Scruton on Religious Differences

‘Fine differences are always more important in determining membership than large differences, precisely because they permit comparison. The person whose religion differs from mine by a tiny article, or a barely percievable gesture, is not a believer in other gods, but a blasphemer against my gods. Unlike the person with other deities, he is automatically an object of hostility, since he threatens the faith from a point within its spiritual territory.’ (Roger Scruton, ‘The West and the Rest’, p. 23)

An Unexpected Symposium on Roger Scruton

I found this great little set of essays on Roger Scruton’s idea of beauty today, and it’s worth a share:

An Unexpected Symposium on Roger Scruton

Here’s the talk to which the essays are replying:

Some highlights from the essays:

‘The overall thrust is that, yes, Beauty is not something that can be “neatly taped up in a definitive sentence or treatise.” It is not just being at home, nor is it in the eye of the beholder. It is experienced in more than one way, and it manifests less often as a memory of the past than an invitation to a great journey in the present.’

‘Man, distinct in creation, straddles the mundane and transcendent spheres. Given lordship over the world, it is man’s task to pattern the mundane after the transcendental. In the Christian tradition, man is placed in a garden to tend and keep it. That’s the role of art, as Scruton sees it. The three transcendentals are the sources of meaning; art, in its pursuit of beauty, brings meaning to life. This meaning brings a sense of belonging. Belonging is, therefore, a necessary consequence of beauty, but beauty is pursued for itself. The two are inseparable.

This understanding of art and beauty doesn’t lead to utopian attempts at perfect pockets of beauty. Appealing again to the Christian tradition, even before sin entered into the world man was a gardener – someone who brings order and meaning to nature. The search for beauty will never be complete because weeds and disorder threaten at every turn. Man will never build the Kingdom, but he must build for the Kingdom in patient expectation of the One who will make all things beautiful.’

‘The easiest analogy to be made here is with love. Love exists beyond all of us, but in order for us to love—and to be loved in return—we have to make sacrifices. We have to give ourselves over to someone else. In short, we have to belong to someone else. But this belonging is not about love belonging to us. It is about our belonging to love.

Our relationship with beauty works in much the same way. Why do we build beautiful cathedrals, or write and constantly rehearse haunting liturgies, or take the time to decorate and order our houses into places that feel like home?

Because we are practicing belonging.’

Anyway, give it a read, and bookmark Humane Pursuits.

A Mess of Thoughts On Modernity, Christianity, and Presuppositionalism

Another blog post based on Facebook comments – no editing has been done here, so I’ll correct things piecemeal.

(1) Epistemology, or, more generally, knowing, is made the key ‘thing’, as it were – or, more precisely, between right and wrong ways of knowing. Knowledge tends to be (almost without fail) reduced to various forms of propositionalism and the right/wrong way to know them. Without the right presuppositions, one simply cannot know things. That’s a broad and sloppy sketch.

(2) The forms of knowing articulated by presuppositonalism fail to take seriously the critiques of knowledge leveled against it by the ‘modernity’, in particular Kant, who insisted that we cannot know from a position outside ourselves, ie objectively. There is no universal perspective, no non-contingent knowledge. This was something taken up by Wittgenstein in the context of language, and the it’s the same basic idea – knowledge is always something had in a particular context (this is Hegelian as well), at a particular time. Knowledge is contingent, not universal, timeless, etc – and these critiques are simply brushed aside. Similar differences can be seen in the disputes between continental and analytic philosophy/metaphysics. Are truths universal (analytic), or contingent/historicist (continental)?

I admire Van Til’s boldness but other than that see very little to be gained, past perhaps an initial ‘shock’ causing one to rethink just exactly how one knows. But this goes back to the modern critiques of knowledge – philosophy of the last 300 years or so has taught us that the ‘foundations of knowledge’ are far less important than were once thought. So to the insistence of the presuppositionalist that one cannot ‘account’ for various items of knowledge, I (along with the rest of the modern world) say, so what? While questions of warrant and justification do have a place in philosophy, they certainly don’t have the dominant place that they did throughout much of the history of philosophy. This makes epistemic methods like presuppositionalism much less powerful/attractive.

I doubt very much that any real analogy can be made between how we know and how God knows, for the very simple reason that God is uncreated, whereas we are created. As all our experience is with the created, we can’t really speculate on the uncreated, especially on something as specific as knowing.

It can be fairly difficult to really talk about postmodernism because it’s not really a school or movement. Most of the time postmodernism means relativism, deconstructionism, Rorty, Derrida, and seems to be more of a reaction to aspects of modernism and analytic philosophy. The major emphases is on things like contingency, non-universal truths, and the collapse of the metanarrative (that’s probably the biggest one). So in the sense that topics like contingency, metanarrative, the denial of absolute, universal categories for truth are important topics, I say it’s a good thing – postmodernism really called into question things like the universal perspective (there is one way that the world is) and brought into sharp relief the dynamic and contingent nature of the world, which is great. But in terms of the more fanciful ideas, like the lack of meaning in the world, nothing outside the text, its all interpretation (and these are fairly rough representations for brevitys sake), postmodernism has really hit a failure of nerve:

‘There is, however, another sort of reaction possible here. If it is painful to live at risk, under the gun, with uncertainty but high stakes, maybe the thing to do is just reduce or reject the stakes. If, for example, there just isn’t any such thing as truth, then clearly one can’t go wrong by believing what is false or failing to believe what is true. If we reject the very idea of truth, we needn’t feel anxious about whether we’ve got it. So the thing to do is dispense with the search for truth and retreat into projects of some other sort: self-creation and self-redefinition as with Nietzsche and Heidegger, or Rortian irony,552 or perhaps playful mockery, as with Derrida.553 So taken, postmodernism is a kind of failure of epistemic nerve.’

And in terms of wider culture, I don’t think pomo has been terribly helpful:

‘Fear of kitsch led to the routinisation of modernism. By posing as a modernist, the artist gives an easily perceivable sign of his authenticity. But the result is cliché of another kind. This is one reason for the emergence of a wholly new artistic enterprise that some call ‘postmodernism’ but which might be better described as ‘pre-emptive kitsch’.

James K A Smith on the Formation of Social Media

‘So the very nature of social media encourages a certain social ontology; it comes primed with a social imagery, and to inhabit the Facebook world is to play by its rules. Over time, this becomes a formative exercise. In tangible but implicit ways, it inculates in us dispositions and inclinations that lean towards a configuration of the social world that revolves around me – even if we tell ourselves we’re interested in others. It is a classic example of a “pedagogy of insignificance” that exhorts the essential from the seemingly insignificant. While it purports to be simply a “medium”, it comes loaded with a Story about what matters, and who matters. And as we inhabit these virtual worlds – clicking our way around the environment, constantly updating our “status” and checking on others, fixated on our feed, documenting our “likes” for others to see – we are slowly and covertly incorporated into a body politic with its own vision of human flourishing: shallow connections for instant self-gratification and self-congratulation. And all of this happens precisely because we don’t think about it.’ (James K. A. Smith, ‘Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works’, p. 148)

Thought on Tolerance and Reactions

It’s ironic that in the name of tolerance, reconciliation and acceptance, boundaries have a tendency to be drawn very closely and very tightly. This reveals a trait about humanity very starkly: our default response to any given issue is one of reaction and overcorrection, with the result that the reaction becomes the exact same thing that was being reacted against, only more intense. For example, suppose organization X is seen as being intolerant, exclusive, with tightly drawn boundaries, by group Y. who are  committed to inclusive-ity and acceptance. The reaction of Y will be to draw its own boundaries in such a manner that X, or anyone affirming the beliefs of X, are excluded. Rather than being truly inclusive, Y becomes just as intolerant and exclusive as X only moreso, because the nature of reaction is to overcorrect for what is seen to a glaring fault or something to be avoided.

Soundbytes and Culture

The idea that the immediate is better than the delayed is probably one of the most distinctive marks of our spirit of the age. This can be seen to be true in nearly every aspect of modern life – meals are microwaved in a matter of minutes, sometimes seconds. Technology allows one to view their favourite television programs immediately. Communication has not been immune – indeed, one could argue that no realm of life has been influenced by the culture of immediacy than communication.

Consider a simple conversation in which one is asked a question of some importance. If one has to pause to think, to gather thoughts, to formulate an answer, this is seen as negative – for example, it can be and is seen as a sign of something to hide, or a sign of unprepared-ness. To give a delayed answer is to give the wrong answer – to refrain from answering on the grounds that one would prefer to think over the answer is nearly unthinkable in the our culture today. In almost every case, the answer must be had now

There is another result, though. This second result is that all communication is essentially being reduced to soundbytes. More often than not, a conversation consists not in an actual interchange of thought-out viewpoints, or topics of interest around which a meaningful conversation can be had, but rather as an occasion to exchange soundbytes designed to (a) make clear each persons viewpoint and (b) prove the superiority of one viewpoint over the other. Conversations have become occasions to simply wait for one person to finish speaking so a rebuttal soundbyte can be given with nearly no regard for the content of the other persons speech. Give-and-take conversation, or conversation in which one really listens with the intent of learning are almost rendered obsolete (listen for five minutes to nearly any political discussion for a demonstration of this).

Of course, some communication must be brief. Obviously to take certain forms of communication, such as police radio communications, and insist that the length of conversations be increased would be absurd (one could add nearly any branch of civil service – hospitals, firefighting, the military, etc). If I call my stock broker to know when to sell, I need to know exactly when to sell what and for how much, and I need to know this now. These forms of communication, however, are not what I would define as actual discourse – an extended period of verbal communication between two parties. Even here, though, there are exceptions – legal defences often take the form of prolonged conversations and lengthy, well-crafted thoughts.

Discourse between two people for the sake of intellectual interchange of ideas requires, more than anything, leisure. It takes, obviously enough, time to have an extended conversation which does not consist of soundbytes. However, as I said above, it is increasingly the case that something that takes long is viewed less as a good and more of a negative.

The irony here, then, is that that which thrives only in a culture of leisure is seeing its death in a culture where immediacy is king. Immediacy is something that purports to be a way of maximizing the amount of usable time available – DVR’s, microwave meals, etc – all exist so as to eliminate wasted time so as to allow us more leisure time with which to enjoy any given thing. So maybe the irony isn’t so much that something which requires leisure is dying as a result of immediacy – it’s that, as a result of immediacy, leisure is dying.