Hannah Arendt, “Walter Benjamin”, Men In Dark Times

To put it bluntly, it would be as misleading today to recommend Walter Benjamin as a literary critic and essayist as it would have been misleading to recommend Kafka of 1924 as a short-story writer and novelist. The describe adequately his work and him as an author within our usual framework of reference, one would have to make a great many negative statements, such as: his erudition was great, but he was no scholar; his subject matter comprised texts and their interpretation, but he was no philologist; he was greatly attracted not by religion but, “Walter Benjamin by theology and the theological type of interpretation for which the text itself is sacred, but he was no theologian and he was not particularly interested in the Bible; he was a born writer, but his greatest ambition was to produce a work consisting entirely of quotiations; he was the was the first Germ to translate Proust (together with Franz Hess) and St.-John Perse, and before that he had translated Baudelaire’s Tablueax Parisiens, but he was no translator; he reviewed books and wrote a number of essays on living and dead writers, but he was no literary critic; he wrote a book about the German baroque and left behind a huge unfinished study of the French nineteenth century, but he as no historian, literary or otherwise; I shall try to show that he thought poetically, but he was neither a poet nor a philosopher. – Hannah Arendt, “Walter Benjamin”, Men In Dark Times, pp.155-156

The themes which monastic discipline assigned to friars for meditation were designed to turn them away from the world and its affairs.  The thoughts which we are developing here originate from similar considerations.  At a moment when the politicians in whom the opponents of Fascism had placed their hopes are prostrate and confirm their defeat by betraying their own cause, these observations are intended to disentangle the political worldlings from the snares in which the traitors have entrapped them.  Our consideration proceeds from the insight the the politicians’ stubborn faith in progress, their confidence in their “mass basis,” and, finally, their servile integration in an uncontrollable apparatus have been three aspects of the same thing.   It seeks to convey an idea of the high price our accustomed thinking will have to pay for a conception of history that avoids any complicity with the thinking to which these politicians continue to adhere. – Walter Benjamin, “Theses On The Philosophy Of History”, in Illuminations, ed. by Hannah Arendt, trans. by Harry Zohn, p. 258

Walter Benjamin at work

Walter Benjamin at work

Georg Lukacs wrote of some members of the Frankfurt School, Adorno in particular:

A considerable part of the leading German intelligentsia, including Adorno, have taken up residence in the “Grand Hotel Abyss” which I described […] as “a beautiful hotel, equipped with every comfort, on the edge of an abyss, of nothingness, of absurdity. And the daily contemplation of the abyss between excellent meals or artistic entertainments, can only heighten the enjoyment of the subtle comforts offered.

In much the same way, Adorno was critical of his mentor and friend Walter Benjamin’s “Art in the Age of Mechanical Production”, “I am all too aware of the weakness of the work. And this consists, to put it crudely, in the tendency to engage in Jeremiads and polemics” (Quoted in Richard Leppert, ed., Theodor Adorno: Selected With Introduction, Commentary, and Notes, p.249n78), a charge I find all the more fascinating and lacking in ironic self-awareness considering Adorno’s tendency toward the exaggerated statement for elucidating a far more mundane point (something Lepper, the editor of the above volume of Adorno’s writings on music, notes early and often as part of Adorno’s “style”). Indeed, “Art In The Age Of Mechanical Production” may well be one of the most positive statements regarding the revolutionary potential of popular art (film in this case) from a leftist perspective written in the 20th century.

Just as Lukacs became contemptuous of the kind of too-comfortable armchair dialectics of Adorno and his circle, Adorno’s rejection of Benjamin precisely because he was “undialectic” (quoted in Arendt, p.162) and spoke scathingly of Benjamin’s “attempt to capture the portrait of history in the most insignificant representations of reality, its scraps, as it were.” (Arendt, p.163), sprung both from a fairly meritorious critical eye which nevertheless missed the deeper heart of the one being criticized. While it may well have been the case that Adorno’s life was just a tad too comfortable for one claiming a mantle as a revolutionary, so, too, were Benjamin’s works, in Arendt’s words, the strangest kind of Marxism. For Benjamin, however, his dedication to the revolutionary cause, while certainly a vital part of the intellectual toolkit he brought to every task – he came very close to joining the party in the mid-1920’s – was nevertheless uncomfortable enough with Marxist dialectics and a materialism stripped of its spiritual dimension that even to call him a Marxist (Lukacs mentions Benjamin as among his circle of “comrades” for which he grew contemptuous) is a fundamental misunderstanding of the man and his work.

Born in 1892, coming of age just prior to World War I, seeing little in Weimar Germany to recommend itself either to himself as critic or to others as a writer, finally trapped within the maelstrom of history in western Europe in the 1930’s, Benjamin took his own life after, having already made an arduous trek through southwestern France, precious papers in hand to allow him passage, he arrived at the Spanish border the day Spain closed its doors (albeit temporarily; no one, of course, could have known this at the time) to refugees from unoccupied France. His decision to end his own life, while certainly tragic (Berthold Brecht wrote that Benjamin’s death was the first real victory for the Nazi’s against German literature), was, given the circumstances, easily understandable. Not well known in his own time, his closest friends and supporters long since gone to the United States, and his physical, emotional, financial, and probably psychological resources spent, how is one person suppose to stand against the juggernaut of that moment in European history?

All the same, I think Arendt’s inclusion of Benjamin in a volume dedicated to extraordinary people living through extraordinary times (essay subjects include Lessing, Pope John XXIII, Brecht, and Karl Jaspers along with Benjamin and a couple others) is more than a little misleading. Benjamin was, alas, no more a product and commentator upon his times than he was a “simple” literary critic or historian or theologian. Indeed, paying attention to Arendt’s descriptions of Benjamin’s work, the themes she emphasizes, and the examples she cites, it becomes clear that Walter Benjamin was far more a man of the 19th century, particularly 19th century Paris with its rich bohemian subculture, than of the 20th. He was well educated yet could not bear the thought of academe. Like many children of that first generation of German Jews to succeed at assimilation, Benjamin neither considered himself “Jewish” nor did he wish so to be perceived, yet he ran up against official and cultural and social anti-Semitism throughout his life, policies that restricted what he as an unbaptized yet also unpracticing Jew could achieve. Despite this, throughout his adult life, he flirted (at the very least) with Zionism, having made friends with Gerhard Scholem before the First World War broke out. He was constantly writing Scholem that he was considering emigration to Jerusalem, yet he could never quite make the leap precisely because it involved labeling both his person and his work indelibly as “Jewish”, something he didn’t care to do.

Like the description Arendt gives in the epigrammatic quote concerning Benjamin’s literary interests and output, Benjamin was also jealous of his own prerogative concerning the kind of man, the individual, he wished to be. Arendt uses a the French word flâneur as what best suits Benjamin. It is no surprise that part of his never-completed Arcades project saw light under the title “Die flâneur”. The flâneur were a type, not quite a class and certainly not a “community” as we would understand it, who had a certain presence in 19th century Paris. Often derided as bums, they were children of wealthy bourgeois homes who, having no responsibilities to themselves or others, would wander through the streets and arcades and boulevards of Paris, taking in what there was to see and hear, experiencing what there was to experience, without any particular rhyme or reason. Obviously there is something more than a little decadent (both in literal and political uses of the word) about such living. At the same time, there’s an attractiveness to the kind of freedom – freedom from financial worry; freedom from interpersonal responsibility; freedom from the any sense of a purpose or end to such activities – that still appeals. They were, in a word, bohemians, although perhaps without the aesthetic self-consciousness of some such.

Benjamin was comfortable in academic work (his Habilitationschrift was a study of German Baroque Tragedy), with the popular essay (“Unpacking My Library”), critical appreciation (essays on Brecht and Kafka), and even venturing a typically Marxist style and subject matter (“Theses On History”). He both desired the approval of academics, yet because of the demand that he be baptized before he could serve on a University faculty (that would have required him acknowledging his Jewishness as definitive, something he never wanted to do), was never really desirous of such a position. He could play with a variety of vocabularies – Marxist, theological, aesthetic, poetic – without either losing his distinctive voice; he could use these styles without ever becoming so immersed in them he lost his particularity. That particularly after the First World War Benjamin always kept his options open both with Zionism and Communism (two ideologies that vocally detested one another), he never concerned himself even with having to make a choice. He faced the criticisms of friends (Adorno) and mentors (Scholem) with a kind of equanimity borne, I think, from a kind of self-awareness that allowed him to know they just didn’t get him.

What to many might seem the inconsequential, perhaps even dilettante, concerns – his bibliomania, for one; an incident, highlighted by Arendt, of Benjamin becoming enthralled by two grains of wheat upon which a prayerful soul had inscribed the entire Shema Israel – and see in them an importance that others, far more concerned with the scope and sweep of History, not only wouldn’t see, but couldn’t see. This, too, is a kind of aestheticism, a very 19th century attitude toward life and the world that was very much out of place in a world riven first by tragedy in Benjamin’s early adulthood, soon to be destroyed completely. Most intellectuals considered the First World War, with its destruction of a species of European cosmopolitanism, a “turning point” in the most literal way: historical reality had invalidated the best hopes of the previous century and there was, thus, no going back. Yet it was Benjamin who wrote in his “Theses on History” that history was an Angel, her eyes turned toward the wreckage of the past, always being pulled backwards with the present moment. For Benjamin, that wreckage was both very real yet also still held the truth of what had constituted it in the very piles of dust and brick and bone and blood. Far happier in Paris than he ever had been in his native Berlin, far more attracted to the minutiae of life than to the grand sweep of History, quite happy to write quasi-Marxist cultural criticism or an appreciation of Brecht’s early works, Benjamin was far more a creature of an irretrievable past than he was the historical moments through which he lived.

We usually consider people to be products primarily of the social, political, economic, and cultural conditions within which they live. Benjamin, however, while never rejecting his own times, was nevertheless a half-conscious throwback. His “No” to his times – exemplified in his adoption of a Marxist vocabulary while never fully embracing either Marxism or the Communist Party – was as much a desire to reclaim a better past as it was a hope in a future no longer touched by the desolation of his own particular times.

There is something tragically heroic in such a stance, one which understands one’s own time only as a negation both of what has been and what will be. As long as life promises possibilities, it is easy enough to face adversity and continue to struggle on. Facing the full wrath of Historical forces beyond anyone’s ability either to withstand or even comprehend, however, that ghostly past and evanescent future can be crushed along with everything else. Thus was Benjamin’s end, death by his own hand, comprehensible. The gigantic machinery of mass death was pushing hard upon him, resisted by the equally strong forces of those who, acting out of fear, became its unwitting agents, would leave few of us the wherewithal to carry on. If the First World War had destroyed the 19th century, it is not hard to imagine one such as Walter Benjamin, believing the Gestapo was close on his heels and his only escape route now closed, to understand this new war, waged by demonic forces of anti-culture and anti-humanity, might well destroy not only the 20th, but perhaps the 21st as well.

It has been the work of many to resurrect Benjamin’s life and work, reconstitute his correspondence, and try  best to explain this one individual, lost in his own time, to those who have come after who, perhaps, feel more than a little affinity for one who just wasn’t completely at home in his own times. His subject matter might seem to be inconsequential. His style might seem eclectic, even precious on occasion. His scope of interests  are not quite as clear if we consider only what was published in his lifetime. All the same, this incomplete life (Benjamin was three years younger than I am now when he died) and his incomplete work together demonstrate that even fragments can be meaningful.

After all, someone once wrote the Shema Israel on two grains of wheat. In the scraps of life we might yet find the whole of history, if we are willing to look with enough care.

Richard Rorty, “Texts And Lumps”

The pragmatist concludes that the intuition that truth is correspondence should be extirpated rather than explicated. On this view, the notion of reality as having a “nature” to which it is our duty to correspond s simply one more variant of the notion that the gods can be placated by chanting the right words. The notion that some one among the languages mankind has used to deal with the universe is the one the universe prefers – the one which cuts things at the joints – was a pretty conceit. But by now it has become too shopworn to serve any purpose. – Richard Rorty, “Texts and Lumps,” in Objectivity, Relativism, and Truth: Philosophical Papers, Vol. 1, p. 80

The late philosopher Richard Rorty in the early 1990's.

The late philosopher Richard Rorty in the early 1990’s.

This is less a “review” of the article in question than it is an appreciation for a piece of writing that changed the way I think about all sorts of things. Among a handful of texts that are now a deep part of how I view the world – the opening pages of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Ethics; the short novel Waiting for the Galactic BusStephen Jay Gould’s Wonderful Life – I encountered Rorty’s essay at precisely the right moment in my life. Oddly enough, it was because I didn’t have much of a background understanding either of philosophical vocabulary in general, or the particular issues with which Rorty engages in this essay that I found something revolutionary here.

First, a brief sketch of the essay is in order. After an introduction in which he signals his major intention or erasing the assumed boundaries between the general disciplines of the natural sciences and the humanities, Rorty sketches a brief understanding of pragmatist theory regarding words such as “truth” and “objectivity”. In the course of the opening few pages, however, Rorty offers a reading of the late Thomas Kuhn’s philosophy of science that I have since come to understand doesn’t exactly portray Kuhn’s thought so much as Rorty’s reading of Kuhn in the light of his understandings of William James and John Dewey. This, however, is less a weakness in Rorty’s larger presentation than it is a demonstration of one of the main themes of the essay: that rather than think of particular interpretations as “good” or “bad”, it is far more useful to consider interpretations as serving particular functions within a larger story one wishes to tell. To that end, Rorty’s reading of Kuhn, being not completely wrong, serves the purposes to which Rorty wishes to put it.

The bulk of the essay is a friendly discussion with E. D. Hirsch over what Hirsch insists are the clear distinctions of “meaning” and “significance”. As Rorty writes on p. 84:

. . . I think [Hirsch’s] distinction between “meaning” and “significance” is misleading in certain respects. My holistic strategy, characteristic of pragmatism (and in particular of Dewey), is to reinterpret every such dualism as a momentarily convenient blocking-out of regions along a spectrum, rather than as recognition of an ontological, or methodological, or epistemological divide.

Rorty goes on to develop this reinterpretation, using Stanley Fish’s notion of “interpretive communities” to tell a story of people looking at two unknowns, one a previously unencountered text, the other an unknown lump. What distinguishes how we come to understand what is in front of us isn’t something that inheres in either the text or the lump. Rather it is our choice of a particular set of tools for undertaking the task of understanding what it is we are encountering. One of those sets of tools might be called “chemistry”. Another might be “anthropology”. Perhaps “literary criticism” works well. It may well be the case that we choose “chemistry” to understand something we encounter because we are (a) chemists; or (b) we hold the belief that chemistry is the best method for such understanding. This no more privileges “chemistry” as a way of understanding than does the belief that “literary criticism” is not fit for our encounters with unknown lumps mean that literary criticism isn’t a source of human understanding. Encountering a text and insisting that “chemistry” is the best tool for understanding it isn’t being wrong; it’s picking up a welders mask and torch to do carpentry. Nothing more, nothing less.

Rorty’s larger philosophical project is to reinterpret the philosophical project in light of certain realities we understand to describe what it is to be human. First, we understand ourselves as radically contingent creatures both in terms of our restricted lifespan as well as in evolutionary terms. There is no reason for our existence, evolutionarily speaking. Yet precisely because Homo sapiens sapiens is a successful evolutionary species (so far) we have particular endowments that make us both survive in the competition for food and resources and thrive by continuing to reproduce. That some of these endowments include a particular set of tools we have come to call “knowledge” or “understanding” or “language” does not make any of these more interesting than, say, our upright posture and gait or our opposable thumbs. That some human beings wish that it were so and have constructed elaborate stories about why this is so does not make it so. Doing Rortian pragmatism, whether anti-epistemology or ethics, is nothing more or less than trying to find a place for philosophy in the wake of the radical understanding of ourselves as contingent creatures.

This same sense of radical contingency is present in late medieval nominalism, particularly its Ochkamist variety. Emphasizing the absolute supremacy and freedom of the Godhead, Ockham stripped the realist philosophy and theology of the High Middle Ages of its most powerful tool: It’s insistence that things that exist do so either because they reflect something Real (Plato) or because they participate in some Realness that connects like objects to like (Aristotle). Ockham would argue this is not only putting the cart before the horse; it’s assuming there are things calls “carts” and “horses” about which we can know anything prior to encountering particular instances of them (thus the term “nominalism” – it is in our naming of things they become real, rather than being real and the name being something that exists prior to our acceptance or even encounter). Because there could be nothing restricting or binding or otherwise creating necessity in the actions of the Divine, how is it possible that there might be “cartness” prior to the actual existence of the variety of things for which the word “cart” more or less fits well? Rorty is little more than a nominalist in a leisure suit.

In any event this Divine freedom precisely highlights the kind of God we Christians claim to encounter in the Incarnation: A God of love, of infinite patience and grace, the God of Election who in Jesus Christ pays the price necessary for reestablishing the creature’s relationship with the creator. Belief, then, isn’t a question of “truth” (“truth” for Christians is the person and work of Jesus Christ) or the proclamation of something eternal. On the contrary, belief is the possibility offered to we radically contingent, finite, limited, and sinful creatures. Whether it is in our proclamation, our confession, or our discipleship, we must face the reality of all our limitations as creatures.

The doors and possibilities this particular philosophical essay opened for me is difficult to describe now after so many years. When I first read this particular essay – certainly not understanding all of the references even as I understood the overarching concern – it was as if words were being given to me to say what it is I thought about the world, about our human place in it, and even about our faith as Christians. Over the decades, I have certainly become far more critical of particular parts of Rorty’s philosophical project; at heart, however, this particular essay opened up the possibility of speaking and living with a particular kind of integrity, best expressed in Karl Barth’s dictum that while we should never claim to know the truth, we should always live as if we did know the truth.

Gaston Bachelard The Poetics Of Space

The Poetics of Space is one of the most inspiring books I have ever read. It is to be taken slowly – the author’s primary idea is that people crave spaces that inspire them to daydream. The style of the book is one that inspires daydreams itself; you will suddenly find that you have placed the book in your lap and you were off daydreaming! Poetics of Space is a methodical, carefully argued book which tells us that we read spaces like we read a book. There is a distinct psychology to each type of space – attics, cellars, the forest, and nests are just some of the spaces examined. The author was chair of the Philosophy department at the Sorbonne. For most of his life, he examined the philosophy of science, but in his later years he turned to artistic reverie as his main subject. The book is written with thought, love, and passion and is a tour-de-force. Highly recommended to those who enjoy poetry, philosophy, architecture or art. – Matthew Belge, Amazon.com review of The Poetics Of Space

I'm sure I had this expression on my face after reading the first 15 or so pages of Bachelard's book, having prepared myself by reading the above review before purchasing.

I’m sure I had this expression on my face after reading the first 15 or so pages of Bachelard’s book, having prepared myself by reading the above review before purchasing.

I’ve been trying to decide  if I should offer a long apologia for my review or not.

My review: Facile, purple-prosed gobbledygook. (I was going to use the word twaddle, but discovered another Amazon reviewer had stolen it)

So I guess I’m just going to leave this here.

Ernst Bloch On The Appeal Of Donald Trump

Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch. What is it with mid-century German philosophers and theologians and their pipes?

Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch. What is it with mid-century German philosophers and theologians and their pipes?

So I’ve decided to try once again wading through Ernst Bloch’s massive, 3-volume The Principle of Hope. It’s been a couple decades since I read it all the way through, contenting myself with re-reading a chapter here, a section there. It was gratifying to find, very early on, a marvelous description of how it is possible someone like Donald Trump seems to appeal to so many. At least, appeal to many who are vocal in their appreciation of his atavistic call to be “great again”. The following is from pages 30 and 31, a single section/paragraph entitled “Night of the Long Knives”:

Not so far from here are the various dreams that are fond of getting their own back. They are particularly delicious, revenge is sweet when merely imagined, but also shabby. Most men are too cowardly to do evil, too weak to do good; the evil that they cannot, or cannot yet do, they enjoy in advance in the dream of revenge. The petit bourgeoisie in particular has traditionally been fond of the fist clenched in the pocket; this fist characteristically thumps the wrong man, since it prefers to lash out in the direction of least resistance. Hitler rose out of the Night of the Long Knives, he was called by the masters out of the dream of this night when he became useful to them. The Nazi dream of revenge is also subjectively bottled up, not rebellious; it is blind, not revolutionary rage. As for the so-called iron broom, the hatred of the immoral life of the hooknoses and those at the top, middle-class virtue, as always in such cases was here merely betraying its dearest dream. Just as, with its revenge, it does not hate exploitation but only the fact that it is not itself an exploiter, so virtue does not hate the slothful bed of the rich, but only the act that it has not become its own and its alone. This is what the headlines have always aimed at in those papers which to love to see red, the gutter-press. ‘The truth, latest news: Broiler at Wertheim’s store – The harem in the Tiergarten villa, sensational revelation.’ But they are only revelations concerning the outrage of the bourgeois conformist himself, both regarding Wertheim raking in the shekels and regarding Jewish lechery. Hence the immediate impulse to set oneself up in place of the eliminated Wertheim, after an act of retribution which, in the supposedly detested fraud, merely replaces the subject which is practising it. The malicious and brutal aspect of this, the repulsiveness of this kind of wish, as pervasive as the smell of urine, has always characterized the mo. This mob can be bought, is absurdly dangerous, and consequently it can be blinded and used by those who have the means and who have a real vested interest in the fascist pogroms. The instigator, the essence of the Nights of the Knives was, of course, big business, but the raving petit bourgeois was the astonishing, the horribly seducible manifestation of this essence. From it emerged the terror, which is the poison in the ‘average man on the street’, as the petit bourgeois is now called in American, a poison which has nowhere near been fully excreted. His wishes for revenge are rotten and blind; God help us, when they are stirred up. Fortunately though, the mob is equally faithless; it is also quite happy to put its clenched fist back into its pocket when crime is no longer allowed a free night on the town by those at the top.

For clarity’s sake, the seemingly anti-Semitic references are meant as parodies against the slanders of the fascists who used the alleged vileness of the Jews as a pretext for unleashing the violence of the mob. Indeed, change the ethnic character of the one slandered by fascists from the Jewish people to Muslims and it’s almost uncanny.

Which only proves the explanatory power of Marxism . . .

The Stakes

Why did I request that UM Insight stop republishing my work? I did this because I think much of what is published on UM Insight is unhelpful to anything like meaningful conversation, and I don’t want to contribute to a site that I disagree with so strongly in its basic philosophy of discourse. I simply got tired of ad hominem attack. I got tired of character assassination. I became weary of insult, the attribution of false motives, and bad argumentation. – Rev. Dr. David Watson, “Disengaging?”, Musings And Whatnot, September 21, 2015


Contrary to what you tell yourself, you do not do that great of a job making dissenting views feel welcome. As “advocacy” (forget about the journalism), you aren’t under any obligation to give “equal time.” But, don’t pretend that you want the free exchange of ideas when you want to be an advocate for your perspective. Those are two different things. But, all too often, people want to consider themselves “tolerant” when they only tolerate those who already agree with them. – Creed Pogue, comment on “Disengaging From The Conversation”, United Methodist Insight, September 22, 2015


McIntyre would deny the efficacy of Steve’s faith, demonstrated in his life and work already accomplished in and for Cornerstone, the United Methodist Church, and the Church Universal. McIntyre would do all this for one simple reason – because Steve happens to be gay. For this reason, he cannot fully participate in the life and work of the church, he cannot have his relationships blessed by United Methodist clergy, and he could not, if he felt called, serve openly as a United Methodist clergyperson. McIntyre thinks this is OK. – My words quoted by Joel Watts as evidence of my having skirted “close to libel”, “An Open Response To UMInsight”, Unsettled Christianity, September 21, 2015

The flame of the Holy Spirit surrounds the cross of the risen Christ. This symbol and all it represents hangs in the balance.

The flame of the Holy Spirit surrounds the cross of the risen Christ. This symbol and all it represents hangs in the balance.

So yesterday I offered some thoughts on what constitutes an ad hominem attack, and why I think it is used just a bit too easily and frequently to bring people to stop talking to one another. Today, I want to take a few steps back and talk about the larger context in which all these conversations occur. It is impossible really to understand why things are so heated, why tempers are so on edge, and why there’s all this back and forth about how best to argue with one another.

Since 1972, the Social Principles of the United Methodist Book of Disipline has stated the following: “The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” Over the ensuing four decades, the full meaning of this sentence has come to include not only denying sexual minorities a place in the clergy; it has also included denying church membership; it has come to include driving youth from the church and even being a factor in their suicides; it has come to include denying pastoral services, namely weddings, to faithful couples; it has come to include removing a faithful lay member of the church. Unable to state clearly that we agree to disagree about the meaning and implications of this sentence, congregations are withholding Apportionments and some congregations are trying to leave the denomination. Until next spring’s General Conference, we take out our frustrations and anger at one another in ways that hurt our churches, our clergy, and how the world sees us.

This is a very long, emotional, deeply theological, and – yes – very personal dispute, one that has hurt many while not at all contributing to our mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. As I wrote elsewhere, we are once again – as we did in the years leading up to the Civil War – mimicking our dysfunctional secular politics, which is leaving us increasingly unable even to talk to one another. Warring sides and factions, unaffiliated groups claiming to speak for one “side” or another, and a burgeoning movement to create alternative structures in case real schism occurs only make matters worse.

Our online arguments and discussions are riven by these same factors no less than our larger gatherings. People feel passionately about this matter. They feel that adherence to our legal standards is a necessary part of keeping covenant with one another; others believe their pastoral duty, having been ordained to Word, sacrament, and order, makes their need to break the law of our church and face the consequences of their actions paramount. Some insist that those who do so should face the full force of church law – an ecclesiastical trial; others think the time for trials are over and any such actions be suspended until after 2016.

So this larger setting – decades of disagreement leading to the rise of unaffiliated groups within the denomination claiming loyalties of one part of our membership or another; people willing to risk their clerical orders to fulfill their ordination while other seeing only deliberate disobedience without consequence; people being hurt, removed from the pulpit, church membership, and even sexual minority youth being dehumanized by paid church staff – is that in which our discussions take place.

I think all folks would agree that what is at stake is nothing more or less than the continued existence of the United Methodist Church. Those are pretty high stakes. Furthermore, the reality that real people are being really hurt – to the point of depression and taking their own life – should at the very least give all pause as we try to be faithful as we are led by the Holy Spirit. I have always maintained that our lives as churches involve quite literally matters of life and death. That being the case, I also maintain that questions of how we talk to one another should matter far less than that we talk with one another, always remembering the discussions and arguments are not about us. Not really. I mean, should the United Methodist Church split, it will be an inconvenience to me. It would certainly impact our family life, leaving my wife’s future up in the air. It would also break my heart that we couldn’t put our mission and ministry ahead of all other considerations. The United Methodist Church does so much work, helping people around the world to live, to learn to be faithful, and even thrive – sometimes in places where even survival can seem an accomplishment.

Precisely for these reasons, I am no respecter of persons. It doesn’t matter that much to me if someone thinks arguments are “poor” or people’s character is assassinated. If someone gets their feelings hurt because of something I or others write, what is that to me? This isn’t about them. Or me. Or how best to conduct civil, intellectual discourse. It’s about the life and death of our Church; it’s about the life and death of people around the world; it’s about the life and death of people right here in the good old USA who hear us telling them their lives are incompatible with Christian teaching. Someone thinking that arguments are just too heated, just not intellectually sound enough, not “fair” enough to “all sides” . . . what is that when people live and die because of the decisions all of us in the United Methodist Church make?

I have lamented more than once not that people aren’t nice; rather, I’ve lamented the lack of adults in our conversations. Adults don’t let personal slights or hurt feelings interfere with what needs to be done. Adults recognize the full context and setting within which we live and move and speak and write and act, set their egos aside, and get busy for the good of the whole. That’s what this is about, after all. It isn’t about whether someone thinks something I wrote is potentially “libelous” or whether another person thinks arbitrary rules of civility should dictate how we carry on our discussions. It’s about the life and death of our church and people to whom we minister.

In all honesty, if people get their feathers ruffled or their feelings hurt and refuse to engage others, that’s a sign to me they prize their person and position and whatever abstract rules of discourse and argument to which they might adhere over the life and health of the church. Children pick up their toys and walk away when others don’t play by their rules. This, however, is no game. We should all suck it up, accept that we aren’t the center of this particular universe, and keep our minds and hearts where they belong.

The stakes are high. It might be nice if people acted like it.

Isaiah Berlin, “The Decline Of Utopian Ideas In The West”

Beginning as a literary historian and essayist, [Herder] maintained that values were not universal; every human society, every people, indeed every age and civilization, possesses its own unique ideals, standards, way of living and thought and action. There are no immutable, universal, eternal rules or criteria of judgement in terms of which different cultures and nations can be graded in some single order of excellence, which would place the French – if Voltaire was right – at the top of the ladder of human achievement and the Germans far below them in the twilight regions of religious obscurantism and within the narrow limits of provincialism and dim-witted rural existence. Ever society, every age, has its own cultural horizons. every nation has its own traditions, its own character, its own face. every nation has its own centre of moral gravity, which differs from that of every other: there and only there its happiness lies – in the development of its own national needs, its own unique character. – Isaiah Berlin, “The Decline Of Utopian Ideas In The West”, in Crooked Timber Of Humanity, p. 37


Thomas More's Utopia, a vision of the perfect society, which many found truly boring.

Thomas More’s Utopia, a vision of the perfect society, which many found truly boring.

One of the most creative and interesting, if relatively obscure, twentieth century Marxist thinkers is Ernst Bloch. While best known, at least in theological circles, for his massive The Principle Of Hope, his first major work was entitled The Spirit Of Utopia. Rather than denying the utopian roots of Marxist thought, Bloch embraced it, tracing lines from literary and philosophical utopias through Marxist thought to the promise these ideas held for declining bourgeois society. The Principle Of Hope is little more than an expansive extrapolation of this idea, offering the interesting idea that even our dreams, day and night variety, hold the key to revolutionary thought and praxis; that human culture has always been about expressing this desire for a human society both free and just. It would take a lifetime to delve through the depths and nuances of Bloch’s thought and writings, but he can certainly lay claim to being the foremost proponent of a kind of Utopian Communism despite Marx’s (and later Lenin’s) dismissal of such as unscientific.

Isaiah Berlin, on the other hand, wants us to take a look at Utopias through a slightly different set of lenses. Berlin highlights utopias from Plato’s Republic through those of the Renaissance, up to and including the systematic philosophical presentations of thinkers like Hegel and Marx. At the heart of all these notions sits three propositions:

The first proposition is this: to all genuine questions there can only be one correct answer, all the other answers being incorrect. . . .

The second assumption is that a method exists for the discovery of these correct answers. Whether any[one] knows or can, in fact, know it, is another question; but it must, at least in principle, be knowable, provided that the right procedure for establishing it is used.

The third assumption, and perhaps the most important in this context, is that all the correct answers must, at the very least, be compatible with one another.(p.24)

From these seemingly self-evident logical truths spring centuries of western speculation about what a truly just society would look like. With the success of a revised scientific method in the 17th century, it became clear, particularly to the French philosophes that such techniques should be applied to human social life. Once human nature was scientifically understood, constructing the perfect human society would the, in principle, be achievable. For Berlin, however, the idea of an achievable utopia rests upon one more sinister, and logically inescapable, truth:

[T]he doctrine common to all [Utopian] views and movements is the notion that there exist universal truths, true for all [people], everywhere, at all times, and that these truths are expressed in universal rules, that natural law of the stoics and the medieval church and the jurists of the Renaissance, defiance of which alone leads to vice, misery, and chaos.{p.30)

If, in the words of our won Declaration of Independence, there exist “self-evident truths”, their rejection or denial is more than simple error. Something sinister is afoot, a desire for power for its own sake rather than the good of all persons. Equating truth with virtue, the denial of universal truths is the denial of universal human good. Rooted not in faulty reason but a vicious desire for the oppression of others, difference becomes error becomes a moral and legal threat to the very existence of the commonwealth, rooted as it is in universal, timeless, truths that extend to human nature. Such persons need more than simple correction: they need to be removed from society, by force if they do not accept the truths they deny.

Berlin continues:

[I]f the doctrine of the French Enlightenment – and indeed, the central western assumption, of which I have spoken, that all true values are immutable and timeless and universal – needs revising so drastically, then there is something radically wrong with the idea of a perfect society. The basic reason for this is not to be found among those which usually advanced against Utopian ideas – that such a society cannot be attained because [people] are not wise or skillful or virtuous enough, or cannot acquire the requisite degree of knowledge, or resolution, or, tainted as they are with original sin, cannot attain perfection in this life – but is altogether different. The idea of a single, perfect society of all [humanity] must be internally self-contradictory, because the Vlahalla of the Germans is necessarilyy different from the ideal of future life of the French . . . But if we are to have as many types of perfection as there are types of culture, each with its ideal constellation of virtues, then the very notion of the possibility of a single perfect society is logically incoherent.(p.40)

In these early decades of the 21st century, we continue to be assaulted – in ever expanding ways – with these conflicts, even within what are considered comfortably liberal, pluralistic societies in the west: Utopias of various religious, racial, ethnic, and nationalist stripes on the one hand, while the far more tentative, certainly less heroic vision of liberal pluralism insists that our human survival rests in no small part on accepting difference as just that, rather than error.

[I]f one believe [Utopian] doctrine to be an illusion, if only because some ultimate values may be incompatible with one another, and the very notion of an ideal world in which they are reconciled to be a conceptual . . . impracticability, then, perhaps, the best that on can do is to try to promote some kind of equilibrium, necessarily unstable, between the different aspirations of differing groups of human beings . . . But this is not, prima facie, a wildly exciting programme: a liberal sermon which recommends machinery designed to prevent people from doing each other too much harm, giving each human group sufficient room to realise its own idiosyncratic, unique, particular ends without too much interference with the ends of others, is not a passionate battle-cry to inspire [people] to sacrifice and martyrdom and heroic feats. (p.47)

If this essay sounds remarkably like the first, there’s good reason. The essays in this volume center on these ideas: the age-old search for a human polis without a source of social tension and conflict usually results in terrorist regimes from the ethnic cleansers through Stalinist terror to the nightmares of Kampuchea. While certainly less exciting, the promotion of the liberal virtues of pluralism (distinct from relativism), diversity, trading off social security for the greater social good of allowing others to live as they choose at least has the virtue of rarely resulting in masses of human beings being murdered. With Christian, Muslim, and Hindu fundamentalism morphing to Christian, Muslim, and Hindu terrorism against their religious foes; with even “moderate” Christian denominations like my own United Methodist continuing to hear demands for doctrinal orthodoxy as the final determinant of who can and cannot be called a Christian; with the shrill voices of American exceptionalism silencing the quiet mention that other folks like their own countries just fine and don’t need us sticking our overlarge, overarmed noses in to their lives; with all this, liberal pluralism might not be the call to arms some believe we need. It is, however, a good way to keep people and societies and countries alive and intact and relatively stable.

Social conflict and change, of course, will always exist. The means through which it is managed, however, need not be violent. Recognizing the full humanity and legitimacy of others different from ourselves is the beginning of the possibility of human survival.

Isaiah Berlin, “The Pursuit Of The Ideal”

Herder’s view, and Vico’s . . . is what I should describe as pluralism – that is, the conception that there are many different ends that [people] may seek and still be fully rational, fully [human], capable of understanding each other and sympathising and deriving light from each other, as we derive it from reading Plato or the novels of medieval Japan – worlds, outlooks, very remote from our own. Of course, if we did not have any values in common with these distant figures, each civilization would be enclosed in its own impenetrable bubble, and would not understand them at all. . . . Intercommunication between cultures in time and space is only possible because what makes[us] human is common to them, and acts as a bridge between them. But our values are ours, and their are theirs. We are free to criticise the values of other cultures, to condemn them, but we cannot pretend not to understand them at all, or to regard them simply as subjective, the products f creatures in different circumstances with different tastes from our own, which do not speak to us at all. – Isaiah Berlin, “The Pursuit Of The Idea”, in The Crooked Timber Of Humanity, p.11


Sir Isaiah Berlin

Sir Isaiah Berlin

Seminary is a place for interesting conversations. Working in the campus bookstore as I did, I was part of some truly memorable ones, not least when a faculty member would come down and decide to chat. One who did this pretty regularly was the late Rev. Dr. James Logan. For a reason lost in the mists of time, he thought it would be a good idea to come down and engage any comers in a discussion of inter-religious dialogue. I sat and listened for a while. I made a single contribution, after listening to someone talk about the necessity of proselytizing in the midst of such a  dialogue. Dr. Logan wondered aloud if such would even be possible, say, with a group of Buddhists, whose view of the world is so strikingly different from the Christian. I piped up from my corner, saying, “I can just hear that exchange. The Christians would say, ‘We understand your position, but you need to understand ours.’ The Buddhists would all say, ‘Really? You understand us? We don’t, so please tell us!'” The notion of trying to convert others who hold their religious faith both with strength and sincerity is insulting. Far better, it seemed to me then (and now), to just chat about what it is we believe, how we live out those beliefs, share our very different struggles, laugh at our very different failures, celebrate our very different successes, and so on.

It wasn’t long after this particular exchange that I ran across the book The Crooked Timber Of Humanity. I had heard of Isaiah Berlin, reading something from him while an undergraduate studying political philosophy. The book was on our shelves, I think a special order that someone never picked up. The spring I was married I thought it might be an interesting summer read. I had no idea that – yet again – I would be reading something that would (a) put in to words that made sense things I had been thinking for quite a long time; (b) expand my understanding of what was and is possible and impossible in the realm of human social and political life; and (c) offer a vision of life in which the multiplicity of human ways of life need not be reconcilable, but rather negotiable.

The first essay, “The Pursuit Of The Ideal”, is a general introduction to themes readers would encounter throughout the volume: a general presentation of two distinct ways of understanding human social and political life; the working out of general ideas both of Vico and Herder, very different thinkers who at least shared the idea that particular societies generated their particular ways of life that are unique to them, unrepeatable in theory and practice (Vico was writing in particular to Italians who yearned for a return of the Roman Republic), and the recognition that incompatible values and ways of life does not necessitate violence. As Berlin notes in this very first essay, even individual persons have incompatible ends in their lives, always demanding this or that means that lead away from one and toward the other. The issue isn’t the reduction of the multiplicity of human ends to a single set of ends. Rather, the social and political challenge is learning to live with such incompatibilities, not only across societies but within them.

Herder went further [than Vico] and compared national cultures in many lands and periods, and held that every society had what he called its own centre of gravity, which differed from that of others. If, as he wished, we are to understand Scandinavian sagas or the poetry of the Bible, we must not apply to them the aesthetic criteria of the critics of eighteenth -century Paris. The ways in which [people] live, think, feel, speak to one another, the clothes they wear, the songs they sing, the gods they worship, the food they eat, the assumptions, customs, habits which are intrinsic to them – it is this that creates communitieis, each of which has its onw ‘life-style’. Communties may resemble each other in many respects, but the Greeks differ from Lutheran Germans, the Chinese differ from both; what they strive after and what they dear or worship are scarcely ever similar. (p.10)

The trick, of course, is not just recognizing this. It is recognizing this and assenting to this reality without any feelings of threat from these differences. Our way of life as Americans is not at all threatened by the hundreds of distinct sub- and micro-cultures within it. On the contrary, to be American is to be in the midst of so much difference and celebrating it rather than subsuming it. This position is challenged by many in the United States and always has been. That I can understand those who disagree with me, all the while refusing to accept what they say as a way forward for us as a country is precisely what Berlin is writing about.

As this is a general introduction, I’ll just leave this here for the moment. I do wish to quote Berlin, however, toward the end of the essay:

Of course social or political collisions will take place; the mere conflict of positive values alone makes this unavoidable. Yet they can, I believe, be minimised by promoting and preserving an uneasy equilibrium, which is constantly threatened and in constant need of repair – that alone, I repeat, is the precondition for decent societies and morally acceptable behaviour, otherwise we are bound to lose our way. A little dull as a solution, you will say? Not the stuff of which calls to heroic action by inspired leaders are made? Yet if there is some truth to this view, perhaps that is sufficient.(p.19)

At a point in our history when our politics has become flooded with demands for principled action, refusals to compromise, and the emptying of any usable vocabulary for social compatibility, there is indeed something both noble and heroic about a point of view that insists the only way to continue to live and thrive as a society and polis is removing principles from our politics, embracing compromise as the way human beings live with one another, and – perhaps – get us going again as a nation.