Social Justice’s Warrior Children

David Brooks:

The mob that hounded [Google engineer James] Damore was like the mobs we’ve seen on a lot of college campuses. We all have our theories about why these moral crazes are suddenly so common. I’d say that radical uncertainty about morality, meaning and life in general is producing intense anxiety. Some people embrace moral absolutism in a desperate effort to find solid ground. They feel a rare and comforting sense of moral certainty when they are purging an evil person who has violated one of their sacred taboos.

I find this insightful and accurate. There is an absolutist moralism in the social media air in which my generation (and those behind us, such as college students) live which doesn’t jive well with the laissez faire relativism they otherwise embrace.

It is customary to call people who embrace absolutist morals “fundamentalists” (David Brooks has done something like it himself). But let me observe something about the Christian fundamentalists I have known: the mature ones have thought carefully, over years, about where to stand under pressure and where to give a little. Or even a lot. It is precisely my access to an ultimate standard in Scripture that gives me that freedom, because that standard is not equally specific regarding every moral question: men are told not to lust after women (I’d say that’s specific), but they are given pretty wide latitude as to which women they can marry (following certain general principles). The Bible also weighs different commands differently: justice, mercy, and faithfulness are more important than giving God a portion of your spices (Matt 23:23). A wise Christian decision-maker has his or her “powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil” (Heb 5:14).

I know the delicious moral feeling of purging evil from my community; but I’m not drunk by it (and I don’t say it’s a good thing) because I also by God’s grace know the painful moral feeling of purging evil from myself. I will sometimes stand firmly on certain points where my culture is demanding I give (the immorality of homosexual acts and desires); I will sometimes see both sides of an argument my culture demands I stand firm on (my current position, barring further research, on anthropogenic climate change). All because I don’t need a moral crusade to give me the illusion of solid ground. I have a firm foundation.

SJWs are like my little girl, at age four and one week, riding her two-wheeler bike for the first time. She’d gotten it on her birthday and one of the training wheels had fallen off. I noticed she was riding just fine, so I took off the other one. It was crazily hilarious to watch this tiny person barreling around the driveway with wobbly joy. But in order for her to stay balanced she had to ride fast—no, faster. That’s the feeling I get from the Evergreen State College students and other SJWs: they can’t pause to ask what the effects of their actions will be on themselves and on their beloved institutions and ideals; they’ve just got to keep going lest they fall over and lose the comforting sense of moral balance a headlong righteous crusade gives them. I don’t read anything from the alt-right; I don’t get them at all. But I wonder if the same thing isn’t going on in their world: they are desperate to find a group, a cause which will give them identity and purpose. In place of Christianity in America has arisen not a world of light and freedom but of rival religions.

Good old Chesterton will take us out today:

The nineteenth century decided to have no religious authority. The twentieth century seems disposed to have any religious authority.

Review: Deep Work

Deep work is becoming “increasingly valuable in our economy.” Knowledge workers have to set themselves apart from each other in order to succeed, and the myriad electronic temptations out there, social media foremost among them, are frittering away our best work time.

This is a helpful (if occasionally tired) point, and Cal Newport’s personal example of dedication to productivity is inspiring. He offers practical advice for taming the intrusion of electronics and aiming one’s time toward goals of true value. I like the “bi-modal” and “rhythmic” approaches to deep work, because few people can keep up intense concentration for long periods. And I liked the idea that scheduling deep work and not-so-deep-work periods in advance would help others know what to expect about my availability and would help me not to have to go through the sometimes draining task of deciding whether to engage in deep or “shallow” work.

But.

Though I don’t exactly blame an (apparent?) non-theist for having secular goals, Newport is going to get a Christian worldview analysis—because he’s smarter than your average self-help book writer (he has a PhD in Computer Science and teaches at Georgetown), and he made an explicit “Philosophical Argument for Depth” (pp. 86ff.), an argument which I found very interesting but ultimately unpersuasive, even if I agree with his conclusion (who’s going to disagree about the value of “depth”?). He also leans heavily on some of our culture’s most accredited truth-tellers, a set of philosophy professors from Berkeley and Harvard.

I listened carefully for the incentives Newport offered or assumed throughout the book, the things you would get if you engage in “deep work”—and, not surprisingly, his most basic promise is financial reward. This utilitarian viewpoint leaves me cold, not because more cash would be wholly undesirable, but because [a little book told me] that money likes to take wings and fly away. It’s fleeting. It isn’t an ultimate thing. I’m also wary of bald appeals to financial gain because of the critique levied by my favorite Harvard economist, Michael Sandel, on the “moral limits of markets”—the way money tends to corrupt the very goods whose exchange it facilitates (he points, for example, to the selling of kidneys: it is good to give up one’s kidney to save the life of another, but money introduces unhealthy power dynamics—no wealthy American businessmen are likely to give theirs to Pakistani tribesmen anytime soon). Strike one against the value of Deep Work.

So I was pleasantly surprised when Newport cited the work of Matthew Crawford in the excellent book Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work. Newport tied one of Crawford’s most profound points—that knowledge workers are often frustrated by their inability to point to tangible accomplishments—to a further observation of his own, namely that such knowledge workers are likely to let hyper-connectedness make them appear busy to themselves as much as to their managers. I truly don’t judge (very many of the) people who are on Twitter all the time, but I’m with Newport: I’ve just never been able to see how Twitter is anything but distraction crack for someone with a job like mine. Newport says, and he must be right, that there are some highly relational jobs (salesperson, and I’d add, college president) in which personal connections are the value one provides to his or her employer. But that’s not most of us. I loved Newport’s example of the New York Times reporter who seems to tweet “desultorily” and as little as possible. I’ll give half a strike back to Newport, then.

At this point in the book Newport had already evinced more interest in metaphysics than three passels of self-help books typically do (in my experience these books are almost entirely utilitarian). And I was genuinely surprised to see him press the point even deeper in his “Philosophical Argument for Depth.” It is here that he relies on philosophers Dreyfus (Berkeley) and Kelly (Harvard). He actually uses the word “metaphysical”—positively—and even the word “sacredness.” I began to get a little excited when I saw this:

As Dreyfus and Kelly emphasize, for all its good in the political arena, in the domain of the the metaphysical [Cartesian, Enlightenment] thinking stripped the world of the order and sacredness essential to creating meaning. In a post-Enlightenment world we have tasked ourselves with to identify what’s meaningful and what’s not, an exercise that can seem arbitrary and induce a creeping nihilism. (87)

This is good; we’re on a track I can follow.

Newport then, following Dreyfus and Kelly, appeals basically to natural law and the pleasure craftsmen find in discovering the natural order of things. A nineteenth century wheelwright, for example, found joy in discovering the truth of what’s in his wood and aligning himself with that portion of the cosmos. (I took this down from audio; punctuation may be off.)

The craftsman has stumbled onto something crucial in a post-Enlightenment world: a source of meaning sited outside the individual. The wheelwright doesn’t decide arbitrarily which virtues of the wood he works are valuable and which are not. This value is inherent in the wood and the task it’s meant to perform. As Dreyfus and Kelly explain, such sacredness is common to craftsmanship. “The task of a craftsman,” they conclude, “is not to generate meaning but rather to cultivate in himself the skill of discerning the meanings that are already there. This frees the craftsman of the nihilism of autonomous individualism, providing an ordered world of meaning.” (88)

This is all great, and I can follow this far. But this is where he stops. What follows is some hand-waving about how all workers, even knowledge workers, can find joy and meaning in honing their craft, in discovering what’s true about that work independent of themselves. And I’m ultimately left as cold as I was by the utilitarian (“pragmatic,” Newport himself calls them) sections from earlier in the book. So the natural world is the final order of meaning? It’s the bedrock below which I cannot dig?

I don’t see sacredness there; nor do I see meaning. I see nihilism again—both because this cosmos will, the scientists all tell us, itself one day reduce to nothing (or at least no one) and because I’m part of this cosmos; what confidence can I have that I stand above it rather than fully in it? A naturalistic framework like the one Newport assumes cannot accept any metaphysics or sacredness or meaning, only their evolutionary adapted simulacra. We are Homo sapiens Deepensis, he says: we’ve evolved, he says, to thrive on deep work.

But Newport is not a philosopher. He’s not a Matthew Crawford. His citations of Crawford and of Dreyfus and Kelly have the same breezy feel as his citations of scientific or sociological studies. One senses in Shop Class as Soulcraft that Matthew Crawford has worked hard over the course of a lifetime to fit his view of natural law into an overall worldview. The brief attention which Cal Newport gives to the matter suggests that he has managed to find a utilitarian approach to employing the insights of non-utilitarian philosophies.

In reading Newport I finally what bothers me most about books in the self-help vein: the epistemology. How do we know that deep work (or sticky ideas or getting things done) is good? Scattered, brief citations of scientific papers most readers probably couldn’t really evaluate even if we read them in their entirety are trotted out in between cheery anecdotes related with a spirit of you-can-succeed-like-me-if-you-have-the-Horatio-Alger-like-gumption. The Western tradition of philosophy only appears when a veneer of philosophical depth is needed, and the theological claims of Christianity (or any other religion) to define the good life are, of course, left out entirely. The good life is assumed to be one in which you make more money and enjoy your work—not bad things, those, but not ultimate things. Books like these cultivate a studied avoidance of ultimate things. In the end, nothing that avoids the ultimate can go very deep.

Liberals Are Eating Their Own

Liberals are eating their own. The Google Engineer who wrote a piece appealing to science to explain gender differences, and who has received massive blowback (including a denunciation from the new Vice President of Diversity, Integrity & Governance), doesn’t sound like a conservative of any kind to me. He sounds like a libertarian, a kind of classical liberal. His opening words:

I value diversity and inclusion, am not denying that sexism exists, and don’t endorse using stereotypes.

He also writes,

People generally have good intentions, but we all have biases which are invisible to us.

And:

I strongly believe in gender and racial diversity, and I think we should strive for more.

But he didn’t genuflect hard enough; he doesn’t believe hard enough in Diversity. And now he is facing the wrath of the powers that be in the only eschaton Western secularist liberals believe in: Social Media Judgment Day. Read more about the dust-up here.

Analysis

One of the most signal signs of spiritual blindness I see in our culture is the slogan that “diversity” has become. Like “tolerance” before it, “diversity” has a definite and rather contestable definition, but it’s whole appeal lies in its supposed utility as a perspicuous, undebatable, universal concept. Like “harm” and “fairness” and “discrimination,” the shape of “diversity” cannot be debated in any real way without it faltering as a cultural standard. Its votaries cannot permit themselves to notice that their “diversity” is violently circumscribed. Only certain differences are cool.

As it is written in Stanley Fish, in one of the most epochal paragraphs I’ve ever read:

A supposedly neutral principle such as “free speech”— just like “fairness” and “merit” [ed. or “diversity”]—rather than a concept that sits above the fray, monitoring its progress and keeping the combatants honest, . . . is right there in the middle of the fray, an object of contest that will enable those who capture it to parade their virtue at the easy expense of their opponents: we’re for fairness and you are for biased judgment; we’re for merit and you are for special interests; we’re for objectivity and you are playing politics; we’re for free speech and you are for censorship and ideological tyranny.

(The Trouble with Principle, 16)

And nearly as epochal for me in this late-modern Western culture of ours:

Strong multiculturalism…. is strong because it values difference in and for itself rather than as a manifestation of something more basically constitutive. Whereas the boutique multiculturalist will accord a superficial respect to cultures other than his own, a respect he will withdraw when he finds the practices of a culture irrational or inhumane, a strong multiculturalist will want to accord a deep respect to all cultures at their core, for he believes that each has the right to form its own identity and nourish its own sense of what is rational and humane. For the strong multiculturalist the first principle is not rationality or some other supracultural universal, but tolerance.

But the trouble with stipulating tolerance as your first principle is that you cannot possibly be faithful to it because sooner or later the culture whose core values you are tolerating will reveal itself to be intolerant at that same core; that is, the distinctiveness that marks it as unique and self-defining will resist the appeal of moderation or incorporation into a larger whole. Confronted with a demand that it surrender its viewpoint or enlarge it to include the practices of its natural enemies—other religions, other races, other genders, other classes—a beleaguered culture will fight back with everything from discriminatory legislation to violence. At this point the strong multiculturalist faces a dilemma: either he stretches his toleration so that it extends to the intolerance residing at the heart of a culture he would honor, in which case tolerance is no longer his guiding principle, or he condemns the core intolerance of that culture (recoiling in horror when Khomeini calls for the death of Rushdie), in which case he is no longer according it respect at the point where its distinctiveness is most obviously at stake. Typically, the strong multiculturalist will grab the second handle of this dilemma (usually in the name of some supracultural universal now seen to have been hiding up his sleeve from the beginning) and thereby reveal himself not to be a strong multiculturalist at all. Indeed it turns out that strong multiculturalism is not a distinct position but a somewhat deeper instance of the shallow category of boutique multiculturalism.

(“Boutique Multiculturalism, or Why Liberals Are Incapable of Thinking about Hate Speech,” Critical Inquiry, 23:2 [Winter, 1997], 382–383)

Evaluation

I believe in diversity—defined Christianly. All people are made in God’s image, and there is ultimately “no male or female in Christ” (Gal 3:28). I am as saved from my sins as my wife is (in fact, she is a little ahead). And yet when saints “from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” come to praise the Lamb in the last day (Rev 7:9), there will still be recognizably different nations, tribes, and peoples. Every knee will bow, but some of those knees will be different colors (and some will presumably be shaved while others are not). This is biblical diversity.

(To be clear: I’m with John Piper in Bloodlines: Race, Cross, and the Christian: the erasure of “racial” lines through intermarriage is a good thing pointing toward the ultimate unity of all people in Christ—and even in Noah! I’m only saying that the Bible predicts that not all those lines will ultimately be erased.)

Also, God’s created goodness lies in all cultures, so I can expect that some cultures will see some beauties of God in their art and music and greetings and dress and customs and folktales that other cultures don’t see. But the fall has twisted all nations, so I can expect to reject or refine various elements in any given culture, too.

I find it helpful to have a minority worldview, because the majority never lets me forget (as they so often do) that my own viewpoint is contestable. When I start thinking of all my beliefs and conclusions and ideas as obvious to any sane person, I become a triumphalist who cannot permit his or her mortal enemies (such as a poor libertarian Google Engineer) to utter a word in the public square without the severest repercussions. We must all make judgments about what kind of talk is reprehensible, but the Christian is, or at least should be, more capable of grace because final judgment is in the hands of another (Matt 12:36).

Why I Attended the Bible Faculty Summit

Last week I attended the Bible Faculty Summit, held this year at Appalachian Bible College. I thoroughly enjoyed the fellowship, the papers, and the hospitality shown by the school (and particularly the faculty liaison, John Rinehart).

It was something of a grueling trip across the country, however, and my wife had to hold down a very busy fort during my absence. Why did I go?

Because of a comment made to me after it was over by a PhD student in attendance. He said (and this is a paraphrase): “I’ve been out of classes for a year or so, and even though I’m still in the program, life and church ministry and work have been atrophied some of the academic biblical studies impulse I used to feel. The Summit reinvigorated my love for and interest in academic study of Scripture.”

That’s it. That’s why I help organize this event, and why I always attend—and have twisted the arms of several other younger guys to make sure they didn’t miss it.

The particular slice of the church served by the BFS desperately needs this event, even if it doesn’t know it does. The continued existence of it is a testimony not merely, I think, to relational ties that bind people with similar upbringings but to the validity of a certain set of values and ideas that need institutional support and articulation. When this little meeting dies, a signal testimony to the validity and necessity of those values dies with it.

But a great thing about the BFS is that the papers are on a wide variety of constructive topics; in none of my four Summits have I heard people beating drums. If anything, my own paper came the closest to engaging merely parochial concerns: I made an explicit “political” appeal to the attendees to change their approach to combating the doctrinal cancer of King James Onlyism. But it isn’t a secret, not a conspiracy. Anyone who wants to know can listen to the paper here. (Or they can read about it here when my book comes out in a few months.)

I also go because my papers help me and help my work. I discovered long ago as a student and then as a writer that it’s good for me to have deadlines. Whenever I’m way too busy to write something, a deadline somehow makes that something magically appear. A hard deadline involving reading that something to a group makes it magically appear on time. All the papers I have written for the Summit (or anything else) have helped me tremendously in my work at BJU Press and now at Faithlife, and all I did was write about what interested me at the time: Stanley Fish, the impossibility of true secularism, and ἀρσενοκοίτης in BDAG. This year I wrote about New Tools for Teaching Textual Criticism to Laypeople. Not as academic as the other topics I’ve done, but just as fun. And having to present to a group of smart people put pressure on me to dig below the surface.

I enjoyed other papers at the Summit, too:

  • I organized a little “debate” between Scott Aniol and Brian Collins on Christianity and culture which was stimulating and excellent and gracious and boy-do-I-wish-I-had-recorded-it-that-was-a-major-mistake-sorry-folks.
  • Kyle Dunham shared with us some of his work on intertextuality between Ecclesiastes and Deuteronomy, work which complements his commentary for Lexham’s Evangelical Exegetical Commentary series. He’s good; he does his homework.
  • C.J. Harris told us the story of the first Genevan/Huguenot foreign mission in the Reformation era. I was sad to hear it was something of a flop, but glad to know this story of which I was hitherto completely ignorant.
  • Mark Sidwell gave another church history paper on another aspect of the Reformation of which I was completely unaware: Katherine Zell, the wife of a pastor and a feisty writer and Bible teacher in her own right. Very interesting.
  • Troy Manning discussed literacy in biblical times. I wish we had more solid information on that issue, but it was still profitable. I found it particularly stimulating to hear his critiques of the orality movement.

I’ll just stop there having given the papers that first occurred to me, but the others did solid work, too. If you are a PhD or PhD student within that little slice of the church I inhabit—you know who you are—then you should come next year around the first week of August (date and location TBD, but SC is a leading possibility =).