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‘The Rubicon Is A Very Narrow Stream’

The prophetic role of metaphysical thinkers in our time

Catholic theologian Larry Chapp needs his own blog, where he can publish his thoughtful, challenging comments all the livelong day. Until he has one, let me share with you (he’s given me permission) this letter he just sent me:

One of the interesting things I noticed in reading the responses to my comments you posted yesterday on the Youth Synod was that there were a couple of posts that were basically saying “Oh come on. Stop the hysteria.  Stop the paranoia already”.  These kinds of responses always trouble me the most because I find them most indicative of a peculiarly American cast of mind.  There is a strong intellectual tradition in this country of eschewing metaphysical thinking in favor of a pragmatism that is taken to be “common sense” and as pertaining to “real life” as opposed to the “abstractions” of philosophy, and so on.

But as you and I both know, what counts as “common sense” and “real life” in any given period of time, is greatly modified and influenced by the social constructions of the time.  That is what good propagandists count on.  Very few people think things through to the grounding first principles upon which “real life” is rooted.  That is the essence of metaphysical thinking – – thinking things back to their first principles – – and those who are gifted in such forms of discourse are also adept at understanding what the inevitable “real life” consequences will be once certain first principles are abrogated in the name of some “need”.

I take this form of thinking to be the very soul of the prophet.  A true prophet, both secular as well as religious, is often thought of as a loon by his or her contemporaries.  The average person, caught up in the pragmatism of day-to-day living, just doesn’t see what the prophet sees or why the prophet is raising such a “stink” over such small things.  But what the metaphysical thinker “sees” that others don’t is what will happen down the road if certain principles are violated in the name of some expediency.  It always bracing to remember that the Rubicon is a very narrow stream.

History also shows us that indeed some historical eras are more heavily freighted than others with momentous, “fork-in-the-road” decisions.  That very often, when the form and structure of a particular civilization begins to collapse, that the citizens of that culture are forced by events out of the normalcy of the status quo, out of the illusion of “everydayness as what is real”.  The acedia induced by the noonday devil is precisely designed to make us think that the quotidian is what is truly real and everything else is just alarmist nonsense.

Now, I am not saying that I am a prophet.  Far from it.  But I do think that you and I and those who agree with your analysis of modernity, precisely because we are orthodox Christians who think things through to their logical end, are on to something important.  What we see is that so many foundational principles of human nature, and of its constitutive orientation to fulfillment in God, have been violated by modernity that there are going to be unpleasant consequences that are actually quite easy to foresee.

Richard Weaver’s “witches on the heath” passage from Ideas Have Consequences is the most famous modern conservative statement of this idea.

More Chapp:

Therefore, from my perspective, the biggest problem with the current Youth Synod in Rome is not that there is some grand nefarious plot, engineered by infiltrating Freemasons and demonic illuminati, to bring down the Church.  I will leave such speculations to the loony Right.  Rather, my contention is that the primary sin of this Synod is just its sheer managerial class mediocrity.  It is really just business as usual boredom.  These guys just don’t “get it” or the crisis we face.  They really actually think that the bishops still have credibility.  They really think that the whole world is just waiting around for clerics to now give “young people of today” (talk about abstractions!) “permission” to go to communion regardless of their sexual proclivities.  This is clericalism at its finest, actually.  I look at the Synod and what I see is silliness.  Old men pretending to be “hip” in order to be “relevant”.  And in so doing they show themselves to be a group of unreconstructed refugees from the 60’s and 70’s.  They are not only not fighting the grand reversal of values at work in our culture today, they are actively contributing to it.  And insofar as they are accommodating violations of fundamental first principles concerning human nature, and God, and of the relation between the two, they are irrelevant at best, and complicit at worst.

As I said in my follow up post, the ongoing project of the “reversal of values” is increasing, exponentially, in speed.  It is no longer possible for a Christian to deny this.  And those who do are either being mendacious for ideological reasons, or they are just naive.

If you had told my father 40 years ago that someday pornographers would be lionized in our culture as champions of free speech, but the Boy Scouts would be hounded into submission as homophobic Hitler Youth, he would have laughed you out of the room.  He would have said:  “oh stop it with your theological and religious hysteria already.  Stop your paranoia.  Of course that will never happen.  Get real.”

He isn’t laughing now.

One of this blog’s faithful conservative Catholic commenters observed on the Jill Soloway thread that he wishes I wouldn’t focus so much on the freaks. The thing is, we all have to be aware of how those who control the cultural means of production are redefining normality. My point is not to poke a mocking finger at the freaks, but rather to point out that societal norms are rapidly changing, and that this will have major consequences, especially for social and religious conservatives. I received a kind e-mail the other day from a social scientist who said that as a liberal and an atheist, he disagrees with most of what I write here, but he keeps reading in part because he believes that I have an intuitive grasp of realities that many people don’t yet recognize.

Larry Chapp’s e-mail today might explain why: because I tend to think metaphysically. And, if I’m honest, it might be because of latent Asperger’s tendencies within me. I’ve mentioned before that it runs in my family. I don’t think I would be quite diagnosable, but it wasn’t until one of my own kids received a diagnosis of mild Asperger’s that I began to learn about it, and began to see these traits within myself.

People on the autism spectrum (of which Asperger’s is at the mildest end) have the gift of seeing patterns. In The Big Short, the financial journalist Michael Lewis profiles a young man who made himself a billion dollars by doing a deep dive on market data, and perceiving patterns that others could not see — patterns that predicted a stock market crash. It reminded me of the time I was working for the Templeton Foundation, and visited the late genius investor Sir John Templeton’s personal office in the Bahamas. Someone who had known him then said that Sir John would sit at his desk with the stock pages laid out in front of him, and get into some kind of zone, and make his investment decisions from what he discerned in those sessions. I thought at the time that Sir John was most likely on the spectrum. The insights of non-neurotypicals can seem uncanny, but there’s nothing psychic about it; they just see more deeply than the rest of us do.

If my non-neurotypical offspring were to turn his gifts to stock-picking, his old pop could probably retire in that cottage in Burgundy he’s had his eye on. But that’s not the lad’s calling. In any case, his neurological talents are pretty incredible, though I think he would concede that they can be as much a curse as a blessing.

My father coached my Little League baseball team. He used to laugh about what a tortured player I was. He said, “You were something to watch. When you were in the field, you knew before every pitch where the play would be, no matter where the ball would be hit. But you couldn’t get anybody on the same page with you. Y’all were just little boys. The rest of the team was out to have fun. This tore you up.”

Yes, because as my confessor would tell you, I live in my head. The error is living too much in abstraction. The equal and opposite error is living without the capacity to abstract at all. This is partly where the “Oh come on, stop the hysteria, stop the paranoia” stuff is coming from. Of course it’s also coming from a very human place — from fearful people refusing to see what is right in front of their eyes, because it’s too threatening.

Anyway, pay attention to what Chapp is trying to tell us. What is happening in Rome now, under this papacy, is an attempt to rewrite the basic coding of Catholic Christianity to make it conform to the spirit of the age. I don’t know where any of this goes from this point, but I know that Catholics had better pay very close attention, and watch with great discernment. It’s also worth reading Chapp’s 2013 warning upon Benedict XVI’s resignation.

Some of you might wonder why I’m so fixated on the Roman church, given that I left it 12 years ago, and why I’m not writing about the massive crisis upon the Orthodox world, having to do with schism in Ukraine. Well, for one, I can’t begin to fathom the complexity of the issues at play in the Orthodox crisis. I hate to see schism, but I don’t want to comment on something I truly don’t understand — especially because it has nothing at all practically to do with Orthodox life in this country, thank God. Second, it is a fight about ecclesiology and church jurisdictional boundaries, not about fundamental doctrinal truth. It’s bad, but not a threat to the integrity of the faith.

And third, as I’ve said many times, as goes the Catholic Church, so goes the West. For better or for worse, it is the core institution of Western civilization. From a purely sociological point of view, Orthodox Christianity is nothing in the West. Even Protestantism defines itself as against Catholic Christianity. My Reformed and Evangelical Protestant friends will no doubt disagree, but I doubt that they will have the stability to withstand liquid modernity (I hope I’m wrong). It has long been obvious that huge portions of the Catholic Church in the West have been lost to modernism, but it has been possible to be confident that the core, guarded by Rome, would hold the line.

I don’t think that confidence is warranted any longer. What this means for the future of Catholicism, and of the West, I don’t know.

A German Catholic friend told me recently that he expects the institutional Catholic Church to collapse in his country in the next 20 years or so, and for the Catholic faith in Europe to be carried on within faithful families who immerse themselves in the faith, and who marry among each other. Preparing for that possible future is what The Benedict Option is about. We have to get to know each other now, and build these networks of resistance now. You’ll be happy to know that a potential funder has come forward who might be willing to pay for the building and upkeep of a website whose purpose is Ben Op networking. More on that later; we’re having a meeting this week about it.