Commonplace - Week Beginning 1 September 2019

National Belonging and Tradition

I’ve heard a lot about Michael Brendan Dougherty’s My Father Left Me Ireland among conservative circles in the past few months. In this review for Plough, Brad East helpfully identifies the tension between (some forms) of love for country and the true love that is directed to God:

Though good, such love is subordinate to other loves and qualified by them. Scripture, at least, swings back and forth in its directives. “Honor your father and your mother” – but also, “If any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother … he cannot be my disciple.” Again, “Let every person be subject to the authorities. For there is no authority except from God” – but also, “We must obey God rather than men.” And again, “Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. … [S]eek the welfare of the city” – but also, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.”

In short, fidelity to God through discipleship to Christ encompasses and supersedes all natural obligations and affections. The church’s history includes moments in which and persons in whom these were rightly ordered. But more often, in most of us, they have competed with and trumped the command of God. Such a conquest of loves is often revealed precisely through the counter-command of earthly sacrifice: to die or kill for the city of man. But “here we have no lasting city,” as Hebrews says; just this is the faith of the martyrs, who together with the patriarchs and all the saints “desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one.”

Added to this is a personal concern of mine. My family history is a fragmented one: one line of my family experienced the Cultural Revolution in China that unmoored them from centuries of village living, tearing down what had given meaning to their lives, and another line of my family emerges from an earlier diaspora of Chinese into Southeast Asia. Fatherhood is in the offing, Lord willing, and these questions of what I should be handing down cut close to my heart’s concerns.

A partial response, in my mind, is to focus on handing down the story of Israel and the Church to the next generation, to see how there is a nation that is gathered from all nations, of pilgrims who forsake the comfort of current belonging in exchange for an eternal city, whose citizenship is in heaven. It is only in that framework that we belong to the nations as they stand now, whose borders are contingent, whose claims on our loyalty cannot be unqualified.

The Age of Loneliness

It is salutary to be reminded that people across the ideological spectrum are sometimes concerned about the same things. Robert D Newman asks in the Los Angeles Review of Books, “How can the humanities help restore the centrality of the public good, an essential step toward the collective action necessary for combating our current constitutional and ecological crises?”

Newman rightly, in my mind, connects the ecological catastrophe with a broader crisis:

Climate change is not an isolated, apolitical phenomenon, but a symptom, byproduct, and intensifier of a much larger social, legal, and philosophical collapse.

The crisis is a crisis of relationship, hence, the dominant theme of this age is loneliness:

The term Anthropocene has now become the consensus appellation for our current geological age, the age in which human activity has been the dominant influence on the environment. An alternative was suggested a few years ago by biologist E. O. Wilson, who prefers the term Eremocene, or the Age of Loneliness (eremo coming from the Greek for lonely or bereft). His notion of loneliness refers to both the rapid decline of biodiversity on our planet, and the fact that humans, while increasing their proportion of and dominance over the Earth’s population, suffer a consequent isolation, commanding the Earth while eradicating its complexity, diversity, and natural beauty. A singular self-absorbed species, we are racing toward being, ultimately, alone and aloof in a sterile cosmos.

There is much to agree with here in terms of the role of the humanities — perhaps more than anything, it is stories that will change how we relate to the world around us, stories about the world’s collapse, about resisting collapse, about the intrinsic beauty and otherness of the natural world, about the scars that we have inflicted on that world:

The stories for the Eremocene must speak of the consequences of Love Canal, the Exxon Valdez spill, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion, Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, Fukushima, Bhopal, the Dust Bowl, whale and elephant slaughter, and the eradication of biodiversity on the planet. Through literature, history, art, and philosophy, we must teach the impact of withdrawing from the Paris Climate Accord on the sustainable liberty and happiness of our citizens. And we should return to the ideals of extraordinary moral character for both leaders and citizens, embedded in the Constitution, as the backbone of a prosperous and civil society.

What is fascinating to me, here, is to see how many of the same problems are being identified by thinkers who share such distinct philosophical perspectives, and how this leads to surprising conjunctions of concepts. This paragraph, especially, was astonishing:

Just as race, class, gender, and sexuality studies came to pervade humanities research and pedagogy during the past three decades, it is imperative that ecological studies also be integrated in similarly prominent ways. All connect the individual to the collective in addressing historical and present problems and all seek solutions for wider inclusion and justice. Indeed the threat of climate change is an existential crisis, a crossroads of conviction about how we define our personal identities, not in isolation, but in recognition of the intricate web of relationships that sustain the earth we inhabit.

There is an undeniable beauty to this paragraph. And if these forms of critique are able to go beyond “personal identities” to a broader consideration of how these identities are enmeshed and connected, that is all the better. But I cannot help but wonder whether there is an underlying contradiction in this project. On the one hand, there is a sense that we as human beings need to recognise our limits, need to recognise the place that we have been put in, the need to recognise the givens of the world. On the other hand, at least some of these new “studies” that permeate the humanities are predicated on a rejection of these givens — perhaps the most glaring is the rejection of male and female. It depends in large part on how one identifies these givens, but I cannot help wonder how the latter approach will define what is given or not. Perhaps ecology is one given that cannot be denied — it will be hard to be a human being if one is drowning.

This is a very minor point in Newman’s essay, which is worth reading in full. By raising the above, I only intend to reflect on how surprising encountering different thinkers can be. Regardless, we can all agree that the issue of how to develop and communicate an ethics that is fit for our times is a pressing one. Newman ends on an inspiring call to action:

“These are the times that try men’s souls,” Thomas Paine wrote in his December 19, 1776, pamphlet, The American Crisis. He goes on, “The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.” George Washington had the essay read to his troops on Christmas 1776 on the eve of their victory at Trenton. The Hebrew term Tikkun Olam refers to healing a broken world so all could see the oneness of the creation, much like Black Elk’s vision. It goes back to the Old Testament Abraham, winds through the Kabbalah and Midrashic thought, and is made manifest in modern mitzvahs, acts of goodwill — a profound joining of mysticism with activism. Its spirit is inherent in our Constitution, in ecological thought, and in the mission of the humanities. As the heirs of Aeneas and Black Elk, Thomas Paine and Jane Goodall, it is incumbent upon us in a time that tries many of our souls to stand and promote the humanities in order to heal the Age of Loneliness.