Why I am On the Wrong Side of History (and don’t care)

This post was originally published at my and my wife’s old blog here, May 10, 2012.  It seems timely to post here.  Further thoughts later.  This version is slightly edited from the original. 

As the Supreme Court has ruled that same sex partners have a right to have their relationships recognized as marriages, supportive commentators have labeled this decision “historic,” and so it is.  One news anchor warned lest opponents of such unions should find themselves on the “wrong side of history.”

The expression is magnificent rhetoric.  Proponents use it to conjure up images of those who opposed civil rights for blacks or resisted the abolition of slavery.  Yet like many slogans in a culture that thrives more on rhetoric than reason and more on emotion than evidence, it is hollow at heart.

Presumably such  people who warn the backward amongst us not to be on the wrong side of history think that we should make history our moral guide.  History says thus and we must obey.  The tide is flowing and we must follow it, lest we be caught like children in sandcastles.  Where the tide of history goes, so must we.  But this is not sound, for the tide may sweep us out to sea.  In following the tide, we may find ourselves drowned.

In plain language, history does not always move in a positive direction.  It is not a safe guide for a man’s moral decisions.  The modern world may (or may not) have moved toward greater democracy and civil rights, but it also moved to world war and genocide.  The Middle Ages saw neither world war nor holocaust.  It was left to the modern world to discover those.  Nor should we think that history will always move in a positive direction in the future.   It has not always done so in the past, why should we think it will do so in the future?   History is a fickle mistress.  One century she may command freedom, the next genocide.

Further still, history is no guide of morality because it is morally neutral.  This is the fallacy of seeking to derive an ought from an is.  History tells us what has happened.  It does not tell us what should happen.  Those who would try to derive their morality from history are in the same position as those who would derive it from science.  Both tell us what is, not what oughtto be.  There is no rational inference from the claim “in history, x happened” to “x should have happened,” or “we should do x.”

Indeed, making history out moral guide would put us in the absurd position of trying to anticipate what will happen in the future and then make it happen faster.  Perhaps, we project greater freedom in the next century.  Then we must work to make this happen even more quickly.  Yet, perhaps we anticipate a move to greater slavery two centuries hence.  If our mistress History commands it, I suppose we must work for it.

This brings us from the absurdity of history as a moral guide to the evil of history as  a moral guide.  If we are to always follow history, to not be on the wrong side of history, then we shall never be able to resist her.  There will be no room for the last desperate stand against the tide, no heroic resistance against inevitable onslaught.

Only if morality is something beyond history and even beyond society, if it is something transcendent and what is more, divine, will we ever have a firm ground on which to stand, to plant our flag, and to cry “maybe thus far, but no farther.”

World-view of the World

One of the most interesting aspects of the study of history in general and of the Middle Ages in particular concerns the different ways past and present people saw the world, that is, the question of world-view. Did they think that man was only a soul, a body and a soul, or both together? Did they think that this material universe was all there was, or a part of a larger world? What did they think about marriage, sexuality, the will– was it free or unfree–, and the gods? And when past peoples looked at the same physical facts that we see, how and why did those facts mean something different to them?

With the publication of Pope Francis’s encyclical, Laudati si (which this post is only tangentially about), many have focused on the pope’s view on economics, global-warming, and poverty. Yet, another question, less considered, also raises itself: our world-view of the world. I have said before that two men can look at the same world, but they will not see the same world. They can look at the same bare physical facts, but those facts may not have the same meaning to them. This is one way that man differs from mere animals. An animal sees only the facts, but cannot see meaning.  Hyenas may laugh, but they don’t really get jokes. A joke relies on the ability to grasp a double meaning hidden behind the words. Tell a man that writing with a broken pencil is pointless and he will laugh (or groan), but it is because he sees the double meaning conveyed by the words.

The meaning, though, will often be determined by one’s background beliefs. A theist walks into a Gothic Cathedral and sees brick, stone, glass, and light representing heaven. A materialist sees only a beautiful building or perhaps, even worse, a waste of money. The same is true of the world. Part of the question the environmentalist (and everyone else) must deal with, is how he sees the world and what the world, nature and the environment means to him.

Answers have varied. In the Eastern Pantheistic vision, the world and God are one. The world is itself divine, all part of the united One. Every part of the world relates to the others like a drop of water in the ocean. Such a view has problems of its own, including an inability to ground free will, personal identity, or ethics, or to provide a basis for the development of modern science (which grew up in the decidedly non-Pantheistic West rather than the East). If the world is divine, though, then it is hard to see man as anything except a servant of the world (as modern environmentalists often see him), which will itself soon cease to exist anyway (1). If the world is a god, it is not much of a god.

In the common materialist vision, the world can really have no meaning beyond the bare facts, because in the material vision, only the material exists. A tress is a tree, the sun is a sun, a sea is a sea, and none are anything more. The physical facts are only the facts, they can have no meaning beyond them because there is nothing beyond them. In one sense, the materialist is a man who can’t get the joke, who would look at the pencil, observe that indeed it had no point, and that one had better go and find another. Likewise, for him, the world has no point, anymore than the pencil.  Maybe this is why Chesterton observed that Nietzsche could not laugh, but could only sneer.

For the Christian not so; for him the world sharpens into a point that he can use to pierce the mere facts of existence and look to the meaning beyond it. For him the world itself is not God or a god, but a created thing, with its meaning built in by its maker. St. Francis of Assisi is often portrayed as a pseudo-pagan nature worshiper by moderns, a wandering hippy who loved the birds and trees with his Christianity only a regrettable and indeed, unnecessary, add-on. But it was not. He could love nature because, for him, nature pointed to its maker. To a materialist, the sun is only the sun, but Francis saw the joke. To him the sun was a sign of God’s splendor and to be loved as a sign of His splendor.   The Moon was a sign of God’s beauty, and the wind, His serenity. Thomas Aquinas explained that the reason for so much diversity among God’s creation was that it had to reflect God, yet no single material created thing could do that, so God created a diversity of created things. Like Francis, Aquinas got the point. John Scotus similarly commented that we only rightly see a stone when we see God in it. He also got the joke.

Such are the ways that one might see the universe, which is the best I leave to the reader to decide, though for my money, St. Francis and St. Thomas Aquinas every time. Which view provides the best basis to care for the earth is another question, one I will explore in a future post.

(1) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ultimate_fate_of_the_universe

Trans-gendering and What Makes a Human

Recently a former Olympian athlete and c-level pseudo-reality star has announced his attempt to turn himself from a man into a woman through the use of plastic surgery, copious amounts of make-up, and photo-shop. Lauded for his courage by both ESPN and the White House (who seem to have forgotten the meaning of the word), the result has been a showering of attention and adulation by most of society in general and the media in particular. Reasons to oppose the attempted transition, such as those given by John Hopkins Psychiatrist Dr. Paul McHugh, are easily ignored by simply dismissing the author as an old white guy.


Nonetheless, lost in the excitement of a man trying to turn himself into a woman has been real discussion of what it means to be a man or a woman, and how personal identity is determined. And this is largely a question of world-view. A human being is either a body and a soul, a body alone, or a soul alone. As far as I can tell, these account for all the possibilities. Which of these is true will determine how one should view trans-gendering.

The Platonist Option

For the ancient philosopher Plato, man was essentially a soul. This view was popular in the late antique world and held as well by Descartes in the Early-Modern. While, in this material world, man appeared as body and soul, the body was merely the prison of the soul, a deadly weight on the soul from which the soul hoped to escape. For Plato, the whole material world was simply a lesser copy of the more real, better, and higher world of forms and the soul hoped to escape from its prison to that world. Hence, in this world-view the real essence of the person was the soul. The body was unnecessary and, indeed, undesirable.

The Medieval Option

This may also be called the Aristotelian or the Thomistic option (from the Catholic Philosopher Thomas Aquinas). In the Medieval option, popular after the revival of Aristotle, the student of Plato, man was made up of body and soul, but this union made the complete man. Aristotle broke with his teacher; for him the body was not the mere prison of the soul or real man. Rather, the body and the soul together made the man. A corpse was not a man- that was a body without a soul; but so too a ghost is not a complete man- that would be a soul without a body. For the medievals, the soul was the form, or blueprint, of the body. The soul gave the body the form it took and the union of the two, soul and body, made for the complete person.

The Materialist Option

Also a very old option, though some historically informed moderns think this a new one, the materialist option holds that the soul does not exist and that man is simply matter. It was the position, the best I can tell, of Lucretius and the Epicureans, as well as many moderns. This holds that only the material world exists and hence man is only matter, a body with no sort of soul at all.

World-view and trans-gendering

A logically coherent account of trans-gendering is obviously impossible on the medieval view of man. The trans-gendering person is essentially claiming that he is a man trapped in a woman’s body. That regardless of what his body is, the real him, the inner him is a woman. On the medieval view of man, this is simply impossible. The soul is the form of the body and so a conflict between body and soul is impossible.

What about the materialist option, so popular today? On this view man is only a body. But if man is only matter, then this seems to make the concept of trans-gendering implausible. If man is only a body, if he is his body, then he can hardly have a real self inside. There is no inside or outside, there is only his body, which he is. For a materialist to claim that he is a woman trapped in a man’s body thus seems logically incoherent. (2)

This leaves only the Platonist view where man is a soul trapped in the prison of the body. Man is his soul and the body simply a sort of instrument that man uses. Here, a man could claim that the real him, the inner him, is actually a woman and is trapped in a male body. Hence, this view seems to the only one on which trans-gendering has the potential to succeed (3). It would require that a person accept that souls are gendered (hence a female soul trapped in a male body).  The view of souls as gendered would probably not be a problem for a Christian, but might be difficult for a modern person who typically holds gender to be a social construct. It would also require the trans-gendering advocate to explain how a female soul came to be trapped in a male body in the first place (4).

Unfortunately for the trans-gendering advocate, the Platonist view has gone well out of fashion in the modern world. This is largely because of increasing influence of materialism, but Platonic style dualism faces formidable philosophical obstacles of its own. If a person is only a soul using a body (the soul is the real him), then as Pruss points out, the government, which has the right to tax my property, could take a kidney by the power of taxation. A man has never kissed his wife (only her body, which is not the real her), and rape becomes a mere property crime (5).

Ultimately then, it seems there is really no world-view that allows for a logically coherent account of trans-gendering. The most promising possibility is platonic dualism, but that seems to face over-riding obstacles; why trans-gendering remains so popular anyway is a separate question for another time.

(1) http://cnsnews.com/news/article/michael-w-chapman/johns-hopkins-psychiatrist-transgender-mental-disorder-sex-change

(2) The only alternative for the trans-gendering materialist that I can think of is to claim that is a female brain trapped in a male body, but this doesn’t seem to work either. First, it seems to suppose a strong distinction between brain and body that isn’t possible on the materialist view. The brain is simply part of the body. Indeed, according the a standard view, the brain is the central operating system/computer of the body; given this, it is not easy to see how there could be the huge gap between brain and body required by trans-gendering proponents. Furthermore, if the brain acts on the body, and Bruce Jenner has a female brain, then his brain should be affecting the body, ie, we should see some outward signs like estrogen imbalance or other. My thanks to Erick Chastain for pointing this out to me.

(3) http://direct.catholicnewsagency.com/column.php?n=3225

Much of the idea for these remarks came from Fr. Robert Baron, here, who pointed out the Gnostic implications of the standard trans-gender advocate.

(4) Which could only lead to further absurdities like the idea of divine error or pre-existence of souls floating around and erroneously entering the wrong body.

(5) Some of these given by Pruss here: http://uffl.org/vol12/pruss12.pdf

Why I Remain A Narnian (Catholic)

The following is written at the suggestion of Elizabeth Scalia, here, that people write why they remain Catholic in response to a Pew survey showing a decline of religious affiliation over the past seven years.  If anyone else wishes to write one, use the twitter hashtag, #WhyRemainCatholic  If someone wishes to write one and doesn’t have a blog, I will publish it here as a guest post. 

A recent Pew study has made waves by noting the decline of religiosity in American society over the past seven years. This has led to a certain silly season on the internet, as a brief (and mind-numbing) glance at the comment boxes at Huffington Post reveal. Certainly, many reasons can be given for this. Poor instruction in the faith, rejection of the rule associated with religion, and the influence of an increasingly secular society come to mind. The Catholic Church, we are told, is “out of touch” with the modern word, too backward, clinging to its old superstitions. Given this, why still remain Catholic in an unCatholic world? If the world is moving on, why not move on with it?

Others reasons will vary, but first, I remain Catholic because Catholicism is not in touch with the modern world. If the Catholic Church only happened to tell me everything that the modern world already told me, then I should suspect it was all made up. If it made no truth claims that contradicted the World’s, I would think it only offered the world. But as James Bond put it, the world is not enough. A man doesn’t join the Church because he wants this world, but because he wants the next one.

In the Middle Ages, the common assumption was that a true Church should not be worldly, but should be unworldly. Pope Gregory VII waged a fierce battle, dying in exile as German troops descended on Rome, to free the Catholic Church from the control of secular princes. He reasoned that a Church too tied up with the world was less spiritual. A Church that was more unworldly, was more other-worldly. A Church that was less material and political was more spiritual. This is the same sense in which Fulton Sheen wrote that were he not Catholic and looking for the true Church, he would not look for the Church that got on with the world, but the one that did not. Not the Church that was progressive, but the one accused of being behind the times:

 would look for the Church which the world hated… look for the Church that is hated by the world as Christ was hated by the world. Look for the Church that is accused of being behind the times, as our Lord was accused of being ignorant and never having learned… Look for the Church which, in seasons of bigotry, men say must be destroyed in the name of God as men crucified Christ and thought they had done a service to God… Look for the Church which is rejected by the world as Our Lord was rejected by men.… and the suspicion will grow, that if the Church is unpopular with the spirit of the world, then it is unworldly, and if it is unworldly it is other worldly… [then] the Church is Divine.” (2)

This is my first reason for remaining Catholic while Catholicism is out of touch with a world that is out of touch with God. A worldly Church would be mere vanity or conceit, an unwordly one might just be true. When the rest of world starts to run off a cliff, I want a Church that can stop and say, Humane Vitae.

The second reason is a matter of reason and may be dealt with more briefly here. I remain Catholic on the evidence. The Catholic Church may be ridiculed for its “ancient superstitions” and “bronze age gods,” but it is hard to see anything more superstitious than atheism. An atheist must believe that for no reason at all and with no explanation, the universe just happened to pop into existence out of nothing, that it just happened to be finely tuned for intelligent life, and that it just happened to lead to the development of conscious creatures capable of intelligence, reason, and discerning right from wrong. By contrast, in Catholicism, there is nothing strange about God creating a life permitting universe with creatures sharing in his own rationality. And once a man rejects atheism, there is no figure in any religion like the God-Man in the Gospels. There is no figure who claims that degree of divine authority, yet whose stories simply do not read like myths or legends, and whose followers went on to be tortured and killed in the belief that he was God crucified and risen from the dead.

Those two reasons probably account for why I remain Catholic, but there is one more consideration worth mentioning. Occasionally some atheist will make the very silly remark that atheism is not so different from Christianity; atheists simply disbelieve in one more God than Christians do. But, of course, this is absurd. Atheism is not simply disbelieving one more god than the Christians do, but a difference of world-view. It is the difference of being able to believe in a world of objective meaning, value, and purpose. It is a richer and larger world, where matter, with its meaning written into it by its maker, can represent a higher, more real, spiritual world. It means hope for the hopeless, a crown after the cross, and an Easter morning after a Good Friday.

And so even if there were no reason to be Catholic (and there are many), even if the God-Man in the Gospels were a deluded fool (and He is not), I think I should still have to say to the materialist, with C.S. Lewis:

Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up all those things … Then all I can say is … the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. […] That’s why I’m going to stand by the play world. I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia.” (3)

And that is why I am Catholic, whatever the Pew studies may say and whatever others may say about the direction history is moving. A man can move with history or he can move history. The Church can, because it is not in touch with this world; it is in touch with a more real one.

(1) http://www.pewforum.org/2015/05/12/americas-changing-religious-landscape/

(2) http://www.catholicfamilycatalog.com/fulton-sheens-if-i-were-not-catholic.htm

(3) The Silver Chair, chapter 12.