Gods of the Lash

Saturday, 04-09-2016

And I should imagine that this is equally true of the soul, Callicles; when a man is stripped of the body, all the natural or acquired affections of the soul are laid open to view.  -- Socrates

Those who reject God don’t reject gods in general.  Each of them makes something else his god.

Some, of course, make gods of cruel causes such as fascism, communism, and Islamic terrorism, but it seems that far more pursue the gods of pleasure, wealth, power, sex, or being thought well of by others.

Could it be that people in that larger category are seeking gods that don’t ask anything of them?  Maybe that is what they think they are doing.  But every god but the true God is a slavedriver and taskmaster, a god of the lash.

Consider just the god of the hedonists.  Think of all you must sacrifice to give pleasure your unconditional loyalty.  Think of all the things you must give up.  Think of all the longings you must uproot.  Think of all the nerves you must kill.



Friday, 04-08-2016

When you hear that history is against you, tell your accuser that if that flimsy cudgel is all he has for beating you, he has nothing.  Social change as rapid as we are experiencing suggests not a permanent new configuration, but the opposite of permanence and the reverse of a configuration.  None of this will last.  Those who croon hymns to history, who prostrate themselves before futurity, who caper to every tick of the clock, are adoring but the image of their desires.

Too often decent people give up and become fatalists.  They misread the times; they misread all times; they fall in with the chant of the accuser.  They forget that when everything is in motion, small interventions can make great differences.  Even a little rock may divert the rushing water into a branching channel.  Even a touch on the bob of a pendulum may dampen the violence of its swing.  How do you know what is possible and what is not?

Besides, the care of history has not been committed to us.  What is in our care is a few nearby souls:  Our sons and our daughters, our wives and our husbands and our friends.


Wherein to Spoil the Conscience of the King

Thursday, 04-07-2016

The Demagogue advances himself neither by shrewd argument, nor by mastery of procedure, but by daily shock which enslaves the media and keeps himself in the eyes of his admirers.

It is not so much that people believe what The Demagogue says, as that they are impressed that anyone would say it.  They admire his lies even as lies.  He appeals to them not despite these mendacities, but because of them.  The more careless and enormous they are, the more they make his followers gasp or even whoop, the more they think that here is someone to be reckoned with, Someone Who Cannot Be Ignored.

This is not the first time a politician has employed sensational tactics, but it is the first time a politician has embraced sensationalism as a strategy.  Senator Joseph McCarthy was sensationalistic about Communism, but The Demagogue – who believes in nothing -- is sensationalistic about everything.  His strategy is not shock for a cause, but shock for its own sake.

The real precursor of shock for its own sake is found not in politics, but in entertainment.  For two generations we have laughed at, applauded, and followed the careers of musicians who destroy their instruments and stage sets, singers who clothe themselves in raw meat, and actors who arrange to be arrested for driving while intoxicated.

No, you say, this cannot explain The Demagogue’s appeal.  People expect different things of entertainers and politicians.  They make distinctions.

No, I say, they used to make distinctions.  People who have been habituated to finding shock entertaining lose interest in who offers it to them.  The shock’s the thing.


Turtles All the Way Down?

Wednesday, 04-06-2016


Your appeal to God’s simplicity is powerful; it protects God’s freedom and explains how God’s wisdom can be neither above nor below him, since it is Him.  But, on the other hand, doesn’t it arrive at the same place I was trying to avoid?  Let me explain.

If Wisdom does not exist outside of or above God, by what standard can God be considered “wise” and His will not arbitrary?  The only standard is God!  God’s will is not wise because He conforms His will to wisdom, but God’s will is wise for no other reason than it is of God, who is Wisdom.  It seems, than, that we have arrived at the same place by a different route.  Wisdom is arbitrary -- or, if we wish to say that wisdom could not be other than it is, then necessary.


I appreciate your reply, but you assume, instead of proving, that for God to be wise, He must conform to some standard of wisdom other than Himself.  Also, you seem to have changed the terms of the dilemma.  At first you were trying to see how God’s wisdom could be other than arbitrary, but now you won’t allow his wisdom to be necessary either.

Think of it this way.  Whenever we say that some being, P, is wise, we can ask the further question “Why should P be considered wise?”  In every such case there are two possible answers.  One is that P is the first principle of wisdom, its very root and unchangeable meaning – that it isn’t wise because of something else, but is the very thing that makes other wise things wise.  You don’t want to give that answer, because to you, first principles seem to be arbitrary, just because no further reason can be given for them.  You want to say that if P should be considered wise, the reason must lie in the fact that it conforms to some deeper standard – call it P2.

Very well.  But wait:  Now we have to ask “Why should P2 be considered wise?”  Again, there are two possible answers.  Either P2 is the very root and meaning of wisdom, or it isn’t.  Again you worry that this makes it arbitrary, so suppose we say it isn’t.  In that case, P2 must be wise not because it is the very root and meaning of wisdom, but because it conforms to some still deeper standard – call it P3.

As you can see, if you continue to object to a root and meaning of wisdom, then we are going to have an infinite regress of reasons for considering P wise:  P is wise because it conforms to P2, P2 is wise because it conforms to P3, P3 is wise because it conforms to P4, and so on without end.  But an infinite regress of explanations is no an explanation at all.  If you are worried about arbitrariness, the thing to avoid isn’t a necessary first principle, but an infinite regress.

Thus we must believe that at some point the regress has to stop.  We do, finally, arrive at something, call it P Prime, which is the very root and meaning of wisdom.  And if that is what it is, then just because it doesn’t depend on anything else, it cannot be other than it is.  And just because it cannot be other than it is, it isn’t arbitrary.  A mystery, yes, in the sense that it is greater than our minds.  But arbitrary, no.

I am not sure what tempts us to think that something is arbitrary just because it cannot be other than it is.  We don’t say that the arithmetical principle that two things equal to a third thing are equal to each other is arbitrary.  We say that it is a standard by which we can tell what other things are arbitrary.  I think we should think that way here.

But P Prime is much more than a principle of arithmetic.  As we continue to reflect, we find P Prime to be not only the very root and meaning of wisdom, but the very root and meaning of being, of goodness, of beauty, and of everything that is worthy of admiration.  In P Prime we find even the very root and meaning of Personhood, so we are right to view P Prime not as It, but as Him.

This necessary being P Prime is what we call God.  We Christians make the further daring claim that He is the very God of our faith and has come among us.


How Much Difference Does it Make?

Tuesday, 04-05-2016

How much difference do you think it makes whether the president is a good man or a bad one?  I think it makes rather a lot.  But consider carefully before you answer.

One of the writers who influenced the Founders of the American republic was David Hume, who argued in a famous 1742 essay, “That Politics May Be Reduced to a Science” that although in general, the virtue of the ruler makes a great deal of difference, in a sound constitutional order it doesn’t.

The Founders thought Hume had exaggerated.  As James Madison argued at the constitutional ratifying convention in Virginia, no matter how well a republic may be designed, it is lost without sufficient virtue among the people and their rulers.

Still, Hume was onto something, and the Founders agreed there too.  No doubt, one can never design a republic so well that the virtue of the ruler makes no difference.  Yet the better the constitutional design, the better it can weather an occasional bad one.

Conversely, if we have really come to such a point that a change in the character of a single ruler can turn the polity upside down, we should no longer pretend that we have retained a sound constitutional order.


His Will and the Counsel of His Will

Monday, 04-04-2016


I have begun reading Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity by the Anglican divine Richard Hooker.  Following a discourse on the different kinds of Law instituted by God (eternal law, divine law, natural law, and so forth), Hooker writes,

“Howbeit, undoubtedly, a proper and certain reason there is of every finite work of God, inasmuch as there is a law imposed upon it; which if there were not, it should be infinite even as the worker himself is.  They err therefore, who think that of the will of God to do this or that, there is no reason besides his will.  Many times no reason known to us; but that there is no reason thereof, I judge it most unreasonable to imagine, inasmuch as he worketh all things ... not only ‘according to his own will,’ but ‘the counsel of his own will.’”

I understand that the Nominalists, and the Reformers after them, rejected this conception of the reasonableness of divine agency, instead claiming that God’s will is supreme over all, and that the only reason for something’s being so is that God wills it be so.  Though the view which champions “divine counsel” is obviously more appealing to me, I struggle to discern which view is correct (though I am all but certain about which view you take), since both views seem to have problems.

On the one hand, if God, who is perfect in every respect, acts in complete accord with reason or with His own counsel, is He not its slave?  That is, what freedom might God possibly possess if His doings must, of necessity, conform to reason or to “counsel”?

On the other hand, if God’s will is supreme over reason or “counsel,” then all his actions would be groundless or arbitrary, all sins would be sins merely because God decided they were so, and these consequences seem to me inconceivable.

How do you resolve the reasonableness of God’s activity with His freedom?    


I am always glad to discuss Richard Hooker, if for no other reason than to memorialize his golden style of prose.  But your question is very good -- and very old.

For long ago Socrates posed a question to his friend Euthyphro:  Do the gods love what is pious because it is pious, or is it pious because the gods love it?  In one form or another, that famous query has been kicking around ever since.  With just a few substitutions we get the form which bedevils you:  Does God will what He wills because it is wise, or must it be called wise just because He wills it?

What makes the question a dilemma is that neither answer is satisfactory.  But notice that it presents a false dichotomy.  There is a third alternative which it overlooks.

For consider what you are implying when you say that if God acts in complete accord with His own wisdom, then He is its servant.  You are treating God and His wisdom as distinct things, for otherwise you couldn’t set one above the other.  But God and His wisdom are the same thing.  So are God and His will.  So are God and His goodness.

To put it another way, He is not a composite being made of various parts; you can’t point to one part and call it His wisdom, another part and call it His will, another part and call it His goodness.  We think of these things as different because we are not identical with our own attributes.  But God is identical with His attributes.

So the right way to frame the question is like this:

Is the wise something higher than God, to which His will submits?

Or is the wise something lower than God, which His will brings about?

Or are His will and His wisdom identical with each other and with Him?

Just as you suggest, the first alternative makes God a servant, and just as you suggest, the second makes His will arbitrary.  But the third makes Him supreme, supremely wise, supremely good – and, yes, supremely free.


Being Sure

Sunday, 04-03-2016

The vice of pride lies not so much in being sure we are right, but being sure we are good.  We seem to get this backwards.  It is an insidious mistake.

Some of us even take pride in moral skepticism, thinking it a proof of our virtue.

Others take pride in not being such fools as to think such a thing.