Saturday, September 28, 2013

Inevitability -- The Keyword for Our Age

Nevertheless, I think that with us the keyword is "inevitability," or, as I should be inclined to call it, "impenitence." We are subconsciously dominated in all departments by the notion that there is no turning back, and it is rooted in materialism and the denial of free-will. Take any handful of modern facts and compare them with the corresponding facts a few hundred years ago. Compare the modern Party System with the political factions of the seventeenth century. The difference is that in the older time the party leaders not only really cut off each other's heads, but (what is much more alarming) really repealed each other's laws. With us it has become traditional for one party to inherit and leave untouched the acts of the other when made, however bitterly they were attacked in the making. -- G.K. Chesterton
I have no real feeling for the underlying political attitudes at the time when Chesterton wrote this, but "inevitability" certainly has oppressed political thinking in America for the past several decades.  When I was a child, for example, everyone took it as inevitable that either the Cold War would end in a nuclear holocaust, or at best we would have a bipolar standoff that would last for centuries.  When that turned out to be wrong and America was (according to many) the "last superpower", it became inevitable that American-style democracy would be embraced everywhere; this was the thesis of Francis Fukuyama's 1992 book The End of History and the Last Man.  During the late 1990's, it became inevitable that the stock market would only go up -- the dot-coms had brought about a "new paradigm" of economics.  

We all know how those predictions fared.  Other "inevitable" outcomes have also failed to materialize.  A century ago, Prohibition was going to put a permanent end to alcohol abuse in the USA.  It has been "inevitable" on several occasions that Islam would conquer all of Christendom; we hear that it is again "inevitable".   Yet Chesterton was right in another place to describe a Christian hero as, "It is he that saith not 'Kismet'; it is he that knows not Fate."

Today, of course, it is inevitable that "gay marriage" will become a permanent fixture of American life.  The military has been required by their current commander-in-chief to embrace and celebrate homosexuality.  Many ecclesial communities now simulate marriage ceremonies for homosexual couples.  The Republican Party is backing away from support for "traditional" marriage, and a former editor of First Things says the Church should give up on marriage.

Well, maybe it will become a permanent fixture -- not because "gay marriage" will endure forever, but because America is highly unlikely to endure to the end of time.  Regardless, the future comes from two main sources:  the choices we make  each day, and realities that exist without regard for our choices.  The nature of the human being and the nature of marriage belong to the second category, which is why "gay marriage" is not truly marriage, and any legal or popular acceptance is only the acceptance of a fiction.   Whether we choose to accept it, either on a legal or a popular level, is of course a choice, but it is not a choice that will make it impossible for future generations to make a different choice, probably a choice that more accurately represents reality.

So what is behind all this conviction of inevitability, particularly among politicians?  It's easy to come up with several possibilities, and each probably makes some contribution.

  • If the future is inevitable, the politician cannot be held responsible for it.
  • Politicians are only faking their commitment to the moral well-being of America.  (The moral well-being of a country is a temporal good, and the government does have a responsibility to promote it.)  Frankly, they are probably faking their commitment to the other temporal goods as well.
  • The politicians have no moral courage.
Another possibility is suggested by a story by Hans Christian Andersen: 
"But he has nothing at all on!" at last cried out all the people. The Emperor was vexed, for he knew that the people were right; but he thought the procession must go on now! And the lords of the bedchamber took greater pains than ever, to appear holding up a train, although, in reality, there was no train to hold.
Page 234 of Andersen's fairy tales (Robinson)

Andersen was right about this.  How often have we stuck with a policy that was manifestly stupid and obviously not working, yet a president decided we must "stay the course" because we would lose face if we admitted that he was wrong?  The whole world sees that he has made a mistake, but in his pride he hopes that if he stubbornly refuses to acknowledge it, no one will notice.  Foolish pride removes his freedom to reverse course and makes it "inevitable" that he will persist in stupidity.

Friday, September 27, 2013

The Internet Is the Wall of a Truck Stop Restroom

"The American Catholic" has a recent blog post by Donald R. McClarey in which he complains that Popular Science has stopped accepting comments on their web site.  "This is too funny.  Science began as a search for truth," writes McClarey, who apparently thinks that many advances in science depended on comments by the general public in response to magazine articles.  McClarey simply cannot accept that the public comments are ill-informed and frequently insulting.  It must be a political cover-up! 

I was aware of and acknowledged the irony when I wrote in response, but I thought it really should be pointed out that, at least in principle, Popular Science had it right.  

Look at the comments underneath a typical Youtube video -- say, a history documentary.  You'll find incendiary and bigoted remarks representing the crazy right, the crazy left, and the just plain crazy crazy.  Or look at the comments left on the web pages for major newspapers.  When Aaron Hernandez was arrested for murder, it was reported in a sober and straightforward way by sources like ESPN, Sports Illustrated, and Yahoo! Sports.  The comments below the stories, though, were full of gleeful anticipation of Hernandez being raped in prison.

We've all seen that kind of writing before -- the walls of a filthy restroom in either a bad part of town or on the interstate.  This is really not the place to go for a serious pursuit of any truth, whether scientific, philosophical, or theological.

I also pointed out that the Holy See does not make it possible for visitors to their web pages to leave comments on, for example, papal encyclicals -- yet the Holy See is very much pursuing truth.  Why does the Holy See cut itself off from such a vast source of "wisdom"?  Because there is too much cumulative experience there to make that mistake.

So how did "The American Catholic", great champion of free speech and the wisdom of blog comments, respond?  They deleted my comment.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

It Is Better for Me to Fall into the Hands of the LORD

And David said to Gad: I am on every side in a great strait: but it is better for me to fall into the hands of the Lord, for his mercies are many, than into the hands of men. -- 1 Chronicles 21:13

Amen!  And may we not even fall into what they call mercy.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

"Standing on My Head"

Chesterton said he liked to stand on his head because the unusual perspective allowed him to see things as they are (or might be), not as he merely expected them to be.  I had an analogous experience while driving yesterday.  I saw part of a bridge over the Ohio River, but I did not immediately recognize it as part of a bridge.  What I saw was something like this
but what I thought I saw was more like this
Rollercoaster limit heide park germany

This naturally got me thinking -- "Wouldn't it be cool to use the same trusses that support a bridge to also support a roller coaster?  I wonder if this has ever been done?"

Well, I found no evidence that it has been done, which is hardly a surprise.  It would be outrageously cool and could be the signature piece of the town that had it, but that is really the only thing it has going for it.

  • Bridges are not infrequently hit by barges.  This could have disastrous consequences for a roller coaster on the bridge.
  • If the coaster cars became stuck at the top, a rescue could really only be attempted from the surface of the bridge, and it would require closing the bridge.
  • Drivers would be distracted, and perhaps dangerously startled, by the roller coaster.
  • Objects thrown or accidentally dropped from the roller coaster would present a hazard to drivers.
In spite of all the good sense arguments against it, I'd still like to see someone build one.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

What Good Does It Do to Pray for Peace?

What good does it do to pray for peace, as the Pope has requested?  At first glance, it might appear to do no good at all.  After all, at least one party to a war must (to some degree) will the war, and one of the clearest but strangest facts of theology is that God will not remove our free will.  He allows us to choose evil; He allows us to hate others.

Friedrich Overbeck - Praying Monk

But think again about times recently when you may have been grouchy or unreasonable.  We do ultimately choose how to behave, but there are many influences on our moods.  Maybe you did not sleep well the night before; maybe you had an upset stomach; maybe you did not know when the mechanic would finish with your car or how much it would end up costing.  Such exterior circumstances have nothing to do with free will, but they can make it easier or harder to exercise your will in a good way.

I assume that the good effect of prayer is likely to be (in many cases) some change in these external circumstances.  A president who is feeling too tired to deal with complaints that he has not taken action may get better rest; a combatant who feels invincible might experience a sudden reminder of his own mortality; a skillful compromise which no one had foreseen might be suggested.  As the saying goes, peace would be given a chance, though that chance may always still be refused.

The other benefit, of course, is the benefit of all prayer:  it reminds the one one praying that God is ultimately in charge of this as of all things.