Ben Sasse’s book The Vanishing American Adult: Our Coming-Of-Age Crisis—And How to Rebuild a Culture of Self-Reliance recently came out and I just finished reading it yesterday. Because my reading list isn’t huge (50+ books a year), I try to pick good, impactful books to read. This isn’t always easy so I’m constantly looking for sources to help me populate my reading list.
That’s one reason I wanted to read this book but it unexpectedly delivered more than a source for great literature. He went into the mechanics and techniques of making great readers. Whereas I did have some moments of pause and reflection (I’ll need to read other books to weigh his points), reading this book didn’t cause me to outright disagree at any point; that’s very rare for me.
Something I found very reassuring was that I’d read so many of the books he refers to or suggests. The shear number of books he referred to impressed me so much that I collected them in a rough bibliography. Here it is:
Bibliography for The Vanishing American Adult by Ben Sasse
- Excellent Sheep by William Deresiewicz (retired Yale professor)
- Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood by Christian Smith (a Notre Dame sociologist)
- The Great Disruption by Francis Fukuyama
- The Lonely Crowd by David Riesman
- The Affluent Society by C. Wright Mills
- Growing Up Absurd by Paul Goodman
- The Waste Makers by Vance Packard
- Outside Lies Magic by John R. Stilgoe
- Cultural Literacy by E. D. Hirsch
- The Closing of the American Mind by Allan Bloom (philosopher and classicist)
- Agamemnon by Aeschylus
- Letters and Papers from Prison by Dietrich Bonhoeffer
- Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela
- On Old Age by Marcus Tullius Cicero
- Shop Class for Soulcraft by Matthew Crawford
- Peter Pan by J. M. Barrie
- Meditations by Marcus Aurelius
- John Dewey (Sasse disagrees with atheist Dewey and mentions these books, in particular, as to why he disagrees with him):
- Democracy in Education
- Self-Realization as the Moral Ideal
- The Primary Education Fetich [sic]
- The School and Society
- My Pedagogic Creed
- The Humanist Manifesto
- Dumbing us Down by John Taylor Gatto
- Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes
- The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon
- Escape from Camp Fourteen by Blaine Harden
- Children of Dictators by Jay Nordlinger
- White Collar by C. Wright Mills
- Common Sense by Thomas Paine
- Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman
- Disappearance of Childhood by Neil Postman
- Autobiography by Theodore Roosevelt
- Travels with Charley in Search of America by John Steinbeck
- Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart
- Innocents Abroad by Mark Twain
- The Theory of the Leisure Class by Thorstein Veblen
- Being Digital by Nicholas Negroponte
- Moneyball by Michael Lewis
- Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis
- Orthodoxy by G. K. Chesterton
- Christianity and Liberalism by J. Gresham Machen (Sasse disagrees with this book but it’s a great book to read)
- Book of Genesis in The Bible
- Book of Matthew in The Bible (especially Sermon on the Mount)
- Commentary on Galatians by Martin Luther
- The Institutes of the Christian Religion by John Calvin
- Greek Roots
- Ethics by Aristotle (starter book)
- Crito by Plato (starter book)
- Odyssey by Homer
- History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides
- Three Theban Plays by Sophocles
- Homesick Souls (or, Fundamental Anthropology)
- Confessions by Augustine
- Why God Became Man by Anselm of Canterbury
- Bondage of Will by Martin Luther
- Summa Theologica by Thomas Aquinas
- Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer
- Emile by Jean-Jacques Rousseau (Sasse has a long struggle with this book; he ultimately sees Rousseau as wrong)
- Romeo and Juliet
- King Lear
- Julius Caesar
- The American Idea
- Declaration of Independence
- U. S. Constitution
- The Federalist Papers by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay
- Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville
- Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an America Slave by Frederick Douglass
- Politics by Aristotle
- Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith
- The Market Revolution: Jacksonian America, 1815–1846 by Charles Sellers
- Free to Choose by Milton and Rose Friedman
- Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond
- Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels (laid the intellectual foundation for communism and, hence, the murder of more than 100 million people)
- Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt (the best analysis of the rise of scientific racism and anti-Semitism in nineteenth-century Europe, which led directly to the Holocaust)
- The Road to Serfdom by F. A. Hayek (explains the close relationship between fascism and communism)
- Animal Farm by George Orwell
- 1984 by George Orwell
- Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
- The Nature of Things (or, a Humanistic Perspective on Science)
- On the Nature of Things by Lucretius
- Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn
- Elements of Geometry by Euclid
- American Fiction
- Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
- Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather
- O, Pioneers by Willa Cather (a Cornhusker substitute for Death Comes for the Archbishop)
- Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
- Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin (about his alienation as a black and gay man growing up in Harlem with an abusive Baptist minister as his stepfather. This is a disturbing book in many aspects. It illustrates the ways in which religious life can turn hypocritical and repressive.)
- Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
This a great list to dig through and start reading which, in itself, is an exciting prospect.
In March of 2014 I finished reading Theodore Roosevelt: An Autobiography by Theodore Roosevelt and I started going through my notes on the book and I came across a quote Roosevelt used from The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson by Mark Twain. In skimming Twain’s book recently I came across this piece that reminds me of how factions believe consensus in the group is truth with no consideration that they may not understand the facts or nuances of a situation. Factions rarely—without tragedy—change their collective mind.
In [the] month of February, Dawson’s Landing gained a new citizen. This was Mr. David Wilson, a young fellow of Scotch parentage. He had wandered to this remote region from his birthplace in the interior of the State of New York, to seek his fortune. He was twenty-five years old, college bred, and had finished a post-college course in an Eastern law school a couple of years before.
He was a homely, freckled, sandy-haired young fellow, with an intelligent blue eye that had frankness and comradeship in it and a covert twinkle of a pleasant sort. But for an unfortunate remark of his, he would no doubt have entered at once upon a successful career at Dawson’s Landing. But he made his fatal remark the first day he spent in the village, and it “gaged” him. He had just made the acquaintance of a group of citizens when an invisible [out of eyesight] dog began to yelp and snarl and howl and make himself very comprehensively disagreeable, whereupon young Wilson said, much as one who is thinking aloud:
“I wish I owned half of that dog.”
“Why?” somebody asked.
“Because I would kill my half.”
The group searched his face with curiosity, with anxiety even, but found no light there, no expression that they could read. They fell away from him as from something uncanny, and went into privacy to discuss him. One said:
“‘Pears to be a fool.”
“‘Pears?” said another. “Is, I reckon you better say.”
“Said he wished he owned half of the dog, the idiot,” said a third. “What did he reckon would become of the other half if he killed his half? Do you reckon he thought it would live?”
“Why, he must have thought it, unless he IS the downrightest fool in the world; because if he hadn’t thought it, he would have wanted to own the whole dog, knowing that if he killed his half and the other half died, he would be responsible for that half just the same as if he had killed that half instead of his own. Don’t it look that way to you, gents?”
“Yes, it does. If he owned one half of the general dog, it would be so; if he owned one end of the dog and another person owned the other end, it would be so, just the same; particularly in the first case, because if you kill one half of a general dog, there ain’t any man that can tell whose half it was; but if he owned one end of the dog, maybe he could kill his end of it and—”
“No, he couldn’t either; he couldn’t and not be responsible if the other end died, which it would. In my opinion that man ain’t in his right mind.”
“In my opinion he hain’t got any mind.”
No. 3 said: “Well, he’s a lummox, anyway.”
“That’s what he is;” said No. 4. “He’s a labrick—just a Simon-pure labrick, if there was one.”
“Yes, sir, he’s a dam fool. That’s the way I put him up,” said No. 5. “Anybody can think different that wants to, but those are my sentiments.”
“I’m with you, gentlemen,” said No. 6. “Perfect jackass—yes, and it ain’t going too far to say he is a pudd’nhead. If he ain’t a pudd’nhead, I ain’t no judge, that’s all.”
Mr. Wilson stood elected. The incident was told all over the town, and gravely discussed by everybody. Within a week he had lost his first name; Pudd’nhead took its place. In time he came to be liked, and well liked too; but by that time the nickname had got well stuck on, and it stayed. That first day’s verdict made him a fool, and he was not able to get it set aside, or even modified. The nickname soon ceased to carry any harsh or unfriendly feeling with it, but it held its place, and was to continue to hold its place for twenty long years.
AMONG the numerous advantages promised by a well constructed Union, none deserves to be more accurately developed than its tendency to break and control the violence of faction.
By a faction, I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.
…the public good is disregarded in the conflicts of rival parties, and that measures are too often decided, not according to the rules of justice and the rights of the minor party, but by the superior force of an interested and overbearing majority.
— James Madison. Federalist #10, The Federalist Papers
Read here: Federalist Paper #10 (Full Text) or download the free eBook of the entire collection of The Federalist Papers from Project Gutenberg.
This book stays on my list of books to suggest to others. Below are some of the clippings I made while reading it. If they sound interesting, go buy the book, I think you’ll enjoy it.
The college student interviews for a job as a knowledge worker, and finds that the corporate recruiter never asks him about his grades and doesn’t care what he majored in. He senses that what is demanded of him is not knowledge but rather that he project a certain kind of personality, an affable complaisance. Is all his hard work in school somehow just for show—his ticket to a Potemkin meritocracy? There seems to be a mismatch between form and content, and a growing sense that the official story we’ve been telling ourselves about work is somehow false.
Chapter 1 – A Brief Case for the Useful Arts
The satisfactions of manifesting oneself concretely in the world through manual competence have been known to make a man quiet and easy. They seem to relieve him of the felt need to offer chattering interpretations of himself to vindicate his worth. He can simply point: the building stands, the car now runs, the lights are on. Boasting is what a boy does, because he has no real effect in the world. But the tradesman must reckon with the infallible judgment of reality, where one’s failures or shortcomings cannot be interpreted away. His well-founded pride is far from the gratuitous “self-esteem” that educators would impart to students, as though by magic.
Today, in our schools, the manual trades are given little honor. The egalitarian worry that has always attended tracking students into “college prep” and “vocational ed” is overlaid with another: the fear that acquiring a specific skill set means that one’s life is determined. In college, by contrast, many students don’t learn anything of particular application; college is the ticket to an open future. Craftsmanship entails learning to do one thing really well, while the ideal of the new economy is to be able to learn new things, celebrating potential rather than achievement.
…most people take pride in being good at something specific, which happens through the accumulation of experience. Yet the flitting disposition is pressed upon workers from above by the current generation of management revolutionaries, for whom the ethic of craftsmanship is actually something to be rooted out from the workforce. Craftsmanship means dwelling on a task for a long time and going deeply into it, because you want to get it right. In managementspeak, this is called being “ingrown.” The preferred role model is the management consultant, who swoops in and out and whose very pride lies in his lack of particular expertise. Like the ideal consumer, the management consultant presents an image of soaring freedom, in light of which the manual trades appear cramped and paltry: the plumber with his butt crack, peering under the sink.
With such images in their heads, parents don’t want their children to become plumbers. Yet that filthy plumber under the sink might be charging somebody eighty dollars an hour. This fact ought, at least, to induce an experience of cognitive dissonance in the parent who regards his child as smart and wants him to become a knowledge worker.
The nascent two-track educational scheme mirrored the assembly line’s severing of the cognitive aspects of manual work from its physical execution. Such a partition of thinking from doing has bequeathed us the dichotomy of white collar versus blue collar, corresponding to mental versus manual.
These seem to be the categories that inform the educational landscape even now, and this entails two big errors. First, it assumes that all blue-collar work is as mindless as assembly line work, and second, that white-collar work is still recognizably mental in character. Yet there is evidence to suggest that the new frontier of capitalism lies in doing to office work what was previously done to factory work: draining it of its cognitive elements. Paradoxically, educators who would steer students toward cognitively rich work might do this best by rehabilitating the manual trades, based on a firmer grasp of what such work is really like.
Any high school principal who doesn’t claim as his goal “one hundred percent college attendance” is likely to be accused of harboring “low expectations” and run out of town by indignant parents. This indignation is hard to stand against, since it carries all the moral weight of egalitarianism. Yet it is also snobbish, since it evidently regards the trades as something “low.” The best sort of democratic education is neither snobbish nor egalitarian. Rather, it accords a place of honor in our common life to whatever is best. At this weird moment of growing passivity and dependence, let us publicly recognize a yeoman aristocracy: those who gain real knowledge of real things, the sort we all depend on every day.
Writing in Foreign Affairs, the Princeton economist Alan Blinder considers the question of job security and falling wages for U.S. workers in light of global competition:
Many people blithely assume that the critical labor-market distinction is, and will remain, between highly educated (or highly skilled) people and less-educated (or less-skilled) people—doctors versus call-center operators, for example. The supposed remedy for the rich countries, accordingly, is more education and a general “upskilling” of the work force. But this view may be mistaken. . . . The critical divide in the future may instead be between those types of work that are easily deliverable through a wire (or via wireless connections) with little or no diminution in quality and those that are not. And this unconventional divide does not correspond well to traditional distinctions between jobs that require high levels of education and jobs that do not.
Physicians who treat patients don’t need to worry that their jobs will be sent offshore, but radiologists who examine images have already seen this happen, just as accountants and computer programmers have. He goes on to point out that “you can’t hammer a nail over the Internet.”
[Alan] Blinder predicts a massive economic disruption that is only just beginning, affecting people who went to college and assumed their education prepared them for high-paying careers with lots of opportunity. Now their bosses are looking to India, or the Philippines, and finding well-qualified people who speak good English and will work for a fraction of what Americans have been earning. Architects face this threat, but builders don’t.
Chapter 2 – The Separation of Thinking from Doing
The dichotomy of mental versus manual didn’t arise spontaneously. Rather, the twentieth century saw concerted efforts to separate thinking from doing. Those efforts achieved a good deal of success in ordering our economic life, and it is this success that perhaps explains the plausibility the distinction now enjoys. Yet to call this “success” is deeply perverse, for wherever the separation of thinking from doing has been achieved, it has been responsible for the degradation of work.
In the 1950s, sociologists started pointing out a basic resemblance between Soviet and Western societies: in both there seemed to be an increasing number of jobs that were radically simplified. Both societies were industrial, and had in common a growing separation of planning from execution. This was sometimes attributed to automation, but more penetrating observers noted that it proceeded from the imperatives of rational administration—a sort of social technology, rooted in the division of labor. The “machine” in question was the social body, made up of increasingly standardized parts. In the Soviet bloc, this machine was subject to central control by the state; in the West, by corporations.
In 1974, Harry Braverman published his masterpiece of economic reflection, Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century. Braverman was an avowed Marxist. With the cold war now safely decided, we may consider anew, without a sense of mortal political threat, the Marxian account of alienated labor. As Braverman acknowledged, this critique applied to the Soviet Union no less than to capitalist societies. He gives a richly descriptive account of the degradation of many different kinds of work. In doing so, he offers nothing less than an explanation of why we are getting more stupid with every passing year—which is to say, the degradation of work is ultimately a cognitive matter, rooted in the separation of thinking from doing.
Scientific management introduced the use of “time and motion analysis” to describe the physiological capabilities of the human body in machine terms. As Braverman writes, “the more labor is governed by classified motions which extend across the boundaries of trades and occupations, the more it dissolves its concrete forms into the general types of work motions. This mechanical exercise of human faculties according to motion types which are studied independently of the particular kind of work being done, brings to life the Marxist conception of ‘abstract labor.’”5 The clearest example of abstract labor is thus the assembly line. The activity of self-directed labor, conducted by the worker, is dissolved or abstracted into parts and then reconstituted as a process controlled by management—a labor sausage.
In The Electronic Sweatshop: How Computers Are Transforming the Office of the Future into the Factory of the Past, Barbara Garson details how “extraordinary human ingenuity has been used to eliminate the need for human ingenuity.” She finds that, like Taylor’s rationalization of the shop floor, the intention of expert systems is “to transfer knowledge, skill, and decision making from employee to employer.” While Taylor’s time and motion studies broke every concrete work motion into minute parts,
the modern knowledge engineer performs similar detailed studies, only he anatomizes decision making rather than bricklaying. So the time-and-motion study has become a time-and-thought study. . . To build an expert system, a living expert is debriefed and then cloned by a knowledge engineer. That is to say, an expert is interviewed, typically for weeks or months. The knowledge engineer watches the expert work on sample problems and asks exactly what factors the expert considered in making his apparently intuitive decisions. Eventually hundreds or thousands of rules of thumb are fed into the computer. The result is a program that can “make decisions” or “draw conclusions” heuristically instead of merely calculating with equations. Like a real expert, a sophisticated expert system should be able to draw inferences from “iffy” or incomplete data that seems to suggest or tends to rule out. In other words it uses (or replaces) judgment.
Chapter 3 – Be the Master of One’s Own Stuff
It used to be that, in addition to a dipstick, you had also a very crude interface, simpler but no different conceptually from the sophisticated interface of the new Mercedes. It was called an “idiot light.” One can be sure that the current system is not referred to in the Mercedes owner’s manual as the “idiot system,” as the harsh judgment carried by that term no longer makes any sense to us. By some inscrutable cultural logic, idiocy gets recast as something desirable.
Chapter 4 – The Education of a Gearhead
The truth does not reveal itself to idle spectators.
Iris Murdoch writes that to respond to the world justly, you first have to perceive it clearly, and this requires a kind of “unselfing.” “[A]nything which alters consciousness in the direction of unselfishness, objectivity and realism is to be connected with virtue.”13 “[V]irtue is the attempt to pierce the veil of selfish consciousness and join the world as it really is.”14 This attempt is never fully successful, because we are preoccupied with our own concerns. But getting outside her own head is the task the artist sets herself, and this is the mechanic’s task, too.
If occasions for the exercise of judgment are diminished, the moral-cognitive virtue of attentiveness will atrophy.
Chapter 5 – The Further Education of a Gearhead: From Amateur to Professional
…in the spring I got a call from a former teacher, now in Washington, D.C., asking if I was interested in a job as director of a certain think tank. The salary was huge. Hell, yes, I was interested. I interviewed, and ended up getting the job. But I would quickly discover it was not to my taste. It was concerned more with the forms of inquiry than with the substance; the trappings of scholarship were used to put a scientific cover on positions arrived at otherwise.
…in an effort to save time in assembling and disassembling things with an inscrutable Oriental fit to them, I used to try to hypnotize myself into a Zen-like state of resignation at the outset. It doesn’t work, not for this Grasshopper. I have my own process, as they say. I call it the motherfucker process.
Chapter 6 – The Contradictions of the Cubicle
Recurring purchases, after all, may continue even when the alignment of interests between producer and consumer is only partial, or even accompanied by a felt antagonism. Frequently we come to hate things that we nonetheless continue to depend on (like Windows).
The characteristic form of address on a job site is command. In the office, Jackall writes,
managers’ acute sense of organizational contingency makes them speak gingerly to one another since the person one criticizes or argues with today could be one’s boss tomorrow. . . . Moreover, the crucial premium in the corporation on style includes an expectation of a certain finesse in handling people, a “sensitivity to others,” as it is called. As one manager says: “You can’t just push people around anymore.” Discreet suggestions, hints, and coded messages take the place of command; this, of course, places a premium on subordinates’ abilities to read their bosses’ vaguely articulated or completely unstated wishes.35
This sounds to me like being part of a clique of girls, where one can commit a serious misstep without knowing it; where one’s place in the hierarchy is made difficult to know because of the forms and manners of sisterhood. Under such proprieties, even one’s sense of being on probation may be difficult to bring to full awareness, taking instead the form of a dull and confusing anxiety.
The educational goal of self-esteem seems to habituate young people to work that lacks objective standards and revolves instead around group dynamics. When self-esteem is artificially generated, it becomes more easily manipulable, a product of social technique rather than a secure possession of one’s own based on accomplishments. Psychologists find a positive correlation between repeated praise and “shorter task persistence, more eye-checking with the teacher, and inflected speech such that answers have the intonation of questions.”36 The more children are praised, the more they have a stake in maintaining the resulting image they have of themselves; children who are praised for being smart choose the easier alternative when given a new task.37 They become risk-averse and dependent on others. The credential loving of college students is a natural response to such an education, and prepares them well for the absence of objective standards in the job markets they will enter; the validity of your self-assessment is known to you by the fact it has been dispensed by gatekeeping institutions. Prestigious fellowships, internships, and degrees become the standard of self-esteem. This is hardly an education for independence, intellectual adventurousness, or strong character.
“If you don’t vent the drain pipe like this, sewage gases will seep up through the water in the toilet, and the house will stink of shit.” In the trades, a master offers his apprentice good reasons for acting in one way rather than another, the better to realize ends the goodness of which is readily apparent. The master has no need for a psychology of persuasion that will make the apprentice compliant to whatever purposes the master might dream up; those purposes are given and determinate. He does the same work as the apprentice, only better. He is able to explain what he does to the apprentice, because there are rational principles that govern it. Or he may explain little, and the learning proceeds by example and imitation. For the apprentice there is a progressive revelation of the reasonableness of the master’s actions. He may not know why things have to be done a certain way at first, and have to take it on faith, but the rationale becomes apparent as he gains experience. Teamwork doesn’t have this progressive character. It depends on group dynamics, which are inherently unstable and subject to manipulation.
Chapter 7 – Thinking as Doing
The current educational regime is based on a certain view about what kind of knowledge is important: “knowing that,” as opposed to “knowing how.” This corresponds roughly to universal knowledge versus the kind that comes from individual experience. If you know that something is the case, then this proposition can be stated from anywhere. In fact, such knowledge aspires to a view from nowhere. That is, it aspires to a view that gets at the true nature of things because it isn’t conditioned by the circumstances of the viewer. It can be transmitted through speech or writing without loss of meaning, and expounded by a generic self that need not have any prerequisite experiences. Occupations based on universal, propositional knowledge are more prestigious, but they are also the kind that face competition from the whole world as book learning becomes more widely disseminated in the global economy. Practical know-how, on the other hand, is always tied to the experience of a particular person. It can’t be downloaded, it can only be lived.
Chapter 8 – Work, Leisure, and Full Engagement
…consider the reality of the mortgage broker circa 2005, whose work takes on a very different character under absentee capitalism. Knowing the mortgage he secures will be sold by the originating bank (a branch of a nationwide bank) to some other entity, he needn’t concern himself with the creditworthiness of the applicant. The bank has no interest in the ongoing viability of the loan; its interest is limited to the fees it gets from originating the loan. The mortgages will be bundled on Wall Street, then these bundles will themselves be transformed through securitization into quantized particles of something more general, “housing debt,” and sold to the Chinese government and other investors. The original encounter between mortgage broker and borrower as they sit across from one another is fraught with moral content—questions of trust—and both of the original parties no doubt experience it this way, in 2005 as ever. The mortgage broker gets a feeling in his gut. But this information is discarded through a process of depersonalization. The discarding is purposeful.5 Indeed, the originating banks get frequent phone calls from Wall Street investment houses, urging them to invent new kinds of loans in which the borrower doesn’t even need to claim income or assets, much less prove their existence.6 This makes a certain kind of psychic demand on the mortgage broker who actually writes the loans: he must silence the voice of prudence, and suspend the action of his own judgment and perception.
There is a classic psychology experiment that seems to confirm Brewer’s point. Children who enjoy drawing were given marker pens and allowed to go at it. Some were rewarded for drawing (they were given a certificate with a gold seal and a ribbon, and told ahead of time about this arrangement), whereas for others the issue of rewards was never raised. Weeks later, those who had been rewarded took less interest in drawing, and their drawings were judged to be lower in quality, whereas those who had not been rewarded continued to enjoy the activity and produced higher-quality drawings. The hypothesis is that the child begins to attribute his interest, which previously needed no justification, to the external reward, and this has the effect of reducing his intrinsic interest in it.8 That is, an external reward can affect one’s interpretation of one’s own motivation, an interpretation that comes to be self-fulfilling. A similar effect may account for the familiar fact that when someone turns his hobby into a business, he often loses pleasure in it. Likewise, the intellectual who pursues an academic career gets professionalized, and this may lead him to stop thinking.
Concluding Remarks on Solidarity and Self-Reliance
The practitioner of a stochastic art, such as motorcycle repair, experiences failure on a daily basis. Just today, for example, before sitting down to write, I was faced with a mangled screw frozen in a cylinder head. I had to cut the head of the screw off with a pneumatic chisel (easy enough), center punch the remaining stud (ditto), then drill it out with a cobalt drill bit. This last step is always dicey, and in fact the drill bit broke off inside the hole I was drilling. As far as I know there is no drill bit harder than cobalt that I can use to drill out the broken-off drill bit. (Apologies to Bob Gorman, the owner of this particular cylinder head—I’ll make it right somehow.) Everything is going along swimmingly, then I find myself with no way forward. Such failures get internalized, and give rise to both pessimism and self-reproach. Not only do things tend to go to hell, but your own actions contribute inevitably to that process.
Those who belong to a certain order of society—people who make big decisions that affect all of us—don’t seem to have much sense of their own fallibility. Being unacquainted with failure, the kind that can’t be interpreted away, may have something to do with the lack of caution that business and political leaders often display in the actions they undertake on behalf of other people.
Yesterday I read the book The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism by Timothy Keller and I enjoyed it so much that I rank it #2 behind Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis. The idea to read the book came from Rob Renfroe during the Quest Men’s Fellowship Series on Mistaken Identity. Below are some of the excerpts I saves while reading the book (emphasis added by me):
- There is a great gulf today between what is popularly known as liberalism and conservatism. Each side demands that you not only disagree with but disdain the other as (at best) crazy or (at worst) evil. This is particularly true when religion is the point at issue. Progressives cry out that fundamentalism is growing rapidly and nonbelief is stigmatized. They point out that politics has turned toward the right, supported by mega-churches and mobilized orthodox believers. Conservatives endlessly denounce what they see as an increasingly skeptical and relativistic society. Major universities, media companies, and elite institutions are heavily secular, they say, and they control the culture.
- A faith without some doubts is like a human body without any antibodies in it. People who blithely go through life too busy or indifferent to ask hard questions about why they believe as they do will find themselves defenseless against either the experience of tragedy or the probing questions of a smart skeptic. A person’s faith can collapse almost overnight if she has failed over the years to listen patiently to her own doubts, which should only be discarded after long reflection.
- We have come to a cultural moment in which both skeptics and believers feel their existence is threatened because both secular skepticism and religious faith are on the rise in significant, powerful ways. We have neither the Western Christendom of the past nor the secular, religionless society that was predicted for the future. We have something else entirely.
- Three generations ago, most people inherited rather than chose their religious faith. The great majority of people belonged to one of the historic, mainline Protestant churches or the Roman Catholic Church. Today, however, the now-dubbed “old-line” Protestant churches of cultural, inherited faith are aging and losing members rapidly. People are opting instead for a nonreligious life, for a non-institutional, personally constructed spirituality, or for orthodox, high-commitment religious groups that expect members to have a conversion experience. Therefore the population is paradoxically growing both more religious and less religious at once.
- But even as believers should learn to look for reasons behind their faith, skeptics must learn to look for a type of faith hidden within their reasoning. All doubts, however skeptical and cynical they may seem, are really a set of alternate beliefs. You cannot doubt Belief A except from a position of faith in Belief B. For example, if you doubt Christianity because “There can’t be just one true religion,” you must recognize that this statement is itself an act of faith. No one can prove it empirically, and it is not a universal truth that everyone accepts. If you went to the Middle East and said, “There can’t be just one true religion,” nearly everyone would say, “Why not?” The reason you doubt Christianity’s Belief A is because you hold unprovable Belief B. Every doubt, therefore, is based on a leap of faith.
- Some people say, “I don’t believe in Christianity because I can’t accept the existence of moral absolutes. Everyone should determine moral truth for him-or herself.” Is that a statement they can prove to someone who doesn’t share it? No, it is a leap of faith, a deep belief that individual rights operate not only in the political sphere but also in the moral. There is no empirical proof for such a position. So the doubt (of moral absolutes) is a leap.
- Some will respond to all this, “My doubts are not based on a leap of faith. I have no beliefs about God one way or another. I simply feel no need for God and I am not interested in thinking about it.” But hidden beneath this feeling is the very modern American belief that the existence of God is a matter of indifference unless it intersects with my emotional needs. The speaker is betting his or her life that no God exists who would hold you accountable for your beliefs and behavior if you didn’t feel the need for him. That may be true or it may not be true, but, again, it is quite a leap of faith.
- …younger Christians are the vanguard of some major new religious, social, and political arrangements that could make the older form of culture wars obsolete. After they wrestle with doubts and objections to Christianity many come out on the other side with an orthodox faith that doesn’t fit the current categories of liberal Democrat or conservative Republican. Many see both sides in the “culture war” making individual freedom and personal happiness the ultimate value rather than God and the common good. Liberals’ individualism comes out in their views of abortion, sex, and marriage. Conservatives’ individualism comes out in their deep distrust of the public sector and in their understanding of poverty as simply a failure of personal responsibility. The new, fast-spreading multiethnic orthodox Christianity in the cities is much more concerned about the poor and social justice than Republicans have been, and at the same time much more concerned about upholding classic Christian moral and sexual ethics than Democrats have been.
- Reinhold Niebuhr has pointed out that irony, amusement at seeing human beings try but fail to be Godlike, is a very Christian way of looking at things.
- Some years ago a man from a southern U.S. state visited Redeemer. He had heard that though we held to orthodox Christian doctrine, we had grown large in the midst of a skeptical, secular city. He expected to find that we were attracting people with avant-garde music, video monitors and clips, dramatic sketches, exceptionally hip settings, and other kinds of eye-catching spectacle. To his surprise he found a simple and traditional service that, on the surface, seemed identical to those in his more conservative part of the world. Yet he could also see that the audience contained many people who wouldn’t have ever attended the churches he knew. After the service he met me and then said, “This is a complete mystery to me. Where are the dancing bears? Where are the gimmicks? Why are these people here?” I directed him to some “downtown art-types” who had been coming to Redeemer for some time. They suggested that he look beneath the surface. One person said that the difference between Redeemer [Keller’s church] and other churches was profound, and lay in “irony, charity, and humility.” They said Redeemer lacked the pompous and highly sentimental language they found emotionally manipulative in other churches. Instead, Redeemer people addressed others with gentle, self-deprecating irony. Not only that, but beliefs were held here in charity and with humility, making Manhattanites feel included and welcomed, even if they disagreed with some of Redeemer’s beliefs. Most of all, they said, teaching and communication at Redeemer was intelligent and nuanced, showing sensitivity where they were sensitive.
- Freedom cannot be defined in strictly negative terms, as the absence of confinement and constraint. In fact, in many cases, confinement and constraint is actually a means to liberation.
- If you have musical aptitude, you may give yourself to practice, practice, practice the piano for years. This is a restriction, a limit on your freedom. There are many other things you won’t be able to do with the time you invest in practicing. If you have the talent, however, the discipline and limitation will unleash your ability that would otherwise go untapped. What have you done? You’ve deliberately lost your freedom to engage in some things in order to release yourself to a richer kind of freedom to accomplish other things.
- This does not mean that restriction, discipline, and constraint are intrinsically, automatically liberating. For example, a five-foot-four, 125-pound young adult male should not set his heart on becoming an NFL lineman. All the discipline and effort in the world will only frustrate and crush him (literally). He is banging his head against a physical reality—he simply does not have the potential. In our society many people have worked extremely hard to pursue careers that pay well rather than fit their talents and interests. Such careers are straitjackets that in the long run stifle and dehumanize us.
- Disciplines and constraints, then, liberate us only when they fit with the reality of our nature and capacities. A fish, because it absorbs oxygen from water rather than air, is only free if it is restricted and limited to water. If we put it out on the grass, its freedom to move and even live is not enhanced, but destroyed. The fish dies if we do not honor the reality of its nature.
- What then is the moral-spiritual reality we must acknowledge to thrive? What is the environment that liberates us if we confine ourselves to it, like water liberates the fish? Love. Love is the most liberating freedom-loss of all.
- “Hell begins with a grumbling mood, always complaining, always blaming others…but you are still distinct from it. You may even criticize it in yourself and wish you could stop it. But there may come a day when you can no longer. Then there will be no you left to criticize the mood or even to enjoy it, but just the grumble itself, going on forever like a machine. It is not a question of God “sending us” to hell. In each of us there is something growing, which will BE Hell unless it is nipped in the bud.” — C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce
- Despite all the books calling Christians to provide proofs for their beliefs, you won’t see philosophers doing so, not even the most atheistic. The great majority think that strong rationalism is nearly impossible to defend. To begin with, it can’t live up to its own standards. How could you empirically prove that no one should believe something without empirical proof? You can’t, and that reveals it to be, ultimately, a belief. Strong rationalism also assumes that it is possible to achieve “the view from nowhere,” a position of almost complete objectivity, but virtually all philosophers today agree that is impossible. We come to every individual evaluation with all sorts of experiences and background beliefs that strongly influence our thinking and the way our reason works. It is not fair, then, to demand an argument that all rational people would have to bow to.
- If you don’t trust the Bible enough to let it challenge and correct your thinking, how could you ever have a personal relationship with God? In any truly personal relationship, the other person has to be able to contradict you. … [W]hat happens if you eliminate anything from the Bible that offends your sensibility and crosses your will? If you pick and choose what you want to believe and reject the rest, how will you ever have a God who can contradict you? You won’t! You’ll have a Stepford God! A God, essentially, of your own making, and not a God with whom you can have a relationship and genuine interaction. Only if your God can say things that outrage you and make you struggle (as in a real friendship or marriage!) will you know that you have gotten hold of a real God and not a figment of your imagination. So an authoritative Bible is not the enemy of a personal relationship with God. It is the precondition for it.
- The Clue of Beauty: Arthur C. Danto, the art critic at The Nation, once described a work of art that gave him a sense of “obscure but inescapable meaning.”12 In other words, while great art does not “hit you over the head” with a simple message, it always gives you a sense that life is not a “tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” It fills you with hope and gives you the strength to carry on, though you cannot define what it is that moves you.
- In The Nature of True Virtue, one of the most profound treatises on social ethics ever written, Jonathan Edwards lays out how sin destroys the social fabric. He argues that human society is deeply fragmented when anything but God is our highest love. If our highest goal in life is the good of our family, then, says Edwards, we will tend to care less for other families. If our highest goal is the good of our nation, tribe, or race, then we will tend to be racist or nationalistic. If our ultimate goal in life is our own individual happiness, then we will put our own economic and power interests ahead of those of others. Edwards concludes that only if God is our summum bonum, our ultimate good and life center, will we find our heart drawn out not only to people of all families, races, and classes, but to the whole world in general.
- If we get our very identity, our sense of worth, from our political position, then politics is not really about politics, it is about us. Through our cause we are getting a self, our worth. That means we must despise and demonize the opposition. If we get our identity from our ethnicity or socioeconomic status, then we have to feel superior to those of other classes and races. If you are profoundly proud of being an open-minded, tolerant soul, you will be extremely indignant toward people you think are bigots. If you are a very moral person, you will feel very superior to people you think are licentious. And so on.
- The story of the gospel makes sense of moral obligation and our belief in the reality of justice, so Christians do restorative and redistributive justice wherever they can. The story of the gospel makes sense of our indelible religiousness, so Christians do evangelism, pointing the way to forgiveness and reconciliation with God through Jesus. The gospel makes sense of our profoundly relational character, so Christians work sacrificially to strengthen human communities around them as well as the Christian community, the church. The gospel story also makes sense of our delight in the presence of beauty, so Christians become stewards of the material world, from those who cultivate the natural creation through science and gardening to those who give themselves to artistic endeavors, all knowing why these things are necessary for human flourishing. The skies and trees “sing” of the glory of God, and by caring for them and celebrating them we free their voices to praise him and delight us. In short, the Christian life means not only building up the Christian community through encouraging people to faith in Christ, but building up the human community through deeds of justice and service.
We humans are (as far as we know) the only creatures on this planet who wonder about themselves. The rabbit doesn’t ask, “Why am I here?” nor does the sycamore tree say, “Am I fulfilling my purpose?” Only we humans stand at a distance from ourselves, in a figurative sense, and ask questions about our existence.
Do we ask these questions because we matter so much? If we do, how did it happen to be so? If not, how did we get such an exalted view of ourselves? How is it that we combine in our nature both baseness and magnificence? What manner of creatures are we? Why are we made as we are?”
Excerpt From: “Christian Believer – Session 8.” iBooks.
It’s moments like this that make me realize my mental limits. Someday, perhaps, I’ll be able to absorb these complex strings of words with ease—but not yet. Here’s what I’m talking about:
All purposive action of men rests upon and presupposes the constant operation of natural forces. I plan for tomorrow and for next year on the supposition that the revolution of the earth upon its axis and about the sun will continue. If in following up my plan I walk along a street at the precise moment when a chimney is blown down so that it nearly or quite kills me, that is an “accident”; the fall of rocks from a mountain into an empty valley is not called an accident unless there is a person, or a building representing the purpose of a person, near where the rocks fall. It appears then that while the constancy of natural processes is the necessary prerequisite for intelligent, purposive and moral action, that same constancy may sometimes cut across the sequence of purposive actions and hinder the fulfillment of purpose.
Ouch. Free will? Problem of Pain? My brain is hurting.