Monday 14 April 2014

On culture wars

There have been a number of excellent articles recently in the general area of culture wars. To attempt a rough and ready taxonomy, there have been some about whether we should be fighting about culture at all (Bottum vs Forster here), how we should fight those wars (eg Shaw here) and whether we should we talking about wars at all (eg Mudblood Catholic here).

I find this area interesting because it's probably the essential reason for the existence of this blog. When I wrote my first post almost two and a half years ago, I really wanted to start a culture war in Scotland. By that I don't mean that I wanted to stir up public discussion of controversial issues around Catholicism -that was happening anyway- but I wanted to try to help develop a (particularly, but not exclusively) Catholic sense of group cultural identity (us) in response to the increasingly oppressive attacks from secularists and life style progressives. It's rather like The Seven Samurai: if you're going to be attacked by an organized band of robbers, you too need to organize an armed resistance.

I still basically hold to this view. Catholicism in particular -but one might say that whole, conservative, natural law understanding of human flourishing- is under conscious attack. For example, the issue of same sex 'marriage' whilst presented as a simple tweak to existing legislation, in fact embodies a completely different understanding of marriage, the household, child raising, the relationship between the sexes, the relationship between the state and nature, the relationship between private and public etc etc. The French in organizations such as La Manif Pour Tous have gone furthest in recognizing the principles behind the change and in organizing formal political resistance to it which is continuing after the introduction of that change.

So here's my take on why the metaphor of a culture war is a necessary one, while acknowledging it is also one that has its limits:

1) Should we be fighting about culture? Straightforward answer to this is yes. It does of course rather depend on whether you define culture narrowly (eg: the Great Tradition of Great Books  written by Great White Dead Men) or more broadly (eg):

For Geertz, culture is “an historically transmitted pattern of meanings embodied in symbols, a system of inherited conceptions expressed in symbolic forms by means of which men communicate, perpetuate, and develop their knowledge about and their attitudes toward life” 

There may be disagreement about how important any particular narrow form of culture is. There can be no doubt that 'our knowledge about and attitudes toward life' are of fundamental importance. Catholicism isn't just about believing in Jesus: it is about the process of transformation (sanctification) that leads us to our natural and supernatural ends. Culture matters.

2) How should we fight? There are a lot of things going on in Shaw's postings, but one fundamental conclusion is:

My point in these posts is that conservatives have made a terrible strategic blunder in seeking to limit the attacks on themselves by liberals by accepting the basic liberal picture, and then trying to ameliorate the problems liberalism causes by special pleading. This was never going to work; in the medium and long term it never has worked. It is high time conservatives freed themselves from this strategy and tried something which addresses the arguments at the basis of the liberal project, which are often terribly weak.

Now at the theological level, progressivisms are all inadequate because they have an inadequate understanding of human beings and their beatitudo (flourishing). They reject revelation as a source of knowledge and they reject the Beatific Vision as the supernatural end of human existence. In short, you're not going to get it right in this area unless you accept the divine teaching authority of the Catholic Church. It is important that the Church (and individual Catholics) never forget this and don't stop (from false ecumenism or whatever) proclaiming the truth that, in this sense, there is no salvation extra ecclesiam.

BUT: It is one thing to note that without this full picture, any case will be imperfect, and quite another thing to reject putting any other case. The metaphor of 'war' suggests tactics as well as strategy, makeshift, messy combat as well as the grand vision of the end pursued. Alliances -both in real and the culture wars- can be forged between Catholics and people who don't quite agree, whether these be with Protestants, Muslims or even those liberals who realize there is something inconsistent in proclaiming free speech and yet attacking anyone who exercises it.

In short, the metaphor of war is useful here because it reminds us that, in the political field, struggles are not waged solely at the level of theology and philosophy, but in far messier, opportunistic ways.

3) Should we fight? Gabriel Blanchard's post probably struck home the hardest:

I refuse to fight in the culture war because I refuse war. Christ Jesus Himself did not come as a conquering king, but as one who suffered for His people. Those whom Christ loves, I love, and that which Christ does, I do, with whatever errors and delays. That does not eliminate violence from the world; but our Lord's own response to violence was to receive it willingly in His Person, and return nothing, nothing, except love, flowing generously out of His veins. His is the only side I want to take, and He came exclusively out of a deep and tender love for the damned. How then am I to refuse love to anyone?

This hits home on two levels. First, it reminds us that there is something wrong in a Christian rejoicing in a war. Secondly, humanity is getting forgotten in the heat. Whatever side you are on in this war, there really ought to be something sickening in the damage that's being done to people's lives. As Blanchard puts it (speaking as a gay man):

We of all people ought to know better than to try to get someone fired, or celebrate it when they are, on the grounds that their moral stands don't line up with ours.

I don't criticize or blame him for his refusal to get involved in the conflict: pacifism can be a needful witness to the ultimate truth of peace. But pacifism cannot (in Catholic teaching) be the final story: in principle, there is a need to fight even if, on occasions and for individuals, that need is put aside. What is needed here is a sense of chivalry: a recognition that those whom we fight are also made in God's image. To come at this from a different way, in more 'liberal' language, a genuine and bitter disagreement ought to take some account of those spheres which have been carved out of the public, agonistic space: those areas of private life where we can retire from the fray; those areas of professional work where our views are irrelevant so long as we can do our job well.

In short, the metaphor of war remains useful here, both because it reminds us of the regrettable nature of the struggle, but also because of the existence of jus in bello, the waging of war justly or with chivalry.

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