Essay on Rene Girard at The Brussels Journal

My latest at The Brussels Journal is an essay entitled “René Girard on the ‘Ontological Sickness.’” I taught Girard’s I See Satan Fall like Lightning to the students in my “Introduction to Literary Criticism” this semester and found myself re-reading him with a good deal of renewed interest. Girard’s notion of “ontological sickness” explains a good deal about modernity, especially about what is sometimes called “entitlement mentality.” In the essay, I try to show how this is so. The essay includes an interpretation of what I regard as one of the major modern parables about the “ontological sickness,” the HAL subplot of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The link is http://www.brusselsjournal.com/node/5178

I offer a sample below.

In Things Hidden, Girard writes: “Modern people still fondly imagine that their discomfort and unease is a product of the strait-jacket that religious taboos, cultural prohibitions and, in our day, even the legal forms of protection guaranteed by the judiciary place upon desire. They think that once this confinement is over, desire will be able to blossom forth [and that] its wonderful innocence will finally be able to bear fruit.” The modern subject, wanting liberté, inveterately seeks liberation and just as inveterately experiences the belaboring frustration of its every liberating triumph. The “Declaration of Sentiments” (1848) of the Seneca Falls Convention of early feminists employs the essential “liberationist” vocabulary: “Disenfranchisement,” “social and religious degradation,” a mass of the “oppressed,” whose constituents “feel… aggrieved” and who want “rights and privileges” wickedly withheld by malefactors. The male oppressor, as the document asserts, “Has usurped the prerogative of Jehovah himself, claiming it as his right to assign for [the generic woman] a sphere of action, when that belongs to her conscience and her God.” In her much-celebrated speech on the same occasion, Elizabeth Cady Stanton invoked the image of the sovereign self in its absoluteness: “There is a solitude… more inaccessible than the ice-cold mountains, more profound than the midnight sea,” which neither “eye nor touch of man or angel has ever pierced.”

The themes of the usurpation of being and of the radical autonomy of the individual, Girard’s self-inflating quasi-divine ego, come into their necessary conjunction at the inception of what would later take the name of women’s liberation.

The feminist “Declaration” and its adjunct texts were already hackneyed. Jean-Jacques Rousseau had set the tone brilliantly nearly a century before, in his Discourse upon the Origin and the Foundation of the Inequality among Mankind (1754). The second part of Rousseau’s essay begins with the speculative scenario that must have inspired Karl Marx to write The Communist Manifesto (1848 – the same year as the Seneca Falls Convention): “The first man, who, after enclosing a piece of ground, took it into his head to say, ‘This is mine,’ and found people simple enough to believe him, was the true founder of civil society.” Not merely property, but society itself, for Rousseau, is theft or usurpation. Under tutelage of Girard, one might reduce the formula even further: Usurpation is the Other, by the mere fact of his existence. In the sequel, Rousseau, speaking on behalf of the usurped, rouses the mob against the usurper: “How many crimes, how many wars, how many murders, how many misfortunes and horrors, would that man have saved the human species, who pulling up the stakes or filling up the ditches should have cried to his fellows: Be sure not to listen to this imposter; you are lost, if you forget that, the fruits of the earth belong equally to us all, and the earth itself to nobody!”

O Felix Culpa

A.morphous, the Orthosphere’s cantankerous (and useful) Chief Antagonist, and a stout atheist, recently argued that if man had not Fallen, corrupting our nature, Christ would never have redeemed us, and there would be no such thing as Christianity.

It’s absolutely true, and there is no Christian who would deny it. If we had not Fallen, we would not need redemption, nor for that matter would we need religion.

But then, a.morphous also said that, “… it is the serpent that made us fully human.” This is not quite right. True, the lure Lucifer proffered made us the sort of human we are today; but that sort is less than fully human. It is Christ who makes us again fully human, and more.

It is in that “more” that we find the justification for our gratitude for the Fall.

Gratitude? Yes, indeed; for, as Orthospherean Dr. Bill then pointed out to a.morphous, his point is standard Christian doctrine: at the Easter Vigil in Roman, Lutheran and Anglican churches, a deacon sings in the ancient Exsultet:

O certe necessárium Adæ peccatum … O felix culpa …

O truly necessary sin of Adam … O happy fault …

Standard doctrine this may be, but it is somewhat shocking nonetheless. How could the tragedy of the Fall be an occasion of happiness, rather than grief? What is much more, how could it have been necessary?

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Our Ecclesiastical Revolutionaries

I thought I’d toss out some impressions of those who have made the current mess in the Church. I have no special knowledge of any of this, but these are indeed my impressions, so other views would be welcome:

Walter Kasper is basically a German engineer. He likes systems that have been thought through and work smoothly and predictably in accordance with well-articulated basic principles. He accepts as a basic reality the German social welfare state that looks after all human concerns and turns the German bishops into well-paid functionaries with large budgets to use as they wish, and he wants to fit the Church seamlessly into that model. Hence the radical disjunction he makes between “praxis” and “doctrine.” By turning doctrine into a sort of decorative accessory, like the British monarchy, that move is the most simple, practical, and reliable way to unify the two in all practical respects. (Germans like thoroughgoing coherence, so it’s not surprising Cardinal Marx has openly suggested changing doctrine as well.)

Francis is quite different. Continue reading

How to Become an American Traditionalist, Part Seven: Responding to the Intuitive Skeptic

[Part OnePart Two.   Part ThreePart FourPart FivePart Six.]

We’ve been saying that traditionalism reconnects man with the wisdom of his ancestors, that the most important wisdom is to acknowledge God, and that intuition is the foundation of wisdom. But what about the liberal who refuses to acknowledge the order of being?

Or, more generally, what about the man who denies what intuition suggests? The most basic truths are known through intuition but since intuition sometimes seems irrational, not based on clear-cut data and sharply-defined modes of logical reasoning, the man who wants to deny an intuitive truth can easily fool himself into thinking that since “it isn’t supported by evidence” (or so he thinks), it must not be true.

Consider a simple example that is nevertheless a paradigm for all valid intuitive knowledge: The existence of your consciousness. If someone challenged you by saying “Prove to me that your consciousness exists,” how would you respond? Continue reading

The Ontological Arguments

Once and Future Traditionalist blogger and orthospherean Casey Ann, now on hiatus from her doughty online efforts so that she can concentrate on college, recently commented on a post from 2013 in which I offered an ontological argument for the existence of God, asking for help with the covalent ontological arguments of St. Anselm of Canterbury and of Alvin Plantinga. She wrote:

I’m currently suffering through a Philosophy of Religion course (the democratic nature of these courses is sickening), and we have just gone over the cosmological arguments, arguments from design, the ontological arguments, and their respective criticisms. I’m writing an essay about which I prefer and discussing its strengths and weaknesses. I immediately go toward the ontological argument per St. Anselm, which I have loved for years now. The problem is that each time I study it I find myself peering at it through seemingly various aspects that become obscure to me as the next one approaches (this also could be linked to sleep issues, but anyway). I would love to get your perspective on it. What do you make of St. Thomas’s criticisms of it? Can a Thomist use the ontological argument? Do you think that there are really two ontological arguments made by Anselm? How do you approach Kant’s criticism and does it reject the traditional notion of God as Being? Is modal logic orthodox? (ha…seriously). Lastly (at least for now), what about Plantinga? I’m very unfamiliar with analytic philosophy, so I hardly even tried to tackle his writing on it. I wrote on a paper for a concise summary of his argument, “If it is possible for God to exist, then it is impossible for God not to exist,” and yesterday morning it CLICKED, wonderfully (but at the same time I feel as though there’s a strange gap between the two statements that I need to work out). Is it possible to reconcile this with Anselm’s, whose I am assuming can be thoroughly defended (double question)? What about Aquinas? Please, Kristor, don’t be vague (not to say that you tend to be); I really could use your help even from a personal position. Thank you.

The rest of this post is my response.

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How to Become an American Traditionalist, Part Six: Other Authorities

[Part OnePart TwoPart Three.  Part FourPart Five.]

Recall from the previous parts that traditionalism reconnects man with the wisdom of his ancestors, that the most important wisdom is to acknowledge God, and that intuition is the foundation of wisdom. Recall also that man also needs revelation and personal repentance in order to be wise, and that once he has begun to repent of liberalism he is ready to find teachers of wisdom.

We have said that man can know the answers to many of his deepest questions or, in other words, that he can know the basic nature of the order of being, through his intuition. Since intuition can be corrupted or obscured, man needs to have these intuitions articulated, guided, and affirmed by authorities. And the highest authority is the Bible, God’s Word.

But there are other religious authorities. The Bible is not the only Christian authority. It is the highest (and the only infallible) authority, but you will need creeds and confessions, pastors and bishops, teachers and theologians to guide you. To become wise about God, you will need eventually to join one of the existing Christian traditions. Continue reading

Will the Real Christianity Please Stand Up?

In the discussion after a recent post here, commenter Vishmehr24 said [I’ve made minor corrections of spelling and form]:

Alan Roebuck,

Are Jehovah’s Witnesses Protestant?

How is Protestantism defined ?

You write

“confessional Protestantism (that is, the Protestantism that honors the Word of God by explicitly identifying what it teaches and then codifying these teachings in the various protestant confessions) is the best system.”

You write from theologian’s perspective, perhaps that is looking for best systems. But a believer or a seeker is looking for the best church. Your answer “confessional Protestantism” is too loose, too flabby. It seems like to mean -anything except the Catholic church or the Orthodoxy.

Here’s my response:

OK Vishmehr24, good questions. You sound skeptical, but I hope you’ll allow me to set the record straight.

The key issues underlying your questions would be these: First, Who, or what, has the authority to define Christianity?  Second, What difference does it make if one adheres to an invalid (or not-fully-valid) version of Christianity?

The answer to the first question has to be Jesus Christ and the Apostles he trained. And since they are no longer available for direct consultation, we must look to the written record of God’s words, the Bible.  This is the correct way to know what Christianity is.

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How to Become an American Traditionalist, Part Five: Knowing About God

[Part OnePart TwoPart ThreePart Four.]

Recall from the previous parts of this series that traditionalism reconnects man with the wisdom of his ancestors and that the most important item of wisdom is to acknowledge the God of the Bible. Recall also that intuition is the foundation of wisdom, and that man also needs revelation and personal repentance in order to be wise. Once you have begun to repent of your liberalism, you are ready to find teachers of wisdom

The greatest teacher, of course, is God, and His teachings are found in the Bible. The most important of these teachings is how you can be saved from God’s wrath through repentance toward God and faith in Jesus Christ. This truth, of course, cannot be known through intuition. It must be revealed to you, and then you must believe it.

Since the Bible, and only the Bible, is God speaking, it is the highest authority other than God Himself[i]. It is the ultimate authority for testing and correcting our intuitions about the order of being.

But we face an immediate problem: Authorities disagree about exactly what the Bible means. Often these disagreements arise when men don’t want to acknowledge the clear meaning of the words. These are disagreements caused by stubbornness, not by a lack of clarity in the text.  But there are genuine disagreements. The authorities disagree about what the Bible teaches.

Perhaps you, the reader, are already a part of a Christian tradition. In that case you already have an authority which clarifies the meaning of the Bible.  But this essay assumes that you are not yet a traditionalist. That being so, you do not yet know which authority to trust. Continue reading

The Secular Utility of the Cloistered Contemplative

What are monks good for, anyway? Why do we allocate scarce resources to their activities of prayer, liturgy, and the odd bit of gardening, or apiculture, or brewing?

We could ask the same question about priests, and about church buildings. Sure, they do lots of good and valuable work – teaching, nursing, and so forth – but their strictly religious activities would seem to be a complete waste.

But not so. People do better – are braver, more resilient, and happier in the face of life’s ineliminable vicissitudes both small and great – when they can see that their personal struggles signify in the larger struggle of good with evil for the redemption of the whole world. They do better when they can see how their small efforts to be good contribute weal to the side of the angels in the Wars of Heaven. If earthly life is throughly pointed toward some utterly transcendent and wonderful Good, then it can all be worthwhile. Otherwise, it just can’t, and is utterly vain and meaningless, so that despair is the  only apposite response to life’s utter futility.

As for people, so for their families, their enterprises of all sorts, their tribes and nations. If these are formed by a shared understanding of their important roles in the wider struggle of God with his enemies, they are more likely to prosper and prevail. Otherwise, they are more likely to dwindle and fail. The demographic collapse of our merely secular society – more and more obviously nihilist – shows how irreligion plays out.

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Concreteness, Corporeality & Responsibility

English makes it easy to refer to a whole group of things as if it were a substantial entity in its own right, whether or not it really is. It then allows us to assign such things as motives, plans, and behavior to that merely notional entity. Thus, e.g., “Baseball been very very good to me;” “The Wehrmacht has taken Paris;” “Godless Communism killed 100 million.”[1]

It’s handy. But difficulty can ensue when we take our shorthand references to such groups as if they indicated something concretely real. The game of baseball can’t do anything, nor can the Wehrmacht, or Communism. Clemente was treated well by actual people involved in baseball, Paris was taken by German soldiers, and the victims of the Communist holocaust were destroyed by real men and women. It’s a category error to blame or credit merely notional entities. AN Whitehead called it the Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness. It arises when we treat ideas as if they were actual and concrete. Concrete entities do all inherit ideas from their past, embody them, and propose them to the future. But without a concrete entity to do the inheriting, embodying, and proposing, nothing happens with the ideas. Ideas don’t have themselves.

Ideas are indeed causes, to be sure; the final, formal and material causes of events are all ideas, in the final analysis. But the inputs to an event are not yet the event. Only agents can respond to the ideas that are their factors. It behooves us then to remember to assign responsibility to natural persons, rather than to movements or schools, to philosophies or merely legal persons.

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