Secular totalism

A fourth and final excerpt from Michael Novak’s “No One Sees God: The Dark Night of Atheists and Believers.” This time on secular public engagement and the necessity for mutual respect and true pluralism in order to avoid a lame secular mono-culture:

In 2005, in a lecture at the University of Lodz in Poland on “Religion in the Public Sphere,” Habermas posed another question (again I abbreviate): Are secular men and women ready to admit that toleration is always a two-way street? Religious persons must be ready to learn toleration not only for each denomination’s convictions and commitments, but also for those of atheists, agnostics, and other secularists. In a similar way, nonbelieving secularists must learn to appreciate the creeds, reasoning, and convictions of their fellow human beings who are believers. “For all their ongoing dissent on questions of worldviews and religious doctrines,” says Habermas, “citizens are meant to respect one another as free and equal members of their political community.” Those on all sides must be ready to stand in the shoes of the other, in order to see the other’s point of view “from within.”

As Pierre Manent has pointed out, the history of the last six or seven generations seems to show that Christianity has had an easier time identifying with democracy, and done so more successfully, than secular people have done in recognizing the contributions Christians and Jews have made to the intellectual comprehension of rights. The question Habermas poses is succinctly summarized: Is there sufficient moral energy among secular peoples to overcome this failure to take religion seriously?

Civic Duties of Religious Persons

On the side of religious people, Habermas also poses a test. Among themselves, they may explain their convictions in the language of faith, and even of the Bible. But in public life, at least those believers who enter into politics or activism have a special obligation to employ a “neutral” secular language. Perhaps Habermas is thinking more of the situation of France or other secular European nations with high proportions of Muslim citizens, where he wants to put pressure on Muslims to become more open to Western views, not to stay closed within their own. Perhaps he believes that the preponderance of peoples in European nations is secular, so that among them secular speech is most readily accessible to the largest number. Whatever his motives, his warning is that language in the public sphere (specifically, governmental offices) should be solely secular, lest religious language invite social divisiveness. Yet Habermas is far more open than John Rawls on these matters.

In his lecture “Religion in the Public Sphere,” Habermas writes:

“The citizens of a democratic community owe one another good reasons for their public political interventions. Contrary to the restrictive view of [John] Rawls and [Robert] Audi, this civic duty can be specified in such a tolerant way that contributions are permitted in a religious as well as in a secular language. They are not subject to constraints on the mode of expression in the political public sphere, but they rely on joint ventures of translation to have a chance to be taken up in the agendas and negotiations of political bodies. Otherwise they will not “count” in any further political process.”

In “Faith and Knowledge,” Habermas adds, “The liberal state has so far imposed only upon the believers among its citizens the requirement that they split their identity into public and private versions. That is, they must translate their religious convictions into a secular language before their arguments have the prospect of being accepted by a majority” (emphasis added).

For his part, Habermas does not want to put believers at a disadvantage, although he holds that all parties, including believers, must do their best to give reasons understandable to the other parties. So he lays burdens on both believers and unbelievers: “But the search for reasons that aspire to general acceptance need not lead to an unfair exclusion of religion from public life, and secular society, for its part, need not cut itself off from the important resources of spiritual explanations, if only so that the secular side might retain a feeling for the articulative power of religious discourse.”

By contrast, the assumption that Rawls and others make is that the secular mode of speech is actually “neutral.” In the experience of many believers of various faiths, secular speech is anything but neutral. Speech limited to secular categories has its own totalistic tendencies. It penalizes or even quarantines those with religious points of view, whose insights and public arguments are not given due weight by narrowly secular officials. Curiously, in a set of lectures at the University of Virginia in 1928, Walter Lippmann made a parallel observation about the famous Scopes trial three years earlier. In a lecture framed as a conversation, the “Fundamentalist” says to his counterpart the “Modernist”:

“In our public controversies you are fond of arguing that you are open-minded, tolerant and neutral in the face of conflicting opinions. That is not so…Because for me an eternal plan of salvation is at stake. For you there is nothing at stake but a few tentative opinions none of which means anything to your happiness. Your request that I should be tolerant and amiable is, therefore, a suggestion that I submit the foundation of my life to the destructive effects of your skepticism, your indifference, and your good nature. You ask me to smile and to commit suicide.”

The Modernist does not grasp the total surrender he is asking the person of faith to make by submitting one source of knowledge (faith) to another (reason), when the latter seems to him inferior.

The parallel challenge that Habermas throws down for secular people, then, is an even newer one: that they, now, live in a “post-secular” age and must not be content with understanding social realities in a solely secular way. They, too, must enter into the two-way dialogue by stepping into the shoes, horizon, and viewpoint of those who are believers, just as is expected of the believers vis-à-vis the secularist.

If the tender roots of something like universal democracy are ever to survive and spread around the world, these conceptions—these breakthroughs for a universal ethos of public communication, and mutual reaching out to understand others from within—make an indispensable contribution. But these new rules for public discourse also renegotiate the historical preeminence that “the enlightened” assign themselves, and the language of contempt by which they have taken believers less than seriously. These rules call upon secularists, too, to be learners, and to master the new morality of communicative discourse. It is a morality that calls for mutual respect.

“[T]he assumption that Rawls and others make is that the secular mode of speech is actually ‘neutral.’ In the experience of many believers of various faiths, secular speech is anything but neutral. Speech limited to secular categories has its own totalistic tendencies.”

Everything isn’t permitted

A third excerpt from Michael Novak’s “No One Sees God: The Dark Night of Atheists and Believers, this time concerning the strange fact that in human nature we find that “everything isn’t permitted”—not everything is condoned in our heart, and not everything is approved by our conscience:

One of my favorite parts of the Sam Harris book is his attempt to explain away the horrors of the self-declared atheist regimes in modern history: Fascist in Italy, Nazi in Germany, and Communist in the Soviet Union and Asia. Never in history have so many Christians been killed, tortured, driven to their deaths in forced marches, and imprisoned in concentration camps. An even higher proportion of Jews suffered still more horrifically under the same regimes, particularly the Nazi regime, than at any other time in Jewish history. The excuse Harris offers is quite lame. First he directs attention away from the ideological character of the regime, toward the odd personalities of Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin. No, the problem is the ideology, the regime, the millions of believers in atheism. Harris ignores the essential atheism of the ideologies of the regime, “scientific secularism” and “dialectical materialism.” Yet it is these ideologies, not just a few demented leaders, that bred a furious war on God, religion, and clergy. The nature of a regime and its ideology matter more than mad leaders. Yet here is Harris, limping: “While it is true that such men are sometimes enemies of organized religion, they are never especially rational. In fact, their public pronouncements are often delusional…The problem with such tyrants is not that they reject the dogma of religion, but that they embrace other life-destroying myths.” In other words, delusional atheists are not really atheists.

Would Harris accept a claim by Christians that Christian evildoers are not really Christians? The real problem is not that tyrants reject the “dogma” of religion, but that they derive their furors from a dogmatic atheism that brooks no rival. They build a punitive totalitarian regime far more sweeping than their own personal madness.

Enthusiasts such as Harris may dismiss the argument that atheism is associated with relativism. Sometimes it isn’t. Some atheists are rationalists of a most sober, moral kind. Nonetheless, the most common argument against placing trust in atheists is Dostoyevsky’s: “If there is no God, everything is permitted.” There will be no Judge of deeds and consciences; in the end, it is each man for himself. Widespread public atheism may not show its full effects right away, but only after three or four generations. For individual atheists “of a peculiar character,” brought up in habits inculcated by the religious cultures of the past, can go on for two or three generations living in ways hard to distinguish from those of unassuming Christians and Jews. These individuals continue to be honest, compassionate, committed to the equality of all, firm believers in “progress” and “brotherhood,” long after they have repudiated the original religious justification for this particular list of virtues. But sooner or later a generation may come along that takes the metaphysics of atheism with deadly seriousness. This was the fate of a highly cultivated nation in the Europe of our time, Germany, before it voted its way into Nazism.

George Washington considered this risk in his Farewell Address: “Let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.” If morality were left to reason alone, common agreement would never be reached, since philosophers vehemently—and endlessly—disagree, and large majorities would waver without clear moral signals. Adds Alexis de Tocqueville:

“There is almost no human action, however particular one supposes it, that does not arise from a very general idea that men have conceived of God, of his relations with the human race, of the nature of their souls, and of their duties toward those like them. One cannot keep these ideas from being the common source from which all the rest flow.

“Men therefore have an immense interest in making very fixed ideas for themselves about God, their souls, their general duties toward their Creator and those like them; for doubt about these first points would deliver all their actions to chance and condemn them to a sort of disorder and impotence….

“The first object and one of the principal advantages of religions is to furnish a solution for each of these primordial questions that is clear, precise, intelligible to the crowd, and very lasting.”

This extremely practical contribution is one reason Tocqueville saw religion as essential to a free people, and unbelief as tending toward tyranny.

Moreover, in times of stress distinguished intellectuals such as Heidegger and various precursors of postmodernism (including deconstructionist Paul de Man) displayed a shameless adaptation either to Nazi or to Communist imperatives—or to any other anti-Hebraic relativism. Even the elites may lose their moral compass.

Everyone worships. In other words, the question isn’t whether to worship, but who or what ideas or things we will worship. Every culture, similarly, has a viewpoint it seeks to achieve and so can never be neutral in its structure. If we’re interested in pluralism, it’s necessary to guard against creating a monoculture that stifles concrete difference while pursuing abstract universalism.

Nihilism

A second excerpt from Michael Novak’s “No One Sees God: The Dark Night of Atheists and Believers, this time on nihilism and the universal experience of nothingness:

When he was asked, What is nihilism? the answer Nietzsche gave was my neighbor’s: “The aim is lacking; ‘why?’ finds no answer.” Later he approached the definition another way: “Something is to be achieved through the process—and now one realizes that becoming aims at nothing and achieves nothing.”

In our age and in our kind of society—mobile, fast, free—the experience of “nihilism” is common even among fourteen-year-old “valley girls.” Boredom today is the first taste of nothingness. “Waddya want to do tonight, Beth?” Beth, chewing gum: “I dunno, what do you wanna do?” Nowadays, one of them is likely to have a cell phone to her ear. The interest of the other runs to shopping malls, movie theaters, boys in cars….

The experience of nothingness is, therefore, practically universal. Yet some in the two groups mentioned earlier seem blessedly to have been spared it. Trying to understand it, however, I prefer to speak of this experience without the -ism, prior to any ideology about it, as “the experience of nothingness.” How we are to understand that experience, in Nietzsche’s way or in any other, is a different matter.

It is an experience I well know in my own life. Everybody does.

Without being tedious, but to make certain that the point is as clear as examples can make it, let me mention Joan, who married for the first and only time when she was forty-three. Not immediately but some three years later and much to her surprise and joy, Joan conceived a child. Months of happy expectation followed. On the day after the child’s exhilarating birth, however, she learned that the dear little boy was afflicted with a rare disease that meant her son would probably live only until nine or ten, and would for all the years until then need extraordinary care. The question “Why?” arose inside her with much anguish.

A couple I know of had a handsome, athletic, extremely smart, and warmly popular son who excelled in almost everything in high school. It was only at the end of his first year in college that his health faltered, and then slowly it became apparent that he was afflicted with an incapacitating case of schizophrenia and would have to be hospitalized. His adoring parents were crushed. He was an only child. Their world fell apart.

A student I once had in class had been acing all her classes at Stanford, a perky and happy and optimistic young woman determined to get into medical school, in the tradition of her family. She had not a doubt in her mind. Her sailing was exceptionally clear. Until one day. One day it suddenly hit her very hard that she did not really want to become a doctor. Her grandmother had years ago, seeing the child care for a wounded robin, been the first to say that Janette would make a great doctor. Janette’s life dream had been implanted in her imagination from that day on.

Now suddenly, as a sophomore, some inner tunnel collapsed and all her dreams came tumbling down. The irrepressible thought had overpowered her: that she had been thrown into this project, it was not her project, she had never given it any real thought. She was just so darn good at it, and her record had gotten her into the university of her dreams, and everything looked far too rosy to endure. And it didn’t. She began to show the symptoms of the experience of nothingness that many sophomores come down with: She began to sleep a lot.

She could hardly get out of bed. She could no longer see any point to it. With her friends she was, as never before, short and cynical. They knew she wasn’t well. But she wasn’t sick, either, except with the disease of autonomy and inner freedom.

Granted that I am overcome with the experience of nothingness, how should I live? The alternatives come down to two: some form of suicide (drugs, drink, fast living, killing time will do) such as Albert Camus contemplated in the Myth of Sisyphus. Or this: creatio ex nihilo, reaching down into nothingness to create a new being. But by what light? Following which stars?

Woody Allen found his: “The heart wants what it wants.” Even the U.S. Supreme Court has abandoned the Constitution to dabble in its own philosophy of life in Casey: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and the mystery of human life.” This is not the American legal and moral tradition, but contemporary postmodernism. …

Nothingness Inside Out

I went back to reflecting on illusions and realities in later months. Something told me that Nietzsche’s mad nihilism is not the only, nor the best, theory for explaining life-crushing experiences of the sort he adverted to. I noticed that Nietzsche and Sartre, Turgenev and Dostoyevsky, and all those other early writers on nihilism did one remarkable thing at variance with their theories: They wrote books for others to read. In a world that makes no sense, why would they endure the hours and hours of sitting on their backsides, moving old pens across resisting pieces of blank foolscap? If everything is as meaningless as they say, why would they do it?

And since some people seem oblivious to the experience of nothingness, what is it that those who have the experience do, that others don’t do?

I began reflecting on what goes on inside the experience of nothingness, first within myself, and then among others I could talk to about it. Here a brief summary will have to do. The normal way in which Nietzsche, Sartre, and we ourselves come to an awareness of the experience of nothingness is through four activities of our own minds and wills. The one Nietzsche and the others most stress is ruthless honesty, forcing ourselves to see through comforting illusions and to face the emptiness. The second is courage, the habit that gives force and steadiness to our ability to see truly. Without courage, we would avert our eyes, as so often we have done.

Third is the ideal of community exemplified in reaching out to others through books—the good moves outward to diffuse itself. There is a kind of brotherhood and sisterhood among those who recognize the experience of nothingness in one another. There is a sort of honesty and cleanness in it one wants to share. One of the marks of “the good” is that, as the Latin puts it, bonum est diffusivum sui—the good diffuses itself. It wants others to participate in it.

Fourth is practical wisdom, that is, practical reason applied to action, by an adult experienced enough to take virtually everything concrete into account—or at least to avoid most of the common mistakes of the inexperienced. When the experience of nothingness hits, one cannot simply take to one’s bed. Well, sometimes one does, but then one can’t stay there. Moment by moment, in a kind of staccato, action keeps calling to us. Sooner or later, I have to start acting as an agent of my own future again. “Granted that I have the experience of nothingness, what should I do?”

Yes, there are such things as relativity and meaninglessness and pointlessness. Question is, What are we going to do even if that is true? We will not be able to escape practicing honesty, courage, community, and practical wisdom—or else withering into dry leaves for stray winds to blow about. The choice is ours, and unavoidable.

These four virtues do not constitute a complete quiver of all the virtues needed to be a good man or a valiant woman. Still, these four do constitute quite an admirable list. They are a wonderful starting place for an ethic rooted in the experience of nothingness. Here is the point at which Albert Camus began his own ascent out of the problem of suicide (The Myth of Sisyphus), on the road to the heroic and clear-eyed compassion of Dr. Rieux in The Plague. Sartre, locked inside his own solitariness, writing that “hell is other people,” faltered on the idea of community. No, hell is not other people. Hell is total isolation within one’s own puny mind. It is solitary confinement. (To step out of philosophy for a moment and into the terms of Christian faith: Hell is the solitary soul who freely and deliberately rejects friendship with God.) Hell is becoming conscious of what one has irretrievably chosen for oneself. This Hell has been deliberately chosen.

What we do with the experience of nothingness depends on our proven reserves of practical wisdom, community, courage, honesty. By the end of our lives, learning from experience, we ought to be wiser than we were in the beginning.

If you haven’t read Michael Novak’s 1994 Templeton Address, “Awakening from Nihilism,” at Westminster Abbey, do so. All of these themes are more exhaustively and better elaborated upon in that speech.

Faith, reason, and history

I’ll be excerpting four times from Michael Novak’s “No One Sees God: The Dark Night of Atheists and Believers, which I recently finished. The first concerns faith and reason:

Even his good friends, Dawkins writes, ask him why he is driven to be so “hostile” to religious people. Why not, they say, as intelligent as you are, quietly lay out your devastating arguments against believers, in a calm and unruffled manner? Dawkins’s answer to his friends is forthright: “I am hostile to fundamentalist religion because it actively debauches the scientific enterprise…Fundamentalist religion is hell-bent on ruining the scientific education of countless thousands of innocent, well-meaning, eager young minds. Non-fundamentalist, ‘sensible’ religion may not be doing that. But it is making the world safe for fundamentalism by teaching children, from their earliest years, that unquestioning faith is a virtue.” Dawkins refuses to be part of the public “conspiracy” to pay religion respect, when it deserves contempt.

Yet his complaint about “unquestioning” faith seems a bit odd. Some of us have thought that the origin of religion lies in the unlimited drive in human beings to ask questions—which is our primary experience of the infinite. Anything finite that we encounter can be questioned, and seems ultimately unsatisfying. That hunger to question is the experience that keeps driving the mind and soul on and on, and is its first foretaste of that which is beyond time and space. “Our hearts are restless, Lord,” Saint Augustine recorded, “until they rest in Thee.” These words have had clearly echoing resonance in millions upon millions of inquiring minds down through human history ever since. “Unquestioning faith?” The writings of the medieval thinkers record question after question, disputation after disputation, and real results in history hinged upon the resolution of each. Many of the questions arose from skeptical, unbelieving lawyers, philosophers, and others in the medieval universities; still others from the Arab scholars whose works had recently burst upon the Western universities; still others from Maimonides and other Jewish scholars; and a great many from the greatest pagan thinkers of every preceding century. Questions have been the heart and soul of Judaism and Christianity for millennia.

To be sure, Dawkins at least does think there are some religious people who can be converted to atheism by his arguments. He describes them as the “open-minded people whose childhood indoctrination was not too insidious, or for other reasons didn’t ‘take,’ or whose native intelligence is strong enough to overcome it.” Dawkins presents such believers with an ultimatum: Either join him in “breaking free of the vice of religion altogether” or remain among the close-minded types who are unable to overcome “the god delusion.”

On the fifth page of his book, Dawkins describes his hopes: “If this book works as I intend, religious readers who open it will be atheists when they put it down.” It surprised me that Dawkins would turn out to be such a proselytizer. Most of all what surprised me is that, while all three authors write as if science is the be-all and end-all of rational discourse, these three books of theirs are by no means scientific. On the contrary, they are examples of dialectic—arguments from within one point of view, or horizon, addressed to human beings who share a different point of view. Surely, one of the noblest works of reason is to enter into respectful argument with others, whose vision of reality is dramatically different from one’s own, in order that both parties may learn from this exchange, and come to an ever deeper mutual respect. Our authors engage in dialectic, not science, but they can scarcely be said to do so with respect for those they address. Thus, Dawkins: “Of course, dyed-in-the-wool faith-heads are immune to argument, their resistance built up over years of childhood indoctrination…Among the more effective immunological devices is a dire warning to avoid even opening a book like this, which is surely a work of Satan.” Here, of course, Dawkins flatters himself. “Screwtape” would have been far more insidious.

What most surprised me in the Dawkins book, however, is its defensiveness. He describes atheists, particularly in America, as suffering from loneliness, public disrespect, spiritual isolation, and low self-esteem. In one passage he recounts a letter from a young American medical student recently turning from Christianity to atheism. A medical student? Surely at least some of the doctors and scientists working near her are atheists. Nonetheless, the student writes: “I don’t particularly want to share my belief with other people who are close to me because I fear the…reaction of distaste…I only write to you because I hoped you’d sympathize and share in my frustration.” In an appendix, which Dawkins kindly adds for such unsupported souls, he offers lists of organizations in which lonely atheists may find community and solace. He devotes not a few pages to boosting his community’s morale—how large their numbers are, how smart they are, how comparatively disgusting their antagonists are.

Building a Culture of Reason

I have no doubt that Christians have committed many evils, and written some disgraceful pages in human history. Yet on a fair ledger of what Judaism and Christianity added to pagan Greece, Rome, the Arab nations (before Mohammed), the German, Frankish, and Celtic tribes, the Vikings and the Anglo-Saxons, one is puzzled not to find Dawkins giving thanks for many innovations: hospitals, orphanages, cathedral schools in early centuries, universities not much later, some of the most beautiful works of art—in music, architecture, painting, and poetry—in the human patrimony.

And why does he overlook the hard intellectual work on concepts such as “person,” “community,” “civitas,” “consent,” “tyranny,” and “limited government” (“Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s…”) that framed the conceptual background of such great documents as the Magna Carta? His few pages on the founding and nourishing of his own beloved Oxford by its early Catholic patrons are mockingly ungrateful. And if Oxford disappoints him, has he no gratitude for the building of virtually every other old and famous university of Europe (and the Americas)?

Dawkins writes nothing about the great religious communities founded for the express purpose of building schools for the free education of the poor. Nothing about the thousands of monastic lives dedicated to the delicate and exhausting labor of copying by hand the great manuscripts of the past—often with the lavish love manifested in illuminations—during long centuries in which there were no printing presses. Nothing about the founding of the Vatican Library and its importance for the genesis of nearly a dozen modern sciences. Nothing about the learned priests and faithful who have made so many crucial discoveries in science, medicine, and technology. Yet on these matters a word or two of praise from Dawkins might have made his tiresome lists of accusations seem less unfair.

I don’t wish to overdo it. There have been and are toxic elements in religion that always need restraint by the Logos—the inner word, the insight, the light of intelligence—to which Christianity from the very first married the biblical tradition: “In the beginning was the Logos”—the inner word, the light, in Whom, and by Whom, and with Whom all things have been made ( John 1:1 NAB). Still, any fair measuring of the impact of Judaism and Christianity on world history has an awful lot of positives to add to the ledger. Among my favorite texts for many years, in fact, are certain passages of Alfred North Whitehead—in Science and the Modern World and Adventures of Ideas, for instance. In these passages, Whitehead points out that the practices of modern science are inconceivable apart from thousands of years of tutelage under the Jewish and Christian conviction that the Creator of all things understood all things, in their general laws and in their particular, contingent dispositions. This conviction, Whitehead writes, made long, disciplined efforts to apply reason to the sustained Herculean task of understanding all things seem reasonable. …

The path of modern science was made straight, and smoothed, by deep convictions that every stray element in the world of human experience—from the number of hairs on one’s head to the lonely lily in the meadow—is thoroughly known to its Creator and, therefore, lies within a field of intelligibility, mutual connection, and multiple logics. All these odd and angular levels of reality, given arduous, disciplined, and cooperative effort, are in principle penetrable by the human mind. If human beings are made in the image of the Creator, as the first chapters of the book of Genesis insist that they are, surely it is in their capacities to question, gain insight, and advance in understanding of the works of God. In the great image portrayed by Michelangelo on the Sistine ceiling—the touch from finger to finger between the Creator and Adam—the mauve cloud behind the Creator’s head is painted in the shape of the human brain. Imago Dei, yes indeed.

Ross Ulbricht

Brian Doherty reviews Nick Bilton’s “American Kingpin: The Epic Hunt for the Criminal Mastermind Behind the Silk Road:”

Bilton rushes through Ulbricht’s trial. He does not discuss, even to debunk, the legal problems with the prosecution that Ulbricht’s lawyers have brought up. He never addresses any of the Fourth Amendment issues raised by the case, such as what Ulbricht’s team argues was an unconstitutionally broad search of the contents of his laptop. He doesn’t mention that the story he repeats uncritically about how the FBI found the Silk Road server has been declared impossible by various computer experts, or that the government has provided no verifiable corroboration for it and didn’t put the agent in question on the stand for cross-examination.

Nor does he discuss some obvious alterations in the computer records from Ulbricht’s stolen laptop—discovered by his lawyers after the trial—or the fact that someone was logging into Silk Road servers as “Dread Pirate Roberts” after Ulbricht was behind bars. When discussing the second set of alleged murders-for-hire, he lets nearly 100 pages pass before he lets the reader know that the killings never happened.

And then there’s the book’s end, which robs the cops’ whole cat-and-mouse game of any real meaning.

The conclusion calls back to the book’s opening, when a Homeland Security agent discovers an MDMA pill in some mail that a colleague blithely decided to open. (Bilton’s authorial voice sees nothing problematic in police opening any mail they want from overseas, a sad legal reality that’s key to many aspects of this story.) In the book’s final anecdote, with Ulbricht in prison for life, that same agent encounters a package with 200 such pills.

All the detailed sleuthing to find Ulbricht, all the lives upended and community destroyed, were ultimately for naught. Drugs are still sold, drugs are still shipped, drugs are still consumed. Silk Road’s encryption-and-bitcoin model is being used to traffic more illegal substances than were ever moved over Ulbricht’s website.

And they always will be. Ulbricht pioneered a new way of meeting a constant human desire, and that approach is unequivocally better, in every way, for sellers, users, and society at large. The pointless quest to arrest him did nothing to kill that innovation.

Yet the people who dedicated their time—and our money—to “taking him down” are the heroes of this narrative. Bilton’s book does what he thinks it does: It tells a harrowing and depressing story of a moral compass gone hideously askew, destroying lives. But that broken compass isn’t Ross Ulbricht’s.

I met Ross Ulbricht at Penn State in 2008, when I was an undergrad and he was working on his master’s degree. We only interacted maybe twice, and I doubt he would have any memory of me, but I remember him. When news of the Silk Road trial broke a few years ago, I was amazed that the same Ross Ulbricht was the “Dread Pirate Roberts” referenced in the federal allegations.

Ross’s sentence of life imprisonment without possibility of parole, given his age, given the nonviolent nature of his offenses, and given the corruption of the FBI agents who built the case against him, is a travesty.

Anti-culture

Patrick J. Deneen writes on a little-perceived aspect of our present political/social moment in America and most Western democracies: that we generally engage in a debate between two forms of Liberalism, rather than liberalism versus something else. And the great problem of our present debates is that liberalism (either classical or progressive) both seem to result in what Deneen refers to as an anti-culture:

America is a nation in deep agreement and common belief. The proof lies, somewhat paradoxically, in the often tempestuous and increasingly acrimonious debate between the two main US political parties. The widening divide represented by this debate has, for many of us, defined the scope of our political views and the resultant differences for at least the past one hundred years. But even as we do tense and bruising battle, a deeper form of philosophical agreement reigns. As described by Louis Hartz in his 1955 book The Liberal Tradition in America, the nature of our debates themselves is defined within the framework of liberalism. That framework has seemingly expanded, but it is nonetheless bounded, in as much as the political debates of our time have pitted one variant of liberalism against another, which were given the labels “conservatism” and “liberalism” but which are better categorized as “classical liberalism” and “progressive liberalism.” While we have focused our attention on the growing differences between “classical” and “progressive,” we have been largely inattentive to the unifying nature of their shared liberalism.

While classical liberalism looks back to a liberalism achieved and lost—particularly the founding philosophy of America that stressed natural rights, limited government, and a relatively free and open market, “progressive” liberalism longs for a liberalism not yet achieved, one that strives to transcend the limitations of the past and even envisions a transformed humanity, its consciousness enlarged, practicing what Edward Bellamy called “the religion of solidarity.” As Richard Rorty envisioned in his aptly titled 1998 book Achieving Our Country, liberal democracy “is the principled means by which a more evolved form of humanity will come into existence.… Democratic humanity…has ‘more being’ than predemocratic humanity. The citizens of a [liberal] democratic, Whitmanesque society are able to create new, hitherto unimagined roles and goals for themselves.”

In the main, American political conflicts since the end of the Civil War have been fought along this broad division within liberalism itself. We have grown accustomed to liberalism being the norm and defining the predictable battlefield for our political debates. Largely accepting at least the Hartzian view, if not also Fukuyama’s claim that liberalism constitutes the “end of history,” we have been so preoccupied with the divisions and differences arising from these two distinct variants of liberalism that our debate within the liberal frame obscures from us an implicit acknowledgment that the question of regime has been settled—liberalism is the natural order for humanity. Further, the intensifying division between the two sides of liberalism also obscures the basic continuities between these two iterations of liberalism, and in particular makes it nearly impossible to reflect on the question of whether the liberal order itself remains viable. The bifurcation within liberalism masks a deeper agreement that has led to the working out of liberalism’s deeper logic, which, ironically, brings us today to a crisis within liberalism itself that now appears sudden and inexplicable.

What is especially masked by our purported choice between primary allegiance to classical liberalism’s emphasis on a free market and limited government, on the one hand, and progressive liberalism’s emphasis on an expansive state that tempers the market, on the other, is that both “choices” arise from a basic commitment of liberalism to depersonalization and abstraction. Our main political choices come down to which depersonalized mechanism seems most likely to secure human goods—the space of the market, which collects our seemingly limitless number of choices to provide for our wants and needs without demanding any specific thought or intention from us about the wants and needs of others; or the liberal state, which, via the mechanism of taxation and depersonalized distribution of goods and services, establishes standard procedures and mechanisms to satisfy the wants and needs of others that would otherwise go unmet or be insufficiently addressed by the market.

The insistent demand that we choose between protection of individual liberty and expansion of the state’s efforts to redress injustices masks the reality that the two grow constantly and necessarily together: Statism enables individualism; individualism demands statism. The creation of the autonomous individual, that imaginary creature of Hobbes and Locke, in fact requires the expansive apparatus of the state and its creation, the universal market, to bring it into existence. And, as Tocqueville predicted, once liberated, the individual no longer has reliable personal networks to which to turn for assistance, and instead looks for the assistance of the state, which grows further to meet these insistent demands. While the battle is waged between liberalism’s two sides, one of which stresses the individual and the other the need for the redress of the state, liberalism’s constant and unceasing trajectory has been to become both more individualistic and more statist. This is not because one party advances individualism without cutting back on statism while the other achieves (and fails) in the opposite direction; rather, both move simultaneously together, as a matter of systemic logic that follows our deepest philosophical premises.

The result is a political system that trumpets liberty, but which inescapably creates conditions of powerlessness, fragmentation, mistrust, and resentment. The liberated individual comes to despise the creature of its making and the source of its powerlessness—whether perceived to be the state or the market (protests to the former represented by the Tea Party and to the latter by Occupy Wall Street). The tools of liberalism cease to be governable and become instead independent forces to which disempowered individuals must submit—whether the depersonalized public bureaucracy or depersonalized globalizing market forces, aided and abetted by technology, from surveillance to automation, that no longer seems under the control of its masters. Much of our common response to liberalism’s triumph today is a celebration of our completed liberty, but it takes the form of discussions and debates over the ways in which we can lessen the unease accompanying our powerlessness and dislocation as we submit terms of surrender to ungovernable forces in politics and economics. The movements that resulted in Brexit and the election of Donald J. Trump suggest that some will reject the terms of surrender altogether, even at the cost of considerable political and economic disarray. Across the world today, liberalism’s moment of triumph is being marked not by the tolling of victory bells but the sounding of air-raid sirens

Calls to restore culture and the liberal arts, to curb individualism and statism, and to limit the technology of liberalism will no doubt prompt suspicious questions. Yet, practices that foster culture, liberal arts, and an equality born of shared fates will prove to be formidable answers to the challenges from a theory whose practices are unsustainable. …

I want to offer three areas for consideration where one can see liberalism’s two opposing parts advancing a consistent and uniform end by effectually engaging in a pincer movement from two different directions, and in the process destabilizing the very possibility of a shared political, civic, and social life. These areas are, first, liberalism’s hostility to culture, with preference given to a pervasive and universalized anti-culture (to borrow sociologist Philip Rieff’s term); second, liberalism’s assault on the liberal arts and humanistic education; and third, liberalism’s creation of a new and fully realized aristocracy, or what I call a “liberalocracy.” …

First, both classical liberalism and progressive liberalism are commonly arrayed against the persistence of culture as a basic organizing form of human life, and together devise economic, social, and political structures in order to replace the variety and expanse of existing cultures with a pervasive anti-culture. Local cultures, often religious and traditional, were seen by the architects of both classical and progressive liberalism as obstacles to the achievement of individual liberty. Shaping the worldview of individuals from the youngest age, cultural norms came to be seen as a main obstruction to the perception of the self as a free, independent, autonomous, and unconnected chooser. Whether in the form of classical liberalism’s tale of the “state of nature,” which portrayed the natural condition of human beings as one in which culture was wholly absent, or progressive critiques of tradition and custom (for instance, the main object of John Stuart Mill’s concern about “tyranny of the majority” in his classic essay On Liberty), a continuous feature and core ambition of liberalism was the critique and eradication of culture as a given, to be replaced by a pervasive anti-culture in which remnants of cultures would be reduced to consumer choices.

The advance of this anti-culture takes two primary forms. Anti-culture is at once statist, especially arising through a legalistic regime of standardizing law replacing widely observed informal norms that come to be described and discarded as forms of oppression. It is the simultaneously the consequence of a universal and homogenous market, resulting in a monoculture which, like its agricultural analogue, colonizes and destroys actual cultures rooted in experience, history, and place. These two visages of the liberal anti-culture thus free us from other specific people and embedded relationships, replacing customary norms with abstract and depersonalized law, liberating us from personal obligations and debts, replacing what had come to be perceived as burdens on our individual autonomous freedom with the pervasive legal threat and financialization of debts. Thus, in the effort to secure the radical autonomy of individuals, liberal law and the liberal market replace actual culture with an encompassing anti-culture.

Deneen’s is a heady analysis, and I’m working through what I think about this by actively seeking greater context, history, perspective, etc. on it in a process that I expect might take my lifetime. What I can say for certain, right now, is that if Richard Rorty’s description of liberalism is the common understanding (that it’s the “means by which a more evolved form of humanity will come into existence”) then I reject that entirely as utopianism. Deneen’s analysis of anti-culture intuitively seems correct.

Puritan capitalism

Dr. David L. Schindler reviews Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism:

Probably the most common reading of Max Weber’s argument in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism is that capitalism appeared for the first time with English Puritans (Calvinists) of the seventeenth century, as though the “impulse to acquisition, pursuit of gain, of money” began decisively at this time or with this people (17). Weber is sardonic in his dismissal of such a reading. The impulse to acquisition, he says, “has existed among waiters, physicians, coachmen, artists, prostitutes, dishonest officials, soldiers, nobles, crusaders, gamblers and beggars. One may say that it has been common to all sorts and conditions of men at all times and in all countries of the earth, wherever the objective possibility of it is or has been given” (17). He insists that “[i]t should be taught in the kindergarten of cultural history that this naïve idea of capitalism must be given up once and for all. Unlimited greed for gain is not in the least identical with capitalism, and is still less its spirit” (17). Weber’s argument is centered rather on a more basic and interesting phenomenon: what he terms the “disenchantment” (die Entzauberung, or Rationalisierung, “rationalization”) of life and work in Puritan theology.

In summary, we may say that Puritanism’s peculiar God-centeredness, according to Weber, conceived God’s transcendence “negatively”: God was pervasively “present” in the world only through the influence of his “absence.” The human being never participates intrinsically in God’s goodness. On the contrary, man remains a subject to whom that goodness must be imputed, incomprehensively and from outside. Likewise the things of the world are drained of all intrinsic worth.

Puritan “disenchantment” thus involves an utterly utilitarian view of the world. Man’s purpose in the world is to be ever-active in “rationalizing” things in maiorem Dei gloriam. But the point is that this “rationalizing” process is conceived in a thoroughly instrumentalized fashion. Nothing in the cosmos really bears value—or salvific value in relation to God—save as “rationalized” via the power of human activity. …

In this light, “the most urgent task” for the Puritan becomes “the destruction of spontaneous, impulsive enjoyment”—as a necessary condition for bringing “order into . . . conduct” (119). “Not leisure and enjoyment, but only activity serves to increase the glory of God” (157‒58). Restlessness becomes a sign of God’s salvific action. Inactive contemplation is valueless, or even directly reprehensible insofar as it detracts from the orderly demands of daily work. What gives glory to God, in a word, is the incessantly active performance of his will in one’s “worldly calling” (157‒58). …

It is important to see that the Puritan ethos as described by Weber persists in America even when, over time, the strength of Puritan piety wanes.[2] Pious Americans and secularized Americans continue to occupy largely the same cultural space, insofar as they both presume a distant God who is most effectively present in and to the world in his “absence,” and insofar as they (consequently) approach the things of the world most basically as apt for rationalization—if not any longer as a sign (for the religiously inclined) of God’s imputed favor, then in the interest of enhancing comfort and advancing the (secular) human estate.[3] What is crucial to see is the link Weber’s book defends (here set forth in terms of Puritanism and America) between the ethos of a culture and its (acknowledged or unacknowledged) assumptions regarding God and the orders of creation and civilization.[4] This link remains even when one is unaware of these assumptions.

Weber’s argument, then, implies not only that those in America who faithfully follow Puritan theology embody this ethos, but that any who live in America are inevitably shaped by this ethos, even if unconsciously. They tend to presuppose a God who is distant from the world, or acts ungenerously (or not at all) in relation to the world, such that the world is no longer symbolic of God, bearing inherent truth, goodness, and beauty as given (qua being). Human freedom becomes a simple exercise of choice, absent of any naturally ordered love of God. Knowledge becomes a matter properly of power over things and their meaning, as distinct from first “seeing” or experiencing things as they are (contemplation). The world becomes neutral (“dumb”) stuff awaiting controlled manipulation (experiment). Leisure is identified with idleness and enjoyment of external-bodily pleasure. Work is reduced to ever-more efficient activity for the purpose of producing the ever-greater wealth that enables idle comfort. Deepening the truth, goodness, and beauty of things for their own sake and as symbols of the good God, and thus simultaneously toward liturgical service, is no longer the proper concern of civilized public—economic, political, academic—order.

Weber’s argument in the end implies that no religion has more thoroughly instrumentalized the world and work and leisure than has Puritanism.

I’m instantly skeptical when I hear someone cast “capitalism” in a negative light, because behind the slight air of scorn that almost always accompanies the comment is some specific complaint or reading-into of a social/moral/cultural activity that the person has a problem with and assigns to “capitalism” broadly, rather than the actor specifically. Dr. Schindler sheds light for me on one of the legitimate problems of our age—this cultural “breathing in” of the Puritan mentality of justification through activity/work—that makes it difficult to even speak about “capitalism” without meaning a sort of capitalism wherein no one is ever at peace.

Catholics have lots of work to do if we’re ever to reform a cultural sense of capitalism that is closer to what Michael Novak so clearly recognized it is, at its core: an uplifting and ennobling force, so long as it allowed for the creative and virtuous channeling of human energies in a way that recognizes human dignity.

Little radio memory

I took this short little video in July 2012 in State College, when I was visiting I think over Arts Fest—a bit of The LION 90.7fm, Penn State’s student radio station. I came across it recently when going through some files, and it brought me back to that moment I filmed it, as rain spattered down a bit, cutting through thick summer air and slowing the world a bit.

It brought me to think a bit about what made The LION 90.7fm so attractive and compelling to me as a freshman at Penn State. It was the sound of a student-led, public broadcasting station that was able to speak freely, broadcast freely, and play whatever it felt was right. It was a station that didn’t want anything from its listener; indifferent in the good sense, of being removed from the concerns of the wider commercial market. It clearly empowered the human voice, and seemed to give it a confidence and force beyond what its generally youthful broadcasters had really earned, and consequently had a verve to it that made it a joy to listen to.

I remember tuning in occasionally even while in high school, feeling like I was getting to know bits and pieces of Penn State and State College months before I’d really be there in earnest. And now I return to it from time to time, to hear of a Penn State and town that seems slightly different from the one I remember, but that retains that essential element of compelling indifference.

Literate, engaged citizens

I’m sharing one more excerpt from Archbishop Charles J. Chaput’s “Strangers in a Strange Land:

A friend of mine is a well-known economist at a leading American university. He’s also the gatekeeper for an elite doctoral program in his field. Asked once what he valued most in candidates for his program, he said, “an undergraduate degree in Classics.” Homer and Virgil, of course, have very little to do with things like debt-deflation theory. But my friend’s reasoning is, in fact, quite shrewd.

Since economics is a human (i.e., social) science, its practitioners should first know how to be actual human beings before learning their specialized skills. A formation in the classics or any of the other humanities is an immersion in beauty and knowledge. It has no utility other than enlarging the soul. But that achievement—the ennobling of a soul, the enlarging of the human spirit to revere the heritage of human excellence and to love things outside itself—is something no technical skill can accomplish.

As Leo Strauss once wrote, “liberal education is concerned with the souls of men, and therefore has little or no use for machines … [it] consists in learning to listen to still and small voices and therefore in becoming deaf to loudspeakers.”18 A liberal education—a balanced experience of the humanities, art, music, mathematics, and the natural sciences—is designed to form a mature “liberal” adult; liberal in the original sense, meaning free as opposed to slave. Thus for Strauss, “liberal education is the counter-poison … to the corroding effects of mass culture, to its inherent tendency to produce nothing” but specialists without vision or heart.

Scholars like Anthony Esolen, Allan Bloom, Neil Postman, Matthew Crawford, and Alasdair MacIntyre, each in his own way and for different reasons, have all said similar things. For all of them, the point of a truly good education, from pre-K to graduate school, is to form students to think and act as fully rounded, mature, and engaged human beings. In other words, as adult persons of character.

As Matthew Crawford puts it, “Education requires a certain capacity for asceticism, but more fundamentally it is erotic. Only beautiful things lead us out [of our addictive self-focus] to join the world beyond our heads.”20 But the dilemma of postmodern life is that we can’t agree on what a fully rounded, mature “human being” is—or should be. The fragmentation in American culture runs too deep. Recent battles over imposing gender ideology in school curricula and rewriting and politicizing civics and American history textbooks simply prove the point. So does the “progressive” intellectual conformism in so many of our university faculties.

Meanwhile, as American student skills decline in global comparisons, more and more stress is placed on developing STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) competence at earlier student ages. There’s nothing wrong with this in principle. Technical skills are an important part of modern life. But as we’ve already seen, American trust in the promise of technology is robust and naive to the point of being a character flaw. And a real education involves more profound life lessons than training workers and managers to be cogs in an advanced economy.

We tend to forget that “everything that human beings are doing to make it easier to operate computer networks is at the same time, but for different reasons, making it easier for computer networks to operate human beings.” We also tend to forget that our political system, including its liberties, requires a particular kind of literate, engaged citizen—a kind that predates the computer keyboard.

True progress v. despair

I’m sharing two more excerpts from Archbishop Charles J. Chaput’s “Strangers in a Strange Land. This focuses on the idea of progress, and on Christianity’s ability to “play with death” thanks to Jesus Christ:

Americans talk about progress with an odd kind of reverence. Progress is the unstoppable force pushing human affairs forward. And it’s a religion with a simple premise: Except for the random detour, civilization instinctively changes for the better. And it’s up to us to get on board or get out of the way; to be part of the change or to get run over by history if we try to obstruct it. Hence we Catholics are routinely warned that we’re on the wrong side of history.

This idea of progress does have its appeal. As the economist Sidney Pollard put it: “The world today believes in progress because the only alternative to the belief in progress would be total despair.” We might go a step further: Clinging to a belief in progress is actually a product of despair, generously seasoned by sloth. History is cruel, social change is difficult, and a relationship with God involves a lot of unpleasant truth-telling—especially about ourselves. Better to just shift the burden of living in a flawed world at an imperfect time onto some positive force that will bring about the change we want “some” day.

It’s a heartwarming delusion. But that’s all it is: a delusion. A brief glance at the twentieth century destroys the myth. In just a few decades, “progressive” regimes and ideas produced two savage world wars, multiple murder ideologies, and the highest body count in history. And yet, as Christopher Lasch noted, people still cling to the religion of progress long after the evidence wrecks their dream.

The cult of progress is the child not only of despair, but also of presumption. It’s a kind of Pelagianism, the early Christian heresy that presumed human beings could attain salvation by their own efforts without the constant help of grace. Hence the philosopher Hans Blumenberg says that what separates the progressive idea of history from the Christian one is “the assertion that the principle of historical change comes from within history and not from on high, and that man can achieve a better life ‘by the exertion of his own powers’ instead of counting on divine grace.”

While we can and should work for social improvement—an obviously worthy goal—we’re too riddled with sin to ever build paradise on earth. As Benedict XVI put it, authentic progress doesn’t come automatically. In every age, human freedom must be weaned over to the good.23 And because our freedom can be used for good or evil, progress is always ambiguous:

“Without doubt, it offers new possibilities for good, but it also opens up appalling possibilities for evil—possibilities that formerly did not exist. We have all witnessed the way in which progress, in the wrong hands, can become and has indeed become a terrifying progress in evil. If technical progress is not matched by corresponding progress in man’s ethical formation, in man’s inner growth (see Eph 3:16 and 2 Cor 4:16), then it is not progress at all, but a threat for man and for the world.”

Ironically, it’s the religious subtext of progress that makes it so attractive. Again, as Friedrich Nietzsche and many others observed, progress is a kind of Christianity without Jesus and all the awkward baggage that he brings. The Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr saw this years ago when he wrote that “the idea of progress is possible only upon the ground of a Christian culture. It is a secularized version of Biblical apocalypse and of the Hebraic sense of a meaningful history, in contrast to the meaningless history of the Greeks.”

This contrast is crucial. Ancient peoples like the Greeks and Babylonians had a far darker view of history than Christians do. They saw humanity as controlled by fate, whose dictates could not be resisted. Greeks and Romans also had little hope of heaven. Many ancients believed that at death, human life ended. Hence the emperor Hadrian, one of Rome’s most cultivated and humane rulers, would write of his soul: “Poor ghost, my body’s friend and guest / Erewhile, thou leav’st thy home; / To what uncertain place of rest / A wanderer dost thou roam? / Pale, cold, and naked, henceforth to forgo / Thy jests among the sullen shades below.”

One of Christianity’s key contributions to Western civilization was to give men and women a sense of freedom from the whims of fate, a hope for life after death because of the victory of Jesus Christ. And over the centuries, that confidence in life beyond the grave has taken vivid form in the here and now.

***

THE CASTEL SANT’ANGELO IN Rome, the old papal fortress near the Vatican, is also the tomb of Hadrian. Visitors can find Hadrian’s poem about his soul on the wall. But walking eastward in Rome, the pilgrim will come to a very different meditation on death. The Capuchin Franciscans have an ordinary-looking church on the Via Veneto. But its crypt contains a series of rooms decorated with human bones—thousands of them.

The ceilings look like those of a baroque palace, except that they’re made of vertebrae. There’s a clock built of arm and finger bones. Skulls and femurs create decorative arches and columns. Through unbelieving eyes, it can easily seem ghoulish. It’s certainly a sobering encounter with our mortality. But it’s also very Franciscan. It takes death, that thing we fear most, and literally plays with it. And that couldn’t happen without a firm faith that Jesus Christ had crushed death, turning it from our ancient foe into what Saint Francis called “Sister Death,” the gateway to eternal life with God. The Capuchin bone crypt is uniquely Christian because beneath its somber appearance, it offers—for those who believe—a firm and joyful hope about what we find in Christ.

The Christian alternative to the cult of progress is not only hope, but the idea of providence. Providence is the understanding that God has a plan for each of our lives and for the whole world, and that for each of us, his plan is good. As Paul writes in Romans 8:28, “We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose.” Whereas progress might claim that history has an inevitable arc, faith in providence has confidence that the Lord of history will one day make all things right. …

Without a final vindication of right and wrong—and without a just judge to do the vindicating—we would live in a world where good and evil have no meaning.

As Christians, we believe that Jesus Christ is that just judge. He’s not only the guide of history, but its focal point.