The feast days of the four Virgin Martyrs of the early Roman church frame the celebration of Christmas. St. Cecilia starts us off on November 22, and she is followed by the feast of St. Lucy (December 13), St. Agnes (January 21), and St. Agatha (February 5). On each of these feast, the hymn at the morning office of Lauds uses this text for the fourth verse:
Articles under Moral Theology
Saturday, my host family took me to visit the town of Ely, which is near Cambridge where I’m enjoying a short sabbatical. Much of the medieval cathedral and its monastic buildings are still in existence. While I was there, the Worchester Cathedral Chamber Choir offered a short concert of pieces by Elgar, Handel, John Ireland, and others. Afterward, we all had tea. It was a splendid day.
Kurt Vonnegut’s prescient short story Harrison Bergeron begins:
THE YEAR WAS 2081, and everybody was finally equal. They weren’t only equal before God and the law. They were equal every which way. Nobody was smarter than anybody else. Nobody was better looking than anybody else. Nobody was stronger or quicker than anybody else.
A few weeks ago, I compared Jordan Peterson with the medieval theologian Peter Lombard. I didn’t go into great detail on my own intuition in this matter. After some ill feelings about the analogy, I’ve come to reaffirm it in my own mind.
Internet chatter about Jordan Peterson continues unabated. I was hoping to write a slow and leisurely commentary on the phenomenon of his appearance, but I’m not sure one has that luxury. So I am going to jump in a say what I find hopeful about his ideas and the response to those ideas, and then offer some critiques of the same. Afterward, I may take the time to unpack the different themes in his writing and lecturing, particularly in the ways in which his approach and startling insights can help those of us tasked with spreading the Gospel.
A less-than-favorable review of Dr. Peterson’s recent book Twelve Rules for Life called it a “self-help book from a culture warrior.” Were this an accurate summary, I doubt that I would have finished chapter one, much less the entire book. This description is inaccurate in two ways, both of which expose the corrosive cultural narrative (one that, I think, the Right and Left hold, for the most part, in common) that distorts what Peterson is saying. Let me deal with the idea of a “culture war” first. I propose to do this by comparing Dr. Peterson to one of the West’s most influential authors whom you’ve (probably) never read, Peter Lombard. This comparison will illuminate the reasons why I consider Dr. Peterson’s appearance on the scene to be mainly a hopeful development.
Recently I gave a talk for Theology on Tap on the phenomenon of Jordan Peterson. Peterson is a clinical psychologist and University of Toronto professor. He recently published his second book, a kind of self-help book for millennials, especially millennial men. Hundreds of thousands of people watch his Bible study videos, in spite of the fact that he is not a typical believer. I found out about him through a Catholic friend about a year ago, and I immediately recognized his appeal to young men. Let me explain some of that in today’s blog post, which will be the first installment of an expanded version of my talk.
After a short hiatus to celebrate Thanksgiving (important, as we shall see), and to get Advent started, I’m back with more thoughts on American politics…from the vantage point of the cloister.
I asked in one of my earlier posts, “Will talking about the problem help?” Especially since the election, I have heard many Americans call for greater dialog between left and right. This seems like a plausible way forward. Surprisingly, perhaps, there are sociological reasons to be wary of whether increased talking can actually increase mutual understanding.
Let me begin with some anecdotal evidence of the hidden problem. About seven years ago, a high school friend, who has since become a proselytizing atheist, invited me to participate in an ongoing debate between Christians and atheists. The exercise was fascinating, if often extremely frustrating. The fascinating part was that no matter how much we talked, we managed agreement on only the most superficial matters. The reason? In order for either side to give an account of more important matters like politics, education, and morality, we necessarily had to bring in the fundamental disagreements. How should human biology be taught? Well, much depends on whether one has a fundamental commitment to the idea of the sanctity of human life, or if one leans toward a materialist belief that human and other animal life are more or less random assemblages of chemicals at this moment. There seems to be no way to judge which fundamental commitments are true.
At times, the superficial agreements acted as a kind of booby trap. My interest in music and in Nietzsche, for example, opened certain avenues of discussion that seemed fruitful at the start. But once we started to near bedrock again, and conflicts came out into the open, there was a strong temptation for one or both sides to accuse the other of deceit, of a set-up. “You only brought up music to trick me into becoming a Christian!”
This situation is evidence of a number of problems that can be characterized from a number of standpoints. For today, I want to focus on just one, the idea of “elaborated code.” Elaborated code is a term coined by sociologist Basil Bernstein. He studied the effect of industrialization in Great Britain in the 1960’s. Let me note right away that part of the trickle-down effect of industrialization is the breaking apart of older ways of social organization. Instead of visiting the cobbler to get shoes made, we now go to Target and buy shoes made in Taiwan. We don’t ever meet the shoemaker. He or she is not a part of our lives. Meanwhile, the old cobbler who is put out of a job making shoes now has to develop a very different set of skills to work in a factory or at Burger King. And, as we all know, job security in a globalized, industrialized economy is very weak. People change jobs regularly (another anecdote: I would estimate that about 2-3% of the persons on our list of donors change addresses each year). This constant shifting about calls for a mode of communication that is flexible and presumes that people don’t know each other very well.
Bernstein called this manner of communication elaborated code because of the frequent explanation and qualification required in this relatively new social situation. He contrasted this with “restricted code,” an unfortunate name for the kind of communication that takes place in a more stable environment. In a monastery, for example, there is relatively less need for frequent explanations of what I’m doing. But restricted code is more than just fewer words. It contains a much higher density of meaning, and restricted code often includes symbolic types of communication. For example, when a traditional family sits down to eat dinner together, it is not uncommon for the father to sit at the head of the table and the mother at the foot. Children are often arranged by age along the sides. This is a way of communicating certain roles within the family–without saying anything.
It’s interesting to note that young men entering monasteries today have very little experience of this kind of family setting, which was common in my home when I was a child. Let me give some other homely examples. When I would get into fights with my sisters, my mother would often admonish me with short sentences like, “You should know better. You are the oldest.” “Boys should never strike girls (this was not so easy for me to live by when my oldest sister would use her fingernails as a weapon; that wasn’t precisely allowed, but it had nothing like the stigma of me hitting my sister).” These short sentences communicate an entire world of values that we as a family were assumed to share. The sentences reinforced the importance of distinguishing between male and female roles, the responsibility assumed by elder siblings, and so on. This style of communication brings about agreement on social order at a very deep level.
And here is the important part: elaborated code not only presumes that we do not share agreement on social order, but that we will only be able to provide such order provisionally. The very mode of communication by elaborated code breaks apart shared agreement on social order, and trains us to “keep our options open.”
In the interest of keeping these posts relatively short, I won’t even hint at the way out of this dilemma, but I hope that it is clear that a greater sharing of ideas between left and right may not work as smoothly as we might hope. I will end by merely noting a further challenge. The political left is dominated today by persons who have been highly trained in elaborated code, not because of industrialization, but from indoctrination in the university system. This system itself has been powerfully shaped by the Prussian model of universities, a model explicitly crafted by the Prussian state to meet the needs of a newly industrialized world in the 19th century. This same model was loathed by none other than Friedrich Nietzsche. It is another sign of Nietzsche’s own insight that he withdrew from being a precocious university professor and busied himself with attempts to create a new mythology. In any case, it is not surprising that university education tends to fragment, rather than enhance, social coherence; that persons directly affected by the economic devastation wrought by globalization might be suspicious of the kind of fissile language that tends to pour forth from universities (e.g. identity politics, the recent creation of 47+ genders, etc). Economic hardship requires local cooperation, just the sort of thing enhanced by restricted code and blasted apart by elaborated code. So more talk may well have the unintended consequence of making community harder for just the persons that the political left needs to reach out to right now.
It is also no wonder that Trump supporters often cite his straight talk as a plus. I’m not sure that Trump merits that praise, but part of what is being communicated here is that Trump’s very style of speech is more closely related to the restricted code that is the glue that holds communities together.
If this isn’t your type of music, you can find the title of this post at 3:39 or so…
Some years ago, at community recreation, we watched the movie “Selma.” It happened that at the same time, we had been reading together a biography of Lyndon Johnson, and we were in the midst of reading about his role in the passage of the Civil Rights Act. One young monk grew frustrated with conflicting portrayals of President Johnson. “I don’t get it!” he said at one point, “Was he good or not?”
The temptation to divide people neatly between good and evil, to separate the sheep from the goats as it were, is a perennial one. It tends to be stronger, however, in certain eras. In my opinion, this desire for black-and-white moral categories is stronger in times of social instability. Two highly influential, and more or less institutionalized versions of this dualism, are Manichaeism and Calvinism. A strong version of Calvin’s doctrine of predestination, in which persons are destined either for heaven or hell, continues to exert a strong cultural influence in America, even post-Christian America. [See Joseph Bottum’s excellent book “An Anxious Age: The Post-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America, to see how a peculiar brand of American Christianity morphed into today’s liberal ideals, for example.] I experienced a kind of awakening to this aspect of American culture while watching Clint Eastwood’s (violent) masterpiece “Unforgiven,” and discussing it with a devout Protestant friend. It is interesting to consider Eastwood’s own development from the unforgivable crimes of the Wild West to the redemptive death of Walt Kowalski in the more recent “Gran Torino.” Kowalski becomes a champion and defender of the Hmong families whom he had disliked and mistrusted at the beginning of the film. Was Kowalski good or evil? A lot depends on when we ask the question.
I sense a certain lingering Calvinism in the contemporary American tendency to demonize. Labels like “racist,” “misogynist,” “xenophobe,” are useful and often descriptive of actual behaviors and institutional structures. I would not deny that. But we should use caution when applying them to persons. Let me return to Lyndon Johnson.
Was he good or not? Was he a racist? Like all of us, Johnson was complex, a mixture of good, even magnanimous impulses, along with resentments and weaknesses, especially when positions of power afforded him the license to indulge himself at the expense of, say, women who happened to be nearby. What I am saying, however, is not that we need to resign ourselves to a muddle-along world with good and bad in everyone. The mixture of the good and the bad is in part a side-effect of the fact that we are all unfinished. The dynamic and dramatic arc of a human life is what both (strong) Calvinism and Manichaeism deny. Walt Kowalski changed from being a person with suspicion and hatred toward others based on race to someone who was a friend and defender of the same persons. President Johnson also changed. As a white southerner, he did and said things, especially in his earlier life, that fit with the racist ethos of the circles in which he walked. But he also came from intense poverty, and had a feisty protectiveness for hard-luck cases that could mature into a zeal against injustice. So he also underwent a kind of conversion that made him a champion of civil rights. Other limitations, it seems he never overcame, which will be true for most of us.
Persons can also change for the worse, of course. My point here is that a label such as “racist,” when applied to specific persons, can have the effect of fixing that person in one moral location and foreclosing the possibility of growth. It reminds me of a friend I had growing up whose mother continued to accuse her of being on drugs…even though she wasn’t at first (she was highly creative and goofily energetic by temperament). Well, eventually she decided, “Why not use drugs, if I’m pegged that way anyway?” Literally damned if you do and damned if you don’t. That’s the danger of dualism. It tends to reinforce and bring about the very evil its adherents wish to combat, in addition to blinding those who are lobbing the accusations as to the dynamism of human life.
What I’m saying should not be taken to mean that we shouldn’t name injustices and their causes for what they are. When, however, we recognize that we and others have the capacity to change, we can set about to effect this change through rational argument and action. This is a painstaking process. Impatience with the process can tempt us to fall back on the expedient of power, as I wrote on Sunday. And the difficulty we have in believing that others can change is rooted in our experience of others as irrational, about which I wrote in the same post. When we perceive someone as irrational, another temptation is to despair, for we have no hope of rationally persuading that person to change.
In “Gran Torino,” Eastwood draws on explicitly Christian language of repentance and forgiveness. So for the benefit of non-Christian readers whom I’ve been inviting to read the blog this past week, I should explain that this notion of personal change is not limited at all to Christian vocabulary. Aristotle and the classical tradition that followed him (in pagan Greece and Rome, Judaism, Christianity and Islam) understood human beings as possessing potential. Human infants are amazingly helpless compared to the offspring of other animals. But they also have greater potential. Morality is more or less a question of how we end up developing that potential, whether we become the sorts of persons that we aspire to, or fall short of this goal. As the example of Walt Kowalski suggests, we can’t know for certain how to characterize a life until it has reached its end. In the meantime, even my enemies and others who hold political opinions completely opposite of mine can change. So can I. Colonialists and slave owners of the past denied full human potential and rationality in slaves and in the colonized. But we risk doing the same when we deny rationality and potential in others.
[Disclaimer: I can only claim some expertise in the theology of the Catholic Church. I’ve tried to indicate that my take on Calvinism here is focusing on a specific strand within a complex historical tradition. I hope that I have not mischaracterized Calvinist theology in general by doing so.]