Matthew Schmitz over on First Thoughts posted a great article by Peter Berger sharing Peter’s thoughts on the recent HHS controversy. Peter gets at what is really the heart issue here. Though there is fierce debate ensuing about contraception, religious freedom is at the heart of the matter.
Peter Berger, the eminent sociologist of religion at Boston University and longtime friend of First Things, offers his readers at the American Interest some background on the HHS controversy, the cobelligerence of Catholics and Evangelicals, and then comes out swinging against the White House:
[L]et me offer a disclosure: I find the Catholic position on contraception thunderously unpersuasive. As to the two major religious communities involved, I am neither Catholic nor Evangelical—thus, as we say in Texas, I have no dog in this fight. (As I have avowed on this blog before, I am incurably Lutheran.) But I do agree very much with the protesters’ view that the Obama administration was about to violate constitutionally guaranteed religious freedom in a serious way. That is the issue here, and not women’s health—contraceptive devices are easily and inexpensively available in places other than Catholic hospitals. I also agree (though I am not a lawyer) that the administration’s action goes against a long tradition in American law of solicitude for the demands of conscience (religious or non-religious). The courts have protected the right of Quakers not to go to war, of Jehovah’s Witnesses not to take the oath of allegiance, of anyone who has reasons of conscience for affirming rather than swearing as a witness—or, for that matter, even burning the American flag. It seems to me that the same protection should cover a hospital run by Franciscans who don’t want to hand out condoms (never mind whether one agrees with their rather tortured reasoning on this matter).
What is to be learned from this episode? A number of things: The large expansion of federal power hidden in the innumerable pages of the legislation which established “Obamacare”. Obama’s captivity to his much-vaunted “base”, with its strongly secularist contingent (I have called it an American version of the Turkish ideology of Kemalism—religion is a virus to be kept out of public space, quarantined in religious reservations). The continuing political clout of religion in the United States (Kemalists are always surprised when they come across this—perhaps because they mostly talk to each other). And, contrary to a widespread opinion, the fact that the “culture war” between conservatives and progressives is by no means over—and continues to be politically significant.
Click here to read Peter Berger’s entire article.
After 50-plus years of social unraveling, many reformers still see the “therapeutic model” as a cure for what ails American society. Or would a return to the classical virtues, as a means of healing first the person and then the culture, be the way of renewal? Rev. Gregory Jensen offers some thoughts in this week’s Acton Commentary (published Feb. 22), spurred by the reading of Charles Murray’s new book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960–2010. The full text of his essay follows. Subscribe to the free, weekly Acton News & Commentary and other publications here.
Overcoming the Merely Therapeutic: Human Excellence and the Moral Life
By Rev. Gregory Jensen
In Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (2005), researchers Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton argue that for many young adults in America, the spiritual life is understood in moralistic terms. But where orthodox (and Orthodox) Christianity focus on the necessity of “repentance from sin, of keeping the Sabbath, of living as a servant of a sovereign divine, of steadfastly saying one’s prayers …” — many teenagers don’t see it that way. They, Smith and Lundquist say, worship “something like a combination Divine Butler and Cosmic Therapist: he’s always on call, takes care of any problems that arise, professionally helps his people to feel better about themselves, and does not become too personally involved in the process.”
My pastoral experience suggests that adherence to this model of the spiritual life is common not just among teenagers but also their parents and even their grandparents. Given Philip Rieff’s observations about the triumph of the therapeutic in Western culture, this should come as no surprise. Therapeutic and medicinal imagery are dominant in our culture. That Christians have uncritically, and in my view unwisely, adopted this language is unfortunate but again not a surprise.
This is not to reject the use of medicinal or therapeutic imagery in conversations about either the spiritual or cultural lives. These metaphors have deep biblical and even pre-Christian roots. No, the problem occurs when such imagery comes to dominate at the expense of other, equally valid, ways of speaking about human experience (as for example the juridical model of salvation).
This brings me to Charles Murray’s new book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960–2010 (2012). Murray’s work offers a response to the increasingly unbalanced use of therapeutic imagery. His book is provocative but this is not a bad thing; it is a call to the reader to re-examine the cultural and personal foundations of human thriving and to see them as fundamentally moral undertakings.
Looking at the American scene, he singles out four virtues as essential both personally and socially for “the feasibility of the American project”: industriousness, honesty, marriage and religiosity. Until very recently (Murray not wholly arbitrarily indentified Nov. 21, 1963, as the “single day” that demarcates “the transition between eras”) these four virtues were the common cultural inheritance and personal project of the vast majority of Americans. Whatever were their differences in religion, education, wealth or geography, most Americans lived lives built on a respect for hard work, honesty, marriage and family life and religious faith. Both social institutions (public schools being chief among them) and popular culture – Murray draws examples from movies and television — likewise supported the virtues that made American “civic culture” not only possible but “exceptional.”
Since November, 1963, however, American civil society has been “unraveling.” As a culture Murray says we are “coming apart at the seams — not seams of race or ethnicity, but of class.” More and more the historically key virtues of American civil society are only those of the new upper class. These same virtues are no longer forming the daily lives of the lower class, that is of working class or blue collar Americans. As a result we see two increasingly different Americas. But again, the difference is not racial or ethnic or even economic but social, a difference in the values by which members of both group live their lives.
The social problems facing Americans now are the fruit of this “cultural inequality.” Switching from descriptive social scientist to advocate, Murray says that we must do something about it: “That ‘something’ has nothing to do with new government programs or regulations. Public policy has certainly affected the culture, unfortunately, but unintended consequences have been as grimly inevitable for conservative social engineering as for liberal social engineering.”
Instead of more “government assistance” we need a widespread cultural “validation of the values and standards” that once made American civil society so exceptional. How? Well, Murray says the “best thing that the new upper class can do to provide that reinforcement is to drop its condescending ‘nonjudgmentalism.’ Married, educated people who work hard and conscientiously raise their kids shouldn’t hesitate to voice their disapproval of those who defy these norms. When it comes to marriage and the work ethic, the new upper class must start preaching what it practices.”
Murray’s book is about virtue and we know that the virtuous life requires balance. I can’t cultivate one virtue at the expense of the others. Temperance cannot matter to me more than Fortitude or Justice more than Prudence. St. John Chrysostom said that more priests have fallen from compassion than lust. This, or so it seems to me, is the pastoral analogy to Murray’s social critique. We have fallen because we have given ourselves over to an unwise compassion. True compassion suffers with others and so helps us understand how we can alleviate their pain. Unwise compassion is about sentiment; it is about feeling good about myself. True compassion comforts and ennobles the other person; false compassion is merely one more expression of my addiction to pleasure and my willingness to take my pleasure no matter what the cost to self or others.
When as Americans we talk about poverty, its cause and its consequences, we do so primarily not in moral terms — save insofar as some would advocate for the government to “do something to help the poor,” or to “win the war” on drugs or poverty or whatever — but medically, therapeutically. But a medical model divorced from morality is not only ineffective but destructive. It is so because it is anthropologically unsound and so a gentle cruelty.
The traditional model of salvation assumes a personal commitment to the ascetical life. As classically understood in both the Christian Greek speaking East and the Latin speaking West (and even I would suggest among many of the heirs of the Reformation), the healing I am promised in Jesus Christ requires from me ascetical struggle. This is why today Roman Catholics and many Protestant and Evangelical Christians are celebrating Ash Wednesday and why next week Orthodox Christians will begin the season of the Great Fast. Asceticism does not add to the work of Christ. Rather it prepares me to receive again Jesus Christ and to deepen my relationship with Him.
Physical discipline does not exhaust the content of the ascetical life. In addition to spiritual disciplines such as fasting and almsgiving, asceticism has an intellectual aim; it teaches me to understand my desires in light of the Gospel. I need to repent of, and struggle against, those that are sinful. Important though repentance is, it is more important still that I come to see more clearly even my legitimate desires in light of what God wants from me.
Seen in this way, asceticism is an essential component of a life open in love to our neighbor. This is how we understand that our actions, if thoughtless, may impose a cost to our neighbor. This is how we will heal the human heart scarred by sin and so in turn the broken social ties that Murray identifies. In short, I cannot love you unless I am willing to lay aside even my otherwise legitimate plans and projects. Whether in the physical, moral or cultural realms, real healing requires an understanding of both the ends of human life and the means appropriate to those ends.
One of the conclusions from last week’s commentary was that the government shouldn’t be in the business of promoting a particular vision of the good life in America. That’s not to say that the government doesn’t have some role in promoting the common good or making some normative judgments about the good life. But it shouldn’t get anywhere near the level of specificity of promising a family, home, college education, and retirement for all.
In part this is because while moral good is objective, happiness is, by definition, subjective. The technical gloss on happiness in the scholarly literature is “subjective well-being.” This subjective element gets at why there can be such paradoxical disparity, say, between objective standards of rising affluence and static or even declining levels of happiness. Happiness has much more to do with how people assess their own levels of satisfaction and well-being than with simply objective measures.
Becky Hsu explores this over at the Black, White and Gray blog by observing the irreducible diversity and subjectivity of defining happiness: “The trick is in how people define happiness to begin with.”
The delicate balance that results from these considerations is that people must be free to define happiness for themselves within the boundaries of the moral order. And the role of the civil government and positive law in promoting that connection between liberty and happiness is definitive for good government. As Jefferson put it, “the freedom and happiness of man” are the “main objects of all science,” and such concerns help to “keep ever in view the sole objects of all legitimate government.”
I would argue that the best conceptions of happiness are those that intimately connect the subjective sense of well-being with the objective moral order, the source of which is God. The Christian doctrines of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation can go a long way in explaining why there is so often this disparity between objective material well-being and subjective well-being in human life.
“You have made us for yourself, O Lord,” confesses Augustine, “and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” Or as the Teacher puts it, God has “set eternity in the human heart” (Ecclesiastes 3:11 NIV). This life is the beginning of the story.
The latter question is found in the Heidelberg Catechism, and the brief but poignant answer has stuck with me since I first encountered it. First, the catechism clarifies that our death does not have redemptive power: “Our death does not pay the debt of our sins.” That’s what distinguishes Christ’s death from our own.
But next, the catechism describes two interrelated things our death does do. First, our death “puts an end to our sinning.” What a comforting thought! As Luther put it strikingly, “As long as we are here [in this world] we have to sin.” Our death is the end of our lifelong struggle against sin, and the culmination of the purpose of our entire life. As Calvin writes, “during our whole lives we may aim at a constant rest from our own works, in order that the Lord may work in us by his Spirit.” Our death is where this “constant rest” is finally achieved.
And following from the end to our life of sin, our death marks “our entrance into eternal life.” Thus we enter through our deaths into the eternal Sabbath, where we finally rest from our evil works, enjoy the “constant rest” (Calvin) from sin, and the fullness of life in the Spirit.
So on this Ash Wednesday, when we contemplate the origin and destiny of our earthly life in dust, let us take comfort in the realization that the death of those who are in Christ is merely the end of the beginning of the story. In the midst of our mourning during the Lenten season inaugurated with Ash Wednesday, let us not “grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13 NIV).
Yesterday I argued that since bias is inherent in institutions and neutrality between individual and social spheres is illusory we should harness and direct the bias of institutions towards a free and virtuous society characterized by individual liberty and sustained by religious principles.
One of the ways we can do that in the economic realm, I believe, is to encourage a bias toward entrepreneurship and away from corporatism. As Derek Thompson, a senior editor at The Atlantic, says, “It would be naive to think we can cleanse the law of all biases. But what if the law were biased, not toward the oil and gas industry or the cotton farmers, but toward the creative, the self-employed, and the entrepreneurs?”
Thompson proposes a new framework for competitiveness: