Vietnam and Christian intellectuals

A while back we commented on Alan Jacobs’s piece decrying the absence of Christian intellectuals in American public discourse. You may recall that Jacobs’s discussed Fr. Richard John Neuhaus and Neuhaus’s magazine, First Things, at some length in his essay. R.R. Reno, the current editor of First Things, has commented himself on Jacobs’s essay, and he makes a couple of interesting points. First, he brings out in greater detail something we merely alluded to:

There’s something to this analysis, but I’d add another factor, unmentioned by Jacobs. The biggest shift in American religious culture in my lifetime has been the extraordinary decline of mainline Protestantism as a vital force in public life. The mainline Protestant tradition had inherited the establishmentarian mentality of New England Puritanism, along with Puritanism’s urgent moralism. As a consequence, the leaders of mainline Protestantism saw themselves as the “conscience of the nation.” In mid-twentieth-century America, as men of letters, social reformers, and political rhetoricians were transformed into “intellectuals” (itself a fascinating story), mainline Protestants came to play that role as well, and did so in theological as well as sociological and philosophical terms.

(Emphasis supplied.) He goes on to say:

The decline of mainline Protestantism was part of a larger dissolution of centrist American institutions. Universities today are far less likely to produce intellectuals. The reason for this failure is not just specialization (although that is a factor) but ideological homogeneity. To a degree that I could not foresee when I was a college student nearly forty years ago, the world of ideas has become almost entirely colonized by the political urgencies of the moment.

(Emphasis supplied.) As Matthew Sitman has noted, Jacobs is only really interested in the output of liberal protestant intellectuals from about 1945 to 1970. Of the examples Jacobs cites, Auden lived the longest, and he died in 1973. And, while we are not a sociologist of American religion, this seems to jive with Reno’s point. We certainly have the impression that mainline protestantism fell off a cliff in the late 1960s or early 1970s. Certainly we have a hard time recalling any time since then that mainline protestants have been a force to be reckoned with.

We also wonder, perhaps with a comic-book understanding of American history, whether a broader trend of antiestablishment sentiment should be considered when examining this phenomenon. Reno makes the point that liberal protestants had a strong investment in the American establishment, going back, no doubt, to colonial times. But by the end of the 1960s, the establishment was not looking so hot. If you draw bright brackets around 1945 and 1970, you include an active phase of the civil rights struggle and most of the United States’ escalation in the Vietnam War. Indeed, we wonder whether the Vietnam War didn’t have much to do with the rise of antiestablishment sentiment in the United States. For example, Operation Rolling Thunder commenced on March 2, 1965 and Operation Arc Light sometime before the middle of 1965. The Tet Offensive began at the end of January 1968. The 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago turned into a general melee as a result of clashes between protesters and Mayor Richard Daley’s police. And more generally at about this time, radical leftist factions—especially student groups—were involved in high profile actions. Obviously, we don’t mean to set up a montage of late-1960s strife set to the strains of “Fortunate Son,” but we think it is worth considering that at about the same time Christian intellectuals—and, indeed, mainline protestantism—are disappearing, antiestablishment sentiment in the United States is reaching a fever pitch over the Vietnam War.

However, if there is a relationship between the rise of antiestablishment sentiment caused by the Vietnam War and the decline of protestant intellectuals, it is a complicated one. But perhaps there’s a link. Jacobs mentioned Fr. Neuhaus as a Lutheran, active in the civil rights movement and in opposing the Vietnam War. Reno observes:

Richard John Neuhaus was a good example. Although formed in the more isolated atmosphere of Missouri Synod Lutheranism, Neuhaus came of age politically and intellectually as a participant in mainline Protestant–dominated organizations supporting civil rights and then opposing the Vietnam War. He possessed an inborn confidence, but that confidence was reinforced by the mainline Protestant sense of ownership over the moral future of America.

(Emphasis supplied.) Perhaps it was the failure of these organizations to, well, do anything to stop the war that drove their decline. While the civil rights movement resulted in actual achievements, such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the antiwar movement did not produce many (any?) similar achievements. Again, we do not want to suggest that Vietnam was the defining moment for American mainline protestants and their intellectual vanguard; however, it is difficult to maintain a sense of ownership over a country’s moral future when the country manifestly does not listen to you. To put it another way, it is passing hard “to transcend the ideological conflicts of the moment in order to speak to the nation as a whole” when the nation clearly isn’t listening.

Or maybe not. It’s an interesting question, and it would be fascinating to see an author explore the question at length.

Reno makes another point, very self-aware, and we wanted to mention it, too:

By the time Neuhaus founded First Things, it was already obvious that mainline Protestantism was finished. It had become a chaplaincy for the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. Neuhaus thought Evangelical and Catholic intellectuals could fill the void, providing America with a religiously informed public philosophy suited to our times. (I’m so thoroughly catechized by the First Things project that those words flow out of me effortlessly.) As Jacobs laments, however, this vision has not come to pass. I don’t want to put words in his mouth, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Alan were to say that folks like me have become a chaplaincy for the conservative wing of the Republican Party.

(Emphasis supplied.) We might, in an uncharitable moment, be inclined to agree that, in many ways, the First Things project has been largely Catholics, evangelicals, and others united to give the Republican Party some intellectual cover. But First Things is not alone, nor is it the worst offender. Groups like the Acton Institute seem altogether more interested in providing a theological and philosophical framework for conventional Republican ideology than First Things. And the shifting landscape of the Republican Party seems apt to draw First Things out of a cozy relationship. By this, of course, we mean: Donald Trump is mixing up the established order. Reno himself was a major contributor to National Review‘s Against Trump issue, for example. And we have heard reports that some Trump supporters have been highly critical of First Things for what they perceive as regular anti-Trump coverage.

Something else to think about, at any rate.

You must pay for everything in this world

Father John Hunwicke, continuing a series on his blog, has an interesting post about the magisterium and the rights of the faithful, clergy and laity alike. Indeed he discusses the recent, private letter of forty-five eminent Catholic thinkers to the College of Cardinals, asking them to encourage the Holy Father to condemn some erroneous interpretations of Amoris laetitia.

Not long ago, as is well known, a group of 45 scholars, teachers, and pastors, wrote a Letter. (I emphasise that these people came from a wide variety of countries throughout the world: I emphasise this because I do not want what I am about to say to be narrowly construed as a criticism of any members of the English Church.) The Letter was addressed to each member of the Sacred College of Cardinals respectfully asking them to beg the Holy Father graciously to consider the clarification of certain parts of Amoris laetitia which have proved to be dangerously ambiguous. Cardinals, I think, count as Sacred Shepherds. This was a private letter (although its contents have unfortunately become public). Even if it had been a public letter, I do not see how it could have failed to enjoy the protection of Canon 212.

Dr Javier Hervada, sometime Professor of Canon Law at Navarra, comments on Canon 212: “The right of free speech and public opinion within the Church is acknowledged. Science, skill, and prestige are required to exercise the right justly or to give the corresponding moral obligation greater or less force. The basis of this right does not reside in these prerequisites but in the condition of being one of the faithful“.

(Emphasis in original.) As you may recall, the signatories of this letter were identified in one or the other of the progressive house organs. Then the letter itself was leaked. This is, we suspect very much, not what the drafters and signatories wanted. The letter was written in very frank terms, but always respectful, always keenly aware of its place. It was a private letter from concerned Catholics to the close collaborators of the Supreme Pontiff. But if there is one thing that the progressives in the Church have learned, it’s that leaks are good for business. Digressing slightly, it’s interesting that the leaks only go one way. One almost never hears that some damaging leak has occurred of a progressive’s papers. And when one does hear it, the leaker is blasted into oblivion and punished brutally, because there’s nothing worse than leaks.

Except when they’re judiciously used against someone unpopular.

And it seems that this leak has been used against unpopular squeaky wheels. Father Hunwicke again:

In the fourth year of this current pontificate, it is appropriate also to mention the insistently repeated calls of the Holy Father Pope Francis himself for Parrhesia [bold and free speaking] in the Church.

With regard to the paragraph which now follows below, I would like to make it very clear that I am not talking about myself or in any way describing or alluding to my own situation or any experience I have had.

Intimidation and cruel pressures have, it appears, been applied to persuade some of the signatories to the Letter to rescind their signatures. 

Perhaps this may remind English readers of the occasion when, a couple of years ago, some 450 English clerics wrote an open letter with regard to the agenda of the Synod of Bishops, and it was reported in the public papers that intimidation had been applied to dissuade priests from signing. How those guilty of such worldly intimidation can think that their behaviour helps any cause in which they sincerely and Christianly believe, I simply do not even begin to understand. It all seems to me so much more like the actions of playground bullies than any conduct which could be appropriate between those whom the Lord called His Friends (philous; John 15:15).

(Emphasis in original.) We are sorry to say that we’ve heard very similar reports—and from sources we trust implicitly. Upshot: the leaks worked. The Catholics who had the temerity to ask the cardinals to ask the Pope to clear up some of the confusion surrounding Amoris laetitia have been identified and will be dealt with in due course. Never mind that they’ve got the right—and, indeed, the duty in some cases—of expressing their concerns to their pastors and their pastors’ close collaborators. Only a doctor of the law would care about canon 212. They better get in line, but quick. 

This is, of course, just what traditionally minded Catholics have always known. Progressives in the Church operate this way. It is what we saw at the Council and after. We must talk about things—openly, freely, frankly. The schemata are bad. They’re shot through with neo-scholasticism, unecumenical language, and stuffy dogmas. We’ve got to talk about this. And when they get the answer they want, that’s it. No more discussion. Next question! We are witnessing the early stages of the same phenomenon with the business about deaconesses. We’ve got to talk about this. But just wait until they get the answer they clearly want.

The multiverse of possibilities

Sam Kriss, who has written before on the joylessness of the pop-scientism so much vogue on the internet and in the media, has written a piece at The Atlantic about the multiverse theory. Indeed, Kriss has made himself a winning critic of scientism, pop vel non, by pointing out the absurdities it forces on its adherents. Now, we wouldn’t confuse Kriss for a religious writer—we have the impression that he’s an unbeliever, though we couldn’t swear as to why we believe that—but Kriss has little use for secularism as it has come to exist popularly. You know the type of secularist we—and he—mean, full of answers like “because science” and “it’s 2016.” Given Kriss’s evident suspicion of people like that, he has some insights, especially on the question of scientism, that we think are profitable for Christians to consider. And his skewering of multiverse theory is one such insight.

Now, as we understand it, the concept of the multiverse is that there is a some number of parallel universes, perhaps an infinite number. The question is, as you might imagine, mathematically dense and contentious even among physicists. But Kriss makes an interesting point that sounds ultimately in common sense:

Heim’s work has been enormously influential in the field of theology, but for some reason it’s generally rejected by the scientific community. Instead, thousands of physicists—big names like Stephen Hawking (who called it ‘trivially true’), Brian Greene, and Neil deGrasse Tyson included—pay lip service to the many-worlds interpretation: the particle still passed through both slits; one here, and one in another universe, created especially for the occasion. It certainly sounds more scientific than Heim’s theory, which tries to shoehorn a Bronze Age concept into an increasingly inhospitable reality. The only snag is that there’s actually very little difference. There’s no way we could ever carry out any experiment to test for the multiverse’s existence in the world, because it’s not in our world. It’s an article of faith, and not a very secure one. What’s more likely: a potentially infinite number of useless parallel universes, or one perfectly ordinary God?

(Emphasis supplied.) He goes on to note that multiverse theory is itself “an organized assault” on imagination:

The Mandela Effect is silly, but is has its roots in the philosophical precursors to multiverse theory. What looks at first glance like an opening up of possibilities is actually an organized assault on the unreal: the delicate networks of falsehood, the boundlessness of counterfactuals, the imagination as such. It goes back to Leibniz, who got analytical philosophers talking about contingency in terms of ‘possible worlds’ for tedious centuries—actually, it goes back to Democritus, twenty-five centuries ago—but there’s no purer instance than the ‘modal realism’ of David Lewis. In a series of books, the Princeton philosopher argued that counterfactual statements (‘There is a possible world in which ‘chartreuse’ describes a shade of red,’ ‘If the author-electrocuting button existed, I’d be dead now’) could not be intelligible unless they refer to an actually existing state of affairs. If the author-murdering button doesn’t exist here, it must necessarily exist in another universe. What this means is that the human capacity to imagine a different world is really nothing of the sort. It’s all just the same washed-out reality, and your hopes and dreams are as drearily physical as a sack of potatoes. Want to write fiction? Want to build a better life? Don’t bother. Everything that could happen has already happened, and nothing can ever change.

(Emphasis supplied.) This, of course, goes back to Kriss’s piece on Dr. Tyson. The sort of materialism that delights in “science,” including the idea of an infinite number of universes where an infinite number of possibilities plays out separately, ultimately seeks to create a world without possible escape. Endlessly, rigorously “correct.” What you see is what you get, if you’re lucky. More likely, what you see is what you see and what you get is nothing. Eventually one does not even need the tweets and blog posts and talking-head programs saying “actually…,” one simply internalizes the “actually…” The goal, to nick the title of that book of Sagan’s, may have started out as to free us from “a demon-haunted world,” but it seems to have wound up being to free us from a human-inhabited world.

One may say, too, that the multiverse idea is an organized assault on faith. We know that God took flesh, dwelt among men, died on the cross, and was raised from the dead on the third day. But if there are an infinite number of universes, then it is entirely possible (probable, even?) that there is a universe in which that did not happen. Right? (We’re not experts in this stuff, so maybe it isn’t right, but we certainly have the sense that this is the thrust of the theory.) There may, in fact, be several universes in which that did not happen. And you see it goes on and on. And for every single thing Christians know to be true. If struck by a perverse mood, one can posit ever more ridiculous hypotheses: let’s say that everything that we know to be true is true for n-1 universes, including ours, but in the n-th, the 27th condemned proposition of the Laxists wasn’t condemned by the Holy Office, or something like that. That’s the only difference. Such a hypothesis is unfalsifiable, obviously, but it’s no more or less so that the more serious hypotheses discussed. (We could gussy it up with some calculations, but we were never that good with figures.) At some point one has to come back to Kriss’s earlier point: “What’s more likely: a potentially infinite number of useless parallel universes, or one perfectly ordinary God?” 

We wouldn’t put it like that, exactly, but that’s a devastating answer to the adherents of scientism who tell us increasingly improbable things and expect us to swallow them whole.

Now, perhaps Kriss means to say that the multiverse and God are equally improbable, but we’ll set that possibility to one side. Perhaps in another universe, we take it up. Levity aside, there is, as a function of scientism and our indefatigable faith in scientific progress notwithstanding all evidence to the contrary, too much piety about science. The scientists say. The experiment shows. And all too often Christians—who know better; who know the truth about God, the world, and our place in it, in point of fact—are stuck either sketching some complicated modus vivendi for faith and science or demonstrating how the scientific explanation fits into our understanding of things. Perhaps the better approach would be to call up “up” and down “down,” as Kriss does, and to say that a given “explanation” is so wildly, hysterically improbable as to be essentially an alternative faith. Thus dialogue between a Christian and an adherent of these theories ought to be in the nature of interfaith dialogue—not some grand disputation between faith and reason—acknowledging always that, while there might be points of agreement, there are points of dogma that cannot be transgressed by the respective believers.

We’re by no means an expert on the intersection of faith and science. We know what we know. And that may not be all that much. But we think there’s good reason to ponder Kriss’s point and its implications.