Not Quite a Waterloo

Carl Trueman writes that the oncoming crisis for Christian higher education is a “Waterloo” for traditional religious belief in our culture.

Well, yes–and no.

Over at the Patreon blog, I offer some mitigating perspective. Here’s an excerpt:

By calling higher education the Christian cultural “Waterloo,” Trueman has invested an enormous amount of belief in the power and influence of college campuses. It’s a belief that I think is too generous, too theologically simplistic, and also more than a bit dated.

You won’t find me denying any time soon that universities are formative centers of cultural transformation. Of course they are. But the two questions I ask of Trueman’s essay are, 1) whether we should also believe that universities are equally formative centers of cultural deconstruction, and 2) whether we should believe that universities will continue to be as formative in the near future as they have been in the near past.

Access the entire post by becoming a Patron for only $2 per month–and support this blog in the process!

Advertisements

The Work, and Worth, of Writing

I’ve come to fervently believe that, especially as it pertains to the digital age, you get what you pay for. Many of us millennials, reaping the harvest of the emergence of the Internet, have been raised to expect much for free. The democratization of information that led to the “online writing economy” generated an ocean of free content, and free content has played and will continue to play an indelible part in the economic, social, and even intellectual transformation wrought by the Internet.

But, contrary to illusion, nothing is quite free. Advertising funds the overwhelming majority of the “free” internet. And as technology progresses, the competition to get more clicks on more ads and make more revenue starts to dictate online experience. Advertisements start to play automatically, filling the entire screen. “Clickbait,” genetically engineered to pique interest and offer as little as possible once the necessary click has been acquired, begins to dominate web channels. Sagging attention spans need reasons to keep clicking, so headlines are written to deliberately mislead. Mindlessness is the name of the game.

And why complain? After all–it’s free.

We live at a time when thoughtfulness is a premium good–one that costs much more than it generates. I believe that sincere intellectual and spiritual good is possible to foment via the internet, but I also believe that almost every digital trend of the last 10 years has made that task much harder. “Free” is constantly at odds with true, beautiful, and good. Whether we attribute that fact to the harsh realities of market economics, the greediness of capitalism, or sheer bad luck, the fact remains the same.

I love blogging. I love it because I love the intellectual labor that thinking, shaping, and saying demands, and because I love the way that blogging plugs me into the world of ideas in such a direct way. For the last few years I have tried to think deeply and seriously and Christianly about many different topics. I’m sure I’ve fallen short in one or all of those categories numerous times. But the practice is part of the pleasure. For all the dangers of blogging’s instantaneous demand for reaction, there’s also a virtue in the way it lets a writer return, again and again, to a question that demands renewed attention, fresh insight, and a better word.

But all this is work–real, time-consuming work. It’s not my source of income or my career. But it does require attention and detail and space and computers and internet connections and books and articles. And for the past year or so I’ve been thinking carefully about how the work inherent in my blogging should relate to my efforts to provide for a family, and to empower my future writing without the threats of intrusive ads or silly, click-begging content.

So I’m rolling out a personal Patreon. 

If you’re unsure what I mean by that, here’s the short story. Going forward, my Patreon account will allow readers who want to help support my work at this blog to do so with small, monthly donations. This is not a subscription and my blog is not being paywalled. As I explain on the page, there are indeed some exclusive perks to being a patron, but access to this blog is and will remain totally free.

I’m not looking to turn a major profit from my blogging or quit my day job (which I love!). As you’ll see, my suggested donation levels are very small. My only ambition is to connect directly with readers who find value in what I do here, and who are willing to spend $2 every month in helping me keep that value coming.

My Patreon offers 3 different tiers, each with a unique reward depending on how much is donated:

  • For $2 per month, you’ll get a new weekly email newsletter from me, with links to the week’s best writing, important stories in religion and culture, and some reflections on various topics that won’t be published here. You’ll also get access through Patreon to the member-only blog on the Patreon page, where I will be posting 1-2 times per week.
  • For $5 per month, you’ll get the newsletter and the access to the Patreon blog. Additionally, I’m offering some personal writing coaching. If you’re an aspiring writer who would like to talk about style, developing an argument, best practices, how to pitch to editors, etc, I would love to offer you a few weeks’ worth of help.
  • For $10 per month, you’ll get all the above. I’ve also offered a special perk aimed specifically at those who want to promote their own book or writing on my blog. If you think my readers would like to know about what you do or what you think, I’ll edit and publish a 500-word post by you at my blog.

Let me say again: This blog is not becoming subscriber-only. You can choose not to donate anything, and this blog will still be around for you.

But: If you’ve been helped by this space, if you’ve found value in the kind of things I think about and say on this blog, I hope you’ll consider partnering with me in this way. Beginning now, at the end of every post, and in the sidebar to your right, I’ll be posting a link that will take you to my Patreon page. I hope you won’t find this intrusive. It’s all in the interest of, well, making blogging great again.

Gotta Serve Somebody

When a friend sent me the link to this essay by a progressive bookstore employee, whose aching moral dilemma is whether to sell a book he disagrees with politically, my response was simple. I said, “American progressive culture has become mid-1990s homeschool chain email culture.” Here’s what I mean by that. Growing up in a conservative, evangelical, homeschool niche, I am quite familiar with the idea that there are certain ideas, expressed in certain books, movies, or rock albums, that people who want to keep their heart pure should just not entertain. This kind of avoidance ethic doesn’t feel strange to me. It feels nostalgic. If this blogger were talking about Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets instead of Hillbilly Elegy, if he had used all the same anathemas and descriptions and moral superlatives but applied them to Hogwarts instead of Vance, I would know his story immediately.

What this tormented bookseller has so helpfully demonstrated in his piece is that you can take a man out of church, but you can’t take church out of a man. If God is dead, that’s not the end of the story. You have to name a successor. For what feels like a huge slice of American culture, that heir is politics. God is dead, long live politics. This writer talks of Hillbilly Elegy not as if it were a piece of cultural criticism he dislikes, but as if it were a work of heresy that his very soul might be compromised by selling. I feel for him. I know the thought process he’s going through, because it’s the same thought process that prevented from me taking that high school job at the local video rental store, knowing there’d customers who wanted the films from the “back room.”

For this fellow’s moral dilemma, the attempts by New Atheists to find ethical guidance in biology are, as he probably secretly knows by now, ridiculous. Believing that our numinous sensations are neurological responses to biochemical reactions makes for some punchy Facebook memes, but it doesn’t help in a moment of true moral crisis. Human beings are built to believe. The question is not whether they will believe, but what they will believe if not God. For some, especially in our temples of higher education, to Believe means to be intersectional, to be committed body and spirit to a Tao of tolerance. For others, to Believe means to Look Inward, to Eat, Pray, and, to Love (at least, love those who aren’t bigots!).

The subtitle of Hillbilly Elegy–which is a book you should read–says, “A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis.” Some smart people in our world say those words could just as easily apply to religion. Laugh these people out of the bookstore. Religious fervor is doing just fine. As Dylan said, “You gotta serve Somebody,” not talking about the customer.

Why I Quote C.S. Lewis So Much

I don’t have to do any research to know that C.S. Lewis is the most quoted person in my own writing. It’s not close. In a given span of 5 blogs or essays, I would estimate that at least 1-2 will at some point cite Lewis in some way (whether paragraph quote or a simple turn of phrase). This isn’t due to myopic thinking about Lewis or an especially narrow corpus of reading (at least, I hope it’s not due to that!). In fact, I probably haven’t read a Lewis work from beginning to end in a couple years, and I haven’t spent extensive time in any of his work for a while. My tendency to bring Lewis into my writing is, I think, owing to three things:

  1. Lewis possessed a gift so rare and so valuable that I feel an almost moral obligation to attend to it as often as is seasonable. He had the gift of substantive brevity. Lewis did not take 400 words to explain what he could explain in 50. By much of today’s literary standards for serious Christian thinkers, that fact alone would have told publishers and seminaries that Lewis simply wasn’t a deep thinker. Had Lewis been an American evangelical writing in the 21st century, he would have been aggressively marketed as a touchy feely YouTube pastor whose work was a refuge from theology. What a tragedy that would have been!

    But no. Lewis was not superficial, nor is he a viable “alternative” to hard thinking. Rather, Lewis combined his philosophical, literary, and theological insight with an almost lyrical attentiveness to clarity. This is an example I hope always to follow. My immovable belief is that ideas can be communicated truthfully and forcefully, briefly and simply. Not everyone agrees with me, including people I respect. But the fruit of Lewis’s work in my own life drives me always toward this conviction, and I pray never to relocate from the intersection of serious and simple.

  2. Lewis spilt wisdom over an astonishing number of topics. He’s not equally reliable on every one (his systematic theology, for example, is too anecdotal), but it’s still worth pausing to register some degree of amazement at the breadth of his own intellectual output. I believe one reason for his apparent omni-competence was his literary education. Lewis was not trained to be a professional inkling. He was trained to read. He wasn’t trained to be a professional writer. He was trained to read. The difference is crucial. What was poured into Lewis were books, books, books, books, and what flowed out of him was a humane insight that ran like a silver thread through all the books Lewis imbibed.
  3. The biggest reason I quote Lewis so much in my writing is that he saw through the pretentious claims of modernity. He simply rejected, flat-out, that the 20th century was an unprecedented, unique, utterly incomprehensible time. For Lewis, the arc of history was merely an optical illusion. To my mind, of all Lewis’s gifts, this is the one we need most urgently right now. Every single square inch of modern culture screams that it’s never been like this before. Every single corner of Western life throbs with the exhilarating lie that right now is so much better than back then, that we are as far removed from the ignorance that came before us as the East is from the West. The best artillery the church’s Enemy can roll out in our time is the idea that our world as it exists right now is nothing we’ve seen before. It’s this mentality that I consciously point my own writing and my own thinking against, with all my might. To that end, Lewis has helped me enormously, and will continue, I think, to do so.

A Modesty Proposal

Here’s how to end once and for all the evangelical “modesty war”

  1. Get the Right side of the debate to admit that women aren’t inherent stumbling blocks and that sexual purity is not the greatest good.
  2. In response, the Left side of the debate acknowledges that the Bible has the right to command how we use our bodies, and that it actually does do this.

Voila. This would be a bad bargain for the evangelical blog industry, but a great one for the church.

4 Thoughts on Eugene Peterson’s Retraction

Eugene Peterson told Jonathan Merritt in an on-the-record interview that he supported same-sex marriage. I, along with many others, publicly registered my disappointment and reasons I wish Peterson would have held the orthodox line. Today, however, Peterson retracted his comments and issued a statement of support for the biblical definition of marriage.

Through the smoke, here are 4 things I think:

  1. It would be a mistake to be angry with Peterson, either from the left or the right. There are no hotter questions in American culture right now than these questions, and it’s not difficult at all to imagine ourselves giving a poorly thought out, poorly worded answer to them.
  2. It would be a mistake to be angry with Jonathan Merritt here. We don’t know exactly how these questions were phrased, and of course it’s possible they were presented in a misleading way. But Peterson himself has not made that accusation, and in fact has owned his comments by officially retracting them. The questions as they appeared in the piece were direct and clear, and we have no reason (at least yet) to think they were less direct or clear in the moment they were given.
  3. It would be a mistake to chastise writers and bloggers who commented on Peterson’s interview. Words matter because ideas matter. Irresponsible “hot takes” are one thing, but publicly critiquing a public figure’s public comments on a publicly controversial topic is not a hot take. If there’s one response to this whole situation that makes zero sense, it’s blaming those who took Peterson seriously.
  4. It would be a mistake to let this whole episode pass by without reminding ourselves that there really is only two possible answers to the question of what marriage is and what sexuality is for. A “third way” is a fantasy. It’s wishful thinking that evaporates on contact with the pastoral and existential implications of either the orthodox or affirming theology. Not long ago there were some clever evangelicals who insisted that dogmatism on this issue was wrongheaded, and that were was plenty of room in close ministry partnerships for both a traditional and a non-traditional view. Today, many of those clever evangelicals are publicly deploring Eugene Peterson for betraying them. Not all dilemmas are false. This one is real, and if nothing else, Peterson has at least illustrated that.

A Future of Snark, Not Ideas

Last week I saw several friends and fellow bloggers talking about this post, which, in bullet form, lays out a fairly scathing case against Twitter as a social media platform. The majority reaction to the post was that it was mostly hyperbole, mixed with an occasional insight and an occasional moronic statement. I don’t necessarily disagree, but I have to laugh at the way social media culture virtually never fails to justify the harshest critiques of itself.

Case in point. Apparently the Twitter cool kids thought David Brooks’s column today was pretty dumb. It was allegedly so dumb, in fact, that it merited enough scorn, ironic memes, and sarcasm to appear on Twitter’s utterly unfortunate “Trending” sidebar. Why was it so dumb? Well, apparently Brooks’s mid-column anecdote about taking a less educated, less urbane friend to a hip sandwich shop was just, ya know, lolz. Mind you: Actually finding folks among the Snarktariat who could explain why this was such a groan-inducing paragraph is pretty difficult. No one seems to want to say the punchline out loud. Instead, Brooks’s paragraph got parodied, jeered, and turned into a kind of self-referential inside joke among twenty and thirtysomething content managers and social media journalists. If you spend enough time of day immersed in the timelines of the kind of boys and girls who really want to edit Buzzfeed one day, you didn’t so much get the joke as kind of absorbed it. This is what the Right People find funny today. Ha ha.

Why did I find this annoying? Well, as I’ve written before, I think the ascendancy of snark to become the reigning lingua franca of the internet is a bad thing, a trend that our already fraying public square can ill afford. But there’s another reason. While the Twitterers were obsessing over a single paragraph and turning it into a monument of sophisticated political signaling, Brooks’s observations about the increasingly fanatical caste system among educated urban progressives came alive. Read:

To feel at home in opportunity-rich areas, you’ve got to understand the right barre techniques, sport the right baby carrier, have the right podcast, food truck, tea, wine and Pilates tastes, not to mention possess the right attitudes about David Foster Wallace, child-rearing, gender norms and intersectionality.

The educated class has built an ever more intricate net to cradle us in and ease everyone else out. It’s not really the prices that ensure 80 percent of your co-shoppers at Whole Foods are, comfortingly, also college grads; it’s the cultural codes.

Status rules are partly about collusion, about attracting educated people to your circle, tightening the bonds between you and erecting shields against everybody else. We in the educated class have created barriers to mobility that are more devastating for being invisible. The rest of America can’t name them, can’t understand them. They just know they’re there.

The only people who could read this and dismiss it with snark are people who perceive–correctly–that Brooks is talking about them. It doesn’t take long at all to realize that the most important political divide in this country is not between Republicans and Democrats, Christians and secularists, or even whites and minorities. The most important divide is between those who care that places like Owensboro, Kentucky exist and those who don’t. You can theorize about the reasons behind the working class/higher ed class gap all you want, whether you blame income inequality, geopolitical snobbery, the media, etc etc. The reasons are secondary. What matters is this: Election 2016 went the way it did because the overwhelming majority of people who have been groomed to run the country fundamentally misunderstand it, and most of them do not care if that’s true.

Of course, maybe I’m just a curmudgeonly conservative who hates his fellow millennials and is sticking up for columnists who remind me of my Dad. Could be. But consider the perspective of someone who cannot be confused for yours truly. Freddie has been making this point in his own corner of progressivism for years now, but I don’t know if he’s ever made it as clearly and forcefully as he has right here:

I am increasingly convinced that a mass defunding of public higher education is coming to an unprecedented degree and at an unprecedented scale. People enjoy telling me that this has already occurred, as if I am not sufficiently informed about higher education to know that state support of our public universities has declined precipitously. But things can always get worse, much worse. And given the endless controversies on college campuses of conservative speakers getting shut out and conservative students feeling silenced, and given how little the average academic seems to care about appealing to the conservative half of this country, the PR work is being done for the enemies of public education by those within the institutions themselves…

Meanwhile, in my very large network of professional academics, almost no one recognizes any threat at all. Many, I can say with great confidence, would reply to the poll above with glee. They would tell you that they don’t want the support of Republicans. There’s little attempt to grapple with the simple, pragmatic realities of political power and how it threatens vulnerable institutions whose funding is in doubt. That’s because there is no professional or social incentive in the academy to think strategically or to understand that there is a world beyond campus. Instead, all of the incentives point towards constantly affirming one’s position in the moral aristocracy that the academy has imagined itself as. The less one spends on concerns about how the university and its subsidiary departments function in our broader society, the greater one’s performed fealty to the presumed righteousness of the communal values. I cannot imagine a professional culture less equipped to deal with a crisis than that of academics in the humanities and social sciences and the current threats of today. The Iron Law of Institutions defines the modern university, and what moves someone up the professional ranks within a given field is precisely the type of studied indifference to any concerns that originate outside of the campus walls.

Have you ever read a paragraph that describes social media culture more accurately than that one? It’s almost as if the same impulses that try to create this utterly inwardly obsessed, virtue signaling ethos on college campuses do the same thing online and in the city. Culturally, those who are being invested with the training, money, and influence to exert real power over American politics are learning how to think via memes, ironic jokes, and most importantly, identity markers. Debate? That’s just marginalizing and erasure. Exchanging ideas? That’s an assault. Freedom of speech and religion? Pure euphemism for bigotry and injustice.

And this dynamic endures challenges and resists constructive change because it draws strength from social ladders and club pledges that threaten to cut off community to those who don’t go along with it. That’s exactly Brooks’s point. Whether you think Brooks is mostly right or mostly wrong about economics, politics, culture, whatever, is completely beside the issue. The issue is that Brooks has correctly identified what’s driving the intellectual formation of the “educated” American adult. It’s not reasonableness or transcendent values or even ideological commitments. It’s the fear of alienation, the fear of being anathematized by a secular, fundamentalist, sociopolitical religion whose shaming scaffolds would make Nathaniel Hawthorne blink.

Freddie is right to be concerned about the future of public higher ed. But I don’t think its problems lie with GOP de-funding. I think the far more likely fate for so many community schools and teachers is that eventually, people raised to be on the right side of history at all costs will discover they don’t need student loans, lectures, or textbooks to do it. My fear is that schools will look more like Mizzou–crushed under the weight of a nihilistic pedagogy that bears the fruit of an unteachable activist class, incubated from all attempts at reason or restraint by an impenetrable code of coolness.

Thus, we circle back to Posner and his 20 theses about Twitter. He may be underselling the value of social media in a breathless information age. And I’m sure there are good uses for Twitter that he doesn’t grant. But I do have to wonder if the neurological rewards of being in the in-group–the Retweet, the Like, the Follow–are subtly warning us about the future. If life in 10 years looks more like Twitter than it does now, it won’t be a good thing, no matter how many people get the joke.

What Hogwarts Can Teach Us About Friendship

Why were the Harry Potter stories so wildly successful? What was it about them, as opposed to hundreds of other “young adult” novels, that embossed onto the consciousness of a generation? Why are we celebrating the 20th anniversary of their US publication with the same kind of enthusiasm as if the books were published last Christmas?

Here’s one theory. The Harry Potter books have become cultural touchstones because they are not really about magic, or heroes, or even good vs evil. They are really about friendship.

Friendship is the rosebud of American culture. Its the thing universally acknowledged as necessary and good, and the one thing that every mechanism of our daily life in a flat, atomized society violently resists. Particularly for readers of Harry Potter who were the first to grow up in a culture shaped by the internet and social media, the friendships depicted in the novels seem almost like a shameless daydream. Hogwarts is the epicenter for a kind of intimacy and interdependence that, for many of us, exists only in such fairy tales. Friendship–the kind that ties together Harry, Ron, and Hermione– is rare.

Not long ago someone asked me if I could recall the happiest period of my adolescence. I didn’t have to think long. The ages and the years are fuzzy (I was homeschooled, so all grades run together in my memory), but I could instantly remember a season of life where I was surrounded by friends from church. Though I couldn’t tell you what kind of Bible teaching impacted me then, nor most of the books that I loved, I could readily paint a mental picture of what it felt like to be tied into a group of others who cared about and looked out for me. It was a season that the college years destroyed, since most of the kids in the youth group went to different schools, and a large number used the opportunity to drop out of church altogether. When the rhythm of student ministry life was gone, so were the friendships. And the same is true for most of us, whether the rhythm is from church, or school, or neighborhood. Mobility cuts through friendship like a scythe.

Except at Hogwarts. In the Harry Potter universe, there’s no choice necessary between friends and “the next step.” In fact, as the mythology of the tale unfolds, it becomes clear that the friendships are part of the triumph of the good. The final victory over evil demands love seasoned through the years. Every time that Harry tries to accomplish by his own strength, even if his motivations are noble (like keeping his friends out of harm’s way), Ron, Hermione, and others intercede on his behalf.

This is the kind of spiritual friendship that cannot be adequately described in a context that sees shared hobbies or mutual ambitions as the extent of belonging. It’s a spiritual neighborliness that is hard to find in many churches, as ruthless age-segregation and perfunctory programming bring people together just long enough to send them away again. This liturgy of loneliness is one well-learned by many adults, especially men. In J.K. Rowling’s universe we get a vivid depiction of male friendship and compassion, as a stark contrast to our own disenchanted time, when many young men are isolated and many older men are pathologically lonely.

The Potter novels charm so many because they are an unembarrassed confession that friends matter, and that despite the best efforts of technology and consumerism, we human beings simply cannot get over the fact. That is perhaps one reason why an aggressively self-determining, self-authenticating Western audience somehow feels at home in a fantasy that clearly hearkens to a more standardized, more ritualistic experience of life. Our time has moved past antiquarian boarding schools or formalistic liturgies, but you wouldn’t guess it by looking at the bestselling novels of the modern age.

All to often, Christian voices do not challenge the relational damage of modernity. How many evangelical parents are willing for their children to explore alternatives to a far-away university? And how many youth ministries set up programming and structure that incubates young adults from the rest of the church, reinforcing the idea that the goal of life (even the goal of faith!) is to assimilate as long as possible into your assigned demographic? It’s ironic that many evangelicals were more worried about readers of Harry Potter becoming wizards and witches than they were about their becoming atomized, self-reinventing American dreamers, anxious for Rob Bell to teach them what it means to be spiritual.

If Christian communities cannot offer friendship, what can they offer? Part of believing the gospel at all is believing that it wasn’t given to individuals, but to a church. There’s much conversation right now about recovering a biblical ideal of church membership. Good! But a body part that never responds to the other body parts is probably dead, even if it’s still attached. Friendships weren’t created by God to disappear as quickly as they tend to. Covenant membership means friendship if it means anything.

Perhaps the best thing evangelicals could do to learn this is to put down the church growth manuals and the target demographic research, and read some Harry Potter.

On Charlie Gard (a reply to Matt Loftus)

Matt:

You’re always worth reading, and your perspective on the difference between allowing the “arc of life” to complete vs causing death is helpful. I absolutely agree with you that we ought never torture dying people. I also agree that in cases where death is clearly imminent, the moral dimensions of allowing it in vs taking extraordinary measures to keep it out are more complex than Tweets allow. Charlie Gard’s suffering is horrible, and, as Christians, we believe that the last enemy to be defeated is death. It does not have the last word, and we must not behave as if it does.

But I think you and Alastair Roberts are missing something…or perhaps simply not taking it seriously enough. Both you and Alastair readily agree that something is amiss when the state usurps the role of parents as it certainly seems to have done in the Gard case. But you both seem to think this is a minor concession that doesn’t really affect the moral dimension of the life and death situation here. What I’m hearing from you and Alastair amounts to something like, “Well, of course the courts are wrong in telling Charlie’s parents what they can and cannot do for their child with their money. But Charlie’s parents are probably wrong to want experimental treatment, and actually, that’s a bigger deal than what the European courts are doing.”

I believe this attitude is profoundly wrong, and I’ll offer two reasons:

–You write, “Honoring human dignity means helping someone along on the trajectory of their life, not trying to straighten it out for as long as we can.” This is a defensible statement, but in this instance, it has a serious ambiguity: Who is the “we” in this sentence? Is it a reference to parents? Doctors? Fellow taxpayers? Churches? The common welfare?

This ambiguity matters precisely because different people have different immediate moral obligations to cases like Charlie Gard’s. Charlie’s parents indisputably feel a moral obligation to do everything within their power to save their son. By what authority do we as observers, or (more pertinently) governments and courts, stand over such instinct and pass a judgment on it? Charlie Gard does not belong to you or me the same way he belongs to his mother and father. He does not belong to Europe or the United Kingdom the same way he belongs to Mom and Dad. What is the moral obligation of the community in this case if it isn’t to serve Charlie’s parents as they try to save their child?

You might respond, “Experimental treatments are objectively torture, and even if the parents want them, allowing them would be an injustice on Charlie.” That’s a coherent moral argument. The problem, as I’m sure you agree, is that it’s an extreme one. Very few people would agree that all experimental treatments are inherently wrong to administer.

So then, the question becomes how can we discern if this experimental treatment is good for Charlie Gard or not? The answer is that “WE” cannot determine that. Charlie’s parents can. Doctors who would administer such a test can make a judgment and follow their conscience. But as we go further and further from the inner circle–Charlie’s parents at the middle, the doctors nearby–we also go into different moral terrain. Establishing this kind of triage of relational, moral authority is not some sort of Western model of “autonomy” that separates familial units from their communities. By wise design, God ordained that parents would be physically and emotionally present with their children in a way that no other person or institution could ever be. To honor the wishes of Charlie’s parents in this case IS in fact a positive moral obligation, one that the court systems of Europe have failed to their shame.

-You write, “Honoring human dignity means allowing each person to follow their trajectory as closely as possible, using medical technology to keep people from falling off the arc prematurely.” I think this is mostly correct, but with one big caveat: We don’t actually know a person’s “trajectory” until they’ve died. Downward spirals stop. Cancer goes mysteriously into remission. Physical healing that goes beyond the explanatory bounds of biology happens, and it happens often enough to make me wonder whether speaking of a person’s life “trajectory” is actually all that useful in the moments we would most need to know it.

You’ve made in the past a compelling Christian case for state-sponsored healthcare for all. For that reason, your argument here surprises me. The point of single payer healthcare, if I understand yours and others’ arguments correctly, is giving everyone access to improve their life trajectory regardless of their income. I’m not sure you can have this cake and eat it too. If Americans have a positive moral obligation to not withhold insurance to those whose life-trajectories are pointing downward, it seems self-evidently true that we ought not withhold medical treatment to the same–and, by extension, we ought not withhold the very capacity to choose treatments. If Charlie has a God-given right to insurance even if his body is failing, why does he not have a right to the treatment such insurance can purchase?

Your call to nuance amidst outrage is perceptive and helpful. But in the case of Charlie Gard, I think the outrage is justified. Letting the admittedly real complexities of medical ethics obscure the very serious action of the state in this case–and the obvious precedents such action establishes–is a mistake that pro-life, pro-dignity people cannot afford to make.