What is culture

Roger Scruton: “[High culture] is the attempt of a civilization to become conscious of its own meaning.”

I like this definition, though I think “individual” might be substituted for “civilization.” But individuals only create culture through the cooperation of others, so.


On “The Death of God” by Matthew Rose for First Things

That Matthew Rose piece from the new, orange print issue of “First Things” (mostly paywalled) is quite good on the origins of a “God is Dead” liberal Christianity without Christ. He presents a thoughtful, convincing exegesis of the intellectual movement. One intriguing idea: Being a Christian requires us to embody moral character, which requires us to be scrupulously honest, which compels us to admit that the truth-claims of orthodox Christianity are not convincing.
But he trails off quickly after he claims that this post-God liberal Christianity is embodied in contemporary American culture (i.e., liberal Protestantism has withered as a viable religion but flourished as a cultural pseudo-religious movement for Rainbow Coalition values of equality, justice, freedom, tolerance, etc). He makes the claim, and it seems right; I sort of believe him. But he doesn’t make much of a historical or theological or sociological case for it.
And he doesn’t even begin to make a case against the “God is dead” theology as such. That might properly be a distinct project. But I wonder whether he hasn’t inadvertently baited some quavering semi-believers, myself included, to be taken in by post-Christian Christianity.

On Liberty for Very Special People

“Toqueville wanted human beings to be and to remain creatures of freedom. [John Stuart] Mill’s interest was really quite different…Mill, first and foremost, regarded human beings as creatures capable under certain conditions of progress and improvement. To ensure progress, Mill was only partially concerned with protecting liberty in general. Rather, he was primarily interested in protecting the liberty of one very special kind of person – the genius in society. Mill believed that humanity was improved only by great men and women, and his argument for liberty was an argument designed to protect their freedom so that, through their activity, humanity might progress.” 

From European History from Rousseau to Nietzsche by Frank M. Turner, p. 49, emphasis added

Living With and/or Thinking With

This post by Noah Millman at The American Conservative (re: a post on Mormonism that I didn’t read) neatly sums up some of the dilemmas closest to my heart:

“In my experience, only a very small minority of people in any religious tradition truly affirm that religion’s teachings intellectually, and most of the world’s religions aren’t organized around creedal affirmation anyhow. For the overwhelmingly majority of people, they want to be able to live with their church – to experience life cradled within its arms – not to think with it.

The trouble for the minority who actually care about thinking is that they may also care about that experience of living within a religious tradition and community. Then they have a choice: of learning to “think with” that tradition, and turn the mind away from doubt (which has, I would argue, deleterious consequences for the health of one’s mind); or of becoming the kind of theological liberal who isn’t terribly committed to a particular truth (which has, I would argue, deleterious consequences for one’s ability to truly feel religious experience); or of becoming a secret dissenter (which has, I would argue, deleterious consequences for one’s relationships with one’s fellow communicants); or of becoming a public dissenter (which makes one a trouble-maker with all kinds of deleterious consequences).”

Review: “The Gospel of Happiness”

The small book The Gospel of Happiness is two big things: a landmark integration of Christian moral theology and social science, and a handy summary of positive psychology.

“Positive psychology” is a new movement in the discipline, spearheaded by former American Psychological Association president Martin Seligman, beginning circa 1998. Shifting the focus from human deficits like depression and anxiety, positive psych researchers seek empirical answers to questions about what makes people happier and otherwise better. It’s a social science close to self-help: practitioners design experiments to learn what fosters optimism, growth, accomplishment, well-being, and other human strengths.

Scholars have been noting the parallelism between positive psychology and Christian philosophy and theology for years; but this is, to my knowledge, the first popular book that integrates the two. For author Christopher Kaczor (a philosopher, not a psychologist, and an engaging popular writer), positive psychology and Christian virtue ethics parallel each other in the key moral way: they aim at the same good, happiness. They’re each working for the same goal and they define it in overlapping (if not identical) ways. So they can support each other, each validating each and each providing things the other lacks.

Christian ethics is, of course, concerned with humans becoming better; and “better” to the average Christian moral ethicist or Christian person bears a striking resemblance to “better” in the positive psychology sense. Kaczor begins Chapter 1 with a tentative endorsement of Martin Seligman’s definition of happiness, which Seligman uses interchangeably with “flourishing” and “well-being.” Happiness comprises five goods: positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning, and achievement. (The handy acronym is PERMA.) For Kaczor, religious practice boosts each of these things; moreover, the achievement of each constitutes moral and spiritual growth or at least fosters it, if only by helping us avoid the opposite. Even positive emotion helps us follow the suffering Christ: “Since negative emotions are often occasions of doing wrong, our moral responsibilities include a concern for our emotional life.” When we feel bad, it’s easier to mess up; therefore we should try not to feel bad.

Moreover, according to Kaczor, positive psychology validates the Christian theological virtues: faith, hope and love.


Appendix: Empirically-Tested Tips on Improving Character/Becoming Happier

from The Gospel of Happiness: Rediscover Your Faith Through Spiritual Practice and Positive Psychology, by Christopher Kaczor

Note: This is merely a summary of Kaczor’s summary! I recommend consulting the book for more detailed information, including descriptions of the relevant empirical research and references to the studies themselves. 

1. Gratitude (pp. 91-114)

  • The “practice of gratitude” fosters the following things, among others:
    • More feelings of energy , alertness, enthusiasm
    • Greater ability to deal with stress
    • Feeling of closure from trauma
    • Boosted self-confidence
    • Stronger relationships
    • Better cardiac health
  • Pride is an obstacle to gratitude, so we improve gratitude by cultivating humility. We can strengthen our humility in the following ways (again, among others):
    • Acknowledging wrongdoing, assuming responsibility for failure, and apologizing to others
    • Noting and commenting on others’ strengths and accomplishments
    • Crediting others appropriately for our successes
    • Seeing success as making us responsible to do more for others
  • Techniques for improving gratitude
    • Three Blessings Exercise: At the end of every day, write down three good things that happened. Then write why they happened. Make this a regular habit. 
    • Fast periodically and appropriately, minding your physical, psychological, and spiritual health. Savor the food and drink you do enjoy during and after the fast.
    • Gratitude Letter: Think of someone who has helped you and write a detailed 250-word letter to that person. Send it if you can; or, even better, bring the letter to person and read it out loud.  
    • Gratitude Journal: Write in detail every day about the things for which one is grateful.

2. Forgiveness (pp. 115-132)

  • When you’ve been hurt, realize that the hurt may be due at least in part to how you perceive the situation. Practice the HEAL Method:
    • (H), Hope: Identify the goal and expectation that were not realized, whose frustration must be forgiven.
    • (E), Educate: Learn why things might have gone badly. Reflect on why other(s) may have wronged you and on similar injustices in history.
    • (A), Affirm: Recommit to the positive intention that inspired the hope that was frustrated. (See “H”)
    • (L), Long-Term Commitment: Resolve to continue acting on good hopes and expectations despite the present setback.
  • Alternatively, practice the REACH Method. This may be particularly helpful when forgiving a specific person:
    • (R), Recall the hurt: Identify the source of the pain.
    • (E), Empathize with the wrongdoer, by imagining what good (however misguided or corrupt) the agent who offended you sought. 
    • (A) Altruistic gift of forgiveness: Consciously decide to forgive, perhaps after meditating on others who have given you the same gift. 
    • (C), Commit to forgive: Concretize the decision by, for example, telling another as witness, writing a note, or symbolically marking the act. 
    • (H), Hold on to forgiveness despite negative emotions. Remind yourself that you’ve forgiven. 
  • Write a three-part letter to self:
    • (1) Describe your emotions (not their causes)
    • (2) Put your experience in context: remind yourself of others who have suffered in this way. 
    • (3) Write advice to yourself on handling the situation.

3.  Developing  Good Habits (e.g., Virtues) (pp. 133-145)

  • Developing awareness of your own thoughts and how others perceive you. Kaczor quotes, ‘Sow a thought, reap an action; sow an action, reap a habit; sow a habit, reap a character; sow a character, reap a destiny.’
  • Monitor progress daily.
    • Write down the habit or virtue we are attempting to improve. 
    • As St. Ignatius of Loyola suggests, make a twice-daily appraisal of how well you are progressing in strengthening a quality or habit. Research indicates that morning and evening are effective times to do this. 
  • Attempt to improve just one habit at a time. 

To the ocean

I’d like to link Virginia Woolf and Kate Chopin and Homer and Richard Hawley in an essay, but until that happens, here’s this deep shimmering shivering song, which pushes you out and draws you back in:




via my Mom

“By having children, I’ve both sabotaged and saved myself as a writer. […] With a child you certainly can’t be a Bruce Chatwin or a Hemingway, living the adventurer-writer life. No running with the bulls at Pamplona. If you value your relationships with your children, you can’t write about them. You have to make up other, less convincing children. There is also one’s inclination to be charming instead of presenting a grittier truth about the world. But then, having children has also made me this particular writer. Without my children, I’d have written with less fervor; I wouldn’t understand life in the same way. I’d write fewer comic scenes, which are the most challenging. I’d probably have become obsessively self-absorbed, or slacked off. Maybe I’d have become an alcoholic. Many of the writers I love most were alcoholics. I’ve made my choice, I sometimes think: Wonderful children instead of hard liquor.”

– Louise Erdrich

“Real Social Advances”

Are there any conservative intellectuals writing now, even the most Paleolithic of all the cons, who argue that the removal of female employment barriers was an unmitigatedly bad thing? Here’s Ross Douthat in Crunchy Cons:

“Conservatives have to concede that the decline in family stability is linked to real social advances, like the removal of barriers that kept women out of the workplace. Few people [who exactly, besides, like, the Amish? – MK] would advocate returning to that era when women didn’t have that choice, but few can deny that it’s taken its toll on family stability. Now we’ve gotten to the point economically where going to work is not so much a choice for many women as it is a requirement.”

So for Ross here we have women-in-the-workplace as a mixed blessing, emphasis on the blessing. Have most of us in America, at least, made it there, or are there silent holdouts circling the gates (or their mother’s basements) who don’t acknowledge the benefits of this state of things — just as there are right-wing, Trump-emboldened holdouts who don’t believe racial integration has been a mixed blessing?

Was Ross even right to say that female mobility endangers family stability? Do we really need to grapple with this? Or are the drawbacks of near-full female employment to be construed differently, if at all?

On “The Sexual Division of Labor, the Decline of Civic Culture, and the Rise of Suburbs,” an essay by Christopher Lasch

“Should women work or stay home?” is not an age-old dilemma, says historian Christopher Lasch. Rather, it is an idea that bloomed in a particular time and place and may shrivel and die now (or to the extent that) both have changed.

First, he takes aim at the idea that women at work (“work” as a stand-in, somehow, for all that is not housework and childcare) is something new:

“In reality, full-time motherhood — the rejection of which touched off the latest wave of feminist agitation in the sixties — was something new and historically unprecedented.”

He plays a little fast and loose with terms here, and I wish he had precisely defined “full-time motherhood.” (What is it, housework? childcare? teaching?). Still, if he’s saying, as I think he is, that the phenomenon of a stay-at-home-mom who works exclusively and/or primarily on projects related to her own home and children (what I think he means by “full-time motherhood”) is a novel and localized concept, born in the suburbs of the American 1950s, then that’s radical, because it would mean that the role isn’t traditional and can’t be defended as such. It would be modern and thus suspect to traditionalists for all the usual reasons.

That full-time motherhood “was something new and historically unprecedented” is a historical claim, and could be contested, once we get the terms straight. Has it been contested? It would be good to try to get that right so we can proceed with thinking through what we can and should do now.