October 8, 2011

Mustard seeds...

A quote found at The Anchoress:

The Church will become small, and will to a great extent have to start over again. But after a time of testing, an internalized and simplified Church will radiate great power and influence; for the population of an entirely planned and controlled world are going to be inexpressibly lonely . . . and they will then discover the little community of believers as something quite new. As a hope that is there for them, as the answer they have secretly always been asking for.
    -- Josef Cardinal Ratzinger, God and the World

I read that book a while ago, but didn't catch this item. There are many days when I think this is what's going to happen. It is a grief. Here's a paper I wrote, trying to jolt my parish into action. [Link.] Some people are actually interested in it, which is a breath of fresh air for me.

Posted by John Weidner at October 8, 2011 6:14 PM
Comments

It's something I have been thinking about for a number of years. What's mordantly funny to me is that, according to evolutionary theory, "breeders win". Yet the people who make such a fetish of their belief in evolutionary theory have a strong tendency to not breed and even to mock the idea.

Almost as funny are those militant atheist / materialists who go on about "memetic evolution" yet manage to avoid applying its conclusions to things like the Catholic Church. I take memetic evolution seriously, I think it's an excellent methodology for looking at how the ideosphere operates. It also leads on to conclude that any belief system that has persisted for 2000 years and is still successful has to have something right. Yet so many boosters of the theory avoid thinking about that, making a mockery of their putative devotion to rational thinking about ideas (including their own). I just saw a comment with the phrase "siding with nutters who follow Sky Father dictates from the desert". As if the last 2000 years hadn't happened! Forget the source, ask if it works. And if it does, doesn't that mean there's value in it? Isn't that the rational materialist way? But they just can't. It makes me weep. Gah! At least I've defected to the winning side :-).

Sorry, just couldn't resist the vent.

Posted by: Annoying Old Guy at October 9, 2011 7:36 AM

And a rare fine vent it was!

Science shows that ownership of Richard Dawkins books correlates inversely with reproductive success. (Which makes me think now I'm glad we own one of them. Three kids was really hard! And we're broke. If we didn't own that copy of "The Blind Watchmaker," we'd likely have 6 children, and they'd probably be orphans, their poor parents dead of exhaustion...)

Posted by: John Weidner at October 9, 2011 6:20 PM

John,

B16 may be right, that the Church will grow small. Too many of its leaders seem wedded to what Walter Russell Mead refers to as "the Blue Social Model" (as in "blue" states versus "red" states). Those of us who don't like the collectivist tinge of blue-social-model thinking will just have to wait out their time in office and work to have more priests ordained that "get" the changes at work in the world. And it the meantime watch as collectivist-minded people "fall away".

But I think that B16 also fell victim to a sort of despair in that quote. As AOG points out, people who hew closely to the rationalist/materialist/atheist line tend not to reproduce themselves. They forget that the future belongs to those who show up, which is why I think B16 paints the picture a bit darkly.

As usual, my two cents' worth.

Posted by: Hale Adams at October 10, 2011 6:54 PM

I tend to agree. I've never seen any indication that he's aware of anything like demographics. Thinking that way is actually a rather odd thing to do.

We don't, of course, know how it's going to play out. Will the children of believers be believers in similar numbers or ways? My guess is that they will, and that the trends we see will continue, but only time will tell...

Posted by: John Weidner at October 10, 2011 8:38 PM

You forget the non-collectivist segment of the rationalists that believes in the alchemy of The Invisible Hand.

Are they having trouble reproducing?
As for the children of believers: look at Iran.

Posted by: Gian at October 11, 2011 1:27 AM

"As for the children of believers: look at Iran."

(I will assume that you are asking for information, and not just to be snarky and peevish.) Birthrates are falling precipitously all over the Muslim world. Iran's just the worst of the common pattern.

What is happening is that faith that is just an extension of traditional life can't survive contact with modernity. There are enclaves of traditional and fairly isolated Catholicism that have shown exactly the same thing. Spain, Portugal, Poland, Ireland, and French Canada.

The more "modern" parts of Christendom have been grappling with the problems of modernity for a long time. There we see birthrates of believers holding steady at above replacement rate.

Interestingly if you graph by frequency of religious observance, then European and American birth rates are almost the same.

Posted by: John Weidner at October 11, 2011 12:01 PM

My original comment was because I was struck by B16's statement, which is to me memetic evolution, even if B16 doesn't call it that. It's the adaptation of a collection of thought to external reality as it competes with other memes. Yes, it seems like to be short term detrimental but that's the price of long term survival at times.

It also caused me some despair, almost believing our host's claims about rampant nihilism. The only thing really that holds me back is the idea that they're not even nihilists, in analogy to what can be said of certain NYT columnists writings -- they're so far out of touch with reality that they're not even wrong.

And segueing from that, I thought Jonah Goldberg was insightful when he noted the proglodyte approbation for Elizabeth Warren's recent uttering was not because it was brilliant or insightful, but because finally a candidate actually openly defended the proglodyte project explicitly, rather than through misleadingly vague language. I think our host should appreciate that. Of course, in typical proglodyte fashion when using actual facts, they scored an own goal because the government activities she describes are the libertarian position. She and her supporters are simply not strongly enough connected to reality to realize it.

Posted by: Annoying Old Guy at October 11, 2011 7:33 PM

"faith that is just an extension of traditional life can't survive contact with modernity"

This formulation needs sharpening. In fact, faith and traditional life can not be so separated. The traditional life was shaped and informed by faith, be it Catholic, Jewish or Hindu.

CS Lewis writes of the death-like (or descending) movement that is modernity. So all the people have to pass through it.

Posted by: Gian at October 11, 2011 8:41 PM

Gian,

"The traditional life was shaped and informed by faith, be it Catholic, Jewish or Hindu."

To be sure, but it's not enough. They never though about it. So new ideas come, and they have no defenses. they are swept away.

Henry Ford said, "95% of people would rather die than think." So, sayonara, baby. Fail.

Posted by: John Weidner at October 11, 2011 10:59 PM

AOG, brother, I gotta say, (it's very late,and I've had a couple of drinks), stuff like "mimetic evolution" is small ball. Kid stuff. We're talking true-story-about-the-entire-Cosmos, or false-story-about-the-entire-cosmos. No comfortable middle ground.

"You pays yer money, and you takes yer chance," as my dad used to say.

Nisi credideritis, non intelligetis.

Posted by: John Weidner at October 11, 2011 11:13 PM

Even if all are made to stumble, I will not stumble.

Human reason is weak. Were ever as many reasoners and rationalists as there are now?

The point of tradition is that you don't have to think.

Posted by: Gian at October 12, 2011 10:26 PM

No, no. Tradition makes it possible to think. Sentire cum Ecclesia.

Rationalism doesn't work, to be sure. It is reason guiding itself, without taking sights on the stars or fixed landmarks. Rationalism is the misuse of reason.

But we have landmarks, including tradition, and can navigate with their aid. And think. That's what we are here for.

“Nisi credideritis, non intelligetis."

Posted by: John Weidner at October 12, 2011 10:48 PM

I don't agree with either of you. Tradition is accumulated reason, tested by experience. It is the result, not the cause, of thinking. It is the intellectual capital of a society. As for fixed landmarks, there is survival and there is not. Those are quite fixed.

Posted by: Annoying Old Guy at October 14, 2011 7:30 AM

I think what you are referring to, AOG, is not tradition, but knowledge. Tradition, at least in the "traditional" sense that we've been using, is different in always somehow existing outside the decisions of present people.

You or I can decide what knowledge to value or use, or even what we will consider to be knowledge. You can't do that with tradition.

And "survival" won't work as a landmark. There are times when survival is a good, and times when it is not. And if you are ever faced with such a situation, you will immediately start groping for something to help you decide. Something that isn't just your own opinion of the moment.

Suppose a terrorist points a pistol at you and says, "Convert to Islam. Now." Or maybe, "Kill the prisoner next to you, or die." You will, I hope, have something more substantial in your toolkit than "survival."

Posted by: John Weidner at October 14, 2011 4:43 PM
Tradition, at least in the "traditional" sense that we've been using, is different in always somehow existing outside the decisions of present people.

Exactly. present people. But every tradition was a new thing at some point, a thing decided on or created by people present at that time. That's why it is accumulated reason. And we can certainly chose which traditions to maintain -- isn't much of our current problems because we (as a society) have been far too cavalier about such choosing?

You also completely missed my point about survival.

First, because we are speaking of tradition and societies, I meant survival of the society.

Second, "survival" isn't a tool that one uses, it is a judgement of the society rendered by physical reality. A Gods of the Copybook Headings kind of thing. Societies that persist have been judged by an objective standard as better than those that didn't.

Posted by: Annoying Old Guy at October 14, 2011 8:26 PM

"Exactly. present people. But every tradition was a new thing at some point, a thing decided on or created by people present at that time. That's why it is accumulated reason. And we can certainly chose which traditions to maintain"

Let's assume that's true. (I don't agree; I think you are swimming in traditions handed down from the Apostles and the Prophets, and are blinded to them by sin and folly.) Even so, a tradition isn't a decided-upon-by-people thing now. If it is, it's just an opinion. A tradition is always hallowed in some way.

"And we can certainly chose which traditions to maintain"

If you think that way, you don't "get" tradition. The whole point is that it's not something that "autonomous" individuals choose with cool detachment. Tradition has a claim on us; it is bigger than us.

"Societies that persist have been judged by an objective standard as better than those that didn't."

Absurd. Your "objective standard" doesn't work any better for societies than it does for individuals. Stalin wiped out something like 20 ethnic groups. So Socialism is "better?"

We now know that the population of our hemisphere was much greater than previously guessed. About 100 million people, and many whole societies, were wiped out by infectious disease after 1492. (I highly recommend the book 1491, by Charles Mann. Fascinating stuff.) So that's an "objective standard?" Other societies were "better" than those which perished?

Posted by: John Weidner at October 14, 2011 9:24 PM
I don't agree; I think you are swimming in traditions handed down from the Apostles and the Prophets, and are blinded to them by sin and folly.

I don't see how this is a disagreement. If these traditions were handed down from the Apostles and Prophets, that's precisely what I claimed. Why you think I am blind to them is unclear to me.

If you think that way, you don't "get" tradition. The whole point is that it's not something that "autonomous" individuals choose with cool detachment. Tradition has a claim on us; it is bigger than us.

Things that follow rules without thought are robots, not people. Doesn't your view here go against your theology, in which people choose whether to sin or not, whether to come to Jesus or not? I thought one of the keys of Christianity was this idea of choice (the eating of the apple being the archetype). Yes, traditions are a strong current but still one chooses. Perhaps to just go along with the current, but the choice is still there.

Your "objective standard" doesn't work any better for societies than it does for individuals

That's evolution for you. It's an imperfect world, according to some traditions. Some radicals might even claim that not every single person or society who hews to what you consider absolute standards prospers. Or are you a Prosperity Gospel type?

Posted by: Annoying Old Guy at October 16, 2011 6:09 AM

I don't think I'm getting through, but I'll try again.

The point about tradition (or other sources of guidance from outside our own human system) is not that they are followed blindly or robotically. Rather, they are what makes it possible to think.

An analogy might be to the Periodic Table, which makes it possible to think about chemistry. There's nothing robotic about this; just the opposite. One is set free by following the old rules. The person who tries to think about chemistry while making up his own rules and traditions is a slave. A slave to himself, following himself around and around and getting nowhere.

You mention choosing not to sin. But how does one know what sin is? How do you know? You probably want to do what's right, but you have no way to know what the right thing is, other than you own thoughts, which are conditioned by your psychology and the intellectual fads of the moment.

You chose to somehow morph my criticism of your suggestion of survival as a standard into something about "prospering." My point was that survival (individual or society) doesn't work as a standard to help you think. Sometimes the bad survive and the good die young. It doesn't tell you what you need to know. And even if you suspect that the good always prosper, you cannot test that idea without some objective standard of what "good" is.

You don't "get" tradition because you continue to hope that you can guide yourself by your own reason. Even to the point of picking and choosing traditions! That doesn't work, because you are following yourself. Around and around. Spiraling inward. Augustine spent 20 years doing that, and concluded, "What was I to myself, but a guide to my own destruction?" [Link to a good piece].

Posted by: John Weidner at October 16, 2011 10:20 AM
An analogy might be to the Periodic Table, which makes it possible to think about chemistry

I accept your analogy. But how is a person brought to that tradition? He is taught about it, using his own reason to accept it. Internal reason is the "last mile". I would be curious to know by what process you think a person comes to accept and use the Periodic Chart other than his own reason and choice.

But there's more -- where did the Periodic Chart come from? Why, from a person who chose to reject the existing tradition. He discarded hundreds of years of alchemical traditions by using his reason. So, by your logic, Mendeleev was a slave, while everyone else was able to think. But we're made thinkers, not slaves, by following him. You're right, I don't get that.

Perhaps the problem is that you take "reason" a little too specifically, to mean ultimate reasoning ("discovering the Universe from a pebble"). But all reason that seeks to deal with reality must use heuristics. When these are codified we call them "tradition". A rational mind accepts this and these. But in the end, even traditions must be taught, which means using the reasoning mind of the subject to recreate that information in him.

The heart is precisely your question - how do I know any tradition? By what process did that knowledge come to exist in my mind? Answer that question.

Posted by: Annoying Old Guy at October 17, 2011 6:18 AM

I'm not being as clear as I'd like, but the subject is inherently paradoxical.

I bet you've had the experience of banging your head for a long time against some problem, finally stopping and putting the problem aside in defeat and disgust.... and then, at an odd moment, there pops into your head some new possibility. And you rush back to the task.

So what happened? It's hard to pin it down, right? All your knowledge and strength and will-power failed you utterly. And yet if you hadn't put forth all the futile effort, you would never have found the answer.

The thing has something to do with the word humility. Jesus said, "unless you become as a little child, you cannot enter the Kingdom of Heaven." And most of the great teachers of wisdom have said something similar; that you can't find truth if you are full of yourself. And it's often the same way in day-to-day life. It is your "self" that has to solve problems, yet it is your "self"—all puffed-up and grown-up—that's often the biggest obstacle.

If you read the stories of great scientific discoveries, you often see that someone had a child-like way of looking at problems. Or were just playing with the problem like kids. Or were humble and let the data speak, even though it seemed like nonsense. (i.e.: Michelson–Morley experiment.) And yet, there is no way to deliberately put yourself into a child-like frame of mind. TRYING to be child-like is a very grown-up thing to do. Likewise, trying to be humble.

Yet there are perhaps things you can do. One of them is to be appreciative of traditions, and "the old ways." Contrast the American revolutionaries, fighting for "The Rights of Englishmen," with the French revolutionaries fighting for the theories of the philosophes! [Link to one of my favorite early posts.] The Americans actually invented something rather novel, but it was probably successful just because it was undertaken in an attitude of humility and conservation of old things. The French attitude of pride in human reason, on the other hand, led to endless horrors.

So I think what I'm getting at, in a roundabout way, is that your comments on tradition were not technically wrong, but you miss what they are trying to tell you. (And, oops, I see I never answered your question of "how do I know any tradition? " Oh well. I'd need to do this full-time to do it right.)

Posted by: John Weidner at October 17, 2011 5:10 PM
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