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December 18th, 2014

Hobby Lobby and the question for religious freedom

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We stand unitedWinnifred Fallers Sullivan is arguably the premier scholar of law and religion in the United States. She brings to the field of law an unparalleled degree of sophistication and historical and anthropological knowledge. When she says that all religious freedom laws are rotten at the core, that claim has to be taken seriously. The core of the problem, she writes, is the distorting effect of the demand that the state distinguish the religious from the nonreligious. The religious life of most Americans, “incredibly varied, creative, and entrepreneurial,” has become so disconnected from the law’s understanding of religion that the law should abandon the use of the category, “religion.”

As Sullivan notes, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA)—the basis of the Burwell v. Hobby Lobby suit—was a reaction to the “notorious” Employment Division v. Smith decision, which limited the scope of the free exercise clause of the First Amendment. There are reasons for the notoriety and Smith was widely condemned. RFRA passed by overwhelming margins because most Americans thought that the tradition of specifically religious accommodation was valuable. Since Colonial times, Quakers have been exempted from oath-taking and military service. Catholics were permitted to use sacramental wine during Prohibition.

Our choices are clear: either we sometimes accommodate, or we never accommodate.

December 16th, 2014

The Supreme Court’s faith in belief

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We stand unitedThis summer, the Supreme Court was once again at the center of the American culture wars. The media and many Americans on both sides of the political spectrum saw the Burwell v Hobby Lobby decision as a case of religious freedom versus women’s rights. The headlines blared: “How the Catholic Church Masterminded the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby Debacle,” “Can Corporations Go to Hell?”, “Hobby Lobby: Does God Hate Obamacare?” and “Hobby Lobby case: Religious freedom’s worth more than $35.”

The court, which ruled 5-4 in favor of Hobby Lobby, was no less divided than the press. The two outspoken former prosecutors on the bench, Justices Samuel Alito and Sonia Sotomayor, pulled no punches in their rival opinions.

November 19th, 2014

Minding hermeneutics and history

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Minding the Modern is unusual in several respects. It is organized historically but anti-historicist, methodologically self-aware yet critical of “method,” and reliant on close literary readings while focused on categories of moral philosophy and philosophical anthropology. Because of its density, length, range, erudition, analytical probity, and resistance to genre categorization, no brief review can do it justice. The book merits studied reflection of a sort that specialized humanistic scholars in their harried lives find difficult to accommodate. However inadequately, I can here only describe the book’s argument and method, offer a few remarks about its achievement, and note some of its limitations.

November 17th, 2014

Malediction, exorcism, and evil

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It is best to begin by considering the word malediction in the simple sense of speaking evil or evil-saying. The idea of evil—male—is conceptually, existentially, morally, and cosmologically complex, so I want to focus first on the saying—diction. I am thinking of an actual utterance: what seems to me the relatively straightforward act of “hurling epithets.” This phrase is felicitous because the notion of hurling emphasizes the physical, embodied, material aspect of malediction as a rhetorical performance. The same recognition of the physicality of utterance is needed to understand why the children’s retort to the bully, “sticks and stone may break my bones but names will never hurt me,” is simply wrong. Names are hurtful insofar as they are no less material than sticks or stones when they are hurled and hit their mark.

November 5th, 2014

Playing God

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In his new book Minding the Modern, Thomas Pfau presents a searching, and often scathing, indictment of the modern regime of personhood, which he regards as not only irredeemably soulless, but also endlessly self-deluding. In Pfau’s view, to approach personhood in terms of historical regime already amounts to a capitulation, since doing so reproduces and thus extends the fragmentation to which it unwittingly gives rise. In a curious manner, Pfau shows himself willing to echo Michel Foucault’s pronouncement in The Order of Things of the impending demise of man—at least insofar as moderns have engaged in a systematic effort to estrange themselves from logos, “the manifestation of the abiding framework within which alone meanings of any kind are to be prima facie achieved” (162). Yet this tragic tale also allows for a glimmer of hope: the resurrection of the dead is possible, if only the truth of unlikely prophets—including, in Pfau’s account, Samuel Taylor Coleridge—would inspire deeper reverence.

October 30th, 2014

Thomas Pfau and the emergence of the modern individual

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Here I will argue that Thomas Pfau’s presentation of modernity in Minding the Modern fails to incorporate both the sociopolitical dimensions of modernity’s emergence and its positive aspects. He sees modernity as the home of the “modern subject” of the Western world, or the “quintessentially modern, solitary individual” in his “palpable melancholy,” both “altogether adrift” and without “interpersonal relations.” Stanley Hauerwas captures the sense of the book in his endorsement: “Pfau locates the philosophical developments that contributed to the agony of the modern mind. Moreover, he helps us see why many who exemplify that intellectual stance do not recognize their own despair.” Pfau thus offers a challenge to those whom he sometimes calls the “modern apologists of secular, liberal, Enlightenment society.”

October 28th, 2014

Minding the other modernities

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Let me start with a confession. I am not particularly keen on stories of modernity in which “modernity” figures as a character and in which the plot—surprise—entails a “fall” or “break.” Thomas Pfau’s Minding the Modern is a long telling of this tale, containing some wonderfully astute scenes and bringing on stage two of my favorite thinkers, John Locke and Theodor Adorno (the first appearing as a culprit and the second as an ally). I am not unmoved by Pfau’s convictions and arguments that what appears to be human advancement is actually decline (325). Nonetheless, I find myself appreciating the worldliness and ostentatiousness of Adorno’s miniaturized version of this story: “No universal history leads from savagery to humanitarianism, but there is one leading from the slingshot to the megaton bomb.” Pfau frames his argument as an exploration of and possible solution to the crisis in the humanities. For him, that crisis is not the devaluation of humanistic study in a context of the corporatization of higher education and intense competition for scarce and unstable employment. Rather, it is his sense that we are suffering through a case of amnesia.

October 23rd, 2014

Ancient questions for modern answers

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The central contrast in Thomas Pfau’s rich and rewarding book, Minding the Modern, is between two radically opposed views of human agency. The first is the “classical view of human agency” that was first formulated by Plato and Aristotle and which was given a particularly powerful expression in the works of St. Thomas Aquinas. According to this view, to do something is to deliberately act on some conception of the good; the telos of agency is reached only by our conscious participation in the permanent and rational order of things. The second and opposing view of human agency, which Pfau describes as the modern or naturalistic view, goes back to William of Ockham but was given its most influential articulation by Thomas Hobbes and David Hume. According to this view, human action is just behavior that is caused by a desire and accompanied by some thought about how to realize that desire in the world.

October 21st, 2014

Curses, foiled again and again

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Fijian whale's tooth | Image via Matt TomlinsonIn June 2009, I was interviewing a Fijian Methodist minister on the island of Matuku when the subject of curses came up. I had asked him about mana and sau, terms associated with spiritual power, which are often paired in indigenous Fijian discourse. Mana is anthropologically famous as a term Robert Codrington credited to Melanesians; Marshall Sahlins theorized for Polynesians; and Claude Lévi-Strauss characterized as a “floating signifier,” a sign “susceptible of receiving any meaning at all.” Sau, in Fijian, is often associated with a punitive spiritual force linked to chiefs. If you disobey the chief and you get sick, that’s sau.

When I asked the minister at Matuku about mana and sau, he responded in part by explaining the latter term as follows: “Here’s an example. You say something, [then] it happens. It’s like this, if I should curse you. You will go out today, even if you haven’t heard what I said, you will meet with misfortune. You’ll go and get hurt, eh?…That’s one translation of sau.”

October 17th, 2014

Stacking the deck: Thomas Pfau’s strange history of the West

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Imagine that you’ve been invited to play a game of cards with Thomas Pfau and his cards are called Justice, Reason, Beauty, Humanism, Purpose, and Value, while yours are called Interest, Materialism, Naturalism, Historicism, Value-Neutrality, attributes of a World without Grace and without Narrative. Who wins? But why should you let Pfau have all those cards, especially with names like Justice, Reason, and Beauty, or the names he adds later“free choice, conscience, person, teleology…judgment…and, for that matter, art”; and why are you stuck with Interest and Materialism? This is a little bit what it’s like to read Thomas Pfau’s Minding the Modern. In the space I have, I will argue that Pfau has stacked the deck.