Caputo on the Resounding Word

Over at The Church and Postmodern Culture blog, James K.A. Smith posts the new preface that John D. Caputo wrote for the soon-to-be-released Chinese version of his book, What Would Jesus Deconstruct? The preface serves as a good introduction to Caputo's pet projects of defending religion, deconstruction, and the two together. I found this sentence particularly wonderful:
The faith of a responsible Christian in the postmodern world is that wherever there is peace and justice, there the sweet, strange and compelling words of the Sermon on the Mount are resounding.
The description here is of course very biblical - the Word is heard within the world - but it is also very postmodern: it opens the borders that the modern mind tries so hard to maintain. We may be able to draw a line between the sacred and the secular, but our words and the Word speak across such divisions.

Debt, Consumption, and Investment

The mass of conflicting but reasonable narrative explanations of a given crisis generally convinces me that no one, not even the expert, knows entirely what he is talking about. The economic crisis is a case in point. However, while I'm not one to judge whose account of our economic woes comes closest to the truth, Tom Streithorst in the December issue of The American Conservative tells a story that makes a lot of sense to me.

In the article "Collateral Damage," Streithorst argues that a main reason why the usual fixes haven't stopped the "financial freefall" is our widespread borrowing of money for consumptive rather than productive purposes. In short, we've embraced a perverse philosophy of debt. We incur much of our debt in order to purchase big screen televisions sets, fancy cars, majestic houses, and often things we cannot afford. The problem with such debt, aside from the difficulty of paying it off and the financial ruin it often brings, is that it doesn't generate any kind of cash flow. Putting the new Playstation on the Mastercard doesn't produce anything that can be used to pay the credit card company.

Streithorst reminds us that debt can be a good thing when it helps create real investment and generate wealth. The individual entrepreneur, company, or government entity may be wise to borrow money when with that money it makes something that will not only pay off the debt but contribute to economic development. Streithorst gives this example of how finance is supposed to work:
When J.P. Morgan used British capital in the 19th century to buy U.S. railroad bonds, that investment did more than make him lots of money: it built a transcontinental railroad, brought producers and markets closer together, reduced transportation costs dramatically, and thus enriched all of America.
Streithorst argues that "shifting from consumption to investment just might save us." In other words, as a society, we need to forsake the consumeristic philosophy of debt that sways so many of our economic choices. We need to improve the way we think about debt in particular and finance and economics in general. What would happen to our economy if, for instance, most people actually focused their economic endeavors not on instant gratification but on building long-term wealth?

My wife and I resolved several months ago to get rid of our credit cards, pay off our debt, and only purchase those things we can afford. We have a long road ahead of us (student loans add many, many miles), but the simple actions of budgeting, snowballing our debt payments, and planning for future expenses (foreseen and unforeseen) have been nothing short of liberating. We dictate where every penny goes. While it's a slow and painful process, we nevertheless remain in control of our household economy. Someday we'll be able to invest and contribute more to society. Having experienced the improvement in my own household from shifting our economic life from that based on a philosophy of consumption to that grounded in a philosophy of investment, I'm inclined to think the larger economy would be improved were such a shift made on a larger scale.

Madeline Kahn on Sesame Street

Here is a delightful video of the magnificent Madeline Kahn singing an "echo song" with Grover:



H/T: Pentimento

Trash Truck Time!

Friday afternoon. I was playing bulldozers and dump trucks with my son. We were both intent on the happenings of the living room quarry. Suddenly my son looked up, distracted. He commanded me to my feet. The trash truck was here. The real trash truck.

He insisted I take him outside, and I did. We moseyed over to the closest two dumpsters, but we did not see the garbage truck. Then we heard it, not far away in the complex, and heading our direction. Rounding a corner, it drove straight for us. We stepped away from the dumpster, stood on a sidewalk, and watched the truck as it loudly lifted the container and more loudly dumped the contents into its behind. My son was thrilled. "It's not too loud," he let me know.

And away the trash truck drove.

My son, however, had apparently not reached his daily dose of trash dumping. Back inside, I took him over to our computer and googled "garbage truck" in hopes of finding a picture or two to satisfy him. There were many, of course, of all shapes, colors, and sizes. To my surprise, and my son's delight, the search also found YouTube videos. Of trash trucks. Dumping trash. Some with music dubbed over the video. Some with the natural sounds of machines dumping garbage. Some of them seven minutes long! With inserted text naming the make and model of the truck and whether it's a front, rear, or side loader!

Who makes these videos?

Whatever. I'm happy. My son's happy. And when I think about it, I have hope for some of humanity. With all the trash that fills the Internet and garners google hits, junk like gossip over Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio's cinematic reunion or Jennifer Aniston's latest magazine cover photos, it is refreshing to know that google can provide me with results of cleaner content, like sanitation trucks picking up and dumping pure smelly, drippy garbage.

Political Freedom under the Postmodern Condition

How should the state be used to restrict bad behavior in a society where there isn’t much consensus as to what constitutes bad behavior? That’s a question Darwin Catholic explores in post about freedom understood as a political good. The question arises because in a democratic and a pluralistic, diverse, or postmodern society such as ours, laws restricting behavior are founded, in practice, not on the good itself, or even on a shared philosophical agreement about the good, but rather on whichever interpretation of the good happens to be the dominant interpretation at a given moment in the political process. Darwin poses the problem this way:
However, given that our society has an ever decreasing degree of consensus as to which beliefs are erroneous and which are correct, this strikes me as a dangerous precedent to set. If today I support the strong arm of the government being used to overrule the beliefs of another set of parents because I am certain their beliefs are erroneous, it’s not inconceivable that at some point in the future the majority of the population will decide that my beliefs are erroneous and take away my ability to make decisions about my children.
I generally agree with his conclusion that if the state is to protect the common good, then it must, to an extent, restrict the freedom of people to do whatever they want. The question, of course, is what extent is the right extent. Darwin seeks a balance between using and hesitating to use the state’s restrictive power, and I think that’s a good idea, but what qualifies as a balance? The original problem remains unresolved. We’re not out of the postmodern woods yet.

Truly, I don’t expect a solution to the problem from anyone. As long as we remain a democratic and postmodern society – a society that functions without recourse to the same beliefs – we’ll just have to live with some of what we take to be bad behaviors being legal or even celebrated as good behaviors. Given the situation, and how quickly and forcefully state power can quash freedom and good behaviors, our emphasis should be on hesitating to use the “strong arm of the state.” We should also look beyond the state for ways of restricting bad behavior, such as to religious practice, custom, manners, etc., but it’s not as though we have consensus in any of those.

Symbols and Political Identity

Two recent events that occurred within a few days of each other may shape the perceptions and narrations of the United States identity for years to come. On December 11, Carl Levin and John McCain released the executive summary and conclusions of the Senate Armed Service Committee Inquiry into the Treatment of Detainees in U.S. Custody, a document that briefly (and incompletely) chronicles the story of how government officials sought out and implemented interrogation methods that constitute torture. On December 14, an Iraqi journalist Muntadar al-Zaidi expressed his contempt for President George W. Bush by throwing his shoes at the president during a press conference with Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.

While the committee’s report didn’t come with illustrations, the images of detainees tortured or abused by U.S. forces still populate sites across the web, and pretty much anyone around world with access to the web can download the report itself, which may in many cases further unite those images with the intentions of the U.S. government. YouTube and other Internet videos of shoes flying and the U.S. president ducking are also accessible for the globe to see. These events have entered the imaginations of people around the world, and as images they are especially powerful. They will, I suspect, function as potent symbols, providing figurative meanings by way of their literal meanings, and forming various perceptions and narrative understandings of what the United States is and who we are as Americans.

Symbols play a foundational and intricate part in the development of political identities and also the interpretations and responses to those identities. We and our enemies tell ourselves and others stories of who and what we and each other are. These stories incorporate symbols, of course, but we can also try to dictate the meanings of these symbols in ways that further our interests. We’ve seen many a political blogger give his takes of the two events I mentioned above. What we haven’t seen as much of yet is the uncontrolled play and deliberate narration of these events’ symbolic meanings by people and political groups in Iraq and in its neighboring counties. Long after the media in the U.S. has moved on to other fascinating stories, these events will shape how others see and understand us. Friends and foes will use them to further their objectives. Groups opposed to U.S. policy and practice will place them in their propaganda. If the symbols prove powerful enough, then even after the memories of the events themselves have faded, traces of their symbolic meaning will long remain in the imagination and in the stories we tell.

The Search for Daddy's Beard

For the past few weeks I wore a beard. With my long (gorgeous) hair and beard, I looked like Jesus, which was the idea. My wife, who normally detests my growing facial hair, told me one evening, "If you model for me, I'll let you grow a beard." She wanted me to be Jesus for an art project.

You can see who runs this household. As Woody Allen said in Mighty Aphrodite, I'm the boss, but my wife is the decision maker. She knows how to fool me into thinking I have a choice in the matter. Marcuse was right: freedom can be used as an instrument of oppression. But I digress.

I agreed and shaved off several minutes of my routine each morning by not shaving. Besides, with Advent soon approaching, I thought I could at least superficially imitate Jesus even if I couldn't live a Christian life in the deeper sense of the term. The beard grew in nicely and nicely protected my face from the cold morning air that hit me on my bicycle ride to work. The past few days, however, saw some shaggy overgrowth. The time to shave the beard had arrived.

You didn't actually think she'd let me keep it, did you?

Unfortunately, our lives had proved too busy for me to sit for some sketches, so my wife settled on taking pictures from a variety of angles to use for her project. She took those yesterday afternoon while our son napped. Then I shaved, at first leaving a funny mustache for additional photographs. When my son awoke from his nap, my beard was gone completely. I now looked more like my son than Jesus. And I wasn't any holier.

"Where did Daddy's beard go?" I asked my sleepy-eyed son. He stood up, suddenly alert, and said, "I know. I'll go get it. It's in the kitchen."

He ran into the kitchen, but the beard was nowhere to be seen. "It might be in the bathroom," he declared, and rushed in there next. No sign of the beard there, either. I pulled out the trashcan that held the remnants of my beard and showed him the trimmings. I didn't really know how he'd respond, and I hoped he wouldn't be sad.

"Don't worry, Daddy. You can grow it again," he said consolingly.

"That's up to your mother," I thought.

Faith-Informed Politics

I’ve read a few posts lately pertaining to the question of what role, if any, religious faith should have in public discourse and political policy. The topic seems to be much in the news, as they say. The controversy surrounding gay marriage may have something to do with the seeming increase in talk, but there are undoubtedly other factors as well. The Anchoress writes about why she thinks the West needs to use the language of faith in its war against Islamic terrorism. Peter Suderman comments on the idea that Christians should make public policy cases strictly by using secular reasoning.

My thoughts on the question are mixed and possibly conflicting. Religion has clearly contributed to our answering general questions about justice, the human person, and the purpose of the State, and also more particular questions about such matters as healthcare, torture, and international law. In the interest of openness to a fuller sense of these and other issues, we would be wise to listen to more than just the observations, arguments, and insights of secular reason—reason not informed by faith. Limiting ourselves to one way of thinking keeps us on a narrow road on which we miss whatever we cannot see from the road itself. Given that politics is concerned with such important matters as justice, order, and freedom, purposefully blinding ourselves to alternative ideas about these does us no political favors. A politics informed by faith may be a more just, ordered, and free politics.

On the other hand, a politics at the service of religion can be a terribly unjust, disordered, and oppressive politics. Religious freedom, for instance, requires that the coercive power of the State be used neither to enforce actions of a strictly religious nature, nor to prohibit actions the morality of which have at their foundations only religious teaching.

My Moral Pluralism

While I don’t consider myself a moral relativist, a moral pluralist may be an apt description, for I hold to the idea that there are multiple legitimate moralities and ethical philosophies, all which cannot be compounded and constructed into a perfect system. No one moral language perfectly describes the moral life, which itself a metaphorical construct by which we understand morality. While it's doubtful that our future moral thinking will discover some new major truth about human moral action, new ways of thinking will be developed and old ways of thinking will pass away.

Eternal and absolute moral truths there may be, but we understand those truths in various moral languages rooted in time and place, the thinking of particular people, and the frameworks of particular projects. We speak the language of vice and virtue, a teleological ethics of happiness and wholeness given life in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and the great Greek myths. The Enlightenment gave birth to the language of rights, an ethics of obligation in which breathe distinctly modernist ethical movements such as the civil rights movement and the pro-life movement. Other ethics of responsibility include the value-response ethics of Max Scheler and the postmodern ethics of Jacques Derrida. Each of these ways of thinking about the moral life has its strengths and weaknesses, its contributions and limitations.

A temptation may arise to combine all of them into one final grand moral narrative, but we should resist that temptation. Such a combination would produce a monstrous system, a bloodless abstraction, a ziggurat by which we try to reach the heavens by divorcing our mode of thinking from incarnated life. We are temporal creatures who think in temporal terms. We may also be tempted to quickly label another a relativist because his moral language widely differs from ours. We should resist that as well. Just because another thinks differently about morality and thinks in terms that do not mix with our descriptions of moral truth, doesn’t mean he is a relativist. Moral languages are relative to time and place, but that doesn’t make the truths they express ultimately relative as well. It may help to remind ourselves that there is a difference between morality and our understanding of morality.

Lines from Another's Tale

"Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language."

- Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, 1852

Dubious Assertion

Rather than just make the case that Planned Parenthood's promotion of contraceptives contributes to a reduced rate of abortion, William Saletan asserts that Planned Parenthood is "the most effective pro-life organization in the history of the world." I respond here.

Watchmen

Rorschach's Journal October 12th, 1985:

Dog carcass in alley this morning, tire tread on burst stomach. This city is afraid of me. I have seen its true face. The streets are extended gutters and the gutters are full of blood and when the drains finally scab over, all the vermin will drown. The accumulated filth of all their sex and murder will foam up about their waists and all the whores and politicians will look up and shout "Save us!" ... and I'll look down and whisper "No."

They all had a choice, all of them. They could have followed in the footsteps of good men like my father or President Truman. Decent men, who believed in a day's work for a day's pay. Instead they followed the droppings of lechers and communists and didn't realize that the trail led over a precipice until it was too late. Don't tell me they didn't have a choice. Now the whole world stands on the brink, staring down into bloody hell, all those liberals and intellectuals and smooth-talkers ... and all of a sudden, nobody can think of anything to say.

So begins the graphic novel Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. A friend lent me the book, my first graphic novel actually, and I must say I was quite impressed and now eagerly anticipate the upcoming film. The trailer reveals some of the obligatory book-to-film combination of scenes and the allegedly obligatory simplifying of dialogue. Still, the scenes look like life-like renditions of Gibbon's artwork. Reading the novel worked well for a home-life schedule that's peppered with split moments of time in between giving my son the complete attention he demands.

The story takes place in an alternate 1985 in which costumed heroes once battled villains (such vigilante work is now illegal) or intervened successfully in major events such as the Vietnam War (America won) and the Iran Hostage Crisis. Richard Nixon has amended the Constitution so as to still be president. The prospect of nuclear war with Russia, however, still weighs everyone down in fear. It is the backdrop of fear - fear of total annihilation - that Moore sets his story. The plot begins with the murder of a not-so-virtuous, government-employed costumed hero called the Comedian and another masked crime fighter's investigation into the mysterious killing.

The moral journeys of each of the characters develops the narrative. Each hero seeks to uncover the meaning of his unorthodox fight against evil and his identity in that fight. There is the tale of Rorschach's uncompromising will to punish all evildoing he encounters whatever the cost. The Comedian's tale is the tragedy of a crime fighter who sees the absurdity of fighting the forces of darkness, laughs at the darkness and at the absurdity, and fights anyway until he sees something so horrifying that he can no longer take the joke. Inspired by the Comedian's comical realism is Ozymandias, the world's smartest man, who passionately believes that a plan born of human intelligence and the right unconventional thinking can end all war and even all fighting and save humanity.

While the moral choices presented to the characters involve the choice of doing evil for the sake of a good, the climactic choice that defines and distinguishes the heroes twists the consequentialist dilemma. The question they face could be posed this way: suppose you knew a great crime had been committed, but that the crime had produced a magnificent and much hoped for good; would you expose the criminal and the crime knowing that the good for which the crime was committed would evaporate like bodies in a nuclear blast?

Business as Usual

I did not call into work today. For the record.

Good Grammer, Bad Content

My son announced at dinner last evening:

Daddy likes beer, but I don't like beer.

While I'm impressed at his mastery of compound sentences, his proper choice of conjunction, and his parallelism, I am concerned about his professed dislike of one of God's greatest gifts to man. Then, he is only two. Here's hoping he has an "I Do Like Green Eggs and Ham" epiphany a couple decades hence.

Lines from Another's Tale

"Explanations exist: they have existed for all times, for there is always an easy solution to every problem — neat, plausible and wrong."

- H. L. Mencken

A Poorly-Researched Narrative

In light of President-Elect Obama's cabinet appointments, Brian Saint-Paul asks if we remember when Obama was "peace-loving progressive." Well, no actually. I see that there's some pleasant and not so pleasant surprise at the cabinet picks, but the idea that Obama duped peace-loving progressives into thinking he was something of a peacenik doesn't fit with his very public foreign policy views. Sure, Obama didn't sing about bombing people, and he offered a somewhat less frightening response to external threats to the U.S., but Obama has been clear for some time about his plan to increase American military might in the world. Those who thought he was a peacenik didn't do the basic research of visiting his campaign website. They duped themselves.

Alterity in Catholic Voting Ethics

John Henry of The American Catholic dared to make the seemingly dissenting point in the Catholic blogosphere that a Catholic could make a reasonable case for an Obama vote. The reactions came swiftly and included statements that voting for Obama was a depraved decision and a damning indictment of how seriously Catholics take their faith. The trouble with such blanket denouncements of Catholic votes for Obama is that they do not account for the fact that the moral and social teachings of the Catholic Church could have guided (and did guide) “serious” Catholics to support Barack Obama. Multiple Catholics guided by the same principles and all using right reason in the application of those principles could have arrived at different conclusions about whom to support. One reason this difference of conclusions was possible is because the voters could have reasonably differed in their understanding of the concrete reality to which they sought to apply the same principles.

Informed and conscientious voting requires more than accurate understanding of moral principles and sound moral reasoning: it demands an interpretation of the concrete political and social reality about which one is voting. While some interpretations of this reality may be flat out wrong and some more accurate than others, no one interpretation is absolute for all voters. Each voter's interpretation is based on his unique assessment of what a politician can and will likely do in office; it therefore includes speculation about the unknown and unverifiable.

Hey There Mr. Blue

Walk into a room where my toddler son is located and where the television is turned on, and chances are you'll see my son ignoring the show and attentive to toys, a book, or running about. I'm a proud daddy. He does love YouTube videos, though, particularly those showing musical performances involving guitars. His favorite by far is Electric Light Orchestra's Mr. Blue Sky, the two YouTubes of which he excitedly refers to as the blue one and the brown one.

No Contradiction

James Ceaser, writing for the first time at Postmodern Conservative, reveals his troubled soul with the question: isn't "postmodern conservative" an oxymoron? I would answer in the negative, as readers here would probably guess. Simply put: there is no necessary contradiction.

While postmodernism and conservatism occasionally come into conflict with each other (and with themselves), they are different projects aimed at different objectives. Conservatism, generally speaking, aims to preserve justice, order, and freedom by conserving those traditions, practices, customs, conventions, and policies that have been shown to work the best. Postmodernism, generally speaking, questions and ponders how knowledge can be legitimated without recourse to overarching systems of thought that claim to contain all legitimate truth and leave noting out of its proper place.

Similarities exists, however. Both emphasize the concrete, the temporal, and the importance of variety. The two projects meet in the conservative's critique of ideology and the postmodernist's critique of those totalizing systems it calls grand narratives. Russell Kirk, author of The Conservative Mind, wrote about the dangers of ideology, which Kirk defined as a political formula that promises earthly paradise, having vices of inverted religious fanaticism and intolerance of compromise or deviation from its revelation of Absolute Truth. That sure sounds like something a postmodernist would critique, and with incredulity!

In my book, postmodernism and conservatism are good for each other and for us. Postmodernists can help conservatives not make ideologies out of that which they conserve, and conservatives can remind postmodernists that there are things worth conserving even if they are flawed. I'm all for the marriage.

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In case you missed it: Jonathan Jones of Vox Nova tackled the question of postmodern conservatism in a series of thoughtful posts found here, here, and here.

Language and Mystery

We do not believe in formulas, but in those realities they express, which faith allows us to touch. These words of the catechism (170) express both the intimacy and the distance between language and reality. While we approach these realities with the help of formulations, the realities themselves differ from the formulations and cannot be reduced to such human expressions. As the Catholic philosopher Gabriel Marcel would have said, these realities are mysteries irreducible to problems solvable by the mind of man.

Mystery for Marcel is also an aspect of those realities touched upon by reason. Marcel argued that because we are situated in time and place, we cannot have an exhaustive or purely objective knowledge of reality. A thousand poets with the talent of Shakespeare could never say all there is to say about the mysteries of freedom or friendship or responsibility. A thousand musicians with the skill of Bach could never exhaust the beauties of love or the splendors of triumph. A thousand philosophers with the insight of Aristotle could never contain the surpluses of truth. Mystery can be expressed but never encapsulated. The metaphor of touch that that catechism uses speaks to the intimacy of our knowledge of mystery while implying that so much more remains beyond our touch. The metaphor is one of personal closeness, but not complete possessiveness.

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Cross posted.