Linkfest 2018-08-13

While I am opposed to this kind of Luddism, it does demonstrate a kind of consistency. GMO does not actually describe all kinds of genetic engineering that we apply to food. Here is the article about the damage to the research plot.

Cash transfers and labor supply: Evidence from a large-scale program in Iran

The tweet that pointed me to this article about a UBI-style program in Iran noted that probably no one is interested in this example because no one wants Iran to be the good example. There are also complicated inflation-related effects going on.

Nonfiction: White Working Class by Joan Williams

A nice book review on a subject of perennial interest here: class in America. The author of the book used a idiosyncratic definition of working class, family incomes from $41,005 to $131,962 [class isn't about money!], which produces some oddities of analysis, but the book review is nevertheless interesting.


Another take on the same book about the working class from Claremont Review of Books.

The Myth of Thrusting versus Cutting Swords

Any idea of fighting you get through popular entertainment probably has more to do with stage direction than making people dead. I appreciate the work of the Association of Renaissance Martial Artists does to understand the history of martial arts in the West.

A Striking Similarity: The Revolutionary Findings of Twin Studies

Twin studies have labored under the shadow of Cyril Burt's flawed experiment for a century. Recent work is much better.

Open Borders and the Hive Mind Hypothesis

I find open borders to be a nutty idea, but I appreciated this look at the economic models behind many prominent economists' support of this radical notion. There is something to be said for trying to make the poorest people at least a little richer, but I worry that the models don't take into account likely consequences of an economic contraction in first world economies accompanied by massive migration. For example: do-it-yourself interethnic strife. People would be mad. Sure, you can argue people should be happy to provide more for others, but that isn't what is going to happen if 58% of world population migrates. Hell, even if global GDP goes up, there will be enough losers to be really mad about it.

This graph, and accompanying thread contains a massive amount of detail about agricultural productivity.

The Pre-Tolkien Fantasy Challenge

J. R. R. Tolkien casts a long shadow on modern fantasy. However, if you wish, you can find lots of books written before his influence was so prevalent.

The Fake Split of Scifi and Fantasy

I too am sympathetic to the idea that speculative fiction is really of a piece, no matter the trappings.

The Long View 2006-09-01: The Overthrow of Islam

The politicization of religion is a nuisance. Unfortunately, it is often less than clear what counts as politicization when you get started.

The Overthrow of Islam


"Taking the turban" was the term that American and European mariners called the practice of formally embracing Islam when captured by Muslim pirates. One took the turban to lengthen one's life and to avoid slavery. As we all know, two journalists working for the Fox network recently revived the custom (though not, alas, the term) when they were captured by a previously unknown Palestinian group. The incident occasioned these thoughts from Mark Steyn:

The bad news is that Islam will soon be able to enforce submission-conversion at the point of a nuke. The good news is that any religion that needs to do that is, by definition, a weak one. More than that, the fierce faith of the 8th century Muslim warrior has been mostly replaced by a lot of hastily cobbled-together flimflam bought wholesale from clapped out European totalitarian pathologies. It would have struck almost any other ruler of Persia as absurd and unworthy to be as pitifully obsessed with Holocaust denial as President Ahmadinejad is: talk about a bad case of Europhile cultural cringe. But in today's mosques and madrassahs there is almost as little contemplation of the divine as there is in the typical Anglican sermon. The great Canadian columnist David Warren argues that Islam is desperately weak, that it has been "idiotized" by these obsolescent imports of mid-20th century Fascism. I'm not sure I'd go that far, but, if Washington had half the psy-ops spooks the movies like to think we have, the spiritual neglect in latter-day Islam is a big Achilles' heel just ripe for exploiting.

To this one might ask, "weak in what sense?" We know from many decades' experience that the Stockholm Syndrome can turn submission based on fear into submission based on conviction. The answer Steyn's piece implies is that Islamist Islam has been drained of the content that might form the basis of conviction. Violent Islamists go to mosques, according to this view, in order to have their political and social views reaffirmed, in rather the way that some people go to liberal churches in order to hear their progressive politics preached to them. Maybe this is true, but we should recall that the liberal denominations in the West have been losing members for two generations. As one wag put it, why go to hear a in sermon on Sunday what one has read over breakfast on the editorial page of The New York Times? Conservative denominations have been gaining adherents, but their conservatism is theological rather than political; to the extent these denominations support a political view, that support is a side effect.

Perhaps Steyn is suggesting that Islamism collapses when submission can no longer be enforced at gunpoint. The problem with that hypothesis is that it fits badly with the fact that the idiotized Islam to which Warren refers works best in its Western colonies, where the state, as yet, gives no coercive support to Islam. The more interesting possibility is that Islamism might awaken spiritual needs that it cannot satisfy. In that case, Islamism might be like the Hindenburg: a huge and impressive vehicle that could explode in a shower of apostasy (presumably through conversion to Christianity) given a little encouragement.

* * *

If you look into the void intelligently, the void will look back at you intelligently. Web searches have a similar quality. If you insist on finding a statistic online, even a statistic that could not possibly be compiled, the Web will give you a number, such as this assertion that 660-plus Muslims an hour are leaving Islam. That link is, actually, more interesting as a gateway to sources for the evangelization of Muslims. The subject is scarcely new: the Time Magazine cover story for June 30, 2003 was Should Christians Convert Muslims? My own answer to that question is "Yes, obviously!" I am particularly ashamed of the reluctance of Catholic institutions to become involved in evangelization efforts. However, I am also aware that pursuing such a policy for reasons of geopolitics is to do so for the wrong reason. Evangelization conducted for any purpose other than the good of the prospective convert is likely to have ironic results. One such result, for instance, might be the creation an idiotized, synthetic parody of religion; a Christian version of Islamism might be just as much of a nuisance as Islamism.

We hear now of Christian undergrounds of recent converts in Muslim countries. This is unprecedented. It was notoriously the case for centuries that Muslims almost never converted. If this trend continues, it is likely to do so because it is nobody's policy.

Copyright © 2006 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2005-12-22: Europe and Its Discontents

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI

In this blog post, John Reilly points to a sublime essay written by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI at the height of his powers: Europe and Its Discontents. Published in English by First Things magazine, Benedict analyzes the idea of Europe through a grand sweep of history, religion, and politics.

You should go and read it.

I was quite excited when Pope Benedict was elected, and this essay illustrates why. Benedict has an extraordinarily sharp mind, and he turned his mind towards the largest questions of our age. I think his diagnosis of the crisis of European civilization, broadly defined to include the European diaspora and those parts of the world brought fully into the European cultural orbit, holds up well eleven years later.

In particular, it seems to me that Benedict was right that the default position among the centrist coalitions that dominate politics in Europe and America and their cultural partners, that there is nothing of value in Western culture or history, is profoundly weak, and this weakness has enabled nationalist populists of various sorts to gain political power by simply not expressing disdain for their nations or their history.


I don't think these movements are really what Benedict had in mind:

What Europe needs is a new self-acceptance, a self-acceptance that is critical and humble, if it truly wishes to survive.

I think Benedict was trying to build a more peaceful future by looking squarely at what was happening, but also by trying to build bridges between the powerful and those in Europe who felt marginalized. In his characteristic way, he sought this way through truth.

He frankly said this about immigration and low birthrates:

At the hour of its greatest success, Europe seems hollow, as if it were internally paralyzed by a failure of its circulatory system that is endangering its life, subjecting it to transplants that erase its identity. At the same time as its sustaining spiritual forces have collapsed, a growing decline in its ethnicity is also taking place.
Europe is infected by a strange lack of desire for the future. Children, our future, are perceived as a threat to the present, as though they were taking something away from our lives. Children are seen—at least by some people—as a liability rather than as a source of hope. Here it is obligatory to compare today’s situation with the decline of the Roman Empire. In its final days, Rome still functioned as a great historical framework, but in practice its vital energy had been depleted.

Eleven years ago, Benedict attempted to head off the political crises we have now by warning that low birthrates and high rates of immigration with the frank intent to replace the missing natives were bound to reach a tipping point that sparked a backlash. Would that we had listened.

Europe and Its Discontents


The essay "Europe and Its Discontents," by Pope Benedict XVI, appears in the January 2006 issue of First Things. (This is the piece’s first appearance in English; it was apparently published in Europe last year.) The pope tries to define Europe geographically and religiously; to diagnose the causes of the loss of morale in European societies; and to outline certain remedies.

Europe, for the pope’s purposes, includes the historically Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox regions of the Old World from the Atlantic to the Urals. To some extent, it also includes the Americas and the Russian East, but Benedict’s historical observations apply chiefly to Western Europe. He proposes the interesting hypothesis that the original self-consciousness of post-Roman Europe was an awareness of finality and mission provided by the model of history in the Book of Daniel. However, Benedict emphasizes that the notion of a distinction between church and state is very old in the West. As early as the fifth century, Pope Gelasius (492-496) cautioned that secular and spiritual authority were united only in Christ, not in any human institution. At the time of the Reformation, the traditional practice of close cooperation between church and state was challenged by the model of the state church, a model which later included provision for the toleration of free churches. The Enlightenment and the French revolution saw the beginning of laicism, under which religion was treated as a private matter and the public sphere was secularized as much as possible. The United States took a middle ground between these positions. The American stance is based on a combination of the religious disestablishment demanded by the free-church tradition with a national sense of universal religious mission. The result is not so far from the model of Pope Gelasius.

Throughout Europe, and also in the United States to a lesser degree, religion was in decline in the 20th century no matter the model that a given country favored. The same was true of socialism, which had briefly tried to replace religion or (in its democratic forms) supplement it. Thus, the terms in which Europeans had identified themselves for centuries lost their meaning. The loss of identity has apparently also meant the loss of the societal will to live. The symptoms are both demographic, in the form of below-replacement birthrates, and cultural, in the form of a multicultural refusal to embrace the European heritage or to pass it on.

The essay considers whether there is anything to be done about this situation. Benedict notes Oswald Spengler’s model of history, with its pattern of civilizations that grow, bloom, and decline toward death. The biological metaphors that Spengler used leave little room for hope. The pope is far more pleased with Toynbee’s model. It is not deterministic, and in fact it diagnoses the problem of modern Europe as a loss of social cohesion that arises from a loss of religious faith. Toynbee counseled that Western Civilization needed a new spiritual foundation. His Holiness, perhaps predictably, is of like mind.

The essay suggests three specific points of identity that Europe needs to regain:

Human rights must be acknowledged to have a transcendent origin;

Marriage and the family must conform to historical norms;

There must be respect for the sacred; even atheists can be expected to manifest ordinary respect for what other people hold to be holy.

Returning at the end to Toynbee, Benedict notes that the well-being of a civilization depends on its creative minorities. He says that Christians should look on themselves as just such a creative minority. They should help Europe to regain its identity and thereby allow Europe to serve all mankind.

* * *

Reading Benedict’s short essay, one is reminded of Henri Pirenne’s observation that it is much easier to write briefly of a large subject; narrow topics, in contrast, must be treated at length. Actually, it is probably a failing on my part that my summary is as long as it is. So, rather than compound the error by long commentary, let me just highlight a few points that touch on my own peculiar interests.

It is a mistake to see too much daylight between Spengler’s and Toynbee’s views on the future of the West. Both spoke in terms of a civilization-wide revival of religion. The chief difference is that Spengler said “is” and Toynbee said “ought.” Spengler’s prophecy of the Second Religiousness is not perhaps wholly complimentary to religion; certainly it does not understand of the malaise of modernity as a religious issue. Nonetheless, it does point to a substantial resacralization of thought and of public life. It might be said, in fact, to predict the return to religion that Toynbee advised.

Note that Toynbee is a problematical prophet, however. Sometimes he seemed to think of the future not in terms of a revival of historical Christianity, but of the appearance of a new universal faith that would be the underpinning of a future ecumenical society. This new faith would have a large Christian component, of course, and it might even be considered a development of Christianity. Inevitably, however, it would be a Christianity with quite a lot of syncretic elements, certainly with regard to expression and possibly in terms of dogma. What use would such a Christianity be for the reconsolidation of a European Europe, whose problem is precisely the forgetting of the historic forms that this new Christianity would replace?

This brings to the three essential points that Benedict says must enter into a European identity. The items he mentions are unobjectionable, indeed obviously necessary. The problem is that there is nothing particularly European about them. Inalienable rights; a human model of the family; reverence for reverence: what part of the world does not need these things? One could argue, of course, that having returned to essentials, Europe would again embrace that part of its heritage that was consistent with them, and then move on to a new golden age. One fears, however, that such a thin understanding of the European identity would prove a bit like John Rawls’s theory of ethics: an economy of principles often produces an economy of results.

Then there is the basic question of whether religion should be recommended for its practical benefits. Jesus did not come into the world to save Western Civilization; he came to save souls. Augustine provided a partial answer to this objection, of course: Christians have an obligation to work for the betterment of the human condition, and it is no great stretch to argue that the revival of Europe would make the world a better place. However, there is a difference between a situation in which Christians know what they have to do and the practice of commending Christian principles to the world at large for their curative properties.

As for applying Toynbee’s notion of “creative minority” to the Europe’s dwindling stock of Christians: that would be a fine thing, but one does not create a creative minority at will. There is nothing wrong with elites per se; Toynbee is perfectly correct when he says they make the world go round. As we know, however, anyone who wants to belong to an elite does not deserve to be a member. Elites are constituted by the work they do; at their best, they scarcely notice their own status. An elite that knows it’s an elite is more likely to be what Toynbee called a “dominant minority,” the ruing class of a civilization in its terminal phase.

Having made all these carping remarks, let me conclude by saying that there is actually very little in Benedict XVI’s essay that I disagree with. The points I have made here are more in the nature of qualifications than of criticisms. Like Spengler, I am of the “is” rather than “ought” disposition. The difference is that I have persuaded myself that the “is,” the most likely future, is not so bad as some people (notably Spengler himself) would have us believe. Of course, for an inevitable good outcome to happen, we must act as if the outcome depends solely on our own efforts, which in fact it does.

It is entirely possible that I have thought about all this too much.

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

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The Contemplative Life -- Pt. II

It took me a couple of weeks to finally paint in all the corners I needed to repost John Reilly's review of St. Teresa's The Interior Castle. Sure, I could have just slapped it up here, but I like to preserve the web of links John made within all of his works. It produces something like a wiki-walk. Maybe when I'm done with the reposting project I will do a network analysis of John's HTML files and see how it matches up with my own impressions.

The reason I wanted to return to John's luminous review of St. Teresa's signature work is that I was struck by the similarities in Scott Alexander's book review of Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha. I have fond memories of Theravada Buddhism from my college years. I won a writing award in college for an essay, "Inescapable Beliefs," which dealt with my fascination with Buddhism, and my conviction that it could never replace Christianity in my heart. That particular bit of juvenilia should probably stay right where it is, but I look back on it now as a turning point in my life.

My later college obsession with Japanese culture provided an introduction to Mahayana Buddhism that only reinforced my Chestertonian impression that Christianity speaks best to the universal human longing for God that is expressed in multitudinous ways. Which brings me to the contrast between The Interior Castle and Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha.

The first thing I noticed was not in fact the differences, but the similarities. John says:

There is a science of mystical experience. The Interior Castle is one of the key sources of its data; so are Teresa's earlier works, including the Life and The Way of Perfection.

He goes on to note:

Even a cursory familiarity with the literature of mysticism will find resonances in this work. This reviewer was surprised to discover how much of this book's advice about prayer and the dangers of the advanced spiritual life is echoed in C.S. Lewis's most popular work, The Screwtape Letters. Lewis was familiar with the literature of mysticism, of course, but that is unlikely to be the whole explanation. Serious spirituality is an empirical enterprise; people who have experienced its effects will recognize them in the accounts of others who have experienced them.

The kinds of experiences described by mystics seem to be somewhat independent of their cultural context. This implies a common psychological/neurological framework within which they occur. I can see a plausible argument to be made that this explains religion. I think it to be false, but I can at least see where people are coming from. 

Following Chesterton, and St. Thomas, I see this is evidence that we are are all looking for something that we lack, something that transcends our human particularities, a something best found in Christianity. Part of what makes me think so is the different impressions I get from St. Teresa's book on mystical experiences, and Ingram's. My impressions here are colored by what I learned about Theravada Buddhism in college, so I would be interested to hear otherwise.

So far as I know, the state of nirvana is the ultimate goal of Buddhists. Mystical experiences brought about by meditation, as described by Ingram, are really just part of the path to achieving release from the self. St. Teresa, on the other hand, says nothing of the sort:

We should note that nowhere does Teresa suggest that the contemplative path is necessary for salvation, or even peculiarly helpful for it. 

Ordinary sanctity is something quite different in Christianity from the ultimate goal in Buddhism. It is far easier to achieve, and accessible to humbler people. This perhaps is why Thérèse of Lisieux, sometimes referred to as St. Thérèse the Little Flower, a nun of the same order as her namesake, is so popular. The heroic spirituality of Teresa of Avila is out of the reach of ordinary people. The severe discipline described by Ingram seems similar. The Little Flower shows us another way.

I sometimes describe myself as religious, but not not spiritual. Reading these parallel book reviews reinforces this in me. The way in which "enlightenment" overlaps with ordinary mental illness is particularly intriguing. Both Ingram and St. Teresa describe things that seem very much like common mental problems, and Alexander is particularly good at identifying these things. It isn't at all clear that the enlightenment Ingram describes is actually desirable. St. Teresa at least does a better job of selling it. However, each path is frankly described in terms that make it seem more than a little crazy.

Furthermore, the things Alexander describes as in his book review as things to be overcome via meditation seem more like features than bugs to me. 

Taken seriously, it suggests that some of the most fundamental factors of our experience are not real features of the sensory world, but very strong assumptions to which we fit sense-data in order to make sense of them. And Ingram’s theory of vipassana meditation looks a lot like concentrating really hard on our actual sense-data to try to disentangle them from the assumptions that make them cohere.
In the same way that our priors “snap” phrases like “PARIS IN THE THE SPRINGTIME” to a more coherent picture with only one “the”, or “snap” our saccade-jolted and blind-spot-filled visual world into a reasonable image, maybe they snap all of this vibrating and arising and passing away into something that looks like a permanent stable image of the world.

In particular, I've never understood the obsession with the saccade among rationalists. This is clearly a feature of our brains that enables sense perception to better match reality than the unfiltered optic nerve data would be be. If you break it, you wouldn't be able to function well, which seems to be what happens if you go too far down the meditation rabbit-hole.

The lesson I took from this is that the spiritual life is not for everyone, and can have some strongly negative consequences for the unwary. Religion, on the other hand, is accessible to everyone. I'll stick with religious, but not spiritual.

The Long View: The Interior Castle

This luminous review of St. Teresa's The Interior Castle finally brings me full circle, back to the mysteries of human experience, and the unity of mystical experience across religions. 

The Interior Castle
By St. Teresa of Avila

Translated by: 
The Monks of Stanbrook, 1911
Spanish Original:
Published Circa 1583
Barnes & Noble, 2005
227 Pages, US$9.95
ISBN: 978-0-7607-7024-5


If someone asks you, "What do you want from life?" all sorts of answers may occur to you. Ancient tradition suggests, however, that you should ask for something like this:

[T]he spiritual marriage with our Lord, where the soul always remains in its center with its God. Union may be symbolized by two wax candles, the tips of which touch each other so closely that there is but one light; or again, the wick, the wax, and the light become one, but that one candle can again be separated from the other and the two candles remain distinct; or the wick may be withdrawn from the wax. But spiritual marriage is like rain falling from heaven into a river or stream, becoming one and the same liquid, so that river and rainwater cannot be divided; or it resembles a streamlet flowing into the ocean, which cannot afterwards be disunited from it. This marriage may also be likened to a room into which a bright light enters through two windows--though divided when it enters, the light becomes one and the same.

The spiritual marriage is an event that occurs in the Seventh Mansions of the seven-region structure of the soul described in this book by Teresa Sánchez de Cepeda y Ahumada (1515 -- 1582), the reforming Carmelite nun. She was later named a saint and a Doctor of the Church; she is best known as St. Teresa of Avila. The state she described is the best thing that can happen to a living human being.

The contemplative tradition of prayer in which Teresa is such an eminent figure prescinds from most late-modern discussions about the reality and nature of the divine. God is not a proposition to be proven; or even an object of faith, at least after the first stage of prayer as self-initiated meditation. Rather, God is known through direct experience, an experience that is prior to any philosophical or scientific glosses that students of contemplation might apply to it. In that sense, contemplative prayer is an existentialist enterprise, rather like Heidegger's study of conscience as the voice of Being. The difference is that modern existentialism appeals to immediate experience on the assumption that experience will always behave itself. In the world of the contemplative, experience does not behave itself at all.

Be that as it may, any class of phenomena that are predominantly mental is going to raise at least some suspicion of insanity, fraud or mistake. Teresa reminds us more than once that she suffers from headaches, and that she sometimes hears a sound like rushing waters. There were points in her spiritual life, she makes clear, when she was simply ill. Critical of her own experience, she offers readers frank cautions about the psychological pathologies to which the nuns of her Order are subject. ("Melancholia" is not a modern diagnosis, but it seems at least as useful as later terms have proven to be.) She has a quite lively sense of the power of wishful thinking. She evidently knows mere silliness when she sees it. She also warns that even the most dramatic psychological event can be a diabolical deception, or may simply have no deep significance at all.

Readers of her book will soon appreciate how disciplined her treatment of contemplation is. They will also appreciate that quite a lot of this discipline is external.

Throughout her career, Teresa's activities were impeded because she was a woman in a society where women had limited legal personality, and, in any case, were not expected to have serious intellectual interests. Teresa was the daughter of a converso family, which also made her an object of suspicion in 16th-century Spain. More important, she and her colleague in the male wing of the Carmelite Order, Saint John of the Cross, were continuing to cultivate a tradition of late medieval spirituality that the Spanish hierarchy of her day strongly suspected, not without reason, to have contributed to starting the Reformation. Teresa was periodically suspected of being one of the alumbrados, a mystical movement whose beliefs shaded into antinomianism.

For a variety of reasons, then, Teresa had protracted problems with the Inquisition and her own superiors. In fact, in 1577, when this book was written, her access to religious texts and even her own earlier works were restricted; when she makes a Biblical quotation, she warns that she may have misremembered it because she cannot look it up. Nonetheless, it says something for her general mental health that she proved to be a formidable bureaucratic infighter. She managed to keep her major works in circulation, and she co-founded the Discalced Carmelites, a branch of the 12th-century Carmelite Order, that remains an important institution in the 21st century.

Teresa's uncongenial historical circumstances created fewer restraints than the system of confession and spiritual direction that can be found in some form in any religious order, but that are especially important to contemplatives. They are not unwanted intrusions, but an integral part of the discipline she describes. She repeatedly urges her readers, whom she assumed would at first be her fellow Carmelites, to keep their confessors informed about their spiritual experiences, and their prioress about their social and psychological ones (sometimes, the best next step in one's prayer life is a vacation, or at least a change of assignments). Of course, Teresa was aware that she knew more about the theory and practice of advanced spirituality than some of her spiritual directors did. The book is sprinkled with passages like this:

The time which has been spent in reading or writing on this subject will not have been lost if it has taught us these two truths; for though learned, clever men know them perfectly, women's wits are dull and need help in every way. Perhaps this is why our Lord has suggested these comparisons to me; may He give us grace to profit by them!

Leaving aside the question of which two truths were at issue, there are several ways to view this passage. Maybe it is a simple expression of humility. Maybe it is a way of deflecting possible criticism from suspicious prelates. There is also some reason to suppose that Teresa was the snarkiest Doctor of the Church since Augustine.

* * *

We should note that nowhere does Teresa suggest that the contemplative path is necessary for salvation, or even peculiarly helpful for it. Neither does she make special claims for her model of the soul as a castle like a translucent crystal. Nonetheless, for those who found the analogy helpful, she suggested that those who wished to advance in the knowledge and experience of God could think of themselves as moving through a concentric system of six rings of rooms or mansions ("moradas") toward a seventh, central set, where God was most perfectly present. Each of these rings of mansions presented its own challenges in terms of personal reformation and the type of prayer that is possible there; also, in each successive ring God affects the seeker in a more dramatic and overwhelming way. After the inner sections, particularly after the Fourth Mansions, God is clearly controlling the advance, but grace of some kind is needed for every step, including the original decision to enter the Castle.

Outside the castle is a dark landscape, where poor sinners are preyed upon by "reptiles," which may be demons, or the temptations, or the sinners' own ill will. Entering on the spiritual life, the penitent comes to the First Mansions. There, with some suffering, he gains self-knowledge. This painful process is necessary, though these mansions are a relatively crepuscular region, where the assaults of the reptiles are still common. The Second Mansions are similarly dark and dangerous, but there the aspiring soul will first learn how to pray. In the Third Mansions there is less danger from the cruder assaults of evil. It is the region of ordinary virtue; continuance in a state of grace becomes easier. Though we are not told this explicitly, one might gather from the text that these are the Mansions where the faithful in secular life might ordinarily expect to spend their lives.

In any case, even in these first three sets of Mansions, one meets here some of the subtle dangers of the spiritual life. Teresa counsels her readers on dealing with aridity and distraction in prayer, and about indiscreet zeal, the temptation to judge and criticize persons who seem less pious than oneself. The denizens of the Third Mansions in particular are tempted to think their lives are saintly because they are irreproachable; such people can actually benefit from the humility that comes with misfortune.

In the first three Mansions, the aspirant soul may sometimes be aware of special manifestations of divine grace, and of peace in prayer. As a rule, though, the divine is experienced only through the ordinary means of preaching and the sacraments, and through the natural satisfaction in a job well done (if you are a contemplative nun, the distinction between liturgy and labor tends to disappear). The Fourth Mansions, however, are the point where "consolations" normally begin to play a large part in the spiritual life. There are moments of the "expansion of the heart" that are outside the normal range of emotions; and indeed, in some manifestations, outside the range of nature.

There is a science of mystical experience. The Interior Castle is one of the key sources of its data; so are Teresa's earlier works, including the Life and The Way of Perfection. Rather than try to summarize the increasingly complex treatment of the inner mansions, let us here simply paraphrase the editor's Note 113 to The Interior Castle, even though it uses some of Teresa's terminology that does not occur in this particular book:

The first three Mansions of the Interior Castle correspond with the first water, or the prayer of Meditation. The Fourth Mansion, or the prayer of Quiet, corresponds with the second water. The Fifth Mansion, or the prayer of Union, corresponds with the third water. The sixth mansion, where the prayer of ecstasy is described, corresponds with the fourth water.

As for the Seventh Mansions, this review begins with a description of the spiritual marriage that occurs there.

The present text assumes that the reader is familiar with these modes of prayer and how they are performed. Meditation, for instance, seems to mean principally the sustained contemplation of the incidents in the life of Christ or of the Passion; the Rosary is a prayer of this type. In the other forms of prayer, some voluntary recollection or other act may be necessary, but the higher forms are events in which the will of the aspirant plays a smaller and smaller role. In any case, this book is less concerned with how to pray than with how to handle prayer's effects.

* * *

The theological subtext of The Interior Castle is Thomistic. Teresa was not herself trained in systematic theology, however, and even by her own account she garbled some points. This text has editorial notes and an interpolated chapter to clarify these points. Thus, they amplify with a venerable Scholastic gloss her distinction between the prayer of Union, which occurs in the Fifth Mansions, from the Marriage that occurs in the Seventh Mansions. The prayer of Union, the monks suggest, involves the accidents of the soul (its senses and cognitive functions), while the Marriage involves a change of its substance. This change is a transformation that identifies the soul with the divine to the degree that Teresa has a vision in which Jesus says to her "that henceforth she was to care for His affairs as though they were her own and He would care for hers." In the spiritual marriage, a human life becomes Christ's life. The editors do not make quite so bold as to call this transubstantiation.

Note that this was an "interior vision." Teresa describes "imaginary visions," which occur when people see images as if they were physical objects. She does not say such things are impossible, but that they do not belong to her experience. She also describes raptures, in which the spirit feels itself to leave the body (the she is professedly agnostic about whether this is actually the case). She also describes "jubilees," which can involve more than one person, and which sound a bit like charismatic behavior. Until she gets to the dramatic (and apparently somewhat dangerous) ecstasies of the Sixth Mansions, she herself is far more comfortable with "intellectual vision," in which knowledge is infused directly into the intellect, without the intervention of the senses. This can involve a direct awareness of an object or person, including the physical appearance. Indeed, one of the greatest consolations in the more advanced Mansions is the repeated and even habitual awareness of the divine presence.

Even a cursory familiarity with the literature of mysticism will find resonances in this work. This reviewer was surprised to discover how much of this book's advice about prayer and the dangers of the advanced spiritual life is echoed in C.S. Lewis's most popular work, The Screwtape Letters. Lewis was familiar with the literature of mysticism, of course, but that is unlikely to be the whole explanation. Serious spirituality is an empirical enterprise; people who have experienced its effects will recognize them in the accounts of others who have experienced them.

This does not mean that all the writers say the same things about the same experiences, or even that it is certain that the experiences are the same. For instance, in The Interior Castle, Teresa speaks of a point where a word, an idea, any small thing will cause an eruption of the divine presence. The divine sends out a flurry of sparks, any one of which could cause the soul to ignite. This sounds a bit like the climax of the anonymous English work, The Cloud of Unknowing, from two centuries earlier. In that book, the prepared soul sends out, at unpredictable intervals, shafts of aspiration that pierce the Godhead. Similar to The Interior Castle, yes: but are these moments identical?

There are certainly points where Teresa takes care to distinguish her views from those of other writers. There are some texts that suggest there comes a stage in the seeker's journey when the whole object of attention is God without qualification; the earlier meditations on Christ and His Passion were necessary, but are no longer relevant to the final stages. That is the view of The Cloud of Unknowing, which demands a preparation of perfect faith and purity of life, but moves to a point where everything, including even the benefits conveyed by God, is neglected in favor of the love of God. Teresa says that this is not her experience; she never ceases to focus on Jesus and the Cross. She never forgets the Saints, who at this level become felt companions rather than merely recipients of prayers for intercession. The Interior Castle presents a world that is less arid and alien than other expressions of advanced spirituality, particularly those of the 20th century. Finally, we may note that the seven-part structure of the Castle makes the journey through it into a history of seven ages, which inevitably calls to mind some of the models of time based on the structure of the week. The spiritual marriage of the Seventh Mansions calls to mind the Millennium, an idea that might have a literal personal application even if it does not have a historical one. More speculatively, one of Teresa's best-known metaphors, that of the caterpillar that spins a cocoon and later dies to be reborn as a butterfly, might have an application not just to the aspiring soul, but also to the Incarnation. The cocoon begins to be spun in the Fifth Mansions, after a long history of preparation. This is not unlike the idea that the Incarnation is the center of history, structurally if not necessarily in terms of the duration of the time periods to either side.

Even if Teresa had any thoughts along these lines herself, she does not mention them in The Interior Castle. They are the sort of notion that made the Inquisition cranky, for one thing. For another, speculation was not Teresa's vocation. She wrote about only what she knew.

Copyright © 2011 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2005-08-05: Police Powers; The Skeptical Assassin; The Ironies of ID; The Travelog Not To Be Described

Not the Assassins of Alamut

Not the Assassins of Alamut

The Aga Khan reportedly protested that the Assassin's Creed series falsified the history of his sect, the Nizaris. I am entirely sympathetic. But falsification may be more than the series is truly capable of, since it features an unusually insipid storyline.

I am also sympathetic to John's take on Intelligent Design. It is wrong, but not for the reason most of its opponents imagine, which is that it is religiously inspired and claims that God created the world. It is wrong because it doesn't give God enough credit.

Police Powers; The Skeptical Assassin; The Ironies of ID; The Travelog Not To Be Described


The case for treating terrorism as a law-enforcement problem was made in a recent article in the Times of London:

Urban terrorism can only be treated as a crime. Conspiring to explode devices in public places endangers life, destroys property and causes public nuisance. Like all criminal effects it has causes. A sensible democracy addresses those causes. But since ordinary citizens and even the police can do little about them in the short term, they rightly concentrate on the crime itself. The streets of London are alive with like dangers, with people who shoot, kill and maim dozens of people a year. We fight them all, whatever their proffered and spurious justification.

So what purpose was served last week by police crying, --They're still out there and trying to get you--? What good are daily briefings on --the inevitability-- of another attack? Street killings are inevitable, too. Apart from the gratuitous damage to public confidence and business, why stoke the very fears, hatreds and antagonisms that the bombers want stoked? Just get on and find the bombers, without publicising their allegedly awesome power to deflect blame from any deficiencies in public safety. Half the British Establishment seems to have signed up to the League of Friends of Terrorism.

There is something to be said for the policy of "pay no attention to them; that's just what they want." In this context, though, that attitude is lethally inapposite. There are three reasons:

The official response must differ in kind with the size of the threat: If the police suspect you are storing pirated copies of the latest Harry Potter book in your basement, then they call you "sir" when they knock on your door, and if you insist, they show you a warrant. In contrast, if your neighborhood is burning down and the only way to stop it is to make a firebreak, the police may kick down your door and blow up the building without so much as an "excuse me." It is true that society can get along with high levels of street crime. What it cannot live with is crimes that close down the transportation system or put the lights out. The rule has always been that such situations are not handled as ordinary criminal matters. There is no reason why terrorism should be an exception now.

Popular participation is needed to address the threat: The police by themselves can deal with the problems posed by a criminal gang that seeks to commit crime in secret. Only public vigilance can control a social underground that seeks to commit public outrages.

Multiculturalism is one of the underlying causes: Both official and popular response must take into account the possibility that cultural differences, which multiculturalism exists to preserve, might make a difference in the proclivity to commit terrorist acts.

It would be a disaster for Britain if everyone of South Asian ancestry were just deported, or ghettoized, or if Islam were simply proscribed, but draconian policies like that are false alternatives. It is entirely possible for liberal societies, in the old sense of "liberal," to defend themselves against threats like that posed by early 21st-century terrorism, quite without ceasing to be liberal. Before they can do that, however, they must recognize that extraordinary situations require extraordinary measures.

* * *

The archetype of holy terrorism is, if course, the sect of the Assassins, founded by Hasan-i Sabbah in the 12th century. Time Magazine records a visit by one of its reporters to Alamut, Sabbah's base in what is now Iran. Legend has it that Assassin recruits were drugged unconscious and brought to a pleasure palace at Alamut, which they were told was paradise. Then they were drugged again and returned to the world. A permanent return to paradise was promised them when they completed their mission of assassination, which generally entailed their own deaths. The reporter spoke to one of the keepers of the site:

"Was Sabbah the Osama bin Laden of his day?" I ask the guard before realizing that he was probably an Ismaili, one of the Assassins' descendants who are today spread across Afghanistan, Pakistan and India and follow the Aga Khan, a determinedly peaceful lot.

"Of course not," he replies angrily. "Sabbah never killed innocents. And his men only used a dagger, never poisons or easy ways of killing. They studied their victims, spent years getting close to them before they struck."

And the Assassin's Paradise? Could it be hidden away in the cleft of a nearby mountain?

It has never been found, the guard replied in the exultant tone of one who believed it never would be, because Sabbah had transported his Assassins not into a pleasure garden, but into Paradise itself.

I am inclined to agree with the guard, at least to the extent that it seems unlikely to me that the story about the artificial paradise is true. It is the sort of explanation for other people's behavior that requires they be much, much stupider than the person giving the stupid explanation.

* * *

President Bush, in contrast, favors intelligent design. At any rate, he is on record with the opinion that Intelligent Design (ID, to its friends) should be taught in the schools along with evolution.

The institutional home of ID is The Discovery Institute. Visitors may be reminded of, say, The Heritage Foundation, or of the other partisan think tanks. I have used material from Heritage myself, and even consulted its experts. They will give you a plausible argument; just don't expect a disinterested opinion.

The chief vehicle of ID evangelization these days seems to be The Privileged Planet, which is the title of a book and a related film. There have been confused reports that The Privileged Planet not only questions the sufficiency of Darwinian evolution as an explanation for the development of life, but also the reality of the Big Bang. This assertion is apparently quite untrue. What Intelligent Design does question is any cosmology that invokes a Multiverse, either of quantum mechanical timelines or of parallel time-space continua.

This is becoming hilarious. What we have here is an extreme form of the Anthropic Principle. If I understand correctly, ID posits not only the fine-tuning of the fundamental physical constants to make life possible, but also some version of the "Rare Earth" argument, which has it that Earth's history and astrophysical characteristics make it the only possible home of intelligent life in the universe. Unlike the Creationists, the ID people understand that the Big Bang is prima-facie evidence for theism; part of the reason the Multiverse was conceived was to disembarrass cosmology of a Creation story. (There are Multiverse Theologies, however.) As for the Rare Earth hypothesis, that was essentially what Stephen J. Gould was going on about all those years when he was proclaiming the randomness and unrepeatability of evolution, in the mistaken belief that he was exorcising religion from biology. Gould was probably wrong about the randomness of evolution. One great irony is that his arguments are now being used as evidence of the miraculous.

The greatest irony of all is that, while the supporters of ID are not, for the most part, interested in the objective pursuit of knowledge, they do at least have the merit of supporting a theory that is falsifiable in the Popperian sense, something which Darwinism is not. Does that mean that ID should be given equal time in the schools? By no means, not unless ID passes the usual tests of scientific utility. Should that happen (and it's possible, if unlikely), it would be a supplement to evolutionary theory, not a replacement for it.

* * *

Danny Yee is back from Leng, or at least from Mongolia, which is one of those places I did not know that you could go to as an ordinary tourist. A travelog and archive of images are going online here.

Mongolia, apparently, looks a great deal like Ray Bradbury's idea of Mars, down to the architecture.

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity

The basic demographics of religion across the world remain unchanged from twelve years ago. 

The Next Christendom:
The Coming of Global Christianity
By Philip Jenkins
Oxford University Press, 2002
270 Pages, US$14.95
ISBN 0-19-516891-7


Often enough, books on important topics are published almost simultaneously with historical events that discredit them. This book, on the future of world Christianity, and not least on the likelihood of conflict with Islam, is a rare exception. It went to press in September of 2001, so it did not mention the attacks of that month on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The author, Philip Jenkins, is a professor of Religious Studies at Pennsylvania State University. He did not add references to those events in subsequent editions. He did not need to. Though one might quarrel with many parts of his analysis, the intervening years have seen nothing to undermine his basic thesis that the position of Christianity as the world's largest religion will only improve in the 21st century. The fascinating question is how different world Christianity will be from the Christianity of the era of European predominance.

Christianity began as a Near Eastern religion. The bulk of the world's Christians may have been European no earlier than the 11th or 12th century. The latest configuration, in which most Christians live in Latin America and Africa and East Asia, is sometimes called “The Third Church,” though one hopes that Jenkins's “Next Christendom” sticks. If demographics are destiny, then people who foresee a Muslim future are simply mistaken. Christianity is well represented in the countries with the fastest-growing populations. Indeed, it always has been. In 1900, at the height of the European empires, perhaps a third of the world was Christian, just as a third of the world's population was European or of European extraction. Today, when a majority of the world's Christians already live outside of Europe and of America north of the Rio Grande, the Christian percentage of the world is still about a third. Projections have it that the percentage should also be at least a third in 2050, despite the high growth rates in Muslim countries, and despite the demographic declines, sometimes in absolute terms, of the developed countries.

The author gives a great deal of attention to Africa in particular. We get lots of tasty statistics. Apparently, just 10% of Africans were Christian in 1900. The portion grew to 25% by 1965, about the time that Christians began to outnumber Muslims. By 2001, it was perhaps 46%. “In American terms,” he explains, “much of the continent has served as one vast burnt over district.” (He refers, of course, to the region of western New York State that produced so many new religious movements in the first half of the 19th century.) He does not neglect the AICs (“African Independent Churches,” though that acronym has more than one interpretation.). He points out that, however interesting the AICs may be, the big story is the continuing vitality of the mainstream denominations, particularly those that have become little more than museum curiosities in Europe.

In general, one might characterize the Christianity of the South (which, oddly, includes the East) as visionary, charismatic, apocalyptic. At the same time, it is also theologically and culturally conservative. The tension is real: not just in the North, but also in the South, people ask, “What is essentially Christian?” There is an ancient tradition of using the cultural resources of pagan societies for the purposes of evangelization. Europe itself was converted in part by the missionaries' willingness to regard the native mythologies as “preparatio evangelica.” On the other hand, there is no denying that intelligent inculturation of the faith can lead to unacceptable syncretism.

Wherever Christianity expands today, it favors the vernacularization of scripture and liturgy. This can lead to extreme situations, such as the incorporation of animal sacrifices into Christian services. It raises questions about polygamy and the role of the clergy. The latter is particularly an issue for the explosively growing and ludicrously understaffed Catholic Church. Jenkins points out that, when the Vatican reasserts dogmas that seem against the tide of history to Europeans and Americans, it is in fact simply responding to the Church's key demographics: “The hierarchy knows that the liberal issues dear to American or West European Catholics are irrelevant or worse to the socially traditional societies of the South.” Jenkins even makes bold to suggest that dogma itself may be shaped by Southern enthusiasms: “There is now talk that the Virgin might be proclaimed a mediator and co-Savior figure, comparable to Jesus himself, even a fourth member of the Trinity.”

Regarding the last point: I have heard that talk, too, all of it from old-style traditional Catholics. Even if it were theologically possible (and certainly a redefinition of the Trinity would not be), I just don't see the market.

In any case, Jenkins notes, no doubt correctly, that many of the peculiarities of Southern Christianity are simply aspects of its newness. Prophets may prophesy today, but in due course they will be replaced by ecclesiastical bureaucrats who write memos, even in Africa. Indeed, the famous social conservatism of the South may pass away, too. However, this will not happen for generations.

The Spirit moves where It will, but certain factors are present in most places where Christianity has seen recent growth:

---Much of the world is becoming urbanized in chaotic megalopolises The displaced people there need communities, and services that the government cannot provide.

---In the new Christian groups, members of disfavored races and castes can become leaders. Women are somewhat less likely to become leaders, but they become the core members.

---Men learn family responsibility and chastity.

---People can experience the presence of God in everyday life. Among the topics that figure most prominently in contemporary conversion narratives are physical healing and emancipation from various addictions.

Jenkins cites repeatedly Harvey Cox's noted study of the worldwide spread of Pentecostal worship, Fire from Heaven. By Pentecostalism he does not mean principally the self-identified Pentecostal denominations, important though those are. More important may be the spread of this pluripotent spirituality through the older denominations. If present trends continue, there will be a billion Pentecostals, variously defined, by 2050. That number will be comparable to the number of Hindus. Catholics will, the author reminds us, outnumber both, but he suggests that the rise of Pentecostalism may have been the most important event of the 20th century. In Latin America in particular, it is becoming almost a third limb of Christianity. It is also an object of suspicion to many Protestant denominations, who look askance at its reliance on personal revelation and on its destitute audiences.

The author does not cease to remind us of the parallels between our time and that of the period just after the fall of the Roman Empire, when the Greek Christianity of the eastern Mediterranean was transmuted in the forests of northern Europe. 21st century Christianity is becoming the ghost of the European empires, just as medieval Christianity, in Hobbes's famous metaphor, was the ghost of the Roman Empire.

More important is the fact that, in so much of the South, we are back in the world of the New Testament. Christianity is once again the religion of the extremely poor. The Gospels speak of demonic possession, prophecy, healing, and of being brought before tribunals that may exact death as the price of adherence to the faith. These are not metaphors, but daily experiences for an increasing part of today's Christians. As Jenkins puts it: “In the South, Revelation simply makes sense, in its description of a world ruled by monstrous demonic powers.”

It was not so long ago that progressive churchmen placed high hopes in theologies of liberation as the cutting edge of revolutionary reform in the South, and particularly in Latin America. Jenkins makes the important point that the embrace of socialism by sophisticated Southern Catholics dovetailed neatly with the older tradition of integralism. In any case, during the 1970s and 1980s, the Catholic Church often did serve the political interests of the poor. Clerics were martyred, and others became genuine democratic leaders. Popular religious movements did spring up. Unfortunately, as the saying goes, “The Church chose the poor, and the poor chose the evangelicals.” There certainly were cases in Latin America, as in Africa, where oppressive governments turned to charismatic and quietist groups in order to circumvent the traditional churches and their new social radicalism. In general, though, Liberation Theology was seen as a northern artifact, essentially irrelevant to the spiritual and social needs of the people. On the whole, Catholic charismatic groups have been more important than the “base communities” so favored by the religious Left.

Not unreasonably, the author reminds us again and again how surprising this resacralized world must be to Westerners who grew up assuming that secularization was the irreversible direction of history. However, he also reminds us that the reversal is not unprecedented: consider the revival of both orthodoxy and religious enthusiasm in the 19th century, just after the secular Enlightenment seemed to be carrying all before it.

Jenkins makes a few surmises about the future of Christianity in the West. Regarding post-Christian Europe, he notes that, in addition to the Muslims, many of the new immigrants are Christian, particularly from Africa and the Caribbean. This creates at least the opportunity for an immigrant-led revival. In the US, of course, immigration works differently, because American Christianity is by no means moribund. He does take care to refute the notion that the US is becoming more “religiously diverse,” if by that you mean “less Christian.”

Jenkins does not present a single scenario for the future. Rather, he tosses off one and then another, like a screenwriter proposing multiple ideas for disaster movies to a film studio. One can imagine future North-South conflicts, created by maldistribution of wealth, but expressed in literally apocalyptic terms. In the long run, the greater threat to McWorld may not be the Jihad, but the Crusade. The North could eventually define itself against Christianity.

Despite the possibility of conflict with the North, there are more opportunities for trouble between different regions of the South. In modern times, Christian minorities have fared far worse in Muslim countries than Muslims in Christian ones. Wars between Muslim and Christian theocracies might well be a feature of 21st–century Africa. Any “fracture area” between the Muslim and Christian worlds could be the place where a world war begins. “Imagine the world of the 13th century,” he suggests, “armed with nuclear weapons and anthrax.”

Jenkins makes a few points about other religions. Hindu chauvinists have been almost as oppressive toward Christians as Muslims have been, but that is partly because Hinduism is vulnerable: the huge Dalit (Untouchable) caste in India could benefit enormously from conversion to either Christianity or Islam. The eclipse of Buddhism, Jenkins says, is historically anomalous and probably temporary. Regarding Judaism, he notes that the Next Christendom has more freedom than the North to turn against Israel, because the South feels no responsibility for the Holocaust. On the other hand, since Israel has often aided Christian minorities being oppressed by Muslim governments, Israel could be counted among the crusaders. Jenkins constructs even stranger scenarios, such as one in which a still agnostic Chinese government comes to the aid of ethnic Chinese Christians in Malaysia or Indonesia, whose Muslim governments are supported by the United States.

There is a long tradition on both the Right and Left in developed countries of using the South for rhetorical purposes. A generation ago, the radical Left said that political battles that were lost in the West would be won in the South and East. Now Conservatives are saying the same thing. The world's multiculturalists are discovering, to their horror, that they have in fact been fostering a planetary religious revival. Still, Jenkins is clear that Western conservatives no more control the Next Christendom than the Old Left controlled aggressive international communism. The Right will probably be just as surprised at what actually happens as the left ever was.

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: Is Mathematics Constitutional?

A recent popular [well, as popular as a massive book full of equations can be] exposition of mathematical Platonism is Roger Penrose's The Road to Reality. It even has practice problems in it with devoted communities of amateurs trading tips on how to solve them. Mathematical Platonism, or something much like it, really is something like the default position of many mathematicians and physicists.

Since I ended up an engineer, perhaps it isn't really surprising that I always found the moderate realism of Aristotle and Aquinas more appealing. 

There is a good quote in this short essay that I've used to good effect:

"Because the whole point of science is to explain the universe without invoking the supernatural, the failure to explain rationally the 'unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics,' as the physicist Eugene Wigner once put it, is something of a scandal, an enormous gap in human understanding."
I, for one, was a little taken aback by the proposition that science had any "point" other than to describe the physical world as it actually is, but let that pass.

Philosophy of science is a field in fine shape, but many fans of science try to use it as a cudgel upon religious believers. Insofar as that attempt is mostly ignorant of both science and philosophy, it isn't particularly illuminating.

Is Mathematics Constitutional?


The New York Times remains our paper of record, even in matters of metaphysics. For proof, you need only consult the article by George Johnson that appeared in the Science Section on February 16, 1998, entitled: "Useful Invention or Absolute Truth: What Is Math?" The piece was occasioned by a flurry of recent books challenging mathematical Platonism. This is the belief, shared by most mathematicians and many physicists, that mathematical ideas are "discovered" rather than constructed by the mathematicians who articulate them. Consider the following sentence:

"Because the whole point of science is to explain the universe without invoking the supernatural, the failure to explain rationally the 'unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics,' as the physicist Eugene Wigner once put it, is something of a scandal, an enormous gap in human understanding."

I, for one, was a little taken aback by the proposition that science had any "point" other than to describe the physical world as it actually is, but let that pass. The immediate philosophical peril to the world of the Times is more narrow. That is, it is hard to be a thoroughgoing secular materialist if you have to acknowledge that there are aspects of reality that cannot be explained as either products of blind chance or of human invention. Supreme Court Justice William Kennedy has even suggested that systems of ethics claiming an extra-human origin are per se unconstitutional. Judging by some of the arguments against mathematical Platonism presented by the Times piece, however, we may soon see Establishment Clause challenges to federal aid for mathematical education.

The best-known of the books that try to de-Platonize mathematics is "The Number Sense: How the Mind Creates Mathematics," by the cognitive scientist Stanislas Dehaene. His argument is that the rudiments of mathematics are hardwired into the human brain, and so that mathematics is foundationally a product of neurology. The evidence is various. There are studies of accident victims suggesting there may be a specific area of the brain concerned with counting, as well as stimulus-response studies showing that some animals can be trained to distinguish small-number sequences. (Remember the rabbits in "Watership Down," who had the same name for all numbers from five to infinity?) Relying on even more subtle arguments is a recent article by George Lakoff and Rafael E. Núñez, "Mathematical Reasoning: Analogies, Metaphors and Images." [BE: the actual article is titled The Metaphorical Structure of Mathematics: Sketching Out Cognitive Foundations for a Mind-Based Mathematics] The authors suggest that numbers are simply extrapolated from the structure of the body and mathematical operations from movement. (The article is part of an upcoming book to be called "The Mathematical Body.")

I have not read these works, so it is entirely possible I am missing something. Still, it seems to me that there are two major problems with analyses of this sort. First, if the proposition is that mathematical entities are metaphysical universals that are reflected in the physical world, it is no argument against this proposition to point to specific physical instances of them. In other words, if numbers are everywhere, then it stands to reason that they would be inherent in the structure of the brain and body, too.

If Dr. Dehaene has really found a "math-box" in the head, has he found a fantasy-gland or an organ of perception? The Times article paraphrases him as saying that numbers are "artifacts of the way the brain parses the colors. Red apples are not inherently red. They reflect light at wavelengths that the brain...interprets as red." The distinction between things that are "really red" and those that "just look like red" has always escaped me, even in languages with different verbs for adjectival predicates and the copula. Doesn't a perfectly objective spectral signature identify any red object? In order to avoid writing the Monty Python skit that arguments about perception usually become, let me just note here that the experience of qualia (such as "redness") has nothing to do with the cognitive understanding of number. Like the numbers distinguishing the wavelengths of colors, for instance.

There is a more basic objection to the physicalistic reductionism at work here, however. Consider what it would mean if it worked. Suppose that proofs were presented so compelling as to convince any honest person that mathematics was indeed nothing more than an extrapolation of the structure of the nervous system, or of the fingers on the hand, or of the spacing of heartbeats. We would then have a situation where we would have to explain the "unreasonable effectiveness" of the human neocortex, or even the universal explanatory power of the human anatomy. This would be anthropocentrism come home to roost. You could, I suppose, argue that we only imagine that the human neurological activity called mathematics lets us explain everything; the reality is that we only know about the things that our brains let us explain. Well, maybe, but then that suggests that there are other things that we don't know about because our brains are not hardwired to explain them. Maybe those are the things that are really red?

There are indeed problems with mathematical Platonism, the chief of which is that it is hard to see how the physical world could interact with the non-sensuous ideal forms. (John Barrow's delightful "Pi in the Sky" will take interested readers on a fair-minded tour of the philosophy and intellectual history of this perennial question.) The most workable solution is probably the "moderate Realism" of Aquinas. He held that, yes, there are universals, but that we can know about them only through the senses. This seems reasonable enough. In fact, this epistemological optimism is probably the reason science developed in the West in the first place. There may even be a place for Dr. Dehaene's math-box in all this, if its function is regarded as perceiving numbers rather than making them up. What there can be no place for is the bigotry of those who believe that science exists only to support certain metaphysical prejudices.

Copyright © 1998 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: Religion and Governance: A Response

The future that still hasn't happened.

The future that still hasn't happened.

I can't find fault with John's notion that future has a tendency to turn out otherwise than expected.

Religion and Governance:
A Response


by John J. Reilly


This comment is in reply to the paper, "Religion and Governance," produced by Harlan Cleveland and Marc Luyckx for the Seminar on Governance and Civilization (May 14 -16), which was sponsored by the European Commission. The paper is a very broad-guage consideration of the role of religion in the 21st century in the "governance" of society. The geographical scope of the inquiry seems to be universal, but with special reference to Europe and the United States.

"Governance" is a broad-guage concept itself, since it includes not just what governments do, but also how other institutions of civil society, from business corporations to sporting clubs, systematically influence how people think and behave. The basic conclusion of the paper is that the non-religious public life of secular modernity, what Richard John Neuhaus called the "naked public square," is going to be again ornamented with religious meanings and institutions. The paper seeks to outline what kind of meanings and institutions these might be. It also seeks to spot possible occasions for social conflict that were not present in the more secular era that this future replaces.

There are two common ways to predict the future. One is to locate the present on the map of a model of history, the other is to extrapolate from features of the world as it is. "Religion and Governance" does both.

The model of history has the familiar structure of three ages. The first age was the premodern era, when the world was not just religious but enchanted. Society was governed by hierarchies that intermediated between the human and the transcendent. The second age was modernity, which was rationalistic and anti-transcendent. It, too, was hierarchical, but for reasons of efficiency. Because it made distinctions that once had been fused in a holy wholeness, it allowed for the development of individual autonomy and freedom of inquiry.

The age to come is called simply the "transmodern." Its cultural content is already apparent in the thinking of "cultural creatives," which seems to be a new term for "progressive" or "avant garde." Among transmodernism's elements are "intuitive brainwork," the celebration of diversity, the central importance of the protection of the physical environment, the acknowledgment of humanity's role in its own evolution, a public role for spirituality, and a preference for networks over hierarchies.

The problem with this analysis is that it gives too little attention to the content of the present per se. All we are told about today is that we are living in a transitional period. This description is trivially true of any historical period you can think of, since the past is always turning into the future. Still, there are indeed some unusual periods, such as the first half of the 16th century, when it is more true than in others. I see no reason to doubt that late modernity is such an age. If this true, however, then today should be more different from its immediate future than is usually the case. The present should, on the other hand, be less different from its immediate past than from its future; "postmodernism" is just late modernity, which is to say, modernism that has become a familiar running gag.

Most of the elements that "Religion and Governance" single out as features of the transmodern future are probably features of our highly unusual present. This is particularly the case with those elements of contemporary cultural life that render it so plastic and indeterminate. The toleration of diversity, the antipathy to traditional hierarchies, the fixation on new information technologies: these are the sort of thing you would expect to see in a transitional period. The plasticity is necessary for the creation of a new synthesis. When the synthesis is achieved, however, it will have a specific content that will be defended.

"Religion and Governance" probably hits the nail right on the head when it says that the chief conflicts in the future having a religious dimension will be between "fundamentalists" and "cultural creatives." The paper also does well to counsel an irenic dialog among all parties. Nevertheless, I suspect that the identification of fundamentalists with the "premodern" and of cultural creatives (or "liberals") with the "transmodern" is seriously misleading.

One of the defining features of the current cultural period is precisely the deadening influence of what in politics is sometimes called "reactionary liberalism." We live in a time in which the artistic avant garde has not had an original idea since 1910, but asserts a new-found right to public funds. For many people, the last word in social enlightenment is still a bohemianism that was weary fifty years ago. Even theology is transfixed by a "critical method" that was abandoned by classicists long before living memory. In the next century, all this stuff is going to go.

Does this mean that the transmodern world is going to be a conservative's paradise? Almost certainly not; "Religion and Governance" is correct to emphasize that the Third Age will have both modern and premodern features. All I am suggesting is that the coming age will be a Hegelian synthesis, and not simply an extension of the present.



This article originally appeared in the Religious Futurists Bulletin (October, 1998), an organ of the World Network of Religious Futurists.

Copyright © 1998 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: The Obvious Proof

I think there are better arguments for classical theism than the Argument from Design, but as eminent a philosopher as Antony Flew was eventually convinced by it. Philosophical atheism is a respectable position, but many of atheism's most vocal defenders are not actually espousing that position, but rather a juvenile and reactive atheism that does them no credit. For those individuals, a psychological explanation may have merit.

The Obvious Proof: A Presentation of the Classic Proof of Universal Design
by Gershon Robinson and Mordechai Steinman
CIS Publishers, 1993
$13.95 Hardcover, $10.95 Paper
141 Pages


Is there such a thing as an honest atheist? Maybe not, according to Gershon Robinson and Mordechai Steinman (both of whom are writers, the latter with a physics degree). This short book (really an extended essay) does not add much new to the Design debate. What it does do is try to turn the intellectual tables by interpreting atheism as a species of willful irrationality.

The thesis of "The Obvious Proof" is that the scientific evidence for intelligent design in nature is at least as great as the evidence that would normally persuade us that something is artificial. The authors' benchmark for common sense in this matter is the black obelisk buried beneath the surface of the Moon in the film "2001," which audiences around the world immediately intuited to be a product of intelligence. (This argument is set out more briefly at the website The 2001 Principle, where you can also order the book.) The authors present a useful summary of several popular treatments of the Anthropic Principle in cosmology and the extraterrestrial "seeding theory" of the origin of life on Earth. However, the book does not attempt a comprehensive presentation of the Argument from Design. (Among other things, such a presentation would require a discussion of the evidence from chaos and complexity studies that the natural world is in large measure self-organizing.) Rather, the authors assume that Design is such an obvious explanation for order in nature that the reluctance of certain scientists to accept it can have only a psychological explanation.

The explanation that the authors favor is the Gestalt psychology principle of "cognitive dissonance," which causes people to reject empirical information that does not fit into their mental categories. The authors sometimes seem to equate intellectual cognitive dissonance with Freudian repression. (Perhaps the distinction may not be hard and fast. In any case, a more purely Freudian explanation for atheism was developed a few years ago by the psychologist Paul Vitz.) What the authors are talking about here is not a failure of the imagination among scientists, which is what cognitive dissonance normally implies in a scientific context. Rather, they seek to define the reasons for the emotional reluctance found among at least some scientists to accept the theistic implications of empirical research.

The five emotional grounds the authors present for this reluctance are rather intriguing. Three are things you might expect: the desire for complete moral autonomy, outraged intellectual pride faced with the unknowable, and mere intellectual habit. One of the others, however, is the ontological anxiety that might occur should you accept that you are a product of another will. It's an interesting point: a meaningless universe is less threatening than an arbitrary one. The most engaging reason for atheism, though, is almost a kind of shyness. If God exists, then He must have abandoned us, since otherwise He would not be so enigmatic. Do you really want someone to exist who probably does not like you?

"The Obvious Proof" could be taken as a commentary on Rabbi Elchonon Wasserman's commentary on Maimonides' commentary on the beginning of the Decalogue. Maimonides concluded from the words "I am G-d, your Lord, Who took you out of the land of Egypt," that there is an actual duty under Jewish Law to believe in God. Such a commandment is reasonable, according to Rabbi Wasserman, because the existence of God should be obvious even to a boy by the time of his Bar Mitzvah. Those who deny the evidence for God, according to this view, do so because they have intellectual or emotional "investments" in a non-theistic universe.

It is certainly true that some scientists have a psychological ax to grind on the question of the existence of God. (My suspicion is that a disproportionate number of these people write popular science for just this reason.) It is probably also true that the perception of design in nature is a matter of intuitive common sense. However, intuitive common sense, even when it is correct, is not the same thing as a rigorous philosophical proof.



Copyright © 1998 by John J. Reilly

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Linkfest 2017-06-03

Speaking from experience: a note on mysticism and religion

Niall Gooch's attempt to expand on a distinction between a mystical experience and a religious one.

Three Polish Poems

BD Sixsmith agrees with Niall in poetic form.

The History of U.S. Government Spending, Revenue, and Debt (1790-2015)

Morphing graphs on US government spending over time. 

Stratolaunch rolls out giant aircraft

Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft, continues testing on his launch vehicle.

How to build a fallout shelter

The Swiss have always taken preparedness to a new level.

This data set took six years to create. Worth every moment

Every US department now rolls up budgeting data into one source.

New evidence that lead exposure increases crime

A series of analyses to test Kevin Drum's theory that lead exposure explains much crime in the US.

Why we should love null results

Knowing what doesn't work is important too.

The Long View: The Politics of Meaning

I don't think I can improve on this concluding paragraph.

The Politics of Meaning: Restoring Hope and Possibility in an Age of Cynicism

By Michael Lerner
Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1996
$24.00, 355 pages
ISBN: 0-201-47966-4


The '60s Left Tries God

Remember back in 1993 when First Lady Hillary Clinton began to wax eloquent about The Politics of Virtue? Remember that you could not understand what she was talking about? Because she and her husband had picked up a lot of the vocabulary for their new enthusiasm from Tikkun magazine, its editor, Michael Lerner, was briefly designated White House Guru by members of the press. In this book, Dr. Lerner (he holds doctorates in philosophy and clinical psychology) tries to explain what the First Lady was talking about, or at least what she would have been talking about if she had understood the magazine better. This is scarcely a campaign book; only an Epilogue deals with the Clinton presidency at length, and that critically. Rather, the book is nothing less than an attempt to sketch a general theory of leftist politics for a post-secular age.

In fairness, it should be said that Lerner speaks of a "progressive" politics that "goes beyond Right and Left." However, as with so many other calls to go "beyond" those categories, Lerner seeks to do so by assuming unconditional victory for the Left on almost every controversial point. The book is most interesting for its critique of liberalism. Like Christopher Lasch, Lerner sees it as basically a servant of the market. The argument might have been more persuasive were it not for the repetitive psychobabble in which it is written. In any event, Lerner's psychoanalytical bent has unfortunate consequences that go beyond style. The author's critique of contemporary conservatism, for instance, fails to engage the ideas of its subject as anything but symptoms of the psychological distress inherent in a repressive social system. The real problem with the book is far more fundamental, however. Lerner seeks to reconstruct "progressive" politics around a spiritual core, but the fact is that late modern cultural liberalism is flatly incompatible with piety. One will eventually destroy the other. It is as simple as that.

The author has two fears, one general and one more specific. The general fear is that the Right, both cultural and economic, will achieve permanent hegemony in the United States because it speaks to the spiritual dimension of life that liberalism has traditionally disparaged or ignored. Lerner is willing, indeed anxious, to acknowledge that the religious and cultural Right perceives real flaws in liberal society. However, since he is an economic leftist of the old school who has little sympathy with the actual program of today's Right, he is not pleased.

Lerner uses a slightly repulsive term, "meaning-needs," to refer to this element missing from the mind of modernity, but his point is clear enough. No society worth living in can be grounded in pure procedure, even just and equitable procedures. Healthy societies must look to a transcendent point of reference. Traditional religions do this, though Lerner is careful to allow that the same function could be served by nondenominational metaphysics. When a society loses sight of the transcendent, he suggests, it becomes disoriented. Families fall apart, people hate their jobs, some people become literally ill, either physically or psychologically. Where people are not seen to be images of God, they soon become objects rather than subjects, and then hated objects. Lerner has a quite lively sense that this is precisely the kind of cultural world that secular liberalism, or liberal secularism if you prefer, has been creating since the Enlightenment, and that people naturally loathe it.

His more specific fear is touched on directly only a few times, but the author clearly regards it as important. It is his belief that the Jews have been peculiarly associated with the progress of modernity, and so might be expected to be peculiarly subject to attack when modernity, at least in its liberal form, goes into retreat. This argument perhaps works better for continental European history than for American or even British history. Since the French Revolution, the "conservative" wing in the politics of most European countries has usually been based on an alliance of throne-and-altar, one to which non-Christians of any description were almost by definition in opposition. Even in the United States, however, the law regarding the separation of church and state was in large measure created to accommodate Jewish demands for purely secular public institutions, particularly with regard to education. According to Lerner, Jewish Americans are wrong to congratulate themselves on living in a country where most traces of Christianity have been removed from public life and the rest are under litigation. It is, for instance, conceivable that a resurgent Christian Right, which arose precisely to oppose this trend in the nation's civil life, would hold a grudge if it came to power. The more fundamental problem, however, is that secularization has been correlated with an appreciable decline in the public and private ethics of the American people. A godless America is not good for anybody, the Jews included.

This account of the theses of "The Politics of Meaning" is a kind of translation, since the intended audience for the book lives in a special mental universe where people speak a special language. The people Lerner seeks to persuade are old New Leftists, people for whom the 1960s was the acme of the moral evolution of the human race. In that universe, corporations are assumed to be criminal enterprises and the people who manage them are on the moral level of muggers and rapists. In that universe, feminism is an unalloyed success whose methods of consciousness-raising and mass action are models for every other form of social change. In that universe, private enterprise is the chief danger to the ecological health of the planet. (This may be because in that universe socialism has not really been tried, so the layer of toxic soot that covers so much of Eastern Europe in our own world is no evidence.) Perhaps the most bizarre thing about this other universe is that, there, Wilhelm Reich is a great psychoanalytic thinker. (Indeed, Lerner bandies Reichian-sounding terms like "spiritual energy" and even "God-energy" so freely that you have to wonder how tightly his notion of the "transcendent" is screwed on.) The inhabitants of that other universe have interests different from those of the people we know. Lerner's argument in the book, in fact, has less to do with demonstrating the reality of the transcendent than with showing why the "politics of meaning" is necessary for the fight against capitalism.

One of the many sixty-ish things about the book is that its attack on liberalism is from the Left. We are given to understand that the problem with the ACLU is that it is not radical enough. Lerner attacks the traditional liberal program of identifying and protecting ever more rights as essentially a diversion. "Rights talk," as it has come to be called, assumes the licitness of the market economy and seeks to make that economy more palatable. In fact, the whole problem with civil liberties as liberalism has conceived them is that they are based on the notion of contract, of free agreement between equal adults who have no history and no community. In order to disparage this notion, Lerner even goes so far as to nibble at the rationale for the abortion right, saying that abortion is a matter not just between a woman and her doctor, but a woman, her community and her doctor. (As I said, you have to wonder how tightly his notion of the transcendent is screwed on.) Lerner suggests an alternative model of rights, one proposed by certain feminists. Instead of thinking of rights as entitlements that flow from the implicit "social contract" between adults, we should think of them as arising from a social nurturing relationship like that which exists between a mother and child. My own reaction to this idea is that it gives new meaning to the term "nanny state," but in the universe where Lerner's audience lives, such a characterization is not an objection.

Lerner's postulate that market economies dissolve the cultures of the societies in which they exist is not new, and I can see how a few years ago it might have seemed to be obviously true. Lately, though, many people have begun to wonder. Francis Fukuyama, for instance, has taken to assessing the developmental potential of different countries by assessing the level of certain virtues among their inhabitants. So many societies have attempted to build capitalist economies since 1989, and with such varying success, that you have to question the assumption that the market economy is a universal anticulture. Lerner, however, remains fixed in the undergraduate certitudes of thirty years ago. For him, business is just a kind of predation. Competitors are obstacles to be overcome, employees are tools to be expended, consumers are cattle for the slaughter. Now, there are indeed post-Communist countries were business really is a war of all against all, one fought with real bullets that leaves real dead bodies. And of course, managers even in sophisticated capitalist countries are sometimes possessed by strange fashions, such as the recent practice of downsizing companies even in the face of expanding markets. However, I think that one lesson we can learn from the events of the past decade, if we did not already know it, is that businesses are normal human associations that depend on such virtues as trust, loyalty and hard work. Furthermore, far from relentlessly destroying these virtues, they normally promote them.


Successful market economies are culture specific phenomena that depend on the Post Office not stealing the mail, on accountants honestly totaling the receipts, on workers not sabotaging machines. Successful business pay their suppliers promptly. Their bosses look for new markets rather than try to bribe the government to give them monopolies. The sorry state of so much of the post-Communist world can be explained by the lack of cultural reflexes of this sort. Private enterprise does not run on "greed" or any other vice, though Lerner seems to think that greed is the sum of the morality of the market. Additionally, the notion that capitalist economies run on false needs generated by wicked marketers is an unsupportable piece of ancient leftist polemic. Doubtless most of the needs to which market economies cater are "false needs," in the sense that they far exceed the needs of bare subsistence. However, the fact that capitalist countries keep most of their citizens far above the level of bare subsistence can appear to be a fault only to people who hope for universal misery as a necessary predicate to revolution.

There is a distinct Gnostic flavor to Lerner's belief that most people in advanced countries spend most of their days in the service of criminal enterprises. (He allows, of course, that the guilt of business executives, like that of drug dealers, may be mitigated by the warped social environment in which they grew up.) Just as the ancient Gnostics thought that the body was evil in itself and the world therefore the doomed kingdom of the devil, so Lerner regards the normal activities of everyday life with a sort of disgust, tempered by the hope that people will someday abandon their inhuman market practices and instead deal with each other in a humane and loving way.

Lerner's model of truly human social interaction seems to be therapy. In the 1970s he was part of an institute dedicated to relieving the burdens of work-related stress. From what I can gather from this book, therapy consisted of awakening the workers to the harm that market competition was doing to their lives. The enterprise did not go far, and to his credit, Lerner realized that his clients had moral and spiritual concerns that could not be addressed in the language of the New Left or that of psychotherapy. "The Politics of Meaning" is an attempt to outline a language that could be used for just such a purpose. The "democratization" of the economy (which seems to mean establishing markets and prices by vote) and the "humanization" of the workplace (which seems to mean the old Soviet model of folding social services into the operations of factories and offices) would not be undertaken to comply with some economic theory. That would be just as dehumanizing as market economics. Rather, the truly human society would be created through a process of healing. The cure is to be found in a reformation of consciousness, to be accomplished through the familiar means of group therapy and other tools of progressive politics. The key to a new society is a transforming knowledge, a gnosis. To focus on mere details is not just unnecessary, but an evasion of the task at hand.

Tikkun, the name of the magazine that Lerner edits, means "reconstruction." In kabbalah, it means healing the damage done to the world by the primordial disaster that marred it. Traditionally, this was supposed to be accomplished by the devotion of the pious, but the idea lends itself to a theory of social progress as readily as does St. Augustine's model of history. The life's work of every participant in the society for which Lerner hopes would be to become a fully actualized human being, a creature that reflects the image of God. Nevertheless, the fact that the whole business sounds more than a bit like the Chinese Cultural Revolution with facilitators is not perhaps entirely coincidental.

Lerner remarks at one point that "to be human is to be commanded." There is something to be said for this formula, if you believe that morality is objective. The problem is that he seems singularly unwilling to be commanded by scripture, tradition or history. There is no significant feature of America's own cultural revolution in the 1960s that he is willing to repudiate. Certainly no laws, like those relating to divorce or abortion, are to be changed. The only problem with homosexual culture for him is homophobia. Even his willingness to allow instruction about religion in the schools is tempered by the proviso that Christianity is to have no greater part in the curriculum than any other religion, an odd restriction in a largely Christian country, even from a purely academic point of view. One of his refrains is that we should not limit our thinking to the practical, but should try to implement our highest ideals. The problem is that in Lerner's case, the social ideal is a religiously observant kibbutz. In contrast, the ideal for most people most of the time has been their own house with a bit of garden. When most Americans actually got something like that after the Second World War, the Left derided the ideal with songs about "little houses made of ticky-tacky" and began trying to make people want what they are supposed to want. Michael Lerner is still at it.

The lesson of the 1960s Lerner has refused to learn is perhaps the chief lesson of the whole revolutionary tradition of the modern West: we are commanded to be practical. To do otherwise, when contemplating so grave a matter as reconstructing a society, is to practice depraved indifference to human life. Lerner thinks that society as it exists is composed of criminals and psychopaths, of people who oppress each other and who steal valuable resources from the future. Nevertheless, he holds out the hope that they can be rehabilitated through a reeducation process in which they will have the sort of rights that children have in relation to their parents. Frankly, this has been the formula for bloody mass murder in so many places in the 20th century that it is hard to see how anyone who is not a moral idiot could propose it yet again.

One of the important points about the linear model of history shared by Judaism and Christianity is that you are supposed to learn something as you go along. We learn about the world through induction, through planned experiment and everyday experience. This is how we derive meaning from history. It is how we get some inkling of the influence of the transcendent on our world. The rejection by modernity of this source of guidance is what made modernity what it is. Nevertheless, something we have indeed learned is that market economics is true as far as it goes. It is, after all, just a set of theorems about the interrelation of prices. We have also learned that the market is not what is wrong with the world, and that those who say that it is usually have an agenda for which economics is just an excuse. These small insights do not exhaust the meaning of the twentieth century. However, they must be the basis for any humane practical politics of the twenty-first.



This article first appeared in the July/August 1996 issue of Culture Wars magazine.

Copyright © 1996 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: The Great Disappointment of 1844

John maintained the HTML for his website by hand. I also starting making webpages in the late nineties, and that was just how you did it. As such, he had indexes by topic for his major interests, for example eschatology. I debated recreating these for a long time, but I finally decided to do it because a few items slipped though the cracks of the blog-centric chronological method I had been using to repost John's writings.

This also gives me an opportunity to escape the tedium of John's topical political blog posts from twelve years ago. While nothing looks more dated than old scifi movies, old political controversy is an especial trial to read.

Thus, let us move on to this short book review of a book that never existed, combining John's interests in eschatology and alternative history into one!

The Great Disappointment of 1844
by John de Patmos
Misketonic University Press, 2001
567 Pages, US$30
ISBN: 0-7388-2356-2

This item is Alternative History.

The Second Coming did not actually occur in 1844.

The Great Disappointment is a real hisrorical term, however.

Look under Eschatology for the review of Arguing the Apocalypse.


The Millerite Movement and its sequel are, for obvious reasons, the most studied manifestations of mass millennialism since the New Testament period itself. Indeed, so carefully has this grand finale of America's "Second Great Awakening" been examined that one may wonder whether there is anything new for historians to say. Certainly the author of the present study does not aspire to novelty. Rather, "The Great Disappointment of 1844" performs the invaluable service of sifting through the last generation of scholarship on the subject to provide a narrative that is both readable and current.

The optimism of America in the early decades of the 19th century was reflected in the "postmillennial" view of history that underlay the great outbreak of religious revival and social reform that we know as the Second Great Awakening. Postmillennialism, as all students of eschatology know, was the doctrine that the Second Coming of Christ would occur at the end of the thousand year reign of the Saints, the Millennium foretold by Chapter 20 of the Book of Revelation. The implication was that the Saints would themselves put the world in order in preparation for the great event.

The Second Great Awakening was in fact characterized by a high level of political and cultural engagement by Christians. The reform movements of the time, from Abolitionism to Women's Suffrage to the Prohibition of Alcohol, began as aspects of postmillennial religious revival. While some progress was made on these fronts, the failure of the reform movements to remake society as a whole caused many persons to despair of the possibility that the world could be perfected purely by human efforts. The time was ripe for a return of premillennialism, the doctrine that the Second Coming would inaugurate rather than conclude the Millennial kingdom, which would then develop under divine guidance.

The name that became inextricably linked with the triumph of premillennialism was William Miller, a respectable farmer and keen amateur student of scripture living in northern New York State. His reexamination of the dating of people and events in the Bible, set alongside certain familiar interpretations of the complex prophetic number systems of Daniel, Ezekiel and Revelation, convinced him that the Second Coming would occur around the year 1843. Though his analysis was multi-layered, a key feature of his logic was a demonstration that a proper calculation of the generations mentioned in the Old Testament showed that Bishop Ussher, who had famously announced that the world had been created in 4004 BC, had in fact underestimated the age of the world by a good 150 years. Thus, the six-thousandth year of the world would occur in the first half of the 19th century. Then would begin the "Seventh Day of Creation," a concept long associated with the Millennium.

William Miller was not the first student of scripture to set a near-term date for the Parousia. Still, he was a little unusual in the transparency of his argument and his willingness to engage critics. Miller was never the "prophet" of Millerism; his authority was arithmetic, not personal revelation. It was possible to disagree with his calculations, and many people did. Still, the argument was of such a nature that it could not be merely dismissed; it had to be refuted.

William Miller reached his conclusions about the dating of the Second Coming about 1830. He soon began to disseminate them in print and, more diffidently, on speaking tours. His message took on a life of its own, becoming the template for an interdenominational network of evangelists and publications. People abandoned their ordinary affairs to propagate the gospel of the last days, often giving away their property or neglecting to plant their fields. The precise date for the great event, October 22, 1844, did not come from Miller, or indeed from any of the leading figures of the movement. Rather, it appeared among the mass of believers, who overwhelmingly gave it immediate acceptance.

Of course, as we now know, the prediction was correct. The study of the Parousia Event of 1844 naturally overshadows the Millerite Movement (as it does the contemporary Taiping and Babist movements). However, the Days of the Presence required the creation of a new historiographical discipline, which the present study only briefly outlines. The Millerite story picks up when coherent documentation again begins to become available in January of 1845.

Against the unsettled economic and cultural landscape of the early Millennial world, Millerism presents the not unfamiliar spectacle of a movement destroyed by its own success. The ironic details are well known. Even historical survey courses devote some attention to accounts of the attempts by exasperated Millerites to regain control of property that they had given away, sometimes by arguing in court that they had been temporarily insane during the months leading up to the Advent. Far more important, however, was the fact that Millerism, and premillennial Christianity in general, had nothing to say to the Millennium.

The movement had come into existence as a reaction to the theory that Christians, as Christians, had a duty to leaven the world. Premillennialists had consciously recoiled from the labor of formulating a social philosophy, or even a coherent political program. The Millerite Movement had been entirely about chronology. Though the train left at the expected time, the premillennialists found that they had no idea where they were going.

This vacuum at the heart of post-Millerite evangelicalism had profound implications for the role of religion in the English-speaking world during the 19th and 20th centuries. It is a commonplace among historians that the great events of those years, the US Civil War and the First and Second World Wars, were to a greater or lesser extent "Wars of Armageddon," fought by societies for reasons that were essentially millenarian. All the great social movements of the period were also informed by the millennialist "Social Gospel." However, though evangelicals took part as individuals in the general historical process, they did not engage the great issues on a soteriological level. It was only in the last quarter of the 20th century that they began to emerge from the isolation of the denominational subcultures into which they had retreated. The end of the long alienation of a large a fraction of Christianity can only be applauded.

We will never cease to experience the influence of the events of 1844. Even the completion of the current Sabbatical Millennium will not nullify the process that began with the Parousia of that year. However, there are stories within that greater story, some of the saddest of which deal with the disappointment occasioned by the fulfillment of prophecy. Those stories can have an ending. Thus, though the historical debates may go on, we may hope that the long afterlife of Millerism is at last drawing to a close.

Copyright © 2001 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2004-09-05: My Enthusiasms Prosper

John's enthusiasm for alternative history is arguably going better than spelling reform.

The kind of perfectly pleasant people who have no interest in religion John mentions near the end make me thing of Kipling, who described himself as a Christian God-fearing atheist

My Enthusiasms Prosper


Lingva Prismo is a language-related site that is hosted by the German subsidiary of a Swedish PR firm. If you are interested in Esperanto, this might be a good place to start. I mention it here because this month's topic for discussion in the forum is the merits and demerits of spelling reform, one of my own pet projects.

For Germans, this is not the exotic subject it is for English-speakers. German recently implemented a reform that apparently pleased nobody. Compared to English, of course, German spelling is a snap, precisely because the orthography has been systematically reformed several times in the past. (The same is true of almost all European languages.) However, the design and introduction of the most recent German reform seems to have created a case study in how to do it badly. Such misadventures are not without precedent, even in English.

Is a successful reform ever going to happen in English? Yes, eventually. Resistance is futile.

* * *

Speaking of alien projects, everyone with any interest in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) was fixated for at least a few hours last week by the report in New Scientist about radio source SHGb02+14a, which passed the initial tests for an artificial transmission. Anyone who follows the subject was also prepared for the disclaimers that the organizations involved in SETI immediately issued. If you would like a quick rundown of the reasons why SHGb02+14a is no more than interesting, take a look at Jay Manifold's A Voyage to Arcturus for September 2. I was particularly interested in this point:

Sam Jones of The Guardian (London) writes (excepts):

The signal has a rapidly fluctuating frequency, which could occur if it was beamed out from a rapidly spinning planet or object, although a planet would have to be rotating nearly 40 times faster than Earth to produce the same drift. A drifting signal would be expected to have a different frequency each time it was detected.

Yet with every observation of SHGbo2+14a, the signal has started off with a frequency of 1420MHz before starting to drift - although this could be connected to the telescope.

That sounds to me like the transient hum that old vacuum-tube radios used to make when you first turned them on, but then what do I know?

The signal is likely to be a product of the equipment, or of some exotic but not intelligent astronomical object. Nonetheless, what struck me about this incident was how persnickety the SETI people are about which signals they find plausible. SETI has its own ideas about how they would make First Contact, and any alien who wants their attention will have to come up to their exacting standards. I have always been readier to believe that we might overhear an extraterrestrial civilization, such as the output from a solar-system-wide version of the GPS, than that we would find a beacon dedicated to First Contact. Our SETI does not plan on creating any such beacon; why should anyone else?

* * *

Further examples of blind dogmatism can be found in the Book Review Section of today's New York Times, where Sam Harris's new book, The End of Faith, was reviewed by Natalie Angier. Harris is a student of neuroscience who thinks that religion is pathological, and Angier is of similar mind. Here are some points she quotes with approbation:

''We have names for people who have many beliefs for which there is no rational justification. When their beliefs are extremely common, we call them 'religious'; otherwise, they are likely to be called 'mad,' 'psychotic' or 'delusional.' '' To cite but one example: ''Jesus Christ -- who, as it turns out, was born of a virgin, cheated death and rose bodily into the heavens -- can now be eaten in the form of a cracker. A few Latin words spoken over your favorite Burgundy, and you can drink his blood as well. Is there any doubt that a lone subscriber to these beliefs would be considered mad?''

The interesting thing about this passage is that the hypothesis it implies, that religion is a form of insanity, has been repeatedly falsified by research. Some degree of religious belief and practice has been shown to be an indication of psychological well-being. Personal experience is consistent with this result. I've known plenty of unpleasant religious people (you know who you are), but the only wild-eyed screaming lunatics I have ever met in this regard are fanatical atheists.

There is another class of perfectly pleasant people with no interest in religion at all, but they have no relevance to the matter.

* * *

I threw away my most recent issue of The Weekly Standard, so I can't tell you who wrote the long piece about Alternate History. (I continue to insist that Alternative History is a better term, because "Alternate" implies just two possibilities, but don't get me started.) However, introductions to the genre are popping up all over, such as the essay by Laura Miller in today's New York Times, entitled Imagine. Why this sudden mainstream interest in a kind of fiction that many people can't stand? The reason seems to be Philip Roth's upcoming novel, The Plot Against America, which should be published in October.

The book's premise is that Charles Lindbergh is elected president in 1940. What happens thereafter I don't know. No doubt I will have to read the book, particularly if I can cage a copy from the publisher. In fact, if any of the book review editors who read this blog have a spare copy, please pass it along. You know who you are, too.

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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Islam and the Jews Book Review

Another book review that inadvertently disappeared during a site reorganization.

Al-Azhar UniversityIslam and the Jews: The Unfinished Battle
by Mark A. Gabriel
ISBN 9780884199564; $13.99

Mark Gabriel is not the author's original name. He has not chosen to reveal his original name, both because of possible repercussions to his family in Egypt, and also because of his definite break with his former life. Gabriel was born in Egypt, had memorized the Qur'an by age twelve, and studied at Al-Azhar University in Cairo. Unfortunately, he expressed a doubt about Islam, and was fired by the university and questioned by the secret police. This started a turn of events that led to Gabriel fleeing Egypt and becoming a Christian. He attempted to make contact with the Coptic Christians of Egypt, but they turned him away for fear that he was a spy. It remains a crime under Shari'a law to seek converts from Islam, so the Copts' fears are understandable. He traveled to South Africa, and from there to America.

The brunt of this book is to explain the anti-Semitism he feels is pervasive in Islam. His personal hatred of Jews began with Egypt's humiliation in the Six Day War, but was fed by the popular anti-Semitic suras in the Qur'an, such as sura 5:60, "those (Jews) who incurred the Curse of Allah and His Wrath, and those of whom (some) He transformed into monkeys and swine."

Lest this seem to be proof-texting, Gabriel devotes a section of the book to Quranic interpretation. It is perfectly true that the Qur'an contains passages praising the Jews as well as condemning them. The keys to understanding the Qur'an are the doctrine of abrogation, and the hadith. Taking the latter first, the hadith are the words and deeds of Muhammad, as passed down by tradition. There are six compilations of these, with al-Bukhari's the most authoritative in the Sunni world. These compilations purport to trace the sayings directly back to Muhammad, from whence they derive their authority. Thus the historical record is particularly important, since it provides the warrant for using the hadith as a guide to daily life. The doctrine of abrogation is the method by which Islamic scholars reconcile apparently contradictory statements in the Qur'an, which being the Word of Allah, is by definition free from error. The method by which this is done is later verses abrogate earlier verses. Thus an early statement praising the Jews, such as sura 2:47, "O Children of Israel! Remember My Favour which I bestowed upon you and I preferred you to the 'Alamin [mankind and djinn (of your time period, in the past)].", is abrogated by a later one, such as sura 5:78 "Those among the Children of Israel who disbelieved were cursed by the tongue of Dawud (David) and Isa(Jesus), son of Maryam (Mary). That was because they disobeyed (Allah and his messengers) and were ever transgressing beyond bounds."

Thus again, history is very important because the temporal sequence of the suras is critical to their interpretation. The suras are organized according to length, so knowing which is earlier and which is later is the object of much study. Gabriel provides background on the early history of Islam to explain why the peaceful verses are considered earlier, and thus abrogated by the later verses of the sword. A pivotal event was the point at which the Jews of Arabia began to mock Muhammad, and he turned on them with vengeance. This history is part of the cultural environment in which Gabriel grew up, and thus he continued to hate Jews even after he became a Christian.

In addition to this historical and theological perspective, this book is one man's personal contrition for hatred, as he explains how he came to shed his anti-Semitism. This casts a personal light on the otherwise grand, impersonal narratives that Gabriel uses to explain the enmity he felt for Jews.

Overall, an interesting book, although occasionally challenging due to the the author's non-native English syntax. This limits the book simply because the author cannot express subtleties well. This book is brutally honest, and as such probably not the best work for dialogue. Should be taken as evidence only of the interpretation of Islam that Gabriel studied at al-Azhar University, but valuable for that.

Religion in Science Fiction

John C. Wright wrote an interesting essay for SFSignal on religion in science fiction/fantasy works. I thought there was more substance to what he wrote than this thing I saw a few weeks back. I have read and enjoyed many of the books Wright referenced in his essay, so I think I appreciated it all the more.

However, two of my favorite authors didn't get a mention. The first, Jerry Pournelle may not have got a mention because he doesn't write any of the kind of stories that Wright primarily is talking about. However, Pournelle has a much more accurate take on religion than most scifi/fantasy writers, and that is one of the reasons I like him. Religion can often be a real factor in his stories, and being historically minded, Pournelle usually just uses real religions. One of the first books of his I ever read, King David's Spaceship, was set in a future history that Pournelle and Niven invented, and 4000 years in the future, there were still Christians and Muslims acting much as they do now. In fact, the Catholic Church is still there, having outlasted two space empires that went through civilizational cycles ala Spengler.

Tim Powers probably just breaks the mold, telling stories that often involve the mythical pantheons typical of low fantasy, but with the numinous background of high fantasy. He and Neil Gaiman are sometimes blamed for the fact that we call it scifi/fantasy instead of separating the two.

Wright also mentions Clarke's Childhood's End, which is a book I have never read, but I am nonetheless familiar with due to the nefarious influence of John Reilly. Childhood's End is a millennial story, so it rates a mention in any discussion of the millennium in fiction. Most Gnostic parables of the sort Wright mentions are millennial, but Childhood's End is better than most, and deservedly more famous.