Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Saturday, April 23, 2022

Re-discovering Morality

I apologize for the virtual pages here being so quiet as of late. Although I think we both still have the state of mind where thoughts we encounter are formed in our own minds in terms of blog posts, the time for actually writing down thoughts as of late has been sorely lacking. And additionally, as I get older, I become more hesitant over whether the world really needs to hear my thoughts expressed. Some of this is probably legitimate prudence. Many of the opinions I felt the need to express fifteen or twenty years ago were, arguably, half baked in the way that the thinking of people in their twenties so often is. And yet that can also be overdone to the point of self silencing. That too is an excess. There are things worth saying.

In a sense, this relates to the book I'd like to discuss. 

I read Washington Post columnist Christine Emba's book Rethinking Sex: A Provocation because I was intrigued by the flurry of interviews with her that were popping up on blogs and podcasts that I follow. A key thing that intrigued me was that it seemed like Emba's project was essentially reinventing something rather like a Christian sexual morality, based on Aquinas's definition of virtue as willing the good for the other, and yet I couldn't tell from the various interviews whether she was an active Christian doing this as a sort of intellectual deep cover operation, or if this was a fascinating case of convergent evolution where she was arriving at these old ideas from a freshly blazed path.

Part of the answer to my question was right in the introduction: Emba grew up Evangelical and in college converted to Catholicism, though she also alludes to a crisis of faith which led her to abandon some of her previous moral stands on issues relating to sexuality. Clearly there's some degree of Catholic intellectual influence in the way she's sought to attack her problem.

And what is that problem? Emba seeks to address a mainstream culture of sexual morality in which "anything between consenting adults" is pretty much the start and finish of moral analysis when it comes to sexuality. The view she seeks to rethink is also one in which sex is simply a bodily activity without any inherent meaning other than that others shouldn't do things to our bodies without asking. Thus, since sex is enjoyable, and people like pleasure, it should, according to this view, be perfectly acceptable to have sex with someone you don't have any particular emotional or friendly attachment to, and enjoy that sex while not forming any longer term entanglements which complicate one's life.

Emba suggests instead that sex has meaning, and that it is not unreasonable for people to feel attached to those they have sex with. She also argues that consent should be seen as the minimum, not that totality, of sexual morality. Rather, she argues that virtuous sex is sex which takes into account the good of the other, not just whether they are willing to consent to it. Along the way, she notes things such as that men and women often relate to sex differently, in part due to their biological differences. And that this can lead to things which should be thought of when considering the good of the other. For instance, she says that women often consent to have sex in an otherwise casual dating relationship because the man seems to expect it and she hopes that over time he will come to want a more committed relationship with her. The result can be a years long relationship which never actually becomes more committed, but after which the women finds herself not only dealing with the emotional difficulties of breakup but also that much further from her desire of settling into a committed relationship in time to have children.

The book is well written and observed, and Emba is thoughtful in her approach to fraught moral issues. One hopes that for people living in the sexual world she describes, a book like this could open a view into another way of thinking about these important human issues.

And yet, to some extent, it was a distancing and depressing read for me. In part this is because it drives home just how lost much of the world is on the basic human issue of forming relationships and families. The particular world that Emba comes from and is addressing is that of graduates from elite colleges living out their upwardly mobile lives in one of a few urban centers, and having been influenced by the particular sexual culture preached through talks on consent and sex positivity in those environments.  But there's a more down market version of these same problems which affects more people, though they may talk about it in different terms. Even in a world in which dating apps tantalize with the possibility of browsing thousands of potential partners, the data on people in their 20s and 30s suggests a culture in which fewer people are forming relationships and even less are getting married.

So the world described is simply not an encouraging one. But beyond that, it's a somewhat depressing read in terms of where we are in our post Christian culture. After all, to a thoughtful Christian the idea that virtuous love is desiring the good for the other is not alien. And Christianity has applied these principles to relationships and sexuality for two thousand years. And yet, for a great many of those who most need this message in our culture, to package these insights in the form of actual Christian morality is to make it undesirable. Arguably, one of the reasons Emba's book is new and fresh and perhaps likely to reach some new people is that it is not phrased in terms of "we should live our lives as God intended us to". Even as, for a Christian reader, it seems like the author does a good deal of work to get to a very tentative and somewhat watered down version of basic Christian moral rules, it is probably because she is inventing these rules over from scratch that it is getting the attention that it is. Actual Christian morality has, by many, including some Christians, already been rejected simply out of bad associations with Christianity and its members and history. And that is a very unfortunate thing for people all round.  After all, God did not give us the law to make life difficult for us but as a gift to make us thrive.

What to do in the face of this situation as a Christian? We're certainly not going to get the same kind of book launch treatment and congratulations for thinking through something novel. But we can work to live out our faith virtuously, and hope that in time that will provide us and others with the path to living as God meant us to. 

Tuesday, April 05, 2022

Why A Security Council

 It's probably worth noting (in light of Ukraine's suggestion that Russia be removed from the UN Security Council due to committing war crimes) that the permanent members of the security council were chosen not by virtue of being good or responsible countries, but because they were the major allied powers coming out of World War II: the US, UK, USSR (now Russia), France, and China (then the Republic of China, now the People's Republic of China)

Indeed, the USSR at the time was run by Stalin who was well known to be a bloodthirsty dictator, whose only virtue was that he'd provided the huge resources of manpower needed to defeat Germany on the Eastern Front. (And even that had not been voluntary -- he'd been an ally of Hitler until the Nazis turned the tables and invaded Russia.)

The theory was that the most powerful countries should sit on the Security Council with the aim of avoiding another world war. 

Often, the UN is spoken of in idealistic terms, as an institution which could lead to resolving difference peacefully. But in regards to the security council, there is no idealism at all in terms of its permanent members. They were chosen because they were the nations who would most severely disrupt world peace. And arguably, they still are. Russia's ability to use its 4,500 nuclear war heads makes it a uniquely dangerous player at the world table, and that is why it has a seat on the Security Council.

This is frustrating. One would like to imagine that there is some standard of behavior on which world leadership is based. But it really is mostly just might. And that of course is at the center of the whole problem facing the world now. If Russia did not have the ability to hold the world hostage with its aging nuclear stockpile, the EU would probably not have any difficulty in totally routing Russia's army in Ukraine. It's become clear in the last six weeks that Russia's military reforms were much more an on-paper exercise than a true cultural reset. 

And yet, there are those nuclear bombs. And Russia has stated for years (even before their current loose talk about how they will nuke Warsaw should peacekeepers enter western Ukraine) that their military doctrine is to deploy nuclear weapons rather than lose a war.

It's not clear how the world is going to resolve the desire to see Russia's invasion fail while at the same time avoiding escalation to nuclear war, but to the extent that the UN is the international institution capable of resolving such issues without war, it continues to make sense to have Russia on the Security Council, no matter how bad their behavior. Their presence represents the fact that there are bad actors in the world, and that we must deal with them if we are to avoid the scourge of a wider war.

Friday, April 01, 2022

Three Feasts

A family in worship. (Attribution:

Three times in the year you shall keep a feast to me. You shall keep the feast of unleavened bread: as I commanded you, you shall eat unleavened bread for seven days at the appointed time in the month of Abib, for in it you came out of Egypt. None shall appear before me empty-handed. You shall keep the feast of harvest, of the first fruits of your labor, of what you sow in the field. You shall keep the feast of ingathering at the end of the year, when you gather in from the field the fruit of your labor. Three times in the year shall all your males appear before the Lord God. -- Exodus 23:13-17

The second half of the book of Exodus is devoted to God speaking in majesty to Moses on the mountain for forty days, after the Israelites have escaped from slavery and are waiting, sometimes quietly, sometimes idolatrously, at the foot. And most of what God has to say from the ineffable cloud is about the right way to worship. Even the numerous chapters listing the proper fixings for the tabernacle, the curtains and basins and clips and priestly garments, are only an attempt to faithfully reproduce the vision of heavenly worship "as it has been shown you on the mountain", as God says over and over.

God prescribes three great feasts in the year: the feast of unleavened bread; the feast of harvest, celebrating the first fruits; and the feast of ingathering, celebrating the end of the harvest. The three-fold structure suggests the Trinity, and is reflected in the three major feasts the Church now celebrates: Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost.

The Feast of Unleavened Bread seems to me to correspond with Easter, and as such is the feast of the Son. It commemorates the sacrament of the Son: the Eucharist.

The Feast of Harvest, celebrating the first fruits, corresponds to Christmas, when the Father sends his first fruit, the Son. I think we can call Christmas the feast of the Father. The feast of the first fruits can also be linked to the sacrament of the Father: Baptism.

The Feast of Ingathering, when all the fruits are gathered in, corresponds to Pentecost, the Feast of the Holy Spirit. This feast also correlates with the feast of the Holy Spirit: Confirmation. 

All worship springs from the pattern shown on the mountain, which is the ultimate reality of heaven. As we strive to worship in Spirit and in Truth, our feasts conform less to our earthly ideas of what worship looks like, and more and more participate in the heavenly worship, of which all our earthly ceremonies are only types.


Peasant Woman Against a Background of Wheat, Vincent Van Gogh 

Some while ago, I saw a photo of myself and was taken aback at the color of my face -- not prettily flushed or even red with embarrassment, but entirely, abnormally pink.  I say "abnormal", but the phenomenon itself is completely ordinary, keyed right into my genetic heritage. I'm of primarily Celtic descent, and along with the curly hair and the green eyes, that also nets me the proclivity to rosacea. 

And rosy I am indeed. Last year the dermatologist offered a prescription cream, and I passed because I was able to keep things under control with good skincare and sunscreen and nutrition. Last year, sigh. I don't know what it is now -- maybe I'm under stress, maybe I let too much sugar creep back into my diet. Maybe I'm just getting older. It's certainly not alcohol, because I don't even like drinking. Whatever the reason, my rosacea is flaring. I break out like a teenager. My skin is dry, but even mild exfoliation irritates it. Blotchy red patches blaze across my cheeks and nose and forehead, and are starting to creep along my jawline. It has come to the point where I, who never used to wear makeup, now put on full coverage foundation -- not for vanity's sake, but so that I don't look like I'm drunk.

Just drinking water isn't enough, though it can't be neglected. Just cutting sugar isn't enough, though it helps. Just wearing sunscreen and a hat isn't enough, though it's necessary. It seems my face's skin chemistry must be adjusted externally. Hyaluronic acid helps the breakouts. Moisturizer for sensitive skin helps the bumpiness. But neither seems to alter the underlying redness, and for that it looks like I'll need a prescription -- something that can be acquired, I hope, without the several month wait it took to get into the dermatologist the first time.

In the meantime, if you see a cherry nose, it's not dear old Santa, though now I salute him as a fellow. It's just the luck of the Irish. We don't wear our heart on our sleeve. We wear it right across our face.