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Sunday, May 22, 2011

Brief Hiatus

The usual feast of reason and flow of soul that characterizes High Concepts has been prevented of late, due to the complexities of a cross-country move from Texas to Virginia. But in about a week I’ll be back blogging more consistently on issues in the arts, entertainment industry, and culture. Thanks so much for your patience!

Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Good Shepherd and the Meaning of Culture

I aim to write another post or two on Matthew B. Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft, but the homily I heard at this Sunday morning’s Mass inspired a thought I’d like to share with you before I return to Crawford’s book later this week.

On this World Day of Prayer for Vocations, the priest at our Mass chose to meditate on the theme of Christ the Good Shepherd sounded in the Gospel (John 10:1-10). “But whoever enters through the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens it for him, and the sheep hear his voice, as the shepherd calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has driven out all his own, he walks ahead of them, and the sheep follow him, because they recognize his voice.” The priest focused in particular on the consecrated role of bishops and especially of the pope in imitating Christ the Good Shepherd by being the “voice” of Christ for our age.

The bishops and the pope, he went on to say, are the “vertical authority” of the Church. By this phrase he meant to refer to the way in which the bishops receive from Christ the authority to teach and form the laity in holiness, an authority that the pope, as the Vicar of Christ, is entrusted with above all. It is this very “vertical authority” that is missing, for example, in the Anglican Church, now hopelessly divided over the question of openly homosexual clergy because there is no shepherd with the authority to definitively settle the issue.

Our priest’s use of the phrase “vertical authority” reminded me of an almost identical phrase used by the sociologist Philip Rieff in his book on postmodern culture, My Life among the Deathworks. In this book Rieff defines culture as “the vertical in authority,” a terribly awkward phrase intended to express the idea that culture is defined by its attitude to what is “above,” i.e., to transcendent authority.

As the 20th-century German Thomist philosopher Josef Pieper reminds us in his masterful little book, Leisure: The Basis of Culture, our English word “culture” has its root in the Latin cultus, a word that means the religious practices of a people. So both Rieff and Pieper understand culture as essentially an act of submission to divine authority.

When it comes to Catholic culture, we can see the “vertical in authority” literally embodied in the very stones of the medieval Gothic cathedrals which reach upward to the heavens in order to proclaim the glory—and the authority—of God. The Gothic cathedral is a joyful response of the sheep who hear the voice of the Good Shepherd and seek to follow him.

But the “vertical in authority” that defines Catholic culture is also present in the literature that portrays human beings as existing under the divine gaze; in the university that orders the pursuit of all truth to theology; in the family that strives to live as a domestic church; and in the government that bases its rule upon God’s eternal law.   

There is a principle here: any culture that is defined above all by the true worship of Christ the Good Shepherd is a culture in a healthy condition; and any culture falling away from such worship is a culture in the midst of decline.
Tell me, you whom my heart loves,
where you pasture your flock,
where you give them rest,
Lest I be found wandering
after the flocks of your companions
(Song of Songs 1:7).

Monday, May 2, 2011

The Art of Not Being an Idiot

If Divine Mercy Sunday hadn’t fallen on May 1 this year, along with the beatification of Pope John Paul II, then the Church would have been absorbed with the (optional) Feast of St. Joseph the Worker, a feast instituted in 1955 by Pope Pius XII as a means of counteracting the “May Day” celebrations sponsored by Communists. The point of this feast is to meditate on the life of St. Joseph and on the true meaning of human work, and so, loathe to let it wholly pass by, I want to honor it by meditating in the next few posts on one of the most remarkable books I’ve read in some while: Matthew B. Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft. This wise and provocative book is about the value of human work, but its theme necessarily causes it also to touch on questions of economics, education, contemporary management practices, moral and political philosophy, and—most germane to the concerns of this blog: the nature of art in the sense of craftsmanship.

Let’s begin with the central thesis of Crawford’s book. As the title suggests, Crawford believes that our culture’s general devaluation of manual work has caused us to lose touch not only with ideals of craftsmanship, but also with the ideal of perfection of the soul, that is, with virtue.

“The moral significance of work that grapples with material things may lie in the simple fact that such things lie outside the self” (p. 16).

Failure to cultivate habits of manual work, accordingly, results in a kind of narcissism. “A washing machine, for example, surely exists to serve our needs, but in contending with one that is broken, you have to ask what it needs. At such a moment, technology is no longer a means by which our mastery of the world is extended, but an affront to our usual self-absorption” (p. 16).

Crawford points out that the ancient Greek word idios, from which our English word “idiot” is derived, means “private” or “self-enclosed.” The true idiot “lacks the attentive openness that seeks things out in a shared world” (p. 98), the very kind of attentiveness learned through engagement with a craft—whether the fixing of washing machines or of motorcycles (besides being a fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia, Crawford also owns and operates Shockoe Moto, an independent motorcycle repair shop in Richmond, Virginia).

Here Crawford leans upon the philosopher and novelist Iris Murdoch to help him make connections between attentiveness and virtue.

“Iris Murdoch writes that to respond to the world justly, you first have to perceive it clearly, and this requires a kind of “unselfing.” “[A]nything which alters consciousness in the direction of unselfishness, objectivity and realism is to be connected with virtue” (pp. 99-100). Crawford then quotes Murdoch’s definition of virtue:

“[V]irtue is the attempt to pierce the veil of selfish consciousness and join the world as it really is.”

In other words, to grow in virtue is to learn how not to be an idiot. A discipline, Crawford contends, that can be practiced just as much through manual work as in so-called intellectual work.