Minimalism and the danger of replacing one idol with another

Robyn and I watched Minimalism: A Documentary About Important Things on Netflix last night. And now I want to throw out all my stuff.

The doco follows the two guys behind The MinimalistsJoshua Fields Millburn & Ryan Nicodemus, on a speaking tour around the United States, interspersed with little interviews and vignettes with people who’ve adopted the minimalist philosophy including popular atheist philosopher/neuroscientist Sam Harris to Project 333 founder Courtney Carver, to a few Tiny House dwellers, to Colin Wright who lives his life from two bags while travelling the world, with plenty of other people thrown in the mix. It makes the compelling case that we need less stuff; that we should disengage from the modern default of pursuing happiness through consumption, because, in the words of Fight Club’s narrator; the things we own, end up owning us. It challenged me to think about my consumer habits as a Christian, and where they might reveal what I treasure, it gave me some fun ideas, but it also left me wanting more in terms of a solution to the problem it recognises in modern western life.

“We spend so much time on the hunt. But nothing ever quite does it for us. And we get so wrapped up in the hunt that it kind of makes us miserable.” — Minimalism: A Documentary About Important Things

It’s a bracing reminder of what our consumption does to us, to our brains, and to our world and of the perennial dissatisfaction that comes from life lived vicariously through our possessions.

“You have this thing that you were obsessed about, but then the new version comes out and now you no longer care about the one that you have. In fact, the one you have is a source of dissatisfaction.” — Sam Harris, in Minimalism: A Documentary About Important Things

The diagnosis of what is wrong with a consumption based approach to modern life is spot on. My favourite quote of all in the documentary, from a speech by former U.S President Jimmy Carter titled Crisis of Confidence, explains a little of my uneasy relationship with Minimalism (even as I plot a widescale decluttering of my life, and a continued changing of my consumption habits).

In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities, and our faith in God, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns. But we’ve discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. We’ve learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.

Carter’s diagnosis — which Minimalism endorses — is on the money. Modern consumerism isn’t just a behaviour; it’s about our identity. It’s about worship. From the Bible’s insight into our humanity it’s about how we feel the void left by our departure from God. It’s idolatry.

I thought Minimalism was spot on both in its diagnosis of what’s happening in our hearts, and thus in our culture, and of the damage our consumption does to us, the planet, and to others. Sadly, I’m not totally sold on the solution they (and those the people they featured) offer. Their solution was about a change in identity, a change in lifestyle, a change in consumption, and ultimately a change in worship. And while the gods they chose to replace ‘stuff with’ might make them better people to know and love, and give them more satisfaction, they’re still ‘idols’… it’s still ‘stuff’ just less of it, or less tangible stuff in the form of relationships and experience. The solutions offered in Minimalism still involved essentially defined by ‘stuff’ — sometimes just by its absence (whether in a tiny house or via meditation/stillness). The various minimalists spoke of pursuing something like asceticism, or simply a more self-controlled (no less self-indulgent) approach to consumption. I felt like most of the ways the minimalist alternative to maximalist-consumption driven living were built on an approach to life that is still built around being a consumer; but consuming more carefully by pursuing things of value. There’s a sense to that the idea that we should focus our ‘ownership’ on things that we love, that do give us pleasure, that this is actually just consumption with a modified philosophical aesthetic. I look at the sparsely furnished rooms and carefully curated piles of possessions and think ‘there’s beauty there’ and wonder how I can work my way towards achieving that particular way of life.

“There’s nothing wrong with consumption, the problem is compulsory consumption. We’re tired of it. We’re tired of acquiring things because that’s what we’re told we’re supposed to do” — Minimalism: A Documentary About Important Things

This approach reminded me of a bit in C.S Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters where the character, Screwtape, writes on gluttony — and our possession based, greed-driven, over-indulgence is very much like gluttony. Screwtape wants his apprentice Wormwood to know that the most pernicious type of gluttony actually comes with the appearance of self-denial; because it’s actually ‘self-interest’ that makes gluttony or consumption so harmful (Carter was right!). My concern is that the solutions offered in Minimalism (though perhaps not the ones modelled by the Minimalists on their journey of self-giving, and by some of the other people interviewed who’ve simplified in order to maximise generosity) fall into the trap of replacing one excess with another kind of gluttony… And there’s a danger in my own heart, and my own desire to correct my excess, that I’ll go the same way.

“My dear Wormwood,

The contemptuous way in which you spoke of gluttony as a means of catching souls, in your last letter, only shows your ignorance. One of the great achievements of the last hundred years has been to deaden the human conscience on that subject, so that by now you will hardly find a sermon preached or a conscience troubled by it in the whole length and breadth of Europe. This has largely been effected by concentrating all our efforts on gluttony of Delicacy, not gluttony of Excess. Your patient’s mother, as I learn from the dossier and you might have learned from Glubose, is a good example. She would be astonished—one day, I hope, will be—to learn that her whole life is enslaved to this kind of sensuality, which is quite concealed from her by the fact that the quantities involved are small. But what do quantities matter, provided we can use a human belly and palate to produce querulousness, impatience, uncharitableness and self-concern? Glubose has this old woman well in hand. She is a positive terror to hostesses and servants. She is always turning from what has been offered her to say with a demure little sigh and a smile ‘Oh please, please … all I want is a cup of tea, weak but not too weak, and the teeniest weeniest bit of really crisp toast’. You see? Because what she wants is smaller and less costly than what has been set before her, she never recognises as gluttony her determination to get what she wants, however troublesome it may be to others. At the very moment of indulging her appetite she believes that she is practising temperance. In a crowded restaurant she gives a little scream at the plate which some overworked waitress has set before her and says, ‘Oh, that’s far, far too much! Take it away and bring me about a quarter of it’. If challenged, she would say she was doing this to avoid waste; in reality she does it because the particular shade of delicacy to which we have enslaved her is offended by the sight of more food than she happens to want.”

If you want a really radical antidote to consumerism — one that might help you avoid both gluttony of excess, and gluttony of delicacy, one that might do something more to kill consumerism in your life and replace it with an alternative, one that might bring a truly meaningful solution in community not just individuals… the answer might not be to listen to a bunch of millionaire businessmen and people who tasted worldly success telling you about their conversion to a newer, simpler way of life. The answer might be to listen to a bloke who swore of this way of life from the beginning because, well, he was perfect. Jesus has some pretty profound things to say about humanity, consumption, and the pursuit of meaning.

He says life as humans is ultimately about the pursuit of treasure. This is because somewhere in our DNA, we pursue meaning through worship

Jesus said ‘where your treasure is, there your heart is also’ he said this having said ‘store up for yourself treasures in heaven’…

We are, by nature, worshippers who look for identity in what we treasure. The Bible’s answer to this is not to find the right thing to treasure, but to treasure Jesus… to pursue treasures in heaven. And this provides us with some guidelines not just for approaching the good stuff in this world with moderation (without worshipping it), but for understanding that the best way to approach consumables isn’t fundamentally about self-interest, self-indulgence, or self-control (though it will produce this), it’s about the other. Jesus models the pursuit of treasure in heaven when he lays down his life for the sake of others. He comes back to this theme of ‘treasure’; or consumption, and our desire to find meaning in controlling and possessing as much as possible, in a slightly indirect way when he challenges us to be givers not consumers; sacrificers, not killers. To follow Jesus is to adopt a life not of self-denial, but self-giving from a place of knowing God gives us everything.

“Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what they have done. — Matthew 16:24-27

This does involve a radical approach to our stuff; you might remember the story where a rich young bloke comes up to Jesus to ask how to be part of God’s kingdom — how to have treasure in heaven, and Jesus tells him to give away everything to the the poor, and to come and follow him. This approach to stuff is what taking up your cross ultimately looks like — and it’s a death to self that I’m still working on in my own life. The bloke can’t do it, and Jesus says those famous words:

“If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth.

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly I tell you, it is hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven…”

Now. Giving away everything doesn’t actually get you into heaven; there is grace even for my inability to totally kill my idolatry of my stuff and my comfort. Part of the point of the stories about Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel up until the crucifixion are to show that Jesus is the only truly faithful law-fulfiller. The Sermon On The Mount is first about him, and its an exploration of what it looks like to fulfil the humanly impossible Old Testament command to “be holy because I (God) am holy”… When the disciples are blown away by how big this command sounds and ask “who can be saved” if this is required, Jesus says:

“With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”

What he calls the rich man to do is what he did when confronted with temptation, and what he did in his whole earthly life, up to and including the Cross. And that’s what makes following him the way; this means both following his example (discipling ourselves to become like him, or ‘worshipping him’) and relying on him as the one who actually achieves the righteousness God commands.

Following Jesus means changing who we worship — where we look to for identity and satisfaction — it means shifting our eyes from the things of this world to the one seated ‘in his Father’s glory’ — and having that change the way we live. It means ditching our old habits and consumption, and switching it for something else; not just mastering our vices but taking up virtues. Idols don’t just get killed they get replacedMinimalism offers a compelling picture of a replacement for the idol of worldly physical treasures, only it replaces them with other worldly things; one guy they interview says his whole approach to life is built on the idea that this is all there is, and our time is all we have. When Paul reflects on what it means to become a ‘new self’ with new worship in Colossians 3, he does something interesting that parallels Jesus’ call to pursue treasure in heaven by talking quite concretely about how we live here on earth. He starts by connecting us to Jesus promise that the “Son of Man” would come into his father’s glory:

Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.”

And he uses this to call us to put to death the idolatrous parts of our ‘earthly nature’ — our default patterns of looking for meaning through consumption and stuff… to ‘put on the new self’ which is being ‘renewed in the knowledge of the image of its creator’ (and from Colossians 1:15, that’s Jesus, this is about being a disciple, it’s about taking up our cross). Then he gives us this new pattern of living; one not built simply on being more appropriately ‘self-indulgent’ but rather built on putting others first.

Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.

Looking for meaning in consumption — the hunt for identity in buying or not buying things — is a vice. It’s destructive; not just for hoarders, but for minimalists as well. If we believe we’re living a good life simply because we’ve adopted simplicity we’re still missing the heart of true worship. The opposite of greed — or the virtue that combats the vice — is not frugality (or minimalism), but generosity. Just as the opposite of gluttony is not abstinence, but hospitality. Generosity and hospitality require a particular approach to stuff that means not finding meaning in it, and not holding on to it — and there’s plenty of great stuff in the habits and philosophies put forward by the people featured in Minimalism that’ll help me (and maybe you) embrace a more generous and hospitable way of life; so long as my approach to stuff is profoundly ‘other-centred’ because my treasures are in heaven. That’s where love kicks in. Which is interesting, because the closing words of Minimalism which is something of a slogan for the Minimalists:

“Love people, use things. The opposite never works.”

The Minimalists have some fantastic stuff to say in Minimalism, but really following Jesus is the way to do this right.

Re-Enchanting the World — Episode 3: We can be heroes (and we need heroes we can be)

“Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.” — G.K Chesterton


Image credit: Marvel.com

“Temples, cathedrals, epics, plays, and other works of art focus and hold up to a culture what counts as a life worth aspiring to…When works of art shine, they illuminate and glamourise a way of life, and all other things shine in their light.” — Dreyfus & Kelly, All Things Shining

Ok. So here’s my theory — one I’ve found some support in elsewhere — if you want a form of popular art that performs this function in the modern west, where we have figures who are clearly heroes — superheroes — battling figures that are clearly villains, and ‘glamourising a way of life’ — by embodying virtues of the current age, then it’s our humble comic book superhero stories that do this. They do it because these are the popular stories of our age — but they also do it because they self-consciously present us heroes of our age. This means if we want to change, or re-enchant, our current view of the world, these stories might be a vehicle to do that. The problem is that these stories are products of a modern view of the world — just as ancient stories were a product of an ancient view of the world, so we may need a healthy dose of ‘enchantment’ thrown into the mix if these stories are going to raise our eyes to a greater significance of reality. To pull us towards the ‘transcendent’ or the idea that the world has a meaning beyond physical, material, reality.

In a piece of fairly bizarre timing, Christ And Pop Culture (one of my favourite websites) launched a new column this week called Panel Discussion, an exploration of the world of the comic book. The first cab off the rank was a piece titled Comic Books as Modern Mythology. This piece operates on the premise that: “The comics of today are American versions of Greek mythology complete with origin, philosophy, psychology, and religion.”

This is a view supported in a couple of more scholarly works on Superheroes and their function in our culture. For example, this essay ‘The Epic Hero and Pop Culture,’ that compares our modern heroes to ancient heroes like Beowulf.

“The vague origins and the sudden departures of such heroes also serve to enhance their legends. These legends in time take on almost religious status, becoming myths that provide the communities not only with models for conduct but with the kind of heightened shared experiences which inspire and unify their members.”  — Roger B. Rollin, ‘The Epic Hero and Pop Culture,’ The Superhero Reader

…And this book Superheroes: An Analysis of Popular Culture’s Modern Myths by David Reynolds, who looks to Socrates and Plato and their understanding of the function of myth in conveying truth about the world, and fostering virtuous character, to suggest we should read these modern stories asking similar questions that we (and others, historically) ask of their ancient equivalents — epic myths:

The cultural function of mythic heroes such as those from Greek, Roman, and Norse cultures has attracted significant scholarly attention. Yet, what is the relevance of those ancient heroes today, and what are we to make of their hitherto academically neglected modern equivalents, popular superhero figures, such as Superman, Spider-Man, and Batman? A culture’s prominent narratives become that culture’s myths, reinforcing cultural values and disseminating norms of social behaviour… — David Reynolds, Superheroes: An Analysis of Popular Culture’s Modern Myths

Reynolds charts three ages of comic book mythology — the gold, silver, and bronze ages. He draws the boundaries of these ages in slightly different places to some sort of comic convention — suggesting ‘golden’ age heroes appeared in stories from the modernist world, up to and including WW2. The heroes in this age served the establishment. Silver age heroes emerged after the war, with the creation of Spider-Man. They have more human flaws, this period spans the gap from modernism to post modernity and its stories introduce a greater sense of world-building and story integration. Bronze age heroes are all dark, gritty, post-modern and somewhat nihilistically hopeless — a product of our cynical age. The ‘epic’ function of superheroes developed over these epochs.

The shining ‘heroes’ of the ‘golden age’

Heroes, as the central characters in our modern works of art — especially stories — show us how to live. They become combatants in the mission to help us see the world rightly — they’re products either of an enchanted world embedded with meaning, or a mechanical world where heroes are made, mostly accidentally, not born with a divine purpose. Most of our modern comic book heroes are products of a mechanical, or immanent, world. They’re (largely) spawned by the immanent world going very right, or very wrong — science, and science gone bad, accounts for the super-powers of plenty of our heroes.

When they are their most ‘epic’, or enchanted, heroes don’t just show us that dragons (or villains) can be defeated, but at their best present us with a path to immortality. That’s been a theme of the epic tale since Gilgamesh — see also the Arthurian knights in their perpetual quest for the Holy Grail.

It’s interesting to consider what a quest for immortality — or an epic quest — looks like in an immanent world, where the infinite is collapsed into the finite. What does salvation look like in this sort of frame? The secret to immortality is likely to be either a product of scientific innovation, or immortality will be dismissed as a pipe-dream, and replaced with the quest for some more rational form of immortality — like a name that lasts.

Often, in epic stories where the hero is clearly mortal — like, say, Beowulf  — immortality is captured when a hero’s name lives on, on account of their glorious deeds. Immortality in an immanent world is about making a name for yourself. A name that lasts. That’s the best a modern myth can imagine, or aim for.

Heroes model virtues. But not just any old virtues — virtues set against the backcloth of the current view of the world, or, they may embody a virtuous ideal, linked to an ideal vision that they are working towards — within the story, and as the story (as a tool of a story teller). Heroes, through these stories, articulate a picture of human flourishing. We readers are invited to share this vision, but we’re invited more to see the character as embodying a certain type of heroism, a type of heroism that we are free to imitate in our own world. Heroes are model imaginators — they help us see the world as enchanted because they model what it looks like to have an imaginative vision for the transformation of the world, and show us a bit of what it might cost to change — to re-create — the world as we know it to the world as we imagine it could be.

Heroes that only solve very ‘domestic’ issues are a little too small. Epic heroes — heroes that may pull us somewhere other than where we are — need a sense of being larger than life. They need to shine. They need to stand for something bigger than themselves.

“All of these heroes are larger than life; some are merely larger than others. But what the hero is and does in terms of objective reality are less important than what he represents to our inner reality. The local man who saves a child from drowning is of less enduring interest to us than our fictive or historical heroes: the former wants symbolism, and unless local mythopoeia provides him with it, we tend to displace him in our consciousness with the more value-charged heroes we seem to need.” — Roger B. Rollin, ‘The Epic Hero and Pop Culture,’ The Superhero Reader

And, as Chesterton says, the heroes of these stories teach us to kill dragons, or vanquish evil — they fight evils that are larger than life too. Everything is exaggerated. C.S Lewis agreed with him, he says heroes, especially enchanted ‘radiant ones,’ provide us with a more comforting picture of the defeat of evil than even thinking about real, immanent, heroes, like the police.

“Let there be wicked kings and beheadings, battles and dungeons, giants and dragons, and let villains be soundly killed at the end of the book. Nothing will persuade me that this causes an ordinary child any kind or degree of fear beyond what it wants, and needs, to feel. For, of course, it wants to be a little frightened… For in the fairy tales, side by side with the terrible figures, we find the immemorial comforters and protectors, the radiant ones; and the terrible figures are not merely terrible, but sublime. It would be nice if no little boy in bed, hearing, or thinking he hears, a sound, were ever at all frightened. But if he going to be frightened, I think it better that he should think St George, or any bright champion in armour, is a better comfort than the idea of the police.” — C.S Lewis, Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say What’s Best to be Said

Despite the new ages of comics-as-epics that make the characters more human, flawed, and twisted by their agenda — the golden age hero, or how they were used — might teach us something about a hero can be presented to people in this epic sense.

‘Golden age’ heroes as propaganda

There’s a fine line between characters being orchestrated to deliberately depict a cultural view of virtue and the stories these characters appear in functioning as propaganda. This is a fine line that has, at least according to David Reynolds, historically been obliterated in America, in the form of comic book stories, especially in the so-called Golden Age, and especially in the archetypal heroes from the DC world, Superman and Batman.  Their origin stories, heroic powers, and their respective ‘missions’ position them to be perfect carriers of an ideological agenda.

Superman is the last survivor of the planet Krypton, sent to earth as an infant. As a Kryptonian on Earth, Superman is gifted with an array of superpowers ranging from superstrength to x-ray vision. Raised by the “everyman” Kent family on a farm in Smallville, Superman was raised to embody the ideal American norms of honesty and justice. As a superhero, Superman is dedicated to “truth, justice, and the American way.” Batman, on the other hand, witnessed the murder of his millionaire parents as a young child, and swore an oath dedicating his life to fight crime. He is at the peak of human physical and intellectual performance. While fighting crime, Batman utilizes a vast array of gadgetry, such as his batbelt, batarangs, and the batmobile. He represents the epitome of human physical fitness and intellectual conditioning and, by extension, he symbolizes how people may unlock their true potential through will and determination. — David Reynolds, Superheroes: An Analysis of Popular Culture’s Modern Myths 

This propaganda function came of age when America itself was under external threat — during World War 2. It’s interesting to see how the propaganda functions now when the greatest threat is perceived as a threat from within — radicalisation — Marvel has this Civil War storyline that seems fascinating, and may, I understand, even be part of the storyline of the forthcoming Captain America movie. Because Marvel’s characters are participants in the ‘real’ world, they were able to directly participate in the war effort (incidentally, my introduction to Phantom comics was a reprint of the Phantom’s foray into World War 2). Superman and Batman, functioning as the heroic citizen of the ‘every city’ stayed home and played a more symbolic role, embodying a responsible, patriotic, ideal that encouraged civilians to support the war effort via the American way of life.

Superman noticeably shifts his ideology such that his adventures begin linking patriotism to legitimate business, while he consistently thwarts illicit business… The original Superman of 1938, hero of the underprivileged working class, has given way to the new Superman of the war effort, supporting complacent consumerism and upholding the values of the capitalist, industrial empire… most popular comic book characters, like Superman and Batman, also served to remind soldiers of home and “reinforce the purpose of the war in their minds… Since the most popular superheroes of the war effort adopted strong, responsible consumerist values, their following mythoi have built steadily upon those values and that style of crime fighting. However, although the modern superhero finds its cultural roots in consumerism, some recent storytellers have begun to challenge the superhero’s traditional role of blindly supporting hegemonic values…

… the narratives were directly affected by the political and social climate of the time. Not only were they affected by the social context, but they were employed as a means to affect the culture as well, as a medium to spread war-time propaganda. — David Reynolds, Superheroes: An Analysis of Popular Culture’s Modern Myths 

Comic stories as vehicles for complex ethical questions

In order for comic books to keep reflecting the values of a culture, and to keep providing ‘shining’ examples, comic heroes had to shift from embodying idyllic certainty to embodying questions. The door for this change was opened, at least a little, with the creation of Spider-Man, a flawed hero who wanted to use his new-found powers for gain, only for that to cost him the life of his uncle, which propelled him (along with that line from his uncle: ‘with great power comes great responsibility’) into a life of web-slinging heroism. But this trajectory didn’t stop with more relatable, more human, more broken, heroes. It continued into what Reynolds calls the ‘bronze age’ — which he suggests begins with the creation of The Dark Knight version of Batman, and Watchmen. 

“Many sophisticated elements of comics today that we now take as givens – the way they raise questions of justice and vengeance, their exploration of the ethics of vigilantism, and their depiction of ambivalent and even hostile reactions towards superheroes from the general public as well as from government – are largely traceable to these works. These two titles deconstructed the superhero genre so thoroughly that for several years any superhero comic that continued in the traditional vein of storytelling seemed like nothing more than a bad parody of the superhero genre… Miller and Moore deconstructed the established tropes of the superhero genre, challenging readers to confront the issues surrounding justice and vigilantism.” — David Reynolds, Superheroes: An Analysis of Popular Culture’s Modern Myths 

This move ends up producing a depressing — rather than radiant — hero. One who’s not much good for doing anything but keeping us squarely in our immanent frame. Watchmen creator Allen Moore agrees:

“Obviously, we’ve to some degree doomed the mainstream comics medium to a parade of violent, depressing postmodern superheroes, a lot of whom, in addition to those other faults, are incredibly pretentious. I stand accused.”— Allen Moore, cited in Geoff Klock, ‘The Revisionary Superhero Narrative,’  The Superhero Reader

This, in a sense, is a reflection of our modern culture and its cynical inability to find anything virtuous, or anybody heroic. For a hero to re-enchant the world they now have to pull us out of this culture, by giving us something we believe in. But something that is still real and relatable, that grapples honestly with the questions and challenges of life in the real world.

Comic stories as myths that explore models of the (fallen) world

There’s a guy, Joseph Campbell, who is generally held to be pretty cluey when it comes to thinking the shape of myths, and especially the mythic journey of the ‘hero.’ Here’s a TED talk featuring his view of mythology — in which he sees every hero (and every ‘god’) being described as going on a journey that involves a three stage process of: separation, initiation, and return.

It’s pretty fascinating, even if its given birth to a bunch of dumb ideas about Jesus being exactly the same as any other god. This same story — this journey — takes place throughout the ages, the same pattern, but against a different backdrop, the stories happen against the model of the world that produces it.

“Myth has to deal with the cosmology of today… a mythological image that has to be explained to the brain is not working… then, you’re out of sync.” — Joseph Campbell, cited in David Reynolds, Superheroes: An Analysis of Popular Culture’s Modern Myths 

It’s interesting to consider the stories that are produced by the ‘cosmology of today’ — a cosmology that is not enchanted, that is immanent, in many ways they’re the stories we see in The Dark Knight and Watchmen. Myths reflecting the real world means the bar is lower for us, as readers, to enter the story, and helps us see our world with fresh eyes. Reflecting the real world means reflecting the world in its brokenness. And it does. The world presented in these stories is a broken world. Broken, in part, by villains. The heroes want to help perfect the world, according to their utopian vision, while the villains want to stop them, either to keep the world the way it is or to see it fall apart even more, or indeed to continue the affects of the Fall. Vreekill is a villain from a 1940s Batman/Superman crossover story who invents a machine that makes steel fall apart. He embodies this sort of villain-as-truly-fallen trope.

“Vreekill’s bald head and functional costume signify him clearly as a ‘mad scientist’. There is no exploration of the psychology that leads Vreekill to use his discovery for the pursuit of crime:

“With my machine I can become the most powerful man in the world! I can hold it as a club over those who deal in steel constructions.”

This is clearly not a sociological view of the roots of crime. The mythology underlying the text is that of the Old Testament, and, most specifically, the Temptation and Fall. Vreekill is a prototype for many ‘Fallen’ characters which Batman and other superheroes have encountered through the years — the Joker, Two-Face, Lex Luthor, Doctor Doom, Magneto, Ozymandias. All are corrupted by power, and power in the particular form of knowledge. ‘Ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil’ promises the serpent in Genesis 3… If history is to be understood as a progress towards Utopia, a significant tension can be adduced between superheroes (assisting this process) and villains (thwarting the Utopia builders, or ‘those who deal in steel constructions’).” — Richard Reynolds, Super Heroes: A Modern Mythology

 

So heroes have this job of representing the ideals of our modern world — especially ‘unfallen’ ideals, and pulling us back towards the paradise lost at the Fall — part of that paradise, I suggest, is a rekindling of our capacity to see the world as enchanted, as an artwork itself that points us to the great artificer. The God who spoke this world into being and continues to sustain it, the God whose divine nature and character are on display in this world, if only we were able to see them.

Marvel v DC — The man of iron v the man of steel

When it comes to modern comic book stories — and comic book heroes — that achieve this for me — it’s the Marvel characters that most connect me to modern ideals. I’d rather learn how to live from Iron Man, or other Avengers, than from Superman and the Justice League. As a disclaimer: I don’t read the comic books, but I watch the movies and TV shows, so it may be that my reflections are easily dismissed by real comic fans.
I don’t know how much my preference for Marvel is determined by the question of the space the stories take place in — that Superman is in the fictional ‘every city’ of Metropolis — I suspect that’s only a marginal factor (see Episode 1). I think its more to do with the ideal on display in each world.
When some of my friends were discussing my last question — what difference the city setting makes — my friend Craig Hamilton made the observations that:
“The DC universe is about the ideal whereas Marvel is about struggling to live up to an ideal. DC heroes are almost pure archetypes while Marvel are heroes with feet of clay.”
There are DC characters who break this type — Arrow, and The Flash are less archetypal than Superman, and, indeed, Craig points out that DC has deliberately become more Marvelesque (Marvellous?) over time.
“It wasn’t until the mid-1980s with Crisis on Infinite Earths that DC, in my opinion, tried to become more Marvel-esque. In the post-Crisis DCU they shipped in John Byrne and Frank Millar to redefine Superman and Batman. You can’t get more Marvel-esque creators than those two.”

The ‘man’ in the mask (Marvel) v the ‘masked man’ (DC)

In a piece in the Christian Research Journal titled ‘The Gospel According to Marvel’ a guy named Jason McAteer made a similar observation.

“The biggest difference between Marvel and DC is that Marvel heroes are ordinary people disguised as superheroes. Whereas DCs Superman is really an alien (Kal-El) disguised as an average guy (Clark Kent), Marvel’s Spider-Man is just an ordinary teenager named Peter Parker dressed up in red Spandex. Even DC’s Batman is using the persona of millionaire playboy Bruce Wayne to distract from his true identity as a vigilante hero. Bruce Wayne’s drinking and womanizing is all an act. Contrast Marvel’s Iron Man whose true identity is Tony Stark, a millionaire playboy who really is as obnoxious as Bruce Wayne pretends to be. Marvel heroes are complex characters with all the imperfections of real-life human beings. They’re not all that “heroic” in comparison to a Golden Age DC character such as Superman, who came to embody a kind of idealized moral perfection. The original DC heroes are mostly aliens (such as Superman and Wonder Woman) or self-made men (such as Batman). Marvel’s heroes, on the other hand, are flawed ordinary people who gain unusual powers. They have extraordinary abilities thrust upon them whether they like it or not, usually through accidental exposure to “radiation” of some sort or another. Furthermore, Marvel heroes always have other real-life problems to deal with in addition to fighting crime.”

I think this is true — and its part of the reason I prefer Marvel’s heroes to DC’s. One of the implications of this ‘type’ of heroism on display in the DC world is that DC’s heroes can be so idealised that we’re unable to relate to them, and as a result, unable to imitate them. They hold up such a strong ideal that we can only dream about doing what they do. These dreams might still enchant us, and cause us to see goodness and virtue differently, but goodness and virtue always appear just that little bit beyond us. Because the real Superman is not Clark Kent, but the heroic guy in the cape — the masked man — we’re not invited into the story via the relatable human brokenness of the hero, we’re invited to enjoy the story as pure idealistic myth.

Superman is always ‘other’ — always fully super (except around kryptonite) — and only ever disguised as human (somehow this doesn’t annoy me as much when it comes to Thor). There’s nothing particularly imitable about Clark Kent, who, when trouble strikes, disappears in order for Superman to appear and save the day. You know that underneath the nerdy Clark Kent disguise there’s a godlike figure waiting to emerge to save the day. Iron Man is always Tony Stark in the suit. And when he puts the mask on he’s the same guy, just wearing a suit that lets him make a difference. The humanity is the driver of the story and the source of narrative tension, his humanity is not a disguise, a mask he wears to hide his real identity

Identity is an interesting motif in superhero stories — in the Marvel world, especially the world of the Avengers, the heroes don’t have a ‘secret identity’ — they are who they are. Even in a Marvel story where the hero keeps who they are a secret — like in Spider-Man — the hero’s identity is the human, Peter Parker puts on a mask and becomes Spider-Man, Spiderman doesn’t take off the mask to become Peter Parker. You could compare Stark’s Iron Man and Bruce Wayne’s Batman at this point — both use their significant means to transform the world according to their imaginative vision of a better place. Stark is a complicated mess of arrogant over-confidence and a real desire to do good, the stories he features in function as stories of his sanctification — he moves through that journey towards humility, even if he always remains true to himself. His personal demons are things he works out as a human, and they’re exaggerated when he puts his super-suit on. Batman is Bruce Wayne’s actual identity. The Bat is the manifestation of his damaged psychology. We wrestle with his demons when he puts the mask on and becomes himself. Batman is Batman, and like Superman, Bruce Wayne is an alter-ego. A projection. A persona he adopts — even though Batman is thoroughly shaped by the young Bruce’s experiences — these experiences fundamentally change who Bruce Wayne is. Wayne’s foppish ‘adult’ persona is an act, a disguise. We know the real, heroic, Bruce Wayne is revealed when Bruce puts on the mask, not when he takes it off. This is following an ancient pattern of behaviour of mythic heroes who only become ‘heroic’ by revealing their true selves in and through violent chaos.

“Heroes cannot, however, remain lambs: crises call for lions… crises usually require violent solutions. Violence indeed seems to be the reality of their worlds, and it is in violent situations that heroes are defined. Superman is somehow more “real” than the mousey “Clark Kent,” Batman more “real” than the do-gooder “Bruce Wayne.” Indeed, in this “civilian” alter ego, each of these heroes is suspected of being, like the youthful Beowulf, “slack, a young man unbold.” — Roger B. Rollin, ‘The Epic Hero and Pop Culture,’ The Superhero Reader

Ultimately I find Marvel’s heroes more compelling, and more useful for looking to for models of workable heroism and/or virtue. It’s interesting that my gut-feel preference is also for their city setting, and their exploration of the consequences of ‘heroic’ action in the real world, rather than for DC’s fictional ‘every cities.’  

Marvel v Marvel: Iron Man v Daredevil

Marvel’s world has two types of hero — much as DC’s world does in Batman and Superhero. Heroes shaped by a modern sensibility. Heroes best typified, at least for my purposes of comparison, by Iron Man and Daredevil. They’re both typical modern heroes in that they’re essentially loners, thrust into a network of relationships at least, in part, because of their desire to make a difference to the world. To re-imagine it as something different.

“A new kind of popular hero had emerged: the self-reliant individualist who stands aloof from many of the humdrum concerns of society, yet is able to operate according to his code of honour, to take on the world on his own terms, and win. For Americans, the historical path from Munich to Pearl Harbor coincides with the emergence of Superman and Captain America — solitary but socialized heroes, who engage in battle from time to time as proxies of US foreign policy. A darker side of the Lone Wolf hero is embodied by the Batman, a hero whose motivations and emotions are turned inward against the evils within society, and even the social and psychological roots of crime itself. The tension between these two veins in the superhero tradition remains to the present day.” — Richard Reynolds, ‘Masked Heroes,’ The Superhero Reader

Daredevil adopts the cowl of the Batman like ‘Lone Wolf’ hero, while Iron Man operates in a similar vein to Superman, without his humanity ever being compromised. In fact, its his full humanity that makes him compelling — even as his imagination causes huge destruction on the global landscape.
When it comes to the modern cinematic heroes that I find most compelling as myths that help me see the world differently, I like Daredevil. I like the idea that Daredevil — at least the Netflix iteration — operates in a world where people are truly enchanted (ala Thor), or super-human products of science gone wrong (ala Spider-Man, The Hulk, Captain America), or are humans with a big imagination for how transformation might take place — but whose ambitions sometimes end up causing more destruction than hope — ala Iron Man — but while this is true of the world Daredevil operates in, he is grounded (as is his world).
I like Iron Man because he’s a flawed guy trying to do the best with what he’s got. He’s both incredibly human, and incredibly super-heroic. Daredevil has smaller ambitions, and lives in a world dealing with the mess these guys created, but also sees the world differently to the people around him. He isn’t endowed with superpowers, but more intra-powers. His senses are sharpened by the loss of his sight. It’s fun to imagine Daredevil as a guy who is imitating Iron Man, simply without the means to do quite so much damage, and without the same grand ‘global’ vision.
“I see a suit of armour around the world”. — Tony Stark (Iron Man), The Avengers: Age of Ultron
Stark has a big vision, and the incredible resources to make it a reality. He bankrolls the Avengers for this purpose (in Age of Ultron — when S.H.I.E.L.D isn’t around). His vision for the world is, as it turns out, quite destructive. And its only when he listens to those around him — in humility — that the destruction is mitigated. But this destruction comes at a cost, on a local level. And that’s where Daredevil steps in. He’s in the same world, and he’s left to clean up Stark’s mess.

“[Daredevil] carries no water for the larger franchise to which it’s connected. There’s a reference in series creator Drew Goddard’s pilot script to “death and destruction raining from the sky” above New York City and its effect on property values in Hell’s Kitchen; later, if you don’t blink, you’ll spot a “BATTLE OF NEW YORK” front page hanging in the office of crime reporter Ben Urich (a wonderfully careworn Vondie Curtis-Hall). But that’s it. No one gets a job offer from Samuel L. Jackson or stumbles upon a Cosmic Cube; at no point does Tony Stark drop by for shawarma. We’re meant to understand that this is the same New York where men with unimaginable power kick other men through buildings on the regular, but we’re also allowed, and in some sense encouraged, to forget that as soon as it’s established.” — Alex Pappademas, ‘Giving the Devil His Do-Rag Why Netflix’s Daredevil is The Least Marvel-y Marvel Property Yet,‘ Grantland

Matt Murdock’s Daredevil is the sort of hero endemic to Hell’s Kitchen, and to the sort of world shaped by Stark’s grand vision meeting his humanity. When Stark goes to battle for his vision, the collateral damage is immense. Stark acts global, while Daredevil acts local. Even Wilson Fisk (Kingpin) the villain in the Daredevil story mocks him for his transformative vision being too small. Daredevil plays the heroic game on a local level, not a global one.
Fisk: You first. That’s what I thought. You and I have a lot in common.
Daredevil: We’re nothing alike.
Fisk: That’s what you’ll tell yourself.
Daredevil: You’re feeding off this city like a cancer.
Fisk: I want to save this city, like you… only on a scale that matters.

The world of Netflix’s Daredevil is a product of Stark’s vision, but the localisation of its story is part of the way it paints a compelling and heroic vision for those who encounter it as ‘art’ in the functional sense. Daredevil is the model of a localised hero. A real flesh-and-blood hero for our times, and your place.

Despite the difference in scale, both Daredevil/Murdock and Iron Man/Stark are flawed heroes, bringing their humanity to the table as they work towards their transformative ‘heroic’ vision — the better world they imagine. In All Things Shining, Dreyfus and Kelly describe a sort of approach to heroic life that’s a bit like Tony Stark’s — or at least like Iron Man’s at a particular stage of the story arc in every Iron Man/Avengers story — and like Matt Murdock’s — as he alienates his friends through the pursuit of his vision of a better Hell’s Kitchen — this serves to make these guys a bit more relatable as characters, and makes their heroic triumph a triumph over the limitations of their human nature, as well as over whatever is going on in the world.
“The man of self-confidence is often a compelling figure. Driven and focused, he is committed to bringing the world into line with his vision of how it should be. He may genuinely believe that his vision for the world is a good one,  that the world will be a better place if he can shape it to his will, and sometimes he is capable of making changes for the better. But there is a danger to this attitude as well. Too often it turns out that the blustery self-confidence of such a person hides its own darker origins: it is really just arrogance combined with ambition, or worse yet, a kind of self-delusion. As a result, when his plans fail, as they are bound to do at least some of the time, the self-confident man is often unable to recognise the failure. Stubbornly and inflexibly committed to his vision of how things ought to be, he has no ability to respond to the world as it actually is. The self confident man believes that confidence is its own virtue.” — Dreyfus &  Kelly, All Things Shining
I can totally relate to this. Daredevil/Matt Murdock can relate to this too, on a smaller scale. Coming out of this over-confidence and into an approach to service that involves humility and teamwork is part of the journey of most Marvel heroes. It’s the journey we’re invited to take as we use the lens of these stories to examine our selves, and to truly see a path to decision making in our own life. These stories always play up the heroes as paradoxically fully human and fully super.
Christ and Pop Culture published a great piece exploring Daredevil’s model of heroism — of martyrdom even. There’s some great stuff in this piece about the complex relationship between heroism, violence, suffering in traditional superhero stories, and an exploration of how Daredevil breaks this pattern — including the relational disconnect that comes when the hero understands themselves as ‘suffering for’ the city, not suffering with it, that seems to go hand in hand with a lack of concern for the damage the fight for a city does to a city (seriously, read the piece). Daredevil/Matt Murdock even breaks the pattern of ‘self-confidence’ — or has it broken — through his relationships with others. Unlike Stark, it’s a bunch of ‘normal’ others who choose to be heroic, rather than superheroes, that move Daredevil away from arrogance, and towards a new and different sort of virtue.

“Matt Murdock is a part of Hell’s Kitchen, and though he’s often tempted to be a lone vigilante, he learns again and again that the true way to preserve his community is to recognize and enter into communal brokenness, not to try to save it from without. In Daredevil, the significance of relationships trumps the rightness of violence done in their name… Matt Murdock’s story, with those of his friends, positively reinforces the idea that heroes should suffer with their communities rather than standing apart and suffering for them…

Wilson Fisk’s character also reinforces this idea—only his does so negatively. Fisk is always portrayed as apart from Hell’s Kitchen, the community both he and Matt Murdock say they want to save. Fisk lives high above them in luxury; when he bombs the Russian-controlled parts of town, he and his girlfriend watch them burn from the wide windows of a high-rise restaurant…I think one reason the standard “suffers-for” hero is so attractive is that a lot of people are intrigued and allured by the idea that they might stand apart, adored and admired. They may suffer, but there will always be someone there to gaze adoringly and express gratitude. But that’s not the only, or the best, kind of heroism. And as Christians, while we might sometimes suffer for each other, we are also called to suffer with each other—to enter into community with others, to carry their sorrows and help them in their work and through their struggles.” — Julie Ooms, Daredevil, Hell’s Kitchen, and the Good Samaritan, Christ and Pop Culture

Daredevil’s local, incarnate, form of heroism is overtly influenced by a religious — even a Christian — vision of heroism. The Good Samaritan functions as a metaphor throughout the series, developing this vision of a heroism built on incarnation and sacrifice.
“Claire: You know, the only thing I remember from Sunday school is the martyrs… the saints, the saviours… they all end up the same way. Bloody and alone.
Matt: I never said I was any of those.
Claire: You didn’t have to.” — Claire and Matt Murdock, Netflix’s Daredevil
The pay off for this metaphor comes when Fisk, himself, makes it clear that he is not the good samaritan, he and Matt are not as similar as he claimed (see above), it turns out that the from-the-community-hero, Daredevil, is good Samaritan. The neighbour to those who are suffering.
“I’m not a religious man but I’ve read bits and pieces over the years. Curiosity more than faith. But this one story There was a man. He was traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho when he was set upon by men of ill intent. They stripped the traveler of his clothes, they beat him, and they left him bleeding in the dirt. And a priest happened by saw the traveler. But he moved to the other side of the road and continued on. And then a Levite, a religious functionary, he came to the place, saw the dying traveler. But he too moved to the other side of the road, passed him by. But then came a man from Samaria, a Samaritan, a good man. He saw the traveler bleeding in the road and he stopped to aid him without thinking of the circumstance or the difficulty it might bring him. The Samaritan tended to the traveler’s wounds, applying oil and wine. And he carried him to an inn, gave him all the money he had for the owner to take care of the traveler, as the Samaritan, he continued on his journey. He did this simply because the traveler was his neighbor. He loved his city and all the people in it. [sighs deeply] I always thought that I was the Samaritan in that story. It’s funny, isn’t it? How even the best of men can be deceived by their true nature. What the hell does that mean? It means that I’m not the Samaritan. That I’m not the priest, or the Levite. That I am the ill intent who set upon the traveler on a road that he should not have been on.” — Wilson Fisk, Daredevil
Despite its religious allusions, Daredevil is a hero for an immanent age — a hero borne out of a community, and its concerns, in response to an external, but still immanent, threat. Fisk is not a demi-god, like Loki in The Avengers. He is a villain — a devious, wealthy, businessman — with an alternative vision for Matt’s city. He has no interest in pursuing immortality, his interest is in shaping his city, according to a virtuous vision, by loving his neighbour. He’s the perfect hero for a gritty, earthy, real, disenchanted age. Embodying the best bits of the post-modern milieu of The Dark Knight and Watchmen, but offering the hope that a visionary hero (albeit a blind hero) might be able to effect positive change on the city they belong to, rather than spiralling into a bleak and vicious cycle. The note of hope comes via the offer of a solution proffered in the form of this virtuous, incarnate, connected, hero — whose heroism is on display both under the mask, and apart from it. Murdock’s fight against Fisk, his fight for his city, is simultaneously carried out by the masked hero and his unmasked alter-ego. Matt Murdock and Daredevil are one and the same. Matt Murdock, the lawyer who has a vision for something greater for Hell’s Kitchen, and Matt Murdock, the vigilante, who steps in to fight the battles the law is unable to reach. In both fights he suffers with the people around him, and that’s the way he attempts to mitigate some parts of the ‘fallenness’ of his immanent world. But though he avoids the aforementioned traps of the ‘Golden Age’ figures like Batman and Superman, and, more narrowly, the depressingly hopeless traps for vigilantes grappled with in the Miller-esque ‘Bronze Age,’ Daredevil is still a flawed ‘epic’ hero — he doesn’t offer a path to enchantment, or to immortality. We still need transcendent heroes.

Superman, Iron Man, Daredevil and the God-Man: Our quest for an imitable, but transcendent, hero

I think it’s interesting to explore the idea that stories about our mythic heroes either tend to emphasise the human nature of the hero or their super-human nature.
There’s been plenty of stuff written comparing Superman to Jesus — and the similarities are evident —but I’ve always had are a couple of problems with the metaphor because Superman is never actually human, and so he’s never someone who can truly be imitated. Superman, in his ‘human incarnation’ is an imitation human.
Classical, creedal, Christianity has always been exceptionally keen to emphasise that in his incarnation; Jesus is fully human, and fully divine. He’s not a superhero play-acting at being human, or a human play-acting at being super. He is not masked — a human playing at being God, or God playing at being a man. He is, in a sense, God unmasked. God made fully known. There is no transcendent God apart from the God made known and on display in Jesus. There is no disconnect between his human nature and his divinity. His identity is not confused, a bizarre mish-mash of humanity and hero where we’re left asking if the real Jesus is human or divine. He is fully both. He makes no secret about his identity. Both his humanity and his divinity are heroic — in fact, its as these parts of his being work in concert, in harmony, that we see a path to true heroism.
In fact, through these aspects of his being — his humanity and divinity — working together we are invited to move beyond our immanent existence and participate in his transcendent nature. Unlike Superman, who always remains fully other, Jesus invites us to share in his divinity, and in the Christian story this participation comes as God’s Spirit dwells in us.
“My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” — John 17:20-23
Jesus also makes the ‘transcendent’ immanent. He becomes flesh and blood. Truly human. And his humanity is enough to mediate the triune God’s transcendent nature to us.
Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own authority, but the Father who dwells in me does his works.” — John 14:9-10
And rather than heroically wielding power to perpetrate violence to solve the violence of the world, hiding behind a mask to avoid truly facing this violent reality, or to somehow buffer himself from his violent nature — as some sort of divine avatar — Jesus submits himself to violence in order to defeat it.
Who, being in very nature God,
    did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
    by taking the very nature of a servant,
    being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
    he humbled himself
    by becoming obedient to death—
        even death on a cross!
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
    and gave him the name that is above every name — Philippians 2:6-9
A hero who adopts this ‘transcendent’ view of heroism, and the world, doesn’t live for the immortality of their own name, but secures immortality — a share in Christ’s heroic victory — by living for his name. And rather than epic, radiant, larger than life battles against super-villains, real heroism looks like humble service in accordance with the divine pattern for life, as agents of the divine will. This is what makes us shine, and what gives the world a new, enchanted, lustre. We’ll be ‘bigger’ than others because we are noticeably less ‘warped and crooked’…

“… continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose. Do everything without grumbling or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, “children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation.” Then you will shine among them like stars in the sky as you hold firmly to the word of life.” — Philippians 2:13-16

It’s this story — this hero — who invites us to see the world through fresh eyes, who enchants it again, and also provides us with a new model of virtue to imitate in an ‘immanent’ sense — physically, in this world. Marvel’s heroes, in their very human ‘immanence’ — especially in Daredevil’s gritty local, incarnate, immanence — give us something to imitate — but in most cases they don’t give us something ‘other’ — a sort of saviour who can truly save us from ourselves. A saviour who can pull us from our humanity by offering us a humanity that is not flawed, and a real path to immortality — a path our immanent heroes can only dream about treading in fictional worlds that don’t age or change. Jesus does what these heroes fail to do, and provides us with a new way to see and imagine the world. The real world is changed by its heroes, heroes who capture and articulate a vision for world creation and the creation of meaning for us as we look at our world through their eyes. In a future episode I’ll unpack the idea of Jesus being a God coming into the machine (a deus in machina) — an unlikely happy ending — and the implications this has for our view of heroism.
The disenchanted world we live in needs heroes — both from above, and below — if its any hope of being lifted from despair, of the effects of the Fall, especially death, being dealt with, and if we’re to have ‘radiant ones’ people who shine like the stars, to imitate. The beauty of Daredevil’s incarnate heroism is that it provides us with a place to start. We start by doing something, anything, just that little bit heroic.
“If anyone on the verge of action should judge himself according to the outcome, he would never begin. Even though the result may gladden the whole world, that cannot help the hero; for he knows the result only when the whole thing is over, and that is not how he became a hero, but by virtue of the fact that he began.” ― Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling

On outrage: Contemplation, rightly-ordered love, and loving attention as an ‘outrageous’ response to outrageous events

This is the last in a series of posts exploring the nature of outrage, the internet, the human condition, and virtue. First, we considered that outrage might be a disordered form of loving attention, next, we considered that social media works to show us things calculated to appeal to our selfishness, then whether we have a moral obligation to notice or pay attention to disorder, and where we might or might not be culpable for failing to be outraged, then the link between a dead lion and Planned Parenthood — our disordered hearts, we considered the purpose of outrage, then some ancient Greek visions of virtue.

Remember Cecil the Lion?

How about Kony 2012?

What about Aylan Kurdi?

How quickly do we move on from that which outrages?

Cecil the Lion was a shot almost two months ago. His was the story that sparked this series in which I consider why we get outraged, what our tendency towards outrage might teach us about the world and our humanity, and what a more virtuous, loving, and constructive response to our disordered world might look like.

It turns out that outrage has a shelf life. The dentist who shot Cecil is going back to work this week. It also turns out that there’s a saturation point where people stop caring about information released in chunks (probably including this series of posts — but hey, I like to write for the “long tail” not the cheap virality of a sensationalist piece). So onwards into this question of outrage, and how we respond virtuously — with love — to those at the heart of outrageous events — be they victims or perpetrators. Because I think it’s this sort of radical love for people at both sides of something outrageous that defines a Christian response to disorder in the world. Here’s what Jesus says…

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. – Matthew 5:43-48

But what is love? What is love in the face of disorder?

Love and Virtue as attention seeking understanding in a virtually connected world

In the first few posts in this series I’ve basically suggested that outrageous events should propel us towards God and acting virtuously not towards forming lynch mobs or misdirected anger.

How then, should we define what is ‘good’ or virtuous— not just for ourselves, but for the community we’re part of? And what is this ‘community’ in the global age? Aristotle’s view of virtue was very much limited to proximity, you could only be concerned about those in your sphere, and only be assessed as a virtuous/moral agent based on how you treated people in your orbit. This obviously worked in his media culture which was transitioning from exclusively oral to oral and written. You found out about disorder as you experienced it, immediately, or as you were told, a long time after the fact. The media landscape we live in has fundamentally changed because space and time aren’t the limiting factors they once were for us in terms of forming communities or connections with people around the globe, or for being confronted with disorder and given the capacity to respond.

We may feel like solving world events is beyond our control, but the changing nature of ‘connectedness’ or community doesn’t just bring more awareness of problems, it brings more opportunities for us to communicate, relate, and love, beyond geographic boundaries. A solution to something outrageous may involve us sacrificially directing our attention, or love. This direction of love may involve activism, it may involve a movement towards physical proximity via a flight (we’re also more geographically connected than ever before), it may involve us giving money…

But the new media landscape means we’re actually bombarded with outrageous events, almost faster than we can possibly receive them, let alone respond to them. And there’s still plenty we don’t see because media agencies filter the least palatable material from global conflict and disaster so that we don’t have to see things as they really are.

If Aristotle was right about our moral responsibility resting with causes that we’re proximate to, and able to change, what is our moral responsibility when our new connected landscape means we’re just a mouse click away from outrageous events, and potentially a mouse-click away from a solution to these outrageous events?

What does virtuous or moral action look like in this connected and obviously disordered world? What do we need to do in order to be loving? And how do we decide what to love? It’s a question I grappled with in a more specific sense when people were changing their profiles to a ن in response to ISIS persecuting Christians, and tried to apply practically here. But it’s still a question I’m trying to unpack a little more.

In the last post in this series I looked at how Aristotle’s concept of virtue and arete (moral excellence) and the form of virtue promoted in the New Testament revolved around contemplation and knowing, the sort of contemplation and knowing that produces right actions. I’m going to suggest here that contemplation and knowing, via the application of loving attention, is the first virtuous act that we should bring to the table when we’re trying to respond to outrageously disordered events in the world, and that this should form the basis of whatever moral actions we take in response (and this will necessarily mean ‘outrage’ and forming an outraged mob is not the right, loving, response. This sort of love is the foundational virtue we should bring to the table, and because I’m a Christian, I’m going to suggest this love should be understood as “Christlike love.”

And I’m going to suggest that the act of love is an act of giving true attention, whether you’re a Christian or not.

From Aristotle to Augustine: Love, contemplation, and order

A few posts back, I suggested that most of the disorder we’re responding to the world is a result of our disordered hearts — our disordered love — hearts that orient humanity towards self-love at the expense of others. Virtue, or re-ordered love, will necessarily break this default pattern and seek order, rather than disorder. There are non-Christian accounts of virtue that seek to break this default, which I’ll get to below, but there’s also a sense that current visions of virtue, in the secular west, are derived from Christian moral philosophers who spent time reflecting on thinkers like Aristotle. If you were handing out jerseys to people who were influential thinkers on this front, after Aristotle and the New Testament, Augustine would definitely get a run in the team. People are still unpacking the implications of the stuff he wrote 1,600 years after he wrote it.

Augustine pinpointed the source of disorder in the world — the sort previously attributed to self-loving hearts — to hearts that reject God’s purposes for creation and humanity because they are hearts that love things in the wrong order. Disorder is a product of us paying attention to, and seeking satisfaction in, things that are not capable of satisfying our desires because they aren’t God. He saw the path to virtue as involving re-orienting, and re-ordering our love of objects in this world — people or otherwise — by loving God first, and having our love for other things ordered by this love.

And thus beauty, which is indeed God’s handiwork, but only a temporal, carnal, and lower kind of good, is not fitly loved in preference to God, the eternal, spiritual, and unchangeable good.  When the miser prefers his gold to justice, it is through no fault of the gold, but of the man; and so with every created thing.  For though it be good, it may be loved with an evil as well as with a good love:  it is loved rightly when it is loved ordinately; evilly, when inordinately.  It is this which some one has briefly said in these verses in praise of the Creator:  “These are Thine, they are good, because Thou art good who didst create them.  There is in them nothing of ours, unless the sin we commit when we forget the order of things, and instead of Thee love that which Thou hast made.”

But if the Creator is truly loved, that is, if He Himself is loved and not another thing in His stead, He cannot be evilly loved; for love itself is to be ordinately loved, because we do well to love that which, when we love it, makes us live well and virtuously.  So that it seems to me that it is a brief but true definition of virtue to say, it is the order of love; and on this account, in the Canticles, the bride of Christ, the city of God, sings, “Order love within me.” — Augustine, City of God, Book 15, Chapter 22

Then, in On Christian Doctrine, basically his version of the sort of ethical/rhetorical work which envisaged the ideal person as the ideal orator or teacher (following in the tradition of people like Cicero who spelled out his own vision of the virtuous person as a seer, knower, and speaker of truth in works like On The Ideal Orator (De Oratore)), Augustine wrote:

“Now he is a man of just and holy life who forms an unprejudiced estimate of things, and keeps his affections also under strict control, so that he neither loves what he ought not to love, nor fails to love what he ought to love, nor loves that equally which ought to be loved either less or more, nor loves less or more which ought to be loved equally. No sinner is to be loved as a sinner; and every man is to be loved as a man for God’s sake; but God is to be loved for His own sake. And if God is to be loved more than any man, each man ought to love God more than himself.”— Augustine, On Christian Doctrine I. 27. 28

When it came to defining what love actually means, Augustine started with the love he saw on display within the Trinity from person to person of the Trinity. His understanding of what love looks like was built from the Trinity up, and so, in a thing he wrote reflecting on the Trinity, called De Trinitate, he unpacked a series of links between knowledge, love, and the will. After establishing this same point about God being the first object of our love, saying “so God is to be loved, not this and that good, but the good itself…” he turns to how this sort of love shapes and defines a mind so that it can be called “good” — our minds, he suggests, are shaped by the things we love, and the things we love are the things we seek, and I’d suggest this seeking, for Augustine, is a sort of attempting to understand a thing accurately within our mind.

And to what can it turn itself that it may become a good mind, except to the good which it loves, and seeks, and obtains? And if it turns itself back again from this, and becomes not good, then by the very act of turning away from the good, unless that good remain in it from which it turns away, it cannot again turn itself back…

For Augustine, truly loving God (and by extension true loving) was a matter of seeking to truly know God in our own minds, by applying our minds to knowing and perceiving God (and by extension, whatever it is we seek to love).

But who loves what he does not know? For it is possible something may be known and not loved: but I ask whether it is possible that what is not known can be loved; since if it cannot, then no one loves God before he knows Him. And what is it to know God except to behold Him and steadfastly perceive Him with the mind?

The sort of love Augustine pictures here — both directed at God and others — is a love that seeks to know the mind of the other, not simply a love that loves another on our own terms. It essentially seeks to picture, or understand, the mind of the other within the mind of the self. This process begins with trying to understand God’s mind, and one’s own mind…

What, then, is love, except a certain life which couples or seeks to couple together some two things, namely, him that loves, and that which is loved? And this is so even in outward and carnal loves. But that we may drink in something more pure and clear, let us tread down the flesh and ascend to the mind. What does the mind love in a friend except the mind?

For the mind cannot love itself, except also it know itself; for how can it love what it does not know? Or if any body says that the mind, from either general or special knowledge, believes itself of such a character as it has by experience found others to be and therefore loves itself, he speaks most foolishly. For whence does a mind know another mind, if it does not know itself?”

For Augustine, perhaps unlike Aristotle, this sort of mindful love occurs as a response to seeing, paying attention to, and knowing those you love, but can also come through hearing about some other person removed from your immediate proximity…

For whence is the ardor of brotherly love kindled in me, when I hear that some man has borne bitter torments for the excellence and steadfastness of faith? And if that man is shown to me with the finger, I am eager to join myself to him, to become acquainted with him, to bind him to myself in friendship. And accordingly, if opportunity offers, I draw near, I address him, I converse with him, I express my goodwill towards him in what words I can, and wish that in him too in turn should be brought to pass and expressed goodwill towards me; and I endeavour after a spiritual embrace in the way of belief, since I cannot search out so quickly and discern altogether his innermost heart…

But those things themselves we either touch if present by the bodily sense, or if absent remember their images as fixed in our memory, or picture, in the way of likeness to them, such things as we ourselves also, if we wished and were able, would laboriously build up: figuring in the mind after one fashion the images of bodies, or seeing bodies through the body; but after another, grasping by simple intelligence what is above the eye of the mind, viz., the reasons and the unspeakably beautiful skill of such forms

This, of course, is interesting where we now hear and see things that we are not physically proximate to almost instantly. For Augustine this hearing could take place generations after the fact, and could also happen as someone received word about the plight of a person who seemed a world away. Our senses are now bombarded in a manner that does away with physical proximity, or time, as a barrier for knowledge. We form images of others — and see images of others — faster than ever before. Faster than we can possible process and understand with the sort of attention Augustine relished. The answer to navigating the complex mix of disorder that hits our eyes, I suspect, is caught up with rightly ordering our loves, and rightly understanding ourselves and our capacity to respond with love to others. We need to choose to weigh up the needs of those who can be pointed out to us by a finger, or who we see with our own eyes, and those whose presence is mediated to us via a screen, and presented to us via algorithms designed to hold our attention by presenting us with things we are likely to be outraged by — be it the dead squirrel in our yard, a dead lion, dead unborn children, or a dead child tragically washed up on a beach, or any number of meaningful or trivial things — the algorithm has an interest in fanning the flames of our hearts, and stoking our imaginations, in order to grip our attention.

This sort of bombardment of things to love, or respond to, leaves us in an interesting web of relationships with those we know and those we don’t.

It’s complicated.

Virtue as love, and love as the acts that flow from unselfish true seeing by paying attention

What’s the best we can hope to do amidst this complication? I think it’s caught up with the idea of the ethical life being the virtuous life — the life that isn’t as much focused on responding out of a sense of duty, but simply caught up with the idea of responding as a virtuous agent. Responding to whatever it is we see with a rightly ordered love. A love, for Christians, that starts with loving God, but moves to loving our (global) neighbour (or enemy) as we love ourselves. And I think the way to love, at least in this complicated world, is to love by paying attention in order to see things, and people, truly.

I think this model actually works without God too. Because I think it’s the most virtuous initial response to something happening a world away, because this true seeing underpins truly loving actions. It helps us know what is best. This is the sort of ‘good’ life that David Foster Wallace called people to live in his speech This Is Water

But if you’ve really learned how to think, how to pay attention, then you will know you have other options. It will be within your power to experience a crowded, loud, slow, consumer-hell-type situation as not only meaningful but sacred, on fire with the same force that lit the stars – compassion, love, the sub-surface unity of all things. Not that that mystical stuff’s necessarily true: the only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re going to try to see it. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. You get to decide what to worship… — David Foster Wallace, This Is Water

I think it’s a really nice picture of what I understand to be a model of virtuous living without God, and even a model for life with God. David Foster Wallace is the secular world’s CS Lewis. The beauty of his writing, be it fiction or non-fiction, is that it practices the sort of virtue described in This Is Water. He notices things. This virtuous attention to detail, an attempt to describe things and people as they really are, not just as you’d like them to be, is a virtuous and loving approach to writing, and to life. It means we must pay attention to things other than ourselves.

This idea of attention as virtue is interesting, it was a seed planted for me when I was reading something comparing two of my favourite writers— David Foster Wallace and Nicholson Baker — as I grappled with what it is I like about their writing, and the thing I like is that they are attentive to, and bring out, detail. The thing these guys might have in common is that they share a vision of goodness or virtue with novelist/moral philosopher Iris Murdoch. There’s an essay that examines the moral philosophy of This Is Water that suggests a link to Murdoch’s framework, and Baker is an avowed fan. I like the idea that novelists (like Wallace, Baker, and Murdoch) can teach us how to see and perceive the world morally, by asking us moral questions but also by inviting us to pay attention to life through the eyes of their characters, here’s a little paragraph from a Slate article about Baker, its the paragraph that sent me off to read Iris Murdoch because it intrigued me… For context, this comes as the piece discusses Baker’s expressed desire to preserve factoids and articles marked for deletion on Wikipedia (you can read Baker’s Wikipedia essay here).

“That same instinct for preservation underpins the way Baker writes. Ever since his first essays and stories appeared in the early ‘80s, he has always been noting things deemed non-notable by others, gently urging them towards us with his precise, delightful language.  His style is deeply moral—not in a preachy sense, but in the sense that it emerges from the way he sees the world. His ethics are absorbed into his aesthetics, and vice versa.

In all this there is the flavor of one of Baker’s favorite authors, Iris Murdoch, who centered her moral philosophy on the idea of “loving attention”—the idea that looking at a person or situation with intense care and imaginative sympathy is, in her words, “the characteristic and proper mark of the moral agent.” The lovingly precise descriptions Baker offers of even the most fleeting things that he comes across are a way of doing justice to those things—of honoring their dignity, if that’s not too grand and religious-sounding a phrase to use. (Baker is an atheist, and also a pacifist.)”

Murdoch unpacks this vision of virtue and morality in a book called The Sovereignty of Good, like Baker, and perhaps like DFW (nobody can really pinpoint exactly where he landed on the God question), Murdoch sees no need for God to form part of defining morality.

It’s hard for me to go this many words, in any written thing, without quoting Cicero, so here’s how he defined virtue. Which I think is important too. Especially the “habit” bit.

“A habit accompanied by, or arising out of, deliberate choice, and based upon free and conscious action”

Murdoch agrees, but suggests this habit starts with the application of the senses, and the mind, to things beyond ourselves. A conscious act of “unselfing”…

“The love which brings the right answer is an exercise of justice and realism and really looking. The difficulty is to keep the attention fixed on the real situation and to prevent it from returning surreptitiously to the self with consolations of self-pity, resentment, fantasy, and despair…  Of course virtue is good habit and dutiful action. But the background condition of such habit and such action, in human beings, is a just mode of vision and a good quality of consciousness. It is a task to come to see the world as it is.”

“But I would suggest that, at the level of serious common sense and of an ordinary non-philosophical reflection about the nature of morals, it is perfectly obvious that goodness is connected with knowledge; not with impersonal quasi-scientific knowledge of the ordinary world, whatever that may be, but with a refined and honest perception of what is really the case, a patient and just discernment and exploration of what confronts one, which is the result not simply of opening one’s eyes but of a certain and perfectly familiar kind of moral discipline.”

“Goodness is connected with the attempt to see the ‘unself,’ to see and to respond to the real world in the light of a virtuous consciousness, in the light of the idea of perfection. This is the non-metaphysical meaning of the idea of transcendence to which philosophers have so constantly resorted in their explanations of goodness. ‘Good is a transcendent reality,’ means that virtue is the attempt to pierce the veil of selfish consciousness and join the world as it really is.” — Iris Murdoch, The Sovereignty of Good

This fits with how Augustine, and the “Augustinian Tradition” understood love based on God’s love within the Trinity, and towards creation, or, as Oliver O’Donovan puts it: “The term by which the Augustinian tradition expressed the idea of an originally committed attention is “love.” This idea of “love as committed attention” means true seeing involves both understanding and being oriented towards a right response. This, I’d suggest, is what virtue looks like in the face of outrageous events in a disordered world. First knowing who we are, and who we are to love, and then acting according to our judgment from this basis. Or, as O’Donovan explains it…

“To know any thing is to grasp its inherent intelligibility, which is its good: but to grasp its intelligibility is to grasp it and, in grasping it, to cling to it in love…”Thinking morally” is a much wider activity than thinking toward decision. It includes an attention to the world which is both affective and evaluative…Our whole world of beings and events is known to us only as we love and hate. At the root of moral thought is a necessary taking stock of the world. a discrimination prior to any decision we may subsequently make to influence the world. We shall call this taking stock “moral reflection,” to distinguish it from moral deliberation, which is directed toward decision. The metaphors contained in these two words suggest the distinction: `reflection” is “turning back” to look on something that is already there, an existing reality, “behind you,” as it were; “deliberation” is “weighing up,” facing an alternative, looking at possible courses of action that have not yet occurred…Moral reflection is not without a practical significance but it is nor oriented to any action in particular, but to the task of existence itself. In reflection we answer the question ‘how shall we live?” not “what shall we do?”

“By relating ourselves cognitively and affectively to the good and evil that we see within the created world around us, we adopt a posture that is the source of all our actions, but is not itself another action, or a summary of actions, but an affirmation of what we are.” — Oliver O’Donovan, Common Objects of Love

David Foster Wallace thought this sort of seeing of the world necessarily produced a freedom from the selfish default, and simultaneously tapped us in to some deeper sense of connection with “some infinite thing” — I’d suggest this infinite thing is caught up with our created telos — the purpose and sense of the divine written on every human heart.

“… The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the “rat race” – the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.” — David Foster Wallace, This Is Water

So how does this seeing, this giving of committed attention, work? What governs how we understand what we see via our attention, and how we respond? It’s all caught up with the narrative we use to see our lives — the equipment we have for processing outrage — and this is a product of what we worship — what we place at the centre of the narrative.

David Foster Wallace also understood this act of deciding how to see the world as an act of worship, and something which frees us to decide what it is to worship — the thing, other than ourselves (and for some, the self) that helps us not just see the world, but how to interact with it well. This sense of true seeing and true acting being based in something other than ourself is important if we are self-aware enough to believe that we shouldn’t be setting the universal standard of our own accord. And our selfish default, when we recognise it, should be enough to prevent that sort of self-belief. It’s what

Virtuous seeing begins with a realisation that we are people-in-community, or people-in-relationship, not just selves running around existing in isolation. Christian moral philosopher Stanley Hauerwas says:

“The self is fundamentally a social self. We are not individuals who come into contact with others and then decide our various levels of social involvement. We are not “I’s” who decide to identify with certain “we’s”; we are first of all “we’s” who discover our “I’s” through learning to recognise the others as similar and different from ourselves. Our individuality is possible only because we are first of all social beings. After all, the “self” names not a thing, but a relation. I know who I am only in relation to others, and, indeed, who I am is a relation with others.” — Stanley Hauerwas

Hauerwas sees ethics about truly seeing the world, but he locates our ability to do this in looking beyond ourselves to a bigger story, starting with God’s story and what it says about us…

Ethics… is not primarily about rules and principles, rather it is about how the self must be transformed to see the world truthfully. For Christians, such seeing develops through schooling in a narrative which teaches us how to use the language of sin not only about others, but about ourselves

This “language of sin” stuff is really, in one sense, a description of the realisation of our default selfishness, and also the realisation that left to our own devices, we produce outrageous events, we don’t just witness them. The narrative Hauerwas calls us to find ourselves in is the Gospel narrative, the narrative that rewires our default, and reorients our sense of self through that commandment Augustine loved so much (and the one from the start, the words of Jesus that call us to love our enemies).

Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.” — Jesus, Matthew 22:37-38

Seeing and acting is the basis for Christian loving that follows in the footsteps of Jesus. It’s what we’re called to do as “children of God” in 1 John. It’s how “we love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19).

See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God!… This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth. — 1 John 3:1, 16-18

For Christians, our response to the outrage we see in the world is meant to mirror God’s response to the outrage he saw in the world, and our lives, sacrificial, costly, getting amongst the mess because we are motivated by love. Love isn’t just about attention, or “words and speech” — outpourings of outrage from behind a keyboard. It’s hard stuff that costs us. Actions. Truth. True seeing leads to true actions, and true seeing, linked with the truth of the Christian narrative — both the outrageous truth it reveals about us, and the outrageous love shown to us to change our narrative — reshapes the way we respond to outrage. We pay attention to the stories and the people involved because they have dignity and are worthy of love, and seeing truly is important for true actions. We avoid outrage and knee jerk reactions. We extend grace and love to those who are disordered, because we were once disordered, and we extend grace and love to those who are victims of disorder, because that too, is how God first loved us.

This doesn’t necessarily help us when there are 1,000 things commanding our attention and our pity, responding to this bombardment involves:

  1. Prayer as our attention is drawn to things, which costs us time, but takes us to the one who can provide solutions, and we’re confident of this because of the solution we found in our own lives,
  2. Seeking truth, and being known to be credible givers of attention, rather than simply believing every unverified rumour shared on social media, and gives us pause to check the truth of what we say before we say it, or post it,
  3. This means looking for truth beyond the headlines and the soundbites. Paying the sort of attention to detail we see in the work of virtuous novelists to the characters in these stories.
  4. Continuing to pay attention long after the attention span of the self-loving community moves on. How many people still have ن pictures as Facebook profile pictures? How many people are still crying out for justice against Kony? How many people care about dead lions? How many people are going to care about Syrian refugees in six months when they might actually be arriving on our shores.
  5. Speaking truth, and thinking about the nexus between love as committed attention and action, and considering what actions might be appropriate for us in the communities we belong to.
  6. It involves discipline and discernment. Knowing our limits and avoiding being desensitised to the chaotic disorder in our world, we actually can’t respond to everything, and outrage will be just about every where we look, so we may need to moderate where we look based on where we are able to act, though this doesn’t mean being interested by geographic proximity, rather it involves being limited by where we’re able to respond. That we can respond with prayer does significantly broaden the geographic scope.
  7. It involves costly action in response.

It’s worth checking out this Centre of Public Christianity interview with the ABC’s Scott Stephens about the moral responsibility that comes from disturbing images.

Here’s the CPX blurb.

“Scott Stephens argues that, in a visually saturated culture, images can both move us and dull us to the plight of others. There exists then a moral dimension to our exposure to images that requires a careful and intentional response.”

12 Great ideas on Faith and Public Office

The Centre for the Study of Science, Religion, and Society is a bit of a mouthful, but it’s worth learning how to wrap your tongue around the multiple syllables, or trying to remember the acronym (CSSRS). It’s based at Emmanuel College at the University of Queensland (where Queensland Theological College also resides), and is headed up by Dr Leigh Trevaskis. A top bloke with PhDs in science and theology. It’s aiming to provide an interface between the academic world and the classical Christian faith, and has regular events and a website that will (hopefully) have increasingly valuable content as these conferences take place and fill the digital airwaves (pixelwaves?) with content.

The Centre just held a conference on Faith and Public Office, I tagged along in my capacity as a member of the Presbyterian Church’s committee that thinks about the intersection between faith and public office (and to write a news story about the day that will maybe one day feature in the Eternity newspaper). I don’t want to steal the thunder of that story too much, but a 650 word news story (I can still write in less than 6,000 words) is bound to miss some goodness from the stellar line up of panelists. It was a terrific conference, and I’ll be keeping an eye on upcoming CSSRS events.

galileotrial
Image: The Trial of Galileo, a picture of faith and public office coming together in a possibly not so helpful way, and the banner image of the CSSRS.

1. A beneficial public square is a public square that hears all voices. A public square that silences dissenting voices and views, or establishes a common denominator that excludes richness is a path to catastrophe.

This was a sort of universally agreed upon point. Former Deputy PM John Anderson gave the opening speech, kicking off a theme that carried through the day. The public square benefits from people of faith bringing their views to the table – not just ‘natural law’ arguments or arguments based upon an agreed upon set of common assumptions – because hearing all views is vital to a liberal, secular, democracy. The suggestion that views need to be evidence based and speak only of things that everyone agrees on, especially when it is used to silence faith based voices, is not secular but secularist.

If only voices that speak according to an already established general consensus are allowed to be heard, then that consensus will never be able to shift. Anderson gave the example of voices from outside agreed upon norms that have achieved great change, and present examples that should be heard in order to provoke thought. He suggested William Wilberforce, Martin Luther King, and secular ethicist Peter Singer would all be ruled out of contributions to public life on the basis of the assumption that conversation must start with common agreement, rather than seek it.

In speaking of the need for a better public square, many of the contributors acknowledged the challenges presented by social media, as well as the tendency for people to shout down views they’re opposed to with increasingly vitriolic methods. But more on that below.

2. Public life, and public office, based on reason, evidence, and the rule of law alone is not enough to stoke the fires of the imagination.

We need a more comprehensive narrative and a fuller view of humanity that speaks to the heart and soul, not just the mind. The conference was co-sponsored by UQ’s Law School, and the head of the Law School, Professor Sarah Derrington opened the festivities with the observation that public life becomes soulless if it just emphasises the bones and foundation of the rule of law and rationality. If that’s all we have, she said:

“The aching of the soul finds no relief in secular politics; civic life has become a farcical drama”

Others observed that the imagination will only be fired if people in the public square introduce counter-narratives that both have a place for the use of the imagination and the heart, and fire those parts of our humanity up in the process. These aren’t exclusively the domain of the Christian, but the Christian has a pretty good story that’ll do this.

3. We need virtuous heroes to speak into this public square to remind us of what has shaped the good parts of where we are today.

It’s not really enough to just be a good political strategist. A few of the panelists, especially those closest to the political scene, moved the discussion about the ideal politician from someone bound by duty to represent the will of the public, to someone elected on the basis of virtue. Fiona Simpson spoke about virtuous servant leadership using Kathleen Patterson’s model of servant leadership, which lists the virtues as:

  1. agape love
  2. humility
  3. altruism
  4. vision
  5. trust
  6. empowerment
  7. service

I’m all for virtue ethics. I found her presentation interesting when it was paired with Michael Cooney’s presentation on The Faithful Partisan in Public Office. Cooney is Executive Director of the Chifley Research Centre and former speechwriter for Prime Minister Julia Gillard. He’s a church going, card carrying, member of the Labor movement. He talked about a few things but his basic thesis was that the pursuit of political neutrality, or fence sitting, doesn’t really serve anybody all that well. There’s a bit about the implications of this when it comes to commentators trying to appear objective below, but he suggested there’s a real moral challenge for partisan stakeholders when they’re participating in a party that requires holding to a party platform you might disagree with. There’s some interesting ground to unpack here on the Catholic roots of the Labor Party and its approach to ‘excommunication’ versus the Coalition’s less strident position on floor crossing outside cabinet. But Cooney spoke about the challenge of being a faithful partisan – in being both faithful to God and the Party – he talked about political martyrs, those who disagree with a party’s position, and walk away. He said it’s easy to find your way out of politics, with integrity via martyrdom. What’s harder is finding your way still in. Staying in the party. He discussed this harder way using a political dilemma, the Dirty Hands metaphor. This is for cases where a political actor is forced to choose between two bad options. Cooney doesn’t think martyrdom in the face of dirty hands is the best way to serve the public, or a partisan ideology. It’s not enough to just wash your hands of situations like this to avoid being confronted by the mess of structuring messy lives via politics. He quoted this article by Michael Walzer which posits a “suffering servant” leader as the ideal actor through messy dirty hands scenarios, one who knows they are sacrificing themselves and the cleanliness of their hands, for the sake of others. For Cooney (and Walzer), the virtuous partisan political decision maker navigates the dirty hands that come from being involved in the system by being someone of virtue, conviction, and conscience, someone who we can be confident acts as rightly as they can because when they do the wrong thing, they know and believe its a wrong thing, not the best thing. Importantly, Cooney made the point that the partisan doesn’t just operate on behalf of the party, but also the partial. He said “the party is not your city” – partisan participation in politics isn’t just a question of “right politics” but the “good society” and the way to really achieve that, as a partisan, is via humility and repentance. Rather than opting for martyrdom, he suggested partisans should be penitents rather than saints. This is his picture of a political hero.

 

John Anderson’s vision of the virtuous political actor – the hero – is somewhat embodied by William Wilberforce (and the Seventh Earl of Shaftesbury), but also drawn from a speech by Churchill. He loves the way Wilberforce approached politics seeking to bring about social good as the fruits of his faith, rather than detaching them in a secularist sense.

This is what it looks like to be remembered as a virtuous hero. Churchill’s hero, and Anderson’s, is mindful of history and speaks truth to people who are all too willing to forget history – in this context people who are wilfully ignorant of the fact that a liberal secular democracy – and all the things we love about the system – is, historically, the fruit of Christian principles about human dignity being applied to politics.

“One of the signs of a great society is the diligence with which it passes culture from one generation to the next. This culture is the embodiment of everything the people of that society hold dear: its religious faith, it’s heroes… when one generation no longer esteems it’s own heritage and fails to pass the torch to its children, it is saying in essence that the very foundational principles and experiences that make the society what it is are no longer valid. This leaves that generation without any sense of definition or direction, making them the fulfillment of Karl Marx’s dictum, ‘A people without a heritage are easily persuaded.’ What is required when this happens and the society has lost its way, is for leaders to arise who have. It forgotten the discarded legacy and who loves it with all their hearts. They can then become the voice of that lost generation, wooing an errant generation back to the faith of their fathers, back to the ancient foundations and bedrock values.” – Winston Churchill

What’s interesting, I think, is that all these models of talking about virtuous servant leadership talk a little around the example of Jesus, rather than self-consciously being shaped by the example of Jesus. As much as we need to keep acknowledging the gap between our leadership and Jesus’ perfect servant leadership, we are being transformed into his image, and we are united with him by the Spirit (this isn’t necessarily the lynchpin of Catholic theology, and Cooney, at least, was speaking as a Catholic). Jesus is the real virtuous suffering servant, who embodies the true forms of Patterson’s virtues and remembered human history perfectly, drawing on it in order to speak rightly. Anderson did make a bit of a deal about his political heroes consciously seeking to base their actions in the Gospel, and the imitation of Christ, but he turned to Churchill, rather than Jesus, to provide the framework.

In the panel at the end someone, I think the ABC’s Scott Stephens, made the comment that virtues are taught by example. By story. Not by rules and regulations. We need more people leading by example.

4. Winsome and thoughtful contributions that assume the validity of our faith based framework are necessary, because actions are shaped by ideology.

I think it’s interesting given point 2, above, and the desire expressed by the speakers for truth-speaking, virtuous political actors and a public sphere that accepts all voices, that so many Christian voices buy into secularist assumptions and speak into the public sphere using natural law arguments, or arguments devoid of soul, imagination, and an attempt to articulate the divine mind. We’ve accepted the secularist position as the secular position without challenging its assumptions. And now. It’s coming back to bite.

Dr Joel Harrison is a law lecturer at Macquarie University, he spoke about the problem this presents in the legal sphere, where jurists now reject any transcendent rationale for behaviour in the real world, the legal system is increasingly dismissive of reasons for behaviour that are not based on common assumptions, and (in a technical sense “more immanent”) evidence based (meaning empircal, science based or logic based) models, for human flourishing. Harrison cautioned that we need to find ways to speak into this world, but we also need to be modelling winsome alternative visions of the good that accommodate a sense of the transcendent. Part of the reason he gave for the legal system moving this way is how poorly such alternatives have been argued in the legal sphere, and in past cases. He suggested contributions that re-introduce, or assume, the validity of the Christian narrative might be a way forward. He suggested Nicholas Aroney’s presentation on The Role of Oaths in Public Office was a good example of what this might look like. It’ll be worth a read when it gets released or published.

5. We must match political arguments with an ‘eloquent life’ in public

Anderson quoted Wilberforce’s epitaph. Which I love.

“He was among the foremost of those who fixed the character of their times; because to high and various talents, to warm benevolence, and to universal candour, he added the abiding eloquence of a Christian life. Eminent as he was in every department of public labour, and a leader in every work of charity, whether to relieve the temporal or the spiritual wants of his fellow-men.”

6. The media’s pursuit of ‘objectivity’ leaves the media commenting on and highlighting questions of political strategy rather than substance and issues (lest they be seen to take sides).

Cooney made this point as he spoke about the common belief that somehow fence-sitting or non-partisanship is somehow a greater good, or a more ethical and virtuous position. Cooney’s broader point was that rightness and wrongness can’t easily be assessed from a disinterested position or the centre. He suggested that in not actually digging to the bottom of issues (to avoid being accused of being partisan) the media has to comment on less substantial issues.

7. The media has a self interest in defining the public and reflecting the public’s views back at itself as a new orthodoxy. This process is dangerous.

Scott Stephens, from the ABC’s Religion and Ethics portal, gave a terrific presentation on the nature of the public, and the public press, and the public square. I hope it gets published somewhere because he crammed three hours worth of great content into 45 minutes. He outlined the process by which the press enlarged, empowered, hollowed out, and then dismembered the public. Here are a some of the questions he raised (and largely answered, though some of them remained questions, and a couple of the points he made that outline this story of the relationship between the media and the public. These are in quote marks to show they come from Scott, but they’re hastily typed notes, not verbatim.

The rise of the public happens alongside the rise of the media. The media never tires of repeating this story, because the media is the hero of the story. The heroic narrative is the story of the throwing off of the old order, the regime of monarchy and church. The press fuelled the revolution, then gradually took its modern form, where it became the medium by which common ideas were debated.

If the popular press is a plebiscite in permanence, then what happens is the press becomes the vehicle that extracts what people think, and turns around and tells people, “this is what you really think”… ?

The more people see themselves reflected in the public press, the more interested they become in the public press. In order for the popular press to be the popular press, the people need to become actors in the public square.

How does this help when it comes to issues that are extraordinarily complex? When you actually want expertise not populism?

This all led to opinion polling, which enshrines the plebiscite in permanence function. When polling started there was a rapid uptake by the public. People polled responded more than 80% of the time, but there was a slow uptake from the media. Now. 6-7% of people polled respond to polling requests, but the stories about opinion polls are the major drivers of stories.

8. Journalists have adopted cynicism as something intrinsic to the role of journalism, this is dangerous to the ‘public’

This is another part of the media story which explains why giving the press the role we have is a little dangerous to both those in public office, and those of us who make up their “public”…

Young journos who came of age during the cold war really wanted to get back into “muckraking” – not offering the sort of faith to public figures that they’d had in the past, but instead to view public officers with skepticism and distrust. Inspired by Watergate (and All The Presidents Men) the journalist became the modern hero. At the expense of the politicians. Keep tabs on how many ‘-gates’ we have these days as journalists hunt for their own version.

Cynicism became a journalistic virtue. Once you take cynicism and disrupt the big channels of communication, and begin to disaggregate the way people get their information, that’s the perfect storm. You’re supercharging it. It’s a climate of suspicion and doubt.

More than any other thing, cynicism is killing us. Doubt. Secularism. Forget those. Cynicism is killing our common life. Our inability to trust one another and look for and hope for the best from our public figures is destroying the bonds that ought to hold us in common. All journalists want their moment. Changing your mind is condemned as a betrayal of public trust. We are killing the ecology of the public conversation. It’s not vested interest that is corrupting public life. It’s lack of imagination. It’s laziness. It’s the inability to have our imagination stimulated by a desire for something more.

9. The church might have a role to play (along with an ethically minded public broadcaster) in shaping the public square in a way that is beneficial to society and especially for voices at the margins.

This was perhaps my favourite quote from my favourite presentation at the conference…

Could it be that the role of the church (and the public broadcaster?) is not so much to be one ideological warrior among many, but the shepherd/keeper of the moral ecology of the public square itself. The defender of whomever is excluded from the public square itself.

This is probably a good way of articulating a big question that I’ve been grappling with both in my own head, and in some recent posts. This is the virtuous and heroic thing for us to do, according to the views of public heroism outlined above, but it’s also the thing that will ensure we maintain a voice at the table even as the public shifts away from us.

10. Social media might be part of the solution. But it is dangerous.

A few speakers, both in their presentations and in the panel discussion at the end, expressed a sense of dismay about the state of the public square, and the way social media seems to be an amplified version of some of the problems with traditional media, where people angrily clamour at one another belting out screeds using keyboards that are sent to wide audiences via ubiquitous screens. There was a sense of optimism from some people that social media could be a game changer, and I believe it could be something the church (and the public broadcaster) use to play the role Stephens articulated above. But it’s a question of creating a platform that genuinely invites all voices to be heard, and that’s harder than it sounds. Cooney, who often belts out partisan opinion pieces in a couple of hours for the ABC’s The Drum, and a few others, acknowledged that there are heaps of online platforms that function just like Q&A, where people go hunting for an ideological champion. People on the panel generally agreed that The Conversation is a pretty good model of what this sort of platform looks like (even if it is a little high brow).

Michael Cooney reckoned the biggest game changer in social media is that it changes the way we receive content. It’s not the concentrated editorial policy of a publication with an agenda (and he, as a partisan, acknowledged there are commercial media outlets both sides expect favourable treatment from), but articles shared by friends and people you follow as trusted curators. I think this is certainly true if you can navigate the noise of Twitter. But Facebook is a little more pernicious. The “filter bubble” effect means you’re just as likely to become entrenched in your views on social media as you are in the mainstream (see this piece on coverage of the Israel v Palestine conflict in the newsfeed of various Facebook users), unless you deliberately give voice to people you disagree with, or who have a different perspective to you, and pay attention to them. This means combating the default settings of Facebook’s algorithm (and to an extent, Google’s search algorithms).

The question I wanted to ask the panel was:

Given that Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg says his social media platform functions with the underlying principle that “a squirrel dying in your front yard may be more relevant to your interests right now than people dying in Africa,” and given online media is increasingly curated via algorithms that create this ‘filter bubble’ that are designed to give us what we want to see, how might we play the role Scott Stephens suggests as “keeper of the moral ecology” – the giving and protecting of voices, especially marginalized voices, in an age where new media exists in a ‘filter bubble’? What does this look like?

This, I think, is the question the church absolutely needs to grapple with if we want to play a significant role in the public square, and even, I think, if we want to have a voice in the public square into the future.

11. We need more silence. The Media (and social media) operate as Kierkegaardian “irresponsible speech”

Scott Stephens spoke about Kierkegaard’s (very negative) view of the press, and the sense that moral thought is something that comes through silence as a person considers what is right and true, not through simply speaking opinion without any responsibility or obligation being attached to your words. Both the media and social media function as noisy echo chambers that don’t give people the silence they need to consider moral questions, and worse, they simply entrench opinions people already hold (this is even more dangerous if the social media world is shaped by algorithms and filter bubbles, but Stephens didn’t get to speak much about that). He did speak about the problem with the media as typified by panel discussion shows…

The debate itself, the nature of the conversation, destroys the conversation. The way in which the conversation is had pulls down all sides. It’s about appealing to one’s constituents rather than persuading. All people do is appeal to their constituents so audiences now expect a champion to speak for their point of view well, not to be persuaded. WE don’t get the best versions of the arguments but cardboard cutouts. You already know what people are going to say. The point is that an already fractured audience can look at the panel and say “there’s my champion” and “there’s the person I love to hate”

12. Politics is a tricky business. And we need more people of character. More prayer. More understanding. And more politicians following the ‘golden rule’

In her opening address to the conference, the head of UQ’s Law School, Professor Sarah Derrington, talked about how people of faith in public office have come up with a common agreement about a golden rule that guides their contributions to public life. I tried to capture as much of this golden rule as I could, but I missed a couple of bits.

The Golden Rule involves always showing respect for the other, acknowledging the limits of one’s understanding, listening patiently, using precise language, trying to understand the experience that led to the other person’s views, looking for mutual agreement. Praying for leaders. Not using inflammatory words or derogatory names, not delighting in difficulties, not assaulting character or falsely assuming motives, not demonizing, not questioning the patriotism of others.

Derrington quoted a prayer from Dag Hammarskjöld, the second Secretary General of the United Nations, as a prayer that is a model for how faithful office bearers might pray.

You who are over us,
You who are one of us,
You who are also within us,
May all see you-in me also.
May I prepare the way for you,
May I thank you for all
that shall fall to my lot,
May I also not forget the needs of others.
Give me a pure heart-that I may see you.
A humble heart-that I may hear you,
A heart of love-that I may serve you,
A heart of faith-that I may abide in you. Amen.

I like this. One thing I was reminded, hearing from various people engaged in public life, in various roles, in a most excellent conference, was that one way the church is meant to serve those who serve us — be they people of faith or otherwise — is through prayer. Faithful prayer because we have a virtuous suffering servant as our true king, who marks out our true citizenship, defines virtue by example, and calls us to live where we are as exiles who live good lives for the sake of our neighbours and enemies. Here’s how Paul puts it in 1 Timothy 2…

I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people—  for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all people.”

 

On outrage: some ancient visions of virtue

People are arguing about whether one can be outraged about a dead lion, when they could, alternatively, be outraged about dead babies. I think they’re arguing about the wrong thing, and outraged about the wrong thing, and we should be thankful that people aren’t just outraged about dead squirrels. Ultimately the questions that matter are the questions of what you are paying attention to, and how you’re doing that…

This is a series of posts exploring the nature of outrage, the internet, the human condition, and virtue. First, we considered that outrage might be a disordered form of loving attention, next, we considered that social media works to show us things calculated to appeal to our selfishness, then whether we have a moral obligation to notice or pay attention to disorder, and where we might or might not be culpable for failing to be outraged, then the link between a dead lion and Planned Parenthood — our disordered hearts, we considered the purpose of outrage.

So how do we put outrage in its place? How do we prevent ourselves from becoming defined by our outrage, and whatever it is we’re outraged about at any given moment? How do we respond rightly —love rightly — when we are confronted by or experience disorder? What stops us getting outraged and allows us to offer love as a corrective and comfort?

I think the answer to all these questions is tied up in being people, or communities, of character — or virtue — which means figuring out what it means to be good, or loving in a disordered but increasingly outraged world. If we talk of outrage having a purpose, or telos, in helping us live in and understand things about the world, we’re already sounding like little Aristotles.

Aristotle, arete, divine contemplation, and internet outrage

Aristotle might seem pretty irrelevant to figuring out why we react with outrage, whether its constructive, and what a more virtuous response might look like, but while he’s an old dead Greek guy, his understanding of ethics, telos, and virtue were influential for influential Christian thinkers like Augustine, and even influential secular moral philosophers. So it’s worth getting our moral bearings by looking at some of his thinking first.

The ancient Greek’s had this word arete which carried the sense of excellence, in a sort of moral sense. In Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics its most often translated as virtue. In Aristotle’s exploration of what exactly virtue is, he ultimately settled on contemplation or the pursuit of knowledge as the highest virtue, the telos of human intelligence. According to Aristotle, virtues in other aspects of life involved identifying the ‘mean’ between two extremes” — you could only do this with a mind capable of choosing what the right course of action involved.

“Virtue then is a settled disposition of the mind determining the choice of actions and emotions, consisting essentially in the observance of the mean relative to us, this being determined by principle, that is, as the prudent man would determine it.

For example, the effect of excellence in the eye is that the eye is good and functions well; since having good eyes means having good sight. Similarly excellence in a horse makes it a good horse, and also good at galloping, at carrying its rider, and at facing the enemy.  If therefore this is true of all things, excellence or virtue in a man will be the disposition which renders him a good man and also which will cause him to perform his function well.” — Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book 2, Chapter 6

This is why it is a hard task to be good, for it is hard to find the middle point in anything: for instance, not everybody can find the center of a circle, but only someone who knows geometry. So also anybody can become angry—that is easy, and so it is to give and spend money; but to be angry with or give money to the right person, and to the right amount, and at the right time, and for the right purpose, and in the right way—this is not within everybody’s power and is not easy; so that to do these things properly is rare, praiseworthy, and noble. — Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book 2, Chapter 9

Modern moral philosophers can’t really speak of virtue without speaking of love, and earlier I put forward the conclusion I’m working towards earlier — back in post one of this mini-series (talk about giving the game away) — that virtue looks like loving attention. Aristotle isn’t so interested in love as the supreme virtue, certainly not when it comes to charting a virtuous response to the disordered world, when that disorder is beyond our ability to influence (he was writing before clicktivism), but he does lay a platform for the idea that virtue and attention, or contemplation, overlap, and this sense that moral excellence (arete) is tied up with us living out our purpose/function, our telos.

Aristotle has his own version of the dead squirrel, he limits the span of our virtuous giving of attention, or deliberation, to that which we can effectively change through our own actions.

As for Deliberation, do people deliberate about everything—are all things possible objects of deliberation—or are there some things about which deliberation is impossible? The term ‘object of deliberation’ presumably must not be taken to include things about which a fool or a madman might deliberate, but to mean what a sensible person would deliberate about…

Well then, nobody deliberates about things eternal, such as the order of the universe, or the incommensurability of the diagonal and the side, of a square. Nor yet about things that change but follow a regular process, whether from necessity or by nature or through some other cause: such phenomena for instance as the solstices and the sunrise. Nor about irregular occurrences, such as droughts and rains. Nor about the results of chance, such as finding a hidden treasure. The reason why we do not deliberate about these things is that none of them can be effected by our agency. We deliberate about things that are in our control and are attainable by action…

But we do not deliberate about all human affairs without exception either: for example, no Lacedaemonian deliberates about the best form of government for Scythia; but any particular set of men deliberates about the things attainable by their own actions. — Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book 4

Our ability to love, a bit like our ability to contemplate, deliberate, or give our attention to something is limited by proximity and our capacity, beyond a certain number of relationships that involve real love, Aristotle reckoned we just loved what we got from people, be it something in return, or just the pleasure of their company.

It is not possible to have many friends in the full meaning of the word friendship, any more than it is to be in love with many people at once(love indeed seems to be an excessive state of emotion, such as is naturally felt towards one person only); and it is not easy for the same person to like a number of people at once, nor indeed perhaps can good men be found in large numbers. Also for perfect friendship you must get to know a man thoroughly, and become intimate with him, which is a very difficult thing to do. But it is possible to like a number of persons for their utility and pleasantness, for useful and pleasant people are plentiful, and the benefits they confer can be enjoyed at once. — Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book 8

There was a sort of love Aristotle thought you might offer to people outside this sphere, more an analogy to this love, a virtuous ‘mean’ that involved a “habit of approving or reprehending properly” — the person who does this will be “similarly affable to those whom he does not, and to those whom he does know, this is a sort of loving attention, the appropriate application of one’s attention and efforts based on your assessment of your ability to both relate to a person, and control an outcome in the situation.

Aristotle believed that the exercise of our intellect through contemplation is both what separates us from the animal kingdom, and takes us closest to the divine (or is the activity of the “divinest part of us.” Contemplation is the path to real happiness, and to imitating God and thus, to being favoured by the gods.

And it seems likely that the man who pursues intellectual activity, and who cultivates his intellect and keeps that in the best condition, is also the man most beloved of the gods. For if, as is generally believed, the gods exercise some superintendence over human affairs, then it will be reasonable to suppose that they take pleasure in that part of man which is best and most akin to themselves, namely the intellect, and that they recompense with their favours those men who esteem and honour this most, because these care for the things dear to themselves, and act rightly and nobly. Now it is clear that all these attributes belong most of all to the wise man. He therefore is most beloved by the gods; and if so, he is naturally most happy. Here is another proof that the wise man is the happiest. Aristot. Nic. Eth. 10.8

Arete and the Christian

Arete features prominently in Aristotle, so you’d expect other ethical texts from the ancient world to play with it a bit. It’s worth noting, briefly, that Aristotle would not have treated Jesus like a virtuous person. Jesus might have the ability to contemplate the divine mind, but his life — especially his humility (including his failure to pursue personal honour), and his giving up of power and status for the sake of the weak, means Jesus is everything Aristotle’s vision of arete is not. This sharp distinction between Aristotle and Jesus is important, because it might help us understand the way the New Testament — Paul and Peter specifically — use arete. For Paul, arete is not the act of contemplation, but the focus of our contemplation… the bolded words in the following passages are, in the Greek, arete (or αρετη).

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you. — Philippians 4:8-9

For Peter, arete is the character of God, and God’s people exist to proclaim these ‘excellencies’… contemplation is a means to this end, first we think about God’s excellencies, then we proclaim them…

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.  — 1 Peter 2:9

Peter brings these together in his second letter. Our knowledge of God, through his glory and arete is what we need in order to add arete to our faith. This sort of knowledge based arete is the basis for our virtuous living and our productivity (remember, Aristotle linked arete to efficiency and our ability to achieve our telos.

His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires.

For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. But whoever does not have them is nearsighted and blind, forgetting that they have been cleansed from their past sins. – 2 Peter 1:5-9

It’s interesting that in terms of a progression from arete, Peter moves from arete to knowledge, to self-control, all the way to love, which Peter, unlike Aristotle, seems to see as the ultimate virtue (amongst other virtues). It’s interesting that like Aristotle he sees arete as very closely linked to the divine nature. For Aristotle, the contemplative life is virtuous because it enables the contemplator to figure out the virtuous mean in any situation, for Paul and Peter, the contemplative life is about reflecting on the character of the God who reveals himself in Jesus, and this reflection on God’s nature (and our ability to participate in it) pushes us towards being effective and productive “in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Peter seems to place love as both fundamental to God’s nature, and the telos of the virtuous, arete displaying, human.

But what is love? And how does our understanding of love start with God’s nature (and how do we then apply this understanding of love to the question of outrage (especially if the purpose of outrage is also potentially, to point us from human shortcomings and disorder to God and his nature)?

 

On outrage: outrage as disordered love

People are arguing about whether one can be outraged about a dead lion, when they could, alternatively, be outraged about dead babies. I think they’re arguing about the wrong thing, and outraged about the wrong thing, and we should be thankful that people aren’t just outraged about dead squirrels. Ultimately the questions that matter are the questions of what you are paying attention to, and how you’re doing that…

This is a series of posts exploring the nature of outrage, the internet, the human condition, and virtue

If you’re one of those people that struggles with how long the stuff I write is, now is your moment to be thankful. This post started off as a 7,000 word rambling journey through a series of connected thoughts.

Our world is broken. It is full of chaos. It appears, from our experience, to be disordered. Humans are part of this disorder, and we don’t like disorder. When we’re confronted with disorder it seems like our natural response is to get outraged. We use media, including the internet, to see, and give attention to disorder, and increasingly, we use media to express our outrage (as a means of drawing attention to disorder).

But how do we weigh up what to give our attention to?

How do we decide where to direct our outrage, and how to feel about the outrage of others, and if outrage itself is something to be outraged about?

If outrage itself has the capacity to become outrageous, then what’s an alternative, virtuous response to disorder?

On outrage, love, and attention

I think outrage both a human response to disorder, and a disordered form of love.

It’s disordered because unless we’re outraged about exactly the right thing, we simply create more disorder through misdirected outrage. Most of our love is disordered, because its the product of disordered hearts and minds. Love that isn’t disordered is love that doesn’t damage, and outrage causes damage.

It’s love, because it’s an attempt to give appropriate attention to something that matters. To love someone, or some thing, is to pay them, or it, attention that seeks this sort of understanding.

So, for example, the outrage about the shooting of Cecil the Lion is an expression of love, and a paying attention to, something beautiful that God made, but it is disordered because it results in an online lynch mob, hunting the hunter and literally calling for his hanging.

And, I’m suggesting that both our capacity for outrage, and our capacity to love — are tied up with what it means to be really human, and further, that what it means to be human is not a question we simply answer by our self for our self, but a question of shared humanity, humanity-in-relationship. Here’s a nice little quote from moral philosopher Iris Murdoch.

One might at this point pause and consider the picture of human personality, or the soul, which has been emerging. It is in the capacity to love, that is, to see, that the liberation of the soul from fantasy consists. The freedom which is a proper human goal is the freedom from fantasy, that is the realism of compassion. What I have called fantasy, the proliferation of blinding self-centered aims and images, is itself a powerful system of energy, and most of what is often called will, or willing belongs to this system. What counteracts this system is attention to reality inspired by, consisting of, love. — Iris Murdoch, The Sovereignty of Good

I wonder if our natural tendency towards outrage has a purpose, and is linked to our capacity to love. I wonder too, if there is a right thing to direct our outrage at, that makes outrage something not disordered, but a right response to disorder. I suspect the problem with the way we experience outrage is that we direct it at symptoms rather than an underlying cause, and we direct it at symptoms in the place of other forms of more constructive, loving, attention.

Does outrage serve a (good) purpose? And how do we decide what to be outraged about when faced with multiple examples of disorder?

These are questions that will be explored in the posts in this series. I wonder if the way we experience outrage, and the way we pursue the perfect thing to be outraged at, while trying to establish what this article My outrage is better than your outrage, in the Atlantic calls a “hierarchy of outrage” represents this inbuilt quest for the perfect thing to be outraged at, which means outrage itself might have a particular function or purpose that serves human flourishing. Perhaps this attempt to establish a hierarchy of outrage is actually our attempt to locate exactly what it is we should universally be outraged at…

The Internet launders outrage and returns it to us as validation, in the form of likes and stars and hearts. The greatest return comes from a strong and superior point of view, on high moral ground. And there is, fortunately and unfortunately, always higher moral ground. Even when a dentist kills an adorable lion, and everyone is upset about it, there’s better outrage ground to be won. The most widely accepted hierarchy of outrage seems to be: Single animal injured < single animal killed < multiple animals killed < systematic killing of animals < systematic oppression/torture of people < systematic killing of humans < end of all life due to uninhabitable planet.

I’m asking these questions, like many others, in light of the outpouring of public, global, outrage at the death of Cecil the Lion, and, like many Christians, in the light of the apparent lack of public, global, outrage at some revelations about the way Planned Parenthood treat aborted foetuses.

There’s an additional factor in the hierarchy of outrage that we need to consider, and that is when outrage itself, or the way it manifests, becomes something we’re outraged (rightly) about. Here’s a little outrage equation. With a current real life example.

X = The death of Cecil the Lion
Y = The revelation that Planned Parenthood aren’t just offering abortion services where a life deemed to be ‘non-human’ is ended, they are selling the bi-products of this procedure to third parties as ‘human’ parts for commercial gain.
Z = People are outraged that others are outraged about X, but not about Y.

This tendency towards outrage is damaging. Not just to the people at the heart of the kerfuffle. It’s a trend. Check out Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed for a sense of how harmful). The dentist who shot Cecil the Lion has become the latest victim of the Internet’s outrage cycle and shame culture. Did you know that PETA literally called for his hanging? Our outrage causes us to form online lynch mobs, harming those who raise our ire, and ourselves and our society, in the process.

The logic appears to go something like when Y is of greater moral value than X, we should not be outraged about X, but Y, so Z. But is this equation too simplistic? Perhaps we are right to search for an ultimate outrage, but we’re wrong to suggest that forms of outrage that might be explained by this outrage are illegitimate. Maybe all the things in our “hierarchy of outrage” are worth being outraged about, but maybe its because they’re all symptoms of a common ill.  Is it possible we should be outraged at both X and Y, and that this outrage should form part of our outrage at disordered life in this world, that our hierarchy of outrage is too small if we limit it to assessing symptoms, and that our sense of the right response to disorder in the world is outrage might be analogous to noticing symptoms, getting a diagnosis, but not treating the condition.

As the landscape for these moral, or ethical, conversations, the internet — and especially “social” media — seems to amplify our predisposition to get outraged, while giving us a new and increasingly dangerous and permanent platform to voice our outrage at the expense of a new sort of victim. It enables us to operate with a hierarchy of outrage like never before, it gives us the capacity to get outraged at low, or no, cost to ourselves but at huge cost to the victims of the mob. The internet is a shame culture. There’s a great article on Slate, responding to Ronson’s book, that explores the implications of this shift, and this piece titled The new puritan shame culture is also worth a read.

Outrage has never been cheaper. Where once you had to actually physically attend a protest to show that you were outraged. Now you click a button on a website, or fire off an e-petition. This isn’t a new idea. See Malcolm Gladwell’s piece in the New Yorker from 2010. But this was in the early days of online outrage, it looked at the bed we were making for ourselves, now we’re seeing what it is like to lie in this bed.

One thing that is inevitably true is that in the midst of our outrage, the internet and its collective mob, has a great tendency to forget the humanity of the person or people causing the outrage be they hunters, or abortion advocates and practitioners. The victims (the perpetrators of villainous acts) of public shaming are now legion, and our culture is shifting along with our media. This raises questions about what it looks like to be a virtuous citizen of this new landscape…

This series is an attempt to help chart a course through X, Y, and Z, by offering a version of virtue, or the good life, that works in the internet’s shame culture, and in our disordered world. Next, I’ll look at how the new media landscape shapes what it is we’re likely to pay attention to, ignore, or miss — the role social media plays in making outrage outrageous.

Snippet // Dio Chrysostom on the human condition, law, ethics, and depravity

I’m reading this first century orator named Dio Chrysostom (who, amongst other things, wrote a letter to Corinth complaining that they’d removed a statue of him). Here’s a fun quote from a thing he wrote called On Virtue.

“In fact, these men do not even believe in the existence of a knowledge in accordance with which they will know what they ought to do or what they ought not to do and how they will live correctly; nay, they believe that the laws are sufficient for them for that purpose, the laws on the statute books; but how they are to obey the laws and voluntarily do p147what those laws prescribe is a matter to which they give no serious thought. And yet how is he any less a thief who refrains from thieving out of fear, if he approves but does not loath and condemn the business, than those who actually commit theft — unless also he who does not do his thieving by day, not only after nightfall, is to be called no thief in daytime, but rather a man of probity? Besides, such persons require the presence of many to threaten and restrain them, since they are not able of themselves to refrain from their misdeeds, but even when at home are men of thievish disposition. However, though they are of such character, they choose the law-givers and punish the lawless, just as if persons who are unmusical were to choose the musicians, or as if those who know nothing of surveying were to choose the surveyors

And here is an indication of the depravity of mankind. If men were to do away with the laws and licence were to be granted to strike one another, to commit murder, to steal the property of one’s neighbours, to commit adultery, to be a footpad, then who must we suppose would be the persons who will refrain from these deeds and not, without the slightest scruple or hesitation, be willing to commit all manner of crimes? For even under present conditions we none the less are living unwittingly with thieves and kidnappers and adulterers and joining with them in the activities of citizenship, and in this respect we are no better than the wild beasts; for they too, if they take fright at men or dogs set to guard against them, refrain from thieving.”

I wonder if our current philosophers are able to look at the way humans behave, at our nature, and also come to the conclusion that human nature left to its own devices would produce vice, not virtue.

5 virtues for writers in a new-media world: #1 Humility

new media virtues

I’ve spent a little bit of time lately reflecting on words lately. Particularly on reading and writing. Writing is one of the distinct technological advances that separates humans from the animal kingdom. Our capacity to write is arguably part of what makes us bearers of God’s image. God is a God who speaks, who writes, who wrote himself into our world in Jesus.

So I’ve been thinking about writing.

My writing. The writing of other people. What I like. What I don’t.

The appreciation of writing is always going to be a fairly subjective affair. Certain styles appeal to some but not to others.

I’m in no way close to being the writer I aspire to be – I’m not even sure that I’m the writer I’d personally like to read yet.

I’ve particularly been thinking about what it means to write in the post-print world where everybody is connected, where words (or unfortunate photos) never disappear, where content is often exhumed from its context and where non-verbal communication is non-existent. Nothing significant has changed in this post-printing press world – except the cost of publication has dropped dramatically, and content is no longer seen as valuable simply by virtue of having been printed/published, but is given value democratically as it is shared and discussed through different networks. One interesting associated phenomena is that the discussion around publications is now almost a bigger deal than the publication itself. This is demonstrable through all sorts of examples – watch the post-game coverage of a World Cup match and note how much attention is paid to the discussion on social media, read mainstream media outlets discussing the virality of a current news event (like, at the time of writing, the disgraceful demise of a Rugby League star). The conversation about a thing is now as big a deal as the thing itself (as previously noted).

Often old school writers about rhetoric and oratory would, in their treaties on such matters, spend a bit of time talking about the virtues of a rhetor or an orator. Cicero did it, others did it before him. These virtues were meant to help a writer approach the generation of their content. You had to work on the speaker before you worked on the voice, or the content – unless you wanted to be an insubstantial sophist. All sizzle, no sausage. But there’s also a pretty tight relationship, even for these old school guys, between medium and message. So I’ve found it hard to split virtue from style and content – partly because I think if the capacity for creating and expressing words is part of what defines us as humans, it’s really hard to split capacity from manner and content when deciding what makes an expression of that capacity ‘good.’

I have tried to boil down these virtues into list (because that’s how the Internet works – and how those old dudes worked too), which I’ll then expand in a series of individual posts. I was going to do it all together in one post, but then the first point blew out into something massive.

Here’s the list.

  1. Humility. 
  2. An interesting and authentic voice with an interesting message.
  3. Sublime consistency. 
  4. Commitment and conviction. 
  5. Empathy (subjectivity is self-centred, objectivity is overrated).

 

The flipside of writing is reading. I’ve been contemplating what I like in a reader – will be a subsequent list, and probably a subsequent miniseries. It’s also aspirational. I often find myself reading things poorly, through no fault of the writer, but because of my own heart. I’ll share that list too – not because I am that reader, or want the ideal reader of things I write to be that reader, but because I want to be that reader (as I want to be this writer).

The third bit of my reflection, which I think will just be one post – but who knows – will be some thoughts I’ve come up with about the sort of writing I want to do here, and elsewhere, based on these aspirations. In the interest of full disclosure – these posts will probably then become a significant part of my disclaimer and comment policy.

Ironically, this list will probably break many of the aspirational qualities it describes… It may also read (occasionally) like an exercise in justifying how I do stuff. Sorry. I did mention that this is all going to be subjective – so you’re absolutely free to disagree with what I think these virtues look like in application (and even in the selection of these five as the top five virtures). It’s possible that in describing what I aspire to be, I’ll also explain why I am like I am, and that may help you to read me charitably.

Let me also mention, in case there are any doubts, that I’m often self-seeking and self-indulgent, and that will necessarily come across in my writing even if I fail to acknowledge it – and the writer I aspire to be like is not self-seeking, or self-indulgent. Quite the reverse. I want to be like the writer who wrote himself into his own story (John 1), not as the conquering hero (though he is that), but as a humiliated and crucified wretch, because he considered others better than himself (Philippians 2), and in order to save a wretch like me (Amazing Grace).

1. Humility.

I like a writer who considers their reader more valuable than themselves. It’s possible that to actually write – to incarnate oneself in written form, to express oneself externally, and to present this expression to others, to put forward one’s thoughts and views as though they have inherent value, could always be considered an act of something other than humility, but I don’t think that’s a particularly useful picture of humility. Writing is part of an expression of our humanity. It’s how knowledge is shared. How ideas are formed (and held with any degree of permanence). Humility, in its essence, I think, is this posture. Considering the needs of the reader above your own needs. This is more important for me as a writer than it is for me as I read the writing of others. I suspect, at times, I’m only frustrated by a perceived lack of humility in other writers as a result of my own pride.

This presents an interesting conundrum for those of us who write primarily for ourselves, but are happy to share our writing with any audience that chooses to engage. I suspect part of the humility I cherish is in allowing people to choose to read something, rather than force feeding it to them via a firehose at every turn. There’s a fine line, again, between believing you’ve produced something that people should read and the danger of being a self-promoting mercenary hack. The line probably isn’t that fine – but mediums like blogs, and channels like social networks, reward people who walk near that line.

I think one of the key aspects of humble writing in a self-promoting world rests in the difference between permission based, or opt-in, writing and ambush writing. Sensationalist, link baity, headlines that draw clicks on the basis of a promise that is never delivered are the hallmark of the latter. Forcing argumentative hobby-horse riding rants on unsuspecting Facebook friends who genuinely like you and want to “stay connected” with you via the platform are another example of a lack of humility, or consideration of others, in this brazen new world. I don’t mind ‘wasting’ someone’s time with a long winded description of my ideal writer if it’s something they have to voluntarily sign up for reading, without me overpromising, and something they can click away from at any time.

This virtue of humility, for the writer, plays out in other virtues – charity and clarity. 

Charity involves a deliberate generosity, a willing wearing of cost by the writer in order to benefit the reader (or in order to not waste their time), or a purposeful gift of something valuable. Value in writing comes from the time, effort, and expertise put into writing and the quality produced. It’s not that longer is necessarily better – length often comes at the expense of the virtue of clarity. But length does occasionally come as a result of an investment from the writer. Value isn’t about length, it’s not just about quality, or utility (how useful a piece of writing is – we all benefit from how to stuff when it’s particularly good – there’s a reason my most popular post of all time is a guide to making Sizzler’s cheesy toast). Value can also come from aesthetics, from novelty, from creativity, from the joy expressed and shared, or the emotions produced for the reader as a result of the writer’s care, intent, or effort.

Clarity is another expression of consideration to the reader. While I love oddly punctuated stream of consciousness stuff peppered with rambling footnotes (both reading and writing such text), punctuation can be helpful. Convention can be helpful. Rules a useful guide. Understanding stuff like genre, and speculating about who one’s audience might be, and providing some framework by which newcomers to a medium might interpret what they’re seeing, these are all ways one might pursue clarity. I think great writers pursue clarity at a meta level, and at the micro level.

Clarity at the meta level is about helping the reader see how a particular paragraph, chapter, or post, fits in with a bigger whole. In books and essays this comes from tables of contents, headings and a nice, intuitive, index. In most writing it means having a clear structure and a coherently unified narrative (a big idea or clear understanding about what something is going to be about) that cascades upwards and downwards. Whether you take an educated guess at a book’s argument from the Table of Contents, the Index, or a sentence on a page, you should still feel like it all fits together. A sentence should fit a paragraph, which should fit a chapter, which should fit a book – or in new media terms, a post should fit in a category that fits in the site. This cascading relationship, in the internet world, works in a similar manner to the table of contents/headings/index relationship in a book. Clear writing, for the benefit of the reader, needs clear information architecture (like menus, categories, tags, headings, and links to other stuff).

This pursuit of clarity plays itself out at the micro level too. Right down to the selection of individual words, sentence structure, idioms, or metaphors. It means not using jargon or technical language (or explaining it when it’s used). At a micro level the pursuit of clarity means always helping the reader see the meta-structure (rather than making it obscure) – devoting time and words to helping a reader understand why you’re telling them stuff and where it fits in what the piece of writing is doing. I quite like writing that breaks the fourth wall – that addresses the reader directly with some instructions, or some sort of interaction.

Tangentially… perhaps it’s truer to suggest that good writing doesn’t really have a fourth wall. Good writing, I think, involves the writer becoming deliberately vulnerable and ‘incarnate’ in the text, but also invites the reader to do the same. To put oneself in the picture, in the story, to feel the emotional weight of an argument, rather than observe it. Good writing tickles the senses. It evokes empathy, not just sympathy. It makes us feel as well as think. Humility is part of that. This is why I love the so-called gonzo genre so much, where the author becomes part of the story, for the sake of the story (and the reader).

Anyway. Back on track. This pursuit of integrated clarity between the meta level and the micro level takes some words. Clarity and brevity aren’t synonyms. But you can’t have clarity and overwrite stuff with fluff that nobody needs to read. Fluff kills clarity. Clarity and simplicity are also not synonyms. Most government weasel-word filled media releases are technically quite simple. But they’re not clear. It’s also possible to be clear and complex at the same time.

It’s not necessarily possible to be clear, complex and brief at the same time.

Other ways some of the writers I love and aspire to be like demonstrate humility is by providing sources/evidence (especially to stuff written by other people), by arguing well (avoiding fallacies, histrionics etc – but also being clear about what is being argued for), by being prepared to discuss the topic further, and by being able to be corrected… there are all sorts of ways good writers demonstrate humility.

Good writing puts the reader first, but this doesn’t mean it asks for the reader to not put in any effort at all. That isn’t loving.

It doesn’t encourage the reader to grow. Spoon feeding stuff to your reader is actually considering your reader as lesser than yourself, not greater.

Sometimes getting someone to ponder something requires presenting it in a ponderous package.

Frictionless, pithy, writing – boiled down to a ‘what’s in it for me’ marketing pitch or a neat listicle doesn’t present any particularly valuable challenge for the reader. That’s one of the reasons I’m unapologetic (mostly) about the length of the stuff I write here (even if it’s awful). I truly believe that short form, shallow, unnuanced, buzzfeedy articles made for sensationalist sharing and arguments are tremendously damaging to society and to the individual. They mess with our brains. They are addictive. People truly do become what they behold – we’re shaped by the tools we use to make and understand things as much as we are by what we make, and the content we consume. Peter Tong’s excellent chapter on Doing theology in a Digital World in a recent Matthias Media publication is worth reading (it’s available as a free sample from this page), there are heaps of links to other things worth reading in the (really) long series I wrote about Facebook and your brain earlier this year.

My intention isn’t that this series be something massively Christian, or theological, but some of the convictions I’ve come to about writing are drawn from my thinking for my thesis last year (I’ll be mining those depths for content on this corner of the interwebs for many years to come). The virtues I’ve picked as my top five – and it’s by no means an exhaustive list – are virtues I think God demonstrates in his communication to us, both in the written words of the Bible, and in the way he wrote himself into creation as Jesus.

What would top your list? Are there any good things to read about reading and writing in the new media world?