Evangelical Politics

The motto I hear in all they say is: “Things will never be right unless people like us are in charge.”

And then they argue character, they argue witness to the faith, they argue all these pious things. What makes them different, in their mind (as I understand it), from Marxists and Jihadis, is that they actually do have the true and living God on their side. The only difference, in that approach, between what they have and ideology, in their mind, is that they have the truth. And it seems an impregnable position: what Christian can argue with Christians who argue that God is on their side?

I wonder if the difference between truth and ideology really is that stark. Is it really down to one single thing, however preponderant?

It takes a certain kind of person to believe that, which is what all these alternatives have in common. It is a kind of focus, and so they can congratulate themselves on being focused, on having the world in focus thanks to their correctly adjusted worldview-lens.

Here is the thing about focus: it is a way of zooming in on something to the exclusion of everything else.

Ideology is knowledge in service to the desire for power. The higher good of knowing is subordinated to the lesser good of power. Power exists for other things. You cannot make power an end in itself, it is always a means. Evangelicals are taught that knowledge is not a means either. Knowledge puffeth up, they say, quoting Scripture. That is not wrong.

Wisdom is the larger category, and wisdom does not puff anything up. Wisdom is magisterial, not ministerial in relation to knowledge and power. Knowledge is an element of wisdom, one of the many considerations wisdom takes into account, including the ends to which power can be used. But that does not mean that knowledge is therefore to be subordinated to power just because both are means and not ends. There is a hierarchy of means also: one obtains the other, one enables the other. We can see what direction this goes when we consider that knowledge is a kind of power. That is clear, but the reverse is not true: power is not a kind of knowledge.

Knowledge subordinated to power is blindness. It is enslaved to power rather than having power as its servant and under its authority; and that is ideology. And so it does come down to character; that is my argument too. And that is why I find evangelical political pronouncements hard to bear.

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Ephesians 3:13

It is a marvelous thing that men, having so many means to come to God, strive to go from him as much as possible, and it only needs a straw to make them turn back; and yet nevertheless they think they have a reasonable excuse if they can say, I was hindered by this and that. It may be nothing at all, but the least excuse possible will serve, because their endeavor already is to shrink away from God. And this is too common nowadays. For they that desire to justify themselves because they reject the doctrine of the gospel will always be putting forward some causes of offence. O, they say, this troubles me, this takes from me all appetite and relish for the doctrine of the gospel, this makes me forsake it utterly. All that they can ever bring forward are only trifles, but yet we need to strive so much the more to overcome all the obstacles and hindrances which the devil endeavors to cast in our way, so that we may always keep on our direction and course.
And that is what St. Paul is aiming at here.

-John Calvin, Sermons on Ephesians

O tempora o mores!

One of the things I’ve been listening to in the car is the first podcast of the American Mind in which Michael Anton is interviewed. Michael Anton is the bright mind behind the Flight 93 Election article signed by Publius Decius Mus. I think his intellectual rationale for Trump is excellent. He hates Twitter, but he lives in a real network for getting what he needs to know.

If one does not, Twitter at least provides a steady stream of tips about worthwhile articles, audio, and video. Crawford Gribben is really invaluable in that sense, worth following not only for his early modern historical theology stuff but also, as it turns out, for literary recommendations. Not often you get a historian in the theological specification with a humane streak to boot.

I think one has to be eclectic about news nowadays. There is plenty of entertainment, but actual insight? What C.S. Lewis said about newspapers has not only come to pass, it continues because it was what the were doing all along. They exist to manipulate rather than inform, and that is all they can do. For some reason we get the Inquirer delivered to our apartments daily. None of my neighbors is senseless as to want it. So I get to put it in the garbage every day without having to pay for the honor.

I find youTube is one of the best things I now have. It is a medium in which people can talk as long as necessary about whatever they’d like. You can get Scruton, Hanson, Kotkin, and other real experts to which you might not otherwise have access. It is no longer TV, though no doubt it has its considerations. All the places producing content exist, all you have to do is find the video of a serious expert talking to a knowledgeable audience and you are set. You have to search, but they are to be found.

I do think we are having a bit of a good moment in terms of some of the things being thought and said right now. I think we have realized that unless we fight back, we can only keep ceding ground. I was first really presented the attitude when Mollie Hemmingway came to WTS. That was the attitude that much had been lost, there was much to lament, but that there was no time to lament and it was high time to fight back. She was bleak and cheerful at the same time, which I appreciated.

On said panel were the usual counsels of despair, sensationalizing how bad it would become, but pointlessly, feeding the appetite for apocalyptic. She disagreed, said it was already later than the counselors of despair admitted, and without saying that the attitude of doom didn’t help, indicated that some were long engaged in actual fighting. It was matter-of-fact and stolid, without the sensational doom. We fight because we might win but we still fight because otherwise we will definitely lose. That is all.

I like how Generation X fights. Strangely, it has appeal for me. Generation X: great name, great attitude, a kind of quiet mountaintop of inscrutable and indefinable. So glad I joined.

Princeton of the Unexamined Life

I first went to Princeton U to hear Roger Scruton. The campus has some ugly classical buildings, interesting Victorian buildings, a lot of quadrangles and cloisters, groin-vaulted passageways, and a gothic cathedral not made by European peasants’ hands. It also borders on the seminary, which is convenient. One has but to cross the street. I’ve been going back every since, though I think the town is a bit upscale and preppy. The seminary library is hard to resist and irresponsible to ignore.

Today when I came in one of the new books caught my eye. An Orestes Brownson reader. It brought up vague memories of Suburban Station in Philadelphia and reading some endless article about him, so I glanced at it, though reading Orestes Brownson is not high on my list at all, though this one was on the top shelf of third case in their new-books display. And then another book caught my eye resting on the shelf right under it: Ryan Martin’s treatise on the Affections in Edwards. There it was: new book, Princeton Seminary, catalogued and ready to go. It has a red dot on the spine.

I went up an took a spot on the third floor across from the bulk of the Zwingli collection. I’m a Zwingli man, myself: he believed Hercules and Socrates would be in heaven. What was creepy was that two of the four books I was looking for were checked in but not on their place on the shelves. Clearly, somebody else was there doing research parallel to mine. At this early stage of dissertation research one takes that kind of thing very ill indeed.

I went into town after checking out. Do I go to despise it? Not entirely. They have a book store, a good book store, and I like seeing what else they have along Nassau St. Here is what’s good about a book store at one of the capitals of learning: there are all kinds of things stocked there, all the bad, but also many of the good and indispensable. One can really browse, even in the acres new releases. Were I not awash in a sea of duties and temptations, I’d have succumbed to a few temptations there.

Something also happened at the bookstore. They put on some music. It was a twangy old folk singer, heartstrings tuned high by relentless adversity, voice coarse and reedy both. On the second track the F-bomb was casually dropped, and after one word the music paused inadvertently, silence ensued, then the next track came on. I was surprised it should happen there, that’s all: that they’d scramble over something like that in a place like that in a day like this. But they did.

I was in the cathedral too. I sat on the stone bench that runs along the outer wall, under which the heating grates show. The day had been sunny, but the clouds came to vary the light inside that space. I listened to distant sounds and wondered. One of the distant sounds became distinct and approached me. The caretaker asked me if a bag nearby that I had not noticed was my knapsack. Is that Princeton: knapsack for backpack or bag? Is that your bundle? Is that your magic satchel? When I left, she wished me a good day and seemed quite happy the wish was reciprocated.

Then and Now

Thus if we follow the theme of self-control through the vicissitudes  of our Western tradition, we find a very profound transmutation, all the way from the hegemony of reason as a vision of cosmic order to the notion of a punctual disengaged subject exercising instrumental control. And this, I would argue, helps to explain why we think of ourselves as ‘selves’ today.

The crucial capacity for the great ancient moralists was that of seeing the order—in the cosmos (for Plato) or in the priority of human goals (for the Stoics). Introspection had no significance for the first, and wasn’t thought to be crucial for the second. The Stoics gave us an argument about reason, nature, and self-sufficiency to convince us that we shouldn’t set any store by ordinary satisfactions; they don’t ask us to examine ourselves.

By contrast, the modern ideal of disengagement requires a reflexive stance. We have to turn inward and become aware of our own activity and of the processes which form us. We have to take charge of constructing our own representation of the world, which otherwise goes on without order and consequently without science; we have to take charge of the processes by which associations form and shape our character and outlook. Disengagement demands that we stop simply living in the body or within our traditions or habits and, by making them objects for us, subject them to radical scrutiny and remaking.

Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self, 174-5

Location

There is a coffee shop at the top of the hill on Chestnut Hill which is never at a loss for patronage. One can sometimes find seats there, but only if one arrives after 5PM. Never have I known a more successful coffee shop.

At the bottom of the hill, starting the ascent to Mt. Airy, is another coffee shop. It is the quiet place, the place to be. I do not think the difference is that at the top of the hill the coffee is roasted on site. That makes the place not only crowded and noisy but also warm in summer. Clients are not discouraged thereby.

At the bottom of the hill the shop indulges in décor, which it cannot be said really occurs at the top. At the bottom there are guitars, an ancient portable record player, a typewriter, an empty sack of coffee from Colombia, and, in general, strewn things anybody might comment on and which at least occupy attention for a few seconds. Perhaps it is the notoriously dilapidated armchairs. The license that urban coffee shops have of employing discarded furniture is taken to some lengths at the bottom of the hill. There are a couple of prim, blue, wingback chairs verging on the disreputable and poised at the side window with a round table in between. Cushions rest in them, imparting the chairs an air of being not altogether homeless. There is also a far less threadbare mismatched living room set at the window overlooking The Avenue, for parties, presumably.

And yet there were only two customers in the whole place when I arrived. I removed one of the cushions and did not shrink from whatever past the armchair might still impart, enjoying the black humor of Donna Tartt in ideal surroundings. Another couple wandered through, then a man who rather intemperately sucked his coffee noisily into his head, and near the end of my protracted stay one more client. At the top of the hill that would just have been the quantity ahead of me in line.

I looked up from time to time, watching the clouds roll by the window as the intemperate man stood out of view and upwind, vaping. When I left, he was refilling the tank on his device; seemed to be loitering on the corner opposite to the coffee shop, to which he had migrated as the afternoon wore on.

It must be the location, there at the bottom of the hill. While there was a noticeable lag on the attendant’s friendly enthusiasm, it was nevertheless obviously present. The coffee was good, the warmed croissant excellent, and by coffee-shop standards, the music unobjectionable.