Monday, 30 June 2014

Natural Law and the Instrumentum Laboris on the Family

                        Don't sit under the apple tree with anyone else but your wife

I can't claim to have read the preparatory document for the Synod on the family (online here) in great detail yet, but one bit attracted my immediate attention (para 30):

The language traditionally used in explaining the term “natural law” should be improved so that the values of the Gospel can be communicated to people today in a more intelligible manner. In particular, the vast majority of responses and an even greater part of the observations request that more emphasis be placed on the role of the Word of God as a privileged instrument in the conception of married life and the family, and recommend greater reference to the Bible, its language and narratives. In this regard, respondents propose bringing the issue to public discussion and developing the idea of biblical inspiration and the “order in creation,” which could permit a re-reading of the concept of the natural law in a more meaningful manner in today’s world (cf. the idea of the law written in the human heart in Rm 1:19-21; 2:14-15). Moreover, this proposal insists on using language which is accessible to all, such as the language of symbols utilized during the liturgy. The recommendation was also made to engage young people directly in these matters. 

In short, more reliance on Scripture and liturgy as the basis for morality.

Frankly, this is nuts, or, in more polite language, a 'partial' truth. For signed up Catholics, there is nothing wrong in suggesting that we deepen our appreciation of scripture and liturgy and their interconnections with our life. If (as in Latin America) your main 'competition' is an Evangelical church which rests on scripture alone, there may well be a need to fight back mainly in scriptural terms. But in the UK, where most people can't tell the difference between Elton John and Jesus, let alone have any but the vaguest recollection of the Bible, it doesn't really sound like a plausible strategy at all. It's particularly bad for the semi-detached Catholic. I have frequently encountered 'Catholics' who retain some sense of being in the Church (albeit often not much) and who will quote a Bible passage on tolerance out of context, and hope that the Church will soon  catch up with the tolerance and love of the Bible by allowing their niece/son/guy off Eastenders to shack up with their other niece/drug dealer/younger glamour model. If you then start to say that the Bible has to be interpreted through the Church and anyway isn't the sole source of authority on these issues, you just get blank looks or an assurance that's not what Sister So-and-So taught in Primary 5.

In sum, in the UK, increased reference to the Bible either misses the secularized entirely, or reinforces the view that true Christianity is about being a liberal Protestant and undermines a true understanding of Catholicism.

That said, there is a problem with the concept and reality of Natural Law. When I started this blog about two and a half years ago, I remember being very unsure about whether describing the approach as 'Natural Law' was helpful. I've swallowed my doubts on this over the years -mainly on the ground that it is the most familiar way of denoting -simply pointing to- the body of teaching, and to try to substitute more helpful (or simply more various) descriptions would simply confuse matters further. But both the Instrumentum and a recent exchange on Twitter have encouraged my initial worries here to revive.

The Twitter exchange was with someone who describes himself as a 'Conservative Party member and radical sexual anarchist'. (No, not Dave.) In it, he made the common suggestion that Catholic morality is based on 'bits' and their function:
I've heard this before and it is part of the problem with the 'Natural Law' brand: frankly, if you think Natural Law is about simply staring at willies and deriving Catholic sexual teaching from what they can and can't do, it's not surprising you think it's rubbish.

I want to try and unpick some points at least but it will take a few blogposts to do this even in a slightly superficial way. Perhaps before we begin, it's worth making a couple of preparatory points.

1) The judgment that 'x is wrong' is often more certain than why it is wrong. In most cultures (certainly pre-modern ones) the sense of what is right and what is wrong in everyday matters is usually quite clear at least in its broad lines. The problem, for example, in sexual matters, is less what is to be done than in fighting the personal defects that encourage one to do it:

And on this account nothing but a good moral training can qualify a man to study what is noble and just—in a word, to study questions of Politics. For the undemonstrated fact is here the starting-point, and if this undemonstrated fact be sufficiently evident to a man, he will not require a “reason why.” Now the man who has had a good moral training either has already arrived at starting-points or principles of action, or will easily accept them when pointed out. But he who neither has them nor will accept them may hear what Hesiod says—

“The best is he who of himself doth know;
Good too is he who listens to the wise;
But he who neither knows himself nor heeds
The words of others, is a useless man.” [Aristotle: Nicomachean Ethics]

Now I make this point, less to avoid having to defend the Church's teaching rationally, than at least to alert the reader to some of the difficulties in moral philosophy. We may be very certain (as we ought to be) that this or that action is wrong, but struggle to articulate why. But the inability (certainly in short order to articulate why) is not a sure sign of the wrongness of the action: it may merely be that it is so obviously wrong that little thought has been given up till now about why it should be wrong; it may be that there is a complex network of reasons behind the judgment that defy easy articulation; it may just be that it is simply a very difficult area to explore.

2) The above perplexities as to reasoning for morality -a common experience to all human beings- is in part resolved for Catholics by revelation. As the Catechism [s.1960] puts it:

The precepts of natural law are not perceived by everyone clearly and immediately. In the present situation sinful man needs grace and revelation so moral and religious truths may be known "by everyone with facility, with firm certainty and with no admixture of error." The natural law provides revealed law and grace with a foundation prepared by God and in accordance with the work of the Spirit.

The eternal law -ie the complete understanding of how we should live our lives- can be made known to us by the teaching authority of the Church: revelation. Starting from those revealed truths, we can then work backwards to understand the rational structure of what we initially take on authority (much as a student can work backwards from the answer at the back of the textbook to understanding how to solve the question).

So from a Catholic perspective, part of the explanation for the greater prominence of the that than the why noted in 1) is the existence of an alternative, authoritative route to the that : divine revelation and authority. Moreover, the why may only be comprehensible with the prior help of revelation.

3) But apart from the way that revealed law may ease the understanding of natural law, eudaimonistic ethics (I'll come back to this in a later post: for the moment, just interpret this as 'the Catholic understanding of reasoned ethics') rests on the person rather the action. There are two relevant aspects to this. First, the primary question of ethics is less; 'What should I do?' and more, 'What sort of person should I be?'

...what is the highest of all realizable goods? As to its name, I suppose nearly all men are agreed; for the masses and the men of culture alike declare that it is , eudaimonia [roughly, happiness, but more exactly, flourishing]  and hold that to “live well” or to “do well” is the same as to be “happy.” [Aristotle: Nicomachean Ethics]

Secondly, the final arbiter of what is right is not an articulated reason, but the perception of the practically wise agent:

And on this account we ought to pay the same respect to the undemonstrated assertions and opinions of men of age and experience and prudence as to their demonstrations. For experience has given them a faculty of vision which enables them to see correctly. [Aristotle: NE]

Virtue, then, is a habit or trained faculty of choice, the characteristic of which lies in moderation or observance of the mean relatively to the persons concerned, as determined by reason, i.e. by the reason by which the practically wise agent [phronimos] would determine it. [Aristotle: NE]

OK. Where does that leave us?

So far, we have the commonsense (or at least familiar) thought that good people who've thought a lot and had experience of human life will know what to do. We also have the thought that becoming a good person is the real heart of ethics. Finally, we have the thought that ethics is very difficult to do as a philosophical exercise involving the articulation of the reasoning behind judgments, and that experienced wise people (and from the Catholic point of view, aided by revelation) are going to be the ones who will usually get it the judgments right even if they can't always explain why.

Careful readers will notice the absence of 'bits' and their functions up to this point....

To be continued...

Thursday, 26 June 2014

Marlbrough s'en va-t-en guerre: Jihadists and Social Cohesion

Marlborough has left for the war / Nobody knows when he will come back.

He will come back at Easter / Or on Trinity Sunday.
Trinity Sunday goes by. / Marlborough does not return.
My lady climbs up her tower / As high as she can climb.
She sees her page coming / All clothed in black.
"Good page, my good page / What news do you bring?"
"At the news that I bring / Your pretty eyes will start crying!
"Take off your pink clothing / and your embroidered satins!
"My lord Marlborough is dead; / he is dead and buried.
"I have seen him borne to the grave / by four officers.
"One of them carried his breastplate / another his shield.
"Another carried his great sabre / and the last carried nothing.
"On his tomb was planted / a beautiful flowering rosebush.
"When the ceremony was over / Everyone went to bed. [From Wikipedia.]

As I've mentioned previously, I'm currently buried ('mongst other square, papery (but digitalized) things) in the works of Sir Walter Scott (42% through according to my Kindle).

One of the things that immersing yourself in a different sensibility can bring is a bringing to the foreground of consciousness facts that we in our age tend to overlook and that other ages faced up to squarely. I'm pretty much convinced that one (if not the) central theme of Scott is social cohesion: how groups (especially the Jacobites and the Hanoverians) can live together in social peace whilst loathing each other and whilst having each other's blood on their hands. I'll probably come back to this in the future, but the answer certainly isn't the imposition of a common loyalty: instead, and briefly, it's much more to do with a recognition of common humanity, deliberate avoidance of certain issues, having a 'flexible' attitude to law and authority, and the aestheticization of violence. Not a very modern mix, of course, but probably all the better for that and possibly one from which we can still learn.

But a subsidiary theme is that of the violence of young males. Duels are fought. Most of the old have spent their youth on some battlefield or other. The solution to life's problems of going abroad as a soldier exists as a constant possibility. Even if we haven't been reading Scott, we ought to be familiar with such a vista. The male members of the two previous generations of my family fought in the army. (I pass over my own exalted -if brief- service in a school CCF troop.) I've worked with several former soldiers and we're all familiar with the young men who went off to fight in the Spanish Civil War. (And rather closer in time and space, there is the  'Armed Struggle' in Northern Ireland.) Idealism and a tendency to violence are characteristics of young men. If channelled correctly, they form part of the social mix, the activity of the young balancing the resignation of the old etc.

So I'm not really sure why 'we' are surprised at young men going off to fight for ISIS. It seems perfectly reasonable to worry about what effects this will have on UK society: whilst I've no doubt that most will probably not come back to take up an armed struggle here, it seems implausible that none will. And certainly an attitude of mind forged in an armed struggle is unlikely to accept an easy cultural integration into modern British ways. So it's certainly reasonable to worry about (eg) security implications and to act accordingly. But constantly using the language of indoctrination and manipulation of these men is silly:

Using the hash tag #AllEyesOnIsis, extremist fighters flooded the social media site with propaganda, luring vulnerable people to join them in Iraq. [Here.]

The media attitude to ISIS, quite apart from a core, commonsense worry about national and international security, demonstrates many modern failings. It decorporealizes minds: instead of acknowledging that the young and the old, male and female, have a different biology and different characteristics, it regards all as disembodied reasoners with only one rational path. It undervalues religion: the intensity of religion's pursuit of justice surprises those whose lives lack commitment or transcendent values. It invents rational expertise: last week's pundit who knew everything about Putin's Russia now knows everything about the Middle East. It is orientalist in creating a landscape of the Other populated neatly with homogeneous and docile 'communities' (ie tribes) led by community leaders. And so on.

There probably isn't an answer. Some of us will probably die in the long run as a result of terrorist actions. The Middle East sounds like it's on its way to becoming a Hell for a time, especially for Christians. What can be done in terms of security precautions should be done, but without destroying the normal business of society. But on the specific problem of angry young men, and particularly angry young Muslim men, the only answer (and it's a partial one) is to do what societies have always done: find a way of channelling their energies into the wider society through the institutions of the family, civil society and the State. At the moment, the family is being deliberately undermined, the economic crisis of the West is destroying business and employment, and politics is closed to those who cannot mouth the secularized platitudes of consumerist liberalism.

 In the video, he says: "Are you willing to sacrifice the fat job you've got, the big car you've got, the family you have?

"Are you willing to sacrifice this for the sake of Allah? Definitely! If you sacrifice something for Allah, Allah will give you 700 times more than this."

Later in the video, he says: "All my brothers living in the west, I know how you feel.

"When I used to live there, in the heart you feel depressed. The cure for the depression is Jihad." [Here.]

Perhaps, in the end, it's about death: the Jihadists have retained a sense of the inevitability of death and killing that the modern West has lost. In that case, perhaps the true resistance is to face our own death well, even matter of factly. If so, please note that I will not be dying for 'British values' but for Catholic ones.

Monday, 23 June 2014

The Pope and Scottish Independence

                                                  Toda división me preocupa.

I hadn't really intended blogging about the Pope's statement on Scottish Independence. It struck me as relatively anodyne, a sort of Argentinian version of Father Dougal's, 'Careful now'. But a few conversations recently have convinced me that at least some Nationalists (and doubtless Unionists) have interpreted the statement as an addition to the List of Prominent People Who Have Spoken Out Against Independence. Before this enters too far into the status of urban myth, I should probably try to correct the picture.

Another urban myth: if you say, 'Papa Francesco' in front of your computer screen three times, he'll Skype you.

The full interview can be found here in Spanish. A fullish English summary can be found here.

The main thing to note about this is that Pope Francis is simply repeating Catholic social teaching. As I've blogged before, the principles of subsidiarity (ie authority descending to the lowest unit of society) and nationality (ie the normal condition of one people constituting one nation) do stack up heavily on the Nationalist side. But equally there is the principle of solidarity:

The commitment to this goal is translated into the positive contribution of seeing that nothing is lacking in the common cause and also of seeking points of possible agreement where attitudes of separation and fragmentation prevail. [From the Compendium: para 194.]

Above all, political authority exists for the promotion of felicitas, of the good life:

Political authority is an instrument of co-ordination and direction by means of which the many individuals and intermediate bodies must move towards an order in which relationships , institutions and procedures are put at the service of integral human growth. [394]

Given the complex web of principles and the variety of concrete circumstances, making a decision in this area requires the exercise of the virtue of practical wisdom (prudentia):

the virtue that makes it possible to discern the true good in every circumstance and to choose the right means for achieving it. Thanks to this virtue, moral principles are applied correctly to particular cases. We can identify three distinct moments as prudence is exercised to clarify and evaluate situations, to inspire decisions and to prompt action. The first moment is seen in the reflection and consultation by which the question is studied and the necessary opinions sought. The second moment is that of evaluation, as the reality is analyzed and judged in the light of God's plan. The third  moment, that of decision, is based on the preceding steps and makes it possible to choose between the different actions that may be taken.[547]

On the basis of Catholic social teaching, therefore, one would expect a Pope in such circumstances as the current Scottish Independence campaign to point out a few principles, and to advise voters to think very carefully about their decision in the light of these principles and the concrete circumstances in which they find themselves. And that is precisely what he's done.

So why the brouhaha? (If there is brouhaha. I may simply be coming across a few individuals more given to the practice of brouhahing than normal.) Here's some suggestions:

1) Some Nationalists think the answer to the referendum is so obvious that even asking for thought smacks of opposition. Clearly nuts. It's an important decision made with a lot of uncertainties. For some, there is a tendency towards a 'Sod it' decision: why not give it a go? (Tom Gallagher has suggested that the referendum may be decided by 'volatile and emotional' men with too much time on their hands.) Anyway, a non starter. Think hard about this decision: it matters. A lot. (For balance, I should add that there is a corresponding Unionist version of this category: again, a non-starter.)

2) The Pope talked about division and was against it. So he must be against the dissolution of the UK. Context matters here. The question posed was: "¿Le preocupa el conflicto entre Catalunya y España?" (Does the conflict between Catalonia and Spain worry you?) It was in reply to this that the Pope said: 'Toda división me preocupa.' (Any division worries me.) It is fair to say, I think, that the struggle between Catalan Nationalism and the Spanish government can legitimately be described as a conflict, with severe disagreement about how (and indeed whether) a question about independence can be posed democratically. In comparison, there is no conflict in the UK on this issue: the constitutional process is relatively clear. The 'divisio' referred to here relates more to the bitterness than to the possibility of peaceful, constitutional separation.

3) The Pope put Scottish Independence in the 'doubtful' class rather than the class of obviously attaining freedom. The Pope distinguished between two types of independence: that by emancipation and that by secession. The first case is that of Imperial conquest and the liberation from that. [Las independencias por emancipación, por ejemplo, son las americanas, que se emanciparon de los estados europeos.] Scotland, pace extreme Nationalists, isn't really a case of that. That leaves the second case, where, in essence, we are dealing with some cases where it's a good idea (or at least inevitable -Yugoslavia) and some where it isn't. To decide which case Scotland falls into requires deliberation 'con muchas pinzas' which the BBC has as 'with a lot of grains of salt' but which (admittedly with my minimal Spanish) I take to be better translated as 'with a great deal of care'. So back to prudentia: take the decision seriously and think about it with great care.

It really isn't much more than, 'Careful now!', is it?

Thursday, 19 June 2014

Baroque scholasticism and the aesthetics of theology (and liturgy)

                                              Rational structure, slightly foxed

Slightly half-baked this one, but bear with me... (Well, can't blame you if you don't!)
There are two elements in Radical Orthodoxy which are really one. The two elements are, first, suspicion of the intellectual life of the Catholic Church particularly in the way Scholasticism was (allegedly) reconstructed on rationalist lines by (eg) Suarez in the Baroque period (and, a fortiori, in nineteenth/twentieth century neo-Scholasticism); and suspicion of the reconstruction of the liturgy on rationalist lines in the twentieth century by Vatican II and the Spirit thereof. (For the first see (eg) John Montag's paper in Radical Orthodoxy and for the second see (esp) Catherine Pickstock's After Liturgy.)

So we have here, fundamentally, an objection to the way that modern rationalism tidies up mediaeval and patristic mess. If one wants to dig a little deeper (or perhaps merely to put a philosophical gloss on all that), one starts talking of how modern rationalism prioritizes essence over existence -the conceptual over the raw stuff of being, whilst the pre-modern gives full weight to the unassimilable, uncapturable life. (Or theologically, God.)

If this were just the stuff of Radical Orthodoxy as a movement, I wouldn't worry so much. But  it strikes me as something that one hears quite regularly from a number of different directions: a need to return to the less rationally streamlined Extraordinary Form (and even to the even far less systematic pre-Tridentine liturgical situation); a need to return to Patristic theology  or mediaeval theology rather than the later, rationalist reconstructions.

Now, I find myself pulled in at least two different ways on this. Liturgically, I'm sympathetic (although lazy in actually doing anything about it) to the Traditionalists. I like Latin. I like old forms. I don't like Clown Masses, 1970s English and chumminess. So, on the one hand, I'm pulled towards the anti-modernizing case liturgically. On the other hand, intellectually, I'm pulled to the systematizing of the 'modern' forms of neo-Scholasticism. In particular, I find Suarez's ambition and comprehensiveness immensely attractive.

We arrive at the climax of Baroque Scholasticism -indeed of Scholasticism as a whole- the integration of two systems, a philosophy and a theology, into a single system, or super-system, with the former the basis of the latter. This again was the creation of Suarez, who was the first, and apparently the only, Scholastic thinker to systematize both his own philosophy and theology. If the medieval systems remind us of the Gothic cathedrals, the Suarezian reminds us of the cathedrals of the Renaissance and Baroque, like St Peter's in Rome. (From Pereira's Suarez: Between Scholasticism and Modernity.)

I'm terribly, terribly suspicious of a narrative of discontinuity between the modern and the pre-modern. Whenever anyone suggests this or that feature of modernity (individualism, secularization, globalization, rationalization) I keep thinking of one or other analogy (or identity) in the pre-modern world. In other words, although (of course) life in the 21st century is different from (eg) 4th century Athens, there is also a heck of a lot of continuity -and even more so when the abyss of separation is postulated somewhere between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries. So I don't see all this as a matter of history, still less an historical mis-step, but rather an enduring contest between system and the inadequacy of system.

Insofar as I can make any sense of this, I settle on something like Gillian Rose's Broken Middle, which attempts to do justice to (as far as I understand it) law and grace, the explicit and the unsayable by pitching our intellectual tent in the lived tension between these two poles. So we need (eg) the tension between those who advocate the neo-Scholastic systematization of theology and philosophy, as well as those who advocate a turn towards narrative and Patristics. We need the tension between a rationalized liturgy as well as a liturgy which has been accumulated over the centuries.

Intellectually, I think that leaves me pretty much where I thought I was. I think the neo-Scholastic drive towards system is beautiful and needs to be re-energized in the modern Church. I don't think it has all that can be said philosophically or theologically, but it is (at the moment) an element that needs additional weight placed on it.

Liturgically, I suspect that doesn't take me very far on either. I've always thought that Pope Benedict was right in Summorum Pontificum: we need both the EF and the OF in some sort of symbiosis (or even creative tension). But, personally, I suspect that I'm attracted to those very elements of order and decorousness in the EF that might be seen as examples of modern rationalism, and rather less to the repetitions and discontinuities that (eg) attract Pickstock to the EF. If that's right -and if, as I've suggested above- it is a preference that is intellectually defensible, then my beefs with the OF are less beefs with modern systematization and rationalization, but rather with failures in that rationalization: the irruption of clowns and dinosaurs into a coherent structure.

                         Decorous and modern. (Vermeer was a Catholic, of course.)

Monday, 16 June 2014

The need for religious schools

All those in favour of religious schools?

From a Catholic point of view, I suppose the main justification for Church schools runs roughly along the lines of 'keeping-one's-children-away-from-as-much-rubbish-as possible'. However, a slightly more sophisticated articulation of such a view might well be in order...

The main argument against religious schools (putting aside the rather crass 'stopping religion because it's wot sky fairy worshipping bronze age goat herds believed' argument) seems to be that it breaks down community cohesion: by educating children separately, you encourage them to think of themselves as separate (and even antagonistic). Rather than just dismissing such an argument, it's worth acknowledging that it does have some force as a worry. If there were nothing else to be said, it might well be that such a consideration would tip the balance against religious schools.

However, there is something more to be said which throws the burden of proof back on to the opponents of religious education. Let's concentrate on the consequentialist arguments for now rather than, say, that deontological argument that parents have a right to control their children's education. In essence, this amounts to the claim that it is better for the sum total of happiness in society that religious schooling exists.

1) The Burkean argument. The traditional conservative view is that social cohesion is built, not from the State down, but from the family and civil society up. By being socialized within a 'little platoon', we grow to be socialized into wider society. As Burke puts it:

To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed toward a love to our country and to mankind. The interest of that portion of social arrangement is a trust in the hands of all those who compose it; and as none but bad men would justify it in abuse, none but traitors would barter it away for their own personal advantage.

A school rooted in the values of its community and the families whose children attend it is one that contributes more to social cohesion than a school which tries to separate children from the values of home and community.

2) The MacIntyrean argument. All intellectual endeavour, but more particularly the moulding of character and morality, takes place within a tradition. There is not one understanding of the good life, but a number of competing views more or less successfully supported by a coherent way of life and practices of reflection. 

[Alasdair MacIntyre] believes that modern philosophy and modern life are characterized by the absence of any coherent moral code, and that the vast majority of individuals living in this world lack a meaningful sense of purpose in their lives and also lack any genuine community. He draws on the ideal of the Greek polis and Aristotle’s philosophy to propose a different way of life in which people work together in genuinely political communities to acquire the virtues and fulfill their innately human purpose. This way of life is to be sustained in small communities which are to resist as best they can the destructive forces of liberal capitalism. [Here.]

Unless education takes place in such a community, not only will the happiness of the individual suffer, but the intellectual depth of the education offered will be undermined by the absence of a coherent philosophical underpinning. 

The force of both arguments can be seen in the current mulling over the 'Trojan Horse' schools. By trying to impose a culture antithetical to that of the home and the community, instead of promoting social cohesion, schools instead produce deracinated and alienated youth who fail even in the basic terms of exam success. By working with the grain of the 'little platoon', schools will be able to produce integrated individuals who are able to function productively in society.

The Burkean argument emphasizes the aspect of sentiment and the emotions, the MacIntyrean the aspect of intellectual and moral coherence. But both represent the conservative belief that an integrated society emerges from the bottom up rather than the top down. Opposed to that is the statist view that cohesion can be imposed from the top, even if 'cohesion' produces individuals deracinated from their families and their cultures, even if the resulting culture clash results in poor educational performance and individuals alienated from the economic system. (And this is quite apart from the deeper -and highly problematic -assumption that social cohesion is identical with social uniformity.) 

Thursday, 12 June 2014

What is Scholasticism and what sort of Scholasticism?

                                        Angelic proofreaders pointing out typos...

There's been a rather interesting exchange going on between Ed Feser (Thomist extraordinaire) and Michael Sullivan of the Scotist blog, The Smithy on Feser's recent Scholastic Metaphysics: an Introduction. [Feser's latest post on this -with links to further instalments of Sullivan- is here.]

In essence, the debate centres on two points. First, is Feser's version of Scholasticism too exclusively Thomist, particularly at the expense of Scotus? Secondly, is it too ahistorical, smoothing over detailed engagement with actual Scholastic writers in favour of quick neo-Thomist caricatures? The detailed posing (and answering) of these questions is an education in itself -and I'd urge anyone even remotely interested in understanding Scholasticism to read the posts and the combox discussions (as well as Feser's book!).

Behind any detailed criticism of the book, however, stand rather more general issues about the nature of philosophy in general, and Scholasticism within the Catholic Church in particular. To pluck away at a couple of these:

a) Grand narratives vs detailed grappling. There is a tendency in academic philosophy (particularly English language analytic philosophy) to focus in incredible detail on narrow issues. The good (essential) aspect of that is rigour: carefulness in argument and examination is necessary to achieve truth: there are no shortcuts. On the other hand, there are losses. One loss is that of popular engagement. For philosophy to engage outwith the academy, it needs to deal in recognizable issues in recognizable ways: too much technicality and narrowness of focus and philosophy becomes confined to the philosophy department. (Whilst there is clearly more to be said about how philosophy can be both rigorous and popular, I'll leave it with the simple (and I hope plausible) claim that highly technical philosophy can't be popular and that, since some philosophy needs to be popular, not all philosophy can be highly technical.)

Perhaps an even more serious loss is the absence of what I shall style 'narrative imagination'. To take two particular examples, one of the most influential recent-ish works in English speaking philosophy has been that Alasdair MacIntyre, in particular, that of After Virtue. Much of that work involves an historical narrative that, to put it mildly, is open to detailed criticism.: if MacIntyre had stopped to deal with every detailed point that could be raised against his narrative, the force of the work would have been much diminished. A similar point could be made about the (again influential) Radical Orthodoxy movement in theology. If Milbank's Theology and Social Theory -which again contains a rather 'sweeping' narrative- were to grapple with every possible detailed criticism, again, the force of the work would have disappeared.

There are clearly many possible reactions to such a (clearly true) observation. One possibility is simply to abandon the idea of a grand narrative and to concentrate on detailed grappling. I'll simply note that, in my view, such a solution has unfortunate consequences both ethically (in depriving individuals of a sense of their place in an historical narrative) and pedagogically (in depriving pupils of a sense of  shape to an issue which they can then subject to further critical scrutiny). Another (and this I'd favour) is to note that both the grand and the detailed are required: in any healthy intellectual ecosystem, there will be a creative tension between those who produce imaginative narratives and those who subject them to detailed critique.

b) The place of philosophy in Catholicism. As I've made clear over the history of this blog, I'm in general sympathy with the view that the loss of neo-Thomism (ie the sort of Thomism of the nineteenth and twentieth century manuals) as an intellectual tradition in Catholicism is at least as serious a loss as any that has been felt in the liturgy. (Let's not get bogged down in details: there's a problem in liturgy in the modern Church and there's a problem with the destruction of neo-Thomism.) This has (at least) two aspects. First, there is the loss of a focus on St Thomas Aquinas. By taking as alternative paradigms either non-Catholic thinkers such as Levinas, Lacan, Derrida, Butler etc, theologians have cut themselves off entirely from (at the least) an extremely rich intellectual model which attempts to do justice to reason, revelation and ecclesiastical authority. But while this is true of some (perhaps even many) Catholic theologians, it also remains true that Aquinas has not been ignored and yet remains a central figure in theology. (Even the much attacked Tina Beattie has recently published a monograph on him.) From this aspect alone, things could be a lot worse.

Which leads me on to the second aspect. Neo-Thomism had a particular understanding of a number of issues, in particular, the place of philosophy within Catholicism. Roughly put, most neo-Thomists thought that philosophy -reason unguided by revelation- could attain truth, albeit incomplete and albeit with difficulty. Moreover, neo-Thomism was, to a large extent, a creation of teaching institutions and, especially, seminaries: it was a Thomism shaped by the need to be taught and used by those who were not professional and specialized theologians, but who were priests engaging with ordinary people and non-Catholic intellectual challenge. Much modern Catholic thinking even when approaching Aquinas is fideist (ie carried out in terms only acceptable to those who already accept dogmatic teaching) and academic (destined for an audience of other professional theologians or students). In other words, neo-Thomism carried in a narrative imagination an understanding of what it was and how it fitted into the world that is lacking in other Catholic theologies, and indeed other grapplings with Aquinas.

What follows from this? In terms of Feser's book, its characteristics are those (unsurprisingly) of a neo-Thomist: what it foregrounds and what it glosses over are precisely what you'd expect from a neo-Thomist. If this is surprising, it is only because the neo-Thomist has become a rara avis. In more thickly populated intellectual flocks (analytical philosophy, for example) very few stop to wonder why introductory manuals fail to take seriously the details of natural theology: the writing off of an intellectual tradition has taken place as part of the background narrative imagination. If you think his approach is wrong, then the problem lies less in the book and more in the background movement.

More importantly, Catholics (lay and clerical) need to develop an intellectual culture which can function as an ancilla theologiae -a preparation for revelation. That is wider than philosophy, but it includes philosophy. I think that's best conceptualized as a return to neo-Thomism, but I'd be open to (and indeed sometimes personally do) think of it as a return to the philosophia perennis of the Greeks of which Thomism is merely the final flourishing, or (in politics) to the politics of natural right envisaged by Leo Strauss. Each of those conceptualizations is an act of narrative imagination and is open to detailed critique. But I'm pretty sure that, without some such boldness of vision, Catholic intellectual life is going to be steamrollered by the narrative imagination of secularism.

As a coda to all this, let me quote from my current bedtime reading (Garrigou-Lagrange's Le Sens Commun -which primarily contains his refutation of Bergson and I'm reading as a proleptic refutation of post-modernism). In that, he sketches the content of the philosophy of common sense:

[The anthropologist Le Roy obtained from his field studies of primitive peoples] a residue of common elements which corresponds almost exactly to what is, for traditional philosophy, the content of common sense:

1) Distinction between the invisible and visible worlds.
2) A feeling of human dependence in respect to the superior world, particularly in the use of nature.
3) Belief in a Supreme Being, creator, organizer and master of the world and at the same time father of human beings.
4) Belief in independent spiritual beings, some beneficent, some hostile.
5) Belief in a human soul, distinct from the body, conscious, surviving death.
6) Belief in a world beyond, where spirits live and souls survive.
7) A universal moral sense, based on the distinction between good and evil, feelings of justice, shame, responsibility, liberty and duty. Implicit or explicit recognition of conscience.
8) Prescriptions and proscriptions in view of a moral end; a notion of sin with sanctions applied by the authority of the invisible world or its representatives.
9) The organization of culture, prayers and sacrifice.
10) A priesthood charged with sacred duties.
11) Distinction between the sacred and the profane.
12) Establishment of the family as religious and social centre.

[p88 Le sens commun (my translation and slight adaptation)]

Nothing there, I think, to surprise, say, the reader of Plato or Confucius. But remember this is supposed to be the pre-existing foundation on which revelation then builds. To even achieve this level of explicit belief in a secularized public culture is going to be quite an achievement although -and this is the intriguing aspect for me- implicitly I'm pretty sure this is what most people actually do believe even in the West. (Thought experiment: watch reruns of Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Battlestar Galactica whilst regarding the above as foolish.)

Monday, 9 June 2014

Islam in the UK

                                              Birmingham PTA meeting

 So the media full of a menagerie of Trojan Horses and Muslim extremists...

Listening to David Blunkett on Radio 4 this morning made it clear just quite how out of their depth politicians are on this issue.

In essence, this is a tale of two liberalisms. On the one hand, you have a civic liberalism which promotes freedom from the state and the encouragement of (as Mill put it) experiments in living. Following this aspect through, you have the drive for subsidiarity in school leadership and the encouragement of community involvement. On the other hand, you have a substantive liberalism which holds certain beliefs about human flourishing, including the promotion of sexual freedoms, the eradication of differences between the sexes and a conceptualization of religion as harmful unless confined to eating interesting foods and dressing up in glad rags.

On the basis of civic liberalism, you end up with schools that are heavily influenced by local communities and parents. If those local parents are orthodox Muslims (rather than the sort of pet 'cultural' Muslims who have actually abandoned the religion if not the samosas) that will lead to a consensus on certain views and a tendency to assume these as the norm in your school. These views (to repeat the analysis given by a Muslim blogger and which, in my own limited personal observation are correct) include:

Halal slaughter provisions, a general aversion to licentiousness coupled with the desire to protect their children from it, Shariah finance, opposition to government foreign policy vis-à-vis Iraq, Afghanistan and Israel – just some of the issues on which there is broad agreement in the Muslim community. Other examples one might cite are: revulsion towards blasphemous cartoons of the prophets, rejection of homosexuality as an acceptable lifestyle and the right of Muslim women to wear the hijab (and somewhat more contentiously the niqab).

On the basis of substantive liberalism, many of these views will be abhorrent and it will be the job of the education system to eradicate them.

Now, I'm a Catholic. That means that I neither accept the orthodox Muslim views set out above nor the views of substantive liberalism. For example, whilst I agree that the substantive liberal understanding of sexual mores is licentious and foul, I do not accept Sharia punishments or an understanding of modesty that requires segregation of the sexes or veiling. But I do, faute de mieux, accept civic liberalism: I want the state out of my life and, eg, the education of children left primarily to the parents and their wishes.

From what is emerging in Birmingham, we are seeing the inevitable problems of trying to reconcile civic liberalism and substantive liberalism in the presence of large body of citizens who do not accept substantive liberalism and have moved beyond an initial generation of immigrants who did not feel 'at home' enough in British society to stand up against 'British values'. (The other complication here is that 'British values' have largely declined since the 1950s and 1960s from social conservatism, leaving orthodox Muslim values even more in conflict with the majority community. But I put that aside for now.)

Putting aside BNP fantasies about repatriation -and let me make it clear, I regard such as genuinely fantasies and genuinely poisonous- we are left with a number of possibilities. One -the hope of most of the media and apparently the politicians- is that by cracking down on schools etc, we can impose substantive liberalism. The problems with this are a) it won't work (Muslims won't abandon their religion and will simply be further alienated and radicalized) and b) it entails the abandonment of civic liberalism (which will have a knock on effect on Catholics etc). Another is to simply abandon substantive liberalism and let civic liberalism run its course. Now that's fine up to a point. But that point -and it may already be in sight- is where you have communities that have developed a culture which poses a genuine threat to the stability of society, both in that it no longer engages with the wider society, and that it advocates the destruction of democratic politics and civic liberalism. (Whilst I am an Islamophile, there are clearly such dangers in the religion -putting aside for the moment whether those dangers are essential to it or merely aspects of some current forms.) 

My solution? Well, ultimately, I'd hope that 'British values' return to something like the natural law understanding backed up by a benign State established Protestantism. If that happened, many of these social tensions would become less acute. In the meantime, we should hold fast to civic liberalism, abandon the attempt to enforce substantive liberalism (because that won't work) and concentrate on a) ensuring that threats to civic peace are removed (so clamping down on advocacy of terrorism) and b) ensuring that orthodox (ie genuinely representative Muslim voices rather than 'humanist' ex-Muslims) engage in the political process and cultural sphere rather than being isolated as 'extremists'. There are some signs of the latter happening: my worry is that, due to the Trojan Horse case, we'll go back to a hysterical substantive liberalism shouting down any form of social conservatism as completely 'unacceptable'.

Saturday, 7 June 2014

Trojan Horse schools: State ideology coming to you?

                                      Birmingham schools CCF on manoeuvres

From a Catholic perspective, the whole row over alleged extremist infiltration of Birmingham schools is distinctly unsettling.

Putting aside the difficulties in being certain of the facts -and when politics and religion are involved, getting clear here is going to be particularly difficult- from what facts seem to be clear, we have at least in part a clash between the general social conservatism of orthodox Islam and the official secularized Liberalism of the UK state. Additionally, we just have elements of real stupidity in dealing with a minority religion. Beyond that, we have a genuine worry that some aspects of Islam represent a threat to the security of the country.

Specific claims (according to the Guardian):

1) The academy is not doing enough to keep students safe, including raising students' awareness of the risks of extremism.

Muslims are always going to have split loyalties, much like most serious religious groups. Our first loyalty is to God, mediated through the structures of our religion. It is inevitable that Muslim understandings of the world and politics will be different from those of non-Muslims. All that can be done here is to establish a respect for civic peace: that disagreements are resolved politically rather than by force.

2) External speakers, such as those who speak to students as part of a programme of Islamic-themed assemblies, are not vetted and pupils not taught how to use the internet safely.

Nobody can use the internet safely if you mean avoiding unpleasant views. (It's quite another thing if you mean keeping your anti-virus software up to date. I presume this isn't what's meant.) 'Vetting'? Fine. What is the substantive test for being vetted? I presume that at least one person already thinks any given speaker is a good egg and not wearing a suicide vest. If it means not having views that secular Liberals don't like, see 1).

3) Students are not prepared properly for life in a diverse and multicultural society.

Good if this means rejecting the usual liberal claptrap. I've always encouraged Muslims I've come across not to kowtow to the rather thin secularism they'll come across in much British education, and to be confident in the basic soundness of their tradition. (Ditto my own children.) I doubt if this is what Ofsted means by 'being prepared'. I wish it were.

4) Staff feel intimidated and fearful of speaking out, while some believe the governors involve themselves inappropriately in the running of the school.

Well, not an infrequent occurrence in education. More details please.

5) Sex and relationship education is ineffective, with students not well supported in understanding how to protect themselves from bullying.

I presume this means the usual 'sex ed' agenda. It's always ineffective. (I assume what this really means is that Muslim teachers are unwilling to teach the 'shag everything that moves' official philosophy. Again, good.)

The absurdities here are reflected in the Daily Mail's dubbing of a representative of the Humanist and Cultural Muslim Association as a 'centrist'. A 'humanist' Muslim is as much a Muslim as an atheist Catholic is a Catholic. If you are going to engage with serious Muslims, there is absolutely no point in expecting them to end up agreeing with atheists.

There may well be genuine issues in the schools of public safety. But so far as I can see, the main issues at the moment are those inevitably resulting when minority belief systems confront majority systems, but have become canny enough to organize themselves effectively to resist the majority pressure. Muslims aren't going to disappear into secularized atheism (which I suspect was the basic assumption of many multiculturalists). That means the State is going to have to engage seriously with people who will, inevitably, have different conceptions of human flourishing. As a Muslim blogger puts it:

The reality is that certain political stances, values, social mores, moral precepts etc. do have widespread, indeed majority, acceptance amongst the 2.6 million strong Muslim community. Halal slaughter provisions, a general aversion to licentiousness coupled with the desire to protect their children from it, Shariah finance, opposition to government foreign policy vis-à-vis Iraq, Afghanistan and Israel – just some of the issues on which there is broad agreement in the Muslim community. Other examples one might cite are: revulsion towards blasphemous cartoons of the prophets, rejection of homosexuality as an acceptable lifestyle and the right of Muslim women to wear the hijab (and somewhat more contentiously the niqab). I believe that it is an incontestable truth that all of the above examples I have cited are normative positions in the Muslim community. I challenge anyone to canvass the major Muslim population concentrations in Britain and come back with findings that show otherwise. On these issues and others most Muslim groups concur and speak in unison. They can be said in all honesty to represent “the Muslim view”.

Engaging with those different conceptions of flourishing is never going to be an easy process, but it's essentially one of messy negotiation and compromise. It's not helped by branding mainstream Muslim views 'extremist' and giving the impression that, if we just get the bureaucracy right, they'll stop believing all that rot.

As ruling elites become more and more secularized, the ability to deal with religious belief also diminishes. We're seeing it with Islam now. We've seen it in the past with Catholicism and will doubtless see it again. But neither serious Islam nor serious Catholicism is going away, whatever the fantasists of secularization might believe.

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Reply to Scottish euthanasia consultation NOW!

                                         Time to bury the Assisted Suicide Bill

The Scottish Government Consultation on the Assisted Suicide Bill ends this Friday 6 June.

Details of the Consultation are here.

Even if you don't feel able to respond in full, please at least email the Health and Sports Committee (oh the irony!) with your opposition. I'd suggest the following:

a) I oppose the principle of Assisted Suicide as it encourages the view that illness should be treated by death and will profoundly and adversely affect the provision of end of life care.

b) The Bill is merely a cosmetic rewording of the Bill previously introduced and decisively rejected in 2010. It is an abuse of Parliament to continually reintroduce defeated legislation.

My previous blogpost analyzing the new Bill is here.

[Update: Care Not Killing's submission is here.]