Triangulating Reform, Schism, Presence and Planets

The new year has already exploded with a number of items calling for our attention which Lady Wisdom seems to concur are worth exploring. The trajectory we’ll be following will be one of triangulating the immensely-significant-but-often-difficult-to-see- here goes nothing!

1. Malcolm Harris’ “The Dark History of Liberal Reform” at The New Republic is a tour-de-force review of Thomas C. Leonard’s Illiberal Reformers: Race, Eugenics & American Economics in the Progressive Era which you simply have to read for yourself. Harris begins the piece by cracking open that familiar symbol of liberal superiority, the Scopes Monkey Trial, to show that the furor’s focal point was in the telos of evolutionary theory being advocated by progressives. The textbook Scopes taught from had a chapter entitled “The Remedy” advocating what should be done with “bad-gened” people: “If such people were lower animals,” the books says, “we would probably kill them off to prevent them from spreading. Humanity would not allow this, but we do have the remedy of separating the sexes in asylums or other places and in various ways preventing intermarriage and the possibilities of perpetuating such a low and degenerate race.” Conservative polemics that link eugenics and radical socio-economic reconstruction with Darwinian doctrine haven’t been blowing smoke all these years, a point which lends credence to the fear some have over the appointment of progressives to the Supreme Court:

To bring right-wing fears full circle, the progressive Supreme Court of 1927 (including Oliver Wendell Holmes and Louis Brandeis) ruled 8-1 in Buck v. Bell that forced sterilization was constitutional. Holmes wrote that, “It is better for all the world if, instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind. The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes.” The lone dissent was Justice Pierce Butler, a conservative critic of state intervention, devout Catholic, and one of nine children born to poor Irish immigrants. Butler never wrote his opinion, and the Court has never expressly overruled Buck.

It’s difficult to suss out exactly what the lessons of Illiberal Reformers are for our present moment. Today’s Democratic Party is no opponent of free trade, small businesses, or individual ambition. Contemporary progressives probably wouldn’t recognize themselves in their predecessors except as through a Fox News funhouse mirror. Conservative Christians might be heartened by Jennings Bryan and Butler’s resistance to infernal pseudoscience, but they and their ilk found other—often “Godly”—inspiration for racism. The Scopes bedtime story dispelled, there’s no good guy left in the history book.

All in all, the piece is less a ringing endorsement of conservatism than it is an exposure of the ugly, anti-human ideals fueling progressives’ triumphalistic mythologies. In reality, it leaves all of us, liberal and conservative, implicated in the grime of the 20th century (you know, the way the doctrine of original sin does, too…) which, contrary to our knee-jerk ego defense mechanisms, is helpful. If it can be heard with humility as a gracious co-indictment of conservative foibles and failings, it can actually serve as a resource for dialogue in helping to persuade liberals to veer away from the absurd excesses of the progressive paradigm and instead triangulate a shared vision of the good. At the end of the day this piece serves history well as it revises the revisionists. It holds their feet to the fire as it unmasks the basic absence of substance in the progressive paradigm: progress is good because not-progress is bad because… progress is good. Or something like that. It’s a strange Moebius strip tautology whose involuted courses orbit one ideal: an eschatological enshrinement of the present. Oliver O’Donovan diagnosed “the crack-up of the liberal tradition” in his 2008 book, Church in Crisis, thusly:

If the antecedent for the program of the “primacy of the ethical” is Kantian, it is not the Kant of the second critique, the critique of practical reason, into which liberalism never really ventured. Here lies the point of truth in the accusation that liberalism, far from being over-serious  about reason, treats it “all too blithely.” If it is necessary for reason to think the true in the light of the good, it is no less necessary for it to think the good in the light of the true. An apriorist “intuitionism” in ethics which, as one critic has well said, “wants to know too much about values, and to know it too quickly,” cuts short the disciplines of discursive practical inquiry… In the interests of finding the modern world God-enchanted, it closed down the serious deliberation with which Christians ought to weigh their stance of witness in the world. Potentially world-critical questions were suppressed. Liberal moral commitments, though sometimes urged with a passion verging on outright moralism, were not steered from the helm of discursive inquiry but set adrift on the moral currents of the day…

[L]iberalism fails to bring a critical practical reason to bear on the present world. In its pursuit of doctrinal reconstruction, it treats the moral questions of the age as moral certainties; it views the indeterminate shapes of the present as sharp outlines. It may even imagine that in the present it can find some kind of speculative counterweight to correct a bias in past and transcendent reality. Instead of looking to the world as a frame within which to serve God and neighbor, it looks to it for a demonstration that in the past reality was misunderstood. Thus is crystallized the “modern world,” an artificial entity with no existence in real time, achieving its dominion over thought only as we allow the world of action, for which we should have our loins girded ready for adventure, to be permafrosted into a world of pseudo-fact.
(Church in Crisis: The Gay Controversy and the Anglican Communion, 10-11, 13)

Unfortunately, progressives’ formal opposites too often subscribe to an antipodean constellation of vacuousness: we don’t need a permafrosted past any more than we do a permafrosted present. But most conservatives I know take their cues from Rush Limbaugh rather than Roger Scruton, and American politics is the worst for it.

2. Along similar lines, the recent decision by Anglican Primates at Canterbury to suspend the Episcopal Church USA for three years shouldn’t be rejoiced over as an unmitigated triumph of orthodoxy, as true as that may be in part. The Anglican Communion has been wracked with discord for several years now over the issue of same-sex marriage but contrary to what many had expected passed a motion to discipline the TEC for flouting the biblical vision of marriage and sexuality. This development is something of a mixed bag, then, as the long-threatened dissolution of the Anglican Communion over this matter would seem to have been dealt a decisive check for the time being, at least. And of course preserving the Communion from the shipwreck of doctrinal aberrance is something to be grateful for. All the same, however, there’s a twofold complicating factor in all of this: 1) the insinuation that the TEC is somehow categorically liberal through and through, which, with the elevation of Archbishop Foley Beach of the ACNA 2) seems to signal that conservatives ought to abandon their parishes and home churches in the TEC for orthodox pastures elsewhere. A thorny issue there, make no mistake. Wesley Hill, however, sounds a quietly hopeful note regarding how to witness to the orthodox understanding of marriage and sexuality within such a fractured context:

I recently sat down with a wise priest in our Communion — not a member of TEC but a longtime and well-respected leader in another Province — and I asked him what he thought I, as a “traditionalist” gay Christian, could offer to the Communion at this difficult juncture. In so many words, he replied:

“You can serve, with your very body, as a gentle, at times wordless witness to the fact that not every Episcopalian is a “progressive” when it comes to sexual ethics. You can serve as the conscience of your church, stewarding what you understand to be the teaching of Scripture and the Catholic faith and reminding your fellow Christians that it is a teaching with coherence and power and is not easily dismissed.”

But, second, those of us who are gay and conservative can understand ourselves as contributors to the common ecclesial good. One of the temptations for those of us who see ourselves as guardians of a rapidly-disappearing biblical tradition is to become curmudgeonly, sectarian, and aggrieved. “No one is listening to us anyway,” we may think or say, “so we’ll just retreat and batten down the hatches and hole up for a long ecclesial winter.” But surely the more faithful way, the more Christlike way, is to ask how our gay, conservative lives can bless even our fellow Christians who are convinced we’re dead wrong in our theological convictions. How can we, in other words, bend the lives we’re living in the direction of self-sacrifice and love for our more “progressive” or “liberal” brothers and sisters?

Nothing celebratory or boastful about that; quite the opposite, in fact, as he envisions a thankless testimony rooted in love for the unity of the church. Baptistic evangelicals have, in my experience, nothing remotely resembling that kind of dogged devotion to the body of Christ as an institution and communion, one which endeavors to overcome separation through sacrificial perseverance and fidelity to Scripture. Many make bumper stickers proclaiming their adherence to the latter but never manifest it in the splintery grain of real life. Much of the time we prefer to pull the lever to the communion trap door at the first sign of dissimilarity (remember Westminster Philly firing OT professor Douglas Green two summers ago over some OT-in-the-NT malarkey?); it is so easy sometimes to masquerade narcissism as gospel unity. Again, we must purge our love for orthodoxy of the toxic chemical bonds our egos regularly form with it. In no way am I suggesting this is an easy thing, or that if this was the immediate context I found myself serving within I would have this invincibly optimistic ardor to slog it out. But I find Hill’s determination to pursue unity as far as he can  a compelling, counterintuitive challenge to the assumptions many of us inherit as low church evangelicals. We’ll give O’Donovan the last word on this one:

Every approach to resolving disagreements may turn out to fail. In the end God may have so hardened our hearts that we can see no way through our difficulties and simply find ourselves apart. God may in his judgment scatter a church that lacked the common will to search for its unity in the truth of the gospel. And then there may come a point at which this situation has to be given some kind of institutional expression. Nothing can exclude a priori the worst possibility that certain persons or groups, or even whole churches, may be declared to have left the communion of Jesus Christ. But it must be a declaration, a formal statement of what has obviously come to pass. It cannot be an act to produce a result. The problem with the notion of separation is its expressive, self-purifying character. It will not wait for God to purify his own church in his own time. Schisms may come, but woe to that church through whom they come! There is no right, or duty, of schism. As unity is given to the church as a gift, so it is taken away as a judgment. But on no account can disunity be a course of action that the church may embrace in pursuit of its mission or identity. The only justified breach is the one we have taken every possible step to avert, the one that lies on the far side of every conciliar process that can be devised.
(Church in Crisis, 33-34)

3. Speaking of low church evangelicals, Peter Leithart contends that they can’t write fiction to save their lives (part 1 and part 2). And the thing is, I think he’s right (you’ll recall I picked N.D. Wilson’s brain on this last year and he concurred that one’s art will never rise above their liturgy). His argument anchors itself on Zwingli’s break from Luther at the Marburg Colloquy over the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. In Zwingli’s demotion of the Supper to “mere memorial” were sewn the seeds of modern secularism, the wrenching apart of symbolic and literal as revelatory of one unified reality. And from this fissure has issued the magma of Manichean disenchantment which has, sadly, lost its novelty over the last two hundred or so years and simply become the status quo. Max Weber’s disenchantment thesis treaded similar ground (in it he essentially identified modernity as the program of disenchantment) but traced the de-sacralizing of the world at the feet of the Reformers. Roman Catholic apologetics (cf. Brad Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation) sail with similar winds but rightly attribute more to theology than to new post-Renaissance political pressures; indeed, Gregory and others demonstrate how most of these pressures are unimaginable apart from the changed theological landscape the Reformation wrought.

For my money, though, the rupture of divinity from the material world had nothing to do with sola Scriptura or justification by faith and everything to do with the relegation of the Eucharist to memory device and make-believe. From there it’s a short downhill slump to Scofield and every other hyper-literalist whose “common sense” scoffs at the possibility of symbols embodying and communicating the truth of what they signify. There’s a reason evangelicals on the whole are so cold to symbols, and that reason seems to have its flag planted at Marburg. “For many post-Marburg Protestants,” Leithart writes, “literal truth is over here, while symbols drift off in another direction. At best, they live in adjoining rooms; at worst, in widely separated neighborhoods, and they definitely inhabit different academic departments.” When this is the case, the world ceases to be the gift of God and flattens into a collection of physical things in which stuff happens to those things. Needless to say, meaningful art can’t be produced under this paradigm as art is the reconfiguration of the world’s material to articulate the symbolic resonances latent within the world. And because the genealogy of modern evangelicalism finds its ancestry more in Zwingli than it does in Calvin or Cranmer or Luther( who all affirmed the real presence), we basically shoot ourselves in the foot and pump out garbage like Left Behind. Good job, us. Leithart closes Part 1 with a rebuke of our inability to savor the unseen-yet-seen:

Approaching the infinite “directly without the mediation of matter”—it describes the “modern spirit” perhaps, but equally and perhaps better it describes the spirit of Zwingli, the Zwinglian spirit that Luther could not recognize as his own. Insofar as Protestantism is infected with various strains of the Manichean virus, to that extent modern evangelicals are incapable of discerning the theophanies that surround us on every hand.

4. Finally, capping this theme of triangulating invisible things through patient, deliberate reasoning comes the potential discovery of a tenth ninth planet!

By observing the orbits and planar positioning of the most distant objects in the Kuiper Belt, researchers at Caltech have determined the mass and orbit of the planet necessary to maintain this arrangement. Essences are known through their effects, so the absence of direct observation really doesn’t count for much in the investigation of reality. How fantastically so here:

Mike Brown and his colleague Konstantin Batygin argue that Planet Nine (which is not the same as Pluto, and also not the same as the old Planet X) should have a mass about 10 times that of Earth, and an orbit about 20 times farther from the sun than that of Neptune.

To put that distance in context, the New Horizon spacecraft just passed Pluto in the Kuiper Belt, which is 4 to 5 billion miles away from the sun. Planet Nine, at its closest approach to the sun, is 20 billion miles away from the sun. And on the farthest point in its elliptical orbit? It’s 100 billion miles away from the sun.

“Which is why it took us so long to realize it was there,” Brown says.

“What we have found,” Batygin says, “is really a gravitational signature of Planet Nine. And that signature is seen in the most distant orbits of this debris field beyond the orbit of Neptune that we commonly refer to as the Kuiper belt. If you look at the furthest orbits in this debris field, they all kind of swing out the same way. The only reasonable explanation for this confinement, this grouping of the orbits, is that there’s a distant Planet Nine which is rather massive keeping them together.”

Super rad news, to be sure, despite the breathtaking effrontery on display in this visual aid! But don’t worry, Pluto: when the radical revisionists of the painfully near future add a footnote to the astronomy textbooks denying the inclusion of a ninth planet prior to 2016, the faithful will be ready: “You ask me how I know Pluto’s #9? He lives within my 1998 planetary chart!”

Well, that’s all for now, folks- keep on triangulating the Real and seeing the invisibly True within the old creation even as you anticipate the new!



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