Posts tagged ‘Douthat’

November 19, 2015

individual and the state can maintain an appropriate relationship only so long as a flourishing civil society mediates between them

Ross Douthat in his introduction to Robert Nisbet’s book, The Quest for Community:

In premodern society, this yearning [for a feeling of participation, for a sense of belonging, for a cause larger than one’s own individual purposes and a group to call one’s own] was fulfilled by a multiplicity of human-scale associations: guilds and churches and universities, manors and villages and monasteries, and of course the primal community of family. In this landscape, Nisbet writes, “the reality of the separate, autonomous individual was as indistinct as that of centralized political power.”

But from the Protestant Reformation onward, individualism and centralization would advance together, while intermediate powers and communities either fell away or were dissolved. As social institutions, these associations would be attacked as inhumane, irrational, patriarchal, and tyrannical; as sources of political and economic power, they would be dismissed as outdated, fissiparous, and inefficient. In place of a web of overlapping communities and competing authorities, the liberal West set out to build a society of self-sufficient, liberated individuals, overseen by an unitary, rational, and technoeratic government.

The assumption, indeed, was that the emancipated individual required a strong state, to cut through the constraining tissue of intermediate associations. “Only with an absolute sovereign,” Nisbet writes, descriing the views of Thomas Hobbes, “could any effective environment of individualism be possible.”

But all that constraining tissue served a purpose. Man is a social being, and his desire for community will not be denied. The liberated individual is just as likely to become the alienated individual, the paranoid individual, the lonely and desperately-seeking-community individual. And if he can’t find that community on a human scale, then he’ll look for it on an inhuman scale—in the total community of the totalizing state.

…[But] it’s possible for both liberal government and liberal economics to flourish without descending into tyranny, so long as they allow, encourage, and depend upon more natural forms of community rather than trying to tear them up root and branch. Possible and necessary. “The whole conscious liberal heritage,” Nisbet writes, depends for its survival on “the subtle, infinitely complex lines of habit, tradition, and social relationship.” The individual and the state can maintain an appropriate relationship only so long as a flourishing civil society mediates between them. Political freedom requires competing sources of authority to sustain itself, and economic freedom requires the same: [a free market] “has prospered, and continues to prosper, only in spheres and areas where it has been joined to a flourishing associational life.” Thus Nisbet quotes Proudhon: “Multiply your associations and be free.”

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November 3, 2013

recognizable and transfigured

Christianity is a paradoxical religion because the Jew of Nazareth is a paradoxical character. No figure in history or fiction contains as many multitudes as the New Testament’s Jesus. He’s a celibate ascetic who enjoys dining with publicans and changing water into wine at weddings. He’s an apocalyptic prophet one moment, a wise ethicist the next. He’s a fierce critic of Jewish religious law who insists that he’s actually fulfilling rather than subverting it. He preaches a reversal of every social hierarchy while deliberately avoiding explicitly political claims. He promises to set parents against children and then disallows divorce; he consorts with prostitutes while denouncing even lustful thoughts. He makes wild claims about his own relationship to God, and perhaps his own divinity, without displaying any of the usual signs of megalomania or madness. He can be egalitarian and hierarchical, gentle and impatient, extraordinarily charitable and extraordinarily judgmental. He sets impossible standards and then forgives the worst of sinners. He blesses the peacemakers and then promises that he’s brought not peace but the sword. He’s superhuman one moment; the next he’s weeping. And of course the accounts of his resurrection only heighten these paradoxes, by introducing a post-crucifixion Jesus who is somehow neither a resuscitated body nor a flitting ghost but something even stranger still—a being at once fleshly and supernatural, recognizable and transfigured, bearing the wounds of the crucifixion even as he passes easily through walls. The boast of Christian orthodoxy, as codified by the councils of the early Church and expounded in the Creeds, has always been its fidelity to the whole of Jesus. Its dogmas and definitions seek to encompass the seeming contradictions in the gospel narratives rather than evading them. Was he God or was he man? Both, says orthodoxy.

From Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics by Ross Douthat.

November 3, 2013

an intellectual effort that spanned generations

The Christianity of the Nicene Creed isn’t a set of self-evident statements that follow inexorably from a quick read of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. It’s the fruit of an intellectual effort that spanned generations—an effort that took one of religious history’s most striking stories, as told and retold in a multiplicity of styles and voices, and tried to tease out its implications for ritual, theology, and belief. The project may have been guided by the Holy Spirit, as orthodox Christianity insists, but it clearly was a project rather than a simple matter of reading the gospels and believing what they said. And, like any other complicated intellectual undertaking, its conclusions can certainly be doubted or dismissed.

From Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics by Ross Douthat.

November 3, 2013

tools for recovering the real Jesus

Even fundamentalism, for all its official emphasis on “the Bible alone,” owes its end-time obsessions to the extracanonical innovations that Cyrus Scofield’s influential Study Bible wove into the scriptures it was supposedly dispassionately interpreting. “Unlike most commentators,” Paul Boyer points out in his history of end-times beliefs, When Time Shall Be No More (1994), “Scofield combined his notes and the biblical text on the same page, so the former took on much the same authority as the latter.” Both Jefferson and Scofield claimed to be reworking the New Testament based on pure reason and simple common sense, while Smith and White and Eddy and all the various spiritualists claimed to be taking divine dictation. To these tools for recovering the real Jesus, nineteenth-century European academics added a third, the historical-critical method. Their First Quest of the Historical Jesus, as it was later called, flowered in Germany and then spread across the Western world, promising to use the tools of scholarship to excavate the biblical narratives, reveal the layers of invention that lay atop the Jesus of history, and recover the truth about his life.

From Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics by Ross Douthat.

September 23, 2013

orthodoxy’s grumpy but indispensable twin

“With no small amount of irony,” Jonathan Wright points out “[heretics] did many favors to the cause of orthodoxy. Heresy was always orthodoxy’s grumpy but indispensable twin.”

…Both doubters and believers stand to lose if religion in the age of heresy turns out to be complicit in our fragmented communities, our collapsing families, our political polarization, and our weakened social ties. Both doubters and believers will inevitably suffer from a religious culture that supplies more moral license than moral correction, more self-satisfaction than self-examination, more comfort than chastisement.

From Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics by Ross Douthat

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