Unplugging and its Discontents

The New Yorker website just published a provocative piece called “The Pointlessness of Unplugging.” I’m ambivalent about some of the author’s arguments, though I’m totally in agreement with its final takeaway: “If it takes unplugging to learn how better to live plugged in, so be it. But let’s not mistake such experiments in asceticism for a sustainable way of life. For most of us, the modern world is full of gadgets and electronics, and we’d do better to reflect on how we can live there than to pretend we can live elsewhere.”

Perhaps of most interest to the readers of this blog, however, is the author’s citation of Pope Emeritus Benedict’s thoughts about the relationship between online communication and our authentic selves:

I was struck last year when Pope Benedict XVI, after he started tweeting, delivered a message on social networks. “The exchange of information can become true communication, links ripen into friends, and connections facilitate communion,” the Pope said. He added that, with effort, “it is not only ideas and information that are shared but, ultimately, our very selves.” Perhaps most surprisingly, the Pope argued, “The digital environment is not a parallel or purely virtual world but is part of the daily experience of many people, especially the young.”

I think the most important point of the Pope’s address is his claim (referenced but not quoted in the New Yorker piece) that those involved in social media must “make an effort to be authentic.” Really making ourselves available to others is not simply about physical presence: we can be physically present but still be miles away emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. The Pope seems to be suggesting that the opposite may also be true: we can be hundreds of miles away from one another but still bear witness to others through our emotional, mental, and spiritual presence.


Committed to the Details

One commitment that pretty much has to be particular…

So, as mentioned in my previous post, I had the pleasure of spending last weekend at a graduate conference put on by the Berkeley Institute. The conversations and content were quite rich, and so I imagine that this will be the first post of several on the topic. The theme of the conference was “What is good work?” However, the question that held strongest sway in the panels, talks, and conversations was a bit more specific; namely, “What does it mean to undertake academic work when you have antecedent value commitments?” The vast majority of attendees and presenters at the conference were Christian, but it remained an open point of discussion how much the conference wanted to speak of this question of “antecedent value commitments” in religious—and specifically Christian—terms.  The overall milieu of the conference could perhaps be best described as crypto-Christian.

I greatly respect the Institute’s decision to sustain the tension between Commitment, conceived abstractly, and commitments, the nitty-gritty details of each individual’s particular convictions. After all, the Berkeley Institute aims to serve the larger Berkeley community by creating a space for dialogue and by attempting to broaden academe’s conceptions of what “counts” as knowledge. The conference attendees also represented a broad swath of Christianity, including the Eastern Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant traditions, though the distinctive nature of these traditions figured somewhat less into the conversations at the conference. I imagine that this was because most of us worked in departments where we were one of the few—or the only—active religious practitioners; as a result, merely being around folks who were in the same boat as us felt like discovering we weren’t the last dodo. At the same time, there’s no doubt that our particular religious traditions affected the precise nature of our commitments and, as a result, the nature of the work that we were pursuing.

One of us, one of us…

But at what point in a conversation is it useful to start saying things like “As a Christian,” “As a Catholic,” or “In my tradition”? At what point does it become necessary to acknowledge differences as well as similarities? Perhaps most importantly, what’s the cost of this type of acknowledgement or its absence? Part of the value of a tradition is that it generates a sort of “thick” culture to incubate art, thought, and experience—which necessarily loses some of that thickness as it becomes more diverse and pluralistic. At the same time, the fact that nearly all of the conference attendees worked within secular academia—a de facto rejection of the academic “Benedict Option” provided by religious educational institutions—suggested that we all found benefits in the broader conversations that could occur within the “thin” but rigorous disciplinary structures of our respective fields.

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On Taking Sex Seriously

Photo by Flickr user Stew Dean

For a long time, the argument about the supposedly sexually repressive nature of Catholicism went like this: Sex is a powerful, beautiful, and deeply important part of human life; to ask us to deny our sexual impulses is to ask us to deny a transformative part of human experience. It’s a critique at work in some of the most important literature of the last century: it’s in James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and in D.H. Lawrence’s oeuvre. It was what “Make love not war” meant when it was still possible to say such things without irony; a time when “sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll” was understood as tied to meaningful—even transcendent—experiences and before all three were rendered innocuous, and utterly free of intrinsic meaning, by that little adjective “recreational.”

In recent years, however, the critique has shifted. It says, in short, “What’s the big deal?” I recall reading the combox of a Catholic blog a year ago and, while I no longer remember either the blog or the post, I remember coming upon a comment that went something like this: “The problem is that you Catholics take sex so seriously.* It’s just not that huge of a thing.” The comment unsettled me, but it’s taken me some time to figure out why. In an unexpected turn of events, the Church is suddenly the D.H. Lawrence of the world. That is to say, it’s one of the last places you can find where sex is still understood as a potent and transformative part of being a human being.**

In his biography of St. Francis, G.K. Chesterton diagnosed what he saw as the dangers of his own age:

The modern talk about sex being free like any other sense, about the body being beautiful like any tree or flower, is either a description of the Garden of Eden or a piece of thoroughly bad psychology, of which the world grew weary two thousand years ago. […] We know what sort of sentimental associations are called up to us by the phrase “a garden”; and how we think mostly of the memory of melancholy and innocent romances, or quite as often of some gracious maiden lady or kindly old parson pottering under a yew hedge, perhaps in sight of a village spire. Then, let any one who knows a little Latin poetry recall suddenly what would once have stood in place of the sun-dial or the fountain, obscene and monstrous in the sun; and of what sort was the god of their gardens.

Chesterton’s horror at the worship of sex in an ancient society which arranged even its garden landscapes around the potency of a phallus seems downright quaint now—not because we’re now “enlightened” enough to know that such explicitness is not “obscene and monstrous,” but because the Greeks and Romans still found sex, found somethingworthy of worship. Temple prostitution may—and should—strike the Christian as perverse, but one can’t help but say “But at least they had temples.” Even if sex, as Chesterton puts it, became a “tyrant” and crowded out anything else, at least its tyranny was still understood as “sacred.”

What we have now is something much darker than what Chesterton shuddered at: it’s not that we worship sex but that we’ve lost an understanding of what it even means to worship. That is to say, we’ve lost an understanding of what it would mean to consider anything—even our own desires—as something that transcends us, as something beyond a mere possession of the self. To worship is to recognize that there’s something beyond your self worth acknowledging. For the ancients to place a phallus in the middle of their gardens was, in quite a literal way, to take something that appears to be a possession of the self and to put it outside the self, to make it (again literally) larger than the self.

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To Seem The Stranger Lies My Lot


TO seem the stranger lies my lot, my life
Among strangers. Father and mother dear,
Brothers and sisters are in Christ not near
And he my peace my parting, sword and strife.
England, whose honour O all my heart woos, wife
To my creating thought, would neither hear
Me, were I pleading, plead nor do I: I wear-
y of idle a being but by where wars are rife.

I am in Ireland now; now I am at a thírd
Remove. Not but in all removes I can
Kind love both give and get. Only what word
Wisest my heart breeds dark heaven’s baffling ban
Bars or hell’s spell thwarts. This to hoard unheard,
Heard unheeded, leaves me a lonely began.

-Fr. Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J.

I re-read the Hopkins poem reproduced above a couple of days ago, when I was in Barnes and Noble buying my mother a small copy of Hopkins for Christmas. While my dissertation writing has not yet reached the chapters addressing Hopkins, he’s still managed to haunt me over Winter Break. Hopkins wrote this poem during one of his recurrent depressive episodes, which became particularly acute when he left his native England to work as a teacher in Ireland. Born and raised in the Church of England, Hopkins’s conversion to Catholicism distanced him from his family and his native country. But Hopkins also felt removed from the national cradle Catholicism of Ireland—and the beginning rumblings of Irish nationalism further drove a wedge between the British Hopkins and his Irish students and colleagues.

I think it is this sort of existential homelessness that makes me particularly responsive to Hopkins’s work and to his biography. Hopkins’s queerness extends far beyond his sexuality: he was never quite in step with anyone but himself, a fact that even the strange rhythms of his poetry bears witness to. I also never quite fit at home: either with my parents (I’m an only child) or, more largely, in the varied Southern towns that I grew up in. I was always a touch too cosmopolitan, my parents’ house a bit too nice, and I far-more-than-a-touch too politically liberal to fit with the people I knew there. But when I went away to school (which, in the seemingly endless train of my higher education, has involved three schools), I never quite fit there either. In my current Ivied digs, I’m not quite well-rounded enough to fit, too religious, too conservative, and from too little money. Parts of me fit wonderfully into the little mini-lives I’ve managed to cultivate. There are folks that I can be quite comfortably “academic” with and there are folks that I can be quite comfortably “religious” with, but there are precious few with which I can be comfortably both. As a result, it’s difficult for me to fully articulate my relationship to either identity, since for me they’ve always been intertwined.

At one level, of course, it’s all very frustrating. At another level, though, I can’t help but wonder if there aren’t also benefits to inhabiting the inside-outside perspective. There are, perhaps, things that those of us who have always been “strangers” can both see and make seen that others can’t. As I’ve been mulling this idea over the past couple of months, a few items in the Catholic blogosphere have helped me along.

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7 Quick Takes, er, Quotes


I’ve been MIA on the blog for some time now (though, on the plus side, I have managed to finish my dissertation prospectus, and I’m halfway through a draft of chapter 1!). But while I’ve been neglecting my writing, I’ve not been neglecting my reading. Thought I’d use this Quick Takes to share with you a few of the quotes that have been most haunting me over the past couple of months. I leave it to you, dear Reader, to trace their connections and inhabit their tensions.

— 1 —

Flannery O’Connor’s Prayer Journal is short (the text runs a little shy of 40 pages), but still completely worth purchasing because, like O’Connor’s short stories, it packs a big punch in a short space. The following is one of its most powerful moments:

Dear God, I cannot love Thee the way I want to. You are the slim crescent of a moon that I see and my self is the earth’s shadow that keeps me from seeing all the moon. The crescent is very beautiful and perhaps that is all one like I am should or could see; but what I am afraid of, dear God, is that my self shadow will grow so large that it blocks the whole moon, and that I will judge myself by the shadow that is nothing.

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Is there middle ground between “I’m okay, you’re okay” and belligerence?


Andrew Sullivan just posted some recent research that suggests that the stereotype of the “dogmatic, belligerent” atheist is largely false. A study from the University of Tennessee found that the largest group of atheists fit into the category that researchers “call ‘academic’ or ‘intellectual atheists’: people who are well-educated, interested in religion, informed about it, but not themselves believers” and these are nearly twice as large of a group as the more militant “anti-theist” group associated with prominent atheist figures like Bill Maher. None of this comes as a big surprise to me, since most of the atheists I know would probably fit into the “academic atheist” grouping. Just as most Christians aren’t the raving fundamentalists who seem to pop up in the news, so also most atheists aren’t chomping at the bit to end religious belief.

What was most interesting to me in the story, however, was that their place in or out of the “anti-theist” grouping had little effect on the degree to which atheism affected the study participant’s daily lives. Sullivan quotes Amanda Marcotte at Salon:

Only 15 percent of non-believers […] fit in the category of those who actively seek out religious people to argue with, and the subset that are dogmatic about it are probably even smaller than that. But that doesn’t mean that the majority of non-believers are just sitting around, twiddling their thumbs and not letting atheism affect their worldview. On the contrary, researchers found that the majority of non-believers take some kind of action in the world to promote humanism, atheism or secularism.

In short, it seems like most atheists face the same conundrum that most religious people do: how do you live out your beliefs authentically without simply turning into a jerk? I’ve posted recently on how tired I am of an academic setting in which no one seems to care enough about ideas to really and truly assert them; instead, it feels like a long, extended exercise in “I’m okay, you’re okay.” So, I’m all for open, serious, and thoughtful engagement with one’s own beliefs—which sometimes involves directly disagreeing with others about theirs. But how to do this without becoming a raving pundit (the only alternative our culture seems to offer to bland indifference)? And must commitment to one’s own ideas always take the dubious form of “seeking out people to argue with”?

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Heretics and higher-ed

“Arguments in Motion” by Guian Bolisay

I’m nearly convinced that G.K. Chesterton went to grad school in the humanities in the 21st century because his introduction to Heretics diagnoses it so effectively:

It is foolish, generally speaking, for a philosopher to set fire to another philosopher in Smithfield Market because they do not agree in their theory of the universe. That was done very frequently in the last decadence of the Middle Ages, and it failed altogether in its object. But there is one thing that is infinitely more absurd and unpractical than burning a man for his philosophy. This is the habit of saying that his philosophy does not matter, and this is done universally in the twentieth century, in the decadence of the great revolutionary period. General theories are everywhere contemned; the doctrine of the Rights of Man is dismissed with the doctrine of the Fall of Man. Atheism itself is too theological for us to-day. Revolution itself is too much of a system; liberty itself is too much of a restraint. We will have no generalizations. Mr. Bernard Shaw has put the view in a perfect epigram: “The golden rule is that there is no golden rule.” We are more and more to discuss details in art, politics, literature. A man’s opinion on tramcars matters; his opinion on Botticelli matters; his opinion on all things does not matter. He may turn over and explore a million objects, but he must not find that strange object, the universe; for if he does he will have a religion, and be lost. Everything matters—except everything.

Examples are scarcely needed of this total levity on the subject of cosmic philosophy. Examples are scarcely needed to show that, whatever else we think of as affecting practical affairs, we do not think it matters whether a man is a pessimist or an optimist, a Cartesian or a Hegelian, a materialist or a spiritualist. Let me, however, take a random instance. At any innocent tea-table we may easily hear a man say, “Life is not worth living.” We regard it as we regard the statement that it is a fine day; nobody thinks that it can possibly have any serious effect on the man or on the world. And yet if that utterance were really believed, the world would stand on its head. Murderers would be given medals for saving men from life; firemen would be denounced for keeping men from death; poisons would be used as medicines; doctors would be called in when people were well; the Royal Humane Society would be rooted out like a horde of assassins. Yet we never speculate as to whether the conversational pessimist will strengthen or disorganize society; for we are convinced that theories do not matter.

I should note that even though I sigh at the state of things in academe, I am still very much a child of my age. I am—and I believe justly—immediately put on edge by meta-narratives and Grand Theories of Everything. I know their dangers and their limitations, their tendency to gain their coherence only via the marginalization of what doesn’t fit inside them.

But, that being said, I do miss the days when people still gave a shit about whether a belief was correct or not. Heck, as recently as the nineties there were knock-down, drag-out fights about the canon, the liberating (or nefarious, depending on who you asked) power of deconstructive discourses, and—well—just about everything else. Nowadays, though, true methodological believers are few and far between and those who remain seem to have negotiated a truce. Alexander Beecroft recently suggested, in the Chronicle of Higher Education, that the culture wars—so long blamed for harming the standing of the humanities—might have actually been good for them, at least in terms of enrollment:

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Three Ways of Looking at a Mess

The Apartment


There are several reasons why I live alone—as an only child, I intensely value my privacy and personal space—but one reason is that I’m messy. Not “leaving the dishes from tonight to do tomorrow” messy but “leaving the dishes from Monday to do on Sunday” messy. Dishes, vacuuming, washing the sheets, picking up dirty clothes off the floor—these, for some reason, can feel like oppressive tasks even when banging out a twenty to thirty page seminar paper over the course of the weekend seems like a piece of cake.

Despite all of this, I’m not a hoarder. I don’t like my messes, I don’t find myself cultivating them, and—when I do get around to cleaning—I’m inclined to chuck even perfectly usable items into the trash just to get them out of the way. The messes in my life don’t feel like a part of me; rather, they feel like something out to get me. The brief joy of a clean apartment quickly becomes a reminder of the triumph of entropy.

I throw a lot of parties, largely to give me the kick-in-the-butt I need to get things clean. I may be able to live with my messes, but heaven forbid that anybody else get to see them. I’ve flat out kept friends on my doorstep while I ran in to grab something because I won’t let them see how I live. Messiness is a source of embarrassment, a sign that I don’t have my life fully together, an admission that my attempts at ordering, sorting, and systematizing all ultimately come to naught.

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“That’s the point of the gospel…”

So long as I’m on the topic of “purity culture” and its truly unholy rhetoric about women and sexuality, here’s a must-share video that relates a particularly horrifying iteration of the “damaged goods” narrative and shows how far that narrative is from the gospel’s claim that “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us”:

I can’t help but wonder if the growing prevalence of this type of destructive rhetoric isn’t, ironically, a result of the increasing absence of a notion of original sin from much of Christian culture. After all, the purity culture rhetoric depends on the assumption that some of us are—and always have been—”pure” while some of us are—and presumably always will be—”dirty.” In many ways, it’s just another version of our making people into “monsters” to convince ourselves of our own inherent goodness. 

Confession and the End of Catholic Guilt

I’ve always loved Woody Allen films because I always identified—more than I’d like to admit—with Allen’s neuroses, anxieties, and performed guilt. There’s a memorable and witty exchange on guilt between Allen and Mia Farrow in Broadway Danny Rose. “Who’s got time for guilt?” Farrow exclaims. A flummoxed Allen responds: “What are you talking about? Guilt is important! It’s important to feel guilty, otherwise you…you know, you’re capable of terrible things. You know. It’s very important to be guilty—I’m guilty all the time and I never did anything, you know. My rabbi, Rabbi Perlstein, used to say we’re all guilty in the eyes of God.” Farrow replies skeptically: “You believe in God?” Allen delivers the punchline: “No, no, but I’m guilty over it.”

Allen, of course, draws on the famed store of “Jewish guilt.” There’s no equivalent notion of “Evangelical guilt,” but you’d never guess that from my childhood. I was in perpetual spirals of guilt. At the end of the day, I couldn’t even say why I felt guilty—I just was. Years later, after I’d done plenty to actually feel guilty for (usually in an attempt to self-medicate away that persistent, floating sense of guilt), I told my mother: “You know, I felt guilty even before I’d even done anything to feel guilty for.”  I left Evangelicalism behind, but quickly replaced religious guilt with “liberal guilt.” I felt guilty about white privilege, about drinking non-fair trade Starbuck’s coffee, I even felt guilty about my own self-indulgence in liberal guilt! Not that any of this did much to substantively change what I did everyday. Guilt was useless but it was also omnipresent—the most I could do was to sally on in spite of it.

When I began to tell my friends that I was considering converting to Catholicism, many—especially lapsed Catholics—responded with: “But…but…’Catholic guilt’!?!?!” Frankly, I always thought that my persistent guilt made Catholicism a good match. It’s better to be able to throw up your hands and proclaim “Catholic guilt!” than to be stuck with a guilt you can’t account for. But Catholicism also appealed to me for another reason. Unlike the religion of my youth and unlike my secular progressivism, Catholicism offered something alongside its famed guilt: a ritual for its expiation. I’d long envied Catholics their confessionals. When I was a freshman in college, I longed  to find someone to whom I could tell every single bad thing that I’d done or thought. Someone who, after I’d laid all my cards on the table, would still want to associate with me. This, so far as I could tell, was what a priest was. The person who knew every shitty thing you’d done but would still make eye contact with you.

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