Today was the 500th birthday of the Protestant Reformation. Time to dispel some mythology:
1. Martin Luther didn’t nail his 95 theses to a cathedral door. He mailed them to the Archbishop.
2. The Catholic Church has never permitted the sale of indulgences. Not all of the bishops got the memo.
Sadly, divisions among the mystical body of Christ (i.e., the Church) are as rife today as they were in 1517. They arise partly from misunderstandings, but there are major areas of disagreement — and real grievances — on both sides of the break between Protestants and the Roman Catholic Church (to say nothing of the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Churches, or the Anglican Church, which all maintain their own separate “communions”). For one, there were serious abuses around the practice of granting indulgences to wealthy donors and sponsors of cathedrals, which reached a peak in Luther’s time. The whole idea of an indulgence is understandably suspect in the eyes of Christian disciples, who are warned in no uncertain terms about the mixing of financial and spiritual aims.
However, few would argue that the Reformation kicked off a genuine restoration of the church described in the Acts of the Apostles. In many cases, Luther’s progeny misled naive followers into cults of personality, or became even bigger religious hucksters than the worst rogue bishops in the Latin Church.
“But Peter said unto him, Thy money perish with thee, because thou hast thought that the gift of God may be purchased with money.“ — Acts 8:20
Luther’s Ninety-five theses justly denounced of a perversion of the Church’s teaching. By writing down his beliefs, he sparked a movement. Creeds are basically the same thing, but reversed — framed around affirmative beliefs to distinguish the gathering (i.e., ekklesia, the ancient Greek for ‘church’) of Christians from the broader world. Oftentimes, attempts to refine these doctrines lead to further rifts, as new contradictions are revealed within the group formulating the new creed. This isn’t always the case, though. The Nicene Creed*, formalized in the 300s, is still recited by Protestants and orthodox Christians of all stripes with very little variation in language.
The non-religious West is also badly divided. The closest thing to a Nicene Creed in its possession — the last remaining Sacred Cow of secular society — is the universal acknowledgement of the value of education. I just attended an assembly of contrarian thinkers who gathered around a #new95 in protest of the modern-day “Cathedral” — the educational monolith, preserved by special interests and overpaid administration at the expense of students and taxpayers. The list was written/transcribed by Michael P Gibson, founder of the 1517 Fund, to draw attention to the educational fetters that begin on the Kindergarten playground and extend to the tallest ivory tower.
The 1517 Fund Assembly succeeded in making a dramatic analogy to the Reformation-era critiques of the Catholic Church, which Martin Luther made most forcefully and succinctly. Although Luther remained a small-c “catholic,” upholding a cosmic priesthood of all believers in Jesus Christ, he forever changed the way the world looks at specific authority figures like priests, bishops, and most notably, the Pope of Rome (who at the time exercised spiritual authority over the Holy Roman Emperor). Today, many hold those in academia to be the new “high priests,” with authority to confer a piece of paper — a diploma — that comes with a sort of salvation –the status associated witha university education.
To the extent that this authority goes unquestioned, we need more thinking like Luther’s.
A truly Catholic — meaning universal — response has to take this critique of hierarchical fault seriously, while still recognizing the existence of legitimate authority in both the spiritual and physical realms. Domain expertise is real. Most schools don’t give diplomas to students who don’t achieve a certain level of knowledge and ability, and few priests are ordained who have not paid a tremendous personal cost to undergo seminary studies take on pastoral duties. I think certain people holding the outward symbols of authority deserve a kind of deference, but I remain broadly skeptical of intermediary institutions made up of mere “experts in the law,” or other specialized disciplines. In short, it’s important for people to think for themselves, even though many may get it badly wrong.
The list below is an attempt to think for myself about the major issues confronting every individuals in the year 2017. I was partly inspired by Luther, but more so by my favorite small-o orthodox writer, G.K. Chesterton, who once defined a Catholic as “a person who has plucked up courage to face the incredible and inconceivable idea that somebody else may be wiser than he is.” Hence the unoriginality of 95% of the list.
Before I use up all of my good Chesterton quotes, I should end this already too-long introduction. So, whether you follow the Pope, your pastor, or the beat of a different drum, I hope you’ll find something thought-provoking in my Eighty-Three Aphorisms (plus the Nicene Creed):
- Most ideas are not very good.
- Most change is for the worse.
- Most risks end in failure.
- Some ideas are very good.
- Some change is for the better
- Some risks lead to new discoveries
- “Great men are seldom good men.” — Lord Acton
- “There is only one sadness: not to be a Saint.” — Leon Bloy
- Suffering can be redemptive, or pointless.
- Liberalism has spent its patrimony. We’re now living on borrowed grace.
- The Earth is not an ecology. It is a broken, mismatched disequilibrium, seeking the in-breaking of something completely new.
- The mind is not software. You cannot hack it.
- Movement comes from the inside out. Train the mind and the soul, and the body will follow.
- Novel experience has replaced stuff as the new symbol of conspicuous consumption.
- Openness to new experience includes openness to evil spirits.
- Hurrying only hastens our demise.
- Patriarchy is the worst ordering of the clan and society, except for all the others that have been tried (i.e., collectivism, monarchy, anarchy, unbridled capitalism).
- Democracy must be balanced by robust enforcement of individual rights. Otherwise it’s two wolves and a lamb voting on what’s for lunch.
- Pacifism, liberalism and libertarianism, qua ideologies, are just as violent as any other. There is no substitute for the work to rid one’s self of violent internal contradictions.
- Spontaneous orders are no guarantee of human thriving without anchors to essential truths and eternal values.
- Political philosophies gets us nowhere. We need a different kind of thinking aimed at incarnating God’s word and embodying the logos of non-violence.
- There is a difference between persuasion — convincing someone to do what they would want if they knew how good it was — and manipulation — coercing them to do your will.
- Addiction epidemics result from our frenetic intemperance — the hurried pursuit of pleasures that leave us more depleted than before. The fix is the slow, intentional, vigilant pursuit of self-sacrificial service, which leaves us more replenished than before.
- Stretches are only as good as the muscles that support the outstretched position.
- Being “woke” means working hard enough to get a good night’s sleep.
- Most sickness can be cured by correcting the imbalances disrupting the circadian rhythm.
- In the future, there will only be three kinds of people: 1) diabetics 2) pre-diabetics and 3) ascetics.
- As bland and malnourishing as the Standard American Diet and the inherited forms of mainline Christianity may be, “paleo” and the spiritual equivalents of the archaic revival will lead to an overall regression if we do not guard against our wild, atavistic urges.
- The only thing the food pyramid gets right is that you should use sugar sparingly.
- There is no good reason to drink Mountain Dew, unless it’s the real thing or you’re really thirsty.
- Guilt and regret can be gifts or curses. Relieving them can lead to freedom or perdition, depending on what/whose authority they are released.
- Blessed is the mind that neither indulges in self-forgiveness, nor accuses in self-reproach.
- Pets and cosmetics are not entirely harmless forms of idolatry. — paraphrased from Pope Francis
- Colonialism has historically filled a vacuum of horrifying levels of violence and depravity with a more intelligible kind of violence and depravity. Humanity must turn from ordered violence without lapsing into the chaotic abyss.
- Consistency of repentance is key to gradual improvement.
- Per Marx, history is one long nightmare, from which we keep trying to awaken. Contra Marx, every time we try, we find that we awaken to an even more nightmarish reality.
- Gradual improvement is achieved by removing inefficiency, not adding new functionality.
- When in doubt, don’t buy it.
- Minimalism is a better idea applied to one’s possessions than to architecture.
- “The modern world as a whole is a world that thinks only about its own old age. It is a monstrous old people’s home, an institution for pensioners. …Avarice in the form of anxiety about tomorrow is the lord of all the world.” — Charles Peguy
- A Universal Basic Income would not solve poverty — it would only rob the poor of their remaining dignity.
- Luther made many good critiques of the Church, but most were best internalized or already understood by orthodox thinkers.
- Food should be nourishing, not rewarding.
- Work should be rewarding, not depleting.
- Knowledge and technology have the power to block the working of grace in our lives.
- Modern roadways are an unmitigated catastrophe, locking people into increasingly sclerotic and outdated infrastructure that hinders the graceful passage from point A to point B.
- “Do good” and “do evil” are a thesis and antithesis without a synthesis.
- Piety can be discerned by whether one is comforted or afflicted by the idea that God is truly with us.
- Optimization is seldom the optimal approach to a problem.
- Screen time is a scourge, resulting in myopia, bad posture, short sightedness and poor form.
- There is great joy in repentance.
- The spiritual battlefield is riddled with the corpses of those who forgot to remember.
- Our schools are in the business of producing cogs disguised as snowflakes.
- Character defects are expressions of self-will — they often flow from our best qualities, pursued out of order.
- “God uses broken things. It takes broken soil to produce a crop, broken clouds to give rain, broken grains to give bread, broken bread to give strength.” — Vance Havner
- In orthodoxy, many seekers have found that God has been there all along.
- You have to restrain certain freedoms to gain greater freedom. Liberation is restraint. Permissiveness is bondage.
- Modern liberalism confuses freedom with license, and conflates order with oppression. — paraphrased from Leo Strauss
- The republic has been replaced by citizen influencers. — Scott Adams
- Prophets push us forward. Priests prevent us from sliding back.
- “Marriage is a hopeful, generous, infinitely kind gamble taken by people who don’t know yet who they are or who the other might be.” — Alaine de Botton
- The mental health debate is clouded by the maladies of society, including its physicians.
- “^^This is the huge modern heresy of altering the human soul to fit its conditions, instead of altering human conditions to fit the human soul.” — G.K. Chesterton
- The sea is not a little puddle. The land is a little island.
- It’s not a good idea to put your faith in a person other than Jesus.
- We need not live by the Adamic story of despair, violence and death.
- “Science is not a loose leaf folder of ‘facts’ which can be expanded ad infinitum — simply by iterative addition of ever-more observations. Science is instead the creation of structured knowledge, with the emphasis on structure. The modern scientific literature is ballooning exponentially with published stuff and ever-inflated claims about its significance — but, lacking structure, this malignantly-expanding mass adds-up to less-and-less. Meanwhile, understanding, prediction and the ability to intervene on the natural world to attain pre-specified objectives all dwindle; because real science is a living tradition not a dead archive.” — Jacob Bronowski
- Much evil is caused by man’s attempt to go beyond what is possible for him — to attempt what is not yet in his power to realize.
- The papacy may have defeated the empire, but it didn’t defeat the papacy. — Elaborated/paraphrased from Rene Girard
- The experience of sin — of fallen life — is one of radical mismatch, striving to be reunited with the source of our existence, while dreading the ever-present possibility of complete annihilation (a less desirable sort of reunification). — Paraphrased from Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (aka Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI)
- “The entire fate of Christianity rests on the possibility of a non-perverse reading of the death of God.” — Slavoj Zizek
- “It’s as if the West, appalled by the horrors of the War, opted for the world of phantasmagorias and abstractions that we now inhabit.” — Zygmunt Baumun
- “Embracing one’s own responsibility is in fact an act of daring and adventure.” — Tom Palmer
- “[W]hen you destroy the extrinsic traditional framework, some few might awaken to the Deep Real, but most awaken instead to an increased awareness of their resentments, greed, and egotism, and they no longer feel any external constraints concerning their violent expression.” — Jack Whalen
- “Government does not rest on force, it is force. It rests on the consent or a conception of justice.” — G.K. Chesterton
- “The heresy of precedent: the view that because we have gotten ourselves in a mess, the mess must grow messier to suit it.” — G.K. Chesterton
- Most people want a perfect church that lets them keep on sinning, rather than a visibly flawed church that steepens their moral conscience.
- “We are moving towards a universal democracy of sinners under judgment.” — Jacques Mauritain
- The deceptive danger of new technology — including our favorite gadgets, gurus, and motivational exercise programs — is that they increase our desires without anchoring them to anything substantial.
- Most “clean” energy technologies use more resource-intensive processes to power and maintain themselves than extracting fossil fuels does. In addition to getting “more for less,” the green economy must first find out where to get more. — Paraphrased from Gail Tverberg, Our Finite World
- The calamity of wealth is the gravitational pull it exerts to bring all matter, meaning, and substance into its beastly orbit.
- “There is nothing — absolutely nothing — half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.” — Kenneth Grahame
- “It is unbecoming for young men to utter maxims.” — Socrates (oops)
*The Nicene Creed
- We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.
- And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds (æons), Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father;
- By whom all things were made;
- Who for us men, and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost and of the Virgin Mary, and was made man;
- He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered, and was buried, and the third day he rose again, according to the Scriptures, and ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of the Father;
- From thence he shall come again, with glory, to judge the quick and the dead.
- Whose kingdom shall have no end.
- And in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of life, who proceedeth from the Father, who with the Father and the Son together is worshiped and glorified, who spake by the prophets.
- In one holy catholic and apostolic Church;
- we acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins;
- we look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.