Friday, February 28, 2020

Holy Poverty: Finding the Language for Religious Aestheticism


Holly was a homeless woman who used to station herself on the corner of Lake Ave. and Green St. in Pasadena. There, she would spend the day sitting in her chair, reading, telling people that God loved them, and that they were going the wrong way down a one-way street. (For those readers unfamiliar with Pasadena, Green goes east and Union St. goes west.)  I used to regularly stop to chat with Holly on my 3.5-mile walk to the Chabad of Pasadena on Shabbat. As a conservative libertarian, I learned a lot from Holly as she failed to fit into the usual stereotypes of the homeless. She was always polite, never yelling at anyone. Also, she never struck me as anything less than perfectly sane. She was not some kind of lazy parasite living off of society. On the contrary, she gave more to us who interacted with her than we ever gave to her.

It is important not to glamorize Holly. There was nothing easy about her existence. Furthermore, from what I could piece together from what she told me about her life, she came to her situation through a combination of unfortunate circumstances and poor life choices. Doing her justice requires that one keeps from either pitying her or making her into some kind of saint. She deserved respect on her own terms as someone who actively chose to be where she was, seeing her daily routine on the street corner as having value.

It speaks to our spiritual poverty that it is difficult to categorize Holly. My model would be the apostolic poverty of the medieval Franciscans, combining extreme aestheticism with community engagement. The Franciscan rejected personal property but instead of living in a monastery would go out into the world to live on alms, modeling himself on Jesus' first followers. Critical to Franciscan success was that, while apostolic poverty proved to be a hand grenade in the face of the Church, one should not think of the friars as a straightforward rejection of the growing middle class of lay Christians from whom they drew most of their members. On the contrary, by supporting the friar as the embodiment of true Christian living, one could take part in the life of Christ in a way that most could never accomplish themselves. (How many people could ever literally take up the Cross and follow Jesus, suffering as he did?)

It should be clear that this model of holy poverty is distinct from Haredi poverty. For one thing, holy poverty could never be the basis for a society but only the free choice of individuals. As an extension of this, holy poverty, as a charisma granted to individuals, cannot involve marriage or children. What kind of monster could inflict such poverty on a child?

The medieval world would have known how to appreciate Holly. Medievals could understand that the poor were blessed as incarnations of godliness. Holly could receive a habit so that anyone who saw her on her corner would immediately know that she was doing important religious work and was not simply a bum leeching off society.

We moderns have to overcome not only the wall of secularism but also the Protestant Reformation. Secularism affects even people who consider themselves religious by getting them to think in terms of religious and secular spheres. Religion is something you do at home or in Church. Where can Holly fit in except as an object of pity and charity? It is not as if she was a missionary for some denomination. She was engaged in her own spiritual project of embracing the poverty God granted her with love.

It is Protestantism that bears ultimate blame. Luther, the Augustinian friar, declared war on religious orders in the name of the equality of all believers. He could not stand the notion that some people were better than others and that there can be spiritual heroism that us regular mortals can only stand in awe of. Everyone had to be equal in their inability to perform works and their complete dependence on grace. The irony is that Luther wanted to bring the sacred out of the cloister and elevate everyone to the level of priest. What he brought about was the wiping out the kind of sacred space that could illuminate the mundane. The fact that the post-Vatican II Catholic Church has effectively ditched the notion of special sanctity for those in religious orders means that Catholics today are also spiritual orphans.

I do not know what happened to Holly. I hope that she got into some housing program and is off the streets. That being said, the selfish part of me misses her. Some people are too valuable to waste on something other than sitting on street corners, informing drivers about God's love and that they are moving in the wrong direction.

Sunday, February 23, 2020

Teaching Latin at a Chabad School


Dr. Jacob Ackerman attended a Chabad grade school in Newark, NJ during the 1950s where he served as the editor of the school newspaper. As an example of what he wrote about he mentions, "Mr. Posner, the Latin teacher, was out for three days because of a cold." So it used to be acceptable for a Chabad school to teach Latin. I am curious as to what texts they read. There is not a lot of Latin literature left if you exclude sex, violence and the gods. For me, that was what made Prof. Feldman's Latin classes fun.

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Can the Benedict Option Survive Nationalism?

Previously, I discussed Yoram Hazony's defense of nationalism as an alternative to universal empire. I believe that people in the liberty movement should take Hazony seriously as someone working within the classical liberal tradition. From my perspective as a libertarian anarchist, I fail to see where the dividing is between a tribe and a nation or between a nation and universal empire. If Mormons in Utah wished to leave the union, would that be tribalism or a nation trying to break free of empire? Clearly, our Mormons have less in common with liberal New Yorkers than liberal New Yorkers have in common with liberal Canadians.

Rod Dreher is another writer I respect who has joined with the New Nationalists. As someone who, like Hazony, attempts to pursue a non-authoritarian live and let live form of nationalism, Dreher is vulnerable to similar lines of attack. Moreover, as the author of The Benedict Option, Dreher's embrace of nationalism seems particularly suicidal.

A foundational premise of classical liberal political theory is that you should assume that any system of government you create will be taken over by your opponents. In a similar vein, Dreher's starting point is that it is the other side who has the power. Christians and other religious conservatives have lost the culture wars and are facing a society that is actively hostile to them. Because of this, Christians should abandon politics, as not even the Republican Party will save the situation, and concentrate on building strong local community institutions such as private schools so that their children will have a chance at resisting the lure of secularism.

I am reminded of the anarchist criticism of Ayn Rand. How is Galt's Gultch not an anarcho-secessionist state? Galt and his followers reject the United States government for its interference with private enterprise so they build their own community in complete defiance of federal and state law. Similarly, I fail to see how any Benedict Option community can avoid being stridently anti-nationalism and even pro-secessionism.

I could understand if Dreher was a conventional social conservative activist warning of the need to stop liberals by appealing to a "silent majority." Under such circumstances, there would be a nation to appeal to. For Dreher, though, the real America consists of liberal elites who see Christian sexual ethics as the moral equivalence of Nazism and conservatives who reject the left but have already become untied to their heritage. In a battle between Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, Christianity will lose. Dreher reluctantly supports Trump on the logic that he gives Christians several more years before Democrats can point-blank ban them from openly working in the public sphere.

I can understand if Dreher wants to support Hungary as a nation-state as there is a plausible case to be made that there really is a majority of Hungarians who identify with Hungary's Christian past. Even if they are not active churchgoers, they can be rallied, under the right leadership, to resist being turned into a mere province of the European Union. (To be clear, as the grandson of Hungarian Holocaust survivors, Hungarian nationalism terrifies me.) Whatever Dreher's hopes for Hungary as a conservative Christian nation-state, this is not an option for the United States as a whole (as opposed to individual states if they seceded). Where are the Christians inspired to bring about new great awakening built around Calvinist republican virtue or Methodist evangelical populism and not merely the desire to "own the libs?"

A Benedict Option community can only survive if it rejects not only nationalism but even the very identification with the country itself. If your children think of themselves as Americans, what are you going to tell them when National Pride Day becomes a Federal holiday? One thinks of the example of Haredi Jews in Kiryas Joel or New Square. They do not think of themselves as Americans. They live in the United States and are grateful to God that are not persecuted but the outside world is "goyish" and is to be ignored. Keep in mind that, Historically, Jews were not citizens of their host countries. Instead, Jews belonged to semi-autonomous kehillot, which negotiated with and paid taxes to the non-Jewish authorities in exchange for protection. One is on far better ground, Jewishly, advocating for the return of kehillot or the Ottoman millet system than Hazony is when engaging in apologetics for nationalism.

On a side note, let me add that I hold little hope for Modern Orthodox Judaism to survive under Benedict Option conditions. Modern Orthodoxy has always been the dream that one could be a doctor, lawyer and even a public intellectual (like Yoram Hazony) and still be an openly practicing Jew. The moment that Modern Orthodox kids are no longer accepted in the Ivies, Modern Orthodox schools will be discredited as the teachers will have failed to deliver on their promises to students. The only options left will be the abandonment of Judaism or Haredism.

Once you no longer identify with the state, either intellectually or even emotionally, it is hard to avoid falling into the "heresy" of secessionism. What is Dreher's plan for when the government (or Google) makes the Benedict Option illegal, say by demanding that all children attend LGBTQ approved schools? If he intends to pursue civil disobedience he will implicitly be accepting the anarchist premise that one's personal conscience is more important than the Law. The only reason why the American Civil Rights Movement never came to advocate the kind of anarchism that is explicit in writers like Thoreau and Tolstoy is that it was still premised on the notion of sympathetic white Americans who could be reached by rhetoric couched in American terms. This is something that a Benedict Option community, by definition, could never do as the whole reason we are pursuing the Benedict Option in the first place is that we no longer believe that our ideas can get a fair hearing in general society.

I agree with Hazony and Dreher, perhaps too much. The problem is that it seems as if I am willing to take their conclusions in the opposite direction. This has troubling implications. As someone who still identifies emotionally with conservatism, I wish to believe the best of the New Nationalists that they still fundamentally believe in personal liberty and in markets. I am a big tent kind of person, who believes in allowing many different kinds of projects to operate even if they seem at cross purposes. This is only possible as long as all parties accept the right of everyone to pursue their own good in their own way as long as they are not engaging in physical violence. I do not want to believe that the New Nationalism is a conspiracy to force conservative values on other people. For a non-authoritarian nationalism to work, at some level it must reckon with secessionism. The New Nationalists are free to follow their path as long as they are willing to grant me the freedom to follow mine.





Thursday, February 6, 2020

Does the YMCA Objectify Women?

The sign at my local YMCA features a woman in a tank top and a bra with the caption: "free motivation with every membership."

Let me start by being charitable to the Y. I assume the intention of this ad is that the Y offers professional trainers to help you reach your fitness goals. Of course, I am enough of a heterosexual man to consider an alternative explanation. Come to the Y where you can find motivation by staring at beautiful women who are just slightly underdressed so you do not have to feel guilty about it. (Unless you are of a prudish disposition. In which case, the sight of such a picture bothers you enough that you feel motivated to write a short blog post.)

The problem here is that I have a hard time believing that no one at the Y involved in this promotion considered the latter interpretation. If this were really about the first interpretation, the point could have been made with a sweating fat guy. So the Y cannot play innocent here. I am not so naive as to believe that, in the 21st century, the Young Men's Christian Association cares whether young men have sinful thoughts. I would have thought, though, that they cared about objectifying women.

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

The Epicureanism of The Good Place's Finale

(Spoilers Ahead)

As much as I love The Good Place, its ending struck me as anti-religious in much the same way that Charles Dickens' Christmas Carol is anti-Christian. At first glance, it sounds preposterous to consider a Christmas Carol anti-Christian. What could be more Christian than a greedy miser having his soul saved through the power of Christmas? This is true until you realize what is missing from the story, Jesus. We can assume that the mean Scrooge at the beginning of the story has not accepted Jesus as his savor. The kindly Scrooge at the end of the story does not seem to have accepted Jesus either. In keeping with the Victorian era, Dickens subversively offered a Christianity stripped of anything actually Christian.

Likewise, on the surface, Good Place sounds like a straightforward religious tale. It is about the afterlife in which people are judged based on how they lived on Earth. From the beginning, it is made clear that we are dealing with a non-denominational heaven where no one gets in simply for having been a member of the right religion. This is a minor issue compared to the absence of God.

When our heroes finally get to the real Good Place, they are faced with the problem that this heaven is actually not much of an improvement over the Bad Place. A world in which every wish is granted and every pleasure instantly gratified becomes mind-numbingly dull and its own form of torture. Eleanor's solution is to allow the residents the option of ending their own existence when they have had enough. This sets up the inevitable final episode (one of the finest in the history of television) where the characters, after however many Jeremy Bearimys, come to that state of peace with themselves where they have done all they could ever want and make the decision to walk through the door and move on.

What we have here is the standard argument against pleasure, all pleasure is ephemeral, simply applied to the afterlife. The show's solution is merely the Epicurean solution to not having an afterlife. By accepting that you will cease to exist, you can find meaning in your limited lifespan and even cease fearing death; if death is merely a natural part of life, it is not evil to be rejected but a good to be embraced. Jason's going away party for himself, in fact, reminded me of David Hume's last few months. Even though he knew he was dying, Scotland's most infamous unbeliever remained in good cheer and dining with friends. He wanted his death to be a model of serenity even without the hope of an afterlife.

What is missing here is the existence of a deity and the possibility of having a relationship with him. To believe that God created human beings means that humans can only truly be happy in him. This does not mean that material pleasure is bad. On the contrary, as God also created the world and everything in it as a means of bringing us to him, nothing worldly can be, in of itself, bad. The problem comes the moment we value something, besides for God, for its own sake then it becomes an idol and needs to be smashed.

The same problem that applies to earthly pleasure also works for heavenly pleasure. Jason wanting to play the ultimate game of Madden Football receives no elevation when it is carried out in heaven. The same applies to Tahani wanting to make a Nick Offerman approved chair or even to Chidi wanting to become a great moral philosopher, teaching the ultimate class of Ethics of the Afterlife to a room full of philosophy professors. All of this will eventually become meaningless without God, leaving suicide as the only option.

In truth, this makes sense for a show about ethics as ethics is fundamentally in conflict with theism. As we know from the Euthyphro dilemma, ethics can only be meaningful if it is a system outside of God that God is answerable to. Anything else is simply God's will. The more repulsive the action, the more we are being "truly" ethical by submitting our will to his (think the Westboro Baptist Church). The show referenced Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling and that it is about taking a leap of faith. What bears mentioning is that this leap of faith is precisely the rejection of the ethical.

This conflict is at the heart of the Old Testament. Abraham is morally superior to Noah precisely because he challenges God's morality in destroying Sodom. The prophets challenge the sacrificial cult under the banner of justice for the downtrodden. This raises the question of the purpose of ritual. A God who values righteousness should not care at all about ritual. How do you build a religion around such a God?

Come to think of it, perhaps this could have been the basis for a good continuation for the show. Our characters, having nothing meaningful to exist for, walk through the door and meet God, who offers himself to them now that they have exhausted all alternatives. (God should not be depicted. Instead, we should have a place of supreme beauty and the people living there should describe voices in their heads as if the place is speaking to them.) Chidi goes full-blown Lucifer because he cannot submit himself to a force outside of his ethical framework. He then recruits Sean to help him create an alternative heaven for those whom God has cast aside. By the end of the show, this alternative heaven will have turned into the Bad Place with the inmates being tortured with philosophy lectures and extreme ethical conundrums.