Tuesday, November 24, 2020

How to Make Me Want to Convert to Calvinism: Make Me Listen to a Sermon By a Conservative Rabbi

Mackie's preschool is closed for the moment because a teacher was exposed to COVID-19. Hopefully, everyone will be well. In the meantime, both children are home in the morning. This past Friday, the preschool had a pre-shabbat zoom lesson from the transgender rabbi from the local Conservative temple. (Yes, it is supposed to be the Reform who have temples.) In case you were wondering if she had an agenda, the rabbi opened with modeh ani and then informed the children that there were a female and a non-binary version of the word. Keep in mind that we are talking about pre-schoolers here.  

The main lesson was about the upcoming Torah reading, Toldot. This deals with the story of Jacob and Esau. Jacob disguises himself as his hairy older brother and tricks their blind father, Isaac, into giving him the blessing meant for the firstborn. As someone who grew up believing that God made a mistake by not making me the oldest child, I empathize with Jacob. With my own children, I have emphasized Isaac's line of "the voice is the voice of Jacob but the hands are the hands of Esau." A Jew's superpower is in his voice, which he can use to pray and study Torah. We do not have big muscles and it is not our place to go around beating people up.    

What the rabbi wanted the children to take from the story was that you are supposed to be yourself. In a sane world, anyone who feels that they needed to use chemicals and surgery to make radical changes to their body would think twice about preaching self-acceptance. Regardless of your gender identity, any teacher who subscribes to the Disney/Mr. Rogers Rousseauean school of self-esteem that children should be accepted for who they are (as opposed to the Nathaniel Branden Aristotelian version of self-esteem) renders themselves unfit to educate children. 

I love Mackie. Those who know him will agree that he is a delightful child. That being said, he is illiterate and still in diapers. In essence, he is par for being three years old. I send him to school and work on him as his father precisely because I do not accept him for who he is. He needs to change to become someone else. For example, I insist that he become the kind of person who reads books and uses the potty.

Keep in mind that reading and using the potty are not just utilitarian skills. They involve fundamental shifts in how one perceives the world. To become literate means to confront the authority of texts through time and space as a counterweight to one's personal feelings. Using the potty means recognizing that there is something unclean within you that needs to be expelled in set places through a process of rigid bodily control. Critical to both activities is a recognition of your own limits as a person and the submission to an authority outside yourself. There is nothing natural about reading and potty training as evolution did not provide us with these skills. These are the products of the discipline of civilization. At its root, civilization is about a decision to reject your natural self, the savage.   

Telling children that they are fine the way that they are and do not need to change is a terrible lie when mixed with on Torah portion of the year but to bring in the story of Jacob and Esau to make this point requires satanically perverse exegetical skills. There is a case to be made that Jacob's suffers from a mimetic need to have what rightfully belonged to Esau, culminating in dressing up like Esau to steal his blessing. This is still not a lesson in being yourself. It is a lesson in not trying to be like bad people. We try to be like the biblical patriarchs and not stay true to ourselves because they were better and holier people than us. In terms of being oneself, if there was anyone in the biblical narrative who needed to be himself less, it was Esau. He was set aside from the womb to be Jacob's antagonist. In essence, Esau was literally “born to be bad.” 

Within Calvinist thought, Esau serves, along with Pharaoh, as proof for predestination. Do you have free will or did God decide, even before creation, who would be the righteous saved and who would be the sinful unsaved? In the case of Esau, it is hard to escape the conclusion that God's plan required Esau to be wicked and so God made Esau that way. Despite the fact that Esau never had a choice in the matter, God still hated him. It may have been God who created Esau as the embodiment of wickedness, but that is what Esau was and, as such, it was logically necessary for God, who is righteousness, to hate him. 

If you are not a Calvinist you might say that Esau was the exception to prove the rule. Esau was chosen for evil but regular people are not so we, unlike Esau, have the ability to choose the right path and can be held responsible for failing to do so. Alternatively, you can make the case that Esau was more nuanced than a straightforward villain. Esau honored his father and, in the end, made peace with Jacob. If Esau was capable of good deeds, perhaps he was capable of going against his divinely ordained role in more profound ways. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks of blessed memory made a powerful case for Esau not being completely rejected from the covenant.

Nevertheless, one needs to admit that the Calvinists have a legitimate point in regards to Esau and, in arguing against them, one is fighting an uphill battle. You throw away all credibility when you pretend that there was never anything fundamentally wrong with Esau in his very being. The one thing that Esau needed was to not be himself. 

I want Mackie to embrace the voice of Jacob and not the hands of Esau. This is not something natural that Mackie can achieve simply by being himself. It will happen because he has parents and teachers who will not let him be himself but will insist that he become something better.  

Sunday, November 22, 2020

Tocqueville on the Post-Religious Moment


For Alexis de Tocqueville, religion is important for liberty as an extension of society. What keeps a government in check, particularly a democratically elected government that can plausibly claim to represent the "people," is the existence of a distinct social sphere. Religion protects the social sphere by granting a moral authority that the government lacks. The opposite is also true that government needs to keep religion hemmed in within the social sphere so that it evolves to focus on the non-physical and that clergymen learn to value the respect they gain precisely by not being tainted by politics more than the power they could gain through politics. From this perspective, religion and politics, while maintaining their separate spheres can have a positive influence on each other. Religion keeps government away from society and the government keeps religion out of politics. Hence government and religion render each other suitable for liberty.

Removing religion from the equation would start an avalanche that would eliminate reason and ultimately liberty. According to Tocqueville:

When religion is destroyed among a people, doubt takes hold of the highest portions of the intellect and half paralyzes all the others. Each person gets accustomed to having only confused and changing notions about the matters that most interest his fellows and himself. You defend your opinions badly or you abandon them, and, since you despair of being able, by yourself, to solve the greatest problems that human destiny presents, you are reduced like a coward to not thinking about them.

What I find fascinating about this passage is how well Tocqueville diagnosed the post-modern condition. Following Kant famous dictum of sapere aude (dare to know), we tend to think of reason as something done by individuals without any reference to tradition. In truth, even as individuals are the only meaningful moral unit, reason is fundamentally a social activity that works across generations through the process of tradition.

The reason for this should be obvious to anyone familiar with the free-market tradition. Individuals by themselves are not capable of doing much beyond eking out a mere hunter-gatherer subsistence existence. Economic production and ultimately civilization is only possible through large scale cooperation. If individuals are so lacking in economic wisdom, how much more so must it be when it comes to the higher truths of the world such as morality and the meaning of life.

Just as we cannot expect people to literally reinvent the wheel or the lightbulb (contrary to Ayn Rand's hero in Anthem), we should not expect people to construct their own philosophies from scratch without reference to tradition. For example, I can accept the Euclidean geometry is TRUE even as my understanding of mathematics is rather rudimentary. Whether or not Euclid or other mathematical claims can be considered objective facts at the end of the day, the critical issue is whether they have greater authority than my personal "lived experience" of oppression. I live my life under the assumption that there are things outside of me that are objectively TRUE and, unlike divine revelation, knowable to human beings regardless of their time, place, race, or religion. 

It is a fair question as to whether or not the truths of reason, such as mathematics, can offer transcendent meaning. My suspicion is that any attempt to do so is going to eventually start to look a lot like a religion. (One thinks of the example of the Pythagoreans.) What happens to someone stripped of transcendent meaning transmitted through society and ultimately tradition? They will have to retreat into their own heads, a place too small for either faith or reason.

This has implications for democratic government. Democracy is not a license for people to do whatever they want. On the contrary, democracy requires great personal discipline. This is possible if there exists an independent society outside of politics and backed by religion to train people to stand on their own feet. The moment a person starts to ask "who will feed me" they are already are slaves in their hearts even before any master shows up and one certainly will.

What happens when people lose their religion? Tocqueville anticipates Hannah Arendt in predicting that an atomized nihilistic society would be ripe for totalitarianism.  

Such a state cannot fail to enervate souls; it slackens the motivating forces of will and prepares citizens for servitude. Then not only does it happen that the latter allow their liberty to be taken, but they often give it up.

When authority no longer exists in religious matters, any more than in political matters, men are soon frightened by the sight of this limitless independence. This perpetual agitation and this continual mutation of all things disturbs and exhausts them. Since everything shifts in the intellectual world, they at least want everything to be firm and stable in the material order, and, no longer able to recapture their ancient beliefs, they give themselves a master.

For me, I doubt that man can ever bear complete religious independence and full political liberty at the same time; and I am led to think that, if he does not have faith, he must serve, and, if he is free, he must believe.

Just as reason requires a sense of being part of a larger tradition such as a religion, so does liberty. A person without religion who retreats into their own head without any sense that there are larger truths beyond his personal feelings will also not be able to justify standing up for liberty. If man cannot engage in higher truths such as reason, what does he need liberty for? If the truths of mathematics cannot stand against one's personal feelings then it will also fail to stand against the physical reality of th