Blinded by the Brights?
Phronesis File—Erudition Lite
Thanks for reading Phronesis in Pieces! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
A pundit’s comments recently reminded me of the term “Brights,” which I discovered years ago not as a setting for cell phone screens or vehicle headlights, but as a movement of secularists eager to improve the world. They preached science and empiricism, having no truck with the supernatural.
I do not intend to critique the Brights movement, per se, but I want to recall a few facts about them because they seem to have planted seeds which have grown and morphed into dominant features of today’s social ecology.
What do you remember about the Brights? I thought that their existence was spotlighted on the cover of The New York Times Magazine, with a big feature article inside. This coming-out party captured my attention because the name and claim of brighthood sounded elitist.
I recalled the author’s dedication to atheism as a driving force for solving society’s problems. The bold rejection of God among members of the intelligentsia disturbed my prior assumption, namely that the United States, at the core of its collective mind and heart, held true to Judeo-Christian principles, and they worked.
Perhaps the shock to my system caused me to misremember a few facts. In recent days, I have done a little research. I invite you to check the history on this, too.
As it turns out, an article, “The Bright Stuff,” labeled as opinion, appeared in the July 12, 2003, edition of The Times, neither on Sunday nor in the magazine. The writer, Daniel Dennett, explained the Brights were a benevolent bunch of folks with no intention to overturn America’s problem-solving practices. Indeed, Dennett pointed out that his illuminated colleagues, possibly a “silent majority” in the country, nevertheless felt victimized.
“Most brights don’t play the ‘aggressive atheist’ role,” he wrote. “We don’t want to turn every conversation into a debate about religion, and we don’t want to offend our friends and neighbors, and so we maintain a diplomatic silence. But the price is political impotence. Politicians don’t think they even have to pay us lip service, and leaders who wouldn’t be caught dead making religious or ethnic slurs don’t hesitate to disparage the ‘godless’ among us.”
I also had forgotten Dennett’s assurance that the “bright” moniker was “not a boast, but a proud avowal of an inquisitive world view.” The “b” in the word (which other intellectuals had recently coined) was typically lower-case, although one could become an official, capitalized “Bright” by signing up at the group’s website.
Meanwhile, this philosopher, scientist, and prolific author described his friends’ cumulative influence in ways that now seem to foreshadow a group identity increasingly visible today:
“We are your sons and daughters, your brothers and sisters,” Dennett wrote. “Our colleges and universities teem with brights. Among scientists, we are a commanding majority. Wanting to preserve and transmit a great culture, we even teach Sunday school and Hebrew classes. Many of the nation’s clergy members are closet brights, I suspect. We are, in fact, the moral backbone of the nation: Brights take their civic duties seriously precisely because they don’t trust God to save humanity from its follies.”
This opinion piece was a friendly introduction to many members of the Times audience. The notes of secularism, atheism, materialism, scientism, and a higher morality now have become mainstream and vocal.
Again, it is not my purpose here to criticize or demean. We all have many bright friends, according to any definition we apply! But this newspaper article from 19 years ago now strikes me as a useful mile-marker for those tracing America’s journey of change.
The Brights movement has helped to birth a bright fellowship with a presence vastly larger than the founders’ website. That digital home base, the-brights.net, still exists. You can see its discussion of a naturalistic worldview (in contrast to supernaturalism), some useful background info about the initiative, and an invitation to capitalize your “b” by signing up. The Wikipedia entry discussing the movement speaks in the present tense of about 78,000 Brights scattered among 204 countries.
By the way, a separate digital home for Bright Magazine was updated in 2019 to announce that the magazine had ceased publication after three years. (Please know that I tend to mourn the passing of almost any publication, given my appetite for a dynamic marketplace of ideas, especially in print!) You can see the range of articles those editors had produced, and many of them look interesting.
Here is the finding I will continue to ponder. Thanks to “The Bright Stuff”, historians and observers of public affairs can hear in at least one voice a portentous status report published in 2003. This artifact, however well remembered, previewed a social force gently declaring its self-confidence; awareness of immense resources; anticipation of statistical and strategic growth; exclusive reliance on empirical, scientific evidence; investment in a sense of righteousness; and absence of trust in, or love for, a Creator (make that a lower-case “c”). This is a hybrid of moralism and secularism. It might have struck some readers as paradoxical, but it has proven to be potent.
We all need to read and remember history, appreciating its abundant glimpses of the future. Glimpses of trends in thought are even more valuable when we catch them by reading not the reprints, but the current events found every day in all sorts of content. When we follow the news, we ideally are doing research. We are preparing for conversations that increase understanding and activity. Our society is waking up to its need to be deeply self-reflective, to listen to what people are saying and how people are thinking, and why. Social media can impact more people more substantially than ever, motivating us positively or negatively, and we need broad, deep knowledge to calibrate prudently the impacts we send and receive. This is another argument in favor of a free, multimedia marketplace of ideas—and for browsing at uthat market frequently.
Chewing on This—A Structure of Many Stories
The juxtaposition of two news stories on September 11—abundant updates about Queen Elizabeth II’s passing, looking back a couple of days, plus the annual content about the terror attacks of 2001, looking back a couple of decades—delivered a restless sabbath filled with homework for the heart.
Here are a few thoughts that emerged for me. But first, a bit of background.
The British monarchy has never been top-of-mind for me, although I enjoy watching major royal events embodying the Anglican faith; its beauty, rites, and sensibilities resonate with the Catholic imagination. I also am fascinated by the style of leadership and followership which helps to keep transcendent values and personal virtues on Great Britain’s radar screen. Certain symbols, practices and frames of mind can be doorways of phronesis. And Queen Elizabeth practiced phronesis for a lifetime. She embraced an oath (to God) of service (to her people). It gave her the heart to say “stay calm and carry on.”
Meanwhile, regarding 9/11, calmness is not my greatest attribute. My personal experiences on that day, starting when I witnessed from three blocks away a plane’s fiery crash into the World Trade Center, help to make phronesis visceral for me. I shed tears every year when certain sights and sorrows rush back, especially as people’s lives are changed forever amid chaos unleashed by irrational hatred.
My basic protocols for phronesis include learning from history and scanning the myriad connections which constitute reality. On this 21st anniversay, thoughts crowded my head. I sought the connectivity, internally and in the world I was observing, which makes sense of chaos.
It was a day to welcome good lessons about good linkages wherever they emerged. President Biden, speaking at the Pentagon to remember the disaster there, brought together the 9/11 tributes and Great Britain’s sorrowful loss.
“Grief is the price we pay for love,” said Biden, quoting a message Queen Elizabeth sent to the United States after the terror attacks. He recalled how Americans “cared for each other” and came together on that transformative day. These acknowledgements of reality were healing, I mused as I read a report in Politico.
The reporter added that the president “framed the anniversary as a day of ‘renewal and resolve’ for Americans’ devotion to both the United States itself and democratic principles overall. ‘It’s not enough to stand up for democracy once a year,’ he said.”
I paused here, wondering if we were witnessing once again the growing political tendency (among both parties) to use events of deep emotion, events which should indeed touch the souls of a nation, as strategic touch points into partisan Power Point slide shows. The call to “stand up for democracy” brought back memories of Biden’s recent speech at Independence Hall.
When I watched the whole Sept. 11 address, however, I appreciated his saluting the heroic dedication of patriots—to the nation’s recovery from that day and to heightened international watchfulness from that day forward—shown by Americans of every background. His praise of “devotion to the United States”—and implicitly to each other, as free people enjoying dignity under God—captured the essence of 9/11. His call for resolve included reminders of the evil we still must battle on a global scale. Unfortunately, I heard few reminders of international terrorism during the rest of the day. Biden had opened the door for pundits, pursuing the “newest angle,” to run down a rabbit hole of today’s domestic politics where even “democracy” can be a divisive buzzword.
Early that Sunday, I had maintained my yearly effort to watch TV documentaries recounting those hours that live in infamy. I had been moved again by the human grief and love, the pain and heroism, the recognition of evil and the response of solidarity and sacrifice. I had seen people of all backgrounds summoning up their best selves in the cause of human dignity—by trying to save victims trapped in the Twin Towers, devoting months of their lives to recovery work at Ground Zero, bringing down their hijacked plane before it could crash into a target in the nation’s capital, deciding to join the military or other initiatives for a more just world, and simply befriending each other as survivors who mourned loved ones and lived in fear.
These recollections had not prompted thoughts of democracy per se, although I do see it as a sine qua non for our beloved country and for principles of good governance like those I studied long ago at the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs. What I recalled most from 9/11 was the lesson that politics is downstream from culture. American values, noble and cheapened alike, are upstream, refreshing or sullying our democracy and politics. Mister Rogers had preached aspirational attentiveness, teaching us that kindness can heal a society: In times of disaster, look for the helpers.
Cynics need not fear that the crisis of the day was merely a “one-off” special occasion when Americans showed resolve, cared for each other, came together. Compassion and solidarity continue to show themselves every day in countless communities here and around the world. Of course, we need to encourage more of this bonding, and we need to resist “enemies foreign and domestic” who would attack the freedom of America’s good heart.
But our leaders and influencers of all sorts must look up, not down, for perspective. They must keep reminding us that the bonds which grow in the workaday world have purpose and potential beyond mere survival and “getting along.” The vision goes beyond even crusades for democracy launched by political parties.
A more important purpose is to preserve a healthy culture in which democracy can flourish. Greater fulfillment of the human qualities and destinies we share, enlightened by enduring stories we can tell and connect together, will lift our minds above the exigencies of the moment. Unity will flow like a river; it will not need to be imposed. I’m glad we experienced this week a sabbath focused not on breaking news, but on recalling the “news we can use” to hold things together.
You might have read my previous Substack about two categories of national leaders, called “head of state” and “head of government.” In the United States, the election of wise and good “heads of government” is an essential duty achieved through a strong democracy, stabilized by well-designed and trusted institutions and practices.
Our founders wrote down key values we should hold dear to inform us, and they established in the Executive Branch a presidency which can be said to integrate the functions of head of government and head of state. That’s an awesomely difficult mandate: to be a minister of grace to a diverse republic—"if we can keep it,” paraphrasing Franklin.
I don’t believe the founders discounted the function of head of state, even though they were no fans of monarchy. Many nations do choose to dedicate a separate individual to represent them as a sovereign community—as people with a unifying foundation of identity and values.
Fulfillment of that duty to edify, which entails affirmations of dignity and prudence (phronesis!) directed toward people of other countries and one’s own state, is what Queen Elizabeth II represented and what the British monarchy strives to represent despite inevitable human weakness and flaws.
It was the queen’s vocation, one which she embraced with the utmost sincerity and diligence, sending an empowering, enduring message to the world. Defending freedom and integrity, personifying remembrance, she was able to speak with great authenticity when she graciously offered the inspiration: “Grief is the price we pay for love.”
For me, this was indeed a thought worth recalling on the anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks. She gave voice to a culture of resolve that is clearly upstream from pragmatic and pandering political structures. Some truths—the most important ones—are located at a higher level of heart and mind. Perhaps they are found only by people who are looking for something higher than politics.
Such people are looking to the spiritual headwaters. They immerse themselves with others in a life of travail but not despair, of happiness but not pride, of mysteries but not chaos. In the case of this queen, there was privilege but not an ounce of sloth.
Elizabeth was not a Bright. If she were, devoted only to “following the science” and solving problems efficiently, her life and Christian faith would not have been so illuminating.
Such illumination was well-timed when the news media accidentally served it up on the menu of content for the Sept. 11, 2022, anniversary. This was a day when terror revealed to everyone the resolute love to which communities and commonwealths must connect. Like us common folk, numerous heads of government have difficulty making sense of days like 9/11, especially if their habits of the heart do not consistently drive them toward the big-picture perspectives of the best heads of state. Without those insights, without a widespread duty to edify, we simply can’t cultivate statesmen or stateswomen.
Word’s Worth—Rood Awakening
One more connection between news coverage and contemplation occurred this week when I attended on Sept. 14 a Mass commemorating the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. This solemnity in the Catholic liturgical calendar of feast days is an important reminder of the redemptive power of Christ’s suffering—and our suffering!
Risking one final monarch-mention, I will say Queen Elizabeth II was an instrument of saving grace for Great Britain during World War II and incrementally over the span of her reign. She loved and cared, and so she paid the price of grief on numerous occasions, and we can pray that the redemptive joy God promises will be hers in eternity.
I took note that much of the royal news on Sunday, Sept. 11, emanated from Holyroodhouse, in Edinburgh, Scotland. Holy Rood is the British name for the true cross of Christ. It seemed to me that the natives pronounced the name of that palace in a way that sounded like “Hollywood.” I also know of the British celebrity chef, Paul Hollywood.
Any US connection? Here is my chance to practice the curiosity I have preached, as in the recent Substack segment where I urged spicing one’s news intake with curiosity and imagination. Although my very limited snooping on this matter turned up no direct connection between Holyroodhouse and Hollywood, California, check out the online detective work found here, and see if your Spidey Sense is tingling too.
Just Kidding—Wit Waiting to be Used
As society seeks to root out “ultra” people who take things too far, one Catholic sacrament may come under particular scrutiny: What’s all this about “Extreme” Unction?
The FDA’s concern about climate change has prompted it to ban chefs from spraying butter flavor onto the foods they cook. The agency has declared this a Pam-demic.
Image used is from Clipsafari.com, a collection of Creative Commons designs.
Thanks for reading Phronesis in Pieces! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.