Canadians invented this game but Americans improved the game by cutting the bootom out of the bushel basket and later substituted a net. Canadians improved the game again by moving the basket ten feet away from the wall...
For zillions of years earth has alternated between inhospitably cold and hot, but now within the hundred years within which humankind has industrialized we are afraid that a rising and perhaps mankind-induced blip, –a minor increase in temperature, may throw the earth system into catastrophic excess… Shouldn’t we allow things a little more time to settle out before we forswear those standard fuels that industrialization is built upon?
Photovoltaic technology is coming along, and lithium batteries, but why is nuclear off the table–now that we have learned something from a few nuclear plant meltdowns? If we forswear fossil fuels, what, please be practical, can replace these? If we force the issue now, will needed technology magically appear?
As social critic, I am proud of myself for having seen some of this coming, for having gone out of my way to read Al Gore’s first book, Earth in the Balance, and for having posted on the web (maybe on AOL..) my “book report.” And going through Earth in the Balance again this week I can say that my initial sense, the disagreement I had then, is now, a quarter century later, very much the same as my issue with the present-day “fix climate change” project: it is contaminated with politics; it is too political. This may be just heavy rhetoric you say, my attempt to draw attention to something which I only consider to be important and label as excess politics, but if Al Gore hopes to save the planet by leading a climate-change movement, I too hope to benefit the world at large by directing and assisting people towards better, clearer thinking. Politician; social critic. We both spent time in seminary. Al Gore has friends at the UN and with the Nobel committee; I don’t. Al Gore has successfully activated a large number of people to rally round the climate change issue, and I, I am challenged by an interesting but not so enjoyable task: to explain what problems/issues I detect in this same project.
In Part III of EB, where the author states that he is finally turning from earth science, economics, religion, etc. to politics per se, Senator Gore asks: What does it mean to make the effort to save the global environment the central organizing principle of our civilization? And later:… the establishment of a single shared goal as the organizing principle for every institution in society… (I am not trying to prooftext, to hold someone to old phrasing, but trying to get at the ideas and their implications…) He then goes on in detail to set out plans and guidelines for governments to implement regarding population control, energy technology sharing, education, and and activation for this major Plan to “save the planet” from human excess and aggression. He compares it to the Marshal Plan with which the United States and Britain funded the immediate economic recovery of the European countries devastated by WWII.
I have various comments. First, the book is political throughout. This author cannot himself (in my opinion at least–) be other than an activist looking for political result even if he claims to be a more ordinary (non-political) intellectual in certain sections. “We must act now on the basis of what we know.” Rather, I myself am an intellectual “activist” only very indirectly. I certainly hope to affect how people think but I have no intention of adjusting or organizing institutions as such.
Second, this is certainly a grand and (strictly) political objective which is being honestly articulated in Part III. (And I myself was–momentarily–moved this time when reading about this hope for an environmental revival of American political ideals..) The world has seen the value of capitalism and democracy. Now we need a new political ideal through which to claim leadership in the world! What is wrong, after all, with working with all nations of the world in order to save the planet?
Well, somewhere down on the list such an objective is fine, in my opinion, but not as prime, central political objective. The Marshall Plan in effect, meant donated money over a short time period. Fighting to avoid the proported dangers of imminent climate disruption by cutting back on the world’s burning of fossil fuels–this is speculative, outlandish, and a moving target. Proponents might suggest that the ideal is all that really matters. At least we get the various nations moving in a good direction. But is this even a proper “political” objective? Politics is about protecting, and about arranging institutions and laws to benefit those within a society. This ideal, thoughtful consideration for the natural world, yes, can be added. But can concern for a balanced world ENVIRONMENT be a primary and specific political aim? Doesn’t the word environment itself (as concept) tend to denigrate what it intends to honor? The natural world, specifically the earth, is better (in my opinion) considered/described as the necessary home and milieu of humankind. It is not just environment. Do we really need environmental science or political cause before we can see this and/or recognize this? If so then this failure is better addressed by education, values and culture, not via someone’s political project.
The expectation would be that an activated political ideal–as value–will bring about change in thinking and attitudes, get nations to cooperate, make all aware of environmental issues. But if government can in fact achieve all such culture modification then this is religion, art, education–is it not? Not government. The cart is in front. Governments don’t create culture, they enable or endure or support or allow it to spread and extend. Is this not, then, political overreach, political over-conceptualization. (As I diagnose in a previous blog, it does seem to me that as influenced by the OT book of Samuel, etc., the West is at present neurotically hyper-political…!) If our culture lacks respect for the natural world which is our ordinary home, then this must be supplied by arts, culture, religion, not via politics or modern science. People need to “appreciate” science itself, biology or earth science and geology as a humanity. Why not!
I have little to complain about whenever specific environmental programs are discussed in this or similar books. We need to improve the natural gas pipelines so they do not leak. We wish to bring poor countries up to a good standard of living so that this might meliorate population increase. Regularly monitor climate conditions around whole world, etc.
Living in Seattle without owning a car, I went on scrambles (via carpooling) in the mountains with the Mountaineers, and then got interested in the naturalist hikes on which plants and wildflowers are identified by common rather than scientific names. I became an assistant leader on short local naturalist hikes within Seattle. I myself have no inclination to start a lumbering or mining business. I support maintenance of pristine wilderness areas. But my pro-nature beliefs were different from the all-in American (politicized) Environmentalism of the moment. I set myself the intellectual task of thinking this matter through further, and believe that at the result of such efforts I achieved an enlightened breakthrough: environmental issues are always local and always specific. That is, Alaskan residents should have more say than I in deciding when, where, and what economic development shall occur. It is always a local matter which is up for decision, this area of land, what shall be allowed, etc. New National Park or not; these or those restrictions.
Air and water contamination, these may seem to be non-local and thus contradict my achieved intellectual insight, but I would argue that they do not. Air and water contamination-and-quality issues, this simply moves the need to decide how to regulate–to larger entities…city, county, state, nation. These are still “local” entities; they must decide how much, when, where; specific choices. And since air and water need no passport to travel the globe, the worldwide local-deciders are yet individual nations. This globe is local to each and all. (As C.S. Lewis speculated about the Medieval mindset; They saw earth as a specific/particular creature.) But single creature or not, the Earth is not a universal goal or ideal or concept. Thus environmental decisions are (Are they not?) always and philosophically speaking, local choices.
Foreign Policy for any (local) modern nation includes import and export rules, international communication rules, and environmental choices/decisions/laws. Overfishing, air and water pollution, these will affect “us” (sooner or later) as well as others out there beyond our borders. A connected and industrialized world requires significant attention in each of these area, in addition to military security, but do environmental issues require a new mode of decision making? Not if, according to my insight, they are always local.
Prior to modern interconnectedness, nations were careless and reckless. Environmentalism educates as to why carelessness must be avoided. But can the words sustainability, green, carbon-neutral, etc. really provide standards for a society as well as for building construction codes? I have always liked green parks. And I insist that the more important sustainability of a society is its culture, arts, ideas and values, governance. And yes, economic sustainability, not destroying one’s own natural-world arrangements which allow for continuing economic production, this is important also. Sustainability may serve as a concept to moderate and counter economic logic, economic externalities, but seriously, why not ban use of that economic term “externalities,” or else fine persons for use of this same world? Why accede, in the first, place to economic hyper-logic. Anything that does not make money or cannot be priced with money is strictly incidental? Are you reacting, only, to bad economics?
But as the author of this one early book, Earth in Balance, candidly admits in Part III, there must be one super-topic, one ribbon to wrap up all of the other environmental issues into one package. And this super-topic, it is now clear, is–global climate warming as crisis.
About this ribbon-issue there can now be no equivocation, no questions asked. This is dogma. But is this merely (Democratic) dogma to fight (Republican market) dogma? But if so then this is somewhat dishonest and I (for one) expect thus, that it will not work. An astute effort by a politician to jump over the economic blockade and gain higher ground? Do liberals hope to break and/or humble the economic powers-that-be in this manner; put a clamp on the whole operation, get them where it will hurt the most… fossil fuel consumption?
I recently finished a blog chapter in which I called modern Western free-market economics dogma, said that we were living in an economic age, and tried to philosophically point out fundamental problems with this “science” so that intelligent American citizens might begin to intelligently fix and adjust our capitalism. Does the climate change Cause hope to avoid direct intellectual confrontation with free market theory. ( As my own efforts demonstrate, I myself believe, truth to dogma is the only way possible to rein in Capitalism…) Are climate change activists trying/hoping to avoid the tough intellectual effort necessary? It seems to me accurate to describe Mr. Gore as capitalist-nice; it is not his style to confront the Freemarketeers directly.
In another of my blog chapters available here on my web site I claimed to be able to intellectually accept both Evolution and Divine Creation. And I stated that I believe that Biological evolution provides an inadequate basis for a healthy modern humanism. Humanism must depend upon more than science. But what does this have to do with environmentalism? Well, it seems to me that here lies the primary appeal of this cause: it is a science-associated humanism. Environmental science indicates where the problems are and this activates a new humanism, our recognition that we must care for the earth. What can be wrong with this as a modern humanism?
Only that it is flimsy, incomplete. A healthy humanism, in my opinion, what our traditional humanism should have been, should never have allowed the natural world to be demeaned or denigrated to such an extent via comparative overemphasis on the human-social world. And thus, cannot modern science improve and revive our culture values at this point? Yes, but such must actually be quite inadequate–in my opinion.
This Cause asks the world and its individual nations to self-limit, to voluntarily restrain their libido-energy, their fossil fuel usage. This kind of needed “restraint” is of the sort that religions traditionally advocate. Al Gore is a religious person but numerous other partisans here may not see any place for “religion” and its more ultimate values. But is “saving the planet” not flimsy and unworkable also, as Religion…?
But should we not do something rather than nothing? We, the world, are faced with a cosmic issue here. An existential crisis. But life is always an existential crisis, and such cosmic activism suggests to me a modernized Pascal’s Wager (though I do not like the original…): if We are to limit our industrialization just because global warming may take off suddenly, shouldn’t we also require everyone in the world to engage in at least a minimal amount of religious effort, prayer, sacrifice, whatever, just in case there is (as some religions advocate) an afterlife..?
Mr. Gore may believe that I have been unfair to him, characterizing his (excessively political) cause in this way. He would say that he wants to activate people to become active democratic citizens. As such, these persons must first become convinced of the value and worth of this “cause,” the importance of environment, our earth under assault, and then take steps go get their various governments to begin steps to implement this or that… This is a standard democratic appeal…
Since I am not just arguing for the status quo, it behooves me to explain how I suggest a better humanism, a better democratic world, a better connection between the nations than his, Al Gore’s great “save the planet from the excesses of human aggression ” Cause.
And first, I believe I have a non-mechanical and better and broader view of what Democracy can and should be. As I have blogged previously about this, a purer democracy begins social and tries to stay out of the political as much as possible. My ideal here I believe to actually be more pressing, more important. And let me illustrate with a negative example:
I notice that Korea went successfully for a long time without regulation and was able to avoid Covid. Social norms of some sort were obviously operative. Australia recently had extensive lockdowns but with a significant percentage vaccinated they have changed focus. China began with its large initial outbreak but subsequently (scientifically) proved that an air-tight lockdown involving millions of people for two months CAN actually eradicate a virus such as this.
So far I have not said anything controversial, but should I continue, for example, by chastising the US media for recent stories exaggerating the occasional outbreaks in China–when cases in each of fifty states are still so high, this would not go well with the US Media. But I am still only stating plain facts, discussing the situation, not pro or anti USA. I set out to describe the Covid situation in various countries and their different manners of counterattack. I know that propaganda flying between the US and China is presently intense, but I wish to be fair and objective. If I were presently living in the USA it would be best that I not even raise such a point…
I “predicted” at the beginning of this crisis that various countries, various governing arrangements and various cultures would have different ways of facing the crisis. How obvious! And yet I dare you now to show me now, anyone anywhere in the world able to write up an informed, intelligent, non-patriotic and non-scientific evaluative narrative of what has been happening in various countries. Just the long-term news with some capable evaluation and even fair blame, including recognition that we, the world, are still in the middle of a crisis. (Science cannot tell us what will be happening next.) You cannot produce such, I am quite sure. And my point would be that this situation is very unhealthy. Nowhere in the world is there what I would call free and intelligent and universal/world-ranging discussion of the present crisis. We have numbers every day only, accounting.
The West, where free speech and open discussion is explicit value, the West no longer protects free thought and discussion from unfair attack, harassment, vilification… Other countries likely do not expect, reward or allow independent intellectual expression. So this is my initial “ideal” for world democracy of a better sort. Not that all citizens are able to discuss, but that a small number of intellectually active-capable-correctible persons exist in the larger cities at least. Do you believe that this is this an impossible goal or else do you believe that this already exists. If you believe there are already many such capable and informed and balanced intellects, then show me what I ask for. Who can provide balanced perspective at the present moment in this ongoing narrative? Fair, intelligent, universal news.
In the context of discussing climate-change as crisis, environmentalism as humanism, my suggested route for a better, more complete, viable humanism may also seem strange: recognition that Western civilization in fact has a fourth source which is “Asian,” Persian. One of the things which the Israelites did learn (if inadequately) as a result of the Babylonian Exile, would be a cosmic consideration of the end of the world. Judaism already has a God who initiates, creates the world, and there are a few strange verses in Genesis about the sons of God and the daughters of men. Jewish writes post-exile began to ask about evil in a cosmic context …
Zoroastrianism as religion has a Creator God, a less powerful negative spiritual being, a good created world, and a final battle and transformation in which the Good Deity will usher in a new heaven and earth. This scenario is familiar to Islam and Christianity. It is unfamiliar to modern natural science, but if there is some degree of philosophical plausibility that the natural world has a Creator Deity responsible for its existence, is there at least some minimal philosophical plausibility that the same Deity who is responsible for initiating this project, the present universe, would not at some later time wrap-up the cosmic project? Ecclesiastes in the Old Testament scripture can see no apparent (philosophical) meaning to human life. But after the Babylonian exile, Judaism began talking about a life after death, cosmic judgement, a supra-natural agent disturbing humanity and its choices, etc.
With regard to the possibility of impending climate catastrophe on planet earth, the point would be that human beings are secondary characters in a Zoroastrian apocalypse scenario. Supranatural beings clash while human effort comes only in choosing and staying on the right side…
A pandemic may possess apocalyptic danger, it could wipe out all human life. And nuclear power understood as technology could do the same, as might harmful “toxins,” and climate change were it to happen suddenly could also be catastrophic for the human species. But what the modern science and technology enterprise needs most at this point, it seems to me, is PERSPECTIVE within which to make decisions. And religion, (or an analogous source of more ultimate values) I expect, is thus not optional. Climate science posits a possible apocalyptic scenario, but only the importation of ultimate-type values from outside of the science context, only this can provide the larger perspective within which to make apt choices.
Perhaps I can summarize in personal terms. My own version of Zoroastrian-prophetic-democratic Christianity includes respect for philosophy and for modern natural science, democratic individualism, Christian values AND a belief, already as prophetic apprehension that the universe may end in religious-type consternation–before a better Nature, a better heaven and earth are to arrive. Within such a context, within such a many sided humanism, the climate-change Cause almost seems to me to be something of a wild goose chase. Yes, more respect for our natural world and remain alert to the effects of human recklessness, and yes, take steps now to minimize CO2 emissions–as possible. But there are other things also.
But isn’t this great Cause a good way to get the world working together on something? My suggestion for the nations of the world and how they should best relate will again refer to Persia and to Samuel P. Huntington. I believe we need an empire of cities. Those few intelligent and creative people which I hope can exist in a few larger cities, these are united not by science but by a universal (ie. worldwide and Greek) humanism which values intellect and art, (and religion), etc. These persons are actively concerned about a world milieu and its self-understanding, but also, each are rooted within their own local civilization and local national culture. Huntington asks for a world of nations which values one’s own civilization but also is cognizant of other civilizations with different religion, set of social values, arts history… which sometimes, obviously disagree, clash. The word empire may be used here because culture and civilization for themselves are more to be aimed at than national integrity.
The Greeks were impressed with some of the imperial values of the Persian empire, and it is hard to imagine such, but the Persian ideal seems to have been to allow multiple “civilizations” to exist within their larger jurisdiction. They allow enclosed nations to re-establish, and on their own to initiate their own chosen social laws, culture and religion, analogous to my vision of a non-political empire of the cities of the world, united not by business connections but by intelligence and art, a fair and balanced awareness of the contemporary world–within which humanism then, moderns science is part (but relatively) a quite limited part.
I hope that participants at COP26 have themselves a good conference; that government leaders have some well deserved vacation time; that people become more aware of the environment as our natural home, but I also believe that my ideals in the longer term are the more valuable, worthwhile.
Thirteen Easy Answers to the World’s Most Difficult Questions
Chapter VII. What is Economics?
click here to view PDF, 25 pages
In Chapter II I explained my notion that while the knowledge (and ensuing technology) of modern Physics, Chemistry and Biology has greatly changed our knowledge (of the natural world) and greatly changed our lives, the Social sciences (and what they claim about society and human beings, etc.) –these claims deserve no more respect than the claims of historians, classicists, artists, religionists. That is, philosophy is still in charge here, not philosophy as expertise but philosophy in a traditional sense: Each person must think for themselves. All of the various and important questions about human beings and society, laws and morality and education and norms must be discussed and settled by public discussion rather than social science. (Even religious-authority claims must be presented philosophically.) And this opinion may not sit well with science-loving Western intellectuals, but maybe I can soften this just a little as follows.
I believe that the standard certification for “higher education,” the BA, should best become a five (or five and a half) year requirement. The updated standard should require language, calculus physics, genetics and basic statistics, classics and some classics from the other half of the world, history of all civilizations, fine-arts activity/appreciation/history. Both hard science and hard literature, both one’s own classics and other people’s classics. Science majors would need to learn some religion and political philosophy; education majors would need to learn calculus and chemistry and digital technology. This better BAd that is BA-double could be phased in over time…) But lacking such a more stringent certification can we really expect the conscientious citizen be ready for intelligent public discussion of various social issues as they arise?
In my third chapter I discussed my attempt to understand and to “believe” simultaneously biological evolution and Divine creation, suggesting also that the quality of one’s intelligence is proportional to the scale of the complexity which one tries to embrace. Most biologists and most religionists it seems, choose the easier path of staying within their own disciplines, thus minimizing their philosophical labors.
Critique of our Western religions, Protestantism and Roman Catholicism, begun in Chapter IV, will continue in the present chapter. It may seem strange to say so, but I consider that significant blame for present confusion in the West about democracy and economics, is caused by our bad (that is, inadequate) Western religions.
And in Chapter V, I discussed the Western obsession with politics. This present chapter wishes to put politics within a larger worldview. But Westerners should understand that they are not the only people fascinated with politics. Confucian China for example, historically had a very humanistic and central focus given to politics, and Socialism/communism/government-planning also keeps numerous political officials busy today with intended egalitarian focus on the people as motive force in history, etc.
So to begin, I believe that modern man came into existence in the axial age, that is, with Plato and Aristotle, Moses, Confucian ethics and Taoist metaphysics, Hindu and Buddhist spirituality. Philosophical-humanistic self awareness aided by written language, history, knowledge, philosophical consideration given to the various “realms” of economic life, governments, religion, social life and culture. Philosophical consideration is what recognizes and arranges these different realms, and what has in fact made the recent decades or century different–is the primacy now given to/taken by the economic realm. We live in an economic age. This is the most important step towards a better worldview: recognize which realm is today the all-encompassing realm.
This may seem a trivial point but I don’t believe that it is. Everyone is familiar with the so-called Industrial Revolution and seems to wish to benefit from its continuation, but economic historians are hard pressed to describe what exactly created such a Revolution. I would tend to suggest that it may be little more than a realm-importance adjustment. Eking out a living has always been necessary, but nowadays the commercial and economic is considered/viewed by most people as being primary, fundamental, most comprehensive of realms. This Revolution may be just a widely-chosen change of perspective.
Economics now affects, frames or slants all other social questions. Governments for long had their easy prominence, but now have been subsumed perhaps; Even they must now serve, must make attempts to provide, must promote industrialization and other beneficial economic developments.
This is not necessarily the first time in history that the economic has had such primacy. I like to imagine ancient Babylon with its large collections of baked-clay accounting records as having been a peaceful, boring, Economic society. In Christianity, the book of Revelation describes terrible beasts and other evil powers which much be overcome before a new and better universe is ushered in, but the more compelling image for me is in chapter 18: Babylon is fallen. Babylon, that great commercial world-city is fallen in one day. This image of commercial life as evil and in opposition to the good and heavenly city, this negative image of economic globalization I must admit is very convincing/appealing(?) to me. World commercial government is not your friend! Even if the merchants may enjoy it, this cannot last!
But along with modern shift to the economic, there is another strange movement which also seems to be here to stay: Democracy as ideal or norm of some kind! First only in France and the newly formed USA and in a few small areas of Switzerland circa 1800. Then a few more countries in Europe decide to try democracy. Now it is everyone in the world claims to have a democracy or else wishes to have a democracy (apart from a few sheikdoms, kingdoms). How did this happen? Why?
Is this Gimme Democracy? People are not asking for self governance but are demanding en mass that governments must help them obtain the benefits of industry, technology. Demanding that governments must serve the people economically–this is not quite democracy. Pseudo-democracy maybe.
But I believe that many people today also think of democracy as being an idea whose time has come–finally. At least it does seems compatible with, suitable to a primacy given to the economic realm.
During the Hellenistic age those Greeks made an effort to spread more widely their very successful city-scale democracy. And in Christianity I find that Deuteronomy, Chronicles, Luke-Acts and Paul have been proponents of democracy. And Mencius, and Buddhist monks, and the Mandate of heaven, etc. It seems to me that the golden rule, the moral principle which all sensible people recognize–is democratic. Democracy as simple idea that all persons have a common basic worth, this idea is natural and perennial. But while popular, are you able to point out anyone nowadays able to offer anything more than a simplistic and mechanical notion of what democracy is as socio-political norm? Is this or is this not a strange and increasingly desperate failing in the modern world, this inability to even describe democracy/democracies.
Since the economic realm is become largest, is most important, where does this leave genuine democracy as envisioned, for example, by the founding American patriots (though compromised by their allowing already-quite-well-established slave economies of member colonies to continue)…
American democracy has certainly gone off track if it believes that economic freedom is adequate substitute for (genuine) democratic freedom. I phrase my private view in this way: As American citizen I believe in democracy and remain loyal to democracy, but I don’t feel at all that this requires me to support capitalism as such.
To fellow Americans who seem unashamed (in private or in public–) of worshiping the free market, I would make this argument: Human beings and animals need food and shelter. The free market economy is certainly very effective at encouraging production of cheap food and cheap goods. But the most important items in a society, religion, fine arts, education, health-care, entertainment etc.–in provisioning a society with these things the free market mechanism is inadequate and/or dangerous. Jesus tossed the commercial people out of the temple. No fine artist is primarily motivated by money but rather by love or desire for something else; else there will be no art. Education certainly ought not to be slave of econometric criteria. Etc.
American capitalism at present (in my view) does not need wholesale conversion into socialism but needs adjustment, intelligent adjustment in the financial sector… But neither those who deny the Reality of socialism nor those who employ Socialism as threat-alternative, neither of these parties as being caught up within their respective ideologies, can be trusted to come up with any helpful intelligence with regard to political reform of our American economic arrangements.
Thus America, which began as a great and noble democratic project, democracy as freedom and civic virtue, has perhaps ended up on a side track, democratic freedom as freedom to become an entrepreneur and make money; economic freedom. Such a mistake seems to me obvious enough, easy enough to point out as mistake. But is there not a more fundamental Western confusion and consternation regarding democracy?
Europe is Western also, even before the USA, and is it or is it not the case that Europe is still hung-up, stuck, stunted by controversy–right and left–over the French Revolution? Various lefty groups intensely agitate to continue and complete the Revolution, that is, the larger promise of democratic hopes as first exemplified in only one nation, France, while people on the right, understandably enough, do not wish to have to suffer through unrelenting change and agitation. Might it help at this juncture to obtain a clearer and more specific description of the democratic goal? What exactly ought this now-democratic nation be working towards as social improvement? And notice please, what I am suggesting is democracy as social description, specific social awareness, not political detail nor implementation, not vague demand for equalization of status/wealth.
For example, Koreans and Japanese are known workaholics. Do they enjoy this? Not very much. With the help of their artists/intellectuals, if enough people in these societies imagine a shift from excessive work to time spent in nature-appreciation/art-appreciation, could these democracies not achieve over a few years such an improved society for themselves? Apart from any government or politics. And if the Koreans and Japanese can do this, then why not Europeans?
Is democracy not yet felt to be legitimate, not yet trusted explicitly in European nations? Because I myself at present have what I consider to be a democratic-prophetic Christian theology (–though I do not present this in any detail here in this chapter…) but because I have such an alternative and more democratic vision of Christianity, it does seem to me to be appropriate to critique Western Christianity, to claim that some of the excess and bloodiness of the French Revolution is in fact attributable to the Roman Catholic Church–a very important European institution of the time which should have known better, could have, should have explained previously, should have at least allowed intellectually that democracy is/was or might be OK.
France had gotten rid of its Protestant minority after someone left a threatening note in the king’s bedroom, and thus their choice was either Roman religion or nothing. When an initial push for constitutional monarchy did not work, the choice of Frenchmen was to reject both first and second estates so that the ordinary people, the third estate, might be freed of their oppressive burdens, might try democracy.
Reading through some of Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France I note that he only once or twice employs the word “democracy.” Yes, it may not yet have been a common word, but then, this situation as is being reflected upon is obviously a revolution which comes to wish to define itself in democratic terms. The would-be patriots wish to establish a democracy. But as with the Roman Church, Burke’s attitude here must be that because democracy is not quite valid or legitimate, not mentioning the word democracy, this shall contribute to a denigration of any such imagined or intended reality. Voltaire turns his back on Rome, but does not Roman-Christian theology for centuries and centuries turn its back on democracy?
Since I myself tend to be conservative socially, I like Burke’s conservative attitudes and defense of “prejudice” for example, but because I have a quite positive (and now theological) view of democracy, I find Burke’s Reflections to be somewhat intellectually dishonest. How much blame (we might ask the reader at this point–) does Western religion deserve for ongoing present-day confusion about what democracy might be, should be?
But turning back to the topic of economics, should a certain degree of blame for even more pressing modern-day “issues” with regard to capitalism and its direction and implementation–is this not something that Protestantism needs to be held to account for–for failing to address? Is Protestantism responsible for continuing modern-day confusion about economics, economic theory? (What a strange suggestion..)
Capitalism has been spectacular in its successes. And I find plausibility in Weber’s argument that Protestant values are congenial to capitalist free-enterprise economies. This must have been foreseen in Adam Smith’s vision also, of economic motive unshackled from nation-state mercantilism. As Protestant, Smith must have believed and implicitly understood that Protestant virtues could (partially–) tame the greed of unleashed economic ambition. But of course now, after decades of success, we have our large factories, free markets and busy productive economies enjoyed by everyone, but the problem of human greed has not yet been addressed nor solved. If an unleashed economic greed has gotten too powerful for national/social good, who is available to help address this situation theoretically.
If it was Protestant virtues which allowed capitalism and industrialization to get going, to gain momentum, then it is not surprising that those who saw the benefits of capitalism and wished it ongoing success might also come to defend it in a narrow and partisan manner. But the issue here is much more fundamental, and asks that we address Capitalism as Theory, as science-like set of Beliefs. Is Protestantism to be blamed because Protestantism also has Beliefs! Not for its beliefs, no, but yes indirectly, for its rationalistic reliance on a set of beliefs that cannot be examined, cannot be considered wrong. To the present moment, Capitalism, the theory of Capitalism, presents itself as a self-subsisting and mutually-reinforcing system/collection of beliefs which describe the only possible manner in which economies can operate. Absolute scientific truth.
I am living in China but not doing business in China. I do not know how the government here manages both a large free-market sector as well as public companies plus ultimate socialist control over the economy. Call it socialism or don’t call it socialism, the ongoing economy is yet some sort of large fact. But in the latest textbooks on economics I wager, the majority of Western economists will deny that “socialism” can even exist. The Chinese situation, that is obviously some sort of anomaly. There cannot be any valid theoretical alternative to pure capitalism. (But to such claims of pure capitalism I would tend to say that all nations, in default certainly, in emergency, are Socialist.) As I have tried to argue elsewhere, the notion of a self-subsisting economy without political “support” is nonsense.
That is, an overly rationalistic capitalism as theory, an economic theory which becomes so rationalistic and self-absorbed that it treats politics/government as subsidiary and insignificant, this excessively rationalistic attitude dialectically creates another bad/partial alternative economic theory. When free-marketeers continue to claim not only that capitalism is the best but that it is the only possible type of economics, is it not human nature to say: I don’t want that. Give me an alternative.
Marxism is a reaction to the successes and the attendant problems of early capitalist industrialization. Marx was a German-Jewish atheist able to observe at first hand the bad factory conditions in England (which the English government was quite slow to address via new worker-protection laws). He wanted to find a fundamental alternative to the preference that governments such as England seemed to be giving to persons who already had wealth and capital. (And after the French Revolution, democratic notions of justice were becoming more popular; Everyone deserves a piece of this new economic pie. And perhaps this communal ideal cannot be denied as social Ideal at least, no matter what one’s legal approach to private property.)
But Marx was not the shallow idealist. He recognized–implicitly at least–the reality and necessity of governments. Better economic arrangements would come about only via political change. How exactly? He doesn’t say. He falls back on theory. Historical class struggle; it will just happen when enough people see the need for an alternative… So he also closes his eyes, one might suggest, to political exigency, insisting only that the worker (rather than the entrepreneur) must/will be given theoretical importance.
Adam Smith clearly is much more up-front and realistic, one must notice, in describing how government and economy interconnect. A third of his long book, it seems to me, is given to discussion of taxation and tariffs , etc. But subsequent to Adam Smith, political-economy, sadly, soon becomes economic-science, “science” based on a detached and rationalistic theory of property rights, economy as autonomous machine not to be interfered with by government or anyone else, etc. Mill (roughly contemporary with Marx) still seeks and finds a sane balance between the various roles of democratic society, government, and capitalist economy. But after Mill, Capitalist theory is no longer sane or balanced in its rationalistic refusal of fundamental recognition for the necessary place of government vis a vis economy.
Chinese intellectuals looking for ideas after the collapse of the Qing Dynasty must have decided that any versions of Western Capitalism as advertised at that time, with their accompanying Western values and accoutrements, would not suit China as well as the recent alternative, Marxism plus Leninism. The appeal of Marxism-Leninism, I would guess, was as Alternative to what had become an overly-rationalistic and exclusivistic and ideological–theory of Capitalism. The exclusivity claim brings an alternative theory and an alternative set of arrangements and practices into existence!
Democracy is a political term. Free market capitalism is an economic phrase/theory. Socialism is a term which spans political and economic, describing a controlling relation between economy and government. But the term socialism, much vilified by all capitalists, has within it a degree of truth which cannot be denied: All governments always necessarily manage economic arrangements within their societies. Thus rather than fight about mere words, the more sane description would be to notice that all governments are in charge, and in extremity such as the Covid crisis, all governments become socialistic in order to keep their economies from total collapse. In ordinary times, some governments by intent and by legal arrangement give more freedom to economic enterprise than do other governments. Just as there are in fact different democratic arrangements, so there are different economic arrangements that may be chosen. But technically speaking, and if capitalism can “exist” as a “sector” within socialist arrangements just as it exists under freer arrangements–the popular capitalism-v-socialism contrast is mental obfuscation of the facts on the ground. Free market capitalists don’t like controls certainly, but do they recognize that no society can operate without controls?
There is, I would insist, a third element beside democracy and the economic which must become operative in the modern-day worldview, an element that allows the other two to work properly but an element that is even more misunderstood and put-upon and abused than those other two. And that element would be the individual. The Aristotelian citizen; the prophetic-democratic Christian; the responsible and active citizen without whom democracy cannot actually work. Not the pseudo-Gimme citizen.
We recognize that power can abuse (as in governments) and that wealth can abuse (as in the top 5% having an ongoing unfair advantage) but few people seem to believe that democratic clamor can be abusive and destructive of healthy democratic life. J. S. Mill in his book On Liberty recognized that governments and majorities can oppress minorities, but his hope was that minorities and majorities of the people not be able to oppress individuals. But few people at present even grasp what this might mean. But if democracy is desirable, then shouldn’t the individual also be respected, honored as such. But in recent decades the trend is all in the other direction. Our two Western religions preach against individuals and offer only the church as essential group; Christianity becomes group membership. In Confucian societies the Confucian gentleman-scholar is an ideal, but as you can guess, most of the social rhetoric in Confucian societies will be groupie, rather than suggesting that the strong individual might be a valuable asset.
Does Science care about the individual, promote the individual? I myself might not be able to pick a lemming out of a lineup of rodents, but science describes for us how lemmings behave, and from my observation of the way scientists behave (as in recent voting) I would describe this behavior as being very conventional, lemming-like.
The Aristotelian citizen is the unique and many-dimensional and thriving human being who is able to attend a gathering of the ecclesia, a town hall meeting, and make a positive/worthwhile contribution to democratic process. Not to obtain some benefit, not to serve nor enact some sort of duty, but simply because this is what it means to be most active and fulfilled as a human being. Democracy in this sense is not, I repeat, procedural or legal or mechanical or political; It is social. And natural.
And I have written elsewhere of how I find this prophetic-citizenship in Christian Scripture. Luke describes the Apostle Paul as delivering very high quality legal-political speeches in his own defense before top government officials; Luke describes the early Christian leaders when brought to trial before the Jewish Sanhedrin as saying that they, having seen certain things happen, they cannot but speak freely about them, that is, cannot but be freely speaking democratic citizens rather than docile Jews. And Luke implies late in Acts that the smaller ecclesia of Christian believers within a certain city are in reality the better citizens as compared to the riled up citizenry in the public ecclesia, in the amphitheater.
If I am correct about economics, and if democracy is the chosen means, then can democracy tame economics? Do we trust the socialist-democratic government with good intentions, trust capitalism running free to benefit everyone, trust twitter mobs to choose among the best of two not so desirable economic promise-platforms and say that this is the best that we can do.
Do we settle for pseudo-Democracy, Gimme-democracy? Why not accept cheap democracy. At least we get internet plus economic goods! Bread and circuses. But bread and circuses is not democracy, is not even a compromised democracy. It is treating people as if they are animals to be fed and visually stimulated. Well fed animals. Thus, only something that transcends the economic, such as virtue-democracy, religion, culture-as-such can function as counter to economic forces. To accept bread and circuses, to accept debased/compromised democracy is to fall back into the old political machinations and power games that satisfied pre-democratic peoples. Only good religion gets rid of bad religion; only genuine democracy avoids pseudo-democracy, well fed animals.
Moses becomes a democrat in his old age apparently as a result of all the authority conflicts which he must deal with at Sinai and during the desert travels. In Deuteronomy he encourages a new generation to build a new culture/society that will be better than that of Egypt. And the secret ingredient in this polity, I would suggest, is the Levites as democratic elite, unofficial elite. The Levites live in the cities but depend on social charity/tithe/good-will for their sustenance. These Levites would be the individual scribes and artists that enable a democracy to work; to avoid mob factionalism and economic capture; to show the way to the building of a healthy civilization. (These Levites must have been a collection of early Individuals.) The genealogies in Chronicles begin with Adam and do not end with king or nobility, but with the ordinary Levites who return after exile to become doorkeepers in the re-built temple.)
But Moses warns that if this society does not keep to the guidelines in the Law this society will be cursed. One of these curses is that the Israelites will be taken back to Egypt in boats.
Jeremiah is the prophet who presides over the demise of the Israelite project and cries over destruction of the capital city. This civilization is infected by serious institutional rot and must be abandoned. The invading army gives Jeremiah permission to travel freely because Jeremiah has been encouraging Israelites to give up on their failing civilization, accept its demise, surrender to the invaders, start over later… Some other few Israelites are allowed to remain in the land but decide to revolt, then bolt for Egypt. Jeremiah apparently decides to travel along with this “ship of fools” (my phrase) on their way back to seek refuge in Egypt-where they end up enslaved.
People nowadays wish for economic benefit but don’t care so much for the complications of active citizenship. But compared with Monarchy or Theocracy one might/should expect that Democracy will be both messier and more difficult! The difficult part in modern-day democracy has to do with the economic; Getting out of the economic; Transcending the economic.
The anti-economic phrasing of Luke’s Gospel is very strict: Blessed are you of my disciples who are poor. Paraphrased, You who are in fact impoverished, you have an experience similar to what it takes to be my spiritual follower–within a society that seems only to value money.
The philosophical individual, the prophetic-democratic Christian, the cultured individual; such solitary individuals are best able (individually at least) to get out of the Economic. But for democracy at large to work these few individuals must assist numerous others citizens in being able to choose non-economic things, to seek and to build a social-democratic society that deliberately and consciously aims for higher things, things higher than the commercial and vendible.
Many will decide to try to game the economic system, and this may work in the short run. Many will compromise with democracy and then find it to be unpleasant that all of the people whom they are living among are gamers and compromisers. But if I am correct in my analysis, all in the long-long run must come to terms with philosophy and the importance of the individual.
Pk Feb 2021
[This will be a long and involved blog with examples given of the misuse of big/abstract words such as socialism, nationalism by educated persons who ought to “know” better. ( If you grow weary of reading you might look at my latest and shorter blog about the Theology of John on my religion, that is, my Nicodemus page.)]
But I start with an unpleasant metaphor. In a number of places around the world scientists/technicians have been testing sewage to detect the Covid virus and then estimate the number of people infected. How they get one minute virus particle in a large mass of sewage to interact with other organic molecules… this is quite amazing. But this larger mass I suggest is the excessive rhetoric in the media/information/opinion pipeline, while 0.03% and/or would correspond the logic content. Rhetoric is not a bad thing but there must be, in my opinion, some sort of balance with logic, with interest in truth. Jordan Peterson has a rule about being precise always in one’s speech. But in the media-information establishment there is it seems no more intent towards logic or truth, there exists only what I would term a conventional intent; an intent to promote, an intent to clone conventional opinion. (Conventionalism is one of those Realities which don’t compute anymore for most Westerners because most, no matter how well educated, would deny that Western societies might in fact be overly conventional!)
My first example is from immediate news: The head of the WHO, of the UN and of the EU, persons who ought to be among the brighter persons in the room, these each recently dropped an apparently new-coined phrase “vaccine nationalism” into the media stream. What is this supposed to mean? I myself find this phrase to be not just bad and unwholesome rhetoric, but–there is no other word appropriate here–stupid. And I will try to prove my case in two parts, beginning with attention to world-reality, facts about the present Covid situation.
This rhetoric suggests that rich nations are presently and by intention hogging the vaccine supplies. This therefore is a very bad thing which is happening right now, and serious enough to be condemned unequivocally, without qualification.
We do know by definition that the rich nations have more money, and know from the news that these same nations have been initiating inoculation programs. These are facts. But half of the world’s population scattered around most of the 200 counties of the world also know another fact: The world’s riches countries at present are the most affected, the hardest hit, have the larger percentages of Covid infections! USA, Britain, France, Spain, Portugal etc., are not doing very well by comparison with all of those poorer nations of the world. (Am I being impolite to describe this situation. I hope not.) But since this is so in the larger world, the rich nations of the world are not greedy, we ought to be clear, but desperate, and should be. They are presently being overwhelmed with sick citizens.
So what can be the point of rhetoric at this moment to point out the naughty selfishness of these naughty rich countries? I don’t understand. If and when the rich countries are at 80% vaccination levels and poor countries are at 7%, then I may agree with such rhetoric. But this rhetoric does not fit present reality. It obfuscates reality. (Nowadays, going public to side with the poor and disadvantaged produces an almost autonomic applause…)
Canada has purchased more vaccine than it needs. There are only three explanations possible: Canadians are selfish and naughty people, or they have employed some purchasing agents who do/do not know how to negotiate, or they are planning to resell their extra vaccine to the poor nations at a profit. What I am saying is that any short term crisis as may be created by this rhetoric is quite bogus. It doesn’t correspond to reality; this rhetoric deliberately confuses public apprehension of what is actually happening in the world.
The even more serious issue with use of the phrase “vaccine nationalism” is the way in which these three ostensibly educated persons jump upon an already put-upon and half dead word and try to kill it. Nationalism BAD it must be. Else what does the phrase mean? Anyone who surmises that nationalism could be good. Ha ha. You are wrong. –And in fact I must admit that this is the sad and dangerous world in which we live. The word nationalism probably cannot be resuscitated.
We have at present a world which passably operates as composed of 200+ nations. But nationalism, a word which one might expect would be a theoretical attempt to describe some of the most salient constituents of a nation, this word has been vilified and certified as a bad, derogatory term by academics! Empire is a word which I myself believe needs to be revived as having possible positive and cultural possibilities, as in the sentence Some empires are beneficent while others are bad… but a significant majority of Westerners (and Chinese in fact..) display a negative reaction to the word which is both theoretical and visceral! Or cities, those dumb urban landscapes, how long must American cities suffer from bad press and from stray riots? As long, certainly, as no one experiences any sort of positive vibes when they hear the word “city.” Or states. This is obviously how the USA is structured as a country, but American intellectuals do not seem to either believe nor desire a flowering of state diversity, state cultures! With all of these important “political” words vilified or denigrated, is it any wonder that people at large might be moving from stupid to stupider.
Is anything being offered via this rhetoric as a (better) alternative than nationalism. Does the word universalism excite you? Do we bow simply down to the EU and the UN and beg the leadership there to please, please, take over the world. We want world government and want no more nations. We want science, economic wellbeing and vaccine for everyone, that’s all.
And perhaps if WHO issues a formal mea culpa for the following two items I also might allow them to exist in our future more perfect and more universal world.
I have been living in Northeast China for more than a year, and when the epidemic hit I went at that time to the WHO website and was shocked out of my *%*%*% mind by the advice which I read there about not using facemasks.
I do not believe that facemark policy is science. This is common sense. Photographs from 1918 show people wearing cloth face coverings, though they had no actual knowledge of tiny virus particles. So the WHO advice which I read a year ago I still find to be stupid beyond all possible comprehension. What possible train of thought could possibly lead to advice given to the world at large: Do not wear masks. (Militaries with their guns and personnel depend on logistics. WHO has no business giving logistical advice to any individual countries. Its prime responsibility must be to present principles/rules. Wear a mask or else do not.)
And secondly–a pet peeve of mine which is not going to go away easily. Air travel. Is the WHO entrusted with managing the world’s air travel even during a serious pandemic. No. WHO is a health advisory and health administration entity. But I can well imagine, once one gets a taste of world circum-spanning power–it may be difficult to let go.
I appeal to middle high school students. Raise your hands if you agree with the following argument:
WHO sent doctors and experts to investigate the SARS outbreak in western China. A few of these same persons died of the disease, but also spread the disease unwittingly when they travelled by airplane to talk with colleagues in HK, Singapore, Toronto, (Korea) etc. The investigators spread the disease themselves via air travel, but after this virus was stopped and went extinct (after some few hundred people died) WHO maintained on its website the policy/recommendation that during a pandemic international air travel ought NOT to be curtailed. Nations still need to be friends; even during a pandemic they still will be needing to send supplies (and experts I suppose) back and forth between countries.
I do not blame WHO for the Covid pandemic and its harm to many people. No one at all could have for-seen the present situation. But I will blame WHO for harm to peoples of the world should WHO not change its policies and should there be a pandemic in future decades caused by a virus similar to Covid.
SARS was less contagious but more deadly than Covid. But I ask middle high school students to hypothesize a virus more contagious than SARS and less than Covid. (Its mortality rate might be similar to Covid.) The objective is to stop spread completely and wait for this virus to go extinct. Can this be achieved for our hypothetical IBT (in-between) virus?
It certainly must be possible, because SARS was very contagious and yet was contained. But we admit also that if IBT is almost as contagious as Covid it may spread so quickly that even the best of human efforts will not stop it from spreading to the whole world. But why would anyone suggest that we not try!
Why would we not wish to isolate any countries that had the earliest few cases of IBT by cutting off immediately all movement of people via air travel out of those countries, and then hope that lock-down efforts within those countries might–after some few weeks or months, eradicate the virus–as China has proven is possible with Covid.
Is the logic convincing or not? An IBT may be stopped with both lockdown and avoidance of air travel. And if possible, why would the world not try? Covid is more contagious than IBT. After this bad experience with Covid, the world now know better what works and what doesn’t work very well. We might in the future possibly be able to lock-down and contain a virus that is more contagious than Covid. But certainly not without stopping air travel.
I am certain that the airline industry would prefer to suffer a dozen short-term local stoppages (until experts determine that there is no dangerous contagious agent present) rather than suffer the consequences of another pandemic similar to this one. And as to nations remaining on friendly terms and maintaining trade in medical or other essentials, well, I am sure that the nations of the world can work such out matters amongst themselves. That is, if WHO wishes to suggest, or wishes to act as a liaison or even to administratively assist miscellaneous nations during a pandemic, that is certainly commendable. But advice that air travel not be curtailed, this smells to me like a power grab, well intended advice maybe, but advice which is actually harmful and stupid.
There is no science to beat this logic. Lockdown works. Stopping infected people from moving to other places, this works. And in the modern world, traveling by airplane is (was) a very popular form of long distance travel, and preferred by 98% of all viri surveyed.
How then did China manage to make lockdown work? Did they have a generous supply of smart epidemiologists. No. Once they recognized the seriousness of the situation, danger, contagion, how many people were already likely infected, they implemented a strict local lockdown and subsequent lockdown of the whole country of millions of people–for what seemed like two months.
But why do I need to be the one to explain what happened? I had personal acquaintance of not being allowed out of the school without written permission, of having to report my temperature twice a day. But I am not a reporter, not a social scientist or epidemiologist, and my information sources are in fact quite limited. Where are the smart media people with a BA who can explain what I am about to explain to this internet audience? Is it un-cool perhaps to talk about such things, to talk about how or why one country might be doing better than another? But if so then this makes my point about stupidity. Much of the news today is still taken up still with Covid, but where is there any intelligent coverage which is non-conventional, which goes beyond repeating daily numbers, complaining about politics…
Many decades ago in the early years of Chinese Communism, Chinese were tied to the approval of a workplace official before they would be allowed to move, buy a radio, get married, change jobs, etc. This type of very local control and management is long gone, but with Covid lockdown, (extreme lockdown being a commonsense political decision, not a science driven decision, it must be–) the government quickly re-implemented very localized management. Some analysts might describe this as authoritarianism but I believe a more accurate description would be re-implemetation of very localized management during an emergency.
A relatively small housing area would monitor in and out traffic, have volunteers to get food supplies for everyone, check up on old people, etc.
It seems quite obvious to me that this very localized management is what makes the difference between an effective lockdown regime and the leaky and partial regimes as implemented not just in the USA but in most of the once great nations of Europe. These freedom loving democracies simply do not have the block by block local officials nor local control as possibility towards strict and extreme lockdown.
The peoples of all nations do certainly have the possibility of local community-scale consensus and cooperation. Apart from management by local officials or via very detailed emergency-made regulations, consensus coordination is the other means to maintain efficient local lockdown, but sadly, European and especially American communities don’t seem to grasp the importance of convention. (Please see the first chapter of my book available here on my website… 13 easy answers…)
Both Korea and Japan have gone for long periods of time, successfully, by relying not on local officials nor legal regulation but conventional agreement. People in South Korea apparently know how to cooperate by staying away from that place, being careful now about personal protection, etc. But even this social coordination has been show to have its limits more recently in avoiding this virus.
But why then cannot we talk more intelligently about these various countries and their methods as I have tried to do. My answer would be that the (Western, that is) media torrent is not interested in reality and truth but only in cloning cell cultures, in building up herd numbers, in misconstruing virtue as being proud of being part of a larger and larger mob (majority) which may in fact be becoming stupider and stupider.
I have not been able in the time available to give adequate discussion of the great abuses being suffered by the English words “socialism” or “nationalism,” but if you are interested in the second of these I suggest the short book by Harvard history professor Jill Lepore: This America, The Case for the Nation. (She considers nationalism to be a bad thing…)
I give the first paragraph..
This little book undertakes three outsized tasks, things that haven’t been done much lately, things that seemed to me in need of doing. It explains the origins of nations. It offers a brief history of American nationalism. And it makes the case for the nation, and for the enduring importance of the United States and of American civic ideals, by arguing against nationalism, and for liberalism
pk, February 8, 2021
As I remember the January news here in China, for almost a week the description was that there was no “human to human transmission.” This (as some of us now realize) is a technical phrase, is medical-scientific technology. But my first point (1) of many to follow, is that if/when this phrase is used in the future people should expect the opposite. The phrase means that science has not yet confirmed the HHT. But it is quite likely that serious contagion already does in fact exists–else why would the news media be bringing attention to this situation! Once a disease is proven to have HHT, then we can say that in fact, it is very contagious…
WHO is an international health organization, not a science-knowledge-producing enterprise. I will be criticizing WHO because they provide such an easy target as representing medical-scientific beliefs. Thus I will be criticizing their science rather than the organization itself. So I wish WHO the best in helping minimize other types of disease around the world. But ideally speaking (though this is not in fact feasible, not in fact possible) WHO might hypothetically take upon itself a very important epidemic-related role as first responder. Large nations already have their national teams ready to quickly investigate possible new and dangerous contagious diseases. But nations are also self-interested. Recent hindsight shows that China in fact was quick and effective in protecting its own population, its own region. But ideally speaking (2), a team of brave WHO epidemic investigators ready and waiting to jet off to any epidemic-suspected location in the world, and given prior permission by all such nations to enter and travel as they wish–this could be faster. And speed seems most important when containing initial spread. But even if a nation is willing to sign away some of its sovereignty on paper in this way, most nations, in crisis, would probably not give such a WHO epidemic team free and easy access… In crisis, nations will wish to maintain strict control over a developing problem…
During the earlier Sars epidemic it was doctors and medical experts trying to help, who were directly and indirectly responsible for spreading Sars to other countries–via air travel. But subsequent to Sars, WHO put in place recommendations that in case of a pandemic, nations ought not to limit international air travel! This is issue (3). Presumably because they themselves were trying to follow such recommendations, China officially complained when other nations cut off air travel with China early in the Covid pandemic. But to any sensible person the stupidity of such a WHO policy should be obvious. Just as lockdown (as we now realize) is an extreme but obvious way of trying to prevent local spread, so cessation of air travel is an extreme but obvious way of trying to prevent long-distance spread. (And we might hypothesize–all in hindsight of course, that had other nations earlier quarantined-off China via air travel limitations, international spread would have been significantly slowed.)
Obviously if one cannot control borders one cannot begin to manage spread. (States in the USA may need to try to implement stricter state border control, and I believe there is a Supreme Court case legally supporting such during an epidemic…) So I see no possible excuse for this bad and dangerous “medical-scientific” advice as laid down by WHO. Closing borders to ordinary traffic is now and will still be in any near future an obvious and appropriate (national) reaction. Not sufficient, but certainly natural. If a nation subsequently wishs to maintain communication, special aid shipments, inbound-flight quarantine procedures, well, that is their business. But such a naive WHO recommendation seems to me, now, to be in fact a serious misapprehension of reality, misunderstanding of how nations function. And the culprit responsible for this poor thinking? This must be incorrect/inappropriate epidemic-related medical-science. WHO is a health advisory agency.
I move on to another item in established medical science which continues to bother me, to irritate and inflame my common sense, and that would be the aerosol-droplet distinction, (5). More than two months ago I was on the verge of blogging about this subject but reminded myself that I actually have minimal science experience and no medical training, and so convinced myself not to blog; Don’t say anything. Am I a Medical Einstein that I can come up with thought experiments which shall then help to advance medical science!
But a recent newspaper article along with engineering experiments/studies by Linsey Marr, engineering professor, forces me to publicly apologize for this earlier reticence. My common sense may, after all, be able to lead many, many medical experts onwards to better conclusions! Marr’s article mentions that she is still trying to track down the source of the five micron cutoff point and the source of the medical-scientific categorization: droplets, aerosol. And this was exactly the source of my original anger and frustration two months ago. This distinction still seems plain wrong to me, both contrived and false! But who am I to question established science.
So I dare to claim now in this blog that this distinction is bogus; is bad science. And I ask and wonder as well why there are so many smart scientific persons out there traveling merrily along without raising further questions about this same medical-science categorization, aerosol v. droplets.
My original suggestion would have involved a large warehouse, collecting quantities of dry and harmless animal/plant viri, and then with various airflow patterns, finding if these things had landed on the various landing platforms, etc. A physics experiment–almost a high school physics project; though I do realize also that collecting and then identifying these extremely tiny particles, the individual virus, might not be as easy as I might wish/hope… But where is the science, the basic physics that might support (or refute) this fundamental medical droplet-aerosol assumption?
I had read about the two-hour choir practice in Washington State where most of the members became sick. This is anecdote, one incident, I remind myself at that time, but this should at least get people to start to question the droplet dogma. And now I notice that professor Marr has also done a post-choir scientific study which concludes that there was aerosol transmission during the choir practice! My common sense is corroborated! But then I realize that this is not going to change anything… Ms. Marr’s medical expertise is probably at the same level as mine: non-existent. Her “science” here is not likely to upset, dent, trouble the well established Medical science establishment until they, the Medical science establishment are themselves ready to be upset, troubled.
Why is this assumed and accepted medical categorization so important? Well, because it is implicated immediately in how we each, planners, ordinary citizens, business persons…IMAGINE this disease and its communicability. We either imagine a disease particle sitting on a droplet of water and then falling safely to the ground, or else imagine it as a more dangerous dust-like particle able to easily travel longer and further. Dust storms traverse the world, don’t they?
My unkind suspicion is that there may be some management motivation behind this medical distinction. (Don’t scare the medical personnel or they may go on strike.) Medical workers cope with contagion danger on a daily basis, and using standardized procedures. They know now to use stricter procedures with Covid-19. But this droplet distinction presents itself to us as being general science, not health management. The public at large require an accurate science.
Science is about being accurate, isn’t it. Let us imagine that it turns out after a few years that significant aerosol contagion by this virus is proven. Will there be any blame to be apportioned out? Medical workers will still be busy about their jobs either way. But by giving the non-medical public an inadequate image of the dangers of contagion, the science here, yes, would/will in fact be culpable, guilty. Mischaracterizing a present danger; science-belief-caused negligence. Can one sue all of medical science as Establishment? Probably not.
If you are a science loving person and bothered by complaint (5) then you will be even more troubled by (6): Epidemiology (or at least that portion which we are now most interested in, spread of disease…) can never and will never, in my opinion, be a hard science; it is and will always be wishy-washy science. Or, to be polite, all science is not the same. And this particular scientific effort, since it aims to study the spread of disease within a society, must share the indeterminacy of sociology. People choose this or that; and because society includes so many ideas, institutions, habits, groups, etc., there can never be deterministic (hard) laws in sociology, nor in this portion of epidemiology.
Most people do have a suspicion that the magic numbers which epidemiologists search for to describe speed of social spread in a community or health danger/mortality, that these numbers can never be exact. Or if exact, these numbers cannot exactly be all-important, broadly explanatory. Soccer stadium, bar with good ventilation, city streets with stagnant noontime air, people always talking during meals or not; there are too many variables it should be obvious, to allow for a deterministic type model of how a disease can/will pass through and infect the individuals in any one community. I don’t begrudge the efforts made and I myself will take seriously the careful and scientific conclusions, but it is obvious, isn’t it, that this is a different kind of science than calculating the trajectory of a physical object thrown in the air, a baseball, which can be done very exactly and give the same result every time.
In my opinion epidemiologists at this juncture should admit, up front, that what they seek to provide during a crisis such as this is a “best estimate.” Careful and scientifically developed but only a social estimate. Such an admission of the limitation here, that this is not very exact, this seems obvious to me, but I also realize that most scientists will reject this. They will wish to say that all science is the same. Science is science. But it isn’t.
With the Spanish flu epidemic a century ago we had no idea what was happening. But now we do have some serious scientific knowledge. We know how viruses operate, what they are. We use electrons to give pictures of things as small as a virus, and can almost number the atoms that compose the RNA or DNA of this new and troublesome Covid virus. We have a very sophisticated grasp of some of the mechanisms the human immune system uses and so can take various approaches to the technology of building vaccines that might help the human body get prepared for this virus, etc. And for all of this hard biological science and consequent biological engineering we as public also promise to be appreciative. But I will still insist that we must admit/ recognize that much of what is offered by epidemiology can never have this same sort of determinism or exactitude.
Why is it so difficult to admit and recognize this differing quality as present in different “sciences.”
There is an even more obvious reason why epidemiology cannot offer us much in the way of scientific help in a pandemic such as the present: Science is unable to predict ahead of time what a new beast, a new disease agent, will be like. Until the NEW beast has been up and running for a while there is no way for science to anticipate such…
Thus on the social side of a contagious disease–science (in my opinion) can give guidelines, models, scenarios but not much more. That is, there is no separate science for socially managing a contagious disease. Management must always be the responsibility of political entities. Social medicine can advise but government must choose how to implement.
What is the CDC doing at present. Shouldn’t they be busy giving daily advice and directives which are then eagerly anticipated and used by governors and more local officials–as these officials each see fit to use or adapt the advice. Local officials will know their communities and thus have some sense of how to apply the advice, guidelines. In this, governors must depend on a sort of artistic sensibility. A little more here, a little less there. This is what makes art. Not fixed directives. There is never a direct line, in my opinion, from social-medical science to implementation.
Why do Americans at large, who are certainly practical, seem unable to grasp this break, the distinction which I have just described between science and practice? Is it ordinary stupidity, or is this because of a deliberate media obfuscation of the issue, or it be because most of the educated persons in the national media do not believe either, that such a break exists. Are such educated media people seriously hoping for scientocracy; do they believe that science can supply singular, exact and specific directives in a pandemic situation such as this?
Look at the differing (and mostly successful) approaches of China, South Korea and Japan. Which is more scientific?
But to continue (7) with the subject of media incompetence and obfuscation. If–as I believe is the case–what is most important right now is state by state management efforts, then states need to be allowed to do their separate things. We all know that people in office or running for office will never stop trying to spin things politically. The people responsible for actively managing this epidemic are these same political officials or candidates.
(And additional local officials as well, in my opinion, should be delegated more authority to control/manage, allowed this local opportunity by governors and state legislatures. Legislation to allow short term regulations, etc.) This temporary and targeted epidemic legislation should be able to pass constitutional challenge. And states can do such, I believe. They are smart enough.
But what worries me is federalism and the national media. Should states begin to do their own things the national media will not allow but will subvert, obfuscate, because, I expect, national media do not really believe in federalism. Fifty separate states, fifty law codes and law enforcements systems, fifty approaches to localized problem solving. Against this national media certainly have a national bias, a tendency to look for solutions at that level, to blame at that level, to try to encourage nation-wide movements, etc.
Every few weeks it seems some otherwise intelligent person writes an article suggesting that we get rid of the electoral college system, implement popular vote. But this is radical and simpleminded. We already have a good system which is called federalism and which should allow state diversity of culture, state by state diversity of virus management, etc. Some people actually do not understand about the senators and the representatives, why California has the same number of senators as North Dakota. But we who already understand the state concept need to help these people by explaining it to them. Why we are called the USA. Why we vote by states and not as one massive populace.
But do people in the national media really believe in the existence of separate states. I myself must admit that I tend to a national rather than state perspective, but if we are in a crisis now which now requires local management then for us, Americans, that means state and local management needs to be given respect. The feds cannot do this task of micromanaging no matter whether the Executive is blue or red.
One might suggest that a national reporter exclusively on the topic of one state, that this must be boring to anyone not living in that state. But is this necessarily so. What seems obviously boring to me is national reporters grinding the same old political axe, spinning each and every topic the same way. Why not take the epidemic situation as a race to see which state wins the long-race with the best methods (not policies).
We have the recent example of three populous states opening “early” and suffering setback for that decision. California, Texas, Alabama? Avant-garde scientific planning, economic priority, states-rights machoism. Which of these ideologies were thus proven to be most valuable as ideologies. None of the above. The only thing proven is that all three jumped the gun with regard to their own local conditions. But the race continues… And as well, it may be a long race. There are no pre-set guidelines here folks. Not much science to fall back on. This is called local management. Governors and below. Get used to it. And I am hoping here to “have your back” by getting/keeping national media tendencies/assumptions off of your back.
Thirteen Easy Answers to the World’s Most Difficult Questions
Chapter V. What has gone wrong with (Western/American) Politics? Re-reading Plato’s Republic a year or so ago and trying to analyze its ideas, I find that today I am yet very favorably disposed towards one of my attempts at explanation: Plato considers that philosophy is all-important because it provides a common territory in which the realms of religion and politics inter-relate, inter-connect. If this role for philosophy is allowed then this establishes a particular sort of adjustment and delineation between these two prominent realms; this philosophical meeting-ground between the two then actually will help to structure a worldview. And as historical-fact, Plato’s suggested meeting-ground was accepted, and this has become the foundation of a sound and successful Western European solution… If my explanation here is accurate, appropriate, then perhaps diagnosis of the modern political problem would be that both religion and politics have abandoned this meeting ground, have retreated into their respective anti-philosophical ruts, have rejected Plato’s synthesis. The medicine or treatment needed then is fairly straightforward: more and genuine philosophy from all sides! How difficult could this be!
The Babylon of long ago left many cuneiform records of commercial transactions, but who cares now to know that so-and-so lent out to so-and-so so many baskets of grain. Today, any middle-school student is probably quite aware that our present-day world is again becoming increasingly commercialized: market oriented economies, industrialization, new technologies. And we each, it seems, are willing enough to commit our time and lives to this economic system because this system promises an ever improving material benefit. (I myself remain wary of the economic as such, and do not welcome a future Babylon, one all-encompassing world government catering to economic agents while promising to indirectly benefit ordinary people.) But along with this obvious growing prevalence of the economic realm, there is another modern fad, and a fad that I expect is not temporary: the popularity of democracy as idea.
Perhaps with an increasing prominence given to the economic the populace at large simple want more; they clamor for more. Governments then need to heed such demands. Politicians want to be seen as helpers of the people. Soon everyone wishes to be a democrat… But whatever the correlation, the expansion of the economic realm as well as the popularity of “democratic” notions are major modern phenomenon. Most adolescents, young people, will concur…
The first point which I wish to make in this chapter on modern politics will be to the effect that democracy is essential, that democracy can save us–but also that few persons genuinely believe this or actually understand what democracy means. Democracy can save us, but this can occur only if we understand what democracy is. Ancillary to this need to re-understand democracy, my opinion is that democracy itself will be co-opted, ingested, taken over by both economic forces or political-ideological forces unless it receives religious “support.” Democracy, of itself, cannot stand up to growing economic forces.
My second major point in this chapter will look in the direction of religion, Western Christianity. It seems to me fair enough to say that Christian religion in both of its western forms, Roman Catholicism, Protestantism (–in the famous words of a movie): Can’t handle it, Can’t handle the truth, Can’t handle, that is, the Truth of Democracy.
Specifically, I have become increasingly convinced that there has developed in the West an obsession with politics–obsession here meaning excessive, unhealthy, dangerous and harmful over-attention. And more significantly (though this may also seem bizarre as a claim…) that this obsession may be traced back almost three thousand years to a priestly-prophetic Old Testament theologian! The author of Samuel-Kings has been very successful, but that long run of many, many centuries of success may have finally run its course. Exclusivistic and one-sided interpretation of Old Testament scripture thus has produced, it seems to me, the present-day Western political exhaustion, bankruptcy. And the cure for this one-sidedness is quite obvious also. It is to be reminded (as in the previous chapter on Religion)–that Christian Scripture itself is not one-dimensional, one-sided.
(As an aside, I offer a quick interpretative alternative right now: Deuteronomy is the democratic vision of Moses which does not coincide with the theological emphasis of that other OT theologian just mentioned, and first and second Chronicles provide an alternative–and democratic-friendly–alternative version of Israelite history.)
But if I correctly identify an unhealthy Western obsession with politics, an obsession which has its origins in Old Testament theology and religion, there is still some real difficulty in explaining how this religious-originated sensibility has come also, as it seems it has–to influence recent Western politics which is largely non-religious. Has this religious obsession, this disease, jumped (–I don’t know how else to explain it–) over from religion itself, over to the realm of politics? Modern Western Liberalism does seem to me at times to be almost rabid, to have (strangely) chosen to take on a religious-ideological posture. Is such a posture intended as a counter or match to what seems to be an intractable religion-originated dogmatism. Are the non-religious persons who are of a kindly and liberal temperament simply fed up with religious claims, and thus intent on copying the dogmatism of the other side? Or is science assumed to provide enough of a foundation for creation of a new science-based moralism in imitation of Old Testament moralism? I don’t know. Or does culture hang on, hang around, unless replaced by culture that is fundamentally better, more appealing, something stronger–as culture? This is the explanation I prefer. But in any case, I consider that we must do a better job of understanding our own culture-influences, understanding the sources of deep-rooted present-day political attitudes and notions. And in my chapter here on politics, thus, I will be spending a lot of time with exegesis–i.e., interpretation of (Christian) scripture.
But first of all then, we must try to better apprehend a single word, democracy. If we understand this word correctly, this word may yet save us. But Americans answer: We already have this thing, we already understand it…
If a reader sees no point to my discussing Law and Convention in Chapter One, (these being separate but both essential for a healthy society) then this same reader will be blind to my point here. I will be advocating here the absolute necessity of a convention-side-meaning for the word democracy. Though we as Americans don’t have the long history of China, we do have at present the longest running democratic nation-state in the world. But this is to look upon democracy as mechanism: voting, arrangement of offices, law-making, free press and speech to allow a proxy-discussion in the media of “issues.” This is the Law side of what democracy means.
The founding fathers did an excellent job with structure/law/arrangement, and if asked they would have said that they each hope that with such good structure, the American people must in the near future also develop a mature spirit–the corresponding attitudes and notions appropriate to a democratic society. But I am saying that this development is not so easy, and that this development has not actually happened in the USA. We are in fact seriously deficient in awareness/understanding of democracy as Convention. Voting once every two or four years, being bombarded with opinion-propaganda with regard to social-political issues as substitute for genuine philosophical discussion, everyone in the United States (it seems) trying to control and modify the laws so as to force that other half of the country to conform to one’s own preferences–This is not democracy. Or, if you wish to call this democracy, this is a sick and legalistic and very superficial sort of democracy.
Why must we now better comprehend what democracy essentially means? We all say that we like democracy. We all regularly tend to operate with a very limited and metaphysically shallow notion of democracy, a merely mechanical and political notion. And we engage in no serious efforts individually to better comprehend this central notion. How is this not an unhealthy hypocrisy! An ongoing and self-deceiving hypocrisy with regard to a significant portion of Reality. This cannot be healthy for anyone anywhere in the modern world.
People complaining and moaning, or else people organizing and protesting and demanding things of the government or of the society at large. This is not democracy. This is people complaining and demanding, as might occur, as well, in any other country. Democracies do tend to be more lenient towards such popular expression, but at best, people demanding redress for some issue–this is a feature only, implementation of the mechanism, and operation of democracy, and not the spirit, the meaning of democracy which is what I am searching for…
I will be attempting here various ways to give the word democracy a greater aura, a more comprehensive and virtuous meaning, and all of this may seem very loose talk. But I believe that this task itself is non-negotiable. We either arrive at improved meanings for the word democracy or else the outcomes will be bad.
And so as a first (and only slightly) rhetorical attempt I would claim that democracy is too important to involve itself with politics–politics here meaning government as objective entity/institution, offices, getting people elected, representation, lawmaking. All such business is not democracy. Democracy, I would insist, is essentially a social thing; it is an awareness of the primacy of community and society vis a vis government and/or political activity. Without an abiding sense of this primacy the spirit of democracy is lost. Therefore, as I suggest, a genuine/pure democracy should best stay completely out of politics, should not sully or taint itself with such demeaning and life-constricting activities…
Do Americans really believe in democracy, not as mechanism I mean, but in essence, as something more than mechanism? Let me suggest criteria for testing this. First, Do you believe that democratic citizenship necessitates individual citizen responsibility? Or is citizenship in a democracy only about getting the government, the system, to (selfishly) provide you with things…? I myself consider that proper respect for the inherent meaning of the word democracy must suggest that the the people as individuals are ultimately responsible–for everything! How can elected government officials be to blame when you, citizen, put them there. The system, the various and miscellaneous institutions of society are such, also, because you as various individual citizens over the years have created these same institutions. Instead of talking about institutional or governmental fault, (racism, sexism, etc.,) a comprehensive and improved notion of democracy would return ALL responsibility to individual citizens. You made it, you live in it. Democracy means that we the people always are responsible for making this society what this society is, what it has become, what it will become in the near future. No one else is responsible! It is all about you, the people. And if you don’t really accept this larger view of democracy, then in my opinion, you are not really a democrat. You are a hanger-on; hoping to continue to benefit from democratic structures but not recognizing the responsibility-meaning of the genuine citizen. A fan of democracy.
A second if also more difficult criterion is found in J.S. Mill’s notion of maturity. Recently all of the nations of the world have made great strides in increasing primary education, reducing illiteracy, and in encouraging higher education, the four-year college degree. There are of course economic motives here since the smart worker can be more productive. But the prime motive must be citizenship. The educated citizen will make for a better citizen than the uneducated citizen. But then, why continue to believe fervently in nanny-government? Mill did not believe in nanny-government, believe that there must be a continuous moral training of citizens after citizens have grown to become adults, but a large majority of Americans, I hazard, do believe that nanny-government is both normal and necessary. Do such people, I ask, deserve to be allowed to call themselves democrats since they are expecting, requiring the US government and its laws and operations, etc., to impose a continuous moral-social supervision over the citizenry at large?
Many religious Americans who prefer a version of nanny-religion also will tend to believe in nanny-democracy, but many non-Christian and very well educated Americans in their political attitudes also believe firmly in nanny-democracy! But is this not an authoritarian rather than a democratic sentiment? If you do not believe in the mature and educated citizen as norm, if you do not believe in Mill’s norm, are you not hankering for a more authoritarian form of government…? If you are hoping to shape and control the culture of this society, your society, by means of government and law, are you not by this very specific desire playing false with democracy. You are depending and hoping upon government! But as individual citizen in a democratic-society both society and government already belong to you, immediately. To consider government and government-made-laws as your best or only or favored mode of affecting and influencing society, this is already to have fallen out of genuine democratic belief. This is a totalitarian impulse, a totalitarian or religious mentality! Pseudo-democracy. Leaving to one side then, all such fans and pseudo-democrats, will there be any authentic democrats to be found anywhere in all of the USA?
And I do not believe that worship of the Free Market, nor re-interpretation of freedom in economic terms, that this is legitimate substitute for democratic virtue. As I have argued previously, as US citizen I am loyal to a specific nation-state and to democracy. I have make no such pledges to capitalism as theory. The Wealth of Nations was published in 1776, too late to significantly influence our founding fathers. If capitalism looks good, we as citizens can keep it, but we can just as easily decide as a majority of citizens to modify or adjust capitalism to better suit our society. It is our economy after all, and we (as intelligent and economically astute) citizens can do with capitalism as we wish. And accept the results. Free-market Capitalism as ideology ought not to issue directives to a healthy democratic society!
I have come up with one analogy or metaphor to help specify the convention-meaning which we need to get hold of in the word democracy, but as you will see, this is a simplistic metaphor. But there is something uniquely American about the public library as this has developed in our country. Other cultures don’t seem think along these lines. A public library seems to Americans to be a sensible, good, and even necessary thing. It is a common good. It belongs to each of us. We do not (and ought not) argue over its architectural style or location. Those who work there are friendly to all citizen-patrons, and book acquisitions are not lopsided nor biased in this or that direction. This is democracy. We don’t have to do anything; we don’t have to get excited about anything. We belong to it, it belongs to each individually. This is what democracy means.
And perhaps with this simplistic image I have managed to slip in another quality which I am looking for: a simple or basic humanism. (At least as a book lover…) I am positively disposed to the open and free library because of what those easily accessible books in the library contain. Art, ideas, knowledge, culture. Certainly in the Greek meanings of the word democracy, support for such things is a natural and necessary inclusion to the aura surrounding the word democracy. And the Greeks of course, very early, 500 BCE, where the first human beings to (–very successfully as it turned out–) explore what taking Democratic excellence as a central societal value might produce.
(I have a theological preference for Luke’s New Testament Gospel, but connecting up with earlier discussion of the economic, I consider that Luke’s attitude to both government and economic activity is positive. These are inherently good things, not inherently bad or evil. But these are things which need to kept in their proper place by something which is in fact more important…, and this would be the democratic. Luke’s version of Christianity gives an even more positive role to democracy than either the political as such or the economic, but democracy, obviously, in the larger meaning of that word.)
But moving on to obsession with politics, the second of my two points. Around 1600, a Mr. Filmer writes a book titled Patriarchia. Somewhat later, when John Locke writes about political theory, he spends a great amount of his initial efforts in refuting, one after another, the claims and assumptions of Mr. Filmer. Filmer relies on the Christian scripture to argue that patriarchy is the God-given source of all human authority and human government. Adam was the first patriarch and given authority by God. The Sinai-given commandment to honor father and mother also supports this, for example. But to this Locke asks, what happened to the mother’s authority. And I myself would note in reply to Filmer that a more sensible interpretation here would be that children must obey, but the obedience per se of adult children is not commanded by the commandment to honor one’s parents. Mr. Filmer’s scriptural interpretation is forced and narrow. And Locke will break out of this by talking about a state of nature, a philosophical construct.
Men have a God-given ability to reason which makes them capable judges even prior to the existence of governments or the formation of a common society. Locke says that in this state of nature the right thinking individual can (in effect) act as judge and executioner against another individual who has committed serious wrong against humankind, against someone else! (We ourselves would call this vigilanteism.) Many decades later the Deist Jefferson and other of our founding fathers felt brave enough to construct anew a strictly democratic-republican governmental framework. This at a time when all of civilized Europe was still in thrall to kings, dukes and other potentates.
To continue, I think it is safe to say that today, most religious ( i.e., Christian) believers still hold to what I will label a very simpleminded sensibility or prejudice, that is, that authority of itself has an immediate affinity with good religion. And yes, one must admit that God does out-rank us, we being mere creatures, God being beyond time, omnipotent… And a fear of God is the beginning of wisdom and many other good things. But I myself would wish to argue that as far as human life is concerned, while authority is in fact an exigency–(something which can hardly be avoided)–a fundamental democratic sensibility/awareness is also something which is universal, natural, perennial, and thus also un-deniable. Denying such a minimal humanistic-democratic sentiment, the recognition that we are all equally human–denying democracy its minimal natural due, do we not lessen, demean ourselves?
The strongest, smartest or tallest person may seem the nature-designated leader, but maybe not. We ourselves might take this choice upon ourselves. Or, can the reader imagine an actual patriarch, or a tribal council, say, in one case being very authoritarian and in another case being very democratically inclined. I can.
So if authority is admitted metaphysically to be a practical exigency in human affairs, so also should we acknowledge that there is also an inalienable humane and democratic sensibility natural to the human condition. This minimal notion of democracy is not any less essential or fundamental than the notion of authority.
Does God have any political preferences?–we may ask as theological question. (I conduct these arguments as a believer arguing from within the Christian religion…) And the correct theological answer here must be, No. Politics and the formation of governmental-organizations is something which human beings do. God does not engage in politics and has no specific preference, for example, for human kingship, though that quite familiar phrase, divine right of kings, seems to suggest and imply otherwise. God does cares about his, God’s own governance, but not about those forms of government which are human constructs and human choices. And thus there is no reason theoretically/theologically why God might not exert his governance as well if not better through a democracy as through kingship.
Let’s look more carefully at the Biblical account. Moses was a leader and a prophet, not someone with any political or governmental office or status. The existence in the canon of the book of Judges strongly suggests to me two very important theological ideas. One, that anarchy, no-government, is of itself not unacceptable. Perhaps not so convenient, but not wrong. When there was social need in Israel, a hero would feel the need, rise up, and lead this anarchic society to fend off an impending evil. And idea two, that there is no Divine political schedule operative at this juncture. The arrival of kinship in Israel is not like the arrival of revelation at Sinai. God would have, we might suggest, planned the one while simply allowing the second. The stories of the early kings and their personal failures are certainly used theologically by the author of the Samuel-Kings history to teach theologically about what is looked for in an ideal individual as ruler. But kingship of itself, kingship as human political arrangement, this need not be taken as inherent, essential to this theological teaching. The theology in Samuel-Kings, I would say, is about the ideal human leader and his character and piety, not about kingship as form of governance.
If Samuel himself was the primary author of this History, then it is helpful to remember that Samuel himself was originally an outsider. After the golden calf debacle at Sinai the Levite tribe (which helps to restore sanity vigilante-style by massacring a significant number of their idolatrous brethren)–this tribe is eventually given a special role as helpers and protectors, and the few Levites who are direct descendants from Aaron, only these are to be the priests. But as the Samuel-Kings history begins, the priesthood of Eli is corrupt and must be reformed. Samuel, not a descendant of Aaron, is the outsider who initially is the agent of reform for the institution of the priesthood in Israel. Then, as priestly-prophetic authority, this outsider, Samuel, presides over (as we might carefully phrase it) the transition in Israel from no king, to kingship.
The people declare they want a king to help them fight the Philistines. Samuel says that Yahweh is hurt by this request. It means that the people no longer wish Yahweh as primary king. But following Divine guidance Samuel the prophet-priest chooses Saul, anoints Saul as first king, but then also deposes Saul (I Sam 13:5-14) when Saul takes it upon himself to offer sacrifice before going out to battle–because Samuel is late to arrive, etc. Sacrifice is a priestly prerogative, and Samuel immediately declares that Saul has been rejected from being king. This is Samuel’s immediate judgement, and must be Yahweh’s judgement as well since Samuel speaks for Yahweh. And so David, the youngest of many brothers, a ordinary shepherd boy, is next chosen and anointed to be future king via Samuel’s activities.
I-II Samuel as history narrative is composed of numerous very personalistic stories and incidents involving Samuel the priest and the first two Kings, Saul, David. (Please read some of this if you are unfamiliar with these stories.) Saul is selected but then Saul goes bad as person, as king; he is disobedient. David is chosen to be the next king, but David cannot harm Saul because Saul is still the Lord’s anointed. David plays music to calm Saul because Saul is depressed. Saul in a fit almost kills David with his spear, etc.
This history (as all other Old Testament history) is fundamentally religious and theological. Yahweh is directly active within such history. But in Samuel-Kings it is the establishment of the political that would be the ostensible topic; It is about the kings. But how can an inherently religious history explain the political realm?
It almost seems as if Samuel-Kings may wish to describe king David’s adultery and assassination of the husband of Bathsheba as (mere) secular fault. David’s ideal character or status seems to remain intact. The subsequent disasters which befall David’s family and reign, such as problems with his son Absolom, these are presented naturalistically. These are natural results of human failure, not Divine punishments. As if the author can momentarily shift out of a moralistic priestly-prophetic viewpoint into a non religious point of view. But that perspective which very obviously pervades this Samuel-Kings narrative of the kings of Israel is one of religious and moralistic judgment. All of these individuals are inadequate as kings, more or less impious and immoral.
This religious-moral oversight of the political is the constant and unrelenting tone of Samuel-Kings. As a good example I offer I Sam 28:3-20. Samuel has died at this point, and Saul is old, but engaging himself in an activity which is quite illegitimate, he is asking spiritual guidance from foreign, alien spiritual mediums. So as final contradiction of Saul, Samuel himself re-appears as a ghost at this alien-conducted seance to condemn Saul one last time: You, wayward king Saul, cannot avoid being punished (–nor avoid apparently the authority of Samuel, priest.)
This then is the dynamic which I believe has been so influential for centuries and centuries subsequent to the actual events in the lives of David or Saul. The religious-prophetic hereby claims a sort of moralistic authority or supervision over the political. From such a perspective the political can never measure up. According to this history, almost all the kings of Israel and Judah are crowded to the very bad side of the spectrum. Mannassah’s terrible evil and impiety is balanced on the good side only by the piety of king David (and a couple of other kings) whose virtue as kings was imperfect but perhaps OK. The message is that society as a whole needs, requires, must find a pious and virtuous individual like David, and even better. Only with such an ideal king/Christ is the nation saved.
But one might ask theologically… After Jesus as Christ is considered to have physically and historically fulfilled this theological expectation of the Samuel-Kings theologian (and after Jesus has left the human scene for Heaven…)–why return to this Old Testament perspective; why not consider the possibility of other ways of conceptualizing the relationship between the religious and the political?
Politics of course is still a reality. Christians must live now in various nations/regions each with their own political arrangements. But if the basic requirements, demands of Samuel have been fulfilled in the person of Jesus, why must European kings centuries later try to measure up to this very old priestly-prophetic criticism of Samuel. Is no other (Christian and theoretical) approach to the political possible?
And my best guess would be that the stories themselves, personalistic and moral, these continue to fascinate, and so carry forward the ancient priestly viewpoint, critique. How might the imperial-democratic glory and gold of Solomon and his temple and temple dedication ceremony as cultural-synthetic historical highpoint (as depicted in the Chronicles history), how can this compete with the personalistic-piety emphasis (and the fascination with political power, and evil) of Samuel-Kings! (Except, of course, that as in the modern age, as democracy is increasingly honored or sought, the democratic qualities of Deuteronomy and Chronicles and Jeremiah may come gradually to be seen as viable interpretative alternative.)
After centuries of Christian history in the West, the “two swords” becomes an accurate symbol of the religious-political relation. The Papacy wields the more important and more powerful of the two, since spiritual matters are ultimately more important than temporal maters and mere force. This attitude is quite clearly in line with Samuel’s assertion of priestly supervision over the kings of Israel. An international Roman Catholic Church still takes as its normal and day-to-day role the task of teaching the nations and regularly warning or cajoling the political leaders of any or all nations of the world.
Post-reformation, there is a quite small radical element that considered human government to be so corrupt that Christians must separate themselves from and avoid as far as possible associating with human government. But the majority of protestants continue along the lines set down by Samuel. They maintain a dependence on secular governments while claiming moral supervision over politics. With Protestantism, one might even say that Samuel’s influence becomes even stronger. Not emphasizing kings, internationalism and institutions, but still very much about priestly-religious importance. As lawyer, Calvin’s Calvinism asks of Christians a politically responsible and an active political interest/involvement (which I myself believe to be healthy religion) and via Puritanism, this attitude has been very influential in forming American cultural attitudes. Though Puritanism is long gone, this influence ought not to be denied. As within a more modern secular Western political liberalism, this “prophetic” emphasis has, it seems only grown. The prophetic side of the priestly-prophetic authority-claims of Samuel are still strong in Western attitudes and assumptions about politics. (Because I believe the prophetic to be strictly an individual thing, I tend to call this kind of emphasis pseudo-prophetic.)
I hope that the ordinary reader, Protestant or not, historically-versed or not, can sense that there is truth to my claim that the West has been and still is influenced by the attitudes and theology of Samuel. Explanation of how a more recent and secular (non-religion based) political liberalism is yet under Samuel’s direct influence, this is not so simple or obvious. But is it not helpful to consider my historical explanation? That today, for good or ill, this ghost of Samuel still does preside over both religious and non-religiously minded Western political thinking and attitudes.
I myself would wish to remain with Mill, a non-Christian, as being the last in a line of genuine Western political liberals. But I hope that conservatives or liberals who are looking for something new may be able to find that–that in coming years the old political dogs of the West, sooner rather than later, might be able to learn some new tricks.
Chapter IV. Religion: Given that someone has a genuine interest in religion, what are criteria by which to distinguish good/bad religion, healthy/unhealthy religion, adult/nanny religion? There is a sort of in-house joke or fable known to many Christian/Buddhist/Moslem religious leaders which goes as follows: God, noticing that humanity is having a difficult time, decides to deliver some valuable special revelation/enlightenment to certain persons. So this and that person is given this valuable gift. But then almost immediately, the Devil comes along and whispers into the ear of each of these recipients: Let me help you organize that.
This fable might then continue… God, noting that this has not worked so well, decides: Let us give humankind some more specific content which can be put into human language. Those human religious leaders will certainly recognize the fact that Divine thoughts are superior to human language, and recognize that there can be no one easy simplification of Divine truth. Thus they will be more reticent about making grandiose claims. But of course, as we are well aware, this approach did not work either. There exist today various Buddhist groups and various collections of Buddhist scriptures; only one Islamic scripture studied regularly by Sunni, Shi’a, and Sufi followers who do not get along very well with each other, and one basic collection of Christian scripture but four subsequent major types of Christian religion: Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, a large range of Protestant groups, and Anglican plus others…with each and every one of these Christian groups claiming to have the one and only correct and appropriate interpretation of scripture. What more can We do, God asks, when religious leaders each claim that their own interpretations of Scripture are the only interpretation possible? We are able to offer no further assistance. These human beings must be left to (self-destructively) fight it out among themselves…
This second paragraph is my somewhat awkward addition to the original joke, and provides the theme of this chapter. In effect, if bad religion is to be avoided, religious leadership must recognize that what they present as being genuine religion must necessarily always be lesser than that more complete and complex content included in the sources of their own avowed religions. Jesus says something about the very dots and strokes of the Old Testament scripture being eternal. But given a written scripture, the next step will always be interpretation. Human religion is thus always limited by human interpretation… God promises no perfect religion!
I myself believe that religion is a very important human business, and in this chapter I write about what can go wrong with religion–not to encourage readers to denigrate or dismiss religion, but rather because I hope that religions might self-correct, might fix, (must fix) some of their endemic faults. And thus I welcome a wide range of readers. The reader who already tends to denigrate all religion may find some new basis here for complaint against religion. This cannot be avoided. (Religious persons, I am told, sometimes infiltrate Atheist chat rooms on the internet.) To any religious officials/clergy who are reading, I promise to try to spread fairly my critique, to insult any and all of the various religious traditions…so please continue reading. To the reader with existing religious belief I say, do not become entangled in the examples or details here, since my objective is not specific doctrines but a better, healthier attitude towards religious belief. To the reader new to religion but interested in religion, my theme will be: Do not be afraid of religion. And to other readers who may have minimal interest in religion, to this disinterested reader I state that my aim is to take a disinterested and philosophical (rather than polemical) approach to religion in this chapter. My own humanism may be significantly influenced by my Christian religious beliefs, but not to such a degree that my humanism cannot stand apart from religion and critique, for example, what is wrong with my own religion, Christianity.
Little research has gone into preparation for this chapter since I have been researching this subject all of my life. I have always had positive regard as well as have always had specific problems with the religion in which I was raised as Protestant missionary-preacher’s kid, as seminary student, as Episcopalian or Eastern Orthodox, as reader of patristics (in English), as exegete who has now published (on Kindle) four theological commentaries on Christian Scripture offering my differing notions about what would be an important set of themes within Christian belief. Perhaps like (I am told) the person who becomes a doctor because of some felt physical anomaly or physical issue, I also may have some personal and underlying religious issue, some religious problem, which has kept me involved and engaged directly with religion. But in either case, doctor or religionist, the proof will be in the results.
Since I believe that I am able to offer here criteria by which to determine good from bad religion, it may also be that I have secondary objectives, that is, that I am hoping of myself to offer something new and better in religion, in Christianity. And this is the case. As in my e-book commentaries mentioned above, I do wish to promote a Christianity that is democratic, prophetic, somewhat more humanistic. Christianity as a non-parasitic virus which spreads naturally and knows no borders; Christianity as a citizenship by means of which Christians adapt as good and natural citizens within whatever social circumstances they find themselves. But this present book, claiming to provide answers to difficult questions, is philosophical, and here I will be arguing only for the possibility of such a better kind of religion.
In summary, the criteria which I have come up with for distinguishing heathy and unhealthy religion are three: Essentials. Limited Interpretation, Continuing Interpretation. (–The last two being about interpretation of religious Scripture, interpretation of religious sources, and might be paraphrased: the need for recognition of limits to religious knowledge, and the necessity of ongoing efforts to improve religious knowledge via continuous interpretation.)
1. But the first of these three seems to me to be quite obvious and quite straightforward–though there also exists a very strong tendency on the part of many religious leaders to deny this obvious point. There are in fact a small number of essential beliefs required by each and any religion. Lacking one of these, Christianity for example, is not Christianity. Persons are catechized in these few basic beliefs, and accepting these, they may become Christian believers. Of course, what happens post conversion is also important. This new believer must be taken care of by religious leaders, must be given further and additional and ongoing assistance, teaching, benefit from interaction with other believers, etc., But for the most part, all Christian traditions accept the validity of a baptism performed in another Christian tradition; they do not ask that someone who changes allegiance from one Christian tradition to another should be re-baptised. Thus in theory, each major Christian group recognizes the validity of those other Christian groups, and recognizes the reality of a core of essential Christian beliefs.
But in practice religious seem quite regularly to deny this, to deny that one ought to maintain this important distinction between essentials, and secondary beliefs and practices. In practice, clergy will usually insist that one must buy the whole package. There is no stripped down basic model available. One must order the video camera automatic parking assist, the heated steering wheel, the GPS option, the super fuel-efficient electronic carboration system.
Yes, ongoing religious care is a pragmatic and existential necessity, but then, also, if there are essentials, well, there are essentials. Other elements must logically be less essential as compared to the essentials. If religious leaders plead at this point that a pragmatic, pastoral necessity supersedes this distinction, well, I can only deny that this is the case. A religion that refuses to maintain the distinction between essentials and secondary beliefs and practices is in my opinion, ipso facto, cult like, suspect. To say that everything in religion is equally important and equally necessary is to engage in a type of salesmanship which is, as should be apparent to all lay customers, suspect, disingenuous, dishonest! Beware. You are dealing with a shifty salesman.
2. Is any religion something given once-for-all, unchanging and almost absolute, a traditional art-object or heirloom and thus something which can be inherited, something to be reverently cherished? No. Christianity arrives at this present juncture via centuries of history; it certainly does not originate with me. But thinking that Christianity is merely a Traditional Religion suggests to me the dangerous notion of formula. Religion can be encapsulated in formula, material formula. Rather, each generation of believers, I would wish to insist, must re-think and re-appropriate this faith. The sources of a religion, yes, these may well be a once-for-all given, but the meanings and meaningful forms of the religion must be re-achieved regularly, continuously. Though Emerson gave up on Christianity, he seems to me to understand religion better than many Christians do: “Faith makes us and not we it, and faith makes its own forms.” The prophetic is in my view more important and more fundamental than the traditional, and Christianity is a prophetic religion.
But a majority of religious believers and an even larger percentage of religious leaders will probably disagree with what I have just said. It is a very common (and quite clearly a too simplistic) notion that religion must (somehow) be complete, fixed, perfect. But is this not to confuse the objective/goal with the means. What is Religion? Religion must be that unusual and unique enterprise of getting individual human beings connected with God. God is complete, fixed, perfect, without fault–perhaps–but human beings helping other human beings find God, how can such an enterprise be perfect. Religion may be true, accurate, reliable, without being, of itself, perfect.
I am allowing that the sources of any religion may themselves be perfect, and certainly adequate to good and healthy religion. But interpretation of those written scriptures is always necessary, and interpretation is always a human activity, and therefore an activity which may be done better or worse. There can be no perfect interpretative synthesis. God provides the perfect source we may say, but not the perfect system of religion… But few will agree with such a notion of Limited Interpretation.
To try to make my case here against strong headwinds, I will make use of two interesting cases, cases of what I will call misguided canonization, mis-appropriate conferral of sainthood. And so the first story will begin with Solzhenitsyn, who was an army officer at the end of WWII when he made a passing and disparaging reference to Stalin, and as a result was sent off into Siberian exile. There he returned to the Orthodox faith, and began documenting the excesses of the Soviet gulag as writer, and as critic of Soviet communism. After living for only a few months in the West, rather than praising the West for its freedoms, in a Harvard graduation address he gave a prescient critique of our emergent American political-correctness. After the fall of Soviet communism he returned to his beloved Russia and its Orthodox religion and became something of a minor celebrity and hero, spending his last years writing about the years just prior to the Bolshevik Revolution, trying to understand how Russia could have fallen into such a terrible (political) mess. And also criticizing the Orthodox church’s canonization (or honoring as passion-bearer) of the last Russian czar, Nicholas II. This last czar may have been quite devout and devoted to his family, yes, but his primary obligation was political–to deal with the many problems then besetting Russia. In this he was certainly incompetent, and thus should not have been honored as having been a saintly man.
So for me, Solzhenitsyn himself is a saintly man because of his prophetic courage, and I easily go along with his judgement here about Nicholas II. But the larger matter here, and something which strangely, I find Solzhenitsyn to be missing, is the culpability of Orthodoxy itself. As armchair historian and theologian, I have no difficulty giving my opinion: In Russia, church and state are in a sort of symbiosis; they help each other. This is a valid Christianity, valid system. If Russia is floundering in the 1800s, trying to find its way politically under a very authoritarian political system, where at this critical juncture is Orthodox theology, Orthodox understanding; where is the intelligent religion required of each new generation of Christians? Solzhenitsyn seems to believe in a once-for-all perfect Orthodox religion! He does not consider that Orthodoxy must promote a better existential political awareness, suggest political guidance. He himself is an intellectual, but does not identify the intellectual incompetence of Russian Orthodoxy! Only return to pure Orthodoxy and in addition a healthy Russian nationalism! To a native Calvinist like myself this political-quietism as Christian viewpoint is difficult to fathom.
But I take this critique further. Orthodoxy must have deceived the astute Solzhenitsyn with its false religious claims that the Orthodox religion does not need to “change.” In my view, Orthodoxy’s over-reliance on Tradition as basic principle is quite dangerous, and must often result in an inadequate respect for the prophetic. Is this not what Paul of Tarsus admits as being the cause of his own great mistake, his initial rejection of Jesus and his persecution of the followers of Jesus. In his letter to the Galatians he admits that his mistake was a zeal for traditional religion, zeal for the religion of his fathers. Paul’s conversion, it must be, was from tradition-religion to a better sort of (non-tradition-based) Christianity.
My second case concerns John Henry Newman, an Anglican, a great scholar of patristics and early Christianity, someone living within the milieu of industrialization and the fast developing modern sciences, but someone who felt a particular need for greater certitude in religion. His quest leads him to Roman Catholicism where he becomes a cardinal, and after his death, declaration that he is Catholic saint.
In his often profound book on the development of Christian doctrine, he argues that there is an original deposit of revealed truth with Jesus and with NT Scripture, but subsequently, there is also need for a continuing Divine and providential determiner/decider of what is to be the correct interpretation of that original content. There will arise varying, differing opinions about what the Church should teach or believe, various possible suggested developments. The papacy seems quite well placed, he believes, as answer to this ongoing historical problem.
So, I myself also believe with Newman that there is an original deposit of revelation, Jesus and the New Testament writings. But of course, these writings themselves are already various individual interpreters of the significance of Jesus, interpreters whose writings we ourselves understand only via our continuing interpretative efforts. So there is a strange lacunae, a strange shallowness here in Newman’s thought it seems to me. He presumes a Church (and a teaching church) as a sort of once-for-all given. Just as Solzhenitsyn loved his Orthodoxy, so Newman, with his extensive historical grasp and expertise, strangely cannot envision anything other than a Western-Catholic-type Church as being genuine Christianity! But why, I ask, may not this original deposit develop into various valid forms of Christianity? Where does this promise, this expectation of religion as being one perfect and certain thing–where does this come from? Is this not a false expectation.
I have already said that I find Orthodoxy to be valid. I find Rome to be valid in its own way also. As a young Protestant I remember the moment when I was “convicted” by reading Newman’s sentence to the effect of saying… whatever history says about (fifteen centuries of Western history) “the Christianity of history is not Protestantism. If ever there were a safe truth, it is this.” And thus I do believe that all Protestants should come to own (as I do) this somewhat strange 1500 year history as their very own… But being a Protestant and thus quite familiar with Pauline writings (which are not really so extensive) it is quite easy to turn Newman’s point around a full 180 degrees. Whatever one wishes to make of those early years of Christianity as depicted in the Pauline letters, this early Christianity as depicted is not the Christianity of later Rome. This Apostle Paul apparently had a very minimal interest in what will become the authoritarian and institutional formalism of later Western Christianity. So if the New Testament is primary and original source, while later writers and traditions are secondary–as those must be it seems to me, the problem is still a problem of interpretation. How well does your interpretation fit (ALL of) the original Scripture sources (as well as, if possible, other sources). Is it as good as my interpretation.
If I have my facts correct here, Newman was told that the Papacy was considering establishing as dogma the doctrine of Papal Infallibility, and he was worried… until told that this would only apply to “faith and morals.” So, during Newman’s lifetime the Catholic Church does declare this doctrine as dogma, an idea which Newman had suggested as being quite plausible; appeasement perhaps to those who desire more religious certainty: The Pope can make no (ex cathedra) doctrinal mistake, ever.
In browsing the NT a few months ago, and this is a true story, I came across those few verses which are vaguely familiar to most Christians:
(Jesus, addressing the crowd:) Call no man rabbi, because for you there is only one teacher, and you are all brothers. Nor must you call anyone on earth father, since for you there is only one Father who is in heaven. And do not call anyone Instructor, for your instructor is the Christ.
Jesus here addresses the crowd, and after this will rattle off horrendous denunciations of the hypocrisy of contemporary Jewish leaders, scribes, pharisees. The obvious theological context for such denunciation is that Jesus expects and wishes his disciples to replace these faulty religious officials, but to do so his disciples must come up to certain high religious standards. Among these are the three principles given in the verses above. These are not suggested rules given to the disciples, they are principles given directly to the church as populous crowd: do not ever accept this type of presumptive claim to the existence of an official religious father, teacher, instructor.
I don’t know when the Catholic notion of Magisterium first came into prominence, and would guess offhand, early Middle Ages, but both Magisterium/(official teaching authority) and now Infallibility seem to me (as I re-read these verses in Matthew a few months ago) to directly run counter to the first and third “principles.”
Or, how might the Roman church walk back centuries of practice should it wish to more accurately keep the principle given in the second verse:
“Father.” (The priest glancing up and immediately intoning reflexively..)”Call no man on earth Father.” “What hours will the church be open next week?”
Matthew (in my opinion) does give definite support to a Roman type church and a Roman type Christianity since Matthew is about training leaders, is interested in authority, mentions eunuchs for the kingdom, the important of “teaching,” the one lost sheep out of a hundred parable being (in my interpretation) warning to future church leadership: you had better not loose even one of the sheep entrusted to you, etc. So as long as they, the Roman religious leadership, are able to avoid the more extreme sorts of religious hypocrisy, should we or should we not give them a pass on the three principles enunciated in the three verses above?
But Matthew is one only of four gospels. From a neglected gospel, Luke, I (quickly here) take up an even more controversial topic. Protestants give little attention to Mary the mother of Jesus. There are brief references in the New Testament to (–what must be younger) brothers of Jesus, or to James, brother of our Lord, who briefly, surprisingly seems to be given leadership of the Jerusalem church. But it is only Luke who tells the story of Mary; Luke who as historian may have spoken to Mary directly in conducting his research. And I would claim that in Luke’s intended theological emphasis, Mary, though female, is presented as ordinary-person example of (a democratic) Christian faith. Mary will need to figure things out, but she is willing to go along with some very unusual happenings.
So the angel says: Blessed are you among women…
And this has been used as prayer by generation after generation of Catholic believers; and the Orthodox in their liturgies regularly give Mary the honorific title, God-bearer, Theotokos. Rome, further, has made Mary doctrinal representative-symbol of the (lay) Church. But as I have mentioned, the only actual literary description which we have of Mary, this belongs to Luke’s gospel, and Luke wishes to hold up for our emulation a very plain, in fact poor, ordinary but somehow also very pious person. Is this, Luke’s Mary, possible also. If I myself am in fact able (with personal qualification) to benefit from both Roman and Orthodox devotion to Mary, can Christians in those traditions go along with devotion to a more democratic Mary, who may in fact have had other children later, and who, we can safely imagine, was troubled or confused for a significant number of years, but who is described by Luke as later being among the Christian believers at Pentecost?
My optimistic hunch is that most Christians in the pew, most ordinary (lay) believers may well be able to accept such variation, such plurality, (the pragmatic recognition of other versions of Christianity…) but Christian clergy are not ready for such relativism. Most religious leaders will insist–as being practical but absolute necessity: I can only teach one version of Christianity, this version, my version. We must all agree together what it is that we are going to teach. This is the one tradition which we all here represent as religious authorities and pastors.
But to continue on the topic of Mary. The doctrine of the bodily assumption of Mary to heaven was declared as infallible doctrine just before I was born. (Thank you, Wikipedia.) There is controversy over whether Mary 1. Did not die, 2. Died and body only was assumed to Heaven soon after, or 3. Died and then resurrected on the third day and was assumed to Heaven.
You know me already to be a fairly tolerant and native Protestant, and thus I might condone all of the above pieties, though would add immediately that the NT suggests that Jesus expected his apostles themselves to actually perform miracles, not just to certify as miracle legends that arise centuries after the death of Mary.
But in my commentary on the NT book of Hebrews, I suggest a possible theological reason for the assumption into heaven of Enoch as mentioned in Genesis. Sartre may be a die-hard existentialist, but a Biblical existentialism would not wish to see death per se, as necessarily accompanying the hardships and deprivations of the human condition. Then after Enoch, there is the assumption into heaven of Elijah by angelic chariots of fire. This must have a more definite theological significance: After a lifetime of running from Ahab and Jezebel and the priests of Baal, Elijah is given a few moments of respect. Bodily assumption to Heaven without passing through death is God-given certification of this person as being an exemplary, archetypal prophet.
So an assumption of Mary the mother of Jesus as is regularly celebrated in both Orthodox and Roman traditions, this must have significance also, theological meaning, although it is legendary rather than scriptural. What does such honor mean. Who is being honored?
I appreciate Jung as psychologist, though Jung was not Christian. ( Jung was placed by the Papacy on its list of forbidden ideas/authors; Protect the innocent.) But Jung was excited by the Roman dogma of the assumption of Mary because it would, he felt, help to redress an imbalance in the modern Western psyche, a sort of denigration of the feminine principle.
Is Mary honored, in effect, as representative of laity, the lay church, lay subordination and docility? Is Mary symbol and mystical means for Divine contemplation by human beings? Or–is there some connection with the OT assumption to heaven of Elijah? Is Mary among the prophets?
With the help of religious paintings we can imagine the scene. Mary is shocked by the presence of this Angel and the news delivered. She responds with the help of some Psalms she must have been familiar with:
He has shown strength with his arm. /He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their heart./He has put down princes from their thrones./And has exalted the lowly./He has filled the hungry with good things./He has sent the rich away empty…
My question is not whether or not Mary should be honored, my question is whether Mary was a theologian. Does Mary grasp enough of what is happening here that she is able to articulate a coherent if impromptu theological statement: This is democracy… Or does she only express grateful emotions?
Is not the assumption of Mary, a pious legend given approval by both Western and Eastern Orthodox traditions already in 451 CE–might this be a latent Jungian psychological recognition that with systematic and organizational consolidation taking in place in Christianity, essential elements may already have been neglected, that is, both the prophetic and democratic dimensions?
What is the point of this discussion of Mary. Only to show that there can be no one and final interpretation. In matters of secondary importance such as this, I believe that the faithful populace at large are able and willing to tolerate some variety, but I don’t believe that those religious leaders who are keepers of the various Christian traditions are in fact able to “tolerate” such variety.
And what is the point of the discussion about Solzhenitsyn and Newman. To show that religious caretakers are only too eager to promote and certify as good what I believe are unhealthy expectations about the perfectibility of religion. I believe that Limited Interpretation is a theoretical and technical point that must be maintained, must be accepted.
What is going on here. Is religion corrupt? Not necessarily, though there seems to be a significant and persistent inclination to make excessive claims. My best effort towards explaining this (unhealthy) tendency would be to talk about kung fu. A kung fu master can teach only one (or perhaps two or three..) types of kung fu. There simply is not enough time, humanly speaking, to become adept at, and to conscientiously practice more than this. Analogously, the religious shepherd has a serious responsibility, with serious negative consequences if this is done badly. The religious shepherd cannot be a solitary guru, nor be eclectic (spanning more than one tradition) but should best practice within one tradition. This limitation to one tradition makes the shepherd more trustworthy.
The kung fu teacher speaking to his students will likely praise his own style of kung fu. This style is the best, is the most effective, and is comprehensive–if only you practice it thoroughly. You don’t need anything else. Both student and teacher may well “believe” this, though both may still “know” that other kung fu schools may have some fairly good kung fu also…
But an ambitious student might ask: What about those techniques used by that other style of kung fu; aren’t those effective? In this situation the kung fu teacher must engage in a bit of dishonest promotion just to avoid circularity: If that other type of kung fu is better, master, why are you teaching this one?
On this kung fu analogy then, because religion is a discipline, a training, one needs to cut the shepherds some slack. This is certainly a weighty responsibility, and if religion is what it claims to be, the stakes here are very high. A little exaggeration in advertising may be unavoidable. And as to those other traditions, well–your shepherd will say–just forget about it. Practice this…
In copying down the verses from Matthew from a few paragraphs previously, I notice that just prior to the verses about rabbi, father, instructor, Jesus says to the crowd (and I paraphrase):
Listen to the (present-day) religious leaders and what they teach since they sit in the seat of Moses, but do not do as they do. … They speak but they don’t perform …
Is there any way to make interpretative sense of this? How does one believe in the truthfulness of the doctrine of someone whose life/actions don’t correspond to what they teach? The usual advice is that we should not listen to anyone whose actions betray their words. But I have a suggested interpretation here. While religious didacts may be one dimensional in their views, the lay audience is in fact (actually) more virtuous because they are not limited to one set of ideas, one system of taught doctrine. In telling the crowd to listen to what the religious teachers teach but not to rely on what they practice, perhaps Jesus is suggesting a concession to simple-minded teaching; a concession to one-dimensional doctrine. Pity the religious teachers because they must stick to one interpretative synthesis! You ordinary folk can still learn from such a one-dimensional presentation, even though you need not be one-dimensional in your own thinking!
Can this actually work as an interpretation? But those one-dimensional teachers will likely be lonely, and so will wish the laity to join them in such one-dimensionality. And many laypersons will be groupies rather than multi-dimensionally thinking individuals, and will feel most comfortable joining the one-dimensional crowd. And so an unhealthy expectation that religion must be simple, one-dimensional, fixed once-for-all, this immature desire (unfortunately) becomes prevalent, comes to be taken as normal…
Is the teaching specifically of religious doctrine then, a unique but “messed up” type of teaching? Doctrine must be one-dimensional, but you can still learn from it. This would be a strange conclusion.
But it remains a fact that religious leaders are loath to admit–ever–that they represent only one tradition, one possible version of Scriptural interpretation. Kung fu is a discipline, they will argue, but religion is about truth. (Notice how they now want to switch back from practical to theoretical.) But is this truth in essentials, or in non-essentials, we ask in reply.
Motives which I or anyone else might have for support of my own religious tradition are all to human (both on the good side and the bad side): desire to make my tradition as systematic and as extensive as possible, desire for success with a large numbers of adherents, desire (for the sake of pragmatic-promotion) to claim that more certainty is present in the non-essentials than ought to be claimed, desire to sustain and maintain this tradition through time by promoting the idea that it is fixed, complete, pure and perfect, etc.
This is a strange situation. We admit philosophically that religion is important; We admit that shepherds for very good reasons will be limited to practice and transmission of one tradition; We admit that religious officials claim to teach the truth. (If, philosophically speaking, all religions are false, if no religion has any truth, then we are all existentially in a very bad place. Where else do we look for possible answers about God, human destiny. Do-it-yourself religion is not likely to be reliable.) A religion will (naturally) claim to have truths about God, human destiny, etc., and will officially teach such truths, else how can it offer itself as being a religion? But must each and every version, each and every tradition, claim exclusive rights to define what is true and helpful, claim that they have and will always have the only genuine religious package!
My conclusion after all of this discussion is that religions do seem to have an endemic fault, a strong tendency to unhealthy emphasis. Genuine acceptance of 1. Essentials, and 2. Limited Interpretation, would go far towards averting this endemic shortcoming, but there is little interest among religious caretakers in consistently applying these principles. But this does not necessarily mean that religion is fundamentally faulty, corrupt, because of this tendency. It only means that religion has a very strong tendency to make exaggerated claims.
Religion is a unique, strange and dangerous business/service; individuals here are claiming to help other individuals re-connect with (a personal) God. But the serious customer should be forewarned about excessive and grandiose claims that will likely be made: Don’t believe such claims. Just let them pass you by…
And to the person with genuine interest in religion, this tendency in religion should not keep you away. You may be exactly that sensible and innocent person which religion needs in order to help to restore it, religion, to a better balance at this point!
3. But religions also seems to have a very, very difficult time with principle number three, the necessity for an ongoing intellectual task, continuing philosophical-theological interpretation. Yes, there may exist a written scriptural repository of all relevant truth, and yes, human nature may remain largely unchanged, but in my opinion religion must be about helping persons now, within present-day exigencies. As the world in which we live changes, interpretations should quite naturally be sought so as to help us, the faithful, at present. Therefore intelligent Christians must regularly and constantly engage in this enterprise, else the religion must become stagnant, moribund. It may seem strange to demand that this thing, religion, must progress, change, but this is not a change in essentials, it is only a change in how essentials and non-essentials are applied intellectually in relation to the ideas, the idols, the living conditions of the present moment. Why is this so strange or difficult as requirement? Certainly, religion ought to be more like a live (social) organism than a product. We can go to a museum to enjoy the art of earlier centuries, we can also fall back on tradition in religion, but if there is no significant present-day art coming into existence, if there is no helpful new theological interpretative adjustment, well, this is an unhealthy situation.
Protestantism arrived with a bang. Within sixty years is was a great success. Apparently, large numbers of Europeans were well enough indoctrinated into the basic truths of Christianity that they could see the validity of the interpretation which was being offered by these early Protestants. (And Rome, it seems to me, has never yet accepted the basic validity of the Protestant version of Christianity…And visa versa of course. Eastern Orthodoxy tends to see both of those as being still in a sort of psychologically dysfunctional contest, both denying, for example, the reality of the mystical…)
But I promised to try to be fair and balanced, to spread the blame around evenly. This third section must aim to understand why Protestantism, having been born via interpretative revolution, spends its next four hundred years regurgitating only, and consolidating the interpretations of Luther and Calvin rather than taking seriously the need for an ongoing and continuing interpretation. And one reason for neglect of ongoing intellectual work is an all too human circumstance: success. Now that Apple Computer has had great success with its products, will it become another IBM? Protestants had what seemed to be a simple formula which was working very well. So, consolidate. But interpretation as consolidation easily becomes bad, defensive, self-serving rather than philosophical and ongoing.
Protestants would not have had much success without the Apostle Paul, but it seems to me now that by turning Paul into a source of doctrine, and at the same moment refusing to try to understand the two higher gifts which Paul embodied and which he recommends to all: apostle, prophet, Protestants miss what may be most important in Paul. Paul was not a teacher and pastor I would say, rhetorically, rather, he was (as should be obvious to anyone reading his letters…) a living model for what I am advocating here as number three, continuous interpretation. He writes to not-so-highly educated Christians, but he is always delivering to such persons theological principle derived from his own theological interpretation of Scripture. He is intellectually engaged with all of the things which impinge on Christian faith and his main desire was to give this intellectual and apologetic assistance to individual Christians. Not to build churches so much as to have others directly imitate him, Paul, in this zeal–for a prophetic rather than a doctrinally based Christianity.
Again, it seems to me that Paul did not have only one gospel but many versions and adaptations of the same. Protestants follow Mark’s gospel and a simple kerugma, gospel sketch, and then regularly over-simplify. This is certainly unhealthy. For example, propitiatory sacrifice is important. The cross is important. A presumably quite worldly-minded Roman soldier is so shocked by the death of Jesus that he proclaims what both Jew and worldly-minded have difficulty saying: This person was Son of God. So sacrifice is an important theme in Mark. But at what seems to me to be a climactic point in the narrative–does not Mark as author subsume this to another context which has no possible priestly or sacrificial context, with his introduction of the phrase, Give his life as ransom for many? (Subsume–meaning that there remain two themes that cannot be fused, simplified, with one being more important than the other.) A desire to simplify must not become excuse for failure to engage in continuing interpretation.
But there is an even more serious problem here. The belief that simple formula is possible in religion. Formula may have been feasible in the heat of a battle for survival versus a prevalent and imperial Roman Christianity, but formula does not make for good long-term religion. Paul uses the Greek word for justification quite often, but most of Paul’s potential customers are located around the Mediterranean where Roman governance and Roman notions of law/justice are becoming increasingly important within that contemporary milieu. Paul also talks about economic forgiveness of an IOU, or reconciliation, etc., as these notions suit his purposes. But if one is stuck on formula, stuck on interpretation that only reinforces traditional formula, obviously one will not benefit from other interpretations which might be of more benefit to present-day faith.
From three verses in Matthew Catholics may have their formula about Peter and the keys, but Protestants tend to favor a single phrase only (!) as formula, an obscure phrase from Exodus: priesthood of all believers. This phrase might seem to combine into one consolidated conception both democratic and priestly meanings. But I would insist that this is theological confusion, an illegitimate over-simplification. But is simplification so bad? Yes, simplification can be very bad if bad interpretation is involved. Bad interpretation allows one of fixate on whatever one would prefer to see, and prevent what I am asking for: new interpretation, continuing interpretation.
But let me try a Protestant-leaning interpretation of Peter and the keys:
Jesus asks the disciples, Who do people say that I am?; Who do you say that I am?
Peter says, You are the Christ, the Son of God.
Jesus says: Blessed are you Simon because flesh and blood has not revealed this to you. You will be (called/named) Rocky and on this rock I will build my assembly (of believers, or my church)… And I give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven…
What does Jesus envision here as to future organization or governance with regard to his later followers? This must be the basic question. Is Peter simply and in fact the rock on which one entity, one church will be built, and is there only one set of keys given exclusively to Peter which perhaps he may then pass along–to the next, what, governmental head? But if so, this is a very quick and sketchy transfer/establishment of authority or authority-structure. And minimizes the confession.
Perhaps rather, Peter here and historically makes the first explicit confession/essential statement of Christian belief. And on this initial and exemplary confession as example the later collection(s) of believers will be built. It is not so much Peter who is important as the fact that he has been enlightened by God, as all later members of the Christian church must also be enlightened, converted by God.
Any definitive group will require the right to determine members; keys. Heaven will respect such later group determinations as made by certified, believing Christians.
And the implication as well must be: If you Peter want to be a leader, go ahead, since you have identified the one essential element, the essential membership confession.
But I will build my assembly-church. You will only administer it…
So, a looser, non-specific interpretation may be possible along such lines, but then why the pun on rock, petra(feminine noun) and Peter’s Greek name, Petros. Why does Jesus insert a pun between (and connecting) enlightened confession and a foundation of some kind to be built upon? Whether this is direct or more indirect talk about confession, group authority or leadership, these are important issues. Why not keep the pun out of this?
My suggested interpretation will be that Jesus wishes to introduce complexity. That neither of the above simplifications is good. That complexity is good and necessary–because the realities here remain complex. (I am not wandering off track; I am arguing that only by avoiding simplification in interpretation can we get better and more helpful present-day interpretation..)
My suggestion would be that Jesus is deliberately alluding to (and extending maybe) a very important Old Testament pun, play on words which ought to be familiar to all in the Jewish or Christian traditions; 2Samuel 7:1-17 and 1Chronicles 17:1-27. King David is considering whether to begin building a temple building. Yahweh’s message is delivered to him by a prophet: You David will not build it, but, Yahweh himself will, in effect, build two “houses,” temple and royal dynasty. And with both of these houses, another person, Solomon, will actually have more immediate association than you, David. Present here is the issue of institution/establishment within religion. Both the individual character of a king and the institutions of temple-with-dynasty are important dimensions/versions of OT religion. The OT scripture includes two parallel histories, one interested in the temple, the other most interested in the character of individual kings; Chronicles, Samuel-Kings. Both are important. And so while Jesus would fulfill both sides of the OT pun about “house,” Jesus’ followers will still live in a multi-faceted world. Like Yahweh’s pun on house, Jesus’ pun on rock-as-foundation must indicate a complexity which must be accepted, cannot be simplified, on this topic of establishment/institution of religion. This is my suggestion.
Any religious tradition , then, which prefers to oversimplify, which avoids complexity, which avoids the difficulties of continuing interpretation, which avoids the task of philosophical-intellectual engagement with ideas outside of religion is not dead–but dormant. And so for the person with an interest in religion, be on the lookout for better quality, for religion that is not stale. If you find such, this will be religion that is intellectually alive because it takes seriously this necessity of Continuing Interpretation. Contemporary fads, issues, topics, causes are not interpretation. Interpretation is trying to find in an original Scripture whatever might contribute towards improved understanding.
Copyright 2020 pkragt
Chapter III. Biology: Which is true, evolution or creation? Alice was impressed with the Queen’s boast that she could sometimes believe six impossible things before breakfast. Interpreters will point out that Wonderland is a dream world, and such feats are much harder to achieve in the real world… In this chapter I will attempt a difficult feat, that is, to demonstrate that it is possible for someone (myself) to believe in both evolution and creation at the same time. This will involve me in an intellectual effort in which I may or may not be successful (the reader must decide,) but successful or not, this is exactly the sort of difficult thing with which intellectuals tend to occupy themselves. I make this attempt, it must be, because I am an intellectual. I aim high. And to that degree to which I may be successful, my secondary agenda here–(since this is a chapter about Biology)–will be to critique biologists. Why are you, biologists, so anti-philosophical! (So before taking up this intellectual feat, I spend some time with this rhetorical critique.)
Most biology texts which I have come across will include a short and invariably poorly written treatment of creationism and/or intelligent design as being unfairly opposed to that genuine science which is biological evolution. But is it really so hard (I ask the biologist, rhetorically) to distinguish science proper from philosophical notions from religious belief? It really shouldn’t be. I myself, for example, believe in the Christian notion of Divine creation but I don’t wish to be labeled a “creationist.” Creationists themselves don’t bother me. Creationists must be those people who harass biologists exactly because they feel defensive about having their religious beliefs attacked by advocates of evolution. Are you biologists doing this? Are you attacking the religious beliefs of creationists? Are you claiming that Divine creation is actually impossible, or are you merely claiming that evolution-science describes a development of life that arises only from material sources. In order to answer this last question you need to be honest with yourselves as persons, and then write a better textbook paragraph about what is involved in this creationist situation: Religion and science base their respective claims to knowledge on different things… Biological evolution suggests but does not ultimately prove (or does it actually philosophically prove…?) that life has only material cause… Intelligent Design is at best be a research program… And philosophy is that other helpful discipline which students will need to turn to help them better distinguish between, science, traditional or religious beliefs, etc…
According to my own terminology (which I also suggest for more general usage), a fundamentalist Christianity is a (fairly common and) anti-intellectual mode of religious belief: I have my given beliefs and I don’t really consider it necessary or even desirable to immediately engage with other intellectual realms such as biological science. As for myself, I consider this to be a serious fault in any religion, and plan at least one chapter within which to address bad religion, unhealthy religion, nanny religion. But my rhetorical question in this third chapter is for those on the other side, the biological scientists: Do you or do you not tend to engage in a similar “retreat to biology” when you are threatened or perplexed, rather than actively engaging with the intellectual world at large on philosophical and (optionally–) religious grounds. It seems to me that Einstein, for example, had little difficulty in being able to keep his humanism and/or his ideas about God separate from his specific physics.
I am told that certain Buddhists who think philosophically about their religion are attracted to the indeterminacy of quantum physics. It seems congruent with their religious beliefs! Similarly, Big Bang physics actually feels comfortable to persons who believe in a Divine creation. Science-theory therefore doesn’t prove or disprove this or that religious belief, but sometimes the science and the religious ideas are comfortable together and sometimes less so. And while physicists may or may not believe in God, most cosmologists I would observe, are well enough aware that they are operating at the limits of philosophically mysterious concepts, that is, time, matter and energy, the whole of the material universe coming into being… They will feel free to philosophize about these big concepts, mysticize about them if they wish, and then return to trying to achieve some scientific results. And should cosmologists in a near future come up with a major adjustment to Big Bang theory which incorporates dark mater or dark energy (just as relativity and quantum mechanics were major tweaks to Newtonian determinism…) these same physicists will certainly enjoy working on such a new/modified physics. (Various persons who believe in a Divine creation of the universe might be less happy to see significant adjustments to the Big Bang theory.)
Why is it all so different in biology, or with evolution as a science-theory? One reason it seems to me, is that evolution is such a big, big, big, theory within biology as science. Evolution imaginatively, developmentally, theoretically, historically and programatically unifies all living things (as well as biologists themselves, apparently…) into one whole, such that it seems demeaning to talk about evolution as being a mere theory, mere hypothesis, mere generalization. Evolution is actually, I admit, supported in many and various ways, not least by the DNA which is common to all living organisms, the random mutation of which would be implicated in the mechanism of biological evolution. Or, for example, as present-day research continues and as the intricacies of how genes operate to manage molecular production within cells, as this comes to be better understood, this also will tend to support evolution as theory. But (…and I speak as non-scientist…) why are evolutionary biologists so hesitant to admit that there is still controversy, that there are still loose ends to be tied up with regard to the basic mechanism of speciation itself. And/or, one may ask, why the need for a defensive rhetoric, as when Ernst Mayr, obviously a thoroughly complete biological-expert, states in his book “What Evolution Is,” that evolution is not theory but fact. Factual perhaps would make for a more grammatical sentence, as in: Evolution is factually true. But please, if biological evolution is science, it is still and always will be a (well supported, well established) theory rather that a fact as such. (Unless fact has a different meant in biology…) To use the word fact in this manner is to imitate those bigoted or dogmatic creationists…
I answer my own rhetorical question about why biologists tend to be less philosophical than physicists as follows: This reticence on the part of biologists must be because, while physics and cosmology also connect with certain great mysteries (time, mater, the beginning of the universe), biology makes contact with even more ultimate and more important mysteries than either physics or chemistry: What is life, What is man, What is society; What are human beings?
Man is an animal, perhaps an unusual animal, but still the product of chance induced biological process. We are scientists, we are biologists, and we are the only scientific experts who can explain this fundamental and animal dimension of man. If there is to be any modern-day science-dependent humanism, well, it must start here. Only we as biologists have the right to give this initial (if minimal and) basic definition of man. And thus it strikes me, someone whose humanism would be based elsewhere, (in religion/philosophy/history)–it strikes me that biologists are sitting on their good luck. In this age of science they have the goods, they maintain effective control over this minimal definition of what human beings are, and they don’t seem to feel that they need to philosophically develop or defend anything.
It happens that I don’t travel much in English speaking intellectual circles, and so don’t have opportunity to ask people about their fundamental beliefs, but my guess is that the great majority of modern Western intellectuals will espouse a certain degree of humanistic belief, and if asked to point out where this is based, where it begins, they will point to the theory/doctrine/notion of evolution. For many of these same persons, I would guess, giving intellectual allegiance to Evolution implicitly functions to clear away outmoded religious or traditional solutions–in favor of science, in favor of (they believe, what must be) better beliefs about man and about society and about the world. Beliefs which accede a foundational priority to science. But the problem here, as I see it, (and few may believe me) is that just as in chapter two I argued that the social sciences are not really sciences, so here I would claim that a biological foundation to humanism, man as animal product of naturalistic evolutionary process–this sort of flimsy and nebulous foundation, is completely inadequate as basis or foundation for a sound and democratic modern humanism.
It seems to me that beginning with this animal-like philosophical foundation one might next throw on, add to the basket almost anything else–and still call this mess humanism. But this is bad thinking, bad philosophy. An arbitrary humanism must be both dishonest and dangerous… But enough with this preliminary rhetorical discussion and on with the main task of trying to believe both creation and evolution; and I begin with analysis of the first three chapters of Genesis.
A theological-philosophical description of a Divine creation of our material universe would say that God is an unseen and all powerful being who at some moment causes our familiar material universe to come into being… This might makes it sound as if the idea of Divine creation is something which can be grasped within a simple and easy image… But how is creation ever a simple or an easy idea? An unseen being, a moment in eternity, things appearing where previously there was nothing. All of these are beyond our ordinary human capacities of imagination and comprehension. My first point would be, then, that creation is a very abstract happening; creation ought not to be though of as being an easy, simple, literalize-able notion or doctrine. Anyone who explains these Genesis accounts in a way that is too simplistic is certainly missing a majority of the intended meaning.
As quick example, the first sentence begins (When) God created the heaven and the earth… And then various things happen on the seven days which make up this chapter. But why, for example, does an all powerful God need to rest on day seven? I would suggest that better than seeing this chapter as informational documentary for human consumption–it may be a story-narrative about God himself, thus implying/suggesting not that God was actually tired, but that the meanings of creation ultimately remain with him, with God. Not working on the Sabbath would allow human beings opportunity to get back in touch with creation as well as with the purposes that remain hidden within the creator.
And a similar but important point about overly-literalistic days: Yes, there are seven days here, but there is also the repeated phrase: it was evening and it was morning–this phrase suggesting to me that we ought not just to be counting. Better would be to think of these as periods of time. (The sun and moon are not created until the fourth day, after all). I would argue that Christian scripture-writers when talking about the beginning times (as here) or the end times/ages, are thinking about quality. These are times, time-periods that are beyond our ordinary and everyday grasp since they approach…what–eternity, and therefore what is most theologically important is their differing quality. The named persons in the early chapters of Genesis who live six hundred years, would be human beings–but these human beings are living in a different kind of time; time must have had a different feel for them.
Within day-period one God first says: Let there be light. Then separates light from dark. Then creates a heaven/firmament between the waters on day two. Then dry land, and “Let the earth sprout vegetation…” (Some of these are fruit trees, and so there will be no way of meshing the order of creation here with Darwinian evolution, where bacteria and fish come first and angiosperm plants later.) On the fifth day: Let the waters swarm… and let birds fly above…“ On the sixth day God says: Let the earth bring forth living creatures. And on the sixth day also man is created. Man does not get a separate day. But man is planned, the text says, in the image of God, whatever this may mean: Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. Man is told to multiply and is to have dominion over other animals and “all the earth,” but on day five the fish and sea creatures are similarly told to multiply, etc., while on day four the moon is created to have “dominion” over the night. I don’t have time to check whether the Hebrew word here is the same as dominion given to man, but you may get the main idea here, which is that these seven days offer no simple, straightforward, literalistic meanings. Both the waters and the earth are to bring forth living things, but God is also said simply to have created these living things. And in the following two chapters which is a narrative of the first human couple eating the forbidden fruit and causing some sort of serious moral-existential catastrophe for mankind, this story begins with re-telling of the creation of man, land animals, and birds (!) out of dust, as if God is now a human ceramicist. Then this more anthropomorphic God breathes onto the first man to quicken him, this God is apparently able to walk and talk with the first couple in this idyllic garden, forms Eve out of a rib taken from the first man, etc. The tree of the knowledge of good and evil which is central to this story–Has anyone explained this yet! I very much doubt it. I would guess that Western traditions will moralize this, as if to mean an awareness of moral action. But good, evil, as Nietzche may have complained, these are certainly more than morality! (When I have more time for some theological research I may take up this question myself.) But the point here is similar to the point above–the theological or cosmological meanings are not simple and are not neat and tidy. Rather, one might complain that there are too many partially understood (mysterious..) theological meanings included in these texts!
The “people of the book,” Christians, Muslims, Jewish believers, will doctrinally simplify all of this to three statements: 1. An all powerful God brought our universe into existence. 2. This God also created or is responsible for the coming into existence of all living creatures. 3. Man also is one of these created living beings, but man also has some sort of unique place/purpose/connection vis a vis this creator God.
And this last doctrine, is this so strange? Religious texts, it must be, are made for the benefit or use of human beings. But can I, can anyone believe these three doctrines and also believe that Darwinian biological evolution is a true account of the origin of life on this planet?
Well, number one is easy, a no-brainer. The Big Bang makes this easy because it envisions a beginning to time, matter, energy; the material universe comes out of a pre-physics Nothing. It describes a beginning of the universe which has abstract similarities to theological creation.
The second and third doctrines will be more difficult to make compatible intellectually with the beginnings as described by evolution because biology explains all lifeforms on earth as developing from one initial living cell, and all of this taking place over some two to three billion years. And–what causes the first living cell as well as the subsequent variety of organisms will be purely material (chemistry, physics-type) causes, plus chance. Chance mutations in DNA. If I offer a Creator God who already knows how physical and chemical laws work, who begins the process and then lets material causes take over, this can’t work, because this has God second-guessing chance mutations. Chance must be chance. Chance must be respected. (But I also recall that many creation myths do give chance a role. And on the first day in Genesis, after God creates heaven and earth, the initial situation is described as formless, with darkness over the face of the waters such that chaos seems to be given initial recognition in Genesis.)
In writing my commentary on Luke-Acts a few years ago (available as a Kindle ebook) I claimed that the throwing of lots by the eleven apostles in attempting to find a replacement for Judas (who had committed suicide..), that this employment of chance was theological. That is, (and I am serious here), this detail indicates that these religious pioneers and religious leaders recognized that they could be very sincere, they could fervently pray that God the Father might help them, they might narrow down the candidate list, but throwing lots indicated their (theological) belief that this was beyond their power to control. In other words, it was beyond their comprehension and control. Having been chosen by Jesus, and having carefully prayed for divine help, how could God the Father NOT influence the dice so that the best candidate was selected. But NO! The meaning here (I claim) is that they accept chance (!) and therefore cannot presume that in this instance God the Father will produce a result in accord with human intentions or wishes. Theologically, they cannot know how God the Father is affected, and so can never know whether they were in fact significant contributors to an important event. God perhaps chooses the less desirable candidate here because these eleven were already inclined in a wrong direction, etc.
Chance theologically also provides a similar curb to presumption in the OT book of Joshua. As a priestly sort of army the Israelites secure the boundaries of the land promised centuries before to Abraham, and then there is a ceremony of some sort in which lots, dice, are thrown to determine which areas will be allocated to which tribes. And this same inheritance-via-lot procedure is in Christianity. The saints don’t have a direct hold on any one part of heaven, but will be given their individual inheritances only through chance, only as the result of random turnout.
Thus I do take chance seriously, as well as theologically, but must ask at this point, what does chance mean to you, (biologist) and the purveyor of a chance-induced origin to life. That is, is your notion of chance, like mine, self limiting, I can’t understand this…, or does your notion of chance require/compel a non-Theistic context. How metaphysical is this notion of chance biological (mutation). This would be a philosophical question. Does chance mutation preclude the existence of God?
In studying up on the topic of evolution I searched for recommended books, and Richard Dawkins’ Blind Watchmaker was well recommended, and so I bought a Kindle copy. And I do think that the author’s basic approach in this book is persuasive and convincing. Darwinian evolution does allow the atheist who is awed by biological complexity to be intellectually fulfilled. Fulfillment here refers to the so-called Argument from Design. Where does all of this surprising complexity come from? It comes as the result of an almost miraculous process of chance mutation plus natural selection. This has produced the complexity. And though improbable, this is what we have; this is were we are. We grasp both this great process of evolution as being surprising and improbable because based on strictly natural, physical causes, and also grasp a bit of our own humanistic situation: we are animals, but animals who appreciate, who are aware of this majestic process.
I myself would see the Argument from Design as an existential argument rather that a strictly verbal or logical argument. Persons who don’t get out into nature, who don’t experience nature, who don’t attend in a disinterested manner to nature, these will not be convinced. (Do farmers or fishermen find this argument compelling?) But I do find it quite compelling or persuasive as arguing that somewhere, somehow beyond my experience of these various interesting and convoluted nature-phenomena there plausibly is a Deity. And though I can in some degree share Mr. Dawkin’s enraptured vision of chance explaining natural complexity according to Darwinian process, I myself still may still feel some continuing pull from this argument just because it is an existential argument. The argument is not removed, not disposed of, it doesn’t go away if evolution-theory partially satisfies it–does it? It seems to me that Mr. Dawkins steals the design argument from the theologians (and why not–they don’t own it) and finds it (partially–at least) fulfilled through Darwinian evolution: chance, chemical laws, environment working together to build up some very complex organisms. And Mr. Dawkins himself does, head on, tackle certain philosophical topics in this book. But the technical and philosophical question I must pose for him here is, whether or not biology and its central conception of evolution allows or does not allow that there may still exist a Deity beyond; beyond chance… If I will allow that chance must limit, must cloud my apprehension of a theological sort of notion, that is, that my notion of Divine creation of animal life must also include/allow for an awareness of biological and evolutionary chance… is Biology itself similarly limited by chance: Animal life is not fully explained by chance plus Darwinian evolution; animal life is still and shall always remain something of a mystery? The question seems to be, who gets to to define/control chance? –But if neither biology nor religion are allowed to control chance, then doesn’t this leave God as possible arbiter of chance, as well as hypothetical, at least, originator of all life…
I find that what I am up against is simple-mindedness–on both sides. Both sides want to simplify, and both sides also want to have the last (and only word) on the issue. But question number three, the creation of man, is this really as contentious as it seems! Both sides, it seems to me now, are approaching this topic, the first man, from opposite sides, but does either approach actually have a definitive and comprehensive right to claim to truly or exclusively define what this entity, man, is?
Biology describes a primate evolution: chimpanzees and gorillas with long arms, then bipedal hominids coming out of the trees and using fire or brain-smarts to ward of the lions and jackals, then many years later, Neanderthals with a much larger brain and stone tools but little further progress for 50,000 years, then (40,000 BCE) early (Cro-magnon type) humans (!) with slightly smaller brains but cave paintings, rituals. When does pre-man become man? Biology must work on this question, but it also seem obvious and clear to me that once pre-man becomes man then biology can no longer talk authoritatively or exclusively about this same entity. I (along with most ordinary persons on the street…) believe that while man is an animal, man is also somehow significantly more (philosophically-speaking) than other animals. If I claim that man has this or has that certain quality or ability which animals do not, well, biologists will reject my supra-animal-claim. Biologists will never allow me to add anything to man the animal. Evolution produces only animals, only organisms, and there can come into existence no “special” animals. But this very prohibition must, in fact, operate both ways. To talk about human beings either comprehensively or philosophically (I myself would claim) we must leave biology-land. And leave science as well–if we aim to be comprehensive. In my view, the sciences exist among the humanities.
At the juncture where pre-man becomes man, it seems to me that we slip out of biology. Biology can describe man’s animal ancestry, and in part aim to describe this transition itself, and describe the first human beings, but with its partial grasp of these first humans, this is where biology ends, where biology looses its jurisdiction.
On the other side, Genesis recognizes a commonality between land animals, birds and human beings in that each are formed by the creator-God from dust. But Genesis, it becomes clear, is not interested in pre-man as hypothetical possibility, but only in subsequent prospects for this unique entity, man. The second account in Genesis briefly describes man as an entity in close connection with God, walking with Him in the garden, but after this brief time, man is the entity who will require religion and remediation to get back to the possibility of that original positive religious status. Genesis, (no surprise here since it is a religious text), claims that man is an entity capable of religion, of connection with an all powerful God, and the first man actually existed momentarily in a quite idyllic religious situation, in the Garden of Eden, but the first couple themselves ruined this situation. So far, this primary interest and emphasis is religious.
Adam naming the animals, well, this correlates quite well, doesn’t it, with what science tends to say about the importance human language. And the image and likeness of God, well, this is a phrase only, a phrase which has metaphysical possibilities certainly, but lacking context–a phrase which is more philosophically suggestive than reliable as specifying specific content, specific conceptual definition as to what this entity man is. (In Christian belief, Jesus is God and man, and an image (quite literally in this case) of God the Father. But still an image. An image is not easily convertible into a series of propositions but remains an image. Thus what does it mean exactly, that Jesus is image of the Father?) As well, God is said to form from dust the birds, land animals and man, but breathes only into man. Without further context being given, this detail here is also inadequate it seems to me, to form the textual basis for significant claims about how man might metaphysically surpass the birds and other animals. At best, it is tenuously suggestive…
But how can this metaphysical story-incident in which man looses a momentary idyllic status and becomes aware of his problematic situation and his need for remedial religion–how can such an occurrence be considered to be historical (!) in the ordinary meanings of that term, history. Maybe I have already lost a few of my readers who are afraid that I am now about to argue for a short-earth-history. I am not. But I am going to argue for short (5000 year, or so..) “modern” history. That is, I do believe (philosophically) that a historical consciousness is one of the traits which essentially defines what man is. And this consciousness receives a serious boost with the introduction of written languages only a few thousand years ago. History does begin with written language which gives us the ability to re-enter the milieu of other peoples via what they have written down.
So we imagine Moses, trained in the sophisticated written language, culture and multiple-priesthood religious-views of Egypt, but inspired to put into writing the oral legends and beliefs of his own Hebrew ancestors–as Genesis. That first chapter is the beginning/generation of all things in the universe at large as imagined in seven eras of time. The remaining chapters of Genesis are a history of man which begin with one first man. With his genealogical listings, X begat Y who begat Z…, Moses, who already lives in times of Middle-Eastern written history–is claiming to be able to go back to one initial and historic man. And while we may well suspect that he has fudged these lineages, he has left out quite a few of the human links somewhere, still his theological claim would be based on a history-claim. The claim is that all humans do begin from one man/couple and after this first couple there exists a subsequent and historical continuity of human generations. All men are the same because they exist in one human history with one human ancestor.
But what kind of history is selected for historical narration in Genesis? The expulsion of the first couple from Eden as well as almost all later events have moral-religious significance. And we must allow that if this is really history, this is murky history. We cannot easily empathize with an earliest age of human “history” in which humans live six hundred years. These are supposedly human beings also with human consciousness of human history, but their kind of history is not our kind of history.
The history of prophetic religion is described in Genesis as beginning with Abraham, who is told to leave the commercial civilization of Mesopotamia and its accounting-language and live in a new and sparsely populated area, where, generations later, a better and a godly civilization will be encouraged to flourish. These patriarchs must have lived in a somewhat idyllic (pre-modern) historical mode in which written language, at best, was rudimentary, maybe only for written contracts… Moses writes down these important historical accounts via oral transmission. And being himself involved in the events of Exodus and Sinai, etc., Moses writes down (in some written script) the Exodus history, the laws of Leviticus, and the exhortations of Deuteronomy with their interest in a better civilization to come. (At least this would be the authorship claim made within the Pentateuch itself.)
But with the Genesis genealogies, the claim would be that Moses can reach back through an increasingly murky human past and make contact with one initial set of human beings! What an audacious claim! But then, if the all important transition from pre-human to human occurred during Cro-magnon times for example, this must involve more generations than Moses lists, but still (only) 40,000 years ago. Not long compared with the 3,500,000,000 years which biologists claim that they are able to surmount in order to make definite contact with one solitary and singlar first living cell. There is only one, there can only be (according to this theory…) one tree of life which has led up to recent hominids… Can both of these outrageous claims be true–at the same time? Evolution describes the “history” of life up to and including the transition to man, and then Moses takes over. I think that I’ve solved it Toto.
Just as thinking Christians of the 1800’s are shocked by the sudden appearance of an intellectual competitor to the doctrine of creation where before there had been few serious competitors, so it seems to me that science needs to take seriously my (philosophical, not religious) claim and contention that human history, ordinary short-term written-type history, is more fundamental to who we are as human beings, more foundational for humanism, than can be a science history. Science history is an addition to ordinary human history-consciousness and not the other way around. This because science history is one dimensional, while humane history is variegated, of many possible dimensions, qualities.
Science history is magnificent in its range. The first milliseconds of time have a sequence of particles/energy coming into this then that configuration. Later, stellar evolution takes millions and billions of years. Supernova explosions provide the necessary carbon atoms. Sun and earth coalesce after another trillion seconds. Plate tectonics on earth move the continents around through the oceans. And complex lifeforms develop through the life, death and recycling of the carbon atoms of trillions of generations of these same organisms and animals. The five thousand years of added human history are less than a millionth of the total seconds of this vast and larger “history” as now described for our appreciation by physicists and biologists. But while many modern men who are accustomed to scheduling their time by the second might consider the second-based unidimensional modern science mode to be superior, to be more fundamental and inclusively larger, I would insist that it must be the other way around. Science-time is a stunning addition as a mode of history awareness, but yet a one-dimensional addition. More fundamental to modern democratic and philosophical humanism, I insist, must be ordinary and qualitative short-term 5000 year human history awareness. Captain Cook “discovering” the Australian continent, that is, is more immediate to who we are, than either the oral history of many generations of Aboriginal peoples, or the untold generations of animal mutations needed to fit the niches of the Australian biosphere with marsupials. Man must certainly loose some closeness to nature when gaining other benefits from written language, but that is where we are.
So my preference for a single cause which causes the transition from humanoid to human would be the art consciousness which first appears 40,000 years ago. There was one first Adam here, we may be sure, who went into a dark cave with some prepared materials, and in the dark felt the cave walls, and then from an imagined memory externalizes that specific inner image from earlier in the day by drawing an animal on the wall. When the lights are turned on, lit, man is born out of this new procedure of artistic externalization. Once this first human person (seriously) has helped a few others to understand art, once there exist a small nexus of art-aware persons, then language of the human sort may develop. Not just sounds signifying specific things, but words freely put together to follow the composition/construction of imagined image.
And so who can deny that art might today still be an important mode of “knowledge” by means of which human beings see what human beings are. Arts and literature depict for consumption an image of the good and bad that human beings are capable of. And along with science (of course) but more importantly, philosophy and history, (and maybe religion also), these help us understand and define what man is, what society might be, what a modern democratic humanism should be.
Thirteen Easy Answers to the World’s Most Difficult Questions
Chapter II. What are the social sciences? It seems to me that the most significant phenomenon of the the last three hundred years of human history has been the growth of natural science, that is, physics, chemistry, modern biology. Not the industrial revolution, not colonialism or globalization, not two world wars. When Galileo and Newton integrated physical notions into mathematical expression they started something big. Our understanding in 2019 of how the natural world works is stunning in extent and exactitude. Everything made from a hundred atoms; protons and neutrons each composed of three much, much smaller items called quarks which operate according to their own set of rules and forces; definite mathematical scenarios for stellar evolution over billions of years; all lifeforms making use of cells, DNA; the electromagnetic forces that bring about chemical change between molecules understood, the shapes of protein molecules, etc.
I also wish to claim philosophically (–and leaving any necessary argumentation itself for some other time–) that what most fundamentally characterizes this new modern science as means to knowledge is an essential connection/association with mathematics. Science itself–as meaning a human effort to carefully examine and explain the natural world–this we should admit is pre-modern. Aristotle was a capable biologist. There were a handful of quite competent ancient astronomers examining and describing the motions of the stars and planets. Or, also, Euclidian geometry was thought of as being a kind of science–science here meaning an achieved and systematic collection of truths. But of course, only in the last few hundred years have really come to understand, very amazing… what the natural world is made of and how it works! As reward for such far ranging and extensive success, modern natural science now deserves primary ownership of (and primary rights to define) that word “science.” But while I allow physicists and chemists first claim on the word science, I do not allow them exclusive rights to the word knowledge. There may be, there are in fact many kinds of knowledge…
As a recent and noble human enterprise then, this natural-science-business has brought humankind a certain kind of definite knowledge, knowledge which is exact, extensive, usable, but which (we must also note for purposes of this chapter) is also primarily a knowledge of the natural world, not knowledge of human beings as such nor of their social life as human beings. And a point should be made immediately, and made in general terms, and a point which can hardly be denied at all, is that human beings need “knowledge” for daily functioning. (I hope I do not stretch the word knowledge too. Words should not be elastic.) But human beings must operate daily according to ideas, values, choices…, and most of these are in regard to society itself or other persons, etc. This sort of “social knowledge” is a necessity for ordinary human life. Our achieved knowledge of the natural world (thanks to the achievements of recent physicists, chemists, biologists…) certainly helps us to obtain better food, necessities, products, but the more immediate need, existentially speaking, is yet for some degree of social “knowlege.” In ordinary life people need and wish not just to be able to get along, not just to have or be given opinions, but also, as far as is possible, to know what human beings are, to know what is true, to know how to choose truer values.
Two points can may be added here, though these are secondary to the main theme. Firstly, since I side with the pheneticists rather than the cladists in modern biology, I consider that natural science itself does not have one and only one (mathematical) method of attack. Math is not necessary to the process of describing and classifying the various species that exist out there, plants, spiders, bacteria. Looking, recording, comparing is all that is needed. And secondly, technology (as I myself would wish to to strictly define this term, and I realize that this hard line distinction in no longer very popular–but then, could this unpopularity itself be contributing to why we have the recent “post truth” phrase…) –technology is a use of knowledge for the sake of making. Technology itself doesn’t aim to know, but aims to make or to do. Technology gives us airplanes, radio, non-stick pans. (Technological-knowledge as phrase then, is something of a misnomer.) But though technology is not scientific knowledge of itself, for any man or woman on the street, technology (appropriately enough) tends to certify the validity of modern (natural) science as knowledge. If we did not have some sort of actual “knowledge” supporting all of this, how could be come up with radar, the internet, aluminum cans.
But to return to the main theme, as the ongoing successes of Physics and Chemistry become obvious, what is a more natural reaction than to hope that natural-science methods as applied to human beings and to human society can, should, (must) yield quite certain results, certain knowledge. Sociology, Psychology, Political Science, Economics, Anthropology hope to present themselves (if not yet, then very soon..) as sciences, comparable to those other quite successful sciences–physics, chemistry, modern biology. But my answer with regard to this chapter’s topic question will be pessimistic: By any fair and phenomenological consideration of what has been happening in the social sciences in the last century or two, these efforts have had very minimal success; very little “social” knowledge has been achieved. Therefore it may be time to suggest that these social sciences are not really sciences. Efforts to imitate as closely as possible the methods of natural science have not worked, are not working, will not work in the future.
The modern scientifically inclined intellectual will find my attitude rude, and I admit that I am somewhat vague and rhetorical in dismissing the social “sciences” with such language, but then I would answer that my mode of approach in this chapter has been phenomenological; I set all of this all up as a question of knowledge. And I ask again: What of significance have the social sciences contributed to our store of (generally agreed upon…) social knowledge?
The modern-day scientific materialist–such a person might be characterized as being someone who likely will believe, quite strictly speaking, that there is only the one kind of “knowledge,” the kind of knowlege exemplified by the natural sciences. And this person wil believe as well that it must be only a matter of time before all phenomenon, including human beings and their societies will/should ultimately be explainable in genetic, causal, cognitive-science terms. But can we really wait around for cognitive science, social biology and evolution, or selfish-economics to explain what human beings are and what society actually is?
My own view as alternative to this science-knowledge-only view will begin with just a bit of philosophical humanism. ( Can a person philosophize after all, asking for example what modern science is as phenomenon, unless they already possess minimal humanistic self-regard?) But I myself would allow and agree that the natural sciences give us quite certain knowledge, but would go on to note that these sciences themselves are quite properly and correctly speaking, humanities, that is, the result of human efforts and human capabilities. And to continue, mathematics, for example, which we note as being necessary–if also ancillary–to natural science, is another such human enterprise, another area of liberal studies, another one of the humanities. Is mathematics is a kind of human “knowledge?” Is history?
Common sense might prefer to say that math is not strictly speaking, knowledge, but few persons will dare to say that history is not human knowledge, nor deny that history is an important sort of human “knowledge.” We need history-knowledge in order to be better aware of who we are as individuals and societies.
Historians might employ carbon-14 dating, and may use computers to help collect and analyze their statistics, but I would like to insist that history as enterprise is not at all essentially, inherently scientific. History does not rely on the methods of the natural sciences, thus, though history may be an important kind of human “knowledge,” history is not at all essentially scientific.
If this sounds too anti-intellectual, history being non-scientific, then this larger issue must involve that adjective, scientific. The great successes of physics, chemistry and recently, biology, this is the source of our problem! Everyone wants to be labeled as being scientific also, else they will be left behind, else they will be second class or third class. Every academic discipline, every learning endeavor it seems, hopes to advertise itself as being scientific. Historians provides us with a certain kind of non-scientific knowledge. OK. But a majority of historians in a review of their history writing might still enjoy being referred to as being scientific. The man in the street, using his daily to-do list, might like to think of himself as being scientific. What is wrong with this pervasive desire for the label “scientific?”
Well, I believe that this scramble to be lauded for being scientific has distorted and polluted and seriously harmed many academic disciplines. To the extent that this is true, this must be a serious issue. Let me offer a very quick example: Why do higher academic degrees in the humanities require “research?” This fad likely came in as a result of German teaching methodology and the successes, a century ago, of German chemistry. If humanities departments don’t engage in “research” then other and more scientific departments will be looking down their noses at the humanities. Humanities departments were/are in mortal terror of an adjective! But being provably research-scientific, this will function as a talisman it must be, to protect them from the feared possibility of being labeled, Please No, un-scientific.
But returning to the theme of this chapter, and with regard to the social sciences, I am not at all disposed to tell social scientists how to do their work, what methodologies they may or may not use. But as far as I am allowed any philosophical credibility or authority, what I am going to do is to strongly suggest that they need to be more explicit about what methods they choose to use, and why. Is it not fairly obvious to most persons, after all, that the methods of hard-science, (experiment, value-free objectivity, mathematical approaches, peer review/collaboration, etc.) that these methods may actually work well enough in certain fields and with certain subjects but not at all in other areas?
Some such awareness about method seems to me to be present (to a limited degree at least) in ethnology. Ethnology is conducted by an anthropologist living for a significant amount of time among a tribe or group of people and observing; living in that culture but remaining unobtrusive. It is obvious to me, and to anthropologists I presume, that this cannot be scientific method in any strict sense. Not mathematical, not experimental, not quite value free…) But this is still well regarded as an appropriate method in this case, and why not? The proof must be in the results. If someone complains that this is too soft to be real science I would side with the objectives of the anthropologists by saying that it may not be scientific (in a strict sense), but seems to me to be a suitable way of learning about particular cultures.
Or, sociology wishes to study societies and to generalize about any/all societies. Societies are composed of persons operating by means of ideas, attitudes, feelings, habits, rules. People create institutions, do science, study sociology. All of the concepts just listed–these concepts are somewhat fluid, are they not? Can sociology, for example, ever give us the last word on what social institutions actually are. Well, it can try, and we can look at its results, and they may be quite interesting. I myself appreciate some of what Weber says about bureaucracy, authority, charisma, and I can critique such ideas in relation to what I am more interested in thinking about, about religious authority. But neither my thinking-results nor Weber’s sociology need try nor need claim to be scientific in the strict sense of that word.
It seems obvious to me that for a majority of the terms which the social sciences make use of–the specific meanings of each of these terms will usually be very closely involved with the meanings given to other terms. Our achieved everyday knowledge of society and persons is not compartmentalized but interconnected. But economists insist on their own (private) definition of rationality: greed. And anthropologists not surprisingly claim to be superior arbiters of what the word culture must mean. In reading an anthropology book recently, (Social and Cultural Anthropology:A Very Short Introduction, Just and Monaghan) the author states in a subsection titled: Cultural Relativism: “If, as we believe, the content of culture is the product of the arbitrary, historical experience of a people, then what we are as social beings is also an arbitrary, historical product.”[Note the word arbitrary…and ask oneself whether one must destroy the validity of history in order to establish cultural objectivity…] But at the close of this section the author concludes: “…we note with Clifford Geertz that the crimes committed in the name of cultural relativism pale in comparison to those committed in the name of cultural and national chauvinism, or for that matter, almost any other ‘ism.’” [Note that here that the author in effect claims to be a great moral interpreter of history, such that the admitted wrong that cultural relativism inflicts on present-day societies, this is justifiable because of the political benefits, the corrections given to cultural chauvinists.] This I must say is bad science and also bad excuse by anyone’s standards, but then, if one’s business is to understand culture and one also refuses to give up the word scientific–and baggage (strict objectivity…) which clings to that adjective, what else can one do?
Let me answer with the following common-sense argument: If Anthropology is not about being a proponent of any particular culture, neither ought it to subvert what culture is nor denigrate how healthy cultures function by suggesting or implying that culture is relative! Linguistics is listed as a branch of Anthropology. We all must come to learn a first language (and a first culture, I woud add) else we cannot be human. But is there anything wrong with attachment, positive attachment to one’s first language or culture. Yes, the mature person ought to learn about other cultures and this should temper their favoritism. But this same mature attitude is a product of broad education, of the humane education achieved by some, not a general truth provided to us by anthropologists. By denying the presence of their own inherent values, by presuming to be able to apply some sort of value-free objectivity to their study of culture, this sort of pseudo-scientific viewpoint willfully muddies the waters.
Or, with regard to compartmentalizing the social/human, perhaps there is nothing wrong with concentrating on just psychology or just sociology, but (to pose an example) are one particular person’s psychological feelings of guilt, are such feelings legal, social, personal, religious or bodily in origin. How can the psychologist know without asking the person, the subject. And will this subject, the person himself/herself clearly or accurately know how to distinguish their own feelings? Is this same person’s self “knowledge” given via psychological science, or more likely, cobbled together from many other (non-science) sources?
In trying to develop an argument I have stayed clear of various complications along the way: economics as special case, medical technology, quantum physics and knowledge/explanation, man as product of biological evolution, etc. Some of these may come up in subsequent chapters. Here I re-iterate my main point that a clear line should best be maintained between the natural sciences and everything else. And I recommend that intelligent persons regularly should not just be careful–but leary towards use of the adjective “scientific.” Why? I guess this would be because I consider almost all social/human topics to remain open-ended, available for public debate and discussion. This perennial lack of perfectly certain and perfectly exact knowledge about mankind and society is a healthy and normal situation. If psychology and sociology are sciences, then this suggests an explicit claim that they possess (or will soon have) exact knowledge. Since both Marxist and Capitalist economics claim to be scientific, again, here the word scientific tends to introduce both explicit and implicit claims to some kind of authority. And it is hard to argue directly against authority…
The irony in this discussion is that although most people at large, many social scientists, and myself also, hardly take the time or effort to work through the math and to arrive at a more mature understanding of astronomy, biochemistry, everyone still desires to receive the blessing of science, the approbation of being sufficiently “scientific.”
Science itself is actually not so popular. We don’t need to tamp down too much enthusiasm when significant scientific discoveries are reported in Nature magazine and people stay home for three days to party. Physicists and chemists do not demand that we evidence obsequious etiquette towards them when we meet them. Rather, they tend to get less respect than they deserve. But everyone wants to grab some of the glory–wants to latch on to the authority of the modern (natural) sciences.
Imagine a circle of persons ready to openly debate a social topic. Present are anthropologist, psychologist, Protestant minister, historian of ideas, western civilization professor, chemist, philosopher. The social “scientists” tonight may be wary of the claims to authority that might emanate from the religious or traditional-civilization members present, and may expect that the chemist will go along with their views since she is also a scientist. But the chemist, who happens to be a humanist in foundational beliefs, might not agree at all with the opinions of the social scientists. She has developed her own opinions. If any the others are in awe of the expertise and authority of philosopher and/or the historian, well, this would be unusual. But the most likely scenario in this modern forum, I expect, will be that the social scientists present will explicitly and/or implicitly claim to have an edge in this debate, and the audience will probably go along with this presumption. This is a debate on a social topic, after all, and we are living in an age of science. But I would like that edge to be taken away. All participants begin as equals. No deference ought to be given to implied or explicit claims to authority that might emanate from these few social “scientists” present. They should be required to convince by whatever they present in facts, studies, knowledge, that their opinions are worthwhile, just as others must convince in the same way…without resort to direct claim or suggestion of authority.
Pk December, 2019
Thirteen Easy Answers to the World’s Most Difficult Questions
Question 1: What is Convention/Social-Culture, and how important, in fact, is it? Answer: I believe that it is equally valid, equally possible for the miscellaneous societies and/or nations of the world to rely either upon law or upon convention as their primary mode of self structuring and self-identification. Confucian-type societies, for example, often seem to be able to operate with minimal importance given to law as such, and Western (Rome-influenced) societies seem most often to wish to operate by giving primary importance to constitutional and written law while at the same moment, perhaps, giving quite minimal attention to the operation of convention/custom/culture within that same society.
On a small and democratic scale the Ancient Greek city-states actually did not separate these two, law and social convention, but in the modern context it seems obvious that societies are unable to achieve that unusual balance of those Ancient Greeks–we today necessarily choose to identify with one or the other side of this spectrum. Both law and convention being, of course, means by which to organize and/or structure a society.
But the next point would be this: Both of these different “entities,” both law and social convention, are necessary and important if a society is to be healthy. One alone is not sufficient. This would be my truth-claim, not an imposed definition. This is, I insist, how the world actually works. Yes, a society may have the very best constitutional and statutory and administrative law in place, but if that society’s everyday social culture is not alive and operative (independently of law) then such a society will likely, it seems to me, become sick. And conversely (though I consider myself less qualified to evaluate Confucian or traditional-type societies)–but even should such a convention-based society have great and worthwhile traditional-customary culture and values, if that second social entity, law, if this item is seriously denigrated, if this thing is not allowed its separate and natural life, then this Confucian-type society likely becomes solipsistic, unable to self-correct, narcissistic(?), etc. (Along these lines, a Confucian-type society might best allow fundamental Daoist type natural law to exist as secondary social entity, rather than Western-type law as law codification…)
But since I address myself to English and primarily Western readers, I place myself within that other situation, that is, societies proud of their law-arrangements. And from within this context I insist that law is not enough. Convention is not just a nice idea. Rather, the healthy existence of social convention is also very important even though a choice has already been made to consider law as primary, as being most important within this society. Without a healthy and live and separately-independent social-convention realm in operation, even a good-law society must become dangerously unhealthy.
Please do not take the terminology too seriously. Westerners tend to consider that the term “law” has quite clear and obvious meanings. Law means explicitly stated (likely, written) social standards, and these laws also having a governmental source or governmental authority. The term convention seems to Westerners ears less clear and obvious in its meanings, though I believe, loosely speaking, that everyone can recognize and identify what social convention is.
By convention I myself wish to indicate social standards or norms not explicitly stated by governments but made by numerous persons in collusion, many persons working together, norms that are the result of general social agreement. In any society or community, people will converse, argue, and after numerous interactions it becomes apparent that there is agreement on some things, little or no agreement on other topics, etc. Conventions would be those numerous miscellaneous items which a majority of people actually agree upon, at this moment. Convention, loosely speaking, is what prevails by the numbers. From accepted norms of etiquette to prevalent attitudes towards exactly what is meant by “hard work” or “family” as (national) values, these are conventions.
But convention also tends to be most natural to smaller communities, I would suggest, rather than natural to a large nation as large whole. Thus, two small, healthy nearby communities may have some conventions they agree about and others which they don’t share.
If may attempt to describe custom or convention seems too vague, too indefinite, well, I might wish to argue that this is what convention is like. It exists loosely and in constant agitation and movement within local societies/communities. If any entity or small group of persons are able to assert effective control or management over a society’s social convention, then this must be an unhealthy/abnormal situation…
In this chapter I am addressing a Western audience that likely does not question the primary importance of law, but probably does not really believe that convention within society is actually very important. I will try to make my case for the importance of convention–but on a very broad scale–by relating Convention to three major topics: (I) The Fourteenth Amendment to the US Constitution, (II) Rousseau’s book The Social Contract, (III) Mill’s essay On Liberty. These three topics above are chosen in order to demonstrate how a Western tendency to value law and to denigrate social convention (–as being of less than secondary value, as such) has in fact resulted in serious Western misunderstandings and serious Western problems.
But I expect that for the person who is already inclined to prefer simplification, to prefer only an overly rationalistic simplicity, my far-ranging and theoretically ambitions efforts here will have little positive benefit. For such persons, I am afraid, the opinion will still be, yes, convention is “nice,” but the other, law, is all that really, really matters. But as time goes on for me, such a petulant demand for the availability of a (too) rationalistic and simpleminded retreat– is something which I now tend to view as being pernicious. How can this be, how can the desire to acquire a more rationalistic simplicity be so harmful?
To begin then, with topic (I), the Fourteenth Amendment. What is the social context here? I believe that this part of our American Constitution has been badly abused as an immediate effect of would-be legal interpreters failing to recognize that what is most essential here is in fact a Social-Convention situation!
The Civil War is over and as a consequence, any and all previous slaves and/or blacks exist as equal citizens. Slavery was well integrated into local economic and social cultures; now local cultures must change, must somehow re-form sans slavery. This, it seems clear to me, is a Convention issue. How shall communities develop “new” local cultures?
And it also seems to me quite correct to insist that law as such, can actually accomplish very little in this same situation. This is basically a job for Convention, new conventions, not a job for Law. (But the simple-minded will wish only to see a Law problem here…)
I believe that the persons who wrote and passed the Fourteenth Amendment were appropriately quite astute in their awareness of the quite strict limitations of law as means to effectuate any desired re-building of healthy (local) convention. Thus, on my interpretation, the Fourteenth gives the Federal government the paternalistic role of protector of the process of justice within the individual states. If blacks, for example, are individually wronged, and then systematically denied redress by the operations of a local state judicial system, the Federal government threatens to step immediately into such a State’s ordinary judicial business in order to manage and fix that justice-delivery system…
No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.
Each American is resident and citizen of one or another State, but after the Civil War another uniform National citizenship also exists for each and every American. But the Fourteenth also does not, it would seem, intend to further specifically define or describe what might be essential for such a National citizenship. The last phrase here, “equal protection of the laws” –this has its most immediate meaning not as some sort of intended declaration of Equality as new (National) standard, but simply as saying that the laws of this particular state, (State laws, that is) should benefit, should be enforced for the sake of, all state citizens equivalently. Persons “within a state’s jurisdiction” would ordinarily be the state’s own local citizens.
There is now a uniform national citizenship for all Americans. The fourteenth prohibits any newly formed state laws which might essentially compromise such national citizenship, and then also claims that the Federal government will step in protect state citizens where a local judicial system is egregiously functioning in a biased and unequal manner towards its own citizens.
Why has Black/White race harmony been slow in coming within the United States. Is this not in part at least because people are looking in the wrong place: looking to law, rather than custom? Either expecting that good laws will be sufficient of themselves, else expecting that law can be made into an instrument by which to root out bad customary attitudes, thus leaving only good attitudes and good Custom behind…!
But on to section (II) and the topic of Convention in relation to Rousseau’s Social Contract. Before democracy comes to the American colonies, and while almost all European nations are kingdoms, empires, dukedoms, etc., Rousseau grew up in the small and democratically managed city-state of Geneva. He later becomes a social celebrity, a writer and artist/critic, and towards the end of his life takes on an ambitious project: a theoretical justification of Democracy as being potentially appropriate for present-day European societies. But for this book, The Social Contract, for such a theoretical attempt, he is quite regularly vilified and condemned–at least among the modern-day and conservative English speaking democrats whom I also tend to read most often. Why?
He is totalitarian, anti-religious. He initiates a sort of abstract and ideological political discourse that has developed into the (non-pragmatic) extremes of modern day Marxism and/or European Liberalism. But all of these charges seem to me to be very wrong and unjust. English speaking persons may be allowed to be a bit smug. Henry VIII and his imperial notions “took care of” the religious issue England at an earlier moment in history. England itself moved gradually towards democracy. And I of course still prefer the democracy of the American founders to Rousseau’s social democracy. But at this present moment in history, when all the world, it seems, has become democratic–thought no one also seems competent to explain what democracy essentially is… isn’t Rousseau correct. I myself agree with him when he says (theoretically speaking) that democracy is more essentially about the people, about the social, than it is about government, voting, representation, public discussion, etc. Democracy after all, really must mean that the people as social entity are (both in fact and in theory) sovereign. Anything less is compromise.
Rousseau spends a few too many pages late in his book respectfully explaining how the old Roman Empire operated. Obviously he does place himself within the European-Roman tradition. But his emphasis will be on the social, on social convention as binding entity, on society as being essential to democracy, rather than emphasizing “law” or representation or governmental-structuring as such. This presently needed and quite fundamental emphasis, this must be why he is so badly misunderstood still today, reviled by intelligent interpreters who ought to know better. It must be that an exclusive law-emphasis blinds them to the importance of the social–to the (secondary) importance of “convention.”
Rousseau is also routinely blamed for the anti-Roman-Catholic animus of the French Revolution. And there may be historical continuities here; I myself do not know this history. But theoretically speaking, this anti-religious imputation also strikes me as being unfair, even malicious. Let’s take a look at the religion and state issue….
Rousseau himself seems somewhat opportunistically to have slid in his own allegiances from Protestant to Roman Catholic and back again, but then, this was the real situation in the world: traveling around Europe at that time there were in existence two and only two kinds of nation-state, Catholic, Protestant. He dedicates his book about democracy to his home town, Geneva, but Geneva will, after the book’s publication, condemn him as being a traitor and heretic–because of one chapter in which he expressing certain church-state opinions.
A late chapter in The Social Contract envisions a social role for Civil Religion, Civil Religion being in effect, a sort of state-sponsored and minimalistic Deism. Rousseau recommends that his new type of genuine democracy could chose to have such a minimal Civil Religion. But containing on through and up till the present day, because (it must be–) that Deism stinks so terribly, most modern political commentators, religious or not, quickly will dismiss offhand such a theoretical suggestion. But then, is it not largely accurate to say that the American church-state solution, non-establishment, is in effect quite similar to this suggested Civil Religion?
A sort of theoretical dishonesty with regard to religion seems to me to be operative here and continues through to the present day: The protestant or catholic commentator will each wish, ultimately, that their individual religious preferences prevail within society, while the agnostically inclined modern thinker will be fervently hoping that all religions will fade away, allowing agnosticism only to be prevalent within this society. No-one genuinely believes in the Western liberal ideal! But it seems to me that the West’s best and present solution to the Church/State issue is in fact return to honest consideration of (multi-religion) Deism!
But beyond a theoretical emphasis on the social, how does Rousseau connect directly with Convention? At that moment in history, Europe is seeing the beginnings of what will become modern natural science. Europe develops some sophisticated music, visual art, literature. France has elaborate ritual and custom which derive from its two upper estates, the king’s court and aristocracy, and traditional prerogatives of a Roman Catholic clergy. When an essay contest asks for an essay praising the high point to which European civilization has arrived, Rousseau recognizes that he can chose the opposite, can write about how false and artificial and overly-conventionalized a Law-respecting Europe has become! For writing such an expose, and in spite of his own personality, Rousseau is hailed as writer-celebrity. Unhealthy and excessive convention is now recognized as being a burden to society. A return to respect for the natural will cut through some of this… but better would be a respect for the promise of genuine and fundamental democracy…
I suggest that this is Rousseau’s primary motive as author, the attempt to better understand and to give better social opportunity for a more healthy development of “convention” within a society which already has fundamental respect for “law.” And his theory of democracy as well, the social contract which brings a democracy into existence, this also is an appropriate effort to give “convention” its due. Democracy is not just a matter of Law.
(III) But what does Mill’s long essay, On Liberty (1859) have to do with convention? Well, I would insist that a sound interpretation of this important short book must take seriously what Mill himself indicates as motive for him to attempt a fundamental and new approach to liberty as Western value, and that motive, it seems clear enough to me, is what he describes as being the ever increasing encroachments of societal pressure towards social conformity, unhealthy social Convention. Mill somewhere actually takes a couple of paragraphs to congratulate Rousseau because, some hundred years or so previously, Rousseau had appropriately shocked European society into recognizing the excessive conventionalism and artificiality of European civilization at that time. But now, with democracy itself in the West having become more ordinary and respectable, Mill very clearly delineates his surprising opening theme. He worries that in democratic (!) type societies, the up and coming problem in Europe will be democratically inclined populaces attempting through social convention (not via law or government…) to control and to limit the liberties of other persons within those societies. Mill is worried about Convention, about unhealthy and liberty-restricting societal convention in democracies!
Yes, Mill does (on a quick reading) seem to claim that he has come upon a “principle,” this being the singular notion that unless a citizen is harming others, he/she should be allowed to do as he/she might wish… But is such a principle–even should this principle be made effective (somehow) via “law” –is such a procedure able to solve this problem of social encroachment on liberty. I would suggest that legal solution is not at all possible, and Mill himself seems to recognize this fact in certain phrases where he suggests a convention-based solution: Unless a strong barrier of moral conviction…can be raised against (social) encroachment, he says, (i.e. unless society in general recognizes the importance of live-and-let-live AND unless it agrees to maintain as a social norm–as an ongoing social convention–such a “principle”) there is minimal hope for avoiding the social threat to individual liberties. At least this would be my best interpretation of Mill, and perhaps an attempt to slightly improve upon Mill without modifying what he says.
I would thus paraphrase Mill by saying that the only real solution to the social encroachment issue is that this same society must develop and maintain convention-embodied principles which expect all citizens to respect the separate lives of other citizens. Only strong and generally accepted and genuinely held social convention in favor of individual liberty of life and opinion, only the existence of such societal conventions will allow individuals to safely flourish in any free society. (Law of itself can provide no ultimate solutions…)
Mill obviously believes that a healthy and normal social convention may well be combative and judgmental, though he also makes use of the word disinterested. Thus, I may say things against opinions or behaviors I am not in agreement with, I may choose not to associate with people whose way of life I disapprove of, but I must keep this “conflict” within the realm of polite social interaction. And perhaps more importantly, I may not attempt to legislate so as to establish/enforce such (personally-favored) opinions upon the community at large. Within Mill’s healthy society, people may be “justly punished by opinion, (meaning the spoken disapproval of certain other individuals…) though not by law…”
In the contemporary American milieu where everyone seems to wish to produce, if possible, a uniformity of national life via law and/or bully-opinion, Mill’s approach must seem strangely backwards. And even more out of tune may be Mill’s fundamental liberal ideal: Mill presupposes a nation of mature citizens. All adults citizens must be mature! After the completion of eighteen years of schooling each one must stand on their own two feet and take full responsibility for themselves!
I myself would guess that few modern-day intellectuals are true believers in such a mature society as normal. I expect rather that when it comes down to it, most modern and intelligent people believe that a nanny-state, nanny-religion, nanny-culture-control–realistically speaking these will always be necessary. The ordinary situation is that most people in any society will need constant direction, supervision. Mature and intelligent individuals who can be trusted to be responsible will always be few, rare–not common, normal.
But if this is so, if Mill’s ideal is not feasible, then this leaves a major problem: Who selects the nannies? Who selects the values that will be imposed by the nannies?
Mill’s social theory has two stages. During a citizen’s immaturity the society can and does impose an inculcation of values, though among such values will be free inquiry and unhindered questioning of all values. Then at maturity Mill’s society, it seems, requires that society stop imposing values. Rather, society itself is now expected to develop mature conventions, to develop a mature (extra-legal) social culture which will tend to encourage and allow individuals to each do their own thing. Thus it would seem that the easier part is having laws, values, and inculcating those values. The difficult part is the expectation that social convention, a social culture, this must independently come about, as well as the expectation that society must actually have normal expectations of individual maturity!
Because I consider On Liberty to be the best statement of what Western Liberalism means, I myself also interpret any sort of nanny-government (or nanny-religion) as being less theoretically mature, perhaps less than fully democratic. If this is the best available statement of what Western liberalism means, then this cannot be watered down. And if mature individuals are too few, this ideal cannot function.
Again and most importantly, convention must not be confused with law. These are to remain separately operating entities in the modern society. Innumerable nannies sermonizing and haranguing and repeating the word diversity can never promote social diversity. By definition, a nanny does not believe in diversity; A nanny can only pass along one nanny’s view of the world. A tutor is needed to exemplify and to model what adult respect for diversity must actually mean. The proof can only be found in the adult situation: do the mature citizens of a society actually allow differing opinions and ways of life to exist, or not? Do they respect, hire, associate with such persons even while actively, regularly socially disagreeing with them?
copyright pkragt 2019
Those born into an already existing national-entity are “natural” citizens. (The country-nation, though this is itself a human construct of some sort, presumes its own naturalness…) Then, those born elsewhere may be “naturalized” if they, ordinarily, swear some sort of allegiance to their new homeland. (But… by allowing though not promoting the possibility of dual citizenship, does US legal theory not somewhat relativize citizenship–as identity..?) But quite obviously, this transition from alien to citizen raises questions about national/group identity; questions about culture. Nations (it seems to me at least) as well as tribes or empires… are not just formal arrangements. They need to own a specific and particular identity, a culture of some kind. Alien allegiance to–as well as some degree of eventual assimilation to a new “culture” is ordinarily expected for naturalization.
But in a nation such as the USA, if ongoing culture-discussion which is healthy and democratic is neither feasible nor available as an option, then political symbolism and posturing become an inadequate substitute… The attempt to control national identity via control of politics or law alone… will not really work, will it?
In my reading this week through some of an eyewitness account of the second Opium War as written by a British military personage, Viscount Wolseley (Narrative of the war with China in 1860..) I come across a different approach to identity and culture. The Arrow incident which provokes the British to begin this second war seems of dubious justification… But having arrived with their ships at the coast near Tianjin, the British demand for a right to have diplomatic residents in Beijing, this does not seem exorbitant. The sinicized Manchu emperor asks his competent general to simply delay the barbarian advance. Wolseley surmises that this is duplicitous. This capable general, it seems, has not been given genuine authority to negotiate peace terms with Britain. When the British begin to advance towards Beijing the emperor flees from his summer residence to the nearby mountains. Supposedly the written advice of most of his subordinates had asked the emperor not to go on this “hunting trip” but to stay in the capital. Thus when the French and British arrive at Beijing they loot part of the city, but decide to vent their frustration on the emperor’s “summer palace” by burning it to the ground–after looting its valuables. (War should be about killing… not looting). But the point to be made here is that there is similarity with the recent immigration debates…
Once you allow alien emissaries, representatives of foreign governments, to have any sort of privileged residence and status, how do you prevent a subsequent invasion, and dilution of your culture. Under duress, the emperor had agreed to a 1858 treaty permitting foreign embassies in Beijing, but then seems to renege on this arrangement. After winning military control of Beijing the foreigners obtain an updated 1860 treaty which additionally stipulates that ordinary foreigners (British at least…) also be allowed free access to travel through all of China… Thus this second Opium war was also about culture and identity!
Any self-respecting culture will attempt to protect itself from external dilution, but as well, any culture/nation which refuses the clash of external competition does not seem quite worthy of our respect. And thus for any national entity, this culture and identity issue must be progressive and ongoing and unavoidable.
The United States is no exception. In its first hundred years, perhaps with clear prevailing social-values and land available, immigration was not a significant issue. Ellis Island would have processed the Europeans, rejecting a small number of undesirables, and local entities would have naturalized them. And when Chinamen were shipped in, some with indentured servitude contracts, in order to build the railway and help in panning for gold, Americans on the west coast complained. Asiatics would not assimilate. Asian immigration was prohibited by Federal law.
For a period of time, immigration quotas were based on US census percentages, which may have seemed a brilliant idea at the time but may not seem as compelling in the present milieu. To maintain the present American identity which is x% Scandinavian, Scandinavians will constitute x% of the total number of immigrants allowed this year.
In a recent article in the Atlantic, David Frum describes how the immigration numbers in the 1900’s did not pose much of an American national issue–until recent decades, when the “system” has become overwhelmed with Mexican and, most recently, central American illegal immigrants. He also notes that with more people lifted out of poverty, and with enough money now to travel, the world’s migrant-poor as opportunity-seekers are only bound to increase. If possible, these opportunity seekers will come to the United States. But he seems to share Hillary Clinton’s pragmatism even though he has himself been a long time advocate for immigration reform. But the pragmatic tact would be that Liberals must deal with this issue because those bad nationalists and populists are using this issue to promote their bad politics, not rather as part of a necessary and ongoing democratic identity debate. Apparently this must be because liberals already have the identity thing figured out–no need for debate.
This same liberal attitude or presumption was quite obvious in the nationwide ruckus that occurred as Arizona readied to passed a law (in 2010) to deal with increasing numbers of persons coming in illegally over their souther border. Obama’s attorney general managed to have much of the Arizona legislation nullified by the Supreme Court, but Justice Scalia at the time has an interesting and somewhat compelling dissent to Arizona v. US Government. Scalia argues that the Constitution gives the Federal government sovereignty over naturalization (ie, over what defines a single national citizenship) but not over migration. States throughout the earliest years presumed that they still had sovereignty over whom they would allow in. Scalia’s approach then, would have allowed states to take different approaches to enforcement against illegal immigration, strict or lenient. But as he admits, the Supreme Court has in recent times turned over all enforcement authority to the Federal government. But as he complains also, if the Federal government is negligent in its job, what can Arizona do?
The present day situation (which the media seem intent only to obfuscate) is that it actually is the job of the president and his attorney general, exclusively, to enforce immigration requirements, to make immigration regulations work. If failure is due to lack of funding, then they need more funds. Else, if the present system of laws and regulations needs to be fixed and updated according to present-day priorities (as seems to me obviously to be the case…), then this will be exclusively the responsibility of legislators, Congress persons, who very likely we can imagine lack the cahones required for such a difficult democratic task, even should they acknowledge that this remains in fact their task. The immigration enforcement system has identity implications, but is immigration an issue to be played for its national identity implications, or a pressing legislative responsibility which needs to be taken up as practical (democratic) legislative task?
I am in favor of our being nice to aliens of all kinds, and this in fact is how the present system actually works. Just as we have a separate judicial system for military persons, so there is a special federal system of courts and procedures just to make sure that we treat illegal aliens gently. This nice treatment already is one aspect of our chosen self-identity, and so far at least, I agree with it. But if the system is overloaded, lacking clear objective, not functioning well as seems to be the case since we have some eleven million people in the country who should not be in the country… and some of these here for twenty years already, then the system obviously needs overhaul and re-purposing. But who is ready for some needed re-conceptualizing?
Sanctuary has become a term used to promote the side that wants to be nice to illegal immigrants. California perhaps tried criminalizing the illegal immigrant applying for work (rather than criminalizing the employer of such a worker–as is now the national law…) but since that was not successful, now the the whole state itself is declared to be a sanctuary state!
I have written a commentary on Deuteronomy (available on Kindle) in which, if I may engage in some self congratulation, I have an unusual and I believe helpful (theological) interpretation of OT sanctuary legislation. The earlier legislation in Numbers obviously is to preclude a primitive or tribal sort of next-of-kin vengeance against the person who commits unintended homicide. There needs to be a city for this person to run to, for safety. But then in Deuteronomy my contention is that this same rule is by Moses interpreted politically to suggest the basis for a new social polity in the land across the Jordan, that is, not just countryside, not just city, but both together and of equal significance constitute the new and desired (democratic) polity for the new society. Thus to use the notion of sanctuary as is being done at present to suggest that cities are more caring and thus superior–this exactly perverts the important (and democratic) balance which Moses is looking for. But was Moses really a democrat?
But is someone who seriously suggest that we ought to have no border control system at all, presumably nationalizing anyone and everyone who is able to transport themselves to this country, is this person a democrat, or rather an religious ideologue of some sort. And so at this juncture I would like to suggest a workable criterion for discerning who is and who is not the genuine democrat. I have tried in the above paragraphs to elucidate some of the dimensions that need to be considered when reforming our immigration apparatus, and towards civil discussion about US identity. But as is obvious to anyone who has read thus far, there is an inherent complexity in these issues which no ideology can simplify. Protestants and Roman Catholics are quite content with their belief systems, and have been for some five hundred years now. Perhaps “ideology” is less of a harmful thing in religion. But my suggested criterion for democracy is this: the democratic claim of anyone who uses ideology to remove complexity should be denied. Real democrats don’t use ideology to simplify real-world issues!
Of course successful politicians make use of simplified slogans. And on this one issue my own “political” leaning may be toward one side, but what I am about here is not politics. What I am about here is reasonable debate, a truly democratic skill. In Mr. Frum’s Atlantic article he demonstrates that he knows what good argument is, because he demonstrates good and non-ideological and many-sided argument in much of this long article. This proves that some Liberals are quite capable of engaging in careful argument. But is Mr. Frum’s overall and fundamentally political appeal in this article not somewhat strange? Please Liberals, you need to pay some attention to this issue, else those with a fascist mindset will make irresponsible use of this immigration issue! As if Liberals en mass need to be called back from ideological happy-land, a religious-like refuge, an ideological comfort zone which they would rather not leave. A vague internationalist dream of no borders and no nations…
China has for many years been engaged in “opening up;” Western liberals are confused about identity and culture, but precluded by ideology from acknowledging such confusion; and I, in my efforts to provide such helpful analysis––am underpaid.
I am certain that much more–and much more modern city-planning science and technology has gone into preparation for the new Xiong’an city/area. But I still have reservations with regard to my expectations for the full success, shall we call it, of the Xiong’an enterprise after say, fifty years. Why? Because I consider that reliance on wholesale planning misses something too easily, this being the fact that cities are (in my opinion of course)–organic. That is, any good city, any city which people genuinely enjoy, is good just because of various organic connections, connections not really directly amenable to planning. To either minimize, or to fail to work with this vital organic reality on an ongoing basis must be recipe for partiality…
In the United States, anyone who cares about city-planning and city improvement will acknowledge that the major impediment there is the value placed upon individual/private property rights. The rights of the one property owner will almost always trump the right of the conscientious civic planner who wishes to bring benefit to numerous individuals- to the city. Strip-mall-development is rule and norm, and the results are almost always a mess. Buy a property and do what you want with it, and your neighbors will do the same. NBA teams, for example, are owned; they belong only metaphorically to those numerous local patrons who pay for the tickets to watch them play. Or, a city such as Seattle cannot even set sensible regulations for internet cable companies who do business within this city. The American city of itself does not exist as a significant value in the United States, it must be, as reflected in shared political values or existing laws. Individual property is king.
I myself am not drawn to the “social” ideal of socialism, but overly individualistic capitalists ought to be able to recognize also, that excess quite easily instigates alternative thinking… Why is it that we only value individual rights; Shouldn’t we make larger social benefit just as important as individual benefit..? Socialism becomes an alternative approach because of excess…
My topic is cities, not government. The Greek democracy of long ago was, of course, very city-centric. But the irony of gentrification in contemporary American big cities makes my point well enough: If a particular city is able to develop a lively mix which includes cultural elements and occupations, as well as business, residences, etc., then people with better than average means from outside will want to move to this city, will drive up residential prices in the city’s desirable neighborhoods, and thus, sooner or later, will effectively destroy the life of the city–by driving out the craft or culture elements who must be subsisting at a lesser income level. Perhaps you will say that I am overly worried here about a minor “problem,” the plight of a few artist-types. But I would claim that this situation is not a “problem” but is the paradigmatic symptom, rather, of serious social deficiency–inability to accurately value and/or adequately conceptualize the city and its worth.
Do socialist societies do a better job of valuing cities as such? Is Shenzhen a great success? For businessmen wishing to arrange new projects it has certainly become a Mecca of sorts, and increasingly for technology and science perhaps. But does it have lasting appeal for other residents? A city composed only of only military, only students, only business, only artists must be a dreary place, compared to a city with a more generous mix. The traditional Chinese city was divided into halves for official imperial offices and residences, with ordinary businesses and marketplace in the other half. But did the two halves mix?
I have an extravagant suggestion for the new Xiong’an city and environs. A portion of the existing farms/villages should be cordoned off and continuously maintained as a sort of museum, museum of what the area once was before the big city grew up. (But such a museum-preserve must remain in the middle of the big and new buildings, and not relegated to a peripheral location.) Such a preserve or museum of old Xiong’an would make the clear the point to any person aware of its existence, that here at least there is a vital and organic connection and continuity noted and expected.
If the Chinese countryside at large has “history,” as it does, then how is it possible that a city built in that countryside should lack organic history? Perhaps cities do seem artificial, less than natural. Any city encloses numerous institutions, numerous man-made structures, numerous modern networks and facilities… But in my point of view, while institutions may help or not–what is most essential to City is not institutions, but live-organic culture of some kind.
Planners for their part can enable, promote, prevent, but cannot produce this live product. My suggested Xiong’an museum-preserve (–or something similar) would serve to make this point symbolically: city planners are limited. They cannot do it all; They can only plan; Various others will actualize or not… (In other words, planners themselves hereby recognize the limits of their abilities, the limits of planning, the fact that city-plans may not even be able to contain what is most essential…)
If they plan the city, will the city come?
A comparison of social beliefs in the US and China:
Every country has a certain number of important and popular (social) beliefs. Every day one can hear these mentioned in newspaper, magazine or on television.
Americans place a high priority on freedom. There is the phrase: Live free or die, which means, give me freedom or let me die. I myself think (and I am an American) that this word, freedom,(effectively) and at the same time represents many other values such as law, democracy, other moral values. But strictly speaking, the word itself does not contain such meanings. And without money, ability or opportunity, freedom will have its limits. Without available money or free time you cannot go skiing for example. But Americans like this word very much because they consider that this word presents what would be a particularly American value.
It seems that the Chinese use filial-piety, this word, to represent as well various other social values. (Thus for persons in these two countries, freedom/filial-piety cannot ever be excessive…) With the word filial-piety Chinese immediately associate traditional culture, custom, as well as other moral values. But strictly speaking, filial-piety as term only has regard to the family. How can it include such meanings? But Chinese will consider that this word does explain what is particular to the Chinese character.
(Christian belief might also claim that filial-piety is important, since Jesus regularly demonstrated publicly a filial-piety to his Father in heaven, but as in the historical TaiPing Revolt, bad TaiPing doctrine in this area can lead to serious issues…)
Both of these countries value hard work. Any degree of success, small or otherwise, must be attributable to hard work.
Americans like Democracy. Every four years the people are allowed to change some of their government officials. Modern China prefers Socialism. Chinese can join a very large Party, which Party then influences government policies.
The societies of both countries also greatly value equality, though what they mean by this is not quite the same. The Communist Party maintains a strong egalitarian emphasis; there is to be no social aristocracy. But in order to allow for economic development, some few persons will be allowed to amass more wealth than others. The American emphasis is on equal opportunity. But here also, it is not really possible to prevent those who already have wealth form having slightly better opportunities.
In the discussion up to this point, the two societies may use different words but the social situation does seem quite similar. If you work hard you will be able to earn money, buy foodstuffs, rent a home, rest and watch television. But how does this differ from the condition of caged animals at the zoo. Such animals do not need to work, but more importantly, they will not understand what television is all about. Animals do not have a culture.
I believe that both China and the USA do have their modern-contemporary cultures, but also consider that neither live-culture as existing at present is very good/worthwhile as such. Movies and television programs exemplify this modern and live culture. In both countries one often hears advocates asking for more diversity. But with such large populations, why doesn’t a healthy diversity already exist? I myself would want to say that this is because each country’s modern-culture is inadequate, lacking. To create or to promote new cultural expression is not easy. Conformity is much easier…
Chinese education tends only to emphasize traditional culture without emphasis on creative arts or upon understanding as such. American education seems to emphasize such things perhaps, but positive results are lacking. Liveliness along with a lack of regard for tradition, this means that after school in the USA, the individual who might wish to work as a culture promoter and creator cannot really find a job. Remuneration is strictly for the popular and the entertaining, the commercial, not for actual“culture.”
Within both of these countries, science, technology, and the economic are well developed. And these do come first. But technology, for example, is no substitute for live-culture. Technology must be a way of doing things, making things; contemporary-culture, rather, must contain many and various social values. Technology has its benefits. But a healthy contemporary culture also has benefits which are hard to quantify.
Thus, every society uses words to express what are its most important values. But often this language may be imprecise, even vague. So perhaps the best way of observing what the genuine values of a society are would be to notice how many people there are, and how much money is being spent strictly on new art, that is, on fine-art objects.