The Fog of, Um, War

Monday, 03-18-2024


This is the third in a short series of reruns of old columns which I wrote many years ago, as the fictional Professor Theophilus, in an online magazine for Christian college students.  Several people have been kind enough to say that my Ask Theophilus columns kept them sane in those days.



My girlfriend and I have been dating for almost a year.  Although we're not yet engaged, we're not just dating for the heck of it -- I think the relationship is marriage-bound.  We're both Christians, and both committed to remaining virgins until marriage.  The problem is that we've become more and more physically intimate.  I'd call the present level “heavy making out.”  This crosses serious ethical and spiritual lines for both of us. 

We know we’ve messed up and can't continue in this behavior.  The question is, what do we do next?  Break up?  Not touch at all?  Or what?



It's nice to have an easy question for a change!  No, you don't have to break up, and you don't have to avoid touching at all.  But you do need to know what to avoid, and you do need to know how to be successful in avoiding it.  You may think you already know what to avoid -- after all, you've just told me that you didn't avoid it.  But let's review anyway. 

What to avoid?  Avoid intercourse (of course), avoid whatever resembles intercourse (for example oral sex), and -- this is the important one to remember -- avoid whatever gets your motor running for intercourse.  The God-given purpose of sexual arousal is to prepare the two spouses for intercourse, and it achieves that purpose so well that once arousal happens, intercourse tends to follow.  Holding hands with your girlfriend while walking across campus probably doesn't put you in that condition, but other things do, and they are the things to avoid.  I know that you know what they are, because, of course, that's why you do them -- arousal is enjoyable.  The problem is that arousal can't be “used” as recreation.  You can't turn on the rocket motors and then tell the rocket not to lift off.  Besides, that behavior just isn't pure; arousal should be saved for your wife.  Why?  For the same reason that intercourse should be.  And your girlfriend isn't your wife yet. 

How to be successful in avoiding it?  Don't wait until you're aroused to ask yourself “Am I becoming aroused?”  Why not?  Because you'll be tempted to give yourself a dishonest answer.  Instead, make a list of things not to do so that your decision is already made ahead of time -- then just don't do them.  Does something get your motor running?  Put it on the list.  Is something difficult to stop doing? That's really the same question asked a different way.  Put it on the list too.  Whatever she thinks gets your motor running and whatever she thinks you find it hard to stop -- don't argue; write those things too.  And of course she follows the same steps, putting herself in your place and you in her place. 

Second, don't trust that will power alone will be enough to keep you on the right side of the line.  We aren't made that way.  Just as the purpose of arousal is to prepare the two spouses for intercourse, so the purpose of being alone together is to prepare the two spouses for arousal.  Logically, what follows?  You should simply avoid being alone together!  Of course I don't mean you can't ride in an elevator together, but you shouldn't be all by yourselves for extended periods of time.  Here are some examples.  Have dates in public places, like restaurants, not in secluded places like her apartment or that lonely spot in the park.  If you want to watch a DVD together at your girlfriend's place, okay, but invite a couple of other friends over to watch it with you.  When they leave, you leave -- and at the same time.  See where I'm going?

I think you'll find that following this advice puts your whole relationship on a different plane.  It makes it possible to find out how you really feel about each other without the fog of arousal -- which is every bit as confusing as the fog of war.



The author of the letter wrote back to thank me for the advice and say “You've probably saved my girlfriend and me from an imminent breakup.”  Isn't that interesting?  People are always imagining that sex preserves non-marital relationships.  Actually, sex confuses them.  Purity preserves them. 



I Don't Like It Here

Monday, 03-11-2024


This is the second in a short series of reruns of old columns which I wrote many years ago, as the fictional Professor Theophilus, in an online magazine for Christian college students.  Several people have been kind enough to say that my Ask Theophilus columns kept them sane in those days.



I'm a freshman in college at a university run by [a certain Christian denomination], but I really don't like it.  The longer I'm here, the more I feel like I'm getting theology shoved down my throat.  I'm not really in college with any particular goals in mind: I'm kind of just here because I'm not sure what else to do.  So does it make sense to leave?  I think the college experience has benefited me, but I find myself becoming more and more resentful of the “Christian” part of it.  I have to take many more ministry-theology classes as a part of my general requirements, and I'm really not interested.  I really need advice:  I don't want to make a decision I'm going to regret, especially considering the investment.



The question you need to ask yourself is why you resent “the Christian part of it.” No, I'm not scolding you.  Your reasons for resenting the theology requirements may be either good or bad, but you have to find out what they are.  Here are some of the possibilities:

1.  The real problem is although you recognize the value of college, you're just not ready for college right now, and the theology requirements are an easy target for your resentment about everything in general.

2.  The real problem is that you prefer a shallow faith, and you resent the theology courses because they urge you to cast your net in deeper waters.

3.  The real problem is that although you do want a deeper faith, you resent the theology courses for pushing you faster than you can go.

4.  The real problem is that something is wrong with the theology taught in those courses.  It doesn't answer your questions, or it answers them poorly, or it just doesn't have the aroma of Christ.

5.  The real problem is that your theology courses are designed for people who are going into church-related professions, and that's just not your calling.

Don't answer quickly.  Take all the time that you need.  Think; ponder; pray.  You need to be sure of your answer. 

If the answer is number 1, drop out of college for awhile.  Get a job, work hard, be responsible, save money.  If you live at home, pay room and board.  After a few years, think about college again.  You may feel different than you do now. 

If the answer is number 2, try to understand why you don't want to cast your net in deeper waters.  That's like preferring less life to more life.  Perhaps there is a professor or counselor at the college you could talk to about this. 

If the answer is number 3, I suggest that you change schools -- not to one that doesn't push you spiritually (because we all need that kind of push), but to one that pushes at a pace you can keep up with. 

If the answer is number 4, you should probably consider not just a different school, but a school that teaches a different theology.  Notice that I said “consider”; I'm not telling you to do it.  By all means hold onto Christ, but seek a place where you can find all of His truth. 

If the answer is number 5, look for a university where the theology requirements are geared to people more like you -- people who are serious about their faith, but not called to professions in the church. 

Probably, possibly, if!  I hope you weren't looking for a simple answer, because I haven't given you one.  But maybe I've steered you to the right questions.


Does It Ever Get Better?

Monday, 03-04-2024


This is first in a short series of reruns of old columns which I wrote many years ago, as the fictional Professor Theophilus, in an online magazine for Christian college students.  Several people have been kind enough to say that my Ask Theophilus columns kept them sane in those days.


I'm pursuing a Ph.D. in English literature at a secular research university.  For the most part my professors and colleagues are very open to my academic discussions of faith.  I've found a local community of believers and joined a weeknight discussion group organized by the church.  I really enjoy interacting with both Christians and nonbelievers in an academic setting.  I like my field in itself, I enjoy teaching, and I've had the joy of seeing many of my friends become Christians as they interacted with thoughtful believers trying to be faithful in the academy. 

All the same, I think about quitting the field weekly, maybe daily.  Everyone in my program who takes work seriously at all seems to be neglecting friends and family and sleeping 5-6 hours a night, just to get by.  The sheer amount of work the program expects of students is incredible. 

I'd like to have more time to be involved in my church, do volunteer work, and maybe even cook a meal and enjoy it with friends.  Though I'm fighting, I can also feel the burden of work stifling my relationship with God.  It's really hard to do more than skim through a Psalm in the morning and then start work.  Though I take Sundays off, it's hard to sustain whatever thinking I do about God throughout the week. 

I guess what I'm asking is: Does it ever get better? Will I ever have more time? Or is the graduate school lifestyle the same one I can expect in my academic career?



Of course it's possible that you shouldn't be in graduate school, but you don't give much reason for thinking that this is the case.  To start with: Yes, it gets better.  Frankly, though, it doesn't sound too bad for you now.  You obviously find time for worship and other church activities several times a week.  You obviously have time for friends, or you couldn't have had the joy of seeing “many” of them turn to Christ.  You just want more of these good things.  I can hardly blame you, but we can't have everything at once.  What about losing sleep?  Five hours is a little stiff, but six hours a night, at your age, for a few years, doesn't sound so bad to me.  People who are in at the start of something new and big often lose sleep.  Newlyweds do.  New parents do.  People beginning new careers or businesses do.  People organizing volunteer ministries do.  People in love do.  Converts do.  Should we be surprised that grad students do too?

I said a few moments ago that it gets better.  Let me fine-tune that statement.  It can get better, but that depends largely on you.  Perhaps these two reflections will help you. 

First, about grad school itself.  Needless to say, it isn't easy, but even so, many grad students work harder and lose more sleep than they need to.  Ironically, the commonest reason is that they are so smart.  All through high school and college, they were the ones who breezed by while others had to toil.  Grad school is often the first time in their lives that they've really had to work the way other students have had to.  Suddenly they're forced to learn the time management habits that everyone else learned years earlier.  Put all this together with the fact that for the first time in their lives, everyone around them is just as smart as they are, and what do you get?  A recipe for insecurity, an urge to overwork, and a motive not to take the time to learn the habits that would make it all easier -- they take too much time to learn. 

You keep telling yourself that you don't have time to sleep because you have so much to do.  But the less you sleep, the slower you work, and the more the work piles up, the less you sleep.  Naturally, you get sick.  The prospect of losing time to illness terrifies you, so you refuse to take time out to rest.  Because you do refuse, the illness lasts for weeks instead of days, and you lose more time still.  May I point out the obvious? None of this is necessary.  It's driven by anxiety, not need. 

Second, about spiritual discipline.  The sanctification of everyday life is difficult; everyone finds it hard to sustain a focus on God throughout the week, not just grad students.  Having too much work makes it hard -- how right you are! But believe me, not having enough work would make it harder still. 

I commend you for wanting more quiet time to pray, but you already have far more than you think.  You can pray while you're walking to school; you can pray while you're riding the bus; you can pray while you're making your dinner.  True, you won't always be able to pray in words -- you'd find it hard to do that while talking with your thesis supervisor -- but you can have a prayerful spirit even then.  When St. Paul writes “Pray without ceasing,” I don't think he's talking about having a longer quiet time, though that's good too.  I think he's talking about the cultivation of an interior quietness of soul that makes it possible to pray literally all the time.  May I once again point out the obvious?  Progress in interior quietness will also help you in time management, because the place that anxiety once filled is more and more filled up by God. 

As I said before, perhaps you shouldn't be in graduate school -- perhaps you aren't as well suited to the academic life as you seem to be -- but I don't think so.  I think your problems can be fixed.  Yes, it gets better, even when it gets harder, as sometimes it will.  That's how the path goes.  I don't mean the path of scholars, though scholars should follow it too.  I mean the path of God.


David, Goliath, and Subsidiarity

Monday, 02-26-2024


The usual reason offered for subsidiarity – but I am getting ahead of myself.  What is subsidiarity?  And why should you care?

Let me distinguish between the subsidiarist worldview and the subsidiarist rule.

The worldview of subsidiarity is that the society as a whole is not just a mass of individuals, nor is it a unitary sort of thing, but it is a partnership among many smaller partnerships in a good life – an alliance among forms of association such as families, friendships, churches, neighborhoods, business firms, craft unions, clubs, and so on.

The rule of subsidiarity is that “it is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and disturbance of right order to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organizations can do.”  This wording goes back to an encyclical of Pope Pius XI in 1931.  However, a very similar idea is found in Protestant social thought, where it is more often called “sphere sovereignty” -- and it is generally viewed not just as a “religious thing” but as an outgrowth of the classical natural law tradition.

On the negative side, subsidiarity implies that the forms of association which are greater in scale and power should never destroy, absorb, or take over the work of the forms of association lower down.  For example, the Church should not baptize children against the will of their parents (the Church agrees), and the public schools should not undermine parental teaching about sexuality (unfortunately, they do that).  On the positive side, subsidiarity implies that bigger and more powerful forms of association should be friendly and cooperative to the smaller and less powerful ones, protecting their ability to do their own jobs.  Thus, the government should let families raise kids -- but keep the streets safe for families.

Subsidiarity is pro-David, not pro-Goliath.  It roots for the little guy.  Most parents intuitively agree with it, even though most have never heard of it.  By contrast, today our bosses don’t.  In September 2023, a poll by Scott Rasmussen and RMG Associates,  comparing the views of different strata of Americans, found that only a little more than a third of the voting public thought educational professionals rather than parents should decide what children are taught, but that two thirds of elite respondents thought so. * 

Back to where I began this post.  The reason most often given for subsidiarity is that the whole panorama of smaller partnerships in the good life springs from the social nature of man, in such a way that each form of association has its own proper work – excluding perversions such as gangs of thieves, of course.  Parents should be allowed to raise their children because they are naturally adapted to raise them, and no one else can do the job better; the basis of parental right is not “lifestyle decisions,” but that every child needs its mom and dad.

What parents do for each other and for their children cannot be reassigned, nor can what friends or neighbors do for each other, or even what the members of chess clubs and craft unions do for each other.  Granted, the trade union is not a natural institution in the same sense that the family is:  Even so, trade unions can better maintain the standards of their crafts, and protect themselves from abuse and exploitation, than bureaucrats can.

I think all this is true, but we can say much more in favor of subsidiarity.  Practical wisdom is developed through experience.  It was Aristotle, I think, who first pointed out that just for this reason, political prudence, or wisdom in the affairs of the community, is much more rare than domestic prudence, or wisdom in the affairs of the home.  Almost everyone has experience directing his own affairs and those of his family; not many have experience directing matters on the largest scale.

But the rarity of political prudence is not just a matter of scale.  For not only can a man have domestic prudence and yet lack political prudence, but the converse is also true:  He can have a degree of political prudence – he can be good at encouraging all those little partnerships to remain in partnership and to refrain from invading each other’s domains -- and yet be inept to govern any single one of those little partnerships.

Thus, most decisions should be kept out of politics simply because they can’t be made well at that height.  This is not a recommendation for anarchy, for the state too has its proper work.  To continue with my Exhibit A, the family, laws are necessary to protect the peace which allows families to do their proper work; laws are necessary to protect families from others who might butt in on their proper work; and laws are even necessary to protect competent parents from intrusions on their proper work by the state itself.  But we need to get out of the habit of thinking, whenever something doesn’t please us, “There oughts be a law.”



* For purposes of the poll, elites were defined as people with postgraduate degrees who earn at least $150,000 annually and live in zipcodes of high population density.  “Them vs. Us:  The Two Americas and How the Nation’s Elite Is Out of Touch with Average Americans,”



Hey, Man, Stuff Changes

Monday, 02-19-2024


In the classical view, a law should be changed, not whenever we can think of an improvement, but only when the improvement is great enough to offset the harm of change in itself.

A graduate student I once taught found this view baffling.  What could be bad about change?  Life changes.  That’s how it is.  That’s good.

A few weeks later his girlfriend dumped him.  He was devastated.


The Next Burning

Monday, 02-12-2024


The next destruction of books will take place as swiftly as the burning of the Great Library of Alexandria.  Already libraries are getting rid of physical books and shifting to electronic records.  Vandals will delete electronic books by hacking the systems; politicians will delete them for the supposed protection of the republic.  Selective electronic book burning will be as easy as pie, because so-called artificial intelligence will be used to scan millions of manuscripts at once for unapproved ideas.

Destruction is already taking place willy-nilly, because software and hardware obsolescence increasingly deprive us of the ability to recover documents, files, and recordings more than a few years old.  Can you still listen to your old eight-track tape player?  Can your DVR-equipped computer still read your old CDs?  Can your new computer accept your old floppy disks?  The span of electronic memory turns out to be much less than a single generation of man.

About ten years ago, I was about to lose access to about 15,000 old documents written in an old word processing program, because the newer versions of MS-Word no longer support DOS.  Well-meaning technicians – who thought this was like bringing back the horse-drawn buggy -- told me that there ought to be a way to convert my documents all at once.  Even after research, though, they couldn’t tell me what it might be.  Over a period of weeks, I dropped everything else in order to laboriously convert my files one, by one, by one, by one, by one.

“But everything is on the internet now!”  Software obsolescence affects a lot of internet files too.  Have most of us any idea how fragile such complex systems are, how much coordinated effort by thousands of people they take to maintain?  Not to mention how easy they are to manipulate.  Consider the algorithms used in social media, which seem so much more efficient in eliminating what our elites call “misinformation” than in eliminating children’s access to pornography.  Besides – people read less and less, and the internet has devastated our attention spans.

“It will all work out.”  Don’t be so sure.  We prefer to view prosperity, economic opportunity, political freedom, and religious liberty as facts of nature, like air and gravity.  In fact they are delicate achievements which will be lost in an instant if the cultural consensus which supports them disappears.  Already this consensus has gravely eroded.  In fact, it is under assault, and too often, those who recognize the fact are afraid to speak for fear of being called “partisan,” “polarizing,” on “on the wrong side of history.”

People of a certain kind of faith sometimes ask me, “But don’t you believe God is in control?”  Yes, but this doesn’t mean that He will preserve our civilization.  What it means is that He can save souls and preserve His Church, and that in the end, none of our civilization’s wickedness and insanity will be able to defeat His purposes.  If we cannot or refuse to be reformed, we may be swept away -- or allowed to destroy ourselves – or, most likely, both.

Cheer up.  I don’t say that our civilization can’t be reformed.  Gloom and doom are wastes of time and vexations of spirit.  Since we don’t know the future, we should always fight to preserve our institutions, never stooping to lie or manipulate, as though we knew that they still can be preserved -- for maybe they can.  Prudence, however, requires inward preparation for the very real possibility of their disappearance, well within our lifetimes.


Three Bad Eggs

Monday, 02-05-2024


First egg:  Progressive education

An advertisement for a private school in our neighborhood association newsletter reads as follows (remember, this is Austin):

No grades.

No homework.

No teachers.

Apply now.

Rolling admissions.

I notice that it doesn’t include “No tuition.”


Second egg:  Social construction

“Gender is a social construction.”  No, gender ideology is a social construction.  Sex is a work of nature.  Gender is confusion about sex.


Third egg:  Pragmatism on left and right

The mantra of leftist humanities professors that truth isn’t how things really are, but “whatever works,” is very much of a piece with the idea of some conservatives that you don't need the humanities:  Just get a business degree.  One would think that even businessmen would want to pursue the great questions of life, but no.

It’s come to this:  The barbarians are pillaging the city, and the anti-barbarians respond that this being the case, we have to burn the city down.


Bonus:  Empowerment

Means being told that I may do whatever I want.