Islands and Oases

The inimitable Rod Dreher has noted the imperative nature of the quote I have featured on my sidebar, about building "islands and oases" of Catholic culture before creating landscapes, in the midst of a antagonistic consumerist anti-culture.

That's all well and good right, but what does that practically mean?

I've also received comments that doubt the vicious nature of suburban culture, viewing it rather as a kind of neutral framework, or even benign to authentic Christian life. I am strongly opposed to such judgments. Suburbia as I understand it is no mere "name" or mental reality, but a fully-formed network and structure of complex relations. And as such, it is difficult to change or dispense with. Even more I would hold, it is a kind of nexus that preserves symbiotically a number of practices and kinds of realtions and habits that are all inimical to real human flourishing; all obstacles to grace to put it another way. The full descriptions of the attendant matters would take some time, but they all form a part of the artificiality and distance from creation, the consumerist mentality and instrumentalization of real human goods, the isolation and alienation from relations of dependency and human communion, the elevation of matter and things to be bought and sold and used above the dignity of the spiritual, etc.

For those of us that see, there is the whole project of going back into the cave. Granted. But in the meantime, what do we do with ourselves and our own families. Do we continue, unabashed and uncontrite getting our daily Starbucks and imbibing our daily media, driving our cars along anti-pedestrian highways and condensing our relationships to the greatest pitch of expedience and convenience possible?

Are radical steps needed? Can we go along, at all, living as if life were the same? What demands are in fact placed upon us?

Rod has suggested that we really think about and dialogue over what the islands and oases we need should look like, what they will entail. I agree. For starters, here are two examples:

The first, The Lord's Ranch, a community of Catholics outside of El Paso that serve the poor of Ciudad Juarez, and includes many families in the ranch that have grown up and lived there.

Here is a small description of the place. And another. Believe the stories, the ranch has a common currency in the kind of miracles that have now become the stuff of fantasy, like the multiplication of loaves and healing of the sick.

A second is Family Missions Company. Maybe moving your family to a small village in Mexico and giving the remainder of your life to the service of the poor and evangelization, is in fact, the best thing for your family too! Imagine that. Look at this family.

Oh, but, we've got to make money. Money, money, money. I feel ya. But I do know that I can recall so many examples of people who made a deliberate conscious decision to give their life to the poor, and somehow, the money was taken care of. Hmm.

And I wish I could give an example of an old-time Catholic Worker farming commune. I just don't know of any good ones out there. You could always start one... Nonetheless, I still think Dorothy and Peter had the best of ideas.


Anonymous John Doman said...

Oh, but, we've got to make money. Money, money, money. I feel ya. But I do know that I can recall so many examples of people who made a deliberate conscious decision to give their life to the poor, and somehow, the money was taken care of. Hmm.

Somehow I'm reminded of a scene from Walk the line:

Johnny Cash: These things will work themselves out.

June Carter: No, these things don't 'work themselves out'. Other people work them out for you, and you think they work themselves out.

My point this: like it or not, money is still required, even for missions...unless you want to go F.P.O. and beg for your food every day. So be careful about scorning the culture that provides the surplus for people to go and live lives dedicated to the poor.

4:21 PM  
Blogger TM Lutas said...

Yes, we've got to make "money, money, money" and unfortunately, you don't understand the very christian reason why it needs to be so. Money is a store of value. Creating wealth, creating value is essential to be able to do the physical mission of the Church, to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to nurse the sick. All this takes stored value and expends it in the name of Jesus.

All this must be done *sustainably*, by which I mean that we cannot just feed everybody today and tomorrow they go back to starving because we have exhausted all our resources. We must retain enough seed corn, enough money, so that tomorrow we can do it all over again.

I find that once one unplugs the TV and puts it in the basement, you've made quite an island where there is a vastly reduced influence of popular culture. If you invite others into your island and feed them there, you have created an oasis too.

Suburbia is an imprecise term. In its identity as an expression of living density, it is not hostile to an authentic christianity. In its proliferation of Burkean "little platoons" it is positive to community expression. In its isolating instantiations where we all go to our houses and "cocoon" in isolation, it is negative. All are labeled suburbia but no one expression is necessary for suburbia except the bare fact of population density and physical arrangement. I do not find these to be harmful which is why I live (TVless currently) in this milieu.

5:23 PM  
Blogger Matthew Fish said...

As Aristotle noted, there is a world of difference between the simple use of a demoinated-symbolic system of excahnge as a means, and money as an end in itself. It is the latter I presume the ever recurrent condemnations of Scripture refer to. Evidently, it is very easy to make this step. Also, to leave "money" in some extra-cultural/historical orbit is jejune if not downright stupid; economics is a very powerful and influential force. Cf. Karl Polanyi's The Great Transformation. Before polemics begin to be thrown out, consider the weighty invective in Rerum Novarum and Quadregesimo Anno. Money is not a store of "anything," it is only of invested symbolic significance. Property of course is something different. So is labor. It is one thing to describe money as a "fact", to witness or enact the handing over of "cash" or "credit" into another's hands; it is enitirely another thing to understand the value and cultural import of such a symbol, and observe it's influence on our thought, our forms and structures and practices. My criticism would be mostly directed to the latter. To claim that I am ignorant of the distinction, as if I were to imagine a real world where symbolic exchange was non-existent or unnecessary, is to confuse the descriptive and the evaluative uses of language.

N.B. V. Bradley Lewis's summary of the basic position:

"Chrematistike [the art of acquisition] concerns the acquisition of wealth, and wealth, while necessary to individuals, households, and cities, is a means to some end and not an end in itself. Wealth and its acquisition, like all human affairs, must be related to man’s natural capacities and relationships in a way that supports eudaimonia. It is precisely the tendency of modern economics (and other social sciences) to see its object as autonomous, value free, and perhaps even reducible to non-human causes that Aristotle’s account rejects."

As for Surburbia, I did not say it is impossible to live in it; only that living well, at all, will be in spite of it, and all suburbia stands for as a symbol. It is a structure full of manifold cultural meaning and impetus, that perhaps an angel could be indifferent to, but a rational animal, not at all. The entire aesthetic value of "Surburbia" is explicitly intentional, and those intentions are not at all at home in a authentic understanding of what it really means, and what it really takes, for man to flourish.

To quote MacIntyre:

"The achievement of excellence in activity characteristically requires the acquisition of skills, but without virtues skills lack the direction that their exercise requires, if excellence is to be achieved. So it is characteristic of such practices that engaging in them provides a practical education into the virtues. And for individuals who are so educated or are in the course of being so educated two questions arise inescapably, questions that may never be explicitly formulated, but which nonetheless receive answers in the way in which individuals live out their lives. For each individual the question arises: what place should the goods of each of the practices in which I am engaged have in my life? The goods of our productive activity in the workplace, the good of ongoing family life, the goods of musical or athletic or scientific activity, what place should each have in my life, if my life as a whole is to be excellent? Yet any individual who attempts to answer this question pertinaciously must soon discover that it is not a question that she or he can ask and answer by her or himself and for her or himself, apart from those others together with whom she or he is engaged in the activities of practices....

So the questions have to be posed: what place should the goods of each of the practices in which we are engaged have in our common life? What is the best way of life for our community?

These questions can only be answered by elaborating a conception of the common good of a kind of community in which each individual’s achievement of her or his own good is inseparable both from achieving the shared goods of practices and from contributing to the common good of the community as a whole. According to this conception of the common good the identification of my good, of how it is best for me to direct my life, is inseparable from the identification of the common good of the community, of how it is best for that community to direct its life. Such a form of community is by its nature political, that is to say, it is constituted by a type of practice through which other types of practice are ordered, so that individuals may direct themselves towards what is best for them and for the community."

Surburbia, as such, encourages a kind of practical deliberation by nature contrary to the deliberation that MacIntyre is talking about, because it is a kind movement (that is, the move to suburbia) that entails a rejection of certain values and practices as worthless, the very values that are needed for the realization of authentic human flourishing. Such a movement need not be inteneded or explicit; the symbolic weight of the suburbs will inevitably form such a practical reasoner, as it was intended to do by its conceivers, in a similar way that Soviet flats in the Eastern bloc were designed to do.

6:25 PM  
Blogger Tom said...

As for Surburbia, I did not say it is impossible to live in it....

Well, of course it is impossible to live in Suburbia, since as you say "Suburbia" is a symbol, not a place.

The places people do live, the actual suburbs that exist, are quite a different matter, one not nearly as susceptible to grand theories. When the theories collide with the actual places, the theories tend to shatter into tautologies.

8:10 PM  
Blogger Matthew Fish said...

I hope it was clear that I meant suburbia as a place that is invested with symbolic meaning (as most places are--at least ones we live in). Of course it is a generalization, and like all generalizations, has limitations; however, I believe that the generalization has enough application to be useful--and this is why I use it.

Generalizations are not tautological--just limited. But limitation is the name of the game in science, as we live in a world of particulars, while our knowledge is only of universals. The good scientist recognizes the limitations of his method; I hope I can do the same. I would not pretend to universally condemn all inhabitants of suburban-like locales; only to postulate a theorem explaining probable behavior and influence. That's all. If the reality of surburbia does not admit at all of generalizations, than it cannot be known or described (even more, if it does not admit of "form", than it does not exist and is only potency).

Therefore, either what I am trying to describe is of a different nature than I can see (e.g. surburbia is in fact beneficial; here's why...) or the thing itself is incorrectly judged to be something else (e.g. what you are in fact describing is the city, not surburbia...). But to claim that cultural habitation is an illusion, that in fact we only exist as individuals entirely outside any realm of place or sociological dependency, and labels like "urban", "suburban", "rural", etc. admit of no scientific relevance, is simply false. Perhaps further distinctions are in order. But it does not follow that the genus does not exist, simply because one disagrees with the distinction of the species.

Any theory only remains viable only insofar as it acurately describes what is in fact the case. To criticize the theory, one should better point out the facts. But to assault theorizing altogether as always inadequate is to abandon knowledge.

4:20 AM  
Blogger Bubba said...

I can speak for no one else, but before I will entertain the question of how we should survive the evil wrought by suburbia, I personally would prefer a rigorous defense of the premises that suburbs embrace all that is bad...

[Suburbia is] is a kind of nexus that preserves symbiotically a number of practices and kinds of realtions and habits that are all inimical to real human flourishing; all obstacles to grace to put it another way.

...and reject all that is good.

[Suburbia] entails a rejection of certain values and practices as worthless, the very values that are needed for the realization of authentic human flourishing.

Specifically, what are these graceless practices suburbia uniquely preserves, and what are the essential values that it requires us to reject?

I've seen few actual answers to these questions, and I've yet to see an answer that seems plausible -- an answer that can't be applied to the artifacts of civilization in general, artifacts that even Dreher's most fanatical fans presumably take for granted. Suburbia involves "artificiality and distance from creation"? So does the use of fire to cook the food we eat. I've seen others argue that the automobile allows us to separate ourselves from the community, but so too does the candle, in allowing one to find a secluded place to read when everyone else is gathered around the fireplace. If suburbia and some agrarian, pre-industrial ideal differ only in degree and not in kind, I would like to know what it is specifically that makes life in the suburb so lethal to the soul.

In the absence of an answer that is clear and internally consistent, I remain tempted to presume that people like Dreher are doing little more than unjustifiably giving moral weight to their own (often internally inconsistent) aesthetic preferences: life on Walton Mountain must be more moral than in Springfield because I find it more appealing.

4:57 PM  

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