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Archive for April, 2011

Disenchantments…

The Disenchantment of Secular DiscourseThe Disenchantment of Secular Discourse by Steven D. Smith
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse, by Steven D. Smith ****

In the wake of the Tucson shootings we have all heard a lot about civility in the public arena. Fingers have been pointed and blame assigned, one group claiming that vitriolic rhetoric is the root cause, another pointing to the shooter’s state of mind. Given the heatedness of this particular argument, I cannot imagine a more propitious time to read Steven Smith’s “The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse.” It is a brilliant look at the current state of discourse in the American public arena.

By way of introduction, Mr. Smith lays out for us the problem as it is typically described by pundits of different stripes. We live in the “age of American unreason” they say, characterized by a “new species of anti-rationalism” where our “politics are now so debased that they threaten our standing as a genuine democracy”. He lists the usual suspects: an under-performing educational system, media outlets interested more in entertaining than informing, “the Internet, video games, text messaging”, and especially evangelical or fundamentalist religion, all of which contribute to a dumbed-down society of those “eager only to browse and skim, but without the patience actually to read and think”.

Though he is deeply concerned about the appalling state of affairs, Mr. Smith finds these sacred cows to be less than satisfying, as the same symptoms can just as easily be found in the academy, and even on the Supreme Court, as on the street or on talk radio. If, then, these are merely symptoms, what is the true cause? The answer he suggests is surprising and can be paraphrased as follows. In a reaction against the failure of Reason to fulfill the promises of the age of enlightenment, we have evicted from the public arena our “deepest convictions about what is really true and consented to work only with a scaled-down set of beliefs or methods that claim the support of an ostensible ‘overlapping consensus’”, understanding that “no one’s truth is going to prevail over its rivals”. In other words, in order to “keep [public discourse] from drowning in the perilous depths of questions about ‘the nature of the universe,’” we have discarded our worldviews and created a public arena that can be nothing but shallow.

The problem does not end there. The shallowness prescribed by the rules of public discourse cannot provide satisfactory answers to the most vexing problems that face society. Therefore, those who participate in the discussion have had to resort to the practice of “smuggling” their deepest convictions in to the discussion under cover of a number of disguises. We have become a society of well-meaning hypocrites, claiming to have abandoned our convictions about first principles, all the while smuggling them in the back door in the worst disguises.

All of the above is laid out in painstaking detail in the first chapter. The balance of the book is spent providing evidence to support his formulation of the question of what is wrong with public discourse in America today. He examines the most common vehicles used for such smuggling, showing how they are used in the most contentious and divisive arguments that occupy contemporary society: among them right-to-life issues, church/state division, and a non-metaphysical source of first principles.

All of this might be a laborious yawn-fest, but Mr. Smith writes with conviction and a wry sense of humor that occasionally borders on sarcasm. It is a winning combination that engages the reader and encourages him to hang in there even when the going gets a little rough. Having a good teacher can make learning even the most tedious subject enjoyable. Mr. Smith appears to have all the makings of a very good teacher. Given that his subject is one of vital importance to the life of our nation, we do well to listen to what he has to say and learn as much as we can.

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Declarations I

The Declaration of Independence is one of the foundation documents of our nation.  It is sometimes mistakenly referred to as the law of the land.  It is not, but it is a legal document of vital importance to our history and laws.  Every American should know and understand it.  I have spent a good deal of time studying it this year, and thought I might set down some of what I have learned.

It might be worthwhile to consider briefly the worldviews of the signers.  The claim is frequently made that most of the signers were Deists, not Christians.  This is a distortion of the truth.  Of the 56 signers of the Declaration, 52 were notable Christians.  Of those, eleven were sons of pastors or priests, four attended seminary, and four were pastors or priests themselves[1].  Of the remaining signers, two were deists (Franklin and Jefferson) and two were Unitarians (Adams and Paine).  The truth, then, is that the majority of the signers were Christians in the traditional sense.  Though the Declaration applies to all Americans, it is best understood in the context of Christianity for reasons that will be expounded later.

Now for the Declaration itself.  Read the first sentence carefully:

“When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the Earth the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and of nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.”

It seems straightforward enough.  When a group of people finds that the time has come to declare their independence from another group and rise to the level of an independent nation, they should have good reasons for doing so and be willing to announce them to the world.  So far, so good, but there are a number of important assumptions built in.  Enumerating all of them would be tedious and beyond the scope of this post, so I will address some of the most obvious and important.

First and foremost, there is a God.  Second, there is a hierarchy concerning this God.  Nature is subordinate to God and it follows that, as man is part of nature, man also is subordinate to God.  Third, there are laws to which man is subordinate, but which he did not author; the laws of nature and of nature’s God.  Fourth, these laws grant equality to all of mankind and entitle people to rise to the level of independent nations.  Fifth, the opinions of mankind are important and deserving of a certain level of respect.  So much so that any people who seek to declare their independence and become a separate nation should be willing to publicly declare the reasons for doing so.

The next post will explore these assumptions in more detail.


[1] The Lives of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence, 1848

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Lies do not become us…

Now that the obvious has been addressed, the next thing I want to say is that real men are men of their word.  This means:

1.     They tell the truth

2.     They keep their promises

With regard to the truth, let’s not get bogged down in arguments that are used to justify dishonesty.  I am not talking about the necessary deceptions required in times of war, or the daily ways in which the truth should be tempered in order to avoid causing needless pain.  I am talking about a habit of honesty that governs a man’s entire life, public and private.  A real man does not tell “little white lies” of convenience.  He does not cheat a little bit on his taxes.  He is known by his friends, neighbors, co-workers, even by those who do not like him, as someone who will always tell the truth, even at his expense.

Having said that, a real man will not use the truth as a weapon to bludgeon others.  He does not look for opportunities to hurt people by being “brutally honest”.  True honesty is not brutal.  It may be a weapon, but it is used in defense of self and others.  When used to wound it becomes the worst kind of lie.

A man of his word also keeps his promises.  All of them, from the least to the greatest.  When he says he will take out the trash, he does so, and does not keep someone waiting unnecessarily for him.  When he tells his little girl that he will come play with her, he does so without begrudging her the time.  When he swears before God and man on his wedding day that he will be faithful to his bride and cleave only to her, he lives that promise out to the end.  A real man will never abandon his wife and children, born or unborn.

A man of his word is not deterred by circumstances.  The strength of his promise is not dependent on his mood, and he does not break his promise just because someone else has broken theirs.  He does not tell the truth only when he is happy.  The real man abhors situational ethics.

This is not intended to be mere moralizing or an empty harangue.  No man is perfect.  We are all tempted to dishonesty and infidelity.  There are times when our relationships are strained to the breaking point and our strength is sapped by fatigue.  We struggle and fail.  When that happens, we should be quick to seek forgiveness and extend forgiveness to others.  But the greater part of a man’s life should be marked by his ability to keep his word.

History rarely (if ever) praises the skillful liar or the promise-breaker.  The serial adulterer and home-wrecker is never remembered kindly.  The reputations of the greatest men are indelibly tarnished by their adulteries.  But history celebrates the honest man.  One of the greatest compliments posterity bestows on a man is for his children and grand-children to hear that their father was a man of his word.  In a world governed more by expedience and instant gratification than honor, where false men are congratulated for endorsing the lie that an embryonic human is somehow not a person, we need now, more than ever, real men of their word.

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What makes a man?

Recently, we discovered that a good friend is being divorced by her husband.  They were married for a long time, but he has left her and their children in order to “find himself” and pursue his dreams.  She is crushed and physically sickened by his desertion.  Stories like this fill me with anger toward the beast that has abandoned his wife and family.  We know too many women who have been deserted by their husbands.  Our society is overflowing with them.  Such a state is a just indictment against men.  How could we?  How dare we leave any woman, let alone as many as there are, destroyed by this cruelest of betrayals?

This question, and others like it, has been weighing heavily on me for a long time.  Part of the answer lies, I think, in men not knowing what it means to be a real man.  Given the number of books that have been written on this topic over the ages, it may be the height of arrogance to think that I might have anything meaningful to contribute.  I hope it is not.  But this latest example of betrayal has forced me to sit down and set down my thoughts on manhood in the hopes that something I say will make a difference.  Therefore, all of the posts in this category will be devoted to exploring what it means to be a real man.

First and foremost, to be a real man one must be a male.  That may seem a bit ridiculous and self-evident, but in a society ruled by political-correctness run amok it is neither.  We must establish at the outset that all the talk about gender being a construct separate from mere physicality is foolishness.  Let us be candid and acknowledge that the origins of contemporary gender theory  lie in a desperate attempt to justify homosexual behavior to society at large; an attempt to try and convince us that their behavior is not a perversion, but an outworking of gender confusion.  That there are people who are confused about their sexuality is a sad, sobering fact.  That they must be treated with gentleness and charity is a truth.  But we must not try to accommodate their behavior or help prop up their self-esteem by distorting the truth about gender and physicality.

There are stark, absolute differences between men and women, physically and emotionally.  As most of us learned in high-school biology class, females have two of the same kind of sex chromosome, XX.  Males have two different sex chromosomes, XY.  The result is two different sexes, male and female, and two different genders.  This is a physical fact that cannot be altered by surgery or society.  A woman cannot be made into a man, neither can a man be made into a woman.  Any time one tries to be the other, the effect is grotesque.  An effeminate man does not look or act like a woman, nor does a “butch” female look or act like a man, no matter how hard they may try.  They merely become tragic parodies of themselves.  Therefore, to be a real man, one must be male.

We should not be shocked, dismayed, or discouraged by these statements.  We should, instead, embrace and enjoy our real genders.  If you are male, it is a good thing to be male.  There is much to enjoy about being male.  There is a physical strength to revel in, a rough-and-tumbleness to exult in, a desire to conquer and subdue that, exercised properly, can be leveraged for the good of society.  There are forests to be cleared, fields to be plowed and homes to be built.  There are friends to wrestle with and enemies to battle.  There are women to woo and wed, who will help smooth some of the rough edges and help to civilize our baser instincts.  There are the pleasures of the marriage bed, which should be undefiled.  There are the children to rear, sons who need Fathers to show them the way, daughters who need Daddys to protect and cherish them until the time comes to give them as a gift to husbands worthy of them.  There is sagacity and the crown of wisdom that comes to the older man, should God grant him long life.  Let us then, as males, as men, exult in these things.  They are gifts from God to us as men.  Let us, then, put to death the lie that gender is a construct and not the gift that it is.

Much more could be, and has been, said on this particular topic, but that should do for starters.

PS:  If anyone has any comments, please be courteous and avoid vulgarity.  Also, please stick to the points made above.  You cannot possibly object to an argument that I have not made, so don’t try.

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