A Hillbilly With Incredible Hindsight

I was going to write a review of this bookHillbilly Elegy, by J.D. Vance. I suppose when I'm done, it'll be something like a review. But the truth is there's just not a lot I can say other than: you should really, really read this book.

Vance's book is already a bestseller, for good reason. So excited was I to receive it that I opened it to the opening paragraph straight away. I didn't read any of the blurbs on the back. I was immediately hooked. Upon finishing the book, I finally turned it over and read what other people said about it. My interest in writing a review vanished when I read what Amy Chua had to say:

A beautifully and powerfully written memoir about the author's journey from a troubled, addiction-torn Appalachian family to Yale Law School, Hillbilly Elegy is shocking, heartbreaking, gut-wrenching, and hysterically funny. It's also a profoundly important book, one that opens a window on a part of America usually hidden from view and offers genuine hope in the form of hard-hitting honesty. Hillbilly Elegy announces the arrival of a gifted and utterly original new writer and should be required reading for everyone who cares about what's really happening in America.

That pretty much says everything I wanted to say. I wholeheartedly concur. To whet your appetite even more, read this excellent interview with Vance by Rod Dreher.

But I'll say a few things more. A number of years ago renowned sociologist Charles Murray published a book called Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010. It was the kind of book a sociologist would write. Lots of charts and discussions of percentiles and quintiles. An incredibly important book, but not one destined to be read by the masses. Murray documents the astonishing divide between 'two Americas,' the upper-class elite (which he labels "Belmont") and the world of lower-to-middle class whites ("Fishtown"). Conventional wisdom usually believes that Belmont, the elite, liberal upper-crust, is the haven of those who eschew traditional family values, whereas the common folk--the NASCAR-loving, country music-blaring, beer swilling types--are those that keep the flame of God, country, and family.

What Murray discovered is the opposite. Wealthy liberals, in fact, largely practice traditional values; they just don't preach them. The white lower classes, on the other hand, preach traditional values, but don't practice them. The levels of social disintegration, broken families, crime, poverty, drug addiction, welfare, and so on, among Fishtown are astonishing.

Murray's book has just been given an epic illustration: a raw and captivating tale of one young Hillbilly (a term that refers to the "hill" folk of Appalachia) who escaped the spiral of addiction and misery through the love and support of deeply flawed, but loving, people. But it's not just captivating in the sense that watching a car accident is captivating. It is captivating because Vance has somehow, in some way, achieved a remarkable "30,000-foot" view over his own history. He probes his experiences and memories in all their complexity to offer real insight into the plight of the white working (or, mostly not working) poor. And he concludes that no political platform, no government program, is capable of truly healing what is a deeply profound spiritual and cultural problem. That's not to say nothing can be done. There is plenty that can be done at the level of local communities and civil society. But it is a clarion reminder to his own people that nobody did this to usWe did this to us.

If you want to understand--truly understand--how politics is downstream from culture, you should read Hillbilly Elegy.

And, finally, if you want to understand--truly understand--the phenomenon of Donald J. Trump and his success among the white working class, you should read Hillbilly Elegy.

Doubting Thomas (Aquinas)

[I was very recently privileged to participate in a panel discussion on the prospect of revitalizing Natural Law Theory for public engagement. My interlocutors were Francis J. Beckwith and James K.A. Smith. The event was non-public and will not be made widely available, but I am happy to post here my opening remarks. Without further adieu...]

It is an honor and privilege to be here with you, alongside these capable and gifted scholars. I have been invited to share with you my perspective on the project of revitalizing Natural Law Theory for purposes of public engagement. First, I should get this out of the way: I share wholeheartedly the desire to retrieve the concept of a transcendent moral order—a law “above the law”—in our cultural ethics and jurisprudence. None of us disagree that there is such an order and that it is critical for human society that we recover our apprehension of it. But I do have some doubts. I acknowledge that my doubts to not apply with equal force to all aspects of every version of Natural Law Theory. In his own work, for example, Dr. Budziszewski has sought to advance an understanding of natural law in a way that addresses a number of areas of my concern. And I look forward to this discussion to discover if there is more concord between us than may initially appear.

As for my doubts, they center on the validity and viability of establishing and/or arguing for a transcendent moral order in a self-consciously non-theological or pre-revelational way. That is, by “unaided” reason, without relying on God, the Bible, theology, or Christian tradition.

Without further fanfare, allow me to present five problematic areas as I see it.

Doubt #1: I am skeptical of Natural Law’s alleged intellectual and rhetorical advantage.

Here is conventional wisdom: “We cannot resort to theology in matters of public concern because our opponents do not believe in theology.” I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but our opponents do not believe in nature, either. These are, after all, people who believe everything—even our very biology—is a psychological and socio-cultural construct. Talking about “teleology” and inherent “goods” is every bit as unpopular with our public audience as quoting John 3:16. Our culture’s dominant worldview is precisely that there is no teleology. There is no “purpose.” The Watchmaker is blind. As Justice Kennedy has been teaching us, “at its heart” meaning and purpose is an act of self-creation.

So if public discourse requires a priori agreement about fundamentals like God or Nature, it strikes me that Natural Law Theory is not in the advantageous position it imagines.

Doubt #2: I am skeptical of a neat separation between general and special revelation, between the truths of reason and the truths of faith.

Indeed, it seems to me that when the architects of modern secularism (e.g., Descartes, Kant) sought an intellectual foundation grounded in pure reason, a kind of nature/grace dualism of the Middle Ages had already paved the way. We were left fairly helpless when Immanuel Kant kicked God out of the realm of Reason because that is how many already conceived of him. I find Augustine much better: knowledge—all knowledge—is “faith seeking understanding.” Scratch a truth claim deep enough, and you’ll uncover a faith commitment.

General and special revelation should be viewed as an organic unity—not as parallel tracks—and so also the human person must be viewed as an organic unity. People do not think in terms of two “sets” of propositions, each in a hermetically sealed silo. Rather, they always come to topics shaped and influenced by everything they know. This is true even of Natural Law proponents: what they mean by their references to the natural world is itself shaped by special revelation. In other words I’m doubtful that “unaided” reason really is unaided. So, for example, when Ken Meyers writes that instead of talking about “sin,” we should talk about “living against the grain of the universe.” I ask: What “grain?” He certainly isn’t fooling me, and I very much doubt he’s fooling anybody else. His understanding of a “grain of the universe” is not the product of strict rational thought; it is clearly underwritten by his faith commitments.

And I don’t see why we should be shy or uncomfortable about this. In his book, The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse, Steven Smith compellingly shows that none of the bulwarks of our “secular” society (e.g., human dignity, equality, etc.) are arrived at by strict reason—rather, all parties smuggle their ideological faith commitments into the public square by reassuringly telling themselves and everybody else that the arguments are based on strictly “secular” reason, when they are in fact nothing of the sort.

Doubt #3: I’m skeptical of Natural Law Theory’s assessment of the human epistemic condition.

Brilliance is overrated. We know what true unaided reason is. It is “futile” and “darkened,” (Rom. 1) “depraved,” “enslaved to the flesh,” “death,” “hostile to God,” “unwilling” and “unable” to submit to him (Rom. 8), and “foolish” and “unspiritual” (1 Cor. 1). None of these characterizations are my own. Rather, they are how the Bible characterizes the fallen human mind. The problem is not so much that people don’t believe in God; it is that they won’t believe in God. It is a mistake to believe that human reasoning capacities are generally amenable to arguments that point in God’s direction. I do not believe that reason is ethically neutral, and that appears to me a prerequisite for Natural Law Theory.

Now, of course unbelievers know lots of things and deploy their mental resources very successfully. I readily and thankfully admit it! But I think it makes a difference whether we view that general “reasonableness” as simply the natural state of affairs (a “natural law,” perhaps?) or whether we view it as grace. If it is merely the natural order, we can presume upon it—indeed, so much so that we can use it to construct a general epistemology. But one does not presume upon grace. And grace is what I think it is.

Doubt #4: I am skeptical of halfway-house conversions.

Don’t misunderstand me: if a natural law argument persuades someone to, say, change their mind on the morality of abortion, I will rejoice. But I have nagging doubts about an overall approach that appears satisfied with that. It seems to me one thing to not explicitly ground our foundational convictions in the Bible for a particular existential and/or situational reason (e.g., maybe quoting Scripture right now isn’t the best tactic). But it seems an altogether different thing to never talk about God or his Word in public affairs as a matter of principle.

I struggle to find warrant for a principle that bids me not to press the claims of Christ’s Lordship in the public square, whether with respect to morality or the intellect. We are to take “every thought captive” to the obedience “of Christ.” Peter tells us the prerequisite for our apologetics is to “In your hearts set apart Christ as Lord.” We are called to “Love the LORD your God” with our minds. Does our reticence to appeal to God’s revealed Word betray insecurity or half-heartedness?

And to be clear: I am not talking about the caricature of the guy who just quotes Bible verses as “conversation stoppers.” I am talking about a willingness to boldly give deep and “thick” biblical and theological descriptions of reality, to allow what we really believe to organically, openly, and unashamedly shape our entire view of Life, the Universe, and Everything. I am quite confident that can be done in conversation-enriching ways. In fact, I think it is when we actually get to the heart of the matter, the antithesis between two deep convictions on the nature of reality and ethics and knowledge, that conversations actually get interesting.

Doubt #5: My final doubt I will put in the form of a question:

Isn’t it possible that our reluctance to engage in this kind of “thick-description” biblical and theological discourse in public affairs is one of the culprits of our cultural decline?

Why is it so easy for someone—even highly educated, lettered academics—to describe the run-of-the-mill Christian believer as a mindless “bigot”? To instinctively assume there can be no intellectual reasons for convictions brought by faith? Have not we ourselves perpetuated this very idea: intellect and faith occupy two different spheres?

What if we are to blame? I don’t think we should be at all surprised that after centuries of playing by Secularism’s cardinal rule, “Leave God, the Bible, and your faith out of it!” we wake up to find that Secularism dominates the field. And I’m concerned that some versions of the Natural Law renewal represent a doubling down on the failed strategy that got us here, rather than a real advance.