Are Christians “Idealists?”

Monday, 04-24-2023



Are Christians idealists, in the sense in which a Marxist would use the term?  You know I am at university in a Marxist country.



I think you may be asking any of four different things.

Possibility one:  Is a human being at bottom just a body (a material substance), or is he at bottom just a soul (an intellectual substance)?  We believe that human beings are not bodies alone, or souls alone, but souls united with bodies.  Many analytical philosophers call this view “dualism,” although I dislike the term because it can have more than one meaning.  The more traditional name for the doctrine of body-soul unity is “hylomorphism.”

Possibility two:  Do nonmaterial forms really exist, or is matter all that exists?  Certainly forms exist.  Matter exists in time, but time is not matter.  We have thoughts, but thought is not matter.  A sentence has a meaning, but even though the meaning may be represented by ink marks on paper, the meaning is not the same thing as the ink marks on paper; in fact, the meaning is the same even if the matter changes – for example, if the sentence is represented by configurations of pixels on a computer screen.

Possibility three:  Granted that these forms exist, do they exist in themselves, as Plato thought?  The traditional Christian view is that they don’t, so if that is what is meant by idealism, we are not idealists.  Rather forms are found in three other places -- in things, in minds, and in the mind of God – though they are not found in these three places in the same sense, but in analogical senses.  The form of the body “informs” the body; my grasp of this form is in my mind; and all forms of created things preexist in the mind of the Creator.  This view is usually called moderate realism – realist, because it affirms the reality of forms, and moderate, because it does not suppose that they have independent existence.

Possibility four:  A Marxist would probably be thinking not just of Platonic idealism but of Hegelian idealism.  I am no Hegel scholar, but subject to correction, I understand him to have thought that the world cannot be distinguished from how the world is understood, and that God or “Spirit” becomes conscious of itself in human minds.  Orthodox Christianity rejects these views.  God, who brought our minds and the world into existence, is distinct from our minds and the world.  Simultaneously whole in every moment, He has no need to evolve.  Knowing all things, He has no need of us to be conscious of Himself.  Our minds are true when they correspond to how things are; things are as they are because they correspond to the mind of the Creator.




Monday, 04-17-2023


Rather than an extended reflection on a single theme, this is a series of short thoughts that have been knocking around in my mind.

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In many ways, we are starting all over again in the abortion battle.  The notion that support for abortion has increased since Roe was overturned is not altogether an illusion – partisan lying really has panicked some people into more extreme positions.  But I think the shift in poll numbers is due more to the fact that people’s true views are coming to the surface.  Previously, even opposition to abortion was squishy.  Some young women thought “I believe in abortion,” others thought “I am uncomfortable with the idea of abortion,” but both groups thought “it’s not a real issue for me because the option of abortion is there in case it’s needed.”  Now it has become a real issue for them -- and now we have to really change their minds.

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It's curious that both left and right seem to think that things are falling apart -- but what each side views as remedy, the other views as decline.  People often say they wish left and right would “come together to solve the country's problems," but they define the problems in opposite ways.  For example, one side thinks that racism is on the increase and reverse racism is necessary to fight it; the other side thinks that racism was on the decline but that reverse racism is bringing it back in force.  Again, one side thinks that crime is an innocent response to deprivation, and that the problem lies in the police; the other side thinks crime is wrong and dangerous, and that although we should help disturbed people, the problem lies in punishing the police and encouraging the criminals.

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The attribute view of personhood – the view that you don’t count as a person, with moral dignity and rights, unless you have such attributes as the ability to make plans and carry them out – is widely deployed in the debates over abortion.  But it also carries over into everyday relationships.  “You must have the attributes we value,” whatever these may be, for example holding the same opinions, “or we treat you like dirt.”

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Previous civilizations have degenerated.  Previous ages have marched into the dark not knowing that they were marching into the dark.  But in any previous time, were artists, scholars, and thinkers so eager to explain that degeneration was really progress?

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I’ve written in this blog numerous times about the “revenge of conscience.  Conscience wreaks this revenge in a particularly spectacular way in the domain of sex.  We aren’t really shameless; rather, because of our shame, we make excuses.  People on the left make excuses for their shameful practices by saying that now all perversions are okay (in fact, they aren’t perversions).  People on the right implausibly say “No, only my shameful practice is okay.  Yours isn’t.”  Is it any wonder that the liberal dog is winning this fight?

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The observation that it is difficult to portray a really good person in fiction is nothing new.  But why do our contemporary novelists find it so difficult even to portray a person we wouldn’t mind meeting?  Even when they try?  There are exceptions.  Not many.  The appalling thought occurs to me that maybe they like their characters.

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It’s easy to understand the temptation to idolatry, in which limited things are treated as transcendent.  For in a sense, they are transcendent, though not in the sense that God is.  Objects in a sense transcend our perceptions of them.  Realities in a sense transcend descriptions of them.  The forms of things in a sense transcend the objects whose forms they are.  The past in a sense transcends our memory of it.  But all these things are finite.  Only God is infinitely transcendent.

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As the classical writers knew – Aristotle knew it, Cicero knew it, Thomas Aquinas wrote of it with great insight -- the virtues are interconnected.  People are confused about this fact because a person who is full of vices might have some admirable qualities.  As a man I knew who was sentenced to prison for embezzling put it, “You meet some of the nicest people in prison.”  But the interconnection of virtues doesn’t imply that we can’t possess even a particle of virtue unless we possess complete virtue.  What it does imply is that there is no such thing as a person who fails in just one virtue.  Anything wrong in one moral dimension does damage in the other ones too. 

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The proponents of the so called “new natural law theory,” or “basic goods theory,” say that we shouldn’t speak of the natural purposes of things.  For example, we shouldn’t say that the natural purpose that anchors the sexual powers is procreation, because this “instrumentalizes” and “depersonalizes” us – it makes us tools for making babies.  This is absurd.  One might as well say that it depersonalizes us to say that the natural purpose of the intellectual powers is deliberating and knowing the truth.

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Human beings are neither souls alone, nor bodies alone, but embodied souls.  Since the laws of our bodies are constitutive elements of our being, we don’t diminish ourselves by honoring them -- we would alienate ourselves by not honoring them.  They aren’t shackles, but real aspects of our embodied personhood -- inheritances, not encumbrances; enrichments, not impoverishments; not things to be struggled against, but things to be cherished as gifts.

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I wish someone would explain to me why it isn’t necessary to show probable cause of fraud and get a warrant in order to audit a taxpayer.

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How odd it is that the things we do spontaneously are usually bad for us.  Doesn’t that suggest that something has gone wrong with our nature?  I think so.  Please notice that I am asking whether the condition of man’s nature has changed.  I am not asking whether our nature itself has changed, for if that had happened, then either the being before the change wasn’t man -- or it was, but we aren’t.

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Everyone has a grievance.  These days soliciters are offended if you merely politely decline to talk with them.  Person at the door:  Are you J. Budziszewski?  Me:  Who are you?  Person:  Are you J. Budziszewski?  Me:  Who are you?  Person:  Do you have such-and-such in your house?  Me:  Are you selling something?  Person:  Do you have such-and-such in your house?  Me:  Are you selling something?  Person:  [Long pause.]  Not necessarily.  Me:  Thank you.  I’m not interested.  [I quietly close the door.]  --  I can understand why the soliciter was frustrated.  It's harder to make a sale when you are forced to begin by saying that you want to.  What I don’t understand is why she was offended.  This is my house.

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One reason why we don't learn as much from history as we might is that historians divide up in much the same way that factions did during the historical periods they are studying.




Monday, 04-10-2023


The thesis of “American exceptionalism” seems to have two meanings.  To some of those who speak of it, it means that for generations, something different in our cultural DNA made the country a beacon of liberty and opportunity.  With several large qualifications, this seems to be true.  But there is also a governmental meaning:  That our rulers will never do the sorts of evil deeds we have seen done in totalitarian lands.

I don’t see why not.  Our rulers are not so much different from rulers in other places, and they are becoming more venal by the day.

Official, planned destruction of the economies of coal mining areas, and the slow and careless official response to the destruction of the air and water of East Palestine, Ohio, suggest that many of those who make our policies may not be particularly reluctant for the disfavored parts of the country to become unlivable.  They aren’t Green enough, or Blue enough, or there is something else wrong with their color.

Perhaps East Palestine can be cleansed.  Or perhaps it will come to resemble Chernobyl.  But when I think of the totalitarian countries, I think not so much of careless disasters, like nuclear reactor accidents and train derailments, as of deliberate, man-made miseries and coerced movements of population, including the planned ruin of entire classes and regions.

Is our government exceptional?  Less and less, it seems.  If you want to keep such things from happening here, never assume that they can’t.  Never even assume that they aren’t.



Thomas Aquinas on Why Easter Had to Happen

Sunday, 04-09-2023


Since this blog has acquired quite a few new readers recently, I should mention that although it isn’t a Holy Day blog – I write mostly about other things -- I always offer a reflection on Easter and another on Christmas, drawn mostly from the Fathers of the Church.  This one, though, is from Thomas Aquinas, who asks in his Summa theologiae, “Was it necessary for Christ to rise again?”  Here is how he answers.  On Monday, I’ll be back to the old stand.

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It behooved Christ to rise again, for five reasons.

First of all; for the commendation of Divine Justice, to which it belongs to exalt them who humble themselves for God's sake.  "He has put down the mighty from their seat, and has exalted the humble."  Consequently, because Christ humbled Himself even to the death of the Cross, from love and obedience to God, it behooved Him to be uplifted by God to a glorious resurrection ….

Secondly, for our instruction in the faith, since our belief in Christ's Godhead is confirmed by His rising again, because "although He was crucified through weakness, yet He lives by the power of God."  And therefore it is written "If Christ is not risen again, then our preaching is vain, and our faith is also vain": and "What profit is there in my blood?" … as though He were to answer: "None.  For if I do not at once rise again but My body be corrupted, … I shall gain no one” ….

Thirdly, for the raising of our hope, since through seeing Christ, who is our head, rise again, we hope that we likewise shall rise again.  Hence it is written "Now if Christ be preached that He rose from the dead, how do some among you say, that there is no resurrection of the dead?" And "I know" (that is, with certainty of faith) "that my Redeemer" (that is, Christ) "lives" (having risen from the dead), "and" (therefore) "in the last day I shall rise out of the earth... this my hope is laid up in my bosom."

Fourthly, to set in order the lives of the faithful: "As Christ is risen from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we also may walk in newness of life": and further on; "Christ rising from the dead dies now no more; so do you also reckon that you are dead to sin, but alive to God."

Fifthly, in order to complete the work of our salvation: because, just as for this reason did He endure evil things in dying that He might deliver us from evil, so was He glorified in rising again in order to advance us towards good things:  "He was delivered up for our sins, and rose again for our justification."

-- Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologia, III, Question 53, Article 1.  The full text of the passage is here.



More Charitable Than You

Monday, 04-03-2023



Is Christian charity compatible with competition, so that someone could say “I want to love God for His own sake more than anyone else”?



Good question.  Sometimes people think all forms of competition are prohibited by charity, and this is not true.  For example, by competing in games, all children have more fun, and they explore and develop their skills more fully because the competition spurs them on.  Naturally children try to win, but we teach them to take pleasure in good play by their opponents too.

On the other hand, we cannot genuinely compete in charity itself.  Someone may desire to be a saint, but the more he advances in holiness the more he will want the same thing for everyone.

Charity is a common good.  Some goods are common only in a very weak sense; for example, we all need a certain amount of wealth – I need food, I need clothing, I need shelter – but the fact that we all need these things doesn’t necessarily mean that we have communion in them, for I may get more of them by keeping you from having them.  By contrast, the virtues are common in a strong sense.  If you have more courage than I do, I too benefit from your courage, and it would be absurd for me to say “No fair!  You only got all that courage by taking it from me!”  Supernatural charity is a common good in an even stronger sense than the other virtues are, because everyone who possesses charity desires its overflow into others.  This should be no surprise, for that’s how we get it from God.  It's an “infused” virtue.  He gives it away.

One of the paradoxes of charity is the greatness of being small.  Consider St. Thérèse of Lisieux, whose gift was to perform even the smallest of everyday acts with heroic humility and hiddenness.  Her case is paradoxical, because in her afflictions and low station she did not have the conventional opportunities for great deeds; the opportunity she seized for greatness was the very fact of her afflictions and low station.  This sort of “opportunity” cannot even be recognized as such, except by grace, and would have been invisible to someone like Aristotle.

That is why she was able to write the startling words that God “made me understand my own glory would not be evident to the eyes of mortals, that it would consist in becoming a great saint!  This desire could certainly appear daring if one were to consider how weak and imperfect I was, and how, after seven years in the religious life, I still am weak and imperfect.  I always feel, however, the same bold confidence of becoming a great saint because I don’t count on my merits since I have none, but I trust in Him who is Virtue and Holiness.”



Some Crazy Ideas Are Deadly Serious (beginning only)

Tuesday, 03-28-2023


Here are the title and opening paragraphs of my new Op-Ed at The Wall Street Journal.  I'm not allowed to give you the whole thing, of course, because of the paywall.

Some Crazy Ideas Are Deadly Serious

Saying men can get pregnant is ridiculous. Pumping kids full of hormones is wicked.

By J. Budziszewski

March 27, 2023

When I tell nonacademic friends some of the things about race and sex that are commonly taught in universities today, many respond with either disbelief or giggles.  You can’t be serious.  Nobody can possibly believe that men can get pregnant or that Lincoln was in favor of slavery!

Since I agree these are crackpot ideas, perhaps I shouldn’t carp.  But when people in politics, scholarship, punditry and everyday life treat “culture wars” as unserious—or at least as less serious than other issues, like economics and foreign policy—I wonder how serious they are.




Is God a Meaningless Abstraction?

Monday, 03-27-2023



Is God an abstract and meaningless idea?



At first I was puzzled by your question, because it sounded as though you were asking whether God exists -- but you didn’t word it that way, and besides, I know you do believe that God exists.  From previous correspondence, I suspect that you are relaying a question from skeptical acquaintances whom you aren’t sure how to answer.  So I’ve given some thought to what they might mean by suggesting to you that God is an “abstract and meaningless idea.”

Perhaps the difficulty is that the terms “God” and “god” are used in several different senses.

Sometimes the term “god” is used for whatever it is to which someone gives his unconditional commitment.  This is what we mean when we say of a greedy man, “His god is money.”  There are lots of gods of this sort:  Sex, Me, Power, Reputation, and so forth.  Since almost anything might be someone’s “god” in the sense of unconditional commitment, I can see why someone might say that the term is meaningless.  But if we ask what deserves unconditional commitment, there is only one answer, and that is the God whom we worship.

Sometimes – although the term “god” itself is not often used in this way – people call themselves “religious” because they have elevated feelings.  If, for example, they have feelings of awe when they look at the sky, they say they are “religious.”  Since people may have elevated feelings about almost anything – from the Hubble Space Telescope to the Oprah Winfrey show -- in this sense too I can see why someone might say that terms such as “god” and “religious” are meaningless.  But if the question is what ought to arouse our loftiest feelings, again there is only one answer:  The Creator, whom we call God.

Sometimes the term “god” is used for a being who has vast powers, like the beings of the Greek myths (or like Marvel comic book heroes).  Though God is powerful, this is not what we mean by God.  The “gods” of mythological were contingent beings like you and me.  They didn’t have to exist; something would have had to cause them to exist.  But the true God, as Christians understand Him, exists necessarily.  He can’t not be.  Those “gods” existed in the same way that you exist; they just had more of everything.  But God is the answer to the question of why there is something and not rather nothing – why anything at all exists apart from Him.  Those “gods” were products of human imagination.  But there is, and can be, only one First Being.  God, then, is not a meaningless abstraction, but the Being above all other beings.

I can think of one more thing your acquaintances might mean in saying that God is a meaningless abstraction.  They may mean that whether He exists or He doesn’t exist, it makes no difference; life goes on the same way.  But if God is what Christian faith claims He is, then this is far from true:

God is not only the First Cause on which all other being depends, but the First Meaning on which all other meaning depends.  Apart from Him, life is absurd. 

He is the greatest and most praiseworthy thing.  Surely something is wrong with us if we cannot admire what is infinitely greater than ourselves.

Since He is the supreme and uncreated Good, we depend on Him even to put the goods of this life in right order.

Without His providence, we are constantly tempted to do evil so that good will result.

Without His grace, we cannot be forgiven our wrongdoing.  What is impersonal cannot forgive; morality, as such, has a heart of stone.

Without the same grace, we cannot be healed of our brokenness.  Moral discipline can accomplish something, and that is good, but eventually it hits a wall.

Without the same grace, we cannot make sense of our suffering, because we cannot offer it to be united with His sacrifice for us.

Finally, even in the unlikely event that we have all this world offers, we are compelled to ask, “Is this all there is?”  That which cannot be found in this world must be found out of this world.  In the vision of His face is that perfect fulfillment which leaves nothing further to be desired.