Tuesday, May 29, 2007

The Abolition of Man (Continues)

In my previous post and one earlier still, I have been attempting to digest C. S. Lewis's classic, The Abolition of Man. It strikes me thus far that my review of a Lewis chapter tends to get as long as the chapter being reviewed, speaking to that quality of verbal economy present in great writers and often missing in reviewers.

But there are questions worth asking again before going on to the last section of Abolition. What does Lewis, in addressing his generation, have to say to ours? What is the current value of his 60-plus-year-old analysis? What can he possibly offer us?

Maybe the answer is this: Lewis, in his age, was intellectually present at the birth of something important, something very much like the Spirit of Our Age. From a literary and a Christian perspective, he fought against the emptiness of modernism but even more importantly (for us), witnessed the unholy nativity of modernism's child—that which reaches its full stature of immaturity in what some call post-modernism. He predicted the age of self-definition, subjectivism, and relativism that now envelops us, and at the end with its abolition of transcendent values, the abolition of man himself. What he saw so clearly in its infancy now permeates nearly every one of our institutions and threatens to drain our culture of it's remaining moral capital. That's why this old book deserves a new reading.

We live in the adolescence of the values-altered world Lewis envisioned. A culture where unspeakable brutality and inhumanity are routinely justified for the "good of society," where the dominant ethic is that there are no dominant ethics, where rights are arbitrarily given and taken away. The consequences are manifest from Roe v. Wade to Virginia Tech.

But for Christians, there's more. The church, too, has been infected. As modernism eviscerated the witness of mainline American and English churches two generations ago, it is modernism's child that threatens the evangelical church today. Postmodernism has met with theology and produced the Emergent conversation. Subjectivism rules, dogma has disappeared, and what the Bible means can only be imagined in the mind (or heart) of each reader. There are no wrong interpretations.

To ask "Is there truth that applies to all people in all places?" is to ask the wrong question. Rigorous doctrinal debate has been replaced by a conversation that needs no conclusion and is even preferable without one. It's the journey, not the destination that matters, and the optimism we're supposed to feel rings with tragic absurdity; "I have no idea if we're on the right road, but we're making great time!?!"

That's a pretty hasty summary of the Emergent influence and while I'm not denying the legitimacy of some of what Emergent initially reacted against, the spiritual consequences are becoming evident as the post-modern subjectivism that now characterizes the movement sweeps across the evangelical church.

Chesterton said, "There really is only one dangerous thought—the thought that puts a stop to thinking"—the thought (expressed as a proposition!) that abolishes propositions. We are dangerously close to the stoppage of thought. Philosophical absurdity (there is nothing absolutely true...I'm absolutely sure, the only overarching value is that there are no overarching values) first drains man's rationality, then his ethics and finally the soul from his chest.

We should fear something similar in the evangelical church. We're well on our way to draining our ability to teach Christianity, to clearly define godly behavior and what it means to be a Christian. It is increasingly unacceptable to be either precise or dogmatic as to what Christianity includes or excludes—except in the case of doctrinal precision or theological dogmatism. These are always dogmatically and precisely excluded—in the tradition of Lewis's "moral innovators" who exercise prerogatives they deny others. It is unnecessary and humanly impossible to get theology right, and it is wrong to try.

The historic truths of Christianity, the meaning of the Cross itself, is open to individual interpretation as a "generous orthodoxy" becomes extravagant syncretism. How can it be otherwise?

Finally, we in the Church like the larger culture will inevitably face an authority crisis. A vacuum is created when the meanings of clearly written words are privatized, made subjective and blurred into meaninglessness. When the rule of absolute truth is abandoned, the absolute rule of men always takes its place as some sort of totalitarianism fills the void. Chapter 3 of Abolition imagines just such a scenario in society at large. Power will replace principle.

It makes me wonder, as scriptural authority effectively fades within the Church, whether we will soon see an even greater increase in cults of personality, charismatic salespeople offering syncretistic spiritualities and dynamic personal experience, only remotely tethered to biblical texts; or even a new rise of authoritarian cults, where the Word of God is effectively replaced by the "man of God," as desperate people search for something solid to anchor disintegrating lives.

So Lewis helps us here. He certainly makes me think, and he scares me a little.

More on the Abolition of Man

A few weeks ago in the wake of the hellish events at Virginia Tech I was drawn back to another old book, The Abolition of Man by C.S. Lewis. It's tiny, only three chapters and an appendix.

The first chapter, Men Without Chests, identified a trend already present in the 1940's toward the privatization of values. Things are not "good" or "beautiful" in themselves, but only felt to be so as they stir corollary sentiments in the minds of individuals. This idea, as it finds its way through common education into the cultural mainstream, has consequences. If I get to define what is Valuable apart from any common standard, I also get to create my own set of ethics. Ethics are the standards of behavior based on some set of ultimate values. If life is universally and inherently valuable, then taking it arbitrarily is inherently unethical. If the value of life is personally determined, I might just assign it a lower importance in certain cases and then feel justified in taking it arbitrarily. Culturally speaking, personally defined values become no values at all.

The future of an essentially value-less culture, says Lewis, is ominous. That and more can be encountered in just the 1st chapter, but he goes on to develop his case, responding again to the authors of The Green Book, a literature study intended for the upper elementary grades. The last part of Lewis's argument (chapter 3, to be addressed later) will imagine in detail the contours of a future adrift from universal ethical moorings.

Chapter 2, The Way follows the trajectory of the Green Book authors' view from its apparent origins through its inconsistent and self-contradictory application. Lewis's provocative opening line:
The practical result of education in the spirit of The Green Book must be the destruction of the society which accepts it.
A great part of Lewis's brilliance, as his fans know, is his ability to bring high philosophical debate down into the language of people like us. In the second chapter he explores the origin of values and the modern trend away from what theologians and philosophers might call foundationalism, the assertion that there are such things as self-evident truths: irreducible, non-debateable assumptions necessary to the process of arriving at our viewpoints.

His concern is not so much the abstract foundations of reason, but what for convenience he calls the "Tao," that set of moral assumptions providing a basis for judgments of value and right behavior; values employed, though not admitted to, even by the moral innovators. Those who deny ultimate values of one kind always end up making their appeal on the basis of assumed values of another kind. It's the usual roundabout. Use what you deny in order to deny it; establish as a fundamental value that there are no fundamental values. Those who tell us there are no ultimate ought-to's are ever insisting that we ought to be as broadminded as they are.
However subjective they may be about some traditional value, [the authors] have shown by the very real act of writing The Green Book that there must be some other values about which they are not subjective at all.
And then:
Their skepticism about values is on the surface: it is for use on other people's values; about the values current in their own set they are not nearly skeptical enough.
Next comes Lewis's analysis of what motivates the modern debunker of the Tao, that foundation of values common to civilized man:
They claim to be cutting away the parasitic growth of emotion, religious sanction, and inherited taboos, in order that 'real' or 'basic' values may emerge.
And from what ground might such real values emerge? Modernism's first answer has always been utilitarian, "good" is what is "good for the community." This of course only begs the question, for we still have to decide what good is for a community and who is obligated to participate in what action that might lead to it.

The second basis usually offered is "instinct." Pare away layers of imposed socialized belief and get down to a "natural" ethic. Man's impulse to preserve himself and his society is all that is needed. But this too is an inadequate and even disingenuous foundation. Inevitably it includes an "ought." We ought to reject certain instinctive impulses and embrace others, once again assuming some part of that higher set of values the debunker is trying so hard to pare away. And what to do when the desire for self-preservation comes into conflict with the obligation to preserve society? Instinctive impulses frequently contradict one another and must be judged according to their comparative dignity—a process not instinctual but again pointing to the Tao, to an external measure of what is worthy of man and what is not. (Lewis develops this further in his more popular Mere Christianity.)

Therefore, lying behind every natural explanation of the development of man's ethics is a more ultimate, assumed set of standards by which ethical propositions and "ethical development" itself must be evaluated. Lewis summarizes:
I draw the following conclusion. This thing I have called for convenience the Tao, and which others may call Natural Law or Traditional Morality or the First Principles of Practical Reason or The First Platitudes, is not one among a series of possible systems of value. It is the source of all value judgment. If it is rejected, all value is rejected. If any value is retained, it is retained.
And then:
An open mind, in questions that are not ultimate, is useful. But an open mind about the ultimate foundations either of Theoretical or Practical Reason is idiocy. If a man's mind is open on these things, let his mouth at least be shut. He can say nothing to the purpose. Outside the Tao there is no ground for criticizing the Tao or anything else.
What Lewis sees as universal elements of the Tao, those fundamental values common to and assumed by people everywhere, he includes in a wonderful appendix, a shorthand anthropological summary worth the price of the book.

Modern reasoning moves inexorably to a new and more precarious level. Maybe our task is this: even as modern science has swept away superstition and supernatural explanations for natural events, so too modern psychology will address outmoded assumptions about sexual morality (always the first on modern and post-modern lists to be jettisoned!) and other creaky, constrictive ideas about value and virtue. Most will demand modernization and even replacement. In fact—maybe we should just start over!
Let us regard all ideas of what we ought to do simply as an interesting psychological survival: let us step right out of all that and start doing what we like. Let us decide for ourselves what man is to be and make him into that: not on any ground of imagined value, but because we want him to be such. Having mastered our environment, let us now master ourselves and choose our own destiny.

This is a very possible position: and those who hold it cannot be accused of self-contradiction like the half-hearted skeptics who still hope to find 'real' values when they have debunked the traditional ones. This is the rejection of the concept of value altogether. I shall need another lecture to consider it.
And he does. Chapter 3, The Abolition of Man imagines the darkness sure to accompany that rejection, some of which is already evident.

To be continued.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

"Thank You, Mr. DUGG-an"

When you decide to change the name of sole-proprietor business to one that does not include both first and last name (John Doe Widgets to Doe Widgets Unlimited), there are more than a few legal and logistical hoops to jump through. One just cleared this morning was at the bank where, Secretary of State documentation in hand, I successfully made a business checking account name change.

My case was unusual and it took some extra time and phone consultation to determine just what needed to be done. It seems that my account had been opened some time before the bank officer was born and the details of it (and for all I know, I myself) appeared to her quaint, mysterious and as inscrutable as something from the Arthurian legend. The account had been opened in 1983, just after the battle of Agincourt. To her credit, she navigated through the process of updating the ancient records, periodically reminding us both of just how old and odd they were, with the help of a consultant at the other end of the phone line—while repeatedly mispronouncing my name. "Will Mr. DUGG-an remain as a signer if...so where do I indicate DUGG-an Design Group on the form...yes, Mr. DUGG-an will continue to...." And so on.

Now I know that the name Dugan, even with the correct long vowel sound, isn't exactly musical as it rolls off the Irish tongue, and the problem for us is nothing new. But consider this: It was originally spelled with two g's and in a more grammatically rules-conscious age was ever and forgiveably being rendered "DUGG-an," short vowel before double consonant. My father, it is said, took offense and then took action excising the extra letter. In this age his work is to no avail. So at the bank and on the phone it continues. "Hello, this is Kevin at Acme Siding...how are you this evening Mr. DUGG-an?..."

I think the long-vowel-before-single-hard-consonant rule still applies, doesn't it?

If not, I'll just say that my new business name is now LEGG-al, I've signed the forms in DUPP-licate as was my DUTT-y.

You're welcome Ms. JONN-es.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Amnesia Helmet Award Goes to 2nd Ex-Soviet

From the land of the gulag and the home of the pogrom, speaking from a dais positioned at the tomb of another Vladimir (Lenin, champion of human life), his voice echoing throughout that timeless symbol of human liberty, Red Square, comes this Putin speech likening American foreign policy to that of the Third Reich.
"Moreover, in our time, these threats are not diminishing," he said as he delved into what one expert said was clearly an allusion to U.S. foreign policy. "They are only transforming, changing their appearance. In these new threats - as during the time of the Third Reich - are the same contempt for human life and the same claims of exceptionality and diktat[sic.] in the world."
Congratulations, Vladimir! No need to dwell on the past, or remember that while the contemptible Reich was in its ascendancy, the Stalin/Soviet genocide machine (20 million?40 million??) was quietly and efficiently doing its work—as the Communist Chinese used to say, "depriving of existence" those who opposed them. Or that when Naziism was at last disposed of, it was Moscow orchestrating a network of the most repressive dictatorships in modern history, extending it's iron grip throughout Europe and beyond.

My complaint here is not the preposterous nature of the comparison, but the selective amnesia exercised and expected regarding modern European history. Let him level any criticism against U.S. involvement in continental affairs he wishes, but he should have at least said:
"...as during the time of the Third Reich and our own 70 years of brutal tyranny and jack-boot diplomacy..."

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

A Tale of Two Fridges

I'm not sure what sort of musing this is or why it matters, but every week day I interact with at least two refrigerators and for some reason am reflective on the subject today.

There is the big one at home in the kitchen, and the little one in my office. They both do their jobs, the big Amana more or less as it keeps our beverages almost cold while faithfully freezing the lettuce. I am an American and a patriot but must point out that the Amana is (sadly) American/Union-made, that it required an A.R.M to purchase and that it insolently flings a decorative aluminum molding at my chest every time I slide a gallon of milk off the top shelf.

The little dorm-size Sanyo on the other hand performs with heroic consistency and has done so for (hold on to your chairs) 32 years of almost continuous operation (it was in storage for a very short time). It cost me about a hundred bucks, has humbly served in a dorm, a basement or two and now in my office for nearly 23 years. What a product.
The End Is Near

It's been fun, this Western Civilization thing, but the the signs are everywhere. Here's another.
"Visitors to the Gaia Napa Valley Hotel and Spa won't find the Gideon Bible in the nightstand drawer. Instead, on the bureau will be a copy of ``An Inconvenient Truth,'' former Vice President Al Gore's book about global warming.
Do you think you get more than three squares of recycled tissue (call the desk if you need more)?