One God, many peoples I: JudeoIslamic universalism

This is the first of a 4-part series.

The reactionary blogosphere is largely a debate between Christians and secular or pagan antiliberals.  Thus, we argue a lot about whether Christianity is to blame for unleashing anti-cultural universalism and egalitarianism on the world.  The related but deeper question is what spiritual forces, whether or not they are distinctly Christian, have driven these movements. I’d like to start this little investigation by inviting a couple of interesting outsiders to have their say, reserving my own arguments for later.

First, here’s historian David Levering Lewis lamenting the victory of Charles Martel at Tours:

Had [Muslim general] ‘Abd al-Rahman’s men prevailed that October day, the post-Roman Occident would probably have been incorporated into a cosmopolitan, Muslim regnum unobstructed by borders … one devoid of a priestly caste, animated by the dogma of equality of the faithful, and respectful of all religious faiths … [T]he victory of Charles the Hammer must be seen as greatly contributing to the creation of an economically retarded, balkanized, fratricidal Europe that, in defining itself in opposition to Islam, made virtues out of religious persecution, cultural particularism, and hereditary aristocracy.

How about that?  Islam=equality, cosmopolitanism, and tolerance.  Christianity=particularism and hierarchy.  That’s the common wisdom among historians.  Not all monotheisms are the same, and if group loyalty is what you care about, you’re much better off with Christianity.  For their part, Muslims seem to be proud that their faith and its law teach individualism and equality, that it dissolves national and ethnic boundaries.

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Amputation versus Askesis

On the one hand, you have the ephemeral symptoms of nihilism: tattoos, piercings, sex change operations, and soon no doubt random unmotivated pointless amputations of this or that. On the other, you have askesis, that cuts away everything that is not of the Truth.

The first rejects substance and meaning in favor of nothing. It deletes great hunks of being, at the same time complicating what remains – and not in a good way. The nihilists are hunted, harried, gloomy, weakened, fey.

The second abjures partiality for fullness, of being, significance, beauty. It clarifies and simplifies, as the dross falls away, leaving only the dense pure gold. The students of askesis are at peace, or on their way to it. They are hearty, quiet, relaxed, and hard to spot.

The first ends in crabbed miserable death, the second in life everlasting.

Then there is everyone in between, all of whom must sooner or later decide between these two options.

The Medium Actually Is the Message

Meaning is not epiphenomenal to anything. It is not just some superfluity added to physical causation, or riding it, like scum on the surface of a river. By the same token, physical causation is not some raw medium suitable for the occasional, adventitious carriage of information, but dumb in itself. All being is somehow cooked – i.e., formed. And formation is always an outcome of some act, that is ordered toward, and so intends, some end. The formation of every actuality is thus teleological, an intelligence and the product of some intelligence – even if only the intelligence inherent in even simple things like electrons.[1] In no other way could things be the least bit intelligible. You can’t grasp the intelligence of a thing, can’t coherently tie it to other things, if it is not truly intelligent in the first place.[2]

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The Good of Sex: a Gedanken Experiment

In The Good of Sex, I discussed what I had figured out about the various aspects of that good we are after in pursuing sex. But as the first sentence of that essay indicates, another way of getting at the same understanding is to go ahead and answer the question it asks: what is it that we most want from sex? That way, we can discover the answers quite concretely, and when we get them, we can proceed to wonder why we gave the answers we did, and then – as I tried to do in that article – try to explain them.

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The Good of Sex

What is it that we most want from sex? We want the admiration, trust and love – the will to do us truly good – of a truly good person of the opposite sex, whom we love and trust and admire, with whom we have pledged before God and man our utmost mutual loyalty, even unto death. If we have that, then the consummation of any given sexual act is an accident – is not of the essence of what it is we most desire. Furthermore, only if we enjoy the essential aspects of sex can we possibly be satisfied of our sexual urges. A sexual act that lacks those essential properties is a simulacrum, that cannot satisfy; that cannot but leave us somehow empty, and craving more.

What are those essential properties? They are all mentioned in the second sentence above, but each deserves a word or two.

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There is No Patrimony

There is no patrimony, and hasn’t been for generations. We’ve been making it up as we go for the last 250 years or so, each of us cobbling together on his own the lineaments of a coherent way of life from the jetsam that is the only remnant of what was once the ship that bore our forefathers up together from infancy, piloted by their fathers and kept by their mothers.

That ship is gone, wrecked, taken apart piece by piece and thrown into the sea by improvident sailors, unofficered, free, and drunk.

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I Self-Identify as a Billionaire

In fact, I self-identify as a multi-billionaire. So everyone must treat me as if that’s just what I am. Especially banks and merchants, those dogs.

Not only that, but I self-identify as young, fit, and irresistibly attractive to women. So that’s how they have to treat me.

Finally, I self-identify as a brilliant polymath and profound philosopher, a sage with perfect knowledge of all truth. That’s how I know that my self-identifications are correct. So listen up, OK?

Dietrich von Hildebrand on reverence and being

Writing (disapprovingly) in 1966 on the then-nascent reforms to the Roman rite Mass:

Reverence gives being the opportunity to speak to us: The ultimate grandeur of man is to be capax Dei (ed: “capable of receiving God”). Reverence is of capital importance to all the fundamental domains of man’s life. It can be rightly called “the mother of all virtues,” for it is the basic attitude that all virtues presuppose. The most elementary gesture of reverence is a response to being itself. It distinguishes the autonomous majesty of being from mere illusion or fiction; it is a recognition of the inner consistency and positiveness of being-of its independence of our arbitrary moods. Reverence gives being the opportunity to unfold itself, to, as it were, speak to us; to fecundate our minds. Therefore reverence is indispensable to any adequate knowledge of being. The depth and plenitude of being, and above all its mysteries, will never be revealed to any but the reverent mind. Remember that reverence is a constitutive element of the capacity to “wonder,” which Plato and Aristotle claimed to be the indispensable condition for philosophy. Indeed, irreverence is a chief source of philosophical error. But if reverence is the necessary basis for all reliable knowledge of being, it is, beyond that, indispensable for grasping and assessing the values grounded in being. Only the reverent man who is ready to admit the existence of something greater than himself, who is willing to be silent and let the object speak to him- who opens himself-is capable of entering the sublime world of values. Moreover, once a gradation of values has been recognized, a new kind of reverence is in order-a reverence that responds not only to the majesty of being as such, but to the specific value of a specific being and to its rank in the hierarchy of values. And this new reverence permits the discovery of still other values. …

The irreverent man by contrast, approaches being either in an attitude of arrogant superiority or of tactless, smug familiarity. In either case he is crippled; he is the man who comes so near a tree or building he can no longer see it. Instead of remaining at the proper spiritual distance, and maintaining a reverent silence so that being may speak its word, he obtrudes himself and thereby, in effect, silences being. In no domain is reverence more important than religion. As we have seen, it profoundly affects the relation of man to God. But beyond that it pervades the entire religion, especially the worship of God. There is an intimate link between reverence and sacredness: reverence permits us to experience the sacred, to rise above the profane; irreverence blinds us to the entire world of the sacred. Reverence, including awe-indeed, fear and trembling-is the specific response to the sacred. 

Which jives rather nicely with my earlier diagnosis of modernity as “the institutionalization of rebellion against the order of being,” either birthed by or leading to a kind of spiritual autism, a “pervasive insensibility to the sacred”:

Without a sense of the sacred, reality becomes meaningless, senseless, and incomprehensible; the human condition becomes one not of citizenship and duty but of imprisonment and injustice. Rebellion against that order results, with predictable consequences.

60 years ago, we were told the Mass, that “gobbledegook of Latin ritual” pregnant with “obscurantism” and “magic” (to quote the execrable Paul Blanshard), had become incomprehensible to modern man, and that, far from trying to communicating its riches more effectively, we had to open it up to his appreciation by cutting out much which was worthy of appreciation. Now, it’s marriage that’s up for similar treatment. We’re all spiritual autists now.

Whether Leftism is a Christian heresy

Of course not.  And yet the claim is often heard from groups that otherwise agree on very little.  The neo-pagan and neo-reactionary Right say that Leftism is just the working out of noxious elements present in Christianity from the beginning.  Some say that these were temporarily offset by other, positive, elements of Christianity; others are under the impression that Christianity itself is pure Leftist drivel but only seemed otherwise because of its “Germanization”, i.e. a borrowed veneer of pagan virility.  (Remember, most people don’t know anything about the pre-Constantinian Church or the Christianized Roman Empire, so the idea that Christians were a bunch of pacifist, egalitarian hippies until the conversion of the Germans actually sounds plausible to them.)  On the other hand, we have all encountered Christian apologists eager to claim that, on balance, Christianity has been on the side of “progress”, that democracy, female equality, and anti-racism really are in some profound sense our ideas and could never have taken hold without the Gospel.

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Difference As Such Entails Risk of Evil

There is no logical Problem of Evil, because it is impossible in logic for God to create any sort of thing that is not extremely likely to Fall, and so suffer.

God knows perfectly, and so wills, the way that everything should be in order to be best. His existence is necessary, so if he were the only entity, things would necessarily be best.

But God is not the only entity. Because he is necessary, all the other entities that exist must – logically must – be contingent; for, there can be at most one unmoved mover. And contingent beings as such, by definition, are at risk of evil.

That there should be different things, then – that, i.e., there should be more than just one thing, namely God – entails that there should be great risk of evil.

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