The Eternal Subordination of the Son Controversy: 9. Indivisible Divine Authority in Mutually Defining Relations

1. The Debate So Far
2. Survey of Some Relevant Material
3. Subordination
4. The Need for Trinitarian Clarity (Part 1)
5. The Need for Trinitarian Clarity (Part 2)
6. The Tension Between Bible and Doctrine
7. Reconciling Scripture and Dogma
8. κεφαλή in 1 Corinthians 11:3

The ninth part of my treatment of the eternal subordination of the Son debate has just been published over on Reformation21:

This does not mean no economic differentiation between the persons can be spoken of here. As John Webster writes:

“Indivisibility does not disqualify personal differentiation or restrict it simply to the opera internae. It indicates that economic differentiation is modal, not real, and reinforces the importance of prepositional rather than substantive differentiation (‘from’ the Father, ‘through’ the Son, ‘in’ the Spirit). Modal differentiation does not deny personal agency, however; it simply specifies how the divine persons act. ‘[T]he several persons’, Owen notes, ‘are undivided in their operations, acting all by the same will, the same wisdom, the same power. Every person, therefore, is the author of every work of God, because each person is God, and the divine nature is the same undivided principle of all divine operations; and this ariseth from the unity of the person in the same essence.'”

Relating this to divine authority, we could speak of the Father as the source of authority and the authorizing One–authority comes from him. The Son is the entirely authorized One and the One through whom God’s authority is exhaustively effected. The Spirit is the One in whom authority is given, enjoyed, and perfected. Authority thus understood is singular, eminently assigned to the Father, yet the inseparable possession and work of the undivided Godhead.

This in turn can serve to clarify our understanding of the incarnate Christ’s mission. Rather than understanding the Son’s relation to the Father in terms of a framework of authority and submission, this suggests that we should think in terms of different modes of a single, undivided divine authority. It is through the divine Son that the one authority of God is effected.

The manner in which the Son brings about the authority of God in history is through the path of human obedience. As a man with a human nature and will Christ submits to and is obedient to the will of God. However, this obedience can only truly be perceived for what it is when it is seen against the background of the fact that he is the authoritative divine Son. He is the one who can forgive sins. He is the one who can command the elements, cast out demons, and heal the sick, exercising the authority of God as his own. He is the one who receives the Spirit without measure and the radiant and glorious theophanic revelation of God on the Mount of Transfiguration. We are left in no doubt of the divine authority of Christ. The obedience and humiliation of Christ is the (paradoxically) authoritative work by which he overcomes human rebellion, reconciles humanity to God, and defeats Satan.

Read the whole thing here.

Posted in 1 Corinthians, Bible, Christology, Doctrine of God, Guest Post, NT, NT Theology, The Triune God, Theological | 5 Comments

President Trump’s Executive Order and the Moral Confusion of the Immigration Debate

The following are a few thoughts on President Trump’s recent executive order and the response to it.


We should never forget that the president is a reality TV star. Television and, more recently, the Internet are the media that define contemporary politics. President Trump is at home with and driven by these media to a degree that few other politicians are. We shouldn’t forget how focused Trump is on things such as ratings, applause, opinion polls, positive press, and audience numbers.

Rather than fixating on how Trump is doing law and regular politics badly, we should consider the possibility that Trump is approaching politics as reality television and the nation as the audience of his political theatre. To the extent that our politics is increasingly hostage to the media of TV and the Internet, Trump may be a lot better at working the audience of the nation than a regular politician. However, in many respects we are now seeing the profound tension that exists between the spectacle of politics in the mass and social media age and the substance of prudent political governance. Trump’s brilliance at the former is not unconnected with his catastrophic unsuitability for the latter.

We should also stop trying to find something behind the spectacle when it comes to Trump, whether that be some dark fascist vision or Scott Adams’ style nimble navigation of a master negotiator. For Trump, the spectacle is not a mask, but the thing that really matters. This does not mean that Trump isn’t able to play the games of specious media exceedingly well, or that there aren’t others around him taking advantage of the spectacle that he creates.

Extending this point, our fixation on television and social media as citizens or subjects is also a reason for the volatile character of modern democracy, on both sides of the aisle. Just as the narcissistic President Trump is focused upon his image in the water of social media and television, so we increasingly carry out our politics as self-preoccupied identity-signalling.



Taking such a perspective, I wonder how much of the supposed clumsiness of President Trump’s executive order is actually intended to serve as political theatre. It makes Trump look tough to his base. It attacks a liberal sacred cow, provoking many hysterical reactions that make the left look stupid. It heightens the sorts of tensions that brought Trump to power in the first place. It acts as a demonstration to certain immigrant groups and their communities that the gloves are off and, if they don’t get in line, the system won’t be nice and reasonable with them. Whatever the actual content of the order, the spectacle is clearly calculated to make Muslims feel unwelcome, which is a powerful signal to a base that is disgusted with Europe’s and American liberals’ blinkered Islamophilia. It is an ugly order and it was intended to be ugly. It is very poorly calculated to tackle the actual problem of radical Islamists and the difficulties of integration. However, it delivers the desired spectacle, which was always more important than the substance.

Trump is already thinking ahead to 2020. Campaigning for the presidency comes far more naturally to him than actually executing the office. I suspect that the next few years will involve Trump acting more as a wrestling ‘heel’ than as a conventional president: maximizing spectacle and the confusion that accompanies it, breaking the rules, playing to a highly partisan base by attacking the unpopular ‘babyface’ of the progressive left, while complaining that things are rigged against him. It will be great television, widely appreciated by the masses, and generally terrible for the country.



The public, the media, and other politicians understandably reacted to the spectacle created by President Trump’s order, in large measure with spectacles of their own. For instance, Justin Trudeau, another politician naturally suited for a spectacle-fixated age, tweeted:


Of course, appearances matter, especially when it comes to such things as the face that we present to the world as a nation. However, in the age of television and social media, our politics has become so absorbed with surfaces and appearances that the substance of actual policies is neglected.

When one looks at the actual substance of the executive order, a lot of the spectacle that has been created around it, both by Trump and by his opponents on the left and right, seems to operate according to misconception and ignorance. For instance, the list of the seven countries in question wasn’t selected by Trump himself, but comes from policy established under President Obama’s administration (note the absence of the names of the countries in President Trump’s order). Yet there were no shortage of people arguing that the list of countries was determined by Trump’s own business interests.

On the other side of the issue, both Canada under Trudeau’s government and President Obama administration have placed significant restrictions upon Syrian refugees in the past, even when they have welcomed many. For instance, Trudeau’s government has prevented unaccompanied Syrian men from entering Canada. In the four years of 2011 to 2014, the US only admitted 201 refugees from Syria. 2016 represented a very significant increase, but Trump is hardly (temporarily) turning off a fire hose. The huge conflicts at the level of spectacle often mask fairly minimal differences at the level of substance.

To put all of this in some perspective, in Syria alone there are over 12 million people who have either become refugees or been internally displaced.



Since America would only be taking in a fraction of a percent of the population that needs to be helped, why has all of this provoked so much outrage? Why are we talking so much about the tiny trickles of refugees that will make it to America and so little about the vast rivers of displaced persons needing help in the affected regions?

I fear that the issue has become grossly distorted precisely by the way that it plays into the politics of spectacle. Unfortunately, the urgent question of how Western nations are to help refugees in regions that they played a large role in destabilizing in the first place has become entangled in the domestic psychodramas of the American right and left.

In a sort of misguided virtue ethics, the narcissistic focus on what sort of—exceptional, naturally—nation America ought to be tends to eclipse the real practical questions that face us. Western and American exceptionalism is in large measure the cause of problems we are now addressing—sentimental humanitarianism and military interventionism are two sides of the same coin. The danger of a narcissistic virtue ethics is that of a preoccupation with our own identities obscuring our view of our actual moral responsibilities, which typically require rather a lot of humility, repentance, and self-forgetfulness of us.

In both sentimental humanitarianism and military interventionism, our self-obsessed fixation with Western identity prevents us from perceiving the rest of the world aright. The rest of the world can become a source of foils, props, and screens for the projection and expression of our own identities. For instance, the left has adopted Islam as a favoured ‘far group’, an anti-colonialist, anti-Western, movement of the oppressed to serve as the prop in its psychodrama, the manic pixie dream religion by which it will be delivered from its orientalism. Its perception of reality so distorted by its self-preoccupation, the Arab-Israeli conflict becomes an obsessive fixation for the imagination of the Left, a projection of its own neuroses. The right’s common tendency to identify America with the cause of God, truth, liberty, and justice is, if anything, even more dysfunctional.

A fitting response to the actual challenges we face, however, won’t really be found in specious gestures designed to shore up America or the West’s sense of itself, but will primarily be addressed by concentrated relief efforts in affected regions.



Within such a fevered context, it is exceedingly difficult to construct a prudent immigration policy. Whether it is by Trump’s wall or the welcoming lamp of Lady Liberty, the slightest glimmer of sensible policy can easily be overwhelmed by the symbolism and spectacle of America’s current identity crisis (played out, naturally, through our self-projections onto the screens of social media). The spectacle of immigration policy has become the battleground upon which the new war for America’s identity is being fought: will America be a proud and great, yet distinct nation before all other nations or the post-national liberal utopia, where all difference has ceased to make a difference? Indeed, in the age of social media, America’s identity crisis is closely bound up with the myriad individual identity crises possessed by its people.

It wasn’t always this way on the left. Back in the 1990s, Bill Clinton could make very strong statements about border security, without provoking outrage. However, although politicians on both sides still tend to have more sense in their policies than they do in their rhetoric, immigration policy has now assumed a deep significance for both sides, demanding extreme rhetorical posturing and symbolic gestures to affirm the sacred values appropriate to the world views of the respective sides.

Immigration is definitely an important part of the American psyche, much like the Frontier. However, just like the Frontier, there are great dangers in allowing such symbols, myths, and principles to metastasize in a way that can end up proving destructive. The mindset produced by the Frontier has encouraged unhealthy forms of American expansionism, much as an unhealthy form of British identity was once forged upon the anvil of the Empire (and we are still boisterously singing about ruling the waves, even though we are teetering on the brink of ceasing to be a blue-water navy). Sometimes we need radically to reassess such things and move into new stages of national life.

Getting over the myths of historical immigration—and like the Frontier, American immigration has no shortage of self-aggrandizing myths—is a necessary part of maturation as a nation, of shedding certain of the pretensions of American exceptionalism. Emma Lazarus’s poetry is just another brand of flattering American exceptionalist fiction—the mother of an eschatological people, standing at the ‘sunset gates’ of the ‘golden door’, over against all of the ‘ancient lands’, laden down with their history. Much like the fiction that drove the Western expansion of the nation, it was never really strictly true and still isn’t. Any exploration of the history of America’s immigration and naturalization policies and its chequered record of assimilating and integrating people groups should make this amply apparent, but it does make a certain type of American feel proud.



The poverty of Christian reasoning in response to President Trump’s executive order has been shocking, if not unsurprising. For one, there has been a profound failure to distinguish between the ‘good’ of helping refugees and the ‘right’ of sensible policies for doing so. Careful reflection and deliberation upon the actual shape of the refugee problem and the sort of responses that might make a difference has been largely absent. Instead, we have witnessed a conflation of the good with the right, and the widespread assumption that the latter is self-evident from an appreciation of the former.

Many liberals who would never otherwise reference the Old Testament have (in a welcome move) exhibited a considerable concern that we apply its teaching to refugees. Many Christians have joined them in pious, yet deeply unconsidered, pronouncements, presuming that such things as the Parables of the Good Samaritan or the Sheep and the Goats, the fact that Jesus was a refugee, or various Old Testament statements on the foreigner or resident alien clearly and straightforwardly dictate the sort of approach we should take to Syrian refugees, with little regard for the more complex moral and practical reasoning demanded by the issue.

Once again, the inherent self-reflexivity of social media has encouraged the devolution of this discussion into virtue-signalling, when actual virtue would better have been served by pushing questions of our identities to the periphery of the field of moral deliberation. When identities are so entangled in the discussion, it is difficult to make headway. Rather than kneejerk, identity-signalling responses, I would love to see Christians exhibit deep acquaintance with the facts and parameters of the situation facing us, clear awareness of the sort of complex interweaving of the good of welcoming the stranger and the concrete policies of immigration exhibited in the Old Testament, caution in dealing with the tensions between symbol and substance, patient and perceptive deliberation in loosening the knotty challenge of shrewd and just immigration policy, wariness of the privileging of symbolic gestures over substantial actions, greater suspicion of the motives of people on both the left and right, and more careful negotiation of the febrile environment of social media as a realm of moral discourse.



Even when America did start to admit significant numbers Syrian refugees last year, the absence of Christians among them was striking:

The United States has accepted 10,801 Syrian refugees, of whom 56 are Christian. Not 56 percent; 56 total, out of 10,801. That is to say, one-half of 1 percent.

The BBC says that 10 percent of all Syrians are Christian, which would mean 2.2 million Christians. It is quite obvious, and President Barack Obama and Secretary John Kerry have acknowledged it, that Middle Eastern Christians are an especially persecuted group.

So how is it that one-half of 1 percent of the Syrian refugees we’ve admitted are Christian, or 56, instead of about 1,000 out of 10,801—or far more, given that they certainly meet the legal definition?

It is striking, when compared to the outrage among many Christians about this executive order, how few Christians made an issue about this at the time. Some of us did, but relatively few.

This seemingly marked unconcern for Christians, when viewed alongside the radical concern for Muslims, is significant. In part it results from the failure of many in America and the West to recognize that, although (nominal) Christians may be a majority in our lands, they are brutally persecuted minorities elsewhere in the world, often suffering even more as refugees as they are attacked by Muslims in refugee camps. For liberals, such Christian refugees cannot serve the same ends in their ideological imagination and may indeed unsettle them.

Beyond this, however, many Christians seem to have adopted a radical altruism that seemingly privileges members of other religious communities over Christians. Yet, Scripture is consistently clear on the fact that we should take an especial and particular concern for the wellbeing of other Christians. The fact that Christian communities that date back almost two millennia in the Middle East have been ravaged or even driven to the point of extinction over the last decade should be a matter of extreme concern to us. This isn’t just because they are ‘minorities’, but because they are our brothers and sisters and also because they bring the light of God’s truth to spiritually dark parts of the world that are in desperate need of it. Unpopular though this sentiment might be in the context of liberal society, we believe that the fate of these people should be a matter of particular concern, and not just for the Church, but for any righteous government.



When using the Old Testament in this context, it is important to bear in mind the framework within which refuge would be given and the differences between foreigners whose stay was temporary and resident aliens (James Hoffmeier has some helpful thoughts on this, for instance). The resident alien was like a protected guest, treated as a member of the ‘family’ of Israel, but the guest/host distinction meant that they did not have the same status in key respects.

For one, God’s vision for Israel was robustly opposed to religious pluralism. It allowed for assimilation of outsiders into the Israelite people, but firmly opposed a sort of multicultural intermarriage. It restricted key civil rights to Israelites. Foreigners had to abide by the Sabbath law and other such things. The Law also restricted their rights of land ownership, meaning that they would typically be restricted to day labour, artisanal work, trade, etc. It restricted the possibility of entrance into fuller civil rights for a number of generations, and more in the case of certain people groups (Deuteronomy 23:3-8). It denied them certain of the protections enjoyed by Hebrew slaves and certain of the rights enjoyed by Hebrew slave-owners. The nation also retained an ethnic core to its identity.

The welcome (and occasional assimilation) of the stranger, then, was a crucial value, but the relationship was typically that of guest/host, with the limits typical of such a relationship applying. This is not the same thing as we are dealing with in the current situation.



It is imperative as Christians that we consider the way that immigration functions within liberalism. I have argued in the past (see my remarks in the comments here, for instance), that mass immigration from culturally alien nations is one of the means by which liberalism extends its power and one of the means by which the expulsion of Christian values and practices from public life is effected and justified. It is one of the means by which a people is rendered more controllable by the forces of capital and government.

Mass immigration, in the form it is practiced in the liberal West, is a profoundly socially destructive force, antagonistic to historic modes of life. It fractures the foundations of society upon which our liberal institutions and freedoms are built, as I argued in my recent post. It is less a matter of welcoming the stranger into our society as a guest and much more typically a matter of a host people being steadily dispossessed of their land by a liberal polity to which all are slowly subjected as an ever more atomized and amorphous mass of people. Without becoming an inhospitable people, we need to be a lot more resistant to such developments.

Likewise, we need to be on our guard against the rising liberal ideology of immigration, with its focus upon the universal, deracinated subject, its discourse of rights as opposed to distributed goods, resistance to borders, hostility to the assertion of particularity, its assertion of the supposed duty of self-effacing altruism and indiscriminate welcome, the undermining of the difference between host and guest, the messianism of its sentimental humanitarianism, its erasure of history, etc. Just as Satan may come as an angel of light, so dangerous error can masquerade as Christian virtue. As I have argued when examining this issue in the past, being wise as serpents yet harmless as doves may never have been more important for us.

Posted in Ethics, In the News, Politics, Society, Theological | 36 Comments

Links Post 28/01/2017

Links from the past week.

How To Overcome Political Irrationality About Facts:

In other words, curiosity seems to be the pin that bursts our partisan bubbles, allowing new and sometimes uncomfortable information to trickle in. Nothing else works like curiosity does, the authors point out—not being reflective, or good at math, or even well-educated.

Instead, they write, it’s “individuals who have an appetite to be surprised by scientific information—who find it pleasurable to discover that the world does not work as they expected … [who] expose themselves more readily to information that defies their expectations.”

Diversity is Hard. This piece is especially helpful in identifying commonalties between the experience of minorities with the experience of those who resist immigration:

But diversity takes work, and it can be exhausting. Life is a little more exciting and a little more uncomfortable. Routine tasks, especially those involving communication, take a kind of conscious effort that they do not in a homogeneous community. And I am just a young student; what must it be like to see your neighborhood transformed at the age of 70? It must be profoundly disquieting, and that is a sentiment whose existence must not be ignored.

Alan Jacobs on recency illusions:

And yet on social media today everyone is in a state of high alarm all the time. Which leads me to something I didn’t mention explicitly in my year in technology post: my efforts to get onto a longer news frequency.

Those who are interested in history will remember events like the Battle of New Orleans, fought weeks after the Treaty of Ghent had ended the War of 1812 because word of the treaty hadn’t reached the armies. Since then, thanks to a series of well-known technological changes, the news cycle has grown shorter and shorter until now many people get their news minute-by-minute.

If the frequency that led to the Battle of New Orleans was too long, the Twitter-cycle is far, far too short. People regularly get freaked out by stories than turn out to be false, and by the time the facts are known a good deal of damage (not least to personal relationships) has often already been done—plus, the disappearance of the cause of an emotion doesn’t automatically eliminate the emotion itself. In fact, it often leaves that emotion in search of new justifications for its existence.

I have come to believe that it is impossible for anyone who is regularly on social media to have a balanced and accurate understanding of what is happening in the world. To follow a minute-by-minute cycle of news is to be constantly threatened by illusion.

Trump Knows You Better Than You Know Yourself

Various pieces on the punching of Richard Spencer:
Freddie deBoer: Everybody Got Some
Ken White: On Punching Nazis
Ed West: It’s Easy to Forget How Unnatural it is to Tolerate Views we Disagree with

The Physical Book Will Surely Endure: But Will it Endure for the Right Reason?

Nicholas Carr on how Technology Becomes Creepy

Sociological Images: Thinking about the gender gaps between men and women in the labour force and athletics (see my remarks in the comments)

6-Year-Old Girls Already Have Gendered Beliefs About Intelligence. This has been receiving a lot of publicity. However, looking at the p-values, confidence intervals, and other details of the paper itself, I’m unconvinced the paper makes such a compelling case that such an effect exists. In addition, the fact that stereotype accuracy is one of the stronger results in psychology, while stereotype threat hasn’t been looking too good in either replications or meta-analyses lately makes me wonder about this result. Beyond this, however, there are questions to ask. The Leslie and Cimpian paper that the Atlantic write-up mentions has itself been challenged in relevant areas. As Scot Alexander put it: Perceptions of Required Ability Act as a Proxy for Actual Required Ability in Explaining the Gender Gap. As Alexander, Randal Olson, Ginther and Kahn, and others showed, perceptions of innate ability aren’t the real issue: actual innate ability provides the real explanation. I suspect something similar might be true here. Research suggests that men are considerably more common than women in the highest (and lowest) reaches of intelligence, as their intelligence is more variable (and may also be higher on average, especially on key criteria such as mathematical ability). Clear sex differences in high intelligence exist, so perhaps six-year-old girls start to notice them at that age.

Trump and the Neglect of the Working Class

Interview with Debra W. Soh, Sex Researcher and Neuroscientist

What’s the Point of Sex? It’s Communication at a Biological Level

‘Group IQ’ almost exclusively reflects individual cognition. Gender balance and turn-taking don’t supposedly have the effect some have suggested. I am unconvinced by the research on both sides of this debate. I suspect that the reality is rather more complicated and varied than both sides allow for.

Cognitive Bias Cheat Sheet

A Nagging Persistence. Interesting piece on explaining the social dynamics that account for the continuing practice of female genital mutilation.

The Crisis of the Failing Mosul Dam

Democratic versus Republican Occupations. Most entirely predictable, with a couple of surprises (probably due to unexpected racial confounds).

Democratic versus Republican First Names. So confounded by sex that it requires a bit more interpretation.

Games, Videogames, and the Dionysian Society

Pig-Human Organ Farming Doesn’t Look Promising Yet

How Ultrasound Became Political—terrible article, linked only for the list of errors mentioned at the end.

My Idol Turned Out to Be My Sister

Malnutrition Wiping Out Children in Northern Nigeria, Aid Workers Say

Ed West: A Female Culture War Has Begun. Intrasexual competition is a grossly neglected reality.

Matt Lee Anderson: On Purity and Complicity in the Culture Wars—‘One prominent way to establish purity is by declaring the ‘aggressor’ is entirely on the other side, and that one’s own response is purely defensive and reactionary. This narrative secures the purity of the movement; yet it does so precisely by minimizing or ignoring both the complicated history of how our current cultural conflicts emerged, and the entanglement of our own “side” in the fundamental ideologies and presumptions that manifest in the practices we resist.’

Ian Paul: Where Are the Bishops Leading on the Sexuality Debate?

Ben Sixsmith: On the Domestication of Victims. Some Girardian remarks to be made here about the cult of the victim.

Matt Colvin: On the meaning of Τί ἐμοὶ καὶ σοί in John 2:4

Benjamin Kautzer on Micah 6: The Politics of Confrontation and Promise

Peter Leithart: David’s Pharaoh MomentDavid’s Restraint, YHWH’s Trap

Adam Roberts: Further Thoughts on the Problem of Susan

Jake Meador: The Business of Evangelicalism: Notes on Timothy Gloege’s “Guaranteed Pure”

Silence, Martyrdom, and the Call to Die

Andrew Wilson: Modernity and Man Utd. Andrew suggests a metaphor for understanding Europe’s place in modernity.

Joshua Gillies: Boethius, Univocity, and Modern Trinitarian Thought

The Emergence of the Freedom of the Subject in a World of Objects

Queen’s chaplain resigns over cathedral Koran reading row saying he has a ‘duty’ to defend Christianity

An Oral History of Homestar Runner

The Death Star and the Final Trench Run

The Hollywood List Everyone Wants to Be On

Let’s Talk about the Link between Immigration and Low Reproduction Rates

San Francisco Asks: Where Have All the Children Gone?

Steve Sailer reviews Sebastian Junger’s fascinating work on tribes. The gendered dimensions of this deserve more comment. Many male modes of ‘tribal’ sociality have suffered sustained assault in the attempts to desegregate the sexes over the past century.

Some incredible 360° Videos by National Geographic

Kingdom Poets. A blog devoted to introducing readers to Christian poets.

Oxford Conversations: stimulating conversations with Christian academics and scholars.

The Bible Project. I’ve only seen a few of these, but it looks superb so far. Here’s one on Leviticus:

Ice Carousel

Seasons of Norway

Posted in Links | 5 Comments

The Failing Dam of Liberal Society

The Mosul Dam is failing. While the structure of the dam itself is robust, it is built upon a poor foundation of soluble rock. In order to prevent this foundation from giving way, workers at the dam continuously have to pump cement into the earth beneath it. Unfortunately, when the dam was attacked and captured by ISIS, workers abandoned their task and work didn’t recommence until some time after it was recaptured. The condition of the dam is now incredibly serious. If the dam were to sink into the unstable ground beneath it and wash away, millions of people would be affected and several hundreds of thousands would probably lose their lives. The Iraqi government is refusing to acknowledge the seriousness of the problem, yet catastrophe could be imminent: as spring leads to the melting of snow in the region, the swollen waters of the Tigris may place the dam under unsustainable pressure.

The situation of the Mosul Dam came to my mind yesterday in a conversation with a friend about the current situation of the liberal West. Like the Mosul Dam, Western liberalism is only as secure as the increasingly uncertain ground that it is built upon. As that ground gives way beneath rising social pressures, the entire edifice could disastrously collapse.

A common fantasy among those committed to liberal ideology is the assumption that liberalism can provide its own foundations, rather than needing to be erected upon some stable and secure pre-ideological and pre-political ground. Unfortunately, such ground is not easy to find and many societies in the world do not offer suitable ground upon which the edifice of an open and liberal society can be founded. On account of this fantasy, we have been insufficiently mindful of the necessity of preserving the strength of the social underpinnings of the political, legal, and institutional superstructure of our society and have succumbed in many areas to a thoroughgoing liberalism that ultimately threatens to destroy it.

Liberalism’s discourse is drawn around the universal subject—the de-particularized individual. However, not only does the de-particularized individual not actually exist, such a conception of the person, if absolutized, can destroy the foundation upon which a liberal society rests. A robust liberal society cannot be founded upon the sand of radically de-particularized individualism, which soon collapses under the shear forces created by its weight. Rather, such a society requires the strong foundation formed from the tight bonds of a particular society’s shared peoplehood, expressed in its common life, practices, customs, culture, history, goods, and loves. Out of and within the framework of such bonds can arise the shared institutions that sustain a liberal polity and society: institutions of learning and the exchange of ideas, commerce, laws, and governments.

Liberalism undermines itself as it absolutizes its principles and fails to protect and preserve the social foundation upon which it is built. The radicalization of liberalism takes different forms on different sides of the political aisle (both of which tend to be liberal in differing ways). For those on the right, it can take the form of the absolutization of free speech, individual autonomy, and the free market. For those on the left, it can take the form of the radicalization of gender neutrality and the atomizing forces of the Sexual Revolution, the dismissal of given identities and the duties that accompany them, resistance to borders and support of mass immigration, and opposition to the traditions, authorities, symbols, and sacred values by which particular peoples are forged and united. Both sides are also deeply invested in modern technologies and systems that radicalize liberal freedoms of exchange, expression, movement, association, belief, and identity.

There is a certain social complacency that can arise when we have lost our acquaintance with the limits or demands placed upon us by nature and the dangers posed to us by it. On the one hand, nature is like the immense and terrifying force of water that the dam of our social structures must hold back. Were the dam to fail, the destructive power of the forces of nature—both within the world and within ourselves—would tear through our society. On the other hand, nature represents the limits placed upon us by the world and our beings to which we must conform ourselves and by which we are formed into something more than creatures of untamed appetite.

On the one hand, then, nature is an immense lurking destructive power against which we must practice vigilance. On the other, it is a set of boundaries that can guide some of our passage into the practice of virtue. For instance, the natural obstacles of distance and danger, and the necessity of interdependence for survival in historic societies, encouraged the practice of the art of living together, as there really wasn’t much of an alternative. We have lost much of our acquaintance with both nature’s threat and nature’s limits. One result is that the satisfaction of appetite is often prized over the cultivation of virtue and a deep acquaintance with nature and its fitting ends. Another result is a lack of due concern about the fragility of our social structures, should the waters of historical crisis rapidly rise against them.

An overweening confidence in liberalism’s power of social construction and the inability of nature to overcome it, much like the self-assured hubris of the builders of the Mosul Dam, courts the possibility of extreme catastrophe. A forgetfulness of and inattention to the limits of nature—as we grow in our sense of autonomy with respect to and our control over it—can leave us caught in a fraught relationship and difficult relationship with it. Like the workers on the Mosul Dam, having been proudly unmindful of and unchastened by the limits of nature and having built society as we pleased, we must now unrelentingly pour grout into our dissolving foundations.

Liberalism’s characterized overvaluation of negative liberty—the absence of external constraints, obstacles, limits, and coercion—has left us blind to many of the conditions of a free society and has rendered us insensible to the erosion of these conditions in many quarters of our own, often precisely through the maximization of liberalism’s negative liberties. The maximization of negative liberty can leave us ever more at the mercy of our appetites and instincts, less and less able to attain to the full stature of our humanity.

A recurring theme in my writing over the last few years, for instance, has been the argument that the Internet stifles discourse and harms society by undermining the differentiation that makes healthy forms of them possible. Ecosystems typically contain a large variety of species, species that directly and indirectly depend upon each other for their well-being and upon the particular niches afforded to them within their shared environment. A disruption of the ecosystem can result in the proliferation of particular species to the detriment of others. In its current form, the Internet is both breaking down many old cultural niches and bringing radical environmental transformation to our social discourses, threatening the survival of the forms of speech and community that used to exist within them.

Unfortunately, the scale of these problems can easily be missed when the great value of ‘free speech’ that we stand for is one that has been drawn around the removal of external constraints upon our discourse. When speech is so construed, the Internet would seem to be the breaking of a glorious new dawn of an era of free discourse. The Internet unshackles speech from old limits. It enables us to escape the prison of the body to engage directly with the thoughts of others. It obliterates the obstacle of physical distance that tied speech to physical context. It overcomes the onerous tardiness of old media, enabling us to engage in instantaneous exchanges with people from all corners of the globe. It overcomes barriers of status and expertise, allowing those without credentials, prestige, or office a place in the conversation. It smashes exclusionary barriers that prevented equal participation in social discourses, democratizing our media. It delivers people from the state of obscurity, allowing their voices to reach millions. It rescues the lonely, isolated, or the marginalized from their solitude, facilitating the creation of new communities where they can find a place. It dismantles the walls between peoples and their lives, exposing us to each other in our differences.

Yet this supposed liberation of speech has in many respects not produced a freer society. Freedom from obscurity has led to unprecedented exposure to social, commercial, and governmental scrutiny. Governments, businesses, our employers, and our neighbours can now learn far more about our identities, histories, values, and secrets than they ever could before. In a great many respects, such deliverance from obscurity has not made us freer, instead rendering us ever more vulnerable to control and surveillance.

Freedom from solitude and isolation has brought about a stiflingly dense sociality, wherein we are caught up in the viral movements of mass opinion, and increasingly unable to reflection, deliberate, and meditate in a manner that would enable us effectively to form our own minds on matters. This ‘freedom’ from isolation exposes us to the terrifying power of the mob, its outrage, and its shaming of people into conformity. The removal of the burden of solitude has itself locked us in a prison of sociality and group opinion, strengthened by our own natural instincts.

Freedom from the barriers of status and expertise has enabled a host of people to share their perspectives and opinions. It has undermined old monopolies on the formation of the public’s mind. However, it has brought about a competition of self-proclaimed authorities, with a disoriented, and by turns hopelessly distrusting and utterly credulous, population left to arbitrate between them. It has led to ever more partisan news and opinion, a tendency to select the ‘authorities’ that most appeal to us, and a socially and politically debilitating breakdown of trust in experts and office-holders, enslaving us to charlatans, demagogues, unreliable media, and to the uninformed and reactive opinions of our fellows. Such freedom from the power of status and expertise has proved disorienting and has eroded trust and social unity.

Freedom from the prison of our bodies has allowed us to converse with people without being constrained by the limits and localities of our bodies. However, in downplaying the part of the body in our social discourse, it has rendered the bodily order of action increasingly invisible and the order of opinion increasingly dominant. It has dulled our awareness of the rough yet rich humanity of the people we are engaging with, encouraging a new incivility. It has lowered our awareness of basic human differences that are revealed by the body—things such as gender, age, race, illness, or disability—alerting us to the importance of treating people differently accordingly, reducing compassion and care for each other. Such freedom from the visibility and limits of the body has often proved alienating and created an unhealthy society where words weigh more than actions.

Freedom from the obstacle of physical distance has produced a world where context is ever thinner and where there are ever fewer places to take distance from the crowd. It has enabled others to follow us wherever we are, and increasingly detached our attention from our physical presence. The more invested in communities that exist outside of physical space we have become, the less invested we are in the lives of our neighbours, and the more communities themselves have become polarized.

Freedom from the limits of time has enabled us to enjoy instantaneous exchanges with people around the world and to keep abreast of the very latest happenings, wherever they might have occurred. However, in the process, we have become sucked into the disorienting flux of incessant news, cut loose from deep moorings in history and a temporal horizon beyond the immediate. The sense-making rhythms of healthy social and personal lives have been attenuated and the cycles of nature are ever more foreign to us. Without such regularities and patterns, it becomes much harder for us to see the novelties and changes of life and society for what they are, and to find our bearings in a rapidly changing culture. The increased speed of our interactions has robbed us of the time for deep thought, reflection, meditation, and deliberation, training us to be reactive people, who function on instinct, prejudice, unconsidered habit, and passion, enslaving us to our own uncultivated natures.

Freedom from the exclusivity of old communities and expose to greater diversity has acquainted us with a richer variety of human experience. However, it has produced new tensions and antagonisms between groups. It has stifled once deep socialities, as we must now operate alongside others that do not share, strongly oppose, or are unsettled by our ways of life and community. It has left many feeling threatened and besieged. Once again, what was once expected to be liberative has often proved to have the opposite effect.

All of the above are illustrations of the ways that increasing the negative liberties of liberalism is often more problem than solution. Similar points could be made about the absolutization of the free market, extreme individualism, or radical ‘blank slateism’: unbounded by and disrespectful of a thick concrete social and natural reality, liberalism is destructive and unsustainable. What is really required of us is a return to and reinforcement of the social and natural realities upon which the institutions that uphold liberal freedoms are founded. Without a strong common life, we will not be able to sustain the liberal values that we cherish. Indeed, where the liberal values are absolutized in various forms (whether on the left or the right), but the social reality beneath them is not strengthened, both the social reality and the liberal values that rest upon it will collapse together.

In conclusion, I want to observe some of the dangers inherent in the sorts of ideological fights into which we can so often be drawn. These ideological fights all too often tend to involve conflict between the various negative liberties of liberalism. Not only are they generally produced by the fault lines, the subsidence, and the fracturing of the social foundations of our society, their outcomes tend to add ever more pressure upon social realities that can no longer sustain them. Like a couple in the process of a divorce, we have lost loves that once held us together and can now feel alienated both from each other and realities we once shared. The ground is giving way. Our challenge should be that of, wherever possible, transposing the ideological battles of our current liberal order into the more fundamental practical and concrete shared task of strengthening our common life, establishing shared goods, investing in shared projects, forging the sorts of respectful communities which can sustain difficult conversations, etc. This may be the only way to escape social disaster.

Posted in Culture, Ethics, In the News, Politics, Society | 10 Comments

Podcast: The Hundredth Episode

Mere FidelityOur little podcast has just reached its centenary episode. In the absence of Andrew, Derek, Matt, and I get together to answer some of your questions.

You can also follow the podcast on iTunes, or using this RSS feed. Listen to past episodes on Soundcloud and on this page on my blog.

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Justifying Violence for Ideological Reasons

The sucker-punching of Richard Spencer, the alt-right leader and white nationalist, while speaking on camera, has sparked a lot of comment in various quarters. The question of whether it is justifiable to employ violence against such individuals has received a resounding ‘YES!’ from many liberal quarters (see the comments on this thread, for instance). There are many things that could be said about this incident, but the following were some of the initial thoughts that came to my mind.

First, we are increasingly seeing the result of the widespread use of hyperbolic language on the part of the social justice left to characterize those who disagree with or challenge their positions. Far too often, the rhetorical and ideological challenges presented by such persons are declared to be ‘violence’, existing in direct continuity with acts of throwing punches, casting stones, and even shooting of firearms. This sense of equivalence all too easily justifies the use of physically violent means to combat opponents. The carelessly hyperbolic rhetoric of the social justice left greases the surface of the plane of social antagonisms, enabling us to make some incredibly dangerous moves from ideological opposition towards physical violence extremely easily.

Second, as Paul Bloom and others have observed, a culture of radical empathy such as that seen in the social justice movement can be highly conducive to violence. The progressive social justice left so empathizes with particular groups and persons perceived to be victims that any challenge to them is perceived as serious violence, justifying merciless retaliation. Such empathy is a great way to spark the unchecked violence of the mob. It plays to visceral instincts and tends to override reason and balance. One of the things that true justice entails is resistance to the potential of the partisan sentiment of empathy to overrule equity.

Third, there is a tendency on the part of the utopian left to reject the principles of an open society. Rather than justice being something that even-handedly applies to all within society alike—as a set of rules for the social ‘game’ that prescribes no particular result—for the social justice left, justice is about achieving some very specific utopian outcomes and those who resist or do not support such outcomes are opposed to justice. Justice is a partisan of those who are on the ‘right side of history’ and so an unapologetic double standard can be applied. It is OK to punch those who are clearly on the wrong side of history.

Fourth, Godwin’s Law has good cause to exist. The very reason why such a recently fringe figure as Richard Spencer was in front of a video camera probably has a very great deal to do with the progressive left’s widespread desire to present itself in the best possible light by demonizing its opposition (‘they’re LITERAL NAZIS!!!!’).. In part, this is because the current progressive left is often so deeply preoccupied with its own narcissistic psychodramas that those who do not share its social agenda will be rendered the screen upon which they will project their self-elevating vision.

Fifth, many on the progressive left have so demonized their opponents that violence is increasingly the only form of engagement possible in their minds. The possibility that there are people on all sides who could be open to reason and charitable persuasion isn’t sufficiently entertained. Rather, there is a hardening of opinions on all sides.

Sixth, there has been a systematic elision of the differences between various groups and the tarring of all by association with the worst. Conservatives, Republicans, members of the white working classes, people living in red states, Trump voters, Trump supporters, alt-right, white nationalists, white supremacists, and neo-Nazis all get associated together, the evils of the extremes being used to characterize the others. As the distinctions between these various groups is lost sight of, the supposed justification of violence, hatred, or discrimination in the case of the ugliest of these groups tends to spread to the others by unjust association.

Seventh, justifying vigilante violence is an extremely dangerous thing to do. Even were it appropriate in some cases, without due process it will tend to cause a great deal of collateral damage. A guy was shot on Friday at an anti-fascist protest against a Milo Yiannopoulos talk on campus. This report suggests that he was mistaken for a white supremacist by the shooter on account of a misunderstood tattoo, when he was actually there as an opponent of fascism.

Eighth, once you start to suggest that unilateral physical violence is justified in some cases, it is incredibly difficult to prevent violence from spreading more broadly. The belief that one’s own side has a monopoly on justified violence is a self-indulgent fiction that could all too easily invite dynamics into our social life that would harm us all.

Ninth, there is a certain sort of vicious person who finds catharsis in violence and will jump at the opportunity to engage in socially sanctioned violence. As soon as open season is declared on a category of persons, such individuals will joyfully undertake their acts of violence under the banner of morality. Indeed, their willingness to engage in such violent acts is presented as proof of their moral zeal, when it actually is evidence for their appetite for violence. We should be under no illusions: there is a high possibility that, had he lived in different times, the sort of violent anti-fascist protester who would gladly punch someone like Richard Spencer in the face would also have been leading the lynch mob against the black man accused of raping the white girl or beating up the man accused of a homosexual act.

This point leads me to a set of reflections, with which I will end this hastily written post.

It is imperative that we recognize that a movement such as the social justice left, while making strong ideological claims, serves many ends that are not primarily about its ideology. Indeed, the existence and popularity of the ideology owes a great deal to the fact that it serves many of these ends so well.

Scot Alexander has, as usual, a superb post in which he explores the way in which ideologies serve ends that may often be more important than their explicitly declared or ostensive ones. Like other movements, there are a lot of different reasons why people subscribe to the ideology of ‘social justice’, beyond or in addition to actually believing in it. When thinking about the justification of violence in the name of or against an ideology, it is imperative that we recognize the many ends that ideologies can serve to dissemble.

The following are a few ends that the social justice movement serves for different groups, beyond what it might declare on the tin.

  1. People who want a prestige belief system can prove that they belong to the moral and intellectual elite by employing the ideological shibboleths and vocabularies of the social justice academic in-crowd. It is a great mechanism for creating and policing a privileged in-crowd, and all the better for being able to disavow or displace its privilege through its claim to represent those without privilege.
  1. People who need a way to process the wounds of their past can turn to social justice ideology as the scar tissue.
  1. People belonging to minority or disadvantaged groups can turn to social justice ideology to gain a sense of importance and the ability to hit back at others.
  1. People who struggle to hold their own against others can use social justice ideology as a means to call for special treatment and discriminate against their competition.
  1. People who feel guilt can turn to social justice ideology as a means of self-flagellation.
  1. People who should feel guilty can turn to social justice ideology as a means to absolve themselves of guilt by working to make others the scapegoat for their past sins and those of their groups.
  1. People who feel fearful and vulnerable can turn to social justice ideology for protection and security.
  1. People who like to bully others or act violently towards others can turn to social justice ideology as a means to justify their violent and abusive tendencies.
  1. Big business can turn to social justice ideology as it distracts from its own injustices, sells products, increases markets and the labour force, gains cachet for neoliberalism, displaces traditional communities and practices, sets up the market as the means of identity formation, and associates market values with social justice values.
  1. Governments can turn to social justice ideology as it enables them to distract from the sort of systemic class inequalities that the traditional left would focus on, and which led to the rise of Trump, emphasizing primarily symbolic social justice issues instead (the last several years have witnessed a great deal of government attention to issues of LGBT rights, rather less to the drugs crisis facing the US and the economic despair in the heartlands). Social justice ideology also serves as a means of enforcing power on populations at home and justifying overseas intervention.
  1. Modern Western societies can turn to social justice ideology to help them to absolve themselves of their historic sins by scapegoating certain unappreciated sections of their populations. Social justice ideology also offers itself as a convenient solvent for multicultural and post-national societies.
  1. Liberalism can turn to social justice ideology because it can present itself as continuing the Civil Rights movement and appreciate the halo effect of justice that affords. It serves as a means to drive out any of the cultural and social givenness that the right has traditionally defended, presenting many traditional expressions of religion, national pride, historic majority cultural identity, sexual norms, etc. as inherently exclusionary and oppressive. It can also provide a means for dividing and dominating society beneath its social dominance through the guilt and fear of identity politics.
  1. Hollywood can turn to social justice ideology because it enables them to distract from the concrete injustices and hedonism of the film industry with lots of shallow gestures that fuel its self-congratulatory culture, increase viewers, and play well to culturally ascendant groups.
  1. Social media can turn to social justice ideology because online what you say matters so much more than what you do and articulating social justice ideology is a cheap way to demonstrate virtue.
  1. Pluralist communities can turn to social justice ideology to establish unity and trust between people when the traditional non-ideological fabric of a common society can no longer adequately provide social cohesion.
  1. Social conformists and the socially vulnerable can turn to social justice ideology in order to fit in and not be ostracized.
  1. Religious people can turn to social justice ideology in order to jump on culturally ascendant bandwagons, regain a sense of moral high ground, and downplay the alienating features of their faith.
  1. Young people turn to social justice ideology in order to find identities and communities in a cultural context where given identities and communities are weak and often hard to come by.

Many further examples could be listed. However, it is imperative that we understand the many individual and social ends that social justice ideology serves beyond its ostensive ones. While it really shouldn’t be reduced to the features that make it socially useful, its widespread appeal and traction owes an immense amount to the way that it serves so many different parties’ contrasting interests. We also need to recognize that different groups that advocate ideologies should be handled differently.

Expanding on Alexander’s ‘the ideology is not the movement’ thesis, recognizing the great diversity of people’s and group’s reasons for subscribing to ideologies (or religions, for that matter), we should be considerably more cautious of what we justify in their name. There is a great deal of ugliness and complexity that can masquerade beneath the veils of values. While values are certainly not unimportant and ideologies are not merely masks, we must always be alert to the many unpleasant, unhealthy, or frail human instincts that can crawl in the dark beneath their cover. This is never more important when considering justifying violence on account of ideology.

Posted in Culture, Ethics, Politics, Society | 42 Comments

Links Post 21/01/2017

Some links from the past week.

John Milbank: What Liberal Intellectuals Get Wrong About Transgenderism

So two controversial points about transgenderism follow from this. First, that we are not talking here about simply the discovery of “another” minority condition that demands recognition and emancipation, but rather about a necessary extended footnote to the rendering of homosexuality as the new norm. For once we give equal status to attraction towards “the same” as to attraction towards “the other”, we have already rendered sexual difference a subordinate irrelevance.

Secondly, that the contradiction I described earlier is still there: “transgender” oscillates between being merely a matter of choice, and being something unchosen, something lodged in a presumed non-pathological soul.

Andrew Perriman: 16 Reasons for Thinking that the Conversion of the Empire was at the Heart of NT Eschatology. Controversial but stimulating thesis.

The Real Problem With Hypocrisy

Once you understand moral criticism this way, you can see why people feel deceived by hypocrites. In another set of studies, we found that people viewed hypocrites as dishonest—more dishonest, in fact, than people who uttered outright falsehoods. Remarkably, hypocrites were rated as less trustworthy, less likable and less morally upright than those who openly lied: e.g., characters who wasted energy after explicitly stating that they never wasted energy.

It seems to me that the widespread character of the belief that politicians are generally hypocrites can help us to understand why people might prefer a politician who is patently a liar.

Donkeys, Alexander, and Christ

New arrival completes chain of first British family spanning six generations

The cultural evolution of trousers—part 1, part 2

Blindsight eye contact

The Institution of Ideology in Sociology

Recent changes in LGBT demographics

First Three-Parent Baby Born to Infertile Couple

Autism Risk May Arise from Sex Specific Traits

Gender Equality Can Cause Sex Differences to Grow Bigger

Against the Renting of Persons, a conversation with David Ellerman

Shakespeare in the Bush—trying to explain the meaning of Hamlet to West African tribespeople

The Blank Slateism of the Right

People who betray Jesus can still teach us about being Christian. Scorsese’s ‘Silence’ shows us how. Interesting discussion of the subject from Elizabeth Bruenig.

For $8,000 this startup will fill your veins with the blood of young people

Will Zuckerberg run in 2020?

The Antiheroine Unveiled. Stimulating reflections on the character of the antiheroine, as distinct from the female antihero or female villain.

12 words peculiar to Irish English

How Antarctic bases went from wooden huts to sci-fi chic

Origins of Atheism: “Modern atheism did indeed emerge in Europe in the teeth of religious, i.e. Christian, opposition. But it had only a limited amount to do with reason and even less with science. The creation myth in which a few brave souls forged weapons made of a previously unknown material, to which the religious were relentlessly opposed, is an invention of the later nineteenth century, albeit one with ongoing popular appeal. In reality . . . modern atheism was primarily a political and social cause, its development in Europe having rather more to do with the (ab)use of theologically legitimized political authority than it does with developments in science or philosophy.”

Early Transhumanism

God, Gift, and Sacrament

Look and See: A Portrait of Wendell Berry


Incredible trick shot in Bristol sports bar:

North Koreans Try American BBQ

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