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    PloughCast #7 Dogs, Ross Douthat, and UFOs

    The PloughCast, Creatures, Part 1

    Susannah Black, Peter Mommsen and Ross Douthat

    June 1, 2021
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    Can nature teach us how to live – or does it simply want to kill us? And what about UFOs? A conversation with Ross Douthat.

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    About this Episode

    Can nature teach us how to live, or is the universe random and meaningless? In the first episode of ’s new 6-part series about nature and creatures, Susannah quizzes Peter about his dog Hektor, who plays a starring role in Peter’s Plough editorial “The Book of Creatures.” They discuss the evolution of dogs, especially the way dogs’ faces have evolved to hack into human emotions of tenderness – and ask whether this should make us more cynical about nature, or more open to the possibility that it is freighted with meaning and purpose.

    The imprisoned Czech dissident Vaclav Havel, not a religious believer, nevertheless had a mystical experience of nature that changed his life. The Boston writer Ian Marcus Corbin tells Havel’s story in an ambitious Plough essay “The Abyss of Beauty,” which the hosts discuss, prompting Susannah to describe her own, distinctly urban, version of Havel’s conversion experience.

    The New York Times columnist Ross Douthat then joins The PloughCast for a wide-ranging discussion of nature-related topics. First up is a debate whether there is such a thing as natural law, and if there is, why it fails to move public opinion on controversial questions such as bioethics. Ross then recounts his personal story of the dark side of nature: a harrowing experience of long-term Lyme disease which led him to write his forthcoming book The Deep Places: A Memoir of Illness and Discovery (October 2021).

    On a lighter note, Ross agrees to talk about the paranormal: UFOs (now also known as UAPs or “Unidentified Aerial Phenomena), space aliens, and alien abductions. What are we to make of the US military’s recent official confirmation of UFO sightings? Are aliens part of the natural world, or are they supernatural – perhaps the same beings formerly called fairies and elves? Finally, an important warning: Don’t anger the Good People.

    • I. Dogs and the Book of the Creatures (0:30)
    • II. Vaclav Havel’s Nature Mysticism (16:35)
    • III. Ross Douthat on Natural Law and Lyme Disease (22:27)
    • IV. Ross Douthat on UFOs, Aliens, and Elves (53:30)

    Recommended Reading

    Transcript

    Susannah: And we’re back with another six-episode series of The PloughCast, where we’ll be discussing the most recent issue of Plough magazine and talking with a wide variety of contributors. Thanks for tuning in.

    Peter: Very excited about this issue. It’s about the natural world and our relationship as human beings to it so there’s a lot to cover.

    Susannah: I’m Susannah Black, senior editor at Plough.

    Peter: I’m Peter Mommsen, editor of the Plough magazine, and this is The PloughCast.

    Dogs and the Book of the Creatures (00:30)

    Susannah: The main thing I can remember [is] slightly wanting to make fun of you of when you sent me the first draft of your editorial – was the fact that I was in the third paragraph into this thing and you were still talking about your dog essentially, dogs in general but it was about Hektor.

    Peter: It was about Hektor, but it really was about a deeper issue raised by Hektor, especially his expressive eyebrows, which I think we could talk about a bit because I love to talk about Hektor. We’ll also be talking later in this episode with New York Times columnist, Ross Douthat, not about dogs, but about ticks and aliens and whether natural law is played out.

    Susannah: Yes, this is the tick, alien, and dog issue of Plough – possibly aliens. Before we dive in, if you have any questions that you’d like us to discuss in the final episode of this podcast or the series of podcasts, let us know on Twitter with #BookofCreatures, or if you don’t do Twitter, send us an email at info@plough.com, and now to the conversation. So Pete, how about this editorial of yours?

    Peter: Well, the expressive eyebrows, this is old research, actually, that came out in 2019 in a bunch of outlets, but it was originally published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and it was about dog’s eyebrows. [Which] I’m always fascinated by stories about evolution in general but definitely about dog-evolution because my Brittany spaniel, Hektor, is four years old and a big part of the Mommsen family’s life. It was about how do dogs develop these facial features because wolves do not have that – dogs as we know are descended from wolves thirty thousand years ago. They split off and started hanging out with human beings. Wolves, although they can be domesticated and develop some kind of relationship to their masters, do not have that same emotional expressive communicative quality that a dog does.

    Susannah: They do not gaze at you.

    Peter: They do not gaze at you. They have a relationship-building problem with human beings, which dogs do not. This is what they got into, there was actually muscles in around the eyes of dogs that allow them to make puppy eyes that have these expressive eyes. You could say what dogs managed to do is essentially hack into this human emotion of care, specifically what dogs apparently are able to do is mimic the expression of a young child. When a dog looks at you, it really is hacking into your hopefully natural response when you see a sad pleading child – of just letting your heart melt, and dogs do that.

    Susannah: They do.

    Peter: The reason I was interested in this too though, apart from just the question that every dog owner always asks themselves – “Does my dog really love me or does the dog only seem to love me? Is this just an evolutionary hack to get food out of me?” Because it intrigues me, if you go back over the history of human kind’s relationship to nature, there’s always been a sense by human beings, till quite recently, that nature has a meaning – that we can have a connection to it, that when we relate to living creatures, there’s something good and meaningful in that relationship and that’s the root of most polytheistic religions, also Shinto or Daoism. There’s this sense that there’s something to the universe that has meaning.

    If you think about it in terms of dogs, you think about it, here’s the dog is the symbol of loyal companionship. But if this is purely a matter of a certain kind of wolves developing an eye muscle that happens to stimulate human emotion, it’s essentially meaningless. It reflects a wider sense of meaninglessness that people, I think, have been feeling toward nature ever since the popularization of the theory of evolution certainly, but also just throughout modernity. There’s this alienation that it really is just mechanistic, in the same sense [that] a dog expression when it looks at you, isn’t really loving – it’s just a mechanical random adaptation of certain muscles – so too, nature in general when we look at it, isn’t really beautiful. So what we’re really seeing is, when you look at a beautiful landscape is we’re reminded of a fertile fruitful area of this Savannah deep in our evolutionary past and it doesn’t really mean anything. What I was then doubling back to the dog and to Hektor is what I found really intriguing and it doesn’t prove anything but to me indicates something. The researchers then did a second step and they actually measured, they took samples from both the dogs and their owners after they interacted, they found that both dogs and their owners experienced a surge in a biochemical compound, oxytocin, that causes pleasure, after showing affection to each other.

    Susannah: “Causes pleasure”: so that’s the question, does it cause pleasure or is it a correlation between a chemical surge and our experience of pleasure? This is the question of “nothing-but-tery”: Is it nothing but a chemical or is it something that a chemical is correlated with?

    Peter: We can’t resolve that, but this biochemical signature does show us that to the extent that our love for our child is real, our love for our dog is, to a lesser degree, also real and that dog’s love for us is also real, unless we’re going to say that we don’t actually love kids, in which case, you have much bigger problems.

    We cannot prove that with this, but we can say that there is, biochemically speaking, a genuine matter of affection between us and our dog. But you could say, “Okay, where does this bring us and why are we even talking about this?” Well, it’s our “Creatures” issue for one, so dogs matter. But more broadly, how does nature matter to us and what is our relationship really to nature? Because it seems to me that there is a crisis in our relationship to nature which plays out, too, in the relationship to human nature.

    Of course, Pope Benedict XVI, most notably, talked about that back in 2011 and addressed to the German Bundestag, where he talked about how the modern ecological movement has rediscovered something important and seeing an intrinsic value in the natural world, but that needs to be expanded to seeing an intrinsic value in the givenness of human nature and the creatureliness of humans.

    We’re going to get into some of those topics more deeply in later episodes of this podcast, I don’t think we’re going to do that right now, but I do want to talk about today the matter of just reading nature. My editorial is called “The Book of the Creatures,” and I don’t know what you thought about that whole metaphor of creation as a book, because I hadn’t realized what deep roots it has in Jewish and Christian traditions.

    Susannah: Yeah. I find it fascinating. There are a couple of different ways that we can think of it and just the very specific dogs mean loyalty, or mountains mean majesty, there’s actual grammar or rhetoric of symbolism – of natural symbolism in images in Christian history and in art history, but there’s also the sense of when we are actually in nature when we’re taking a walk outside when we’re perceiving the created order, there’s a sense of seeing the world as a cosmos, seeing the universe as a cosmos, not just as a batch of random chemicals that happen to be strung together, this is a very natural way to see the universe, but I almost feel as though it’s something that I’ve had to rediscover, almost I’ve had to get new eyes in order to be able to see what I originally was able to perceive but which after you learn that, well actually the sun does not rise, we are in fact not at the center of the universe.

    There [are] all these debunking moments in our lives in our perception of nature, where we are told that at least if you’re not particularly raised Christian, that everything that you perceive as meaningful is not actually meaningful, it’s just there.

    Peter: It’s all a succession of tooth fairies to be disproved – tooth fairies and Santa Claus.

    In the Christian tradition, that idea of nature as a book that you can read is derived from scripture but was developed especially by the Desert Fathers. First of all, I believe I read a beautiful article that traced it back to Anthony the Great, the Egyptian hermit who lived in the wilderness for decades and presumably was well acquainted with nature. He spoke about the book of nature and that metaphor was developed throughout Christian history in a way that I hadn’t realized what a big long tradition that was because it’s one that isn’t all that familiar to many people today, how central that was, one of the most signal and pithy summations of it is from Augustine of Hippo, we actually put this quote on the back of our issue, I did want to read it. Augustine wrote, “Some people, in order to find God, will read a book. But there is a great book, the book of created nature. Look carefully at it top and bottom, observe it, read it. God did not make letters of ink for you to recognize him in; he set before your eyes all these things he has made. Why look for a louder voice?” This is from one of the premier interpreters of written scripture, who is basically saying, look around you, look outside, look at the trees and the bees and the birds in the sky.

    This goes of course way beyond Christianity too. I mentioned Daoism, I mentioned Shintoism, you could talk about classical philosophy as well. Aristotle’s whole idea of there being a goal, a telos to life that you can discern through observing the world around you.

    Susannah: That there’s a world of the forms, there’s a form of the dog that Hektor is an instantiation of.

    Peter: Well, I think Hektor is the incarnated Platonic form of the dog. That’s not the case for most people, for most people this is not obvious today, for most people this is, if anything, pretty almost embarrassing metaphor that you would look at a beautiful sunset and be so naive as to think that your feelings of pleasure at seeing the sun setting over the sea or over a mountain, or whatever, can tell you anything about what the universe is really like.

    Susannah: I hate to, once again, bring up C. S. Lewis, I’m just going to bring up C. S. Lewis.

    Peter: You’re allowed to bring up C. S. Lewis.

    Susannah: It’s just going to happen, it’s going to keep happening and we …

    Peter: Once or twice per podcast …

    Susannah: I’m just remembering the beginning of The Abolition of Man, where he’s talking about the debunkery of what he’s called The Green Book, this very bad annoying literary textbook that he was given to review and the authors who he pseudonymizes because he trashes them so badly called Gaius and Titius, say that they’re like analyzing a piece, something from Coleridge and Coleridge talks about the awesomeness of a mountain peak or something like this as Coleridge tends to do. Gaius and Titius say, one of the things that we need to realize in literary analysis is that when a poet talks of the awesomeness of a mountain peak, he’s not talking about something that’s in the mountain, he’s having feelings of awesomeness – of majesty, and that is kind of our modern assumption, there’s no …

    Peter: Sure. Everything is a pathetic fallacy.

    Susannah: Everything is a pathetic fallacy, there’s no actual majesty in a mountain, it’s just a big rock. If there’s majesty it’s because we are having majestic feelings. Lewis points out that that’s a philosophical position that would have to be defended, and it’s certainly not our actual experience. We don’t actually have majestic feelings when we look at a mountain, we have humble feelings. We perceive the mountain itself as majestic, and we ourselves feel humbled and comparison with it.

    It might be the case that there is a correct response which we might need to cultivate in ourselves to that odd nature, because that’s actually an accurate way of perceiving the world. If we are not seeing the mountain as awesome, as majestic, we might not be seeing it properly in the way that if I’m not seeing that as green, I might not be seeing it properly. There’s something there in the world as opposed to just in myself and we won’t get into optics.

    Peter: You mentioned the need to cultivate this ability to perceive meaning in nature, which seems to fly in the face of what Augustine is saying, it just comes naturally, and I was asking myself in the editorial too, why is it that we have such trouble? Why do we need to cultivate something that used to just come naturally to people? I think there is actually a good reason and one of it is simply that we’re out of practice, that most people live in environments where they’re not naturally in touch with nature. You can read the studies on this, less than 1 percent of American families live on farms now, so very few people work with animals day in and day out. The share of American hunters has halved over the last forty, fifty years. I actually read an astounding statistic that only 20 percent of Americans can see the Milky Way from where they live. The entire idea that the psalmist talks about the heavens declaring the glory of God, 80 percent of people are not seeing the heavens as declaring anything, it’s just a murky sky.

    Susannah: Very few of us are seeing the heavens the way they would have been seen over the deserts.

    Peter: No, well, even here in upstate New York, we’re not seeing that.

    Susannah: Not even in upstate New York.

    Peter: No, not even in upstate New York.

    Vaclav Havel’s Nature Mysticism (16:35)

    Peter: Before we get into some of those more contentious issues, there’s another really beautiful essay that we’re not going to dive too far into it today, it’s by Ian Marcus Corbin and it’s called “The Abyss of Beauty,” and it’s talking about exactly this experience of experiencing nature and it meaning something. I’d like to stay with that experience because this essay, which is just gorgeously written and takes us on a tour through about Vaclav Havel, Dostoyevsky, Melville, and a host of others.

    Susannah: Augustine again?

    Peter: Augustine again, Adam Zagajewski the Polish poet, but it’s really about this, and it’s really about an experience that Ian himself had. He’s a writer for Plough, I believe he’s … can you give Ian’s background?

    Susannah: He’s in the Boston Area and he’s got a couple of kids and he’s a writer/suburban dad. In this essay he talks about his own experience with a little tiny bit of essentially suburban nature, and he compares that to Vaclav Havel’s experience that … do you want to read this quote?

    Peter: Right. Havel has been locked up and he’s serving a four-year prison term, this is after Soviet repression in the Czech Republic where he was of course, a leader and later become president. It’s the late 1970s, maybe 1980, and he’s writing to his wife, Olga from a prison in Heřmanice, he’s just gone to the courtyard and he’s describing to her this particular moment:

    “I call to mind that distant moment went on a hot cloudless summer day, I sat on a pile of rusty iron and gazed into the crown of an enormous tree that stretched with dignified repose up and over all the fences wires bores and watch towers that separated me from it. As I watched the imperceptible trembling of its leaves against an endless sky, I was overcome by a sensation that is difficult to describe: all at once I seem to rise above all the coordinates of my momentary existence in the world into a kind of state outside time in which all the beautiful things, the forms, I’ve ever seen and experienced existed in a total co-present. I felt a sense of reconciliation, indeed of an almost gentle ascent to the inevitable course of events as revealed in me now, and this combined with a carefree determination to face what had to be faced.”

    I won’t continue to the very end of this quote, but Havel, in this moment, in this courtyard, in a prison, with nothing to look forward to, his cause of fighting for the liberation of his country apparently frustrated, had this moment and he was not a believer by the way and in fact never became one.

    He never really could, but he did not give up the sense that this moment he had, told him something about the true nature of the universe that he wouldn’t be argued out of. You ever had this Havel moment, Susannah?

    Susannah: I’ve had Havel moments like this, both in nature, but also, this is the weird part, I’ve also had those experiences in the city. I grew up in Manhattan and one of the most powerful experiences of my childhood, I can remember it was September or something, I was looking out over New Jersey, which is not always the most inspiring thing, but in this moment it was, and there was that pink afternoon New York light on the buildings across the Hudson. I was on Riverside Park and there were all these gorgeous Beaux-Arts apartment buildings. It felt to me like I was seeing through the city into another place and still to this day have bits of that perception when I’m walking around the city. And it was completely inexplicably me, it had that same sense of incredible joy and incredible beauty and legibility like I was reading the city …

    Peter: This was the form of New York that is …

    Susannah: This is the form of New York. It was …

    Peter: Let’s go fully C. S. Lewis. This is the “further up and further in” Manhattan.

    Susannah: This is the “further up and further in” of New York, so this is like Inwood Park. I was puzzled by this for a really long time and it was actually only after – I didn’t become a Christian for probably another ten years, and once I did, and learned about the doctrine of the New Jerusalem as the kala polis, the city that we are in fact headed for, I’m pretty sure what I had just seen was the New Jerusalem through New York and I still see it though. I have had those experiences in nature as well, but I do think it’s possible to have them in cities.

    Peter: Well, this I think sets us up very well for our conversation with our guest, Ross Douthat so we’ll be right back.

    Ross Douthat on Natural Law and Lyme Disease (22:27)

    We’re welcoming Ross Douthat, a New York Times columnist, author, and Plough contributor, and we’re going to continue our conversation about whether we can actually learn anything from nature about how to live our lives, so welcome Ross.

    Ross Douthat: Thanks for having me, it’s good to be with you.

    Peter: There’s so many things we want to talk about. We want to talk about natural law, which is weighty, we want to talk about bad things in nature from COVID to deer ticks and possibly something to do with your upcoming book, Ross, and we want to talk about UFOs, are they part of nature, are they not?

    Ross Douthat: That covers the range, I think. After this podcast no further conversation about any topic would be necessary

    Susannah: No, this is it. This is the final piece of content.

    Peter: Maybe we should start though with the one that is possibly weightiest, I’m not sure if it is, and that’s natural law. We were talking earlier Susanna, and I, about the patristic authors, starting with Anthony the Great, Basil of Caesarea, Augustine, who all talk about nature as this book, that you can read it’s accessible to all, even without revelation, even for somebody who can’t read, they expected that we can look at nature and much as the Apostle Paul said as well, that we can learn from it facts about the universe, that is was a meaning to life, facts about who we are and who God is.

    There’s a new book out by O. Carter Snead, that many of our readers have read-- What It Means to Be Human: The Case for the Body in Public Bioethics – where he attempts to deal with some of these difficult ethical questions, whether it be gene editing, abortion, or assisted suicide, in a way that’s attentive to the reality of the body, and yet even reading that, I sometimes got the sense that – who’s going to listen to this, is it going to change anyone’s mind?

    Ross Douthat: Yeah. Well, those are incredibly big and sweeping questions so I’ll try and offer some totally idiosyncratic thoughts that don’t necessarily resolve anything. First my own view, well one, I don’t think it’s totally true that people don’t experience nature as some kind of book freighted with intimations of divinity anymore. I think that that experience has been somewhat unmoored from Christianity and from the biblical narrative, but I don’t think you have to go very deep into either the environmentalist movement or just the run of popular spirituality books that you can find at your local Barnes & Noble, which you should patronize to keep Amazon from destroying it. We’ve reached the point where we’re desperately trying to keep the chain bookstores alive to defeat the online bookstore.

    Anyway, I think American religion as a popular phenomenon is still shot through with connections between the grandeur of the mountaintop and the whispering in the deep forest and some kind of spiritual understanding of the universe. It’s just that in certain ways going back to Emerson and Thoreau and Whitman to New England transcendentalism which you can see as a forerunner of a lot of American spirituality today. It’s not that book is not seen as pointing per se to the Christian God, it’s seen as a revelation of direct unmediated spiritual experience as a path to personal growth and fulfillment that has some kind of connection to the numinous and supernatural, but doesn’t confirm a particular anthropology or a particular set of religious dogmas.

    Why you’ve had that severing is an interesting question. I think fundamentally there is, in elite circles, the people who maybe look down on some of the pop spirituality I’ve been just talking about, a sort of harder materialism where there’s an outright rejection of the idea that you can see any divine plan in the universe and the idea that no, you have to just accept that it’s all just matter in motion and so on. I think that view does reflect ideological blinkeredness that probably has something to do with technological disconnections from reality, but I think it has more to do with the particular intellectual and material culture of the American intelligentsia.

    I don’t have the exact answer for why that materialism prevails so much among Ivy League faculty for instance, I think about this a lot because these are people I work with and people I write for at the New York Times, basically the simplest version of the argument that a orderly law bound beautiful cosmos that most importantly, in a way, yields itself to the human mind, the legibility point that you made earlier seems to me a tremendously powerful argument for the existence of God and some sort of deep connection between whatever mind or intelligence created the universe in our particular mind. It’s like the fact that our minds are a key that can unlock the fundamental laws of physics.

    It’s just a crazy thing when you think about it in strictly material forms, this evolved ape on a random planet can grasp the mysteries of the universe. That to me has always seemed like a very powerful argument, a pro God, if you will, kind of argument. I do think the breakdown there is something with Darwinism that creates a breakdown and there’s a superficial version of that which is that people are like, “Oh, Darwin explained where life came from so we don’t need God anymore,” which is mostly dumb. Then there’s the more sophisticated argument, which is that Darwinism calls into question Christian anthropology, which I think is more plausible. What Darwin tells us is not that God didn’t create the universe or that the universe isn’t the law-bound orderly system or anything like that, but Darwinism is a story about how human beings came to be and it’s a story in which we came to be through a combination of ruthless predation by animals over millions of years, combined with a lot of mutations and accidents in our genetic code.

    I think it’s out of that that you get people are on a more serious level saying like, “Well, if I believe in that narrative then why should I treat human nature as this God-given reality, if human nature has come into being through this process of predation and mutation. Why do we need to see the human body as it exists now as directed towards particular ends that if you deviate from those ends you’re falling into sin and error, when it seems clear that the human body, whatever role God might’ve had in it is accidental and flawed thing, et cetera.”

    I think that’s how Darwinism enters into this, less as a challenge to the idea of some God, or order in the universe, and more as a challenge to the idea that human anthropology is a book that we can read and interpret as natural law would have us do.

    Susannah: Is that something that you’ve found as a challenge to your faith or to your understanding of the world? It has been for me a little bit, although not that badly, but how have you thought through some of those questions? Do you think those are good arguments? What are the counter-arguments?

    Ross Douthat: I think if you asked me to identify the intellectual challenge to Christianity in the modern era that I take most seriously, it’s that one, I think. And I wouldn’t say that it affects my faith precisely, it’s a problem that has not been adequately thought through and successfully resolved, and I think you would expect problems like that to come along in the history of a religion and it’s only been one hundred fifty years since Darwin, which is a wink of an eye in terms of Christian history. But I think it’s the idea of original sin in particular, that is … on the one hand I have this intuitive sense that the Chestertonian quip, that “original sin is the only Christian doctrine that is empirically verifiable,” that seems to be totally true and I think there is something if you look at human history, there is some tendency towards evil in us that is not adequately explained just by selfishness and self-interest, that gets you, people being jerks, it doesn’t get you some of the deep perversity of the human heart.

    I think the doctrine of original sin does a lot of effective work explaining that reality. At the same time, the basic idea that sin and death entered the world with the first human family, it’s genuinely hard to square with an evolutionary account of human origins. At the very least, you can’t say that death enters the world, you have to do a theory that animal death is not an evil and C. S. Lewis has written a bit about this, these arguments, but Lewis obviously as the father of Narnia tends to think that animal death is an evil, but if animal death is an evil, well, then where does that come from? Well, maybe it comes from Lucifer’s rebellion, maybe there’s an original fall and then a secondary fall, or maybe the crazier idea is that the fall is an event in human history that ripples backward in time as well as forward in time, but then you’re in territory of, in Adam’s fall the archeological record was rewritten to make this look more look like the fallen world that it became.

    Then you’re into territory that could be true. I don’t think you would expect a casual non-believer to buy into those kind of arguments. Yeah, there is a moral theological problem there and the basic idea that human beings evolved from animal life, I think is not a challenge to the idea of a benevolent creator-God, it’s the particular mechanisms involved that create the challenge.

    Peter: That’s sharpened with for instance, some of the recent genetic research showing significant Neanderthal DNA in many modern human populations, which begs the question of where that animal-human line actually came to be and which of our fore-parents were on the other side of the animal-human line, which grandpa didn’t have a soul?

    Susannah: Right.

    Ross Douthat: Right. I think none of this is incompatible with Genesis. If you just read Genesis, strip away the assumptions that Christians bring to the text, just read Genesis flat out. I don’t think anyone would read the first two books of Genesis and be like, “Well, this is obviously a literal account of the moment by moment creation of the world.” You have two separate creation accounts that seem to be doing very different things theologically, and then you get to that famous moment where Cain is kicked out of the first family and he goes off and gets married and starts building cities. To say nothing of the Nephilim and all of the other odd characters hanging around that narrative. I think Genesis itself is totally compatible with Neanderthals, with a very complicated origin story for humanity that is distilled in these particular stories.

    Again, it’s the traditional Christian reading, especially around the idea of what the fall did to human nature, I think that’s more of the direct challenge.

    Peter: This actually takes us to our next topic perhaps, if we’re able to read the book of nature and see the truths of it, what is it that we read? That’s what also bothers people, when we read the book of nature, do we read of beauty and goodness? Do we read “all things bright and beautiful”? Or do we read more like Monty Python did, “all things squat and ugly”? What are the things in nature that are actually there, both in our own nature? When you read human nature, do you see the image of God, or do you see a predatory animal where males act like male primates do, and the females have to put up with it, for instance?

    After a year of pandemic, you read nature and you might read COVID-19. I wonder how much is it that when we look at nature, we’ve been conditioned perhaps too much to see natural evil. Do you think that’s gnawing at people?

    Ross Douthat: Yeah, that’s definitely true. It is one of the weird things about the modern world though, that as we have become more protected from natural evil, we have tended to focus more on it seemingly as a theological problem. The village getting wiped out by the plague …

    Peter: It was actually a lot worse.

    Susannah: Yeah.

    Ross Douthat: That’s a lot worse than COVID-19 even, and certainly any of the normal run of events in twenty-first century America. Yet it does seem at least for intellectuals in the modern age, it’s more offensive to their idea of divine goodness, to have the suffering that we have, than it would have been somehow to similarly situated thinkers in the middle ages. That’s not entirely true, the Lisbon earthquake in the eighteenth century famously sets off a run of theodicy arguments and people making fun of the idea that this is the best of all possible worlds.

    It’s not a novelty of the twentieth century by any means and you can find similar arguments in the classical world too. In certain ways you would think, well, as natural evils diminished, we would worry less about that argument. But in fact, the opposite seems to be the case. Fundamentally, and this again raises some questions about the fall and its purposes, I think fundamentally it’s hard to get out of the conclusion that like David Bentley Hart is going to appear behind my shoulder and clobber me with a book for saying this. The idea that suffering is purposive, that there is a reason, even if God does not will the particular evil and by his direct will, there is a reason that he allows us to live in a world that includes not only human sins, not only our own chosen follies, maybe re-engineering the coronavirus in the labs of Wuhan, but also the basic run of natural evils.

    I find it hard to escape that conclusion. That’s what you get, there was a good piece by… Who’s the biographer of Thomas Aquinas, Dennis Taylor, my mind does not work. Denys Turner, I was so close. Denys Turner wrote a piece on Julian of Norwich recently, I’m just going to try and try and pull it up. She’s the mystic famous for saying “all will be well and all manner of things will be well,” maybe he wrote a book and someone else reviewed it, see maybe I’m mixing this up. Anyway, perhaps someone reviewing a book by Denys Turner on Julian of Norwich made a version of this point, but just that it was an exercise in bullet biting, that saying that Julian of Norwich does not have a sentimentalized account of divinity and in fact, seems to struggle deeply with why God allows bad things to happen and so on. And her conclusion of all being well is somehow the idea that it is a version of actually you have to trust God that this is the best of all possible worlds, earthquakes and sufferings and holocausts included. There are good reasons why it’s a hard bullet to bite because then anyone who has not suffered the absolute worst is in a position of seeming to say pious treacle to people who have lost children or lost their entire families, or suffered for decades with a terrible illness and nobody wants to be the person saying that. Yet it seems hard to avoid saying it to some extent.

    Susannah: This is why to me, the fact of Job being the earliest book of the Bible is bizarrely comforting because the hideous things that happened to him and the sense that he has of like, “God, what is going on? Are you in control of the sequence of hideous events in my life?” God coming back with a description of his own creative ordering of the world, in macro nature including His being in charge of the ocean, which is this representation of chaos and evil.

    Sporting With the Leviathan is this macro right-at-the-beginning of our faith-tradition statement of, we are aware of the cosmic nature of the screw-up that we seem to be living through, and we are not going to flinch from that or try to do a Job’s friends’ happy explanation of things. There’s the bullet that’s bit right at the beginning in Job, then Julian, didn’t she have some paralysis that periodically came on her, some kind of chronic illness of her own?

    Ross Douthat: Yeah. But you have that bullet biting, but then what’s so striking about Christianity is that if you were just doing religion empirically, you would probably say something like, “Okay, you’re in this ordered cosmos that is ordered and beautiful, but also full of suffering, and evils that we don’t understand.” We should assume that basically there is a moral order that we can’t grasp. If you just read Job, that alone, that would be the conclusion that you would draw, that there’s a moral order that beyond the human mind capacity to grasp and we just have to deal with that fact and deal with the reality that our everyday experiences seem somewhat morally out of joint.

    The strong suggestion of the New Testament, I would say, is that actually, our moral intuitions do correspond to the way the world should be, the poor should be lifted up in the sick should be healed, and that God loves us in a more direct and personal way than you might get from Him making bets with the devil at our expense at this turn of Job.

    Maybe in the sense what I’m saying about Darwin and the fall, it’s just a particular distillation of the general thing that Christianity asks you to do, which is basically say you’re going to take the empirics of reality and except without understanding fully the revelation of Jesus Christ as a controlling interpretation. Absent that revelation you would say, God is just above us and we don’t get it, and with that revelation you have to say, no! God has an intent for the world, the world is somehow out of joint but our sense of justice does correspond in some sense to God’s sense of justice. It just deepens the mystery because we can’t quite figure out how that works.

    Peter: So you, Ross, are coming out with the book this fall and I don’t know how much you can say about it, but it seems, from what I’ve seen of it, to spring from an encounter with the evils of nature in the form of Lyme disease and deer ticks. Are you with Job or are you feeling New Testament as you think about Lyme disease?

    Ross Douthat: Yeah. I got sick almost six years ago now, and the book is an account of the illness and this strange reality that Lyme sits in this zone of controversy within medicine that I think thanks to COVID-era debates, maybe more people are familiar with how many zones of controversy in medicine there are, but there’s a huge debate about whether chronic Lyme disease is really Lyme disease at all, how you test for it, how you treat it. I got very, very sick and have spent a substantial period of time doing some normal things and some very abnormal things trying to get better. In part the book is just a personal account of what that’s like and figuring out, trying to basically be your own doctor to some extent with the help of some actual doctors.

    Yeah, inevitably it also overlaps with some of the preoccupations we’ve been talking about. One thing the experience has definitely done is pushed me away from what I think is a somewhat naively sentimentalized view of the natural world that you sometimes get both from Emersonian enthusiasts, but also from a certain Christian critic of the modern world where there’s this desire, this idea of a return to nature as an alternative to the secularism of late modernity. I have some sympathies in that direction, I think there’s real value in that pastoralist tradition. At the same time, nature wants to kill you, it’s your body in the woods with grass growing through it, nature is fine with that.

    Susannah: What we’re really going for is the Pasteur option?

    Ross Douthat: Yeah. There’s some wrestling and reckoning with that. I’ve become a little bit more of a techno-futurist probably, in response to this experience then than I used to be.

    Peter: So less Wendell Berry, less Ross in his bean rows with bees buzzing around him.

    Ross Douthat: We bought this house in the country, we were naive city folk, we were going to have chickens, do all the many things that the Bruderhof community …

    Peter: Yeah, you’re talking to a guy inclined that way.

    Ross Douthat: No, I know. And I’m saying, again, it’s a wonderful and important tradition but it just turned out that that was not what nature and God had in mind for me.

    Susannah: Now you are becoming a transhumanist sea studder.

    Ross Douthat: That’s right. Actually as we speak, my left arm is now an android attachment. I have a little more sympathy for the transhumanist, but it’s very hard I would say, to experience a chronic illness as a religious person and just read it as an attack from the fallen side of the world. You end up by necessity, maybe just psychological necessity, reading it as a trial or testing or something that is in some sense offered to you by God as an opportunity. It’s very hard to avoid that theological interpretation when you’re literally in the thick of it yourself.

    Peter: Well, I know that, this is returning to O. Carter Snead’s book, a good friend of ours live here in the community with us have a deeply disabled son now age six or seven, who’s just undergoing constant suffering, not able to speak, and for parents in that situation to raise a son, to love them through, to often not be able to help him when he’s expressing discomfort can seem so pointless and so meaningless, unless one would believe that there’s something to this suffering that has a meaning, that there is a dignity to it and an honor to it and really their whole life would literally make no sense were that not true. It sounds like you experienced something like that in a different way.

    Susannah: And that there’s an end to it too, and that part of the New Testament is more than implying to us is that it’s not just that our suffering now has meaning, it’s not just that God actually does love us in a personal and slightly less abstractly Job-like way, but it’s also that our bodies in fact will be made new. I can’t imagine how that hits you post-Lyme, but it seems like that might start to sound like even better news than it might have previously.

    Ross Douthat: Yeah, your relationship to your body changes and again, this is something as you say, that lots of people live with as a lifelong thing. It’s definitely the reality that I have gotten a lot better, although I’m not fully well by any stretch, but the knowledge that you might not get better, that people can be sick for fifty years, just as people can be born with disabilities and so on. It places a certain weight both on the hope of the resurrection, but even just the idea of being out of the body. If you read about near death experiences and this feeling that people have when they leave their body behind, there’s a lot of strange things about that literature, you don’t want to put too much weight on it, but it definitely strikes me reading it now as opposed to ten years ago, the feeling of relief that people sometimes describe, it’s like finally my soul is free of this container it’s been stuffed into for X number of years.

    I can relate to that in a way that I never would have, when you’re young and your body just feels like it works for you, the idea that you might be limited by your body, or imprisoned inside your body, it’s something you can understand intellectually but not a thought you can experience directly.

    Ross Douthat on UFOs, Aliens, and Elves (53:30)

    Peter: Well, while we’re still together, turning to a mystery of nature that is a little more just fun …

    Susannah: Going from near death experience. I feel like the near-death experiences are … basically we want you to talk about UFOs, Ross, we want to know what you think, we’re really psyched over here for the upcoming, is it like two weeks or two months or something, congressional report? that is apparently going to be coming out which may in fact be out by the time this podcast is released, who knows. You have, in the past, written a lovely Christmas column about UFOs and …

    Peter: And fairies, I believe.

    Susannah: … and fairies.

    Ross Douthat: Yeah, I want to tread carefully with the fairies because …

    Susannah: I don’t want you to though, first of all …

    Ross Douthat: You don’t want to speak – we want to call them “the Good People.” So, UFOs. My general view of all of these things is that when you have a persistent paranormal phenomenon that has lots of accounts associated with it, and you drill down into it you find X number of cases are dismissible, their frauds, hoaxes, and just mistakes. But when something is persistent, when it’s a persistent feature of human society, not just a temporary panic or a one-off thing, there’s usually some really hard to explain set of happenings close to the core of it, and that’s how I feel about near death experiences, it’s how I feel about demonic possession, it’s how I feel about ghosts. I’m a full spectrum supernaturalist in that sense and UFOs is a distinctive case because it is …

    Peter: Are they supernatural?

    Ross Douthat: Right. It has features in common with supernaturalism in that it’s a set of experiences that don’t seem amenable to normal forms of scientific inquiry, that involve people having sightings and encounters that they have to report on to others. But then it’s something that, because of what we know about space and the possibility of extraterrestrial life, the idea of things in the sky coming down to us seems more plausibly natural than a given supernatural happening.

    I’ve had a bunch of people with this latest batch of UFO things write to me and say, it seems really convenient that these weird lights or moving crafts would only appear in restricted airspace to be observed by US Military planes. My sense is that the reason this is getting so much attention is that it’s a version of things that actually happen all over the place that people have these experiences, and not just since the atomic age which is the ground zero for real UFO stuff, but going back to the nineteenth century and before people have these experiences all the time, it’s just that in this case we have them captured on multiple forms of high-tech equipment which is not what happens when you see an alien craft fly overhead when you’re on a fishing trip, you’re not pulling out the aircraft radar to hunt it down.

    That’s why that’s what makes these things distinctive and it’s coming out of an institution that has for a long time been seen by conspiracy theorists, denying this, by normal people as debunking these encounters and act, now that same institution just turning on a dime.

    With all that being said, it wouldn’t be surprising if this was some phenomenon that a natural phenomenon that was not man-made that we just didn’t fully understand, but it’s pretty weird.

    Peter: I just can’t get enough of watching these Navy pilot videos, especially the latest batch.

    Ross Douthat: Their very human reactions to these things are really striking. Of course, there’s no reason I think from a Christian perspective that we shouldn’t be able to imagine extraterrestrial life, we would have similar questions as the ones we were talking about before related to the fall and redemption and everything else with these species, and when you have Christian science fiction, whether it’s Madeleine L’Engle or C. S. Lewis, there’s often a sense of like, some planets are fallen and some aren’t. There’s a lot of interesting theological questions that would be raised, you could imagine these being basically the equivalent of drones that are dispatched, they’re crafts sent out to observe other civilizations from a distance. If you’re trying to fit alien behavior into some normal human motivational framework, I think you would need to say something like that, or they could be supernatural.

    The UFO believers, most of the serious ones draw the line of the supernatural, but I don’t. There are really interesting parallels between descriptions of UFOs, UFO encounters, especially UFO abductions and stories associated with abductions by the Good People, supernatural beings that are neither angels nor demons over the course of pre-modern human history. That’s just a really interesting continuity and if you think it’s all folklore, if you think none of it’s real, then that makes sense, maybe there’s like some union archetype of abductions that get interpreted as aliens in the space age, and as other creatures, the secret Commonwealth in more supernaturally inclined ages, that totally could be, or they could be similar because they’re the same beings who like to mess with us. I don’t think you can rule out the possibility of a zone of the supernatural realm that messes with human beings without being demonic in the way we understand that term.

    Susannah: It does point to the question of, what do we mean by supernatural? Because this is the creatures issue again, of the magazine and what we know for sure about both the Good People and UFOs, if they exist is that they’re not creators, so they are creatures, they are part of creation, as would ghosts be, but we do have this different sense of aliens are not supernatural but the Good People are. I think that might just be a quirk of the modern mind, I don’t think that’s necessarily a real distinction.

    Ross Douthat: No, and that works from the other end of the spectrum too, from when I did Tyler Cowen’s podcast and I was pressing him to consider supernatural possibilities. And he said, if you actually showed me that ghosts existed or something similar, I would expect it to be some multi temporal multidimensional feature of created reality that we didn’t fully understand as yet. If you prove to his satisfaction that a house could be haunted, he would not necessarily accept like the immortality of the soul as thereby proven. There’s a lot of ways in which strict natural supernatural binaries can be broken down either from a Christian theistic point of view or from an agnostic skeptic point of view.

    Peter: We get back to what the soul is made out of almost, out of curiosity, what are some of the parallels between the old fairy accounts and the UFO sightings?

    Susannah: Don’t say “fairy.”

    Peter: I said “fairy.”

    Ross Douthat: Yeah. Don’t say it, show respect.

    Peter: OK: “Those older sightings and the new ones.”

    Ross Douthat: There’s a book called Passport to Magonia, that was written by a guy who was an early UFO obsessive who later decided … I think his theory was multi-interdimensional travel, so it wasn’t classic mythological folklore accounts, it was again, this zone of science-fiction-meets-the-supernatural. This is the other thing I’ll say, you want to be hesitant with this stuff. One, because you can become an insane conspiracy theorist or a W. B. Yeats figure who’s seeing the Good People everywhere. But two, Christians are not really supposed to traffic in certain forms of supernaturalism that might be real, like divination, fortune telling, if you could tell the future, Christians would still not be supposed to do it. I’m actually a little hesitant, I read Passport to Magonia while writing that column that you mentioned, and when I was done with it I was both fascinated and also felt like I maybe shouldn’t …

    Peter:… shouldn’t go too much farther into this.

    Ross Douthat: Again, especially with abductions, people wander off in the woods and they’re lights and the elfin look is not that different from some of the portraits of aliens, there’s something called a fairy blast that appears in folklore, that has some similarities to things with UFOs, there’s also the sense of trickery, there’s some UFO encounters where people are like, “That UFO it almost looked fake.” Again, if they are like US military, there’s a whole plausible theory where the army basically invented UFOs in order to have an excuse to test top secret equipment, and then if anyone saw it they’d be like, “Oh, it’s crazy people talking about UFOs.” Maybe that’s true, and if that’s true, it wouldn’t be surprising that some of these encounters have this weird fakery quality to them. The sense that sometimes the aliens are putting on a show for the rubes is something that shows up in seventeenth-century stuff too, which itself super weird.

    Peter: I think we’re back to C. S. Lewis again.

    Susannah: Yeah, this is… 

    Peter: We were talking about C. S. Lewis… 

    Ross Douthat: Yeah, we’re back there and I’ve exposed too much crackpottery, I think.

    Peter: Well, we were talking about Anthony the Great, who was the first one to develop the idea, the metaphor of the Book of the Creatures, and he is of course famous for seeing both a centaur and a satyr in his journeys across the desert and both of them begged him to convert them …

    Susannah: Even the … even the Good People.

    Peter: Yeah. Even back then. Well, thanks Ross …

    Ross Douthat: On that note, we need to found a missionary order that should be whatever the UFOs are, we need a missionary order and training …

    Peter: To reach them. Well that leaves us with work to do. Goodbye Ross.

    Ross Douthat: Goodbye guys. Thanks for having me.

    Contributed By Susanna Black Susannah Black

    Susannah Black is a contributing editor to Plough.

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    Contributed By Peter Mommsen Peter Mommsen

    Peter Mommsen is editor of Plough Quarterly magazine. He lives in upstate New York with his wife, Wilma, and their three children.

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    Contributed By Ross Douthat Ross Douthat

    Ross Douthat is a columnist for the New York Times and the author of several books, most recently The Decadent Society: How We Became the Victims of Our Own Success (Simon & Schuster, 2020).

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