The Advent Child

The Nativity story presents me with an image of eluded expectations. Where I would expect to find the alpha and omega of power, might, and strength, if in cuddly miniature form, I encounter instead ordinary anxiety-inspiring dependency, delicacy, and weakness. I discover not a budding messianic warrior in a palace, but an artisan’s frail child in a stable.

The narrative serves as a reminder that what I call God will always be ahead of my expectations, notions, and conceptions. The liturgy of Christmas brings the birth of Jesus Christ to life, ushering in an end to the Season of Advent, and yet does so while maintaining Advent’s central meaning: God is always to come. God eludes my pathetic attempts to make “him” present. My words fail. All of them. Even my most lofty and seemingly precise words, like “Trinity” and “omnipotence,” focus my mind by way of analogies that could easily become idols.

The Nativity is an apophatic myth: in saying something about the divine, it shows us that we can eventually say nothing. We do not know what we are saying when we speak of the sacred. All of our creeds and theologies, our doctrines and dogmas, in attempting to give the infinite finite expression, say what cannot be said. They are infinitely distant from that to which they refer. Even words I simply adore, like “alterity” and “otherwise,” prove inadequate when used to approximate the meaning of what I call God.

Christmas is a season for celebration, yes; but it is also a call to silence.  (VN)

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Christmas at the Cupps

Been busy with the holy days and the joys of family life.

Regular blogging will resume shortly.


The substandard to the muck around the bottom of the pale blog posts that have appeared on this website... don't know who wrote those.

A Principled Candidate?

Alex Knapp challenges the popular narrative that Ron Paul, whatever else you want to say about him, is a man of principle:
Ron Paul never does the hard, right thing. He always does the easy, opportunistic thing. In the 80s and 90s, that meant publishing paranoid, racist tracts to make money. In the 00s and 10s, that’s been grandiose pontificating, pandering to a liberal crowd desperate for an anti-Bush Republican and grabbing all the pork he can – all the while posing as a statesman that the “system” can’t handle.
Principled politicians, in Knapp's view, would "do the hard work of enacting their favored principles into law," recognize that democratic politics involves the long, hard work of process, and deal with the "small steps and the occasional setback in order to play the long game," none of which, according to Knapp, Paul does.

Contra Knapp, I wouldn't say that a politician's failure or refusal to play the game means that the politician isn't principled. A politician who limits himself to grandstanding, oppositional votes, and rigid adherence to ideology could still be principled, though he would undoubtedly make an ineffective champion of the principles he espouses.

Is Paul principled? I don't know. I agree with a few of his pontifications, but disagree with most of them. His newsletters are a mark against his character; that's for sure. He's not what I'd call a model politician, not even a good one, really. Perhaps he'd do better as a talk radio host.  (VN)

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The Hobbit Trailer

Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings films never made their way into my heart - too morally incomplete was Jackson's vision - but I hold out hope that The Hobbit will prove a more cinematically satisfying long expected journey.  Tolkien's earlier and simpler book may better translate to the screen under Jackson's remarkable but limited talent.  The trailer, released today, looks promising.  I'm now doubly sure Martin Freeman won't disappoint as Bilbo.  And I'm pleased to see Jackson and company are bringing in characters from the The Lord of the Rings.  That's a "change" to the story I would make myself.

Singing dwarves!

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All Assent Is Suspect

Several readers, noting my chosen state of permanent uncertainty, suggested I take a look at John Henry Newman's A Grammar of Assent. I've taken a stroll through the first few chapters, and I can say that the recommendation was well given. The book poses a fundamental challenge to my way of thinking. It would seem that, if Newman is correct and one cannot at the same moment doubt and assent, then my previous defenses of uncertain assent hold no more water than a bottomless Dixie cup. I propose, however, that while logically I cannot both doubt and assent to the same proposition at the same time and in the same way, I can rationally maintain an air of uncertainty or suspicion about my assents.

Newman begins his essay by distinguishing between three forms of propositions (interrogative, conditional, and categorical) and between the corresponding three ways of holding propositions (doubt, inference, and assent). For example, take the proposition of which I am as certain as I can be: "I love my wife and children." I can shape this proposition as a question ("Do I love my wife and children?"), as a conclusion ("I therefore love my wife and children"), or, in the way I introduced it, as an assertion. While I can at the same moment both assent to and infer from premises that I love my family, I cannot at the same moment both assent to and doubt the love I have for my family. If I doubt it, then I am by definition not assenting to it, and my wife and children have cause for concern. Fortunately for them and for me, I do not doubt my love (nor, for the record, their love for me). So where is there room for a passive uncertainty or active suspicion of the proposition, "I love my wife and children"?

While an assent is in itself the absolute acceptance of a proposition without any condition, the act of assent is never made in a vacuum. It presupposes, if not full understanding of the proposition, at a minimum some degree of apprehension of the proposition's meaning. I have to know, to some degree, what it is to which I assent in order to give assent. Without this knowledge, I can only assert the proposition, but I cannot assent to it. It is here at the level of apprehension that I remain forever uncertain and open to being suspicious.

Why? Because any apprehension of meaning may have gone awry due to false consciousness or to the distancing and concealing aspects of language. In one sense, I know what I mean when I assert "I love my wife and children." I say it every day and there's no confusion on my part or on theirs. Sure, love is a mystery that no philosopher or poet can completely fathom or explain, but it's still intelligible. I'm pretty sure even my baby daughter knows what I mean. However, in another sense, I don't really know what I mean when I profess my love because I am not certain about the true meaning of the pronoun "I" and the verb "love." I use the latter term in a spiritual and sacramental sense, a sense I believe accurately reflects the reality of my love, and yet I must concede that my beliefs here could conceivably be mistaken (or I may be deluded about my beliefs). My love may have merely material causes. The "I" that I associate with an essential selfhood may be only a fiction, a notional construct of the brain.

My assent, then, is suspect because the apprehension of meaning that my assent presupposes is suspect: I may be wrong about the meaning I think I apprehend. The meaning and/or the truth may be otherwise than what apprehension shows me. Given this possibility, I may fall back on reasons why it's clear that I love my wife and children (I desire the good for them, etc.) , but in so doing I'm no longer assenting to the proposition, but inferring it.

I maintain that assent is possible: I may, after all, be right about what I mean by the proposition, "I love my wife and children." I hope that I am. I don't doubt that I love my wife and children, but nor can I say with certainty that I adequately know what I mean when I say this. I choose to assent to this proposition because, speaking epistemologically, I may sufficiently apprehend its meaning, but I am uncertain about my assent because I am uncertain (though hopeful) that I've apprehended accurately.

I trust I make myself obscure. All this is rather heady, abstract stuff that, rest assured, never explicitly enters into may day-to-day family life. I raise this example not to question my love, but to explain why the reality of assent doesn't demolish my epistemology of suspicion. Having said this, I admit that I deserved the light slap in the face my wife gave me when I told her about this post. As she says, "Some people think too much." Yes. Yes we do. (VN)  

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Debating a Nuclear Iran

My favorite moment in last night's debate was Ron Paul's argument with Michelle Bachmann about the threat posed by Iran and how the U.S. should respond to it. Paul, alone among the contenders and in opposition to the moderators, made the case once again that a war with Iran would be an absurdly dangerous undertaking and an overreaction to the apparent threat Iran poses. Bachmann, echoing the views of the political establishment, called Paul's ideas dangerous and tantamount to ignoring the purpose and plans of the enemy, prospects about which she claims absolute certainty.

However well or poorly Ron Paul understands the big picture and minute details concerning the Iranian regime--I'll leave it to others to make this assessment--Paul's critics fail to understand the basics of his position. He doesn't deny that Iran is a danger; he denies that the jump to war is the right response. His critics fail to grasp the elementary distinction between problem and solution. They seem to think that Paul, simply by standing against a rush to war and explaining what such an endeavor would mean in terms of blood, economic stability, and civil liberties, is foolishly and dangerously ignoring the problem.

Not so. As E.D. Kain says, "Iran may indeed be a threat, but there are other ways to approach this threat than war, including working to bring Iran into the global economy, giving them a stake in the peace and prosperity of the world economy. The far greater threat, as Paul warned, is a costly and destructive overreaction." Paul even keeps war on the table, but thinks, quite reasonably, that war shouldn't be waged carelessly, perpetually, without a formal declaration, and without an appreciation for the blowback that would result.  (VN)

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How Not To Be Against Abortion

Sharp-witted nemesis of pro-lifers Amanda Marcotte directed my attention to this article about Jennie McCormack who, according to the story, received some despicable treatment from people after her self-induced abortion gained unexpected public notoriety. Idaho, where McCormack lives, has a 1972 law, apparently never before enforced, that makes a self-induced abortion a crime punishable by five years in prison. She was arrested after news of her taking RU-486 reached police. A section in the story reads:
After her picture appeared in the paper, McCormack got a part-time job at a dry cleaner, using another name, but people figured out who she was and stopped letting her bag up their clothes, so she quit. On a recent trip to a local state office to apply for aid, she was ignored for hours. “They made it clear what was happening,” she says. “For a while I just sat there, sort of amazed that they were just letting me sit there.” Eventually, she picked up her son and went home.
Marcotte seems to view this treatment as typical behavior for those opposed to abortion, and, I’m presuming in response to this story, tweeted, “I'm genuinely surprised some times that anti-choicers aren't trying to require scarlet As sewn onto your clothes if you have an abortion.” If Marcotte means this in reference to us “anti-choicers” generally, and that’s how I took her statement, then she’s missing the mark. Yes, you can with a little time and effort find cruel, misogynistic anti-abortion crusaders more keen on punishing and controlling women than protecting the unborn, and Marcotte knows how to find and expose them. However, I’ve yet knowingly to meet one, and I’ve spent a fair amount of time among pro-lifers. Most pro-lifers really do think nascent human life is worth defending. That, I dare say, is what motivates me.

Having said this, however, I can see where Marcotte gets the impression that we “anti-choicers” are sinisterly motivated. The alleged reactions of people to McCormack’s abortion may not unveil the modus operandi of the typical pro-lifer, but, if true, they do suggest a disposition that extends to more than a couple heartless souls. And laws that punish women in Jennie McCormack’s situation with jail time give the impression that “anti-choicers” are also anti-women. We “anti-choicers” have a responsibility to consider how our objectives, if and when realized, will affect women like Jennie McCormack. Saying we’re pro-women isn’t sufficient.  Saying we’re pro-women isn’t sufficient.  And we sure as hell should be kind, welcoming, and respectful to any woman who has, for whatever reason, chosen abortion. (VN)

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What is Social Responsibility?

Before I mention the idea of social responsibility in another post, it may be beneficial, for me if no one else, to explain precisely what I mean. Up till now I’ve refrained from writing much on the campaigns for the 2012 election, but you can now expect me to dive into the fray head first. Or maybe gut first; we’ll see. Anyhow, Mitt Romney can safely wager $10,000 that social responsibility will be a reoccurring theme in my coverage and commentary, so now’s as a good a time as any to define my terms.

I speak of social responsibility in two ways: first, as the responsibility of the individual for the good of society, i.e., the common good; and second, as the responsibility of society itself, as a singularity, for this good. For example, I as an individual have responsibility for my own health, the health of my family, the health of my neighborhood and nation, and the health of humanity. On the other hand, my family, as a social body, has its own responsibilities that are not reducible to the individual responsibilities of its members. I can’t procreate on my own. Not the spawning type. My city, state, and country each have their respective responsibilities for the common good. So does the global community as a whole.

Underlying each of these definitions is a distinct abstract concept of humanity: first, humanity as the sum total of many autonomous individuals; second, humanity as one, singular body. Contemporary Western thought, at least here in the States, often tends to emphasize the former over the latter, even in reference to social bodies like the family and the country, but the latter concept of humanity lingers in our discourse.

Scientific investigation stresses the singularity of humanity when, for example, considering human beings as a species. Religious discourse does likewise, arguably with even stronger emphasis on the oneness of humanity. In the Adamic myth, for example, all of humanity suffers from the singular fall from grace, sharing in the consequences of one man’s sin. According to Catholic theology, the atonement (at-one-ment) of humanity can take place only within the holy community, the singularity, the one mystical body. (Some Protestant theologies, on the other hand, by stressing the relationship of the sinner alone before God, emphasize the individual when conceiving humanity).

In looking at history, we see the negative and sometimes disastrous social consequences of conceiving humanity only in terms of the many or the one. Extreme individualism has led to the enthronement of selfishness and greed and to the deterioration of society. Collectivism, both authoritarian and totalitarian, has been responsible for the suppression of the individual, the stifling of virtue, and, ironically, mass murder.

As a true understanding of humanity sees it terms of both the one and the many, true social responsibility, I submit, is found in balancing the responsibility of individuals to the good of society and the responsibility of society itself, as a singular body, to the common good. In some situations, the individual should be stressed; in others, the collective. Determining the appropriate balance involves applying the principles of subsidiarity and solidarity.

Individuals promote the common good through the exercise of liberty and virtue, but of course society itself cannot follow suit. Society as a singularity cannot practice charity or any other virtue. Instead, it has to respond to the demands of the common good through the political. Social responsibility for the common good, then, must involve both the logic of virtue and the logic of politics. It is irresponsible to ignore or dismiss the necessity of either. (VN)
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Jedi Rapunzel Says...

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Or else... 

On Seeking the Standard Bearer for Social Conservatism

Ross Douthat has a smart post warning religious and social conservatives against anointing Newt Gingrich as the standard bearer for their worldview, which is what Gingrich would be upon winning the GOP nomination for the presidency:
Conservative Christianity in America, both evangelical and Catholic, faces a looming demographic challenge: A rising generation that is more unchurched than any before it, more liberal on issues like gay marriage, and allergic to the apocalyptic rhetoric of the Pat Robertson-Jerry Falwell era. To many younger Americans, religious conservatism as they know it often seems to stand for a kind of institutionalized hypocrisy — a right-wing Tartufferie that’s incensed by the idea of gay wedlock but tolerant of straight divorce, forgiving of Republican sins but judgmental about Democratic indiscretions, and eager to apply moral litmus tests only on issues that benefit the political right.
Rallying around Newt Gingrich, effectively making him the face of Christian conservatism in this Republican primary season, would ratify all of these impressions. It isn’t just that he’s a master of selective moral outrage whose newfound piety has been turned to consistently partisan ends. It’s that his personal history — not only the two divorces, but also the repeated affairs and the way he behaved during the dissolution of his marriages — makes him the most compromised champion imaginable for a movement that’s laboring to keep lifelong heterosexual monogamy on a legal and cultural pedestal.
But hasn’t Gingrich shown contrition for his past sins? That’s debatable, but it’s also irrelevant. Gingrich would play the king of the culture warriors, whether he intended to play this role or not, and both he and those championing him would be seen as hypocrites, their cause unserious or sinister. As Douthat says, “his candidacy isn’t a test of religious conservatives’ willingness to be good, forgiving Christians. It’s a test of their ability to see their cause through outsiders’ eyes, and to recognize what anointing a thrice-married adulterer as the champion of ‘family values’ would say to the skeptical, the unconverted and above all to the young.” There’s no getting around the fact that selecting a presidential candidate is, for religious conservatives, an evangelical act. It sends a message about their religious beliefs and values.

Granted, there will always be the Amanda Marcottes among the socially progressive who will depict even the most morally upright conservative individual as a cleverly disguised, insidiously-patriarchal monster, but they’re not “the skeptical, the unconverted, and the young” that religious conservatives have more than a snowball’s chance in hell of persuading. Morally upright individuals tend not to run for President of the United States, but there are better options for religious conservatives than Newt Gingrich. Any of the other candidates may be preferable. Well, maybe not Perry. Huntsman, although more of a moderate on gay rights, might be the best choice for social conservatives to reach, or at least not alienate, the persuadable of the republic. Michael Brendan Dougherty thinks so.  (VN)

Friday Film Reflection: Definitely, Maybe

Disappointed by the recent political drama The Ides of March, Alyssa Rosenberg recommends instead the 2008 movie Definitely, Maybe, which she describes as a “romantic comedy that’s secretly the best political movie in quite some time.” I took her advice and was well rewarded.

At first Definitely, Maybe seems like one step above a gimmick movie: Will Hayes (Ryan Reynolds), when picking up his 10 year old daughter Maya from school, encounters the pandemonium of befuddled children and tongue-tied parents reacting to the school day’s world-altering lesson about the birds and the bees. “We need to talk,” Maya says.

Maya wants to know all about how her parents met and fell in love. The matter is urgent for her, first because of what she learned at school, and second because her parents are getting a divorce. She pesters her father until he gives in, partially, by agreeing to tell of series of romantic stories and leaving it to Maya to guess which one is about her mother.

This sets up what turns out to be an insightful and observant story about American politics. Hayes, you see, began his career working for the Clinton campaign, and because the women he’s loved and lost have, in one way or another, entered his life as a political operative, his stories to Maya bring to light the nitty-gritty of political campaigns. We see Will stock toilet paper, lash out against a troublesome stapler, fail miserably at convincing prospective donors that Clinton is an okay guy, succeed at selling tables at a major fundraising event, and learn to deal gracefully with complications and pending disasters. We also watch and feel for him as he struggles to balance his personal life with his professional obligations: for example, with how he has to respond when his current girlfriend, a political journalist, tells him that she’s publishing a negative story about his boss.

Definitely, Maybe is a fun and funny movie about the excitement, hope, and disappointment of politics. I particularly liked Will’s knee-jerk reactions to Clinton’s infidelities and lies. It’s not dark and satirical like Alexander Payne’s brilliant Election, another well-disguised political movie, but it takes such care with bringing to life the day-to-day conflicts of political campaigns that it equals any politics-themed movie I can remember seeing. (VN)

The Moral Universe of Individualists

Where others might simply wonder what universe Rick Santorum lives in, Steven L. Taylor has an answer: “[Santorum] frequently makes moral claims that paint the picture of a universe in which all outcomes are justly generated by the actions of individuals. In this universe, people are successful because they work hard and make good choices and people fail because they do not work hard enough and/or because of bad choices.” Sound unfair or inaccurate? After reportedly denying that people in America die because of lack of health insurance, Santorum said the following:
“People die in America because people die in America. And people make poor decisions with respect to their health and their healthcare. And they don’t go to the emergency room or they don’t go to the doctor when they need to,” he said. “And it’s not the fault of the government for not providing some sort of universal benefit.”
In saying this, Santorum envisions a universe in which the only real responsibility is individual responsibility. Social responsibility doesn’t figure into his vision, at least here in the realm of healthcare. There’s no need for it because the fulfillment of individual responsibility can alone ameliorate people’s healthcare difficulties. No one, it seems, would die in these cases if people would just pick themselves up with their own IV tubes and didn’t make poor decisions with respect to their health and their healthcare. If people die, it’s their own fault for making poor decisions; it’s never because the government—i.e., people acting collectively as a social body by way of elected officials—neglected or failed to follow through on its social responsibility. Never that.

Santorum’s a professed Catholic, but his worldview is essentially Calvinist and individualistic. It’s also demonstrably wrong. People really have died because medical goods and services were beyond their financial reach. Furthermore, given Santorum’s devotion to the unborn, it should interest him to know that not a few women require expensive hormone supplements or injections to maintain pregnancy. How many miscarriages result because such treatments are financially beyond the mother? I know of one pregnancy that would have failed had there not been a little program called Medicaid. Anyhow, along with Taylor, I think that “one of the major issues facing our politics at the moment is sorting out this question of the balance between personal and social responsibility,” but that question can’t be properly addressed when people like Santorum are blind to one of these responsibilities. (VN)

Suspending All Belief

Is it psychologically possible? 
Arguments that it's impossible to suspend all belief tend to be, at root, arguments that it's impossible to refrain from action and that action requires belief. Perhaps it is impossible to refrain from all action. No skeptic advises sitting all day in bed (as though that weren't itself an action). Sextus advises acting from habit; Zhuangzi seems to endorse well-trained spontaneity. (Of course, they can't insist dogmatically on this, and Zhuangzi actively undermines himself.) If the runaway carriage is speeding toward the skeptic, the skeptic will leap aside. On my account of belief, such a disposition is partly constitutive of believing that the carriage is heading your way. So the skeptic will have at least part of the dispositional profile constitutive of that belief. This much I accept.

But it's not clear that the skeptic needs to match the entire dispositional profile constitutive of believing the carriage is coming. In particular, it's not clear that the skeptic needs to consciously judge that the carriage is coming. Maybe most of us would in fact reach such a judgment, but spontaneous skillful action without conscious judgment is sometimes thought to be characteristic of "flow" states of peak performance; and Heidegger seems to have valued them and regarded them as prevalent; and perhaps certain types of meditative practice aim at them. Suspension of judgment seems consistent with action, perhaps even highly skilled action. Though suspension of judgment isn't suspension of the entirety of the dispositional profile characteristic of belief, it's suspension of an important part of the profile -- perhaps enough so that the skeptic achieves what I call a state of in-between believing, in which there's enough deviation from the relevant dispositional profile that it's neither quite right to say he believes nor quite right to say he fails to believe.

Friday Film Reflection: A Failure to Adjust

The Adjustment Bureau begins as a promising political drama about a young ambitious, but scandal-prone congressman publicly owning up to his own inauthenticity. David Norris (Matt Damon) looks poised to become a U.S. Senator, but when pictures of him mooning people at a party surface, he drops in the polls quicker than Herman Cain. A seemingly chance encounter with Elise (Emily Blunt), an incredibly talented ballerina, redirects his attention and even his lifelong ambition. He loses her number and obsesses for years about finding her again.

Enter the Adjustment Bureau, a group of hat-wearing professionals who turn out to be more or less angels. They’re intent on keeping David and Elise apart because their being together goes against “the plan.” When one of the angelic adjusters fails to make an “adjustment” on time—using his mind to spill David’s coffee at a precise moment—David walks in on them while they’re in the process of adjusting his colleague’s manner of reasoning. Everyone in the office where David works has frozen in time. Hat-wearing dudes seem to be conducting non-invasive brain surgery on David’s best friend.

The adjustment bureaucrats come clean with David, but warn him to keep what he’s seen and learned a secret. They also forbid him from seeing Elise, telling him that if the two of them get together, neither of them will fulfill their grand rolls in the plan. David’s world is turned upside down. Except it isn’t, and that’s the main problem with The Adjustment Bureau.

David’s new knowledge adds something new to his world, but it doesn’t fundamentally change it. He reenters politics and continues, despite the dangers, to pursue Elise. He has to contend with the otherworldly hat-wearers, but that’s about the only adjustment the story has him make. The realization of the Adjustment Bureau and the official divine plan should result in an entire reinterpretation of reality because it changes the meaning of everything, but nothing of the sort happens. At the most, we get the film dialogue version of lip service to questions of free will, when instead we should get a “new world,” a fundamental reinterpretation of the human condition like we saw in The Matrix and Dark City.

Because The Adjustment Bureau treats the adjusters as an “add-on” to reality, the film feels like two separate movies: first, the story of David and Elise having to decide whether their love is worth the consequences it may have for their professional dreams and goals, and second, the fantastical thriller of David running, wearing a hat, holding on to Elise, and inspiring God. Both stories are interesting on their own, but they never come together. A little adjusting by the filmmakers could have solved this. (VN)