Sincerity Formulated into Dogma

Among the lessons taught by the French Revolution there is none sadder or more striking than this, that you may make everything else out of the passions of men except a political system that will work, and that there is nothing so pitilessly and unconsciously cruel as sincerity formulated into dogma.
—James Russell Lowell

This quote comes from this week’s reading in our Russell Kirk reading group and expresses well what Kirk means by “ideology”: a political philosophy that relentlessly applies an all-too-simple but fervently held idea or slogan to the uncomfortably complex exigencies of human life.

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Simplicity Leads to Despotism

Man being complex, his government cannot be simple. The humanitarian theorists who contrive projects of ingenious simplicity must arrive, before long, at the crowning simplicity of despotism. They begin with a licentious individualism, every man deprived of ancient sanctions and thrown upon his own moral resources; and when this state of things turns out to be intolerable, as it must, then they are driven to a ponderous and intolerant collectivism; central direction endeavors to compensate for the follies of reckless moral and economic atomism. Revolutionary idealists of this stamp are faithful to simplicity, though to nothing else in heaven or earth. They cannot abide any medium between absolute freedom and absolute consolidation.1

As I mentioned at our Thursday night reading group, I have been impressed by Kirk’s ability to make deep connections between ideas that I have never considered before. The very simplicity of a radical ideology necessarily leads to a consolidation of power when the fanatics of that ideal run up against the intractable complexity of concrete human existence.


  1. Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind (Gateway Editions, 1985), 102.

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Spirit vs. Flesh in Romans 8

This weekend I am preaching at all three CF churches on the first half of Romans 8. We can learn quite a bit about the Holy Spirit by studying this dense portion of Scripture since Paul draws an extended contrast between life in the Spirit and life in the flesh. You can find the presentation I will use here.

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Gratitude

(2017 Mars Hill Graduation Address)

I want to focus on one word today: gratitude. Gratitude for what we have as a community in Mars Hill. I’m tempted to go on and on about the outstanding academic achievements of this school—our ACT scores, the performance of our graduates in college, and what they go on to do—but I won’t. I’ll just share one example. Years ago I had a student at Mars Hill who was—how shall we say it—near the back of the pack. I had this student, however, as an Asbury student later and realized that she was head and shoulders above the other students in her college class. I took a second look at the essay that she had written for my class and realized that it wasn’t really any better than what she had written for me at Mars Hill. Compared to her peers at Mars Hill she appeared to give poor work, while compared to her peers at college coming out of a progressivist school environment she appeared to be someone who could actually write grammatically complete English sentences. And not just that: she actually knew what an argument was and how to form one. I won’t go on and on about how we should be grateful for the academic advantages of Mars Hill because this really is not Mars Hill’s greatest strength. I was talking to Martin Cothran on Thursday night about the massive flowering of classical schools across the country. More and more these schools are forming their own accreditation agencies, their own college tests, and more and more colleges and employers are courting their graduates because the results are clear and decisive. Next to these schools, Mars Hill is merely one among many who do it better than we.

Instead I want to encourage a profound sense of gratitude on the part of everyone here today for the thing that I believe Mars Hill does best: community, a common life lived together in genuine love. I do not think that we are unique in this, but we are atypical. When I look into the dank cramped cave of the human heart I find ugly little blind fish that eat away at community. The Christian tradition calls these little blind fish “the passions”: greed, sensuality, pride, selfishness, rebellion, lust, self-absortion, conceit, idolatry. These things and others like them are called the “passions” from the Latin word passio because they are diseases of the soul from which we suffer. The Greek equivalent gives us our word “pathology.” What Christianity has always tried to overcome, many forces in our world today would now try to exploit in order to gain your dollars or your votes. What our education tries to slowly eradicate in the soul, progressivist education tries to cultivate. In such a world, it is no wonder that real community is hard to find. We should be grateful, then, for what we have because it is rare.

In place of broken homes we have strong marriages that nurture children. In place of parents seeking their own toys, we have parents laying down their lives for the upbringing of their children. In place of a principal that took this job as a way to advance his own career, we have a headmaster that we don’t pay who loves each of these graduates individually and sacrifices extraordinary amounts of his time to dig into the real spiritual battles of their lives. In place of cliques and bullies we have a single, unified senior class that loves one another and holds one another accountable. In place of the back-biting politics of PTA and sports-team boosters, we have families that come together around a common vision. In place of teenagers, we have men and women. In place of rebellion, we have submission. In place of kids who are absorbed in looking cool, we have Kyle and Mason.

But all this is not possible. It is not as though the parents and teachers and students that I see here never had a dank cramped cave in their hearts where they fed tidbits of community to their own little blind fish. The dynamics of love, sacrifice, and commitment that I see here should not be possible for beings such as these. What I see here is literally miraculous, a rupture of the order of things only possible because Omnipotent Love has torn it open. Two thousand years ago our king allowed nails to be driven into his hands and his feet and he allowed a spear to be driven into his side. From that torn open side still flows a river of blood and water that tears open our cramped cave and kills the fish that swim there. Only the death of God and his victory over death through the power of an indestructible life make this impossible Mars Hill possible. And the appropriate response in our hearts to this is gratitude.

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Whittaker Chambers on Writing and Inertia

By simply picking up a pen, things can be done, if we have the will to overcome inertia.

From a letter by Whittaker Chambers to Henry Regnery regarding Russell Kirk’s Conservative Mind.

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Burke on Moral Order

The awful Author of our being is the author of our place in the order of existence; and that having disposed and marshalled us by a divine tactic, not according to our will, but according to His, He has, in and by that disposition, virtually subjected us to act the part which belongs to the part assigned to us. We have obligations to mankind at large, which are not in consequence of any special voluntary pact. They arise from the relation of man to man, and the relation of man to God, which relations are not a matter of choice….When we marry, the choice is voluntary, but the duties are not a matter of choice….The instincts which give rise to this mysterious process of nature are not of our making. But out of physical causes, unknown to us, perhaps unknowable, arise moral duties, which, as we are able perfectly to comprehend, we are bound indispensably to perform.

—Edmund Burke, “Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs,” Works, III, p. 79, quoted in Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind, p. 31.

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Touchstone Review

I was pleased to see my review of the recently republished Liturgy and Personality by Dietrich von Hildebrand (Hildebrand Press) in this month’s Touchstone. You can read the short review online here. If you are at all interested in the ways that worship shapes and forms us at the deepest level, I highly recommend this short but dense book.

I’m also very much looking forward to this year’s Hildebrand Project Summer Seminar. This year, the focus will be on beauty and the line-up of faculty looks quite good.

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Christopher Graney on Galileo

Last week I had the pleasure of going to a wonderful talk by Dr. Christopher Graney at Immaculata Classical Academy. Graney spoke about the controversy surrounding Galileo and the heliocentric model. His main point was that most people spin this controversy as a conflict between science and bible-thumping faith, while ignoring the numerous scientific arguments that opponents of Galileo made at the time. For example, out of twenty-two arguments presented by Galileo’s contemporary Johann Georg Locher, only two were theological. The others had to do with objections from empirical data such as the absence of any observed parallax in the stars, the incorrect predictions of where planets would be on Galileo’s model, the apparent size of stars in telescopes at the time, and the motion of projectiles. These scientific objections were not decisively overcome until much later with the discoveries of Kepler, Newton, Coriolis, and others.

I had always thought that the main battle lines at the time of the controversy were between the old Ptolemaic model and the new Copernican model. I learned last week, however, that the most supported model at the time was that of Tycho Brahe, which differed from the Ptolemaic model by having the planets (other than the Earth) revolve around the sun, while the Sun, Moon, and stars still revolved around the Earth. The model apparently had better accuracy than either of the alternatives at the time and avoided the difficulties that are introduced with a moving Earth.

After the talk, Graney gave an encouragement to all the students of Latin at this classical school. He pointed out that most people who are into science these days have no Latin, and most people who study Latin are into things like classical poetry. This leaves a big hole in the history of science where there are few qualified researchers and yet a good deal of interest and funding available.

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Sublime Plugins for Pandoc

In the last post, I gave a brief introduction to using Pandoc. There are a few plugins for Sublime Text that I have installed that make it much easier to use Pandoc. On any Sublime Text installation, the first plugin to add should be Package Control. This allows you to easily install more plugins from within Sublime Text with an easy-to-use interface. While there are many plugins out there geared toward Markdown in general and Pandoc in particular, these are the ones that I use:

Markdown Editing
This markdown plugin trumps all the others and provides a base color scheme that I really like.
Academic Markdown
This requires Markdown Editing and extends its features to include some of the things academics would be interested in, like highlighting for Pandoc’s version of citations and CriticMarkup.
Citer
Just tell this plugin where your BibTeX file is and it will handle all your citation needs. I especially use the fuzzy filterable list of all my bibliography entries to add citations extremely quickly even when I only half remember a title or the name of an author.
WordCount
This does what it says with lots of reconfigurability and minimal overhead.
Wrap Plus
This hard wraps selections and best of all it intelligently handles markdown-style block quotes and lists. (As an added bonus it handles a variety of block comment styles in different programming languages.)

Also take a look at the little tweaks that I have added myself for Academic Markdown and creating footnotes with a consistent numbering scheme across multiple files.

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Pandoc

Pandoc is a command line tool that transforms one text format (like Markdown or reStructuredText) into another (like HTML, PDF, or Word). I primarily use it to transform my markdown source files into pretty things like web pages or PDFs that are ready to be printed out. Pandoc is more suitable to my needs as an academic than other markdown tools because it allows for necessary extensions of markdown like footnotes, bibliographies, and tables without becoming too unwieldy. Pandoc’s template system also means that I have full control over my output—although the defaults are pretty good when I just want to spit something out in an unusual format.

After installing Pandoc, you can simply run it from a command line (like Terminal or iTerm in OSX or cmd.exe or Cygwin in Windows). The basic usage is simple:

pandoc -o myOutputFile.docx myInputFile.md

Here the -o flag just means “output” and the filepath after it specifies the name of the file you want to create. Pandoc will automatically detect which format you want to go from and which format you want to output just by the file extensions you give it. In my example, I’m going from a markdown file to a word file.

So far so good, but what if you want to take advantage of those cool things like automatically formated bibliographic footnotes? Simply add the appropriate flags with the necessary information.

pandoc --csl=myChicagoDefault.csl --bibliography=myBibliography.bib -o myOutputFile.docx myInputFile.md

In this example the --csl flag specifies a file with the CSL-style specification for how footnotes and bibliographic entries should be formated and the --bibliography flag specifies a file containing my BibTeX database of bibliography information. You can get more information on my exact set up in this post. Other flags I often include are --smart for transforming straight quotes into curly quotes and hyphens into dashes and --chapters for making first level headers in markdown into chapters in my dissertation.

At this point it becomes somewhat unmanageable to type all these flags in every time you want to get a Word version of the essay you’ve been writing. Luckily, I rarely open up the command line for Pandoc. Instead, I just save the command I use together with all the flags as a “build system” in Sublime Text.

Here’s the build system that I use as a Gist:

Using this I just press Ctrl+Shift+B and I get a menu with the various output formats. I just select one, using either the mouse or the arrow keys, and out pops a new version of the file that I have focused in Sublime. The new file has the same name as the markdown version except that the extension is different.

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