ceti or on Planet Vulcan in 40 Eridani. We need not be “loyal to the earth” like the atheist Zarathustra, but we would do well to expect our salvation to be worked out in the solar system we have been given.

For technologists, that means pursuing goals that are difficult but possible: cures for cancer and ­Alzheimer’s; compact nuclear ­reactors and fusion power. For statesmen, that means deconstructing the corrupt institutions that have falsely claimed to pursue those goals on our behalf.

It is a paradox of our time that the path to radical progress begins with moderation. Extreme optimism and fatalistic pessimism may seem to be stark opposites, but they both end in apathy.

Douthat is coming to Washington next week for a talk and book signing. I’m not sure if I’ll be able to be there, but I’m going to read the book.

Pursuing goals that are difficult but possible sounds trite as far as advice for a great life, great career, or a national recovery. And yet, this is the way.

‘ They told him what a difference he had made’

Jordan Peterson is in Russia, attempting a recovery from addiction to anti-anxiety drugs. Douglas Murray speaks up for him as his critics seize their opportunity for abuse:

I have known a few remarkable people in my time. The best of them, inevitably, have fans.

You can tell the fans, as the novelist Martin Amis once wrote, because they shake when they meet their heroes.

With Jordan Peterson it wasn’t like that. Walking down any street with him, or sitting next to him in book-signing queues, I saw first-hand what other people heard about.

In the 20 or 30 seconds that people might have him to themselves, they didn’t tell him how much they loved his work.

They told him what a difference he had made to their lives.

A great author is lucky if this is said to them even a few times in their lives. Peterson was told it multiple times every evening.

I’ll never forget a man in his 20s who came over after one event.

While Peterson signed his book, he related that 18 months earlier he had been living in a bedsit, spending his time gaming and smoking too much marijuana.

Today, he said he was married, holding down a job and his wife was expecting their first child.

This, he said, was all because of Peterson. I’ve heard similar stories many times.

A serious and grown-up society would take lessons from such a phenomenon.

Instead of dismissing him, deriding him or trying to catch him out, it would recognise that we live in a society where plenty of people are willing to tell easy untruths but too few people are willing to tell difficult, necessary truths.

It would also realise that underneath the glitz and technology of the modern age, there lies a deep lack of purpose – a chaos – that for young people in particular can be utterly terrifying and which almost no one addresses. Peterson has sought to address that chaos.

Not with grandiose plans but with small, achievable steps. All bolstered by a knowledge and curiosity that was frankly awesome as well as inspiring.

At no point has he held himself out to be a saint. And not once has he suggested that he has all the answers.

But he knows where the answers do not lie. And he knows that we can live lives of deeper meaning and purpose than this shallow and retributive age pretends.

Jordan Peterson is a remarkable man.

But he’s still a man, with all the frailties and failings that condition involves.

“Instead of dismissing him, deriding him or trying to catch him out, it would recognise that we live in a society where plenty of people are willing to tell easy untruths but too few people are willing to tell difficult, necessary truths.”

Politics is important, but…

Archbishop Chaput’s successor in Philadelphia will be Archbishop Nelson Perez. Matt Hadro reports on Archbishop Chaput’s retirement:

Chaput reflected on his vocation as bishop to CNA on Thursday, citing St. Augustine as the model of service he has sought to emulate in his ministry.

“Augustine lived simply, never abandoned his people, and never avoided difficult decisions or issues,” Chaput told CNA.

“That didn’t always make him popular. But he served his people sacrificially, as a good father, in a spirit of love. That’s the gold standard for a bishop’s ministry.”

During his episcopal ministry, and especially as Archbishop of Philadelphia, Chaput faced criticism from secular outlets and within the Church for taking “conservative” stands on leading debates in the Church, including statements discouraging Catholic politicians who support abortion from presenting themselves for Communion and opposing efforts to redefine marriage.

His stances led to him being branded as a “culture warrior” and “political.” Yet, he explained to CNA on Thursday, his public stances were required of him as a responsible Catholic leader in the public square.

“Was Augustine ‘political’ for writing City of God? Or for criticizing Roman state corruption and bad officials? Of course not,” Chaput said.

“Politics is a subset of Christian discipleship, and sometimes bishops need to speak and act with conviction in the public square in an unpopular way. That’s always been the case.”

“Politics is important, but it’s not what the Gospel is about,” he said. …

“The history of the Church is not the history of bishops, it’s the history of all of us together working for the glory of God.”

Clock of life

Fulton Sheen gave a talk called “The Approach of Midnight” in the 1970s, imagining the “clock of life”:

“I want you to picture a great and gigantic clock of life. Here is dawn; here is noon; here is dusk; here is midnight. The clock of life at the very beginning of the day is beginning to extinguish life: feticide, the killing of human persons in the womb. That’s the first stroke of the clock.

Then we come to noon: lives in middle age. We’ve already had this strike: six million Jews burned by Hitler. Life at the beginning, life at noon.

Life in the evening. Now euthanasia is recommended: gerocide, the killing of the old. In fact, three American professors in large universities have recommended the killing off of Bangladesh and India, that the rest of us may survive.

Now, what’s going to happen to a world that takes life at dawn, life at noon, life at dusk? We’re eventually going to come to midnight. The United States and Russia have enough nuclear armaments to drop [the equivalent of] ten tons of TNT on every man, woman, and child in the world. That’s the midnight of necrophilism…

It’s not just life at dawn we’re protecting. It’s life at noon; it’s life at dusk; it’s life at midnight…

Go into the world and tell everyone that you meet: there is a life in the womb!”

A consistent life ethic…

A snapshot of the health of American families

Lyman Stone breaks down some of the latest data on American families:

Nearly 4 in 10 children in America are not residing with their own two, married parents (biological or adoptive). This is according to the recently released 2018 American Community Survey, the largest annual social survey carried out in America. As recently as 1960, less than 2 in 10 children lived apart from two married parents, a reality which was approximately stable as far back as 1850. But while the present situation leaves many children bereft of the care, attention, and material benefits of a married household, it’s actually not as bad as it has been in the past: since 2014, the share of children living with two married parents has risen ever-so-slightly, from 61.8% to 62.3% in 2018, and data from early 2019 in the Current Population Survey suggest that 2019 will show further improvement. The period from 2011 to 2019 is the longest period of stability or improvement in children’s living situations since the 1950s. …

Overall, the decline in the share of kids growing up in married, two-parent households seems to have stopped for now, and there’s even been a modest recovery. But much of this change is purely compositional: Asian, Hispanic, and multiracial kids are growing as a share of children thanks to immigration and intermarriage, while African and Native American kids are not. As a result, the nationwide aggregate is improving. But among specific groups, the trends are less optimistic. Particularly for Hispanic and Native American kids, family conditions have deteriorated markedly over the last two decades.

Lyman goes into greater depth in his analysis, but the takeaway from my perspective is that there’s general reason for hope even as I suspect this stability might be a result of our healthy economy as much as any particular set of life choices within American families.

Roger Scruton, RIP

He seemed bigger than the age.

Roger Scruton, rest in peace. There are so many tributes and memorials being shared to this man who embodied so much of England and possessed so many of the best instincts of the West. I had the chance to see him speak at Penn in 2017, and will remember that for a very long time. His thinking and his way of living have provided me with a great deal of surety about our culture and confidence in daily life.

Who was Roger Scruton? Why Beauty Matters helps answer this, as does Of Beauty and Consolation, as does How to Be a Conservative, as does this performance of his Lorca songs, set from the poetry of Federico Garcia Lorca, murdered in the Spanish Civil War. And there’s his writing itself.

I’ll share a few excerpts of his and a few tributes that have been circulating. First, on the imperative to conserve:

“Conservatism … is the instinct we all ultimately share, at least if we’re happy in this world; it’s the instinct to hold on to what we love.”

And: “The real reason people are conservatives is that they are attached to the things that they love, and want to preserve them from abuse and decay. They are attached to their family, their friends, their religion, and their immediate environment. They have made a lifelong distinction between the things that nourish and the things that threaten…”

And: “Conservatism starts from a sentiment that all mature people can readily share: the sentiment that good things are easily destroyed, but not easily created.”

What makes Scruton’s conservative instincts remarkable is they did not arise from a lived experience; that is, that he was not born into the privileged place of a life already worth conserving, but the opposite. He speaks to this in his “Of Beauty and Consolation” appearance:

“I was very fortunate in having an unhappy childhood, so that my desire from the very beginning was to escape from it. My childhood home was one of violence and quarrels and discord. Perhaps, of course, this has given me an underlying sense of something missing and that I must recreate it.”

Second, from his book The Face of God on beauty and the transcendence that lies beneath beauty:

“The sense of beauty puts a brake upon destruction, by representing its object as irreplaceable. When the world looks back at me with my eyes, as it does in aesthetic experience, it is also addressing me in another way. Something is being revealed to me, and I am being made to stand still and absorb it … What is revealed to me in the experience of beauty is a fundamental truth about being—the truth that being is a gift, and receiving it is a task.”

Third, a reflection on incarnation and death, and the otherworldliness we intuit when we encounter the body of the dead. Those are moments where we can acknowledge the sacred nature of that moment or desecrate what we encounter:

Death too presents us with the mystery of our incarnation, though it does so in another way. In death we confront the body voided of the soul, an object without a subject, limp, ungoverned and inert. The awe that we feel in the face of death is a response to the unfathomable spectacle of human flesh without the self. In fact, the dead body is not so much an object as a void in the world of objects—something that ought not to be there, since it ought not to be there as a thing. The sight is uncanny, unheimlich, and demands to be rearranged—though rearranged metaphysically, as it were, so as to heal the void. Hence in all societies the dead are treated with reverence: they become untouchable, precisely in the moment when the self retreats from them. Somehow this body still belongs to the person who has vanished: I imagine him as exerting his claim over it, but from spectral regions where he cannot be touched. In encountering death, therefore, our imagination reaches spontaneously towards the supernatural. The dead body, by becoming sacred, exposes itself also to desecration—a fact upon which the drama of Antigone turns. Just as sex and death provide us with two of our primary experiences of the sacred, therefore, they also present us with a primary threat of desecration.

Here is Chad Pecknold’s tribute: “Sir Roger Scruton has died after a long battle with cancer. A champion of conservative ideas, eloquent defender of the civilizing effect of procreative realism, who made an argument for God from a life of meditating upon beauty. Requiscat in pace.”

And here is Scruton: “The psalmist goes on to remind us of the remedy: ‘Be ye sure that the Lord he is God: it is he that hath made us, and not we ourselves.’ This sentence contains all of theology.”

He concluded his public life with this“Coming close to death you begin to know what life means, and what it means is gratitude.”

Forgetting what work is for

Pew: “The share of adults who have lived with a romantic partner is now higher than the share who have ever been married; married adults are more satisfied with their relationships, more trusting of their partners.”

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Fascinating that we have troubling recognizing this: “being in a committed relationship” and “having a job or career you enjoy” require the same virtues. And yet we prioritize work over people in ranking what we believe we need for a fulfilling life.

Focus on fathers

Eric Sammons writes that the best way to build and sustain strong generations of Catholic young people is by building and sustaining strong mothers and especially fathers:

The biggest influence on them is the parents. As a recent study by the Pew Research Center noted,

“Among those who were raised in a single religious background…the family’s religious commitment is closely linked with retaining one’s religion into adulthood. Those adults who say religion was very important to their family while growing up and whose parents frequently discussed religion are more likely than others to continue to identify with their parents’ religion as adults.”

For Catholics, if religion was “very important” in the family, then 73 percent of the time the kids remained Catholic after leaving the house. If it was “not too/not at all important,” only 38 percent remained Catholic. This shouldn’t be surprising to most people involved with youth outreach; they know it from experience. This is why many look for ways to involve parents in their youth activities. However, the model remains directed toward the kids, separate from their parents.

Research also points to the vital role specifically of the father’s faith. A 2000 report in Population Studies magazine concluded that “it is the religious practice of the father of the family that, above all, determines the future attendance at or absence from church of the children.” More specifically, it states:

In short, if a father does not go to church—no matter how faithful his wife’s devotions—only one child in 50 will become a regular worshipper. If a father does go regularly, regardless of the practice of the mother, between two-thirds and three-quarters of their children will become churchgoers (regular and irregular).

Only 2 percent of kids whose fathers don’t practice the faith will end up practicing that faith! It’s clear, then, that fathers more than anyone dramatically impact their children’s future religious practice, and if parishes want children to retain their faith in adulthood (which is the purpose of youth ministry), they should focus not on the children but on the fathers.

Even with data supporting this conclusion, it still seems counterintuitive that to reach kids we shouldn’t focus on them but on their fathers instead. Yet this is the biblical method of salvation.

In the Bible, whenever God works with a group of people, He does not direct His energies toward the entire group, but toward a mediator. Think of Abraham, Moses, or David: each of these men represented a much larger group of people. God first influenced and converted the one man, then He allowed that individual to influence the group he led and represented. This is also the fundamental way in which the Catholic Church operates: we have bishops and priests who receive specific graces and powers that are then used to help the laity draw closer to Christ.

The father is the “mediator”—the “priest”—of the family, the domestic church. Therefore it makes sense, both sociologically and theologically, to focus on fathers in order to save the children.

At Penn State, we had a daily public affairs talk show on the campus radio station. At one point we had a conversation with a life coach/family counselor who made this point: if you want a strong marriage and a strong family, a husband and wife should be primarily in relationship with one another—and not primarily with their kids.

“Kids generally take care of themselves,” was his message. “But if the man and the woman forget that their relationship is what holds the family together, then everything is likelier to fall apart,” was more or less his point.

Genuine friendships

Mary Farrow writes on Alasdair MacIntyre’s narrow Aristotelian view of friendship:

For Aristotle, the definition of perfect friendship was so narrow that precious few could achieve it.

In order to have a perfect friendship between two people, Aristotle said that both must be models of goodness and virtue, willing the good of the other and loving each other for their own sake.

He also thought these levels of virtue and goodness could only be achieved by a narrow slice of the population: namely, the Greek male elite. Women, non-Greeks, productive workers, and slaves were, in Aristotle’s mind, unable to achieve the levels of virtue and goodness necessary for such friendships.

Such people could have other kinds of friendships, Aristotle said – friendships of utility or pleasure – but they could never have perfect friendship.

It was this view of friendship with which moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre took issue in his Nov. 8 address at the di Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture’s 20th annual conference, which this year had the theme of friendship.

“For (perfect) friendships, so Aristotle tells us, we have to be good in ways and to a degree that…if we’re honest, many of us know that we’re not,” MacIntyre said.

“Aristotle allows that…we can, without being good, participate in friendships of mutual utility or of shared pleasure, but even this should be depressing for many of us,” he added, “for what we need on the most important occasions when we need friendship…are friendships sustained by a good deal more than the possibility of mutual utility or of shared pleasure.”

MacIntyre pointed to other still unsatisfactory definitions of friendship, such as that from Dale Carnegie, who wrote the 1936 book “How to Win Friends and Influence People.”

But what Carnegie suggests will not help one have real friends, MacIntyre said, but will manufacture “a certain kind of superficial sociability, a sociability which no one of integrity could confuse with friendship.” Such friendships, he added, might be compared to someone who is a Facebook friend and nothing more. …

“Yet what above all else stands in the way of openness to friendship is insincerity,” MacIntyre said. An insincere person is an actor of sorts, he noted. An insincere person is not necessarily a liar, but they have convinced others and sometimes themselves that they are something or someone that they are not.

“An insincere person invites others to respond not to their reality, but the sometimes impressive fiction that they have constructed. So the other is put at a disadvantage and when the invitation extended to the other is or includes an offer a friendship, what is offered cannot, in fact, be friendship. For one is being invited to care for a fiction, not for a real human being,” he said.

I didn’t see/hear MacIntyre’s talk at Notre Dame, but it was streamed:

Philip D. Halfacre’s Genuine Friendship is a great place to start out if you’re considering what true friendship, of the Aristotelian sort, looks like.