Why modern men don’t want to believe in heaven

The top branches of the other trees of the forest now peeped through the clouds; they, too, were growing, lifting themselves up to the sky, toward the sun.  Bushes and flowers followed; some of them had freed themselves from the earth and were flying…

“But where are the little blue flowers from the pond?” shouted the oak tree.  “And the red harebell and the little primrose?”  The old oak did not want anyone to be forgotten.

“We are here, we are here!” sang voices all around it.

“But the woodruff from last summer and all the lilies of the valley from the summer before that, where are they?  I remember the year when the wild apples bloomed so beautifully.  Oh, so much beauty do I recall through all the years of my life!  If it only were all alive now and could be with us!”

“We are, we are,” came cries from somewhere higher up; they must have flown there earlier.

“That is the most marvelous of all,” rejoiced the old oak tree.  “Everything that I have known is here.  Nothing has been forgotten, not the tiniest flower or the smallest bird.  How is such joy possible?  Where is such happiness conceivable?”

“In heaven it is possible,” sang the voices.

And the tree felt its roots loosen their grasp on the earth.

— from “The Old Oak Tree’s Last Dream” by Hans Christian Andersen

Modern readers are bound to be surprised at the prominence of heaven in so many of Hans Christian Andersen’s stories.  “The Little Match Girl” has a vision of being reunited with her grandmother in heaven, and this adds some hope to an otherwise harrowing story of a little girl slowly freezing to death.  “The Dead Child” comforts his grieving mother before returning to God in heaven.  “The Little Mermaid” wants to become a human because she is in love with a prince, but most of all so she can have an immortal soul and spend eternity with God.

Modern Christians are clearly embarrassed by the idea of eternal beatitude, but this was not the case for our ancestors.  Saint Augustine and his dying mother famously speculated on the joys of heaven.  Pascal in Pensee 427 expresses astonishment that anyone could fail to find our fate after death the most important of topics.  In contrast, the 20th century’s best-known apologetic work, C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity, mostly confines discussion of heaven to a small chapter near the end on the virtue of hope.  Lewis’ understanding of the desire for heaven is based on a rare sort of aesthetic experience, one I’m not sure I’ve ever experienced.  Anglican theologian N. T. Wright wrote a book attacking the idea of heaven in popular piety.  By the end of the 20th century, Christianity had returned to an Old Testament-style reticence about the afterlife.

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Trying to cure stupid

Of the great twentieth-century dystopian novels, Michael Young’s The Rise of the Meritocracy: 1870-2023 has certainly proved the most prescient.  Probably the best measure that a dystopia has come to pass is that readers start having trouble understanding why the author disapproved of his imagined society; we’re not far enough gone for readers to stop finding the future in Brave New World unattractive, but “meritocracy” has come to be regarded by most as something to which we should aspire.  After all, isn’t having the most able people in the top positions a good thing?  Michael Young was a socialist who, like Hillaire Belloc, had the insight that egalitarian programs might have extremely inegalitarian results.  Before uniform mass education, end of hereditary privilege, equality of opportunity, and the like, smart and enterprising people could be found in all social classes.  In the “fair” meritocratic system, high IQ people will all migrate to the upper classes and intermarry.  Since intelligence is largely heritable, this new merit-based upper class will soon form a closed caste in a society more stratified than the old feudal one.  The new aristocracy will feel confident that they have “merited” their privileged place.  The more objective the exams, the more inequality will be legitimized.  Nor could one hope that the lower orders might effectively organize in their own collective interests like the labour movement of old; anyone with the cleverness and organizational skill to lead such a movement will have been whisked into the upper class while still a child.

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Tribal Christianity: the legitimacy of loyalty in the life of faith

At my own blog, I’ve been arguing that the Catholic Church (and, I would expect, many others) suffers grievously from a lack among the baptized of basic “tribal” identification with the Church and with Catholics throughout the ages.  They fail to identify attacks on the Church and on prior generations of Christians as attacks on themselves and upon their people, and they fail to apply to their attackers the category of enemy.  In this, they are encouraged by theologians, apologists, and prelates who dismiss “tribalism”–including the whole moral consideration of loyalty, or any application of the friend-enemy distinction–as an intellectual or moral failing.

I think this issue is ready for wider discussion.  Of course, the fate of the Roman Catholic Church is a matter of interest to most readers here, but I don’t think this weakness is unique to my Church.  Since the point is particularist loyalty, I can be clearer if I continue to write below about this one ecclesial body, with the applications to Orthodox and Protestant bodies being direct and obvious analogies.  My key points are

  • It is licit to love the people and culture of Christian civilization, not only Christ Himself and the doctrines of the Church.  There is nothing admirable in apologizing for or berating one’s ancestors in an attempt to win credibility with a hostile world.
  • This is the main reason we’re loosing most of our young people.  America and the mystical body of Christ are at war.  If our children are given a strong visceral identification with the former but not the latter, we can expect them to apostatize.  Teaching children rigorous arguments for all the doctrines of the faith is impossible (they leave home before they’re ready for it).  Teaching them to identify as Catholic and see religious disputes through a friend-enemy lens is much easier.
  • Grace builds upon nature.  We should not scorn natural attachment to the Christian people out of a misguided preference for a purely supernatural attachment to the Triune God.  Natural loyalty is a help, not a hinderance to the growth of charity.  One who looks on past generations of Christians with affection is better prepared to love the Faith than one who looks on them with politically correct scorn.
  • Following Carl Schmitt, we should recognize the distinctness of the friend-enemy categorization.  Groups outside the true Church are to some extent in error and morally deficient, but the ascription of enemy status to a group is not directly a statement of its heterodoxy or of the personal sinfulness of its members.  The enemy is the group that is a threat to our corporate existence, the group that is attacking us.  Conversely, we can recognize other conservative Christian groups as allies without minimizing our theological differences.

Excerpts from and links to my own posts on this subject follow.  In addition, Beefy Levinson, Mark Citadel, and Bruce Charlton have written on some related points.

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The Theological Foundations of the Mormon Religion

[Some time ago, I asked readers for recommended reading on their branches of Christianity.  Below is my understanding of Mormon theology, as gathered from Sterling McMurrin’s “The Theological Foundations of the Mormon Religion”, one of the books recommended to me.  This is the third in a series, and probably the last for a little while as I gear up for the fall semester.  Mormon commenters should be considered to have more authority than me on this topic, and I will gratefully take their correction.  The goal of this post and the subsequent discussion will be to accurately describe the Mormon faith.  Commenters may respectfully question or register disagreement with this or that LDS tenet, but I will not tolerate the gratuitous insults of Mormonism that are unfortunately common in orthodox Christian circles.]

Despite being highly visible allies in the culture wars, Mormons are by-and-large poorly understood by more mainstream Christians.  Joseph Smith was a genius but not a formally trained theologian, so he ended up using philosophical terms idiosyncratically to express his insights, and this can create misunderstanding among those trained to follow Aristotle’s prior idiosyncrasies.  In this book, Professor McMurrin performs a valuable service translating between Mormon and Trinitarian theological statements.  Usually, misunderstandings lead groups to exaggerate their differences, but McMurrin argues that Mormonism’s innovations are even more drastic and fundamental than either side realizes.

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Laudato Si

Rusty Reno at First Things, complaining that Pope Francis’s attitude to modernity reminds him of Pius IX’s, almost makes me a Francis fan.

In this encyclical, Francis expresses strikingly anti-scientific, anti-technological, and anti-progressive sentiments. In fact, this is perhaps the most anti-modern encyclical since the Syllabus of Errors, Pius IX’s haughty 1864 dismissal of the conceits of the modern era…

If Francis continues in this trajectory, Catholicism will circle back to its older, more adversarial relationship with modernity. In the nineteenth century, the Church regarded modernity’s failure to acknowledge God as damning. It led to usurpations of authority, disrespect for hierarchy, and other signs of anthropocentric self-regard. Francis’s concerns are different. He’s worried about the poor, environmental disasters, and the complacent rich indifferent to both. But his analysis is the same, and he shares a similar dire, global view of modernity as the epitome of godless sin.

He’s right.  Modernity is the epitome of godless sin.

I’m not opposed to the idea of an encyclical on the environment or even one on the ethical issues raised by climate change, but I fear the encyclical we’ve got will be a lost opportunity.  This is a shame, because it does make some important points mixed amid the tedious committee-speak.

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The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church

[Some time ago, I asked readers for recommended reading on their branches of Christianity.  Below is my understanding of Eastern Orthodox theology, as gathered from Vladimir Lossky’s “The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church”, one of the books recommended to me.  This is the second in a series as I work my way down my reading list.  Orthodox commenters should be considered to have more authority than me on this topic, and I will gratefully take their correction.  The goal of this post, and I hope of the subsequent discussion, will be to accurately describe the Orthodox faith, rather than to criticize or defend it.]

Lossky’s book was first published in French in 1944, so Thomist Catholicism is naturally the tradition to which he most often compares his own, and the “individual” vs. “person” craze of that era definitely left its mark.  These points of familiarity will aid western readers.  Lossky sometimes strikes me as too eager to assert differences between East and West, but the purpose is to explain rather than disparage, making it a good book for our purposes.

Lossky (and, I gather, much of the Eastern tradition) is ultimately motivated by a desire to defend two truths:  1) that God is utterly beyond our knowledge and comprehension, 2) and yet He does make Himself really and immediately accessible to us, especially in mystical experience.  God is both inaccessible and accessible, a seeming paradox that would probably please Lossky and the Eastern Fathers who inspire him.  His goal is to preserve antinomies rather than resolve them; the danger of contradiction worries him far less than that of premature epistemic closure, of replacing the real, incomprehensible God with some construction more amenable to the human mind.

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Is the Orthosphere part of a larger whole?

Certainly, the Orthosphere fits within the larger category of Right-wing blogs, and within the subcategory of “reactionary” (extreme, i.e. Enlightenment-rejecting, Right) blogs.  Even this subcategory has distinct clusters:  the Orthosphere, Integralists, Identitarians, and Neoreactionaries, to name just the most impressive.  Are these different ideological movements, or different focuses within a single movement?  To rephrase, here are the two possibilities.  1) The Orthosphere’s fundamental principles (our ultimate premises) are the same as its defining principles (the positions that distinguish us from other groups), in which case we are ultimately our own movement and those other groups are at best allies.  2) Our defining principles are applications to our particular area of interest of more fundamental principles shared by the larger community of reactionaries.  Which is it?

Orthosphere commenter Mark Citadel has an impressive blog of his own.  In this post, he addresses weaknesses in the reactionary blogosphere.

With a movement that has different areas of focus, you are bound to get drift. The different wheels of Spandrell’s Trike like to roll off on their own for extended periods and not participate in the congregation of a collective might. Social Matter, a product of the Hestia Society for Social Studies, is a more-than-worthy rallying point for the radical right...Through promotion, Social Matter should get pushed to the fore.

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What is Reformed Theology?

[Some time ago, I asked readers for recommended reading on their branches of Christianity.  Below is my understanding of the Calvinist system, as gathered from R. C. Sproul’s “What is Reformed Theology?”, one of the books recommended to me.  Hopefully, this will be the first in a series as I work my way down my reading list.  Protestant commenters should be considered to have more authority than me on this topic, and I will gratefully take their correction.  The goal of this post, and I hope of the subsequent discussion, will be to accurately describe the Reformed faith, rather than to criticize or defend it (except against definite misunderstandings, of which there are unfortunately many).]

Sproul’s book attempts to explain the distinctive tenets of Reformed theology.  It highlights differences with other Christians while avoiding a polemical tone.  (Sproul tries hard to be fair to Catholicism.  More often, he contrasts his classical Protestant positions with those of the Arminians; only they could say how fairly he characterizes them.)  This is just right for our purposes.

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Are people getting better or worse at taking others’ perspectives?

Michael Shermer at Reason writes that mankind is being uplifted by a “moral Flynn effect”–not only are we much smarter than our ancestors; we are also much more moral, and the smarter among us are the most moral of all.  Of course, one’s opinion of this thesis will depend on whether one agrees or disagrees with the moral novelties of recent decades.  I’ll leave the critique of the writer’s biases and unwarranted assumptions to readers who feel they’re not getting enough practice at that sort of thing, limiting myself to a quibble over language.  I would say that the trend he describes is not so much men becoming more moral as men becoming more docile.  The very intelligent, I am willing to concede, are a very docile bunch, inclined neither to violent crime nor to questioning the reigning liberal dogmas, these being Shermer’s two measures of moral advance.  Docility is usually a good thing–heaven forbid I speak disparagingly of it!–but it is not quite the same thing as morality, a potentially wilder attribute.

What I’d really like to talk about is an interesting claim that comes up in the essay.  Shermer proposes an explanation for the connection between intelligence and morality:  intelligence helps us understand the perspective of others, which makes us treat them better.  Thus, the more intelligent of us have broader sympathies, and as the Flynn effect raises the general IQ, society as a whole becomes more compassionate and just.  Here we have an empirical claim that can stand apart from the ethical commitments of the writer.  One might even make this claim while remaining ambivalent on the moral value of perspective-shifting.  Traditionally, justice was seen as the “view from nowhere”; just sampling the different perspectives couldn’t reveal which one is right.  Compassion can be misdirected.  Failure to punish can be a defect of justice.  The more sympathetic party is not always the one in the right.

In fact, I doubt we are getting better at perspective-shifting.  My observations all go the other way.  It seems to me that modern men are uniquely lacking in the ability to assume other peoples’ perspectives, and in fact that they have gotten noticeably worse at it over the course of my own lifetime.

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