On Order, beauty, and me, part ii

In this series, I’m examining order as a theological category by way of the narrative of my own life. In the first post, I described my discovery of punk in college and the hermeneutic of suspicion that gave me for examining the way in which I was raised. In this second post, I’m examining why it is that punk could not offer me a better narrative to order my life than the one I grew up with.

C.S. Lewis wrote in The Abolition of Man that ‘you cannot go on “seeing through” things for ever. The whole point of seeing through something is to see something through it….to “see through” all things is the same as not to see’ (p. 81). The trouble with punk culture is that it participates in an impulse that is nearly universal within American, not to say Western, culture, which is a failure to articulate a positive vision of what people are for. The sedimented belief is that somehow, if the bonds of injustice are smashed, if patriarchy, heteronormativity, corporatism, and militarization are dismantled, then the authentic expression of each individual will naturally be unleashed and come to full flowering, and that the eccentric existence of each of these individuals will somehow miraculously not come into conflict with anyone else’s. In other words, without any sort of directedness except the mere evasion of legal consequences, negative liberty will somehow produce not barbarity but cooperation and flourishing.

The truth is, since we have spent so much time focusing on unmasking, we have not thought much about what should replace what we have torn apart. Nor have we thought about what kinds of ascetic practices we will need in order to form the virtuous habits in us necessary to become the kind of people worthy of whatever vision should replace the one we have destroyed spent so much time destroying as a culture. And perhaps most importantly, we have not considered to what degree our cultural penchant for iconoclasm and revolution makes it impossible for us to cultivate the discipline of those ascetic practices. For in the revolutionary consciousness, which we all share, having been formed in late modern American culture, the problem is always extrinsic. One’s own state of brokenness simply cannot be entertained, except as a matter of poor socialization that can be overcome by consciousness-raising. It is a matter of faith that the real problem is with some evil group in society — who are not merely in error, but whose views are so odious that they must be shamed, disgraced, and if possible, buried completely.  And the more we rage against the external enemy without attending to the enemy within, the more revolutionary culture comes to parody itself. Speaking of Gandhi, Thomas Merton wrote that ‘our evils are common, and the solution to them can only be common. But we are not ready to undertake this common task because we are not ourselves. Consequently the first duty of every man is to return to his own right mind in order that society itself may be sane’ (quoted in Kenneth Leech, Spirituality and Pastoral Care, p. 30).

Punk helped me to see that it is not a good thing to be well-adjusted in a society that is deeply disordered, but while I was busy slamming to the Winnepegan vegans Propagandhi, I was blinded to how much goodness there was in the order my family had instilled in me. I will write more about the process of recovery and retrieval anon.

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On Order, Beauty, and Me, part i

I have recently been engaged in an effort to get some order in my life. I am not naturally the kind of person who goes to bed at a reasonable hour, who knows how to say no to TV and the internet, who is willing to take an hour to tidy and disinfect the house, or, to be honest, who is willing to spend ten to twenty minutes getting ready for the day. Lately, my lack of discipline has been driving me up the wall, and I realized in conversation with Tish that my failure of discipline was bothering me, at least partially, for theological reasons. I’ve decided to do a series of posts on the theology of order with reference to my own personal history, which, as one might expect, is what has made me see the importance of order as a theological category.

When I was growing up in the suburbs of the ATL (the New York Times once referred to Atlanta as a small planet of 600k people in a ‘galaxy of sprawl’, a description which I like a great deal), my parents did their best to instill in me a sense of pride in cleanliness, order, and decency. Now, as I said, I’ve never naturally been an ordered person. Keeping my home and work spaces tidy, keeping my passions and emotions in proportion, and so on, have never come easily, but by authoritative direction and formation, my parents managed to habituate me into an fairly quotidian routine of grooming, cleaning, and all around self-discipline. Then I got to college, and there I discovered punk rock, which undid almost all of this primary socialization. My first introduction was to ‘mall punk’ – MxPx, NoFX, Blink 182, post-‘Let’s Face It’ Mighty-Mighty Bosstones, etc. –the kinds of bands you would find t-shirts for at Hot Topic, hence the name ‘mall punk’. But I quickly discovered that ‘real’ punkers hate that sort of music, and as I was introduced to ‘real’ punk, I found that it offered a more satisfyingly jaded, angular approach to the banality of American culture. Brett Gurewitz’s clever, pointed writing for Bad Religion entranced me. Ben Weasel’s misanthropy and seemingly genuine loathing for people appealed to my possibly innate sense of snarkiness. Ian MacKaye’s and Guy Piccioto’s scathing, acid political commentary in songs like ‘Smallpox Champion’ gave language to my burgeoning feelings of dissatisfaction with suburbia and the banality of the ‘good life’ in middle class America. With Guy shrieking ‘bury your heart, U.S. of A./history rears up to spit in your face’, I felt like I was being introduced to a strand of social protest that effectively unmasked the injustice, superficiality, and falseness of the American way of life.

Of course, I could not divest myself of the privilege into which I was born, but it felt better to me to intentionally cultivate grubbiness, disorder, an effete and romanticist feeling of despair and cynicism, and of course, indignation. And the protest culture of punk fit well into the politics of resentiment practiced in the humanities departments of my alma mater. And of course the rejection of bourgeois culture fit well in some ways with the ‘whatever’ grunge aesthetic of 90s culture in which I came of age. I don’t deny that some of the deconstructive work that punk encouraged was positive and important to my formation. I continue to appreciate the rage against the poisonous culture produced in post-war America that I detect in the most articulate versions of punk rock. I think in the long run, in the mysterious way that narratives work, it’s led me to a more committed, more theological, more catholic, and more ascetic vision and practice of Christianity. It’s helped me to reject the easy fit between American evangelicalism and neoconservatism, which is all to the good, since as Richard Lovelace has aptly said, ‘I cannot escape the feeling that Luther, Bunyan, and the Apostle Paul would be referred to psychotherapists if they appeared in the evangelical community today’ (Dynamics of Spiritual Life, p. 218). The impulse in punk to reject conformity to a social and political order that is not fit for habitation by human beings is an impulse that I still respect and endorse.

Next up: why punk was not enough for me.

Craig Bartholomew on Hyper-Mobility and ‘Placial Stability’

There’s an interesting interview at Christianity Today with Craig Bartholomew, Professor of Philosophy at Redeemer University College in Ancaster, Ontario, on his new book about the ‘crisis of place’ in western culture.  Our technological reordering of transportation, communication, and our built environment has generated a culture of instantaneity in which individuals are virtually unfettered by time and space, or at least in which these features of our humanness have become less ‘real’, less central to our existence than they have been at any point in history. Individuals have in the process been given the illusion of self-creation and self-sufficiency and the illusory hope of total liberation from the past and tradition. Zygmunt Bauman has astutely pointed out that the ambitions of the middle class and its vision of the good life have been reinscribed around the desirability of the range of experiences made possible by mobility:

 

Life ambitions are more often than not expressed in terms of mobility, the free choice of place, travelling, seeing the world; life fears, on the contrary, are talked about in terms of confinement, lack of change, being barred from places which others traverse easily, explore and enjoy. ‘The good life’ is life on the move; more precisely, the comfort of being confident of the facility with which one can move in case staying on no longer satisfies. Freedom has come to mean above all freedom of choice, and choice has acquired, conspicuously, a spatial dimension. (Bauman, Globalization: The Human Consequences, p. 121)

 

Since Bauman wrote those words in 1998, the hegemony of that vision of the good life in the west has only become more totalizing, and the consequences for the Christian faith, as Bartholomew points out, have been devastating. The rank individualism of American Christianity has been facilitated by our willingness to move so easily for a better job or slightly better conditions without due consideration given to how such a move will diminish us and the communities of faith from which we are departing. It is hard to see how hyper-mobility could give rise to the material conditions necessary to foster costly discipleship and not merely moralistic, therapeutic deism.

Bartholomew asserts that ‘We need a spirituality that will undermine Western individualism’. Part of that has to be what Bartholomew is calling ‘placial stability’, a willingness simply to stay put. Necessary to our personal transformation and the transformation of the communities of which we are a part is a stronger sense of what we owe to one another in terms of our embodied presence in the body of Christ. Personal and communal transformation requires longitudinal, spiritual friendships characterized by loyalty and vulnerability.

Clearly this is an issue that requires some nuance, since discipleship requires attention to the given possibilities of one’s culture. In our globalized economy, it is often difficult to be rooted because our jobs have become impermanent. And it is obviously not a sin to move. But where we are given the choice, we should consider soberly and in community such decisions, and in the conditions of late modernity we should prioritize stability where it is possible.

On a related note, check out the sermon entitled ‘Transformation in Everyday Life’ from this past Saturday by a good friend of mine, Fr. Kenny Benge, on the importance of rootedness.

David Bentley Hart on Modernity and Freedom

As a sort of follow-up to my last post, David Bentley Hart makes the astonishing claim in his Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies that to be modern is not, as is sometimes argued, to insist upon rationality and reasonableness over against benighted superstition and fanaticism, but to believe in a particular sort of freedom.  As a slight correction to this account, I would argue that an overweening confidence in rationality is still an implicitly appealed to foundation in our culture as a result of the dominance, invisibility, and ubiquity of technology. I am not, for instance, unaware of the irony that I am posting this complaint about modernity on a MacBook Air, an incredible invention in its own right, on a ‘blog’ which can potentially (though is not likely to!) be read by anyone perusing the internet. My point is that ‘science’, and in particular the natural sciences, which by their massive success in transforming our lived experience since the 19th century have managed to isolate the authority of that term for themselves, dominates our conception of what is ‘True’ and indisputable. Science is the realm of ‘fact’, and the meaning we generate for ourselves (empowered largely by our greatly augmented ability to transform our surroundings through the technology generated by ‘science’) is merely subjective and individualized ‘truth’. In other words, it’s true for me, but not necessarily for you, and it is therefore relegated to the fuzzy realm of ‘value’. But Hart is right to note that the tendency to abstract the individual from his or her roles in society so as to insist upon the individual’s radical autonomy and self-constitution, even at the expense of the vitality of mediating institutions in society, has accelerated in the past few decades. Although the metaphysics of this observation were even then quite muddled, up to a few decades ago it was acknowledged that individual ‘rights’ entailed ‘obligations’, such that justice should really be thought of in some sense as ‘just order’, rights now are asserted independent of the framework of participatory responsibility within a social order and independent of the idea of ‘human nature’ altogether:

Freedom for us today is something transcendent even of reason, and we no longer really feel that we must justify our liberties by recourse to some prior standard of responsible rationality. Freedom–conceived as the perfect, unconstrained spontaneity of individual will–is its own justification, its own highest standard, its own unquestionable truth. It is true, admittedly, that the modern understanding of freedom was for a time still bound to some concept of nature: many Enlightenment and Romantic narratives of human liberation concerned the rescue of an aborginal human essence from the laws, creeds, customs, and institutions that suppressed it. Ultimately, though, even the idea of an invariable human nature came to seem something arbitrary and extrinsic, an intolerable limitation imposed upon a still more original, inward, pure, and indeterminate freedom of the will. We no longer seek so much to liberate human nature from the bondage of social convention as to liberate the individual from all conventions, especially those regarding what is natural. (p. 105)

But the hope that the west has overcome a pre-modern understanding of freedom, understood as a willing conformity with our fundamental nature as human beings, is but a legitimating myth of Enlightenment. It is what Charles Taylor calls a ‘subtraction story’ account of the Secular Age: the idea that waiting behind the oppressive structures of the premodern world the liberated self was waiting to unleash itself. In reality, the ‘liberators’ of the west have always and in the present day continue to feed on the cultural capital bequeathed to them by the bygone Christian world. Again, here is DBH:

It is my governing conviction…that much of modernity should be understood not as a grand revolt against the tyranny of faith, not as a movement of human liberation and progress, but as a counterrevolution, a reactionary rejection of a freedom which it no longer understands, but upon which it remains parisitic….A post-Christian unbeliever is still, most definitely, for good or for ill, post-Christian. (p. 108)