Categories
culture philosophy

The Magic of Secularism

Alan Jacobs recently linked to a concise summary by Charles Taylor of “buffered selves” vs “porous selves.” The dichotomy is crucial to Taylor’s thesis in A Secular Age. Taylor argues that the essence of secular modernism is the transition from an enchanted world—which creates porous selves—to a disenchanted one, which creates buffered selves. Here’s how Jacobs puts it:

The porous self is open to a wide range of forces, from the divine to the demonic; the buffered self is protected from those forces, understands them as definitively outside of it. The attraction of the porous self is that it offers a rich, multidimensional cosmos that’s full of life and saturated in meaning; but that cosmos also feels dangerous. One’s very being can become a site of contestation among powerful animate forces. The buffered self provides bulwarks against all that: it denies the existence of those forces or demotes them to delusions that can be eradicated through therapy or medication. But the world of the buffered self can feel lonely, empty, flat. “Is that all there is?”

Sometimes this contrast is referred to as the difference between paganism and modernism. Paganism is a magical worldview, where spirits roam the cosmos, elixirs heal body and mind, and the self is open to the influences and effects of a whole spectrum of metaphysical forces. Modernism is the age of science, logic, and rational belief. Spirits do not roam, bacteria and viruses do. The world is disenchanted in the sense that it can be explained without reference to things beyond the material.

Almost everyone would say that we live in a rationalistic age. We are buffered against the superstitions of our pre-modern ancestors through modern science, medicine, philosophy—the heritage of developed Western thought.

Or are we?

Consider a thought exercise. Ask yourself this: Is the individualistic, self-determining, self-expressive ethos of modern society a porous worldview, or a buffered one? In other words, is “follow your heart” the logical sum of rationalism or is it closer to a mystical mantra? If you’ve read many books on this topic, especially books about identity, you probably got a good dose of “From Descartes to Nietzsche” history of ideas. These books argue that Western rationalism created the modern self. I think that’s probably true and as reliable a narrative of how-we-got-here as we’re going to get.

But here’s where it gets interesting. There is a cultural rise right now for actual paganism (witchcraft). In this Atlantic piece, the author and her interviewees frame the contemporary pagan self in explicitly fashionable terms. It seems there’s a seamless continuity between being a witch and “telling your truth.” Stay for the final sentence:

Now 38 years old, Diaz remembers that when she was growing up, her family’s spellwork felt taboo. But over the past few years, witchcraft, long viewed with suspicion and even hostility, has transmuted into a mainstream phenomenon. The coven is the new squad: There are sea witches, city witches, cottage witches, kitchen witches, and influencer witches, who share recipes for moon water or dreamy photos of altars bathed in candlelight. There are witches living in Winnipeg and Indiana, San Francisco and Dubai; hosting moon rituals in Manhattan’s public parks and selling $11.99 hangover cures that “adjust the vibration of alcohol so that it doesn’t add extra density and energetic ‘weight’ to your aura.”

…To Diaz, a witch is “an embodiment of her truth in all its power”; among other magic practitioners, witch might embody a religious affiliation, political act, wellness regimen, “hot new lewk,” or some combination of the above. “I’m doing magic when I march in the streets for causes I believe in,” Pam Grossman, a witch and an author, wrote in a New York Times op-ed.

“I’m doing magic when I march in the streets” is about a clean a summary of the post-Christian West as you could ever read. The porous theology of Wicca is transposed onto politics-as-religion, and the essence of telling one’s pagan truth is to become an activist. The only question is whether it’s the secular, political identity that is masquerading as a witch, or if the paganism is putting on an activist front. I think somebody committed to the Cartesian theory of self-expressionism would say the former. But what if it’s the latter? What if modern witches reach for political self-actualization precisely because the Modern Self is not a rationalistic creature but a mystical one?

There are clues that point me toward that theory. For one thing, the liturgical and creedal nature of social media culture strongly suggests that many in the contemporary West are becoming less shy acting on impulses and habits that are religious in shape. For another thing, the ecclesiastical personality of spaces like university campuses—featuring excommunication, defenses of orthodoxy, etc—reveal not so much a secularized public square but a religiously redirected one. Yes, in one sense formal religious affiliation is thinning, but in another sense, religious practices have arguably never been more mainstream.

I’m reminded of a great blog post a few years ago in which Ross Douthat flagged a feature essay in Elle magazine about a woman’s experience with mediums. Pointing out that irreligious Americans tend to show interest in things like spiritualism and astrology, Douthat argued that the best way to understand modern secularization is not as a negation of the numinous, but as an ambivalence toward it. I think that’s a compelling theory, and it stands as a challenge to Christian observers of culture to get too sucked into a “transition” narrative—from porous to buffered, from pre-modern to secular—without accounting for the ways in which human nature falls back into contradiction in order to meets its felt needs. As tidy and seamless as the line from Descartes to Disney may seem, there are complications along the way.

And one of those complications is the impure alchemy of many modern worldviews. If the dogma of modern paganism is to be “an embodiment of your truth in all its power,” then we should ask whether the porous selves of the witch coven are plagiarizing expressive individualism, or whether the whole time expressive individualism was actually plagiarizing the porous Self. It could very well be that the arc of post-Christian history doesn’t finally point toward the scientific laboratory or transhuman technology, but toward Amazon, Oprah, and activist witchcraft.

Categories
culture life politics

Being Eaten By Lions on Facebook

What does Proverbs 22:13 have to do with social media and public discourse?

The sluggard says, “There is a lion outside! I shall be killed in the streets!”

Now, you don’t have to have a Ph.D. in Old Testament to know that waking up near a lion was not an unheard of event in the life of an average ancient Israelite. David, the father of Solomon, lived among lions daily while tending sheep. So what the sluggard says in this Proverb isn’t far fetched. He’s not talking about Bigfoot or an asteroid.

What makes the sluggard’s trepidation laziness is the reason why he’s saying it. The sluggard is using the fear of a lion to justify his refusal to leave his tent or get out of bed. A lion could appear; but the actual probability, the reality or unreality of a lion, isn’t the point. The point is getting out of work. That’s what makes the sluggard a sluggard.

In other words, sometimes people will say things, and the things they say aren’t really the point. Whether something is true or untrue or half-true is immaterial. The point is what the suggestion of the Something means for the sayer. It creates noise and confusion that benefits the person saying it, and in the end, that’s what matters.

Over the past couple of years I have watched in frustration as evangelical friends, many of whom I respect a great deal, have trafficked in some of the most wild, ridiculous, and silly conspiracy theories that money can buy. Facebook seems to be our cultural HQ for conspiracyism. Many times I’ll see a Facebook friend post a link from a website and I don’t even have to click it to evaluate; the website will be a known fabricator, or even a self-described parody, and I’ll know without looking that this otherwise intelligent, reasonable person has been duped yet again. These links almost always purport to show something incredibly scandalous that the “mainstream media” (a term that usually applies to any source that doesn’t happen to back up this particular story) is suppressing.

Do major media outlets put lids on news stories that interfere with an ideological or political agenda? Absolutely, and Planned Parenthood is very thankful. But for the conspiracy circles of Facebook, this reality is used as a trump card to sell the most hallucinogenic fantasies that an over-politicized mind can dream up–hidden microphones, secret stepchildren, etc etc, ad nauseum.

A few days ago I happened to notice that a friend linked to a column by Ross Douthat. Douthat is one of the country’s most articulate and most intellectually sturdy political commentators, and he happens to be a well-known conservative. This column made some critical remarks about the Republican party and their candidate for president. They were criticisms made, of course, in a context of conservatism; whether one agrees with Douthat or not, it is an objective fact that his analysis comes from a worldview that is fundamentally conservative.

My friend’s post attracted some comments, and one in particular stood out. This commenter was offended by Douthat’s critiques, and offered his explanation of why the columnist must have made them: He was a liberal mole, hired by the New York Times to prop up the illusion of having a conservative op-ed writer.

I got a headache doing the mental gymnastics required to believe that this was a serious comment from a serious person. The suggestion runs afoul of virtually everything you can read from Mr. Douthat’s career. It is an assertion made in gross neglect of every objective fact and shred of evidence. It was, nonetheless, this brother’s chosen theory of why a conservative would choose to find any fault whatsoever in the Republican party.

This comment bothered me. How could this person, a Christian by all appearances, traffic in such delusions? How could a person who presumably believes in absolute truth be willing to contort the reality in front of him to fit his political narrative? That was when it dawned on me: This is a “Lion in the street!” moment. What matters right now is not the entirety of Douthat’s writing, nor the many evidences of his political philosophy. What matters is the mere possibility that a grand conspiracy could be afoot. What matters is the angst and dread that comes from the slightest chance that we are being played for fools by “media elites.”

The appeal of conspiracy theories is that they offer a counterintuitive kind of comfort: If the conspiracy is real and if the deck really is stacked against me, then that means that the world is fundamentally not my fault. I am right about the way things should be; in fact, that’s the way things really are! The problem is that these people in power over me are using every waking hour to keep me in the dark. Change is impossible because it’s not in my hands. Life can go on as normal.

That’s precisely what the sluggard does. It’s true that lions exist. It’s also true they can come up into the camp. But every available piece of evidence–every modicum of reality at the moment–says there’s no lion outside. The sluggard knows this. But he wants to stay in bed. If he stays in bed instead of going to work merely because he feels like it, then people will shame his sloth. If, on the other hand, he stays in bed because he doesn’t want to get eaten–well, that’s just choosing the lesser of two evils.

Categories
culture life Musing

The Politics of Distraction

I think Ross Douthat is exactly right about the need for some kind of positive, strategic response to the smartphone age. “Compulsions are rarely harmless,” he writes, and therein lies the key point: Digital addiction is real, and its long term consequences, though mysterious now, will not be something to receive with gladness. Some may scoff at Douthat’s idea of a “digital temperance movement,” but scoff at your own peril. If hyperconnectivity and omni-distraction are indeed what we think they are, the cultural harvest from a digitally addicted age will stun.

In any event, now is certainly no time to be underestimating the long-term shaping effects of technology. Consider how incredibly prescient Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death seems in a post-election 2016 era. Is there any doubt that the television’s impact on the public square, especially its reliance on trivialization and celebrity, played a key role last year? If you were to close your eyes and imagine a United States without cable news as it exists right now, does it get easier or harder to mentally recreate the last few years of American politics? Postman warned in Amusing that television represented a watershed in mass epistemology. In other words, television changed not just how people received information, but how they processed it, and consequently, how they responded to it. Our political culture is a TV political culture, and 2016 was irrepressible proof of that.

You don’t have to venture far from this line of thinking to see why the digital age represents similar dangers. As Douthat mentions, the soft, inviting blue glow of impersonal personality and our Pavlovian responses to “Likes” and “Retweets” are enough of a rabbit hole themselves. But consider still the effect of the digital age on information. The online information economy is overwhelmingly clickbait: “content” custom designed by algorithms to get traffic and give as little as possible in return. Even more serious news and opinion writing, when subjected to the economic demands of the internet, often relies on misleading, hyperbolic, or reactionary forms of discourse.

In the digital age, the competition is not so much for people’s patronage but for their attention, and screams and alarms always get attention. This trend isn’t just annoying for readers and exasperating for writers. It represents a fundamental challenge to the discipline of thinking, and to the moral obligation to believe and speak true things. Postman warned that using lights and flashes to blend facts with entertainment would shape culture’s expectations of truth itself. When what is interesting/fun/sexy/cool/outrageous/ becomes indistinguishable, visually, from what is true, then what is true becomes whatever is interesting/fun/sexy/cool/outrageous. If this is true for television, it is exponentially more true for the smartphone, a pocket-sized TV with infinite channels.

Who can foresee the politics of a distracted age? What kind of power will conspiracy theorists who master the art of going viral wield in years to come? What kind of political ruling class will we end up with when a generation of would-be leaders have been Twitter-shamed out of their careers? It’s hard to say.

Can we reverse these trends? I do like much of what Douthat prescribes as antidote. But the fact is that the internet, social media, and the smartphone are not merely trendy fads. They are part of an emerging technological transformation. Facebook will wither and Twitter will fade, but the “age of ephemera” will stand. Resisting it will likely depend much more on what people value than what they fear. Loneliness, for example, is endemic in the social media generation. Does the healing of lonely souls with real physical presence disarm an important motivator in online addiction? That’s a question that every parent, and every church, should be asking right now. And of course, individuals fed up with the noise of pixels will trade in their smartphones and delete their accounts.

For those who really want to resist the age of distraction, there will be ways to do so. The hardest challenge will be for those who kinda want to resist but also want to be plugged in. These are the folks to whom the smartphone is most cruel. And perhaps the best advice that can be given for those of us in this camp is: Deactivate every now and again, go to church, walk outside frequently, and read at least 1 physical book per month. A distracted age is a loud age. Thankfully, the universe is, once you’re able to really listen to it, pretty quiet.

Categories
Christianity culture life politics

Eaten By Lions, Facebook Style

What does Proverbs 22:13 have to do with social media, politics, and conservative evangelicals?

The sluggard says, “There is a lion outside! I shall be killed in the streets!”

Now, you don’t have to have a Ph.D. in Old Testament to know that waking up near a lion was not an unheard of event in the life of an average ancient Israelite. David, the father of Solomon, lived among lions daily while tending sheep. So what the sluggard says in this Proverb isn’t far fetched. He’s not talking about Bigfoot or an asteroid.

What makes the sluggard’s trepidation laziness is the reason why he’s saying it. The sluggard is using the fear of a lion to justify his refusal to leave his tent or get out of bed. A lion could appear; but the actual probability, the reality or unreality of a lion, isn’t the point. The point is getting out of work. That’s what makes the sluggard a sluggard.

In other words, sometimes people will say things, and the things they say aren’t really the point. Whether something is true or untrue or half-true is immaterial. The point is what the suggestion of the Something means for the sayer. It creates noise and confusion that benefits the person saying it, and in the end, that’s what matters.

Over the past couple of years I have watched in frustration as evangelical friends, many of whom I respect a great deal, have trafficked in some of the most wild, ridiculous, and silly conspiracy theories that money can buy. Facebook seems to be our cultural HQ for conspiracyism. Many times I’ll see a Facebook friend post a link from a website and I don’t even have to click it to evaluate; the website will be a known fabricator, or even a self-described parody, and I’ll know without looking that this otherwise intelligent, reasonable person has been duped yet again. These links almost always purport to show something incredibly scandalous that the “mainstream media” (a term that usually applies to any source that doesn’t happen to back up this particular story) is suppressing.

Do major media outlets put lids on news stories that interfere with an ideological or political agenda? Absolutely, and Planned Parenthood is very thankful. But for the conspiracy circles of Facebook, this reality is used as a trump card to sell the most hallucinogenic fantasies that an over-politicized mind can dream up–hidden microphones, secret stepchildren, etc etc, ad nauseum.

A few days ago I happened to notice that a friend linked to a column by Ross Douthat. Douthat is one of the country’s most articulate and most intellectually sturdy political commentators, and he happens to be a well-known conservative. This column made some critical remarks about the Republican party and their candidate for president. They were criticisms made, of course, in a context of conservatism; whether one agrees with Douthat or not, it is an objective fact that his analysis comes from a worldview that is fundamentally conservative.

My friend’s post attracted some comments, and one in particular stood out. This commenter was offended by Douthat’s critiques, and offered his explanation of why the columnist must have made them: He was a liberal mole, hired by the New York Times to prop up the illusion of having a conservative op-ed writer.

I got a headache doing the mental gymnastics required to believe that this was a serious comment from a serious person. The suggestion runs afoul of virtually everything you can read from Mr. Douthat’s career. It is an assertion made in gross neglect of every objective fact and shred of evidence. It was, nonetheless, this brother’s chosen theory of why a conservative would choose to find any fault whatsoever in the Republican party.

This comment bothered me. How could this person, a Christian by all appearances, traffic in such delusions? How could a person who presumably believes in absolute truth be willing to contort the reality in front of him to fit his political narrative? That was when it dawned on me: This is a “Lion in the street!” moment. What matters right now is not the entirety of Douthat’s writing, nor the many evidences of his political philosophy. What matters is the mere possibility that a grand conspiracy could be afoot. What matters is the angst and dread that comes from the slightest chance that we are being played for fools by “media elites.”

The appeal of conspiracy theories is that they offer a counterintuitive kind of comfort: If the conspiracy is real and if the deck really is stacked against me, then that means that the world is fundamentally not my fault. I am right about the way things should be; in fact, that’s the way things really are! The problem is that these people in power over me are using every waking hour to keep me in the dark. Change is impossible because it’s not in my hands. Life can go on as normal.

That’s precisely what the sluggard does. It’s true that lions exist. It’s also true they can come up into the camp. But every available piece of evidence–every modicum of reality at the moment–says there’s no lion outside. The sluggard knows this. But he wants to stay in bed. If he stays in bed instead of going to work merely because he feels like it, then people will shame his sloth. If, on the other hand, he stays in bed because he doesn’t want to get eaten–well, that’s just choosing the lesser of two evils.

Categories
culture education politics

Tassels and Truth

I spent about four hours of my Monday night at a college graduation. My wife was being awarded her degree in elementary education, and she was joined by (according to the college president) 995 other undergraduates. Graduates were welcomed, inducted, charged, presented, and awarded, in that order. The night was long; speeches repeated, processionals and recessionals slogged, and of course, each of the 995 students were called, conferred, and congratulated individually.

It was a ceremony clearly not tailored to the entertainment generation or the babies of endless social media connectivity. Neither was it the du jour of those “radicals,” found so often on college campuses, who detest tradition and protest uniformity. Students marched in step behind large banners, signifying their membership in one of the university’s schools. Everyone wore the same traditional black gown and cap. Songs older than many US states were sung. It was, in many ways, a kind of religious ceremony, in which tradition, institution, and (academic) success made up the liturgy.

I realized at one point that for all the endless intellectual coddling and culture policing that characterizes the contemporary American university, a bachelor’s degree culminates in an event that defies such self-expressive autonomy. Graduation invites students, faculty, family and friends to believe that they are participating in something greater than themselves, to find satisfaction and joy in the idea that what they have achieved has been achieved before and will be achieved again. Yes, graduates have their names called, and yes, graduates receive their own degrees. But the entire ethos of the ceremony is one that says: “This is not ultimately about you.”

This is the opposite, of course, of what many undergraduates learn in the college classroom. We hear almost daily updates on an American university culture which at every turn empowers freshmen and sophomores to authenticate themselves through protest, rather than sit and learn about an imperfect world at the feet of imperfect people. Much of young adult life is what Alan Jacobs calls the “trade-in society,” a life of loose connection and easy escape from situations that become difficult. If institutions become ornery, if they cease to align up perfectly with my individual desires and goals, then the solution is to either give up on the institution or else demand that it change.

Nihilism in higher education has been rampant for some time. But if what I saw Monday night was an indication, it looks like it has mostly failed to leave its imprint on graduation. Presidents and executive administrators sat on the stage, above the floor of graduates; no one protested this obvious hierarchy. I didn’t see any letters to the editor in the following days demanding that the school change its individualism-stifling policy on the robe and cap. Nary a thought was given to whether the school fight song, written in 1892, might have been penned by someone with questionable social or political opinion. In other words, there seems to be no pressing need to make commencement in our sociopolitical image. The ritual is allowed to be ritual.

Why is this? Why, among all the college unrest and university politics in our culture today, is there no national movement to “democratize” commencement? Why is there no formidable backlash to its rigidity and solemnity?

Perhaps one answer is that graduation is one of the few moments remaining in our culture where achievement needs tradition. What a conferring of degrees means is dependent on what, or who, is conferring them. This is, after all, the difference between a college education and a few bucks paid to a diploma mill at a PO box. Anyone can write anything on a piece of paper. But the bigness—we might even say transcendence—of the commencement ceremony befits a time where graduates are declared matriculated by those with the (trigger warning) power to say so.

A commencement invites students to become not just graduates, but alumni. That’s why so much of the chancellor’s speech on Monday was given to exulting in the university’s history and prestige. Students aren’t just receiving degrees; they’re receiving membership, a form of covenant (however informal) that ties them to a specific place and a specific body. Implicit in the commencement is the idea that people need to belong, and that belonging to something greater than and outside oneself is not opposed to individual achievement and success.

Unfortunately, from August to April, much of college life teaches the opposite. From radical deconstructionism in the humanities, to rank scientism in mathematics and biology, to the campus hook up culture—all of these coalesce into a living liturgy of lonely autonomy and hopeless self-authentication.

Is the unraveling of the American campus really a surprise? I can’t see how it is. If everything in the classroom and commons area screams that transcendence and God are nothing but ciphers for the powerful, might one eventually want to apply the rules learned about home, country, and religion to the college itself? Why be oppressed? Higher education was comfortable directing this energy toward the general culture for decades; the only problem now is that the barrels are turned the wrong way. If Lady Thatcher was right that running out of other people’s money was the trouble with socialism, you might say the problem with nihilism in education is that, eventually, you run out of other people’s safe spaces.

So the drama of higher education continues. In the coming years we will see just how strong an institution it is, as it tries to fend off the threats of digitalization, debt, and decay. It very well could be that the internet age was created for such a time as this, to rescue the university from itself and provide a generation with the knowledge and intellectual formation that a coddling college culture has defaulted on. In many ways it would be, as Ross Douthat has noted, a punishment that fits academia’s crime.

Whatever the future holds, let’s hold off on tampering too much with commencement. It’s indeed tedious and self-congratulating. But it’s also a spark of meaning and permanence and truth in the cavernous culture of higher ed. As tassels move to the left, it could be that something much bigger moves to the right.