Leon Kass’s grand tour of humanity

Last night’s 2009 National Endowment for the Humanities Lecture with Leon Kass was, unsurprisingly, superb. Kass, who among other things assembled the first President’s Council on Bioethics, is the epitome of a renaissance man due to his diverse background of study, gave a lecture entitled, “Searching for an Honest Man: Reflections of an Unlicensed Humanist.”

The lecture followed the motif of the Greek philosopher Diogenes, who walked the streets endlessly with a lantern “looking for an honest man.” Kass notes that what Diogenes is really looking for is better translated as a “true human being.” The search for the true human being — and just what it means to be a human being — made up the bulk of the lecture.

Like Harvey Mansfield’s Jefferson lecture two years before, Kass noted that modern science has — to its fault — abdicated the humanities. No longer does medicine look at health, but to emerging technologies. Modern science looks intricately at the parts, but often fails to observe the whole. It can describe what chemical processes take place in the eye for vision to occur, but it cannot explain “seeing.” The humanities are needed for such endeavors — and they are likewise needed when dealing with decisions that involve whole human beings.

Kass has found progress in his own search for the true human in sources such as the Aristotelian view of the soul, the Hebrew Bible, and through books and companions along the way. Kass, more so than many other public intellectuals, is on the right track in viewing humanity as the sum of its parts, a unified psyche and soma.

The only thing that I might add (if I dare!) to Kass’s grand tour of true humanity is to note the Christian view of true humanity’s culmination — namely the True Human Being: Jesus of Nazareth. Fully God, Jesus was the true human being — the only human who was and is fully human.

History, principle, and the now

D.A. Carson on the value of Christians continually appealing to the notion that America was founded on Christian principles:

In the long haul, Christians have to appeal farther back than to the middle of the eighteenth century — to the Scriptures themselves, and the events to which they attest — and think through to where we are today and will be tomorrow.  To learn from history is one thing; to make constant appeal to yesteryear is to support rather too much of the nostalgic and rather too little of the prophetic.  [Christ and Culture Revisited, p. 210]

The danger, of course, to appeals like this, is that at some point the opposition says, “So what? We’re changing things now.”  When a people refuses to care about history, what our founding fathers may or may not have believed matters little.

Every position should stand on its own merits now.  History should inform us — as it’s always difficult to judge the now as it happens — but it should never be the central plank in our efforts to speak for a better society.

The end of the world as we know it

What would the world be like without humans?

If a recent special on the National Geographic Channel is correct, it would be much better off.  “Aftermath: Population Zero” takes a hypothetical look (and I emphasize the hypo) at what would happen should every human on the planet suddenly disappear.  From the show’s description:

This is the astounding story of a world we will never see. A world without people, where city streets are still populated by cars, but without drivers. Nobody to fix bridges, repair buildings or maintain power plants. After being controlled by humanity for millennia, nature reclaims the earth. But how would that work? How long would skyscrapers, nuclear power plants, and our homes last if abandoned? How would wild and domestic animals fare without us? Will the Eiffel Tower outlast the Statue of Liberty? Aftermath: Population Zero gives us a chance to see the impact of human beings by seeing how Earth would adapt without us.

It’s a concept that could be very interesting — a philosophical pause on an I Am Legend scenario that shows us how humans really are the pinnacle of creation.  It could be interesting, except for the one thing “Aftermath” forgets: humans are a part of nature.

Following a textbook environmentalist script, the show postulates how our nuclear power plants, suddenly unmanned, will explode and cause mass devastation upon the world — we apparently can’t stop tearing stuff up even after we’ve left the building.

Not to fear, the planet soon heals itself and recovers just fine without us.  Even the “green” movement gets a boost without those pesky people to interfere.  As the narrator observers, “Manhattan turns from gray to green.” And as the Eiffel Tower and Statue of Liberty finally crumble after a millennium, we learn that it’s all just part of how “nature is reclaiming the world, city by city.”

All documentaries, even the speculative ones like “Aftermath” — have a moral at the end of the story.  It’s the take-away message that we’ve all learned from what we’ve just seen.  As nearly all traces of human existence are wiped out, our narrator encourages us with the fact that “earth is resilient — in time, it cleaned up every mess we made — all we had to do was get out of the way.”

Nonfailure is not an option

Writing on the nature of our cultural mood, Marilynne Robinson contrasts a time when “meaning had a larger frame and context than this life in this world,” to what our civilization aims for today:

I think the true name for what we aspire to is nonfailure.  Most of those who are household names in this strange time are objects of horror or derision, a fact which in many instances reflects our need rather than their deserving.  My son came home from school once staggered by a discussion of Abraham Lincoln, whom he revered. None of the other students would be persuaded that Lincoln went into politics for anything but the money.  The grandeur of his speeches merely proved the depth of his cynicism. In the same way, we can refuse evidence of actual merit, and we can discredit seriousness, and we can feel morally acute while we do it.  Our defenses against real success are invulnerable.  Our hostility to success of every kind is demonstrated afresh every day.

But nonfailure is another thing.  Income and credit shrewdly managed, desiderata learned from the better shops of catalogs and systematically acquired — for better and for worse, this is not much to aspire to.  It is because our hopes are in fact so very modest that we can be made to fear another teenager with a baby might snatch them all away.  It is because we hope to acquire rather than to achieve — in the old language of religion, to receive rather than to give — that the good we imagine can truly be taken from our hands.

The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought, “Reality,” pp. 84-85

This is a good observation because it touches on the mediocrity that is — more often than not — more popular today than true excellence.  Excellence seems so often unattainable that the purveyors of low culture win the day because it’s something which people see within reach.

Thus, we end up with “reality shows” setting the tone for our national discussions, and “not getting kicked off the island” as the hallmark of success.

Is the internet messing with our minds?

Nicholas Carr is right on target with his suggestion that the internet may be changing the way we think. In a provocative, must-read piece in the current issue of The Atlantic, Carr argues that the fast-paced bite-sized world of internet reading is not innocuous:

…Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going-so far as I can tell-but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.

I’ve noticed this in my own reading habits. After being immersed in a world of blogs and RSS feeds, I find it difficult to switch back to book-reading mode. It’s almost as if I have to ease into long-form literature by reading a magazine article or something brief.

What to do about it, I’m unsure. In a few years will I be able to read anything longer than Twitter post or a Facebook status update?

The phenomenon does reveal the truth that reading is a habit that must be practiced to be well maintained. It also shows that those who do maintain the ability to read long works may soon possess a skill set that puts them in a league of their own.

The sexual ‘revolution’ that keeps on turning

I saw last week about half a minute of VH1’s documentary “Sex: The Revolution”, which seemed to relish in the notion that the “advances” in sexual behavior that occur today were brought about by the libidinous free-wheeling of the 60’s and 70’s. Off with the old American puritanism, it seemed to say.

Last week, I also happened to read the following description of early American sexual mores in George Marsden’s Jonathan Edwards: A Life that shows how more things change, the more they stay the same:

…Not only was lasciviousness encouraged by nightwalking and similar frivolities, but New England parents allowed practices that are “looked upon as shameless and disgraceful at Canada, New York, [and] England.” Everyone knew that [Edwards] referred to the New England practice of “bundling” in which parents allowed young people to spend the night in bed together partly clothed…

Bundling, which was supposed to be a way of getting acquainted without sexual intercourse, did not always work as advertised. Pregnancies before marriage were rising dramatically in New England. Even in well-churched Northampton, where premarital pregnancies were rarer than in some parts of the region, the figure had recently risen to one in ten first children born within eight months of marriage. Premarital sex was commonplace. Even when it resulted in pregnancy, so long as the couple married, there was no longer much stigma involved…

pp. 103-131

The popular line is that the sexual revolution of the hippie generation was linked to rebellion of the so-called “repressive” puritanical sexual virtues of the 1950s. The fact is that people have been rebelling against the created order as long as there has been creation.

Or said better by Qoheleth: “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun.”

Technology and rightness

This Associated Press piece on “designer babies” highlights how — for some — the ability to do something is sufficient grounds for its rightness:

But Kathy Hudson, director of the Genetics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., said she’s not troubled by the work. She said the idea of successfully modifying babies by inserting genes remains a technically daunting challenge.

“We’re not even close to having that technology in hand to be able to do it right,” she said, and it would be ethically unacceptable to try it when it’s unsafe.

Does Hudson mean that if we did have the technology in hand, it would be OK to proceed?   What does she mean by “unsafe?”  Indeed, how would one know if a procedure is safe, unless it is tested (as a potentially unsafe modification) on a living human being?

Please, let us not make the most helpless among us into guinea pigs for so-called advancement.

Hidden in plain sight?

From a front-page story in today’s Washington Post on Internet safety:

Alan Portillo didn’t think much, if at all, about his online vulnerability. Then the 15-year-old heard technology teacher Wendy Maitland list three pieces of information an online predator would need to find him.

Birth date, she said. Alan’s age was on his e-mail.

Gender. His full name was also on his e-mail and topped his MySpace page.

ZIP code. A photo on the page showed an area near his neighborhood, with “Arlington” emblazoned across one building.

“I thought it was nothing. But when I saw the examples, I started thinking, it’s a big deal,” the Wakefield High School freshman said. After the February lesson, he said, he deleted the photo and his last name from the page.

Well, kudos to the kid on deleting that sensitive information from the web. Now nobody knows his age, gender , or where he lives  — except for those upstanding citizens who read the Post, of course.

Adventures in words

Daniel Boorstin on word overusage in America:

The word “adventure” has become one of the blandest in the language. The cheap cafeteria at the corner offers us an “adventure in good eating”; a course in self-development … in a few weeks will transform our daily conversation into a “great adventure”; to ride in the new Dodge is an “adventure.” By continual overuse, we wear out the once common meaning of “an unusual, stirring, experience, often of romantic nature,” and return “adventure” to its original meaning of a mere “happening” (from the Latin, adventura, and advenire). But while an “adventure” was originally “that which happens without design; chance, hap, luck,” now in common usage it is primarily a contrived experience that somebody is trying to sell us. Its changed meaning is both a symptom of the new pervasiveness of pseudo-events and a symbol of how we defeat ourselves by our exaggerated expectations of the amount of unexpectedness — “adventure” — as of everything else in the world.

The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America, p. 78

It doesn’t come as a surprise to most that words like “adventure,” and “event” (it’s the Nissan/Furniture Liquidators/Desperate Housewives event of the year!). What’s shocking is that Boorstin wrote this in 1961, and it reads like it could have been last week.

PS. Can anyone spot which overused word I (over)used in the paragraph above?

Evangelical espionage

Just how crazy are those wacky evangelicals? Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone wanted to find out, so he went “Undercover with the Christian Right” by immersing himself in the world of TBN star John Hagee’s Cornerstone Church.

There’s much not to like about the methods that Taibbi employed for the piece, which is an excerpt for a forthcoming book. First of all, to act as if you’re going in to uncharted territory by investigating pentecostal Christians is a little disingenuous. After all, this is America. There’s a pentecostal on every corner — they’re not that hard to find.

Second, why in the world would a reporter use an alias when signing up to attend a retreat at John Hagee’s church? Was he afraid someone would recognize him as a writer for Rolling Stone? The folks he described didn’t strike me as the type to sit waiting each month with bated breath for their copy of RS to arrive just so they can read Matt Taibbi. Understandable if he were investigating the mafia, but pentecostals?

Third, Taibbi suffers from a condition common to many media professionals: ignorance of the evangelical landscape. The reason for this undercover stint, he claims, was to “to get a look inside the evangelical mind-set that gave the country eight years of George W. Bush.” To claim Hagee as the cornerstone for the evangelical mind-set in America is pretty big leap. Hagee is at best a subset.

That said, Taibbi does come away with a few observations of which evangelicals should take note. This passage in particular highlights the kind of psycho-babble that often shows up even in churches outside the pentecostal sphere:

The program revolved around a theory that [retreat leader Philip Fortenberry] quickly introduced us to called “the wound.” The wound theory was a piece of schlock biblical Freudianism in which everyone had one traumatic event from their childhood that had left a wound. The wound necessarily had been inflicted by another person, and bitterness toward that person had corrupted our spirits and alienated us from God. Here at the retreat we would identify this wound and learn to confront and forgive our transgressors, a process that would leave us cleansed of bitterness and hatred and free to receive the full benefits of Christ.


We were about a third of the way through the process when I began to wonder what the hell was going on. Fortenberry’s blowhard-on-crack-act/wound gobbledygook were all suspiciously secular in tone and approach. I had been hearing whispers throughout the first day or so to the effect that there was some kind of incredible supernatural religious ceremony that was going to take place at the end of the retreat (“Tighten your saddle, he’s fixin’ ta buck” was how “cowboy” Fortenberry put it), when we would experience “Victory and Deliverance.” But as far as I could see, in the early going, most of what we were doing was simple pop-psych self-examination using New Age-y diagnostic tools of the Deepak Chopra school: Identify your problems, face your oppressors, visualize your obstacles. Be your dream job. With a little rhetorical tweaking and much better food, this could easily have been Tony Robbins instructing a bunch of Upper East Side housewives to “find your wounds” (“My husband hid my Saks card!”) at a chic resort in Miami Beach or the Hamptons.

When a writer for Rolling Stone can recognize that your preaching is more pop-psychology than biblical truth, you’re in trouble. Sadly, much of the evangelical landscape shares this wholesale adoption of talk-show therapy. It’s a practice the Apostle Paul might well refer to as conformity to the world.

The gist of Taibbi’s piece is to show how markedly different these alien Christians are from the norm. Though he saw some pretty nutty stuff (glossolalia in the form of Russian band DDT!), it’s ironic just how much wasn’t as different from the world as it should have been.