Tag Archives: Pope Francis I

Rich Men’s Problems with the Kingdom of Heaven

On a subject sort of relevant to my last post of 2013 here, last week the Pew Research people released the results of an international survey that they’ve been conducting for the past few years. Their basic findings, in very simple terms: The more money people have in their pockets, the less they see religious belief to be a precondition for moral goodness. The United States would seem to be an exceptional case in this study, but on closer examination it’s really not.

So who should be excited, threatened or disturbed by these findings?

Go_to_church...These results actually shouldn’t come as a surprise in any particular sense, nor should the fact that the United States once again appears to be an exception to the rules of secularism laid out in some of the more problematic reporting on this matter, nor should the fact that the polemics tend to snowball the further from the facts you get on this issue.

First of all let me clarify what I see as the primary non sequitur related to this question: It is not asking how many people believe in God (large or small g), or how such beliefs affect their own lives. What it is effectively asking is, can you actually trust someone who doesn’t believe in any god to still be a good person? In that regard it actually has very little to do with personal faith as such. Pope Francis and I are both strong believers in God, but we are both entirely convinced that the factually correct answer to the survey question is no, you don’t have to believe in God to be a “person of good will” and to treat others with decency. On the other hand, Machiavelli and his followers –– and among the living, Jürgen Habermas –– while having no particular belief in God themselves, have stated that religious belief plays an essential role in keeping “the masses” in line and enabling productive levels of social cooperation, implying that one should have certain suspicions about those who lack the moral restraint which personal faith tends to instill. So while this is an interesting question on a number of different levels, it really doesn’t measure levels of personal faith in any direct way.

What it does measure, however, is probably more relevant to the issue of “secularization” as it is defined by sociologists than personal faith is: It measures the extent to which religious mutual understanding is socially expected of people as a foundation for mutual trust. The current Wikipedia article on secularization begins by defining the concept as “the transformation of a society from close identification with religious values and institutions toward nonreligious (or irreligious) values and secular institutions.” The sociology section of about.com defines secularization as “a process of social change through which the public influence of religion and religious thinking declines as it is replaced by other ways of explaining reality and regulating social life”. Agreed. In other words what we’re talking about is how much control religion has over society, which is a somewhat different question than the extent to which people personally believe in God.

Peter Berger tells the story of a recently arrived immigrant dentist in the United States starting to work on a new patient’s teeth when the man stopped him briefly to say, “By the way, I’m a Baptist.” The dentist had no idea what relevance this had to the condition of the man’s teeth, or anything else, but for a sociological researcher the message was clear: The patient was saying that he could be trusted to pay his bill afterwards so there should be nothing for the dentist to worry about in that regard; he didn’t want the dentist to be distracted by such concerns while he was working on his teeth. What the new survey results show is that this sort of anecdote could also easily take place in many African or South American countries (perhaps with a different church being named) but among more prosperous “Western” countries it would be unique to the United States.  It says nothing about how well Baptists or other believers actually pay their bills, nor about how non-believers in turn attend to their own financial obligations. Nor does it tell us how fervently people believe that some supernatural power holds them responsible for their actions. It only tells us about how people within the society in question use religion as a basis for their social credit rating schemes.

DixBankNoteOn one level there would be an obvious correlation between how widespread personal faith is and how much people use that as a standard for determining whether or not they can trust each other: Such faith has to be in relatively widespread circulation to be accepted as a form of social capital. By analogy, legend has it that the southern states of the US originally became known as “the land of Dixie” due to the use of a French (or French language) currency in which the ten (dix) was particularly well known. That would not imply any particularly strong allegiance to France or the French economic system, but it would imply at least some sort of cultural connection in France’s direction which related to the means by which Southerners exchanged goods and services. The personal religiosity of people who trust each other on the basis of belief in God need go no deeper than that.

The social mechanism involved comes back to Machiavelli’s strong belief that religion is an essential means which any ruler should take advantage of in order to do his job effectively. While it may not hold true as a general definition for religion, in the vast majority of cases religion comes down to a social expression of belief in God or gods. Taking advantage of this belief as a means of manipulating those under their power can be a very potent tool in the hands of rulers, whether the rulers in question happen to share this belief or not. Thus it remains strongly in the self-interest of the ruling elites to encourage people to believe that there is some divine power out there which is on the rulers’ side on things, and to sow distrust in those who would question the divine basis for the rulers’ authority. From there it would stand to reason that the greater the polarization is between a nation’s lower classes and its rulers, the more critically important it becomes for rulers to have this tool at their disposal so as to reduce the chance of insurrection. It would also stand to reason that the more economically helpless the people feel, the more likely they would be to base their sense of solidarity on transcendent factors like a shared belief in God. In these regards the recent Pew data merely provides empirical evidence in support of what sociologists of religion should have pretty well surmised already.

What this doesn’t tell us is what sort of a role personal faith plays in people’s lives, and whether or not that faith is an overall good thing in terms of social dynamics. It is a major leap of faith to move from the Machiavellian theory that the religious faith of the people provides an important means of manipulating them to the Leninist theory that religious faith can be reduced to nothing more than a means of bourgeois manipulation. That is sort of like saying that because antibiotics are being fed to beef cattle to cause them to put on weight faster (in turn leading to humans consuming their meet also to put on weight faster, which is a very real problem these days, by the way), we can conclude that the only function and purpose of antibiotics is to cause weight gain.

So what is the purpose of Christianity, and perhaps other comparable religions, if not to enable social control of the masses? Quite simply, to teach us to respect each other as fellow beings “made in the image of God,” and to look beyond ourselves for the capacity to live up to ideals we feel that we’re not capable of living up to on our own. I won’t bother to proof-text that out here, but if there are any fundamentalists out there who wish to challenge this summary of the Gospel message as inaccurate I’m up for the debate.

For any atheists and other skeptics who consider this to be too optimistic a summary of the faith meanwhile, I freely acknowledge that many of my co-religionists have rather missed (or misplaced) the point on this one, but that doesn’t make it essentially wrong. The fact that the Bible itself is full of bitter power struggles (especially in the Old Testament, but really in both testaments) doesn’t take away the essential focus of the teaching of Jesus on the points given here –– commonly known as “the twin commandment of love”. The rest of the essential message of Christianity can be mind-mapped back to these two points, not with absolute agreement on all of the details involved, but with essential shared purpose among “people of good will” within the faith and beyond it. Here too I’m quite open to further debate with anyone who cares to question this interpretation.

In any case, once you accept that there is more to religion than what Lenin was prone to acknowledge, much of the polemic against theism in general that we find in CJ Werleman’s summary of the Pew report on AlterNet essentially falls apart. The reasoning he gives for seeing atheists as in fact morally superior to theists –– based on the isolated statistic of atheists making up a disproportionately small segment of the US prison population –– really proves none of the points he is trying to make. What this factoid rather tells us is that self-identifying as an atheist is far more risky and thus much rarer among those in lower economic classes and minority communities in American society who end up as the basic fodder of the prison-industrial complex; whereas among the upper classes, who have all sorts of means of avoiding imprisonment when they commit evil deeds, publicly acknowledged atheism is a far safer posture to hold.

Salon’s republication of Werleman’s article then added sloppiness to the intellectual carelessness of the original by captioning their Facebook link with the quote, “Without the South’s religiosity, ‘America’ would look like a developed, secular country…” and then leaving out the poorly reasoned section of the article containing that quote from the version they posted.

For a more rational heuristic as to what sort of people should be more readily trusted and what sort of people should be kept more at arm’s length, rather than looking at how strongly different groups are represented within prison populations we should be considering the frequency of psychopaths occurring among them. In those regards theists have a far from spotless record, especially given the ways in which theism is susceptible to power abuse, but power-hungry atheists generate at least their fair share of social tensions and monsters to be afraid of.

But the primary lessons to be drawn from the Pew survey aren’t essentially about whether either theists or atheists are inherently better people. It rather shows us something about people’s reluctance to trust those whose foundational ethical assumptions are different from theirs. Most specifically, it invites us to consider why it would be that poorer people around the world are more likely to consider their religion as an important basis for personal trust, and why this tendency would be particularly pronounced in the United States in general and in the former Confederate states in particular.

On significant factor here is the dynamic confirmed by recent studies that the wealthier a person becomes, the greater the risk is of that person losing a capacity for empathy.  Thus if religious participation is in many respects an exercise in empathizing with others, it stands to reason that the wealthy will place less importance upon it than those whose empathetic reflexes have not been damaged in this way. This in turn would lead to poorer people having a greater tendency to build contacts with like-minded people through religious activities than rich folks do. Probably a minor factor, but still worth noting.

A far more significant causal factor, I believe, would be a lack of basic education among the poor (not only in the South, but across the US), in civics in particular. This aspect of education involves making learners more aware of those outside of their own closed communities; ideally involving actual mutually respectful contact with people who are part of “other” groups –– those of other skin colors, other language groups, other religious backgrounds, other sexual attractions, other cultural norms, etc. If these “other” people can be kept as a distant abstraction and if authority figures are able to maintain ignorance about such “others” within their isolated communities, that makes hatemongering a far easier process for them. From there they can use that hatred as a means of motivating people to do all sorts of things they may have in mind, or to “take their eye off the ball” as they go about fleecing the suckers. Nor does hatred of the other have to be the result an intentional plot to manipulate the haters; it can be an entirely organic and self-sustaining reaction within ignorant and isolated communities. A brilliant example of this is the ways in which the fictitious Eastern European society in the film Borat looks at Jews.

In this regard the social dynamic we see demonstrated in the recent Pew data is as follows: The better off people are economically, the better educated their children become; the better educated each successive generation is, the less ignorant of and segregated from others they are inclined to be; and the more aware of others they are in practice, the more likely they are to respect those others as individuals regardless of differences in race, religion, language, sexuality, etc. The southern states of the US have their own historical reasons for being somewhat backwards in these regards, but there is no credible sociological argument for reducing religion as a means of improving the situation. Color me optimistic, but I believe that improved civics education, including elements of concrete cross-cultural interaction, can go a long ways in eliminating the toxic prejudicial elements of traditional religious cultures, leaving in place a valuable set of societal resources to be exercised in communities of faith.

map of israelSouthern “Bible Belt” culture and its various spin-offs are a complex problem unto themselves. Besides Machiavellian strategies historically being used by the white aristocracy of the South to control the poor black folk of the region by way of religion (which majorly backfired on them with the role of Martin Luther King Jr. in the Civil Rights Era), there is a widespread ignorant assumption that white American Protestants have somehow inherited the role of “God’s chosen people” from the ancient Israelites. It is fair to say that Bible Belters are not alone in this regard: many forms of religion irrationally declare divine favor on some in-group at the expense of the human dignity of various out-groups, and that they give religion a bad name in the process. It is also fair to say that this aspect of “Christian culture” runs directly contrary to the teachings of Jesus and the core message of Christianity. This problem needs to be dealt with, but not through the elimination of all religious influences in American culture.

Besides the photo ops and private conversations with President Obama last week, the most recent headlines regarding Pope Francis have had to do with his recent theological statements confirming a personal belief in hell as a real place where wicked people’s souls go when they die –– Mafiosos in particular.  The thing which puts one in the position of deserving eternal torment is not defying the church’s authority as such, but disregarding the rights and dignity of other people –– failing to love in the what Jesus commanded us to. I believe that this sort of “hellfire and brimstone” message, not the moralism and cultural control preached by the “religious right” nor the strict secularism preached by the missionaries of “new atheism”, offers the best hope for curing what ails our failing communities. I challenge any of my readers to try and change my mind on this one.

 

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On Hobbies, Lobbying and Religious Freedoms

Those of you who are following the major American ideological debates have probably heard of the “Hobby Lobby” case coming up this month before the US Supreme Court. For those that haven’t, it basically comes down to this: The new Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare” by any other name) basically gives bureaucrats the right to decide what form of “preventative health care” insurance companies should be required to provide for all patients. The current bureaucrats in charge of these things have decided to make pretty much all birth control measures short of surgical abortion part of that category. This first and foremost has got various Catholic employers of all sorts upset because, they claim, that this is requiring them to participate in “anti-life” activities which go against their religious convictions. But in addition to that, other anti-promiscuity-enablement oriented Protestant owned businesses as well are saying that they don’t want to be forced to have a hand in paying for the prevention of pregnancies for their employees. One such business is a chain of “artsy-fartsy” hobby supply shops called Hobby Lobby. They are now suing the government for making them pay for health insurance coverage for their employees when enables those employees to get free birth control pills and which covers “getting their tubes tied” if they so choose. This is what the Supreme Court will be hearing arguments about this month.

hobbylobby003This, dear friends, is the sort of controversy that can only happen in America, for two reasons: 1) Though the United States has been making steady progress of late towards joining the civilized world in terms of recognizing health care as a basic human right, it still remains culturally addicted to allowing corporations’ obscene profit-taking off of health care provision as a higher political priority than patients’ rights to receive basic care regardless of their capacity to pay. This is the factor that prevented “single payer” or even “government sponsored alternatives” to the highly profitable health insurance industry from being enacted in the recent rounds of reform. This means that what would in any other country be paid for by the government –– covered by taxation or a publicly managed insurance scheme –– in the US is still being paid for by employers and private citizens (with a little bit of government backing where private citizens can’t afford the payments that insurance companies demand). And 2) religious organizations in the US are closer to being able to control the political process in the US than in any other traditionally Christian majority democratic country in the world, and in the interest of proving their continued relevance in the process these religious organizations have a certain need to take opportunities like this to try to prove to the world how bad ass they are. Go figure.

It is in cases like this where I am prone to agree with Pope Francis’ famous October homily where he referred to those whose Christianity has become a political ideology as “a serious illness” within the Church.

The argument being put forward by Catholic intellectuals on the matter is that they’re really not out to make sure that other people conform to their church’s religious teachings prohibiting all “artificial” forms of birth control (saying that any form of birth control, other than women crossing their legs to keep men from getting in to impregnate them, is immoral); they’re really just trying to prevent good Catholics from having even a semi-active role in the process. But if that’s true –– if all that Catholics and their fellow anti-recreational sex Christians really want is plausible deniability in the process of actively participating in a culture that approves of such practices, that’s really not all that hard to arrange. There are plenty of ways for them to (figuratively) close their eyes, or to make blindfolds available for them. But effectively, when they’ve been offered such blindfolds to enable deniability, their objection has been, “No, we’ll still know what’s going on, and we just can’t have that.” From there the question becomes, are they really sincere about allowing others not to share their religious convictions and prohibitions or not? Is the point really to maintain deniability, or is it more to make this “sin” that much more inconvenient and thus less frequently practiced among others who don’t happen to share their beliefs? If the deniability argument is really just an excuse for a strategy aiming to reduce the sexual sins of others, freedom of religion should not provide them with an excuse for pursuing such a strategy, even in America.

RS824_MartinEdstrom-SE-130521-5619-960x640I am reminded of the story I heard, about 20 years ago, regarding Muslims in the Swedish higher education system. One provision of the Swedish system for enabling young people to complete university studies in state universities was to provide government guarantees for student loans from commercial banks. This was a problem for Muslim students because their religion strictly forbids them from taking out loans on which they would pay interest. Attempts to set up a properly Islamic shadow student loan organization fell apart, for all sorts of logistical reasons. It was starting to look like self-segregation into a more permanent lower class for lack of higher educational opportunities would be the fate of Sweden’s devout Muslims, but then one imam came up with a solution: He issued a fatwa declaring that, because a non-Islamic government had made the loan system the only available means of attending state universities, as a minority group living within that country without means of decisively changing the situation, young Muslims could take such loans anyway by not thinking of the interest as interest. Because it was money that the government told them they had to pay, after the fact, in order to get an education, it could either be conceptualized as a form of taxation, which sharia law has no problem with. Thought of in this way, a good Muslim could participate in the student loan system and make these interest payments to “corrupt institutions” without being guilty of contributing to an unholy private financial system in their host country, even while nominally participating in such, because in doing so they were really just “paying their taxes”.

Again, assuming that their motivations are purely a matter of seeking deniability in terms of supporting the sins of others, the worst hardship that the Hobby Lobby people and their co-plaintiffs could be forced to endure in terms of a loss of religious liberty is actually a milder version of the crisis of conscience that the Swedish Muslim students went through in the late 20th century. In fact the moral provision is already in place in this regard: in upholding the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act in the first legal challenges against it, the Supreme Court already ruled that, while the federal government does not have the constitutional authority to tell insurance companies how to run their business, it does have the authority to decree forms of taxation which it deems necessary for promoting public health, and in that regard what the whole “Obamacare” system comes down to at the end of the day is an elaborate form of taxation to promote public health. The question from there is whether or not religiously oriented businesses can be required to pay this sort of tax. After that the primary question becomes whether or not the US court system feels justified in telling religiously oriented businesses to “suck it up”.

surpreme-courtRefusing to pay such a tax –– or such a set of insurance premiums –– from there becomes the same sort of civil disobedience as a pacifist refusing to pay federal income tax because she does not want to financially support the United States’ drone bomber program in Pakistan. It is true that tax money from every tax-paying citizen and business in the United States is being used for very immoral purposes according to a pacifist perspective. It is true that pacifists have the moral right to protest against this practice by any means at their disposal, and that no one has a right to attempt to silence them politically. It is true that in choosing the path of civil disobedience –– not paying what the government tells them they have to pay as a matter of placing their moral conscience ahead of government decrees –– they may end up legally suffering in support of a higher moral and political purpose. It is somewhat unimaginable, however, that any US court would make them exempt from paying income taxes on such a basis. Yet this is effectively what Hobby Lobby and company are asking the court to do for them.

It should be obvious that the evangelical fundamentalists at Hobby Lobby are at least as free to practice their faith, in every possible sense, as Swedish Muslim students are to practice theirs. The government is not stopping them from displaying anti-sexual materials in their shops, requiring them in any way to promote sex within their shops, requiring them to remain open on Sundays rather than going to listen to anti-sexual sermons on that day, or in any other way forcing them to accept America’s sexually promiscuous culture. What the government is effectively saying to them is that we need to recognize that sex, for purposes other than making babies, is something that the vast majority of Americans wish to practice, potentially including many of their employees. As part of taking care of the health of such people then, the government of the United States has chosen to join every other democratic government in the Western world other than Ireland in declaring that preventing people from experiencing unwanted consequences of recreational (i.e., non-procreative) sex whenever we are safely and reliably able to do so needs to be part of “health care”. And just as all tax payers are required to contribute to the drone bomber program, all employers are required to cover health care costs for their employees, including forms of health care which enable these employees to have sex without making babies if they so choose. Just as pacifists do not have the right not to pay taxes just because they don’t believe in supporting war, employers do not have the right not to pay for broad health insurance coverage for their employees just because they don’t believe in enabling recreational sex.

ReligiousFreedomRally1_wide-5ef89e31d8b4bb636bcf5f59083eb7f0873704a1-s6-c30From there this is no longer a question of freedom of religion; it becomes a question of the perpetual hobby of the religious right to flex their lobbying muscles. Unlike Sweden’s Muslim students, joint Catholic-Evangelical right wing political pressure groups in the US don’t feel like they are in a position where they must helplessly accept the government’s decrees on such matters. They have been fighting tooth and nail against everything they believe President Obama stands for for more than 6 years already (ever since he began actively campaigning for the office), and the goal of finding excuses to tear holes in his health care legacy appears to be much more important to them than working to strategically reduce the sinfulness of their fellow citizens even. This makes their illness, as Pope Francis defines it, all the more acute. We’re not talking about any manifestation of Christ’s compassion here, but its polar opposite: a power struggle based on purely on hate of the “other”.

obamacare_1_590_396Being as I see the Pope as being on the same side of this issue as I am, I hope it is clear that I’m not in some paranoid way anti-Catholic, but there’s a fair amount of hypocrisy involved in claiming “freedom of religion” as a defense for traditional Catholic beliefs in this matter. It is easily forgotten by those who insist on this ancient tradition’s right to respect that it was not until two years after the Catholic president John F. Kennedy’s assassination that the Catholic Church issued its first statement nominally accepting the whole idea of freedom of religion as part of its official teaching. This went directly against centuries of Catholic teaching explicitly rejecting such a principle, and there are still Catholics today who consider the Second Vatican Council to have committed heresy in making such a statement. This group is a rather small minority within the Catholic Church, but then again so are those who strictly adhere to the church’s official teachings on sex and birth control. The difference is that the anti-religious liberty faction no longer has official status within the Catholic Church; the anti-birth control faction does have such status.

But from an American constitutional perspective all that is beside the point. The point is that, in principle, no one should be telling these most ideologically conservative Catholics what they are and are not allowed to believe, even if they have been historically prone to try to tell others what they are and are not allowed to believe. We cannot tell them what they are or are not allowed to believe and how they must practice their faith, even if their goal is still to tell others what they are or are not allowed to believe and how they must practice their faith.

From here it must be acknowledged that the specific combined case coming before the Supreme Court this month involves strictly Protestant plaintiffs. Does that make it unfair to specifically critique the Catholic position on this one? I don’t think so. As any of the evangelical Protestant opinion leaders on this issue will tell you, when it comes to “pro-life” political activism such as this, thanks largely to the influence of Francis Schaeffer and C. Everett Koop in the late 70s and early 80s, Protestants have been progressively “catching up” with Catholic positions on these matters over the course of the past generation. They share a political goal of restoring Christian ideologies to a position of dominance within the political process and in other cultural arenas. In efforts such as the Manhattan Declaration they have set aside their doctrinal differences for the time being, until the cultural dominance “Judeo-Christian values,” as they loosely define them, is restored.

IX-PiusIt would be fair to say that the Protestant partners in this effort haven’t really thought this matter through yet in philosophical terms. The Catholic position on the question is based on cultural norms predating the American Civil War and other scientific discoveries and cultural crises of the period of the industrial revolution. Catholic teaching against birth control goes back in practice to the teachings of Pope Pius IX, whose long and dysfunctional reign left many cultural scars on Western society in general. Pius’ understanding of sexual reproduction was still based on the Aristotelian understanding of the subject adopted by Thomas Aquinas: the basic soul of the baby was contained in the father’s sperm, and the material for building a body to house that soul was to be found in the mother. It was thus a wife’s job to provide as many bodies as possible for millions of little souls contained in her husband’s sperm, and for a man to never intentionally ejaculate in any that did not give these little souls the possibility of finding bodies for themselves within a woman’s uterus. Obviously most of these souls would never find bodies, but that was beside the point; masturbation was still tantamount to murder.

Later scientific discoveries of 23 chromosomes coming from each parent and all that made little difference in the matter doctrinally: the main issue remained enabling the Church to exercise as much control as possible over people’s sex lives and encouraging Catholic families to procreate as much as possible.

The mandate to maximize procreation made a lot of strategic sense in an era when most poor families would lose as many children to childhood diseases as they would see through to adulthood, and when many young men would die in battle, fighting “for God and country” and many young women would die giving birth to their first or second child. So of course it was only natural that you wouldn’t want to reduce your odds of your bloodline’s survival by limiting the number of children you had. These days, however, the effort to make strategic sense of a mandate to raise large families is a much more abstract process. Our instinctive desires have evolved more in the direction of taking better care of every individual child we chose to have, and not accepting the routine loss of two or three of them in each family as “the will of God” and part of the proper order of things. This largely eliminates the need to have as many children as possible to increase one’s odds of evolutionary survival, with women regularly dying in childbirth being seen as “acceptable collateral damage” and also part of “God’s will” for them.  We have become completely comfortable with “playing God” in matters of limiting childhood and maternal deaths, so it should follow from there that we are also ready to “play God” more in terms of how many babies we keep making.

benedict-2010Now in his last encyclical letter Pope Benedict XVI did have an argument to offer in favor of the socio-economic benefits of continuing to make as many babies as possible: Basically, the more kids you have, the more human resources we will have in the global society as a whole. And as long as we don’t waste any of these human resources, their efforts and ingenuity will translate into greater technical innovations and greater expanded wealth for everyone in the future. To make that work all we have to do is to insure that every kid has enough to eat, adequate medical care and optimal educational opportunities to realize his/her potential. Towards that end we just need to establish a major international organization –– sort of like the United Nations, only “with teeth,” as Benedict says (§ 67) –– for the massive global redistribution of wealth to make sure these kids are provided for. As long as we can establish the sort of global socialist mega-bureaucracy necessary, there’s really no reason to have any form of “artificial birth control” in the world… or so Benedict believes… or at least so he claims… but somehow I don’t see that happening.

So until the social structures Benedict envisions globally are in place, enabling couples to freely decide how often they want to make babies in the process of sexually satisfying each other seems to make an abundance of sense –– for reasons of defending social stability, domestic economics, and yes, for women’s health even. If that involves allowing and even enabling people to have sex without making babies –– thus taking a bit more control over how many babies are born and over how many woman die making them –– more than some religious folk are comfortable with, I think we can live with the idea of limiting the realization of their religious ideals in that regard. Not that this will do much to limit their lobbying hobby, but hopefully it won’t affect the court decision this time around.

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In Search of Objective Morals without God

I’ll finish off the year here by addressing an issue that I promised some critics I’d eventually get back to back in October. My excuses for not writing about this matter sooner are a rambling tale unto themselves that I’ll leave aside for the time being. The question that I wish to consider though is what, if anything, outside of postulating the existence of the divine, can make a moral code “objective”?

While I don’t join such Christian apologists as William Lane Craig in using objective morality to prove that there has to be a God, I am a theist and I do believe that there are certain moral “facts” that are absolutely true, which have their root in what we might call, for lack of a better term, “the mind of God”. I don’t consider all morals to ultimately be objective matters and I freely acknowledge that religion is the source of much immorality in the world, but I still believe that those aspects of morality which are indeed timelessly and absolutely true can only be so if there are rooted in something beyond the contingencies of life as we know it and experience it on a day-to-day basis. I find myself part of a very respected and mainstream position in this regard, while at the same time finding that there are a vast number of ways in which relatively intelligent and well-informed people could reasonably disagree with me about such matters. But my point remains, search as I may, I can’t seem to find any convincing argument for morals being absolute without it coming back around to morals having their basis in the same transcendental realm as other principles of theology.

Discussing this in the autumn with my regular interlocutors on such matters, James and Aaron, I put it to them that I remain agnostic on the question of whether such an absolute but non-theological basis for ethics is “out there”, inviting them to give me reasons for believing in such. James’ style of writing about such things tends to be relatively dry and carefully structured. Aaron, on the other hand, tends to shoot from the hip, blasting away at the points he disagrees with in rapid fire mode, often missing, but making it perfectly clear what he has a distaste for.

Dostoevsky's "Brothers Karamazov" is often cited as the source of questions about what happens to ethics without God.

Dostoevsky’s “Brothers Karamazov” is often cited as the source of questions about what happens to ethics without God.

Let me make it clear from the start here that if either of these gentlemen have serious moral flaws in their day-to-day life and behavior (and I don’t know them well enough to be aware of any such problems), I would not blame them on their lack of belief in God; nor, I believe, would they blame my moral flaws on my religious inclinations. On political matters we are more likely to agree with each other than I am with many fellow theists, than Aaron is with many fellow agnostics and James is with many of his fellow atheists. For instance, while none of us are prone to respect papal authority as such, I believe we would all agree with the Pope Francis’ recent statements that promoting nutrition, education and health care for children is a significantly higher moral priority than protecting the wealthiest citizens’ rights to their private property. The question here is not one of serious disagreement about practical issues then; it’s one of looking for mutual understanding on why children’s well-being in these areas is a moral priority –– and has that always been a “moral fact” or is rather something that has been emerging as a fact over the past couple centuries or so?

The analogy can be drawn with the heliocentric understanding of our solar system. It is generally accepted these days that, regardless of its not having been generally accepted in the past, the earth has for millions of years rotated around the sun, not visa-versa. That is a fact that humans have discovered, not invented. Can we say something similar about the “fact” that enabling all citizens to have access to basic education and health care is a higher moral priority than protecting millionaires’ exclusive rights to determine how all of their money will be spent? Obviously that is part of the teaching of Jesus, but equally obviously as of two or three centuries ago such a moral position was broadly considered to be a utopian absurdity. In our own day and age we still have Ayn Rand disciples (some of whom also, mistakenly, consider themselves to be followers of Jesus) who fundamentally disagree with the concept of such positive human rights. Does that make them any less “morally factual”?

Overall, are we humans in the process of making these into facts or are we in the process of discovering them as facts? And if they are something pre-existent that we are in the process of discovering, where and how have they previously (always?) existed, if not in/with God?

It is that last question that I have yet to find a satisfactory answer to among my atheist and agnostic “moral objectivist” friends. They would like to believe that there are grounds for believing that foundational moral principles are “facts” analogous to those in physics and mathematics in some respects, but that this has nothing to do with religious understandings of such matters. I have seen many unworkable variations on this theme, but so far none that I find completely workable. When it comes to the existence of such a rationally consistent, epistemologically defensible and morally binding ethical theory, I remain an agnostic: such might exist, but I have yet to see one. My purpose here is to explain why the ones I’ve been presented with thus far don’t meet the standards I’m trying to elucidate here.

Let me start by recalling my own variation on Karl Popper’s famous “Three Worlds” perspective (I actually wrote my earliest version of that essay years before I first encountered Popper’s perspective, but that’s beside the point): I believe that a fourth “world” is quite necessary, and when it comes to their ethical implications I don’t believe these worlds can reliably be put in a fixed hierarchical order. The additional necessary world would be that of the divine, or transcendental absolutes, which to one extent or another atheists and strict materialists make a point of categorically denying. From a religious point of view this transcendent “world” would contain the first cause(s) for all and everything in the universe. From an atheistic point of view, if it is acknowledged at all, it is perhaps seen as something of a culmination point for “World 3” matters, and at the same time as a set of principles observable in “World 1”, as Popper calls them.

This world’s exact content is difficult to quantify since, unlike the other three, it is not directly observable in any empirical sense, nor is it subject to change based on human volition. It can be approached in both “left brained” and “right brained” manners –– both rationally and mystically (or intuitively) –– and the elimination of either approach leads to rather warped perspectives. The content of this transcendent realm would include much that has been rejected as being “unscientific” but also much which has been acknowledged as “a priori”. This would include such mathematical concepts as the ultimate value of pi and prime numbers, theoretical concepts used in physics such as the properties of objects travelling close to light speed, moral ideals such as justice and inter-connectedness, and many of the vast varieties of investigations conducted in the name of systematic theology.

In addition to postulating that there must be at least these four “worlds” –– the transcendent, the physical, the individual consciousness and the social/societal –– I would theorize that our ethical structures, to one extent or another, depend on all four. We have some moral matters which concern necessary means of preserving our material environment, but it would be somewhat absurd to reduce all ethics to questions of sustainability. We have some moral matters which are questions of reducing personal suffering in practical terms for major portions of our societies, but that too is in many regards a seriously insufficient standard for morality. We also have moral standards that we conform to in order to protect the social structures we are part of –– be they ethnic traditions, cultural artifacts, patriotic exercises or constitutional procedures –– but those too are insufficient as comprehensive bases for ethics, at least as ends unto themselves. All of those relative and variable factors must be included in the pie we call ethics, but beyond that I too believe that there are some things which we must recognize as absolute matters of moral principle, belonging to the transcendent realm. These would include prohibitions on things we recognize as inherently evil or destructive of things we recognize as inherently good. How broad a category this last one turns out to be is a matter to progressively be discovered, but given its rather sublime nature the discovery process will always be somewhat complicated and methodologically problematic. Sad to say for some, but I believe that much of this discovery process will necessarily continue to fall under the heading of “theology”.

That, in a nutshell, is what I see as the basis of ethics, involving a mix of variable, absolute, subjective and objective considerations. So from this perspective the operative questions are,
1) How much of the field properly belongs in the absolute, objective, “factual” arena?
2) Can the “factual”, objective side of ethics be based in any other realm (or “world”, as Popper calls them) than the transcendent? and
3) To what extent is the transcendent realm, as defined here, inherently related to the person of the supreme deity –– “the one true God”?

Rather than further expanding on my own understanding though, let me move on to explaining why all meta-ethical theories I have thus far encountered strike me as inconsistent, unconvincing, culturally conditioned, theologically based, or some combination of the above. This does not imply any problems in terms of reaching cross-cultural understandings on what norms should be observed and respected within any given context. It’s only a problem if you feel the need to convince me that morality is an inherently objective and non-theistic matter.

In response to my question of what standards they would appeal to, from a non-theistic perspective, in saying, e.g., that slavery has always been inherently evil, Aaron replied, “There are dozens. Hedonism. Egoism. Utilitarianism. Kantian Deontology. Rossian Deontology. Divine Command. Natural Law. Virtue. Social Contact. Intrinsic value. Take your pick. Any one of them could be the rational, objective basis of moral facts.”

Fine, let’s take those ones to start with, one at a time, and see if any of them lead to a good excuse for seeing ethics as an absolute matter without inadvertently falling back on the old theological presuppositions of Western Culture, without coming back to human subjectivity and without theoretically imploding. I’ll necessarily be painting with rather broad brush strokes here, so forgive me for not covering as many details as fans of these particular theories might like.

Hedonism in terms of ethical discussions is going to be largely synonymous with Utilitarianism here. Skip it for now.

Egoism here can be taken as sort of like Utilitarianism with a greater emphasis on the good of the subject than the good of society at large, so it has no particularly unique merits as a basis of moral theory, especially if we are looking for objectivity here.

Utilitarianism then is the first point worth looking at seriously here. In its simplest form: pleasure = good / pain = bad, evil. Its particular distinctive teaching as a meta-ethical theory: the only measure of moral goodness is end results, not means of accomplishment. This, in a nutshell, is also the basis of would-be philosopher Sam Harris’ up-coming challenge. My simplest rebuttal: In Buddhist terms there is truth to the matter that life inherently involves suffering, and Utilitarianism offers no objective answer to the question of what is worth suffering for or how factors like freedom or self-respect figure into the equation. If/once those factors are taken into consideration, it is no longer a factual or objective matter.

Kantian Deontology is in many regards the most basic paradigm for absolute, objective ethics and it highlights the essential difference between Kant’s first and second critiques: The idea of a transcendent metaphysical reality “out there” is something about which our scientific investigations can say very little, but it is precisely this realm which must form the basis for our moral justifications. As one course book I had memorably put it, “what Kant took away [from theology] with his right hand, he gave back with his left.” It’s a long debate, but in the end it’s clear that Kant himself saw “moral facts” as coming from God, and using his theories as a jumping off point for atheistic moral philosophy thus has its own inherent problems.

Rossian Deontology, based on the thinking of William David Ross, to quote from the Stanford Encyclopedia article about him, “presents a unique and compelling form of deontology, according to which there are a plurality of both moral requirements and intrinsic goods. There is no one master principle that explains why the particular things that we believe are wrong/right are in fact wrong/right. Instead, there are a number of basic moral requirements which cannot be reduced to some more fundamental principle.” That seems to me a valid starting point, with much in common with my own intuitive perspectives. This, however, is built not upon objective standards and transcendent moral laws so much as on what Ross saw as the “moral convictions of thoughtful and well-educated people.” While I’m sure those were very nice people, the resulting standards will, by definition, not be objective in the way that theorists here are hoping for.

Divine command obviously is going to provide a theocentric view on moral absolutes. Enough said.

Natural Law is a predominantly Catholic intellectual tradition based on Aquinas developing Christian interpretations of Aristotle. There is little point in looking further there for grounds for absolute ethics for atheists.

“Virtue Ethics” is the label generally given to the neo-Aristotelian position on the subject. This is closely tied to the logic that Aquinas drew from Aristotle in formulating his 5 proofs for the existence of God. The principles from the Nichomachean Ethics, while not inherently theistic, they contain a rather vague description of the virtue that a good man should develop and trade on. This would tend to be taken as some combination of what Popper would call “world 3” factors and what I would call transcendental factors. It won’t give you absolutes without God in any case. If you don’t believe me ask Alstair MacIntyre.

Social Contract ethics, a la Hobbes and followers, is certainly a suitably atheistic in structure, but likewise it is nowhere close to meeting the standard for objectivity that these guys are looking for. It’s based on what societies’ members theoretically want as part of their rationalized greed, not some eternal principle to which they must conform. It will be by definition variable according to the same subjective bases that Ross uses.

Intrinsic Value is generally used as a more neutral term for the moral principle originally formulated in Latin as Imago Dei: because people are “created in the image of God” they are inherently deserving of respect, just due to the value they have as people. There are any number of variations on this principle, and I believe it would be fair to say that any system of thought which does not grant a certain amount of intrinsic value to people as people –– both individually and collectively –– does not deserve to be called “ethics”. But that leaves the matter unresolved as to why people are to be considered intrinsically valuable. No offence, but the less theological those rationalizations have been, the less rational and convincing they are.

So none of Aaron’s off-the-top-of-his-head suggestions on the matter really bear any fruit in terms of providing non-theistic absolutes as ethical foundations. From there he suggested that I go read a book or two by Russ Shafer-Landau and get back to him when I know more. That is the equivalent of an evangelical telling an agnostic that they could continue their talk after the latter had read enough of William Lane Craig to meet the former’s standards, but such is the nature of chats with Aaron at times. Anyway…

I’ve since done a bit of digging into Shafer-Landau’s thoughts on the matter, though probably not enough to satisfy my interlocutors here, and here’s what I’ve found: “Russ” is in many respects sets the modern Platonic ideal for how professors would like to see their students structure their arguments –– an ideal blend of ordinary language and formal logic, tying together “ivory tower” and “Main Street” perspectives. He’s an atheist but not the sort of “new atheist” who sets for himself the task of convincing others to share his enlightened lack of faith. Rather he comes across as a seeker of wisdom in the old model: finding rational justifications for what he personally believes, and framing the discussion so that those who believe differently can come to some mutual understanding with him as to where they each are coming from and what is important to them. In this way he earns significant respect from all who read his stuff and listen to his lectures. Beyond that he is the heir apparent to G.E. Moore’s meta-ethical empire, whatever label you want to put on it. So it would fall to Russ, if anyone, to provide a palatable answer to Bertrand Russell’s post-Moorean dilemma of: “I cannot see how to refute the arguments for the subjectivity of ethical values, but I find myself incapable of believing that all that is wrong with wanton cruelty is that I don’t like it” (volume 11 of Russell’s papers, 310-11).

As I understand it, Shafer-Landau’s justification for believing in the sorts of objective, external, intuitively accessed, factual moral principles that he does, without any reference to God being relevant to the subject, is that these facts are what he considers to be self-evident: “such that adequately understanding and attentively considering just p is sufficient to justify believing that p.” That standard is more than a little bit problematic in itself. It effectively supports its favorite propositions by moralizing against the studiousness and/or the attention span of all who would disagree. His primary point seems to be blocking any ideas which may “conflict with our most important moral convictions and platitudes.” (Quotes from here.) Thus, as a proof that there must be something morally absolute “out there,” I don’t think Russ’s findings would come anywhere near changing Russell’s mind about the matter.

In a video series covering one of his guest lecture he where discusses his ideas’ relationship with religious ideas, Shafer-Landau divides the issue up into two questions: 1) Does objective morality depend on God in order to be viable? (a question of dependence) and 2) Do arguments against the existence of God also work as arguments against the existence of objective morality? (a question of parity). Each of these questions he in turn divides up into two separate aspects to be considered. The dependence question he divides up into consideration of the “authorship argument” and the “reason argument” which might also be called the enforcement argument.  The parity question he divides up into consideration of metaphysical arguments and epistemological arguments.

Regarding the authorship argument –– Can we have “laws” without a “law giver”, which in order for the law to be “objective” could not be human or societal law giver? –– Shafer-Landau argues that, yes we can, since we have the “laws of thermodynamics” operating in just such a manner. This seems to involve a fair amount of equivocation, however, when it comes to the difference between prescriptive and descriptive laws which he introduces later in the same lecture. I’ll come back to that.

Regarding the reason argument –– Can moral laws really make any difference in terms of compelling action without a divine judge to back them up? –– Shafer-Landau confesses that there are some popular atheist arguments against the premise of a divine judge being necessary that he would actually not accept because they would undercut his understanding of the absoluteness of moral standards. His preferred tack on this one is to say that if moral laws are true/factual, then whoever violates them becomes “blameworthy”, and avoiding “blameworthiness” provides a compelling motivation to follow the laws in question. This gives rise to the obvious question, Blameworthy before whom? There would seem to be three basic alternatives here in terms of how the blameworthy thing could motivate people to stay on the straight and narrow, corresponding with Popper’s three worlds: It could be a matter of damaging the material order of things, it could be a matter of falling into a rut of self-rejection, or it could be a matter of facing social stigma. It is “self-evident” however that none of those negative reinforcements are limited to those who have broken objective moral laws, and many who have broken such laws are handily able to escape from all of those consequent forms of suffering. The explanation doesn’t seem to cut it.

On the parity side, when it comes to epistemological arguments against being able to know if there’s a God, Shafer-Landau essentially admits that the same arguments work just as well against being able to know that there are such things as objective moral standards. Challenges to the mechanisms of knowing, factors of historical contingency in the understanding of the matter, the lack of scientific methodology in investigating the issue and the level of disagreement between leading believers in the subject area, he admits, have just as much bite against moral realism as they do against theism. All of these can be argued back against, but only at the expense of alienating some fellow atheists. His honesty in this matter is to be commended.

On the metaphysical side of the parity question, however, he does see essential differences between arguments against religion and those against objective morality. These he sees the challenges essentially as two: the problem of why evil and suffering continue to exist in unjust ways, and the problem of “parsimony”, better known as the Occam’s Razor principle. His argument for differentiating between the degree to which these critiques discredit his program of moral objectivity and to which they discredit the concept of the divine is to be found in the prescriptive/descriptive distinction mentioned above. Moral laws are not required to say how things are; merely to set standards for how things should be done. Religion, he believes, has a greater self-inflicted requirement to describe given states of affairs.

The problem here is that this lower standard for “truth value” for morals than for religion then undercuts their autonomous status with regard to the “law giver” issue. If we are talking about an idealized norm as something distinct from actual states of affairs, the only way that “language game” has any functional currency is if there is some form of consciousness –– be it human, collective, digital or divine –– in which those norms find their origin. The character of the consciousness which effectively institutes and maintains those norms would in turn determine the essential characteristics of the norms in question. So if you can accept the idea of moral laws being just a function of an emergent collective human consciousness, contingent on the various drives and flaws characteristic of that consciousness and not fundamentally aspiring to any higher standard than that, you don’t need any God to get there from here. But if you’re hoping for more than that…

Stopping to consider my interlocutor James, I’m under the impression from his ample writings that he would not like to distance himself too far from Shafer-Landau’s position on these issues. They also both have a certain fascination with terminological distinctions between themselves and their relatively close associates in their field, which seem analogous to the distinctions between “Arminians” and “Neo-Pelagians” or “post-millennialists” and “a-millennialists” in Christian theology. You’ll have to forgive me for not sharing that particular fascination. But I’ll close here with reference to one factor both Russ and James wish to raise in the process of distancing themselves from religious folk: Plato’s Euthyphro dialogue.

The dialog in question, starring Socrates as always, asks the basic question, “Is what is reverent reverent because the gods approve it, or do they approve it because it is reverent?” Reverence here is a sub-category of moral virtue in general, and thus the debate is taken as a classical investigation of the relationship between virtues and divine will, implying that the former cannot be dependent on the latter. There is one essential point of agreement between many theists and atheists on part of this matter: basing our moral decisions exclusively on what we take to be “God’s specific commands” is a highly problematic practice. Beyond that though, the relevance of this dialogue to the question of determining what is absolutely morally true and how that relates to the divine is somewhat limited and “challenged”.

First of all there is the matter of Plato’s presupposing a polytheistic world, in which part of the problem was dealing with the discrepancies between the various gods’ desires. This debate then would be more analogous to a modern discussion between two men regarding the proper way to show a woman that you love her, given that it works a bit differently for each of them. But it still relevant to ask the general question, Are particular signs of love and respect for women taken as such because they fulfill the woman’s basic desires, or do they desire such things because they are seen as signs of love and respect? Underlying this is the question of what is it in general that is essentially pleasing to women, thus setting standards that all men would benefit from operating according to with regard to all women? A tough and mysterious question indeed!

Following through with that analogy then, we might say that, yes, women desire evidence that they are loved and respected more than they want, for instance, the convenience of having doors opened for them, or the sight and smell of flowers in the room, or maybe even the taste of chocolates. But we cannot jump from there to a conclusion that the challenge of expressing love to a woman can be met by following some abstract standard which fails to consider the desires of the particular woman in question!

From there the analogy could be applicable to a theistic understanding of ethics. A transcendent moral law based on “pleasing God” should not be doing so as a matter of blindly following what we take to be his commandments, but nor would it be a matter of following some abstract pattern which shows no consideration for the essential character of the one we are attempting to please.  What Socrates’ discussion with Euthyphro does not prove in this regard is that the character of God would be irrelevant to ethical questions.

Beyond that it’s worth considering the debate in the context of the specific forms of “irreverence” that the Athenian democracy was, in this somewhat fictionalized account, punishing people for. In Socrates’ case his “irreverence” took the form of “corrupting the youth” in various ways. History leaves us insufficient evidence to determine whether or not pedophilia was one of the background factors in this charge being made, but that is a distinct possibility. Whatever the case, Plato’s opinion was clearly that the collective social conscience of the people, based in part on their religious inclinations, was an insufficient moral standard on the basis of which to condemn so great a man.

The character of Euthyphro, meanwhile, was using the same vague irreverence prohibition in Athenian law to prosecute his own father, raising quite a few eyebrows in the process. His father’s offence was nothing serious really; all he did was accidentally kill a slave. There was some question of whether or not the slave deserved to die anyway, and slaves were considered more or less disposable, so nothing was likely to be done about it otherwise. The only thing that gave the slave any form of protection was that particular forms of cruelty to slaves were considered to be punishable on the basis of being “irreverent”. So while from Plato’s and Socrates’ perspective this was a matter of some kid using a patently absurd provision in the judicial code disrespectfully condemn his own father, from Euthyphro’s perspective the issue was that the old bastard had killed another human being and no one else was going to do anything about it, so he felt that it was his moral duty to do so. The gods would not have it any other way.

Regardless of all his difficulty in arguing the meta-ethical foundations of his case with Socrates, in context of the crime in question I believe that any modern ethicist would have to say that Euthyphro was in fact morally in the right with what he was doing. The fact that Plato didn’t see it that way shows just how culturally conditioned his purportedly “objective” ethical standards really were.

I’m available to take this discussion further with any who are so inclined but the cultural standards I hold myself to say I should have found a way to finish this essay about 2000 words ago! So let me just summarize by saying:

–          I’m not arguing here that theists are inherently better people than atheists.

–          I personally believe that ethics needs to contain a mix of subjective, inter-subjective and objective factors to properly “work”.

–          In appealing to absolute and objective standards in ethics, philosophers need to be clear regarding how those standards fit into the rest of their meta-physical world view.

–          Thus far in western intellectual history I have yet to come across a workable absolute and objective ethical standard that does not end up leaning on theological premises or (other) subjective cultural perspectives in its basic formulation.

–          Thus, for the same reasons that Bertrand Russell abandoned G.E. Moore’s ethical system, I find it highly problematic for atheists to attempt to profile themselves as ethical absolutists.

–          Even so, I’m ready to let them pursue their seemingly irrational faith in this regard as far as they want to take it.

God bless all of you who have bothered to read this through, and may you all find ways to become “better people,” whatever that means to you, in this coming year.

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Filed under Basic logic, History, Philosophy, Priorities, Religion, Tolerance

Mandela and Other Heroes

mandela

One of the issues I promised to discuss here, while I was still in the middle of my recent papal series, was the death of Nelson Mandela. I knew I wouldn’t be among the first to write an insightful essay about the meaning of his life after his passing, but while the issue is still relatively fresh and while some of the debates about his legacy are still swirling, I believe it is appropriate for me to toss in my two cents worth. Not that mine is a particularly important voice in such matters, but having spent a fair amount of time in South Africa during the past few years, and having set the task for myself here of discussing major topics related to the meaning of life in general, Mandela’s life is one I definitely should say something about.

“Madiba,” as his admirers call him, had the sort of death that all people, men in particular, hope for: “full of years,” in bed, surrounded by those who loved him, internationally admired and deeply mourned by those who wish to carry his legacy forward. Those factors to a great extent compensate for his having lost the prime of his life to forced labor mining limestone on an island in South Atlantic, for having lost many friends to a violent conflict with an evil regime, and for having lost a son to a terrible disease which has come almost to typify the country which counts him as its father. All in all then I both would and at the same would not want to have a life like his.

It has been almost inevitable to draw comparisons between Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr. At the very least they were both black men of deep principle who came to symbolically represent the struggle in the 1950s and 60s in particular to prevent people from being unjustly essentialized based primarily on their skin color and/or the continent of their ancestry (as of, say, 500 years earlier). Both paid a heavy price for taking on the role of symbolic leader for their people against the injustices they were experiencing: Mandela with his freedom, King with his life. Both knew the risks in advance and were quite ready to pay this price if necessary. Both, very centrally, preached a message not of revenge but of overcoming historic hatreds and divisions between peoples. Both were men of moral failings, particularly as husbands, but that is ultimately irrelevant to their heroic life’s work. (Had it been traditional sexual morality and “family values” that they were fighting for, their failures in those areas would be more directly relevant.) Both of them recognized that the question of racism could not be entirely separated from the problem of “classism”: denying the importance of manual laborers within economic and social processes, and treating such workers as expendable commodities. Both, it could be argued, succeeded in breaking down many of the borders of race at the expense of reinforcing many of the borders of class. Both were deeply hated and demonized by the forces of “conservatism” in particular, yet both have had conservatives attempting to casually symbolically exploit their heroic status since their deaths in ways that should be revolting to anyone for whom integrity in historical interpretation has any significance.

Then just as Martin Luther King was subject to verbal abuse from both Malcom X on the left and Jerry Falwell on the right, Madiba too had been critiqued both by those on the left and on the right. Those on the left cite his failure to live up to the ANC’s “Freedom Charter” in terms of their government acquiring a significant portion of the massive wealth being generated by gold and diamond mining in particular, held quite exclusively by the white population, and to use that wealth to provide safety and basic services for the country’s poor blacks. Those on the right critique him for having attacked the country’s “job creators” both ideologically and militarily in the process of revolutionary struggle, and for not giving them all they were hoping for in the aftermath of the revolution. And for many people’s taste Mandela remained far too friendly with all sorts of abusers of power in the world –– ranging from the Anglo-American mining group and the Oppenheimer banks managing their ill-gotten gains, to homicidal maniac African dictators like Gaddafi and Mugabe. For old school American Republicans, meanwhile, it is enough to know that Fidel Castro was able to number Mandela among his personal friends, and Ronald Reagan counted Mandela among his personal enemies.

But rather than morally discrediting Madiba, this flack from both sides may be an indication of his greatest merit: Any true peacemaker (other than those manufactured by the Colt Corporation) will be hated by those on both sides of the conflict he is mediating who are addicted to their own violent mentalities; and those who are not able to listen to and deal civilly with those who wield power badly are essentially doomed to perpetual ineffectiveness. Making peace between those existentially committed to hating each other will involve this sort of attack from both sides, inevitably –– open question of whether the fruits of peace will be enough to encourage people to allow the peace to last and to overcome the hatreds in question.

The real questions concerning Madiba’s legacy for coming generations is really not whether there was merit in his words and actions, but rather whether those words and actions will be followed by up-and-coming leaders, or whether calloused greed and corruption will doom the country and the continent to a perpetual state of widespread human suffering and on-going low to medium-grade civil wars.

The problem of cleaning up the mess created when a portion of society is treated as a disposable resource is an ancient one, which no portion of the globe has been immune to. When massive changes in the base economy –– in the basic systems by means of which one is able to keep one’s family healthy and fed –– leave some people tossed aside as no longer needed by “respectable folk,” there are strong reasons, both moral and practical, for doing something to help them. Yet the “industry” of providing aid to those in such tragic circumstances has always been rife with corruption and abuse. The poor are not in any solid position to critique the quality of work being done among those who have been sent to help them, and rarely can donors justifiably blame the continued existence of widespread problems on the incompetence of those they are paying to help deal with such problems. Thus, with no reliable means of holding the aid workers responsible for achieving results, and with a seemingly endless supply of problems for them to deal with, there is little to stop those who are so inclined from keeping a significant amount of the resources they are supposed to be using to help the poor for their own private use. This problem remains the same whether we are talking about government organizations, religious institutions, privately run NGOs and “development funds” or UN-based charities: there will always be a “cookie jar” for some to get their hand stuck in. Still in each case the question remains, will those who prioritize compassion and solidarity over greed outnumber the greedy by a large enough margin to make the process of caring for those in need effective regardless of the corruption that inevitably keeps creeping in?

Citing the ways in which such welfare programs get abused at times, both by those within the aid delivery mechanisms and by aid recipients themselves who know how to “play the system” properly, there are many calloused individuals who believe this work should be set aside, and we should focus our efforts on more “productive matters” in the economy. At the very least they would like to see government step entirely out of the role of caring for the poor, leaving such a task to the good will of private sector individuals with their own random religious and/or humanistic motivations for occasional generosity. Preventing South Africa from becoming prey to such a mentality needs to be the top priority in maintaining something of Madiba’s legacy there. Jacob Zuma’s general incompetence at meeting the needs of his country’s poor and at regulating industry for the good of the workers and the environment must not be taken as evidence that government should just give up on such matters. Here Mandela would want his legacy to reflect the principle stated by Pope Francis just before his (Mandela’s) death: “Just as the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say ‘thou shalt not’ to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills.”

There are two essential means of dealing with such a deadly economy of inequality and exclusion (which sadly we find in some of its most abusive forms these days in South Africa and the United States): government redistribution of resources and disparity limitation laws. The former involves taxing those who have become rich –– not stopping to judge what combination of good fortune, personal hard work and taking advantage of the hard work of others enabled them to get that way –– and using those funds to provide services that allow even the poorest to have basic human dignity in their lives. The latter has historically taken the form of minimum wage laws, but it would be far more effective if it were rather set in terms of maximum wage laws. The question can essentially be posed, within any given economic system, how many times more should the maximum contributor be given relative to what the minimum contributor gets? Ten times more? A hundred times more? A thousand times more? Ten thousand times more? If we can reach a basic understanding within our societies on that matter, then from there it can be made a matter of law that those who are at the highest level in a mining corporation cannot give themselves salaries over that multiple of what they are paying their basic workers –– their miners, cooks, cashiers and cleaners.

walmart protest messageTo avoid stock option loopholes on this making such a law meaningless, there would also need to be certain limits set on how much of the profit a company makes each year be distributed to shareholders as dividends, as opposed to being paid in salaries and bonuses to all those working in the company –– right down to the men and women with shovels and mops in their hands. Nor does the effect of such laws need to be limited to corporations: laws functioning on the same principle can be implemented for entire states, or nations, charging substantial tariffs on goods being brought into their territory which are not produced according to these basic principles.

These systems are not mutually exclusive by any means. We can have both systems of redistribution and disparity limitation working side by side with each other. The point is that leaving income disparity, social exclusion, extreme poverty and injustice (in terms of a lack of protection for basic rights) untreated to the extent that they are now still is not a morally acceptable option, nor an economically viable one in the long term. Madiba’s legacy should give South Africans –– and other global citizens inspired by this legacy –– the courage to face such problems and not allow them to be swept under the rug.

One tactic I have seen used in attempting to neutralize this message though is to accuse those who wish to carry Madiba’s legacy forward of tasteless hero worship. An old distant acquaintance of mine, somewhat typically for those of this mindset, said last week, “People seek a savior, like Gandhi or Mandela to have hope. A hope orchestrated by those in power to pacify the masses. Mandela was on the terrorist list until 2008 and now those who imprisoned him or supported it give speeches of his sainthood. A bone they throw to the masses like a lottery ticket. (…) Do not trust those who make saints which where their enemy.” So in other words, don’t get sucked into this whole admiration of Mandela thing. It’s really nothing but hype designed to manipulate you.

In one sense I agree with him: As stated above in my brief survey of the comparisons between Mandela and Dr. King, both of these great men have had those who had no stomach for their message still attempting to associate themselves with these leaders’ moral status. It stands to reason that not all who claim to respect Madiba’s heroism and to be following his moral example deserve to have their claims taken seriously. (Rick Santorum’s effort to compare his political agenda with Mandela’s has to be the most absurd thus far, but I’m sure it will get worse.)

Even so, I’m not sure if the fellow I’ve just quoted honestly believes that moral leaders like Mandela and Gandhi are nothing but some sort of insignificant manikins which conspiratorial forces on the left have propped up purely for show. If so, he’s been listening to way too much right wing propaganda pretending to be “news”. Nor is it clear to me exactly which conspiratorial forces he believes might be trying to “pacify” the masses by means of such figures of hope, or for that matter what dangerous forms of “pacification” he is afraid this might lead to. The implication seems to be merely that for those in the political center or on the political left to have heroes that symbolize hope for change should not be considered a good thing. In terms of that principle I fundamentally disagree with him. Yet the question of how seriously we take our heroes does deserve some consideration here regardless.

Within hours of Mandela’s death being publicly declared I posted the brief comment, “Humanism can now get to work on the last remaining rituals for the equivalent of canonization.” I wasn’t being cynical about it; I merely saw it as inevitable that immediately after his passing there would be people lining up to declare his greatness to the world, holding him up as an example for all mankind without even getting religious about it. They always do that when someone of great moral status dies. (The political right tried to generate the same sort of heroic remembrance for Margaret Thatcher when she died this year but they failed miserably.) With Madiba, deep reverence for his memory was a fait accompli. Equally inevitable though were the resulting misgivings in some circles over this “equivalent of canonization” being enacted.

Sympathetic heroes leaving this life can have profound motivational effects on their admirers, and whether you consider that to be a good thing or not depends on what you think of the agenda of the hero in question. Religious Right leader Ralph Reed famously criticized the Democratic National Convention by saying, “And unlike the other side, we haven’t gathered in this city this week to anoint a messiah, because you see we already have a messiah.”  What Reed failed to mention in that particular speech is that the messiah that the Religious Right has already found was in fact Mandela’s personal enemy, Ronald Reagan.ronnie

I personally object to Reagan being chosen as a hero for a generation because his primary role in history was to eliminate as many protections for the world’s poor as possible and to expand income gaps in the United States and the rest of the world as far as possible. But I don’t object in principle to those who fundamentally disagree with me on political matters having their own heroes who help them find the motivation to “get up and do what needs to be done.” If there was one thing that Reagan did almost right it was to motivate Americans to work hard through a naïve belief in their own national greatness. He was painfully mistaken about that sort of pride being the theme of Springsteen’s Born in the USA, but he was correct in asserting that he had succeeded in raising such pride.

When people have the hope necessary to work hard in order to build a brighter future, that generally has positive effects on the society in question. It might have had that effect on the United States following the Reagan years as well, were it not for the effective dynamic that Pope Francis has astutely pointed out this month: “The promise was that when the glass was full, it would overflow, benefiting the poor. But what happens instead, is that when the glass is full, it magically gets bigger nothing ever comes out for the poor.”  The rich benefited from the harder work that Reagan motivated people to do, and consequently the rich found new ways of getting more productivity out of their workers for less pay in the process. Things have been getting progressively worse and less secure for basic laborers in the US economy ever since.

Mandela is also the sort of hero which was capable of giving people hope, motivating them to work harder and believe more in the future. Whether or not this additional motivation will provide a better long-term pay-off for South Africa’s poor and middle class than what America’s equivalent demographic got out of the Reagan revolution remains to be seen. Some believe Zuma has already screwed things up too far for much good immediate good to come of Madiba’s legacy, but hope for growth and restoration still remains. Whatever the case, Mandela succeeded in convincing people that they can work together for the common good, regardless of differences in class, religion and skin color. He succeeded in convincing most people to put their bitterness behind them and to use the newly available democratic means of influencing the society they live in rather than the violence they had to use when that was the only tool at their disposal. He also made significant progress in convincing some of the wealthy whites there of the truth of another point restated quite forcefully by the pope last month: “Until exclusion and inequality in society and between peoples are reversed, it will be impossible to eliminate violence. …When a society… is willing to leave a part of itself on the fringes, no political programs or resources spent on law enforcement or surveillance systems can indefinitely guarantee tranquility. This is not the case simply because inequality provokes a violent reaction from those excluded from the system, but because the socioeconomic system is unjust at its root.”

Peace with justice might be a rather naïve hope in many respects, but it is still the greatest hope we have for the realization of spiritual virtues and for the preservation of human societies on this planet. If “canonizing” Mandela helps increase hope for that sort of future I say canonize away!

Concerning the risks involved in hero worship in cases like this, one friend of mine recently posted the quote from the Tao Te Ching: “If you over-esteem great men people become powerless.” And yes, many times in following a profoundly charismatic leader people cease to think for themselves and act on their own initiative. But I qualify this with the tongue-in-cheek observation that if we are to apply Lao Tzu’s ancient words of wisdom to our current political situation it is clear that it is the US Republican party he is specifically warning us about. The proof is found in the stanzas directly below the warning against over-esteem: “If you overvalue possessions people begin to steal. The Master leads by emptying people’s minds… and toughening their resolve. He helps people lose everything they know, everything they desire, and creates confusion…” Sort of obvious who what party he’s talking about, isn’t it?

But seriously, the risk of making Mandela into a saint should be really be looked at in the context of what Mandela himself had to say about the matter: “I am not a saint, unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying.”

Let’s all keep pushing ourselves to keep following his “holy example” on that one.

 

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“What Does the Pope Say?” Part 3

Continuing on where I left off last week regarding Pope Francis’ instant classic, Evangelii Gaudium, we were considering his exhortation to meditate on the many scripture texts which speak of “the inseparable bond” between the message of salvation and loving our neighbor. In short, Francis is saying in no uncertain terms that those who have a genuine urge to connect with and help those who are in need find this sort of activity to be one of their deepest sources of satisfaction in life, and those who do not feel such an urge are unlikely to be saved –– to be numbered among God’s people to begin with. He makes a strong biblical case for this being a core element of the Christian message, the rest being details.

Papal audience, St. Peter's Square, Vatican City, Rome, Italy - 06 Nov 2013So from there the question of “What must I do to be saved?” shows up in a rather different light. When Jesus was confronted by the “rich young ruler” (Luke 18:18-27) who originally asked such a question, he instructed him to “Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” It is broadly understood that this injunction was a matter of council for this particular individual, not a precondition for salvation for all would-be believers. But how close should rich people in particular be expected to come to this exhortation in order to gain “treasure in heaven” and the status of living as one of God’s children here on earth?

When it comes to final judgment on such matters, the pope is willing to leave the ultimate determination up to God. He seems to consider this to be part of the spirit of the principle of subsidiarity. But the core issue of the faith remains prioritizing the sharing of God’s compassion ahead of all personal safety and comfort concerns. It is the details of how one goes about fulfilling this mission that are left to be settled between the believer and God. “[N]either the Pope nor the Church have a monopoly on the interpretation of social realities or the proposal of solutions to contemporary problems.” (EG 184) Yet unlike his predecessors, Francis refuses to let these matters of social responsibility be reduced to vague generalities that can readily be swept under the rug: “The Church’s teachings concerning contingent situations are subject to new and further developments and can be open to discussion, yet we cannot help but be concrete – without presuming to enter into details – lest the great social principles remain mere generalities which challenge no one. There is a need to draw practical conclusions, so that they ‘will have greater impact on the complexities of current situations’.” (EG 182)

The issue here is the message of God’s Kingdom being revealed on earth. This cannot be reduced to a matter of personal mystical experience. “Nor should our loving response to God be seen simply as an accumulation of small personal gestures to individuals in need, a kind of ‘charity à la carte’, or a series of acts aimed solely at easing our conscience. […] To the extent that [God] reigns within us, the life of society will be a setting for universal fraternity, justice, peace and dignity.” (EG 180)

“It is no longer possible to claim that religion should be restricted to the private sphere and that it exists only to prepare souls for heaven. […] Christian conversion demands reviewing especially those areas and aspects of life ‘related to the social order and the pursuit of the common good.’” (EG 182)

“Jesus’ command to his disciples: ‘You yourselves give them something to eat!’ (Mk 6:37)… means working to eliminate the structural causes of poverty and to promote the integral development of the poor, as well as small daily acts of solidarity in meeting the real needs which we encounter. The word “solidarity” is a little worn and at times poorly understood, but it refers to something more than a few sporadic acts of generosity. It presumes the creation of a new mindset which thinks in terms of community and the priority of the life of all over the appropriation of goods by a few.

“Solidarity is a spontaneous reaction by those who recognize that the social function of property and the universal destination of goods are realities which come before private property. The private ownership of goods is justified by the need to protect and increase them, so that they can better serve the common good; for this reason, solidarity must be lived as the decision to restore to the poor what belongs to them.” (EG 188-9)

This means education, access to health care, and above all employment” offering “a just wage [which] enables them to have adequate access to all the other goods which are destined for our common use.” (EG 192)

Or to put this message in concrete political terms, one can be anti-socialist or one can be a follower of Jesus, but one cannot be both! This message is so clear and direct, so simple and eloquent, that no ecclesial interpretation has the right to relativize it.” (EG 194)

Francis goes on to point out that when St. Paul speaks of avoiding “disqualification” for rewards in heaven for his efforts at spreading the gospel, in Galatians 2, the basic qualification that he holds up as the legitimizing factor for his mission (in verse 10) is that he had eagerly continued to “remember the poor.” If you don’t want to be disqualified before God then, do like Paul did and never let caring for the poor slip from your priorities.

Jesus himself grew up poor, as evidenced by the fact that when he was presented as an infant at the temple, his parents offered doves rather than a sheep. Whatever their social status then, Christians are called to identify with this same sense of poverty. “This is why I want a Church which is poor and for the poor. They have much to teach us. Not only do they share in the sensus fidei, but in their difficulties they know the suffering Christ. We need to let ourselves be evangelized by them.” (EG 198)

So to be true to the message of the Gospel, believers must continuously identify with the interests of the poor. This does not exclude participation in professions involving wealth and power, but it sets conditions on how we relate to such positions:

“Business is a vocation, and a noble vocation, provided that those engaged in it see themselves challenged by a greater meaning in life; this will enable them truly to serve the common good by striving to increase the goods of this world and to make them more accessible to all.” (EG 203)

Politics, though often denigrated, remains a lofty vocation and one of the highest forms of charity, inasmuch as it seeks the common good. […] I beg the Lord to grant us more politicians who are genuinely disturbed by the state of society, the people, the lives of the poor! It is vital that government leaders and financial leaders take heed and broaden their horizons, working to ensure that all citizens have dignified work, education and healthcare.” (EG 205)

Notice that he makes no mention here of politicians preventing pornography, homosexuality or birth control –– the favorite issues of those fighting for “morality” in the name of the Church. In fact those issues are not raised in the entire document. The repeated issues which believing academics, businessmen and politicians should be addressing, as Francis sees it, are to care for the needs of the poor, particularly in terms of ensuring that they have access to quality education and health care regardless of their economic status, and ensuring that their labor is duly compensated –– that corporations are no longer allowed to pay their employees slave wages.

Francis does somewhat apologetically maintain the traditional Catholic position on abortion, but with some significant liberal caveats attached: “Among the vulnerable for whom the Church wishes to care with particular love and concern are unborn children, the most defenseless and innocent among us. […] Yet this defense of unborn life is closely linked to the defense of each and every other human right. It involves the conviction that a human being is always sacred and inviolable, in any situation and at every stage of development. […] Precisely because this involves the internal consistency of our message about the value of the human person, the Church cannot be expected to change her position on this question. I want to be completely honest in this regard. […] On the other hand, it is also true that we have done little to adequately accompany women in very difficult situations, where abortion appears as a quick solution to their profound anguish, especially when the life developing within them is the result of rape or a situation of extreme poverty. Who can remain unmoved before such painful situations?” (EG 213-214)

This statement rather conveniently, though somewhat necessarily, skirts around the uncertainty factor regarding the presence of an eternal soul in the fetus “from the moment of conception” which John Paul II acknowledged in his anti-abortion opus Evangelium Vitae: “Even if the presence of a spiritual soul cannot be ascertained by empirical data… what is at stake is so important that, from the standpoint of moral obligation, the mere probability that a human person is involved would suffice to justify an absolutely clear prohibition of any intervention aimed at killing a human embryo. Precisely for this reason, over and above all scientific debates and those philosophical affirmations to which the Magisterium has not expressly committed itself, the Church has always taught and continues to teach that the result of human procreation, from the first moment of its existence.” (EV 60) In other words we’re not really talking about certainty regarding the existence of an eternal soul in the embryo here; we’re talking about a combination of probabilities and emphatic dogmatic traditions being maintained for their own sake. But even the most strident liberal can probably see that it would open up all sorts of counter-productive cans of worms for Francis to dig any deeper in reforming church teaching on this question. If he can continue to prioritize care for those in the sort of “profound anguish” that in extreme cases leads to abortion over further legislation to regulate abortion, that has to be seen as a positive step.

Francis’ take on scientific matters in general here is not without its problems. He doesn’t really have anything new to say about this matter, but in enthusiastically reinforcing the traditions of the past couple of generations at least he claims, “The Church has no wish to hold back the marvelous progress of science. On the contrary, she rejoices and even delights in acknowledging the enormous potential that God has given to the human mind. Whenever the sciences – rigorously focused on their specific field of inquiry – arrive at a conclusion which reason cannot refute, faith does not contradict it. Neither can believers claim that a scientific opinion which is attractive but not sufficiently verified has the same weight as a dogma of faith.” (EG 243)

In other words we have three essential categories here: absolute scientific facts, dogmas of faith and scientific opinions. Francis is saying that they must be prioritized in precisely that order: Dogmas of faith always take precedence over “scientific opinions”, but “conclusions which reason cannot refute,” also known as scientific facts, take precedence over statements of faith –– presumably even dogmas of faith. This could turn into a really messy debate if we pursue it to its logical conclusions. But given that this is an “exhortation” rather than a formal doctrinal statement, it’s probably best just to leave this as an expression of good will to keep channels of communication open between the Catholic Church and the “scientific community” –– an effort to keep ideologies from blocking the path to “authentic, serene and productive dialogue.” (ibid.)

In addition to dialogue with science as such, Francis also takes the time to promote dialogue with Protestants, Orthodox Church members, Jews, Muslims and agnostic seekers in particular. He stresses that other churches, Muslims and Jews really do worship the same God that Catholics do, and agnostics are often sincerely searching for the sort of spiritual truth that comes from the God of the monotheistic faiths. The point is for “believers and non-believers to engage in dialogue about fundamental issues of ethics, art and science, and about the search for transcendence.” If there wasn’t enough here to make fundamentalists’ heads explode already, that should certainly do it.

But Francis is also acknowledging the need for reconciliation with those theoretically within his own camp –– those claiming to do “God’s work” through various forms of right-wing political action. To them he says, “If anyone feels offended by my words, I would respond that I speak them with affection and with the best of intentions, quite apart from any personal interest or political ideology. My words are not those of a foe or an opponent. I am interested only in helping those who are in thrall to an individualistic, indifferent and self-centred mentality to be freed from those unworthy chains and to attain a way of living and thinking which is more humane, noble and fruitful, and which will bring dignity to their presence on this earth.” (EG 208)

What a wonderfully eloquent way of saying, “as your friend I’m trying to help you overcome your current problem of being a complete waste of space on this planet”! Let’s hope they are able to receive this message entirely in the spirit in which it was written.

Francis closes this epistle with a reverent tribute to Jesus’ mother, tying her persona quite directly into his central message: “Contemplating Mary, we realize that she who praised God for ‘bringing down the mighty from their thrones’ and ‘sending the rich away empty’ (Lk 1:52-53) is also the one who brings a homely warmth to our pursuit of justice.” (EG 288)

I must confess though, my “low church” up-bringing has not provided me with this sort of appreciation for the liturgy of the sacred feminine. I don’t reject this form of spirituality; I just don’t strongly identify with this particular appeal. So I’ll close here with a quote from part 274 that all of the “others” which the pope hopes to build a dialogue with could agree on:

We achieve fulfillment when we break down walls and our heart is filled with faces and names!”

May each of you find your hearts so filled this holiday season!

 

 

 

 

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“What Does the Pope Say?” Part 2

Following through with the historical and ideological background to Evangelii Gaudium which I wrote about here last time, I’d now like to carefully consider what the document itself has to say. As I said before, the main point is the matter of getting Catholics to evangelize more –– to spread the message about how wonderful their church is, to get as many new people to join as possible, and to convince those who have been baptized into it to take that identity a bit more seriously.

francis photo op

The irony, however, is that Francis comes across as honestly not being concerned about defending or popularizing the institutional structure of the church as such. The institutional self-preservation instinct is what he’d ideally like to escape from: “I dream of… a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything, so that the Church’s customs… and structures can be suitably channeled for the evangelization of today’s world rather than for her self-preservation.” (27) He goes on to seriously slam the “spiritual worldliness” of those who put institutional concerns ahead of human needs in the Church. Dealing with this matter, he acknowledges, will require some significant changes in the status quo culture of Catholicism –– a major new counter-reformation of sorts. “When preaching is faithful to the Gospel… it becomes clear that Christian morality is not a form of stoicism, or self-denial, or merely a practical philosophy or catalogue of sins and faults. Before all else, the Gospel invites us… to see God in others… and to seek the good of others. Under no circumstances can this invitation be obscured!” (39)  “Frequently, we act as arbiters of grace rather than its facilitators. But the Church is not a tollhouse; it is the house of the Father, where there is a place for everyone, with all their problems.” (47)

The primary issue Francis raises with regard to missions is for this to be a matter of “flow,” for believers; for Catholics to be “in their element,” as Ken Robinson  would say, spreading the Gospel. Everything else is details. The more in need of compassion someone is, the greater the sense of flow in reaching out to them should be. This shouldn’t be a burden or a tiresome responsibility that goes with the job for priests and church workers; this should be their primary motivation for being in the business to begin with. This must never be forgotten: “Sometimes we lose our enthusiasm for mission because we forget that the Gospel responds to our deepest needs, since we were created for what the Gospel offers us: friendship with Jesus and love of our brothers and sisters” (265). This gets messy, but that’s part of the thrill of it. “Jesus wants us to touch human misery…. He hopes that we will stop looking for those personal and communal niches which shelter us from the maelstrom of human misfortune and instead enter into the reality of other people’s lives and know the power of tenderness. Whenever we do so, our lives become wonderfully complicated and we experience intensely what it is to be a people, to be part of a people.” (270)

If someone doesn’t “get this,” she/he shouldn’t be involved in missionary matters. “Only the person who feels happiness in seeking the good of others, in desiring their happiness, can be a missionary. This openness of heart is a source of joy.” Francis clearly doesn’t think very highly of those who lack his enthusiasm in this area, however. He has serious doubts about whether they can even be considered Christian believers to begin with. “Loving others is a spiritual force drawing us to union with God; indeed, one who does not love others ‘walks in the darkness’ (1 Jn 2:11), ‘remains in death (1 Jn 3:14) and ‘does not know God’ (1 Jn 4:8).” Summarizing this biblical teaching in his own words, Francis says, “We do not live better when we flee, hide, refuse to share, stop giving and lock ourselves up in our own comforts. Such a life is nothing less than slow suicide.” (272)

This is infinitely more important to Francis than having power or influence as such. “My mission of being in the heart of the people is not just a part of my life or a badge I can take off; it is not an ‘extra’ or just another moment in life. Instead, it is something I cannot uproot from my being without destroying my very self. I am a mission on this earth; that is the reason why I am here in this world.” (273)

This doesn’t mean it always comes easy and effortlessly to him either. Since the extent to which he succeeds in his mission of expressing God’s love to people cannot be measured reliably in terms of quantitative effects, the process of maintaining motivation can be a challenge at times. “Sometimes it seems that our work is fruitless, but mission is not like a business transaction or investment, or even a humanitarian activity. It is not a show where we count how many people come as a result of our publicity; it is something much deeper, which escapes all measurement. […] It is true that this trust in the unseen can cause us to feel disoriented… I myself have frequently experienced this. Yet there is no greater freedom than that of allowing oneself to be guided by the Holy Spirit, renouncing the attempt to plan and control everything.”(279-280)

So helping his flock find or rediscover this joy of loving others, especially those who are not “safe” to love, especially when it gets messy, is the essential point of this exhortation. The rest is a matter addressing details of maintaining missionary motivation, not allowing the message of compassion to get lost under the rubble of moralizing, adjusting the preaching and liturgical processes to serve this purpose, keeping doors open for anyone who wishes to come in, and maintaining dialog with those who chose not to identify with the Catholic Church –– especially those who chose to “be part of a people” and to “love their neighbors as themselves” on the basis of some other spiritual or ideological understanding. That is what it takes him approximately 50,000 words to say here.

Which of those details are most worth pointing out is going to be a matter of editorial taste for any of us who attempt to review this document, but with all standard disclaimers in place, here’s my take on details I find particularly interesting and important. One particular issue I must raise at this point though: I don’t believe that this document can be done justice without some serious consideration of the mystical religious perspective it comes from. Thus it will not really work to take this as an ecclesiastical statement in support of the “Occupy” movement, as some have done.  The crimson thread tying this whole document together is what we Protestants tend to refer to as “The Great Commission” . It is not my intention to preach at anyone, but it would be absurd to try to sanitize the sermon elements out of my analysis of this important moral/political/devotional document. So if you have any sort of allergy to that sort of promotion of the Christian message, you might want to stop reading here. And now, on with the show.

First of all, in the section which has been the most thoroughly picked up on in the international news media, one passage in particular stands out with regard to the theological context I was talking about last time:

“Just as the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say ‘thou shalt not’ to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills. How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points? […] Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless. As a consequence, masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape.” (53)

Without stating so explicitly, Francis is here taking a direct stab at the principle from Veritatis Splendor that has been used for the past twenty years to justify Catholics distancing themselves from social justice issues. Positive requirements of love can no longer be a lower priority in terms of absolute ethics than negative requirements of God’s law. He’s telling his flock that they can no longer hide behind excuses of “cultural relativity” while supporting unjust social systems based on laissez-faire capitalism that are literally killing people. Unjust exclusionary and marginalizing practices designed to enable the rich to keep getting richer must no longer be considered acceptable! They must be considered to be absolutely evil, and any excuse for saying otherwise is contrary to the Christian Gospel. A good Catholic cannot support trickle-down economics in good conscience, for “Behind this attitude lurks a rejection of ethics and a rejection of God.” (57) You can’t get much stronger language without a direct declaration of interdict!

Another thing that caught my attention about the section where he was going on about the rights of the poor and the evils of gross inequality was the extent to which the pope’s rhetoric sounded familiar from my Zygmunt Bauman readings from last summer. The second paragraph of part 54 could easily have come directly from Bauman’s Wasted Lives:

 “Human beings are themselves considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded. […] The excluded are not the ‘exploited’ but the outcast, the ‘leftovers’.”

And the only Baumanesque touch missing from the cultural description at the beginning of part 62 is the use of Bauman’s trademark term “liquid modern”:

“In the prevailing culture priority is given to the outward, the immediate, the visible, the quick, the superficial and the provisional. What is real gives way to appearances. In many countries globalization has meant a hastened deterioration of their own cultural roots and the invasion of ways of thinking and acting proper to other cultures which are economically advanced but ethically debilitated.”

Yet Francis’ take on the media generation is not entirely borrowed from other social theorists of his age and older. Rather than longing for a less liquid and connected world, the pope is reaching out and asking for help in finding ways to build genuinely spiritual, interpersonal elements into our virtual communities.

“Today, when the networks and means of human communication have made unprecedented advances, we sense the challenge of finding and sharing a ‘mystique’ of living together, of mingling and encounter, of embracing and supporting one another, of stepping into this flood tide which, while chaotic, can become a genuine experience of fraternity, a caravan of solidarity, a sacred pilgrimage. Greater possibilities for communication thus turn into greater possibilities for encounter and solidarity for everyone. If we were able to take this route, it would be so good, so soothing, so liberating and hope-filled!” (87)

Yet the ways in which the ‘disembodied’ aspects of virtual communications provide a ‘safe distance’ from true intimacy are also a problem for this form of virtual pilgrimage.

“[S]ome people want… their interpersonal relationships provided by sophisticated equipment, by screens and systems which can be turned on and off on command. Meanwhile the Gospel tells us constantly to run the risk of a face-to-face encounter with others, with their physical presence which challenges us, with their pain and their pleas, with their joy which infects us in our close and continuous interaction… The Son of God, by becoming flesh, summoned us to the revolution of tenderness.” (88)

People these days are thirsty for a sense of transcendent connection, and the challenge, Francis claims, is not so much to convince them of the value of this sort of spiritual experience, but to find fully adequate ways to satisfy their spiritual desires –– using the new opportunities of the age yet not allowing these cultural innovations to create a superficial, disembodied, further alienating pseudo-spiritual experience for them.

One of the major risk factors Francis points out in this regard is what he calls “spiritual worldliness” within the church: “seeking not the Lord’s glory but human glory and personal well-being.” This has two interrelated causes: gnosticism –– reducing the faith to a subjective sense of spiritual enlightenment, and promethean neopelagianism –– a superiority complex based on remaining “intransigently faithful to a particular Catholic style from the past.” (94) This leads to a preoccupation with formalities, ceremonies, prestige factors and political influence, among other things. But whenever the principle beneficiary “is not God’s people but the Church as an institution,” this is a sign of a loss of the missionary spirit that should be the focus of the Church’s identity.

Under a heading of “Other ecclesial challenges” then, Francis briefly takes up the topic of women’s role in the church. The conservative statement that will get the feminist ink on this one is, “The reservation of the priesthood to males, as a sign of Christ the Spouse who gives himself in the Eucharist, is not a question open to discussion.” (104) Thus there’s some idea of a sort of semi-erotic symbolism to be found in high church rituals which would be lost if they were to be served up androgynously. Interesting. But his more liberal olive branch to those with paired x-chromosomes is to say that “sacramental power” must not be “too closely identified with power in general.” Francis is acutely aware of the power of women in general in the Church; the power of Italian mothers in particular. Anyway…

One of the more surprising aspects of the letter overall is the level of faith the pope puts in “popular piety” with all of its local pilgrimage sites, syncretic traditions and superstitious rituals (such as kissing the toe of St. Peter’s statue in the Vatican). Quoting from one of the latest letters by John Paul II, Francis claims that “The history of the Church shows that Christianity does not have simply one cultural expression, but rather, ‘remaining completely true to itself, with unswerving fidelity to the proclamation of the Gospel and the tradition of the Church, it will also reflect the different faces of the cultures and peoples in which it is received and takes root’.” (116)

But beyond denying the swerves in fidelity we can easily see in any semi-objective analysis of church history, Francis takes this trust in the common folk a step further: “The people of God is holy thanks to [the power of the Holy Spirit], which makes it infallible in credendo. This means that it does not err in faith, even though it may not find words to explain that faith. […] As part of his mysterious love for humanity, God furnishes the totality of the faithful with an instinct of faith –– sensus fidei –– which helps them to discern what is truly of God.” (119)

The underlying intent of these statements, in context, is to reduce the dominance of a Eurocentric culture of piety within the Catholic Church –– a noble goal in itself. But to claim any form of infallibility for any folk spiritual tradition would have to make this the most absurdly over-optimistic section in the whole document.

Francis then goes on at some length about the proper way to deliver a homily, or sermon. In one of the funniest lines in the letter, he comments about the role of the homily in the religious experience of the people, “We know that the faithful attach great importance to it, and that both they and their ordained ministers suffer because of homilies: the laity from having to listen to them and the clergy from having to preach them!” (135) He then reminds preachers to bear in mind the role of the homily as a lead-up to the Eucharist, so it should be kept brief, if for no other reason, as a matter of remembering its liturgical place in life. But the homily should still have something to say about the biblical text at hand, providing some form of useful synthesis between the scripture and the hearts of the preacher and the audience.

One part of this section has an odd reflective implication to it. Referring to the need for preachers to be aware of the original intent of the passage they are preaching about, Francis says, quite rightly, “If a text was written to console, it should not be used to correct errors; if it was written as an exhortation, it should not be used to teach doctrine; if it was written to teach something about God, it should not be used to expound various theological opinions…” (147) But then of course we must ask, first of all, do “theological opinions” have any actual value –– any reason to exist to begin with –– if they do not enable greater clarity and deeper understanding in the process of “teaching about God”? And then, given that the text making these statements has officially been labeled as an “apostolic exhortation”, does that exclude the possibility of drawing doctrinal conclusions from it? Things which make us theologians go “hmmm…”

But then his practical advice about preaching brings back the honest and refreshing tone, as when he recommends against political editorializing from the pulpit: “Nor is it fitting to talk about the latest news in order to awaken people’s interest; we have television programs for that.” (155) Or then there is the practical advice that all us bloggers as well should take to heart: “Simplicity and clarity are two different things. Our language may be simple but our preaching not very clear. It can end up being incomprehensible because it is disorganized, lacks logical progression or tries to deal with too many things at one time.” (158) Ouch!

There is also a touching exhortation to stay on the via pulchritudinis –– to keep beauty as part of the Christian message, bringing my virtual friend Brian Zahnd to mind:

“Proclaiming Christ means showing that to believe in and to follow him is not only something right and true, but also something beautiful, capable of filling life with new splendor and profound joy, even in the midst of difficulties. Every expression of true beauty can thus be acknowledged as a path leading to an encounter with the Lord Jesus.” (167)

Taken as a dogma, that last bit could be a bit problematic in both directions: If everything beautiful is co-opted as Gospel that could lead to some strange interpretations of art at times; and if “leading to an encounter” becomes the standard for “true beauty” (and stranger things have happened) that could seriously skew one’s aesthetic sense in many cases. But as this is merely an exhortation we probably shouldn’t worry about such doctrinal matters here too much.

But the core of this beautiful message always comes back to loving our neighbor. “The inseparable bond between our acceptance of the message of salvation and genuine fraternal love appears in several scriptural texts which we would do well to meditate upon, in order to fully appreciate all their consequences.” (179)

But as this is getting to be too long for a tasteful homily already, I should probably give Francis’ meditations here on how the Gospel of salvation and the charitable message of “good news to the poor” need to coincide –– together with his various personal disclaimers on the matter –– an entry unto themselves. So I’ll leave off here for now.

Let us pray…

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Filed under Ethics, Love, Politics, Religion, Spirituality

“What Does the Pope Say?” (Part 1)

There has been an ongoing political struggle within the Catholic Church for the past generation that has once again come to a head this last weekend with the publication of Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis’s first major letter to the faithful as Pope. In short, this “apostolic exhortation” has further clarified the new pope’s strong personal distaste for the ways in which certain politically right-wing Catholics have been fighting against the interests of the poor in the name of “resisting socialism.”

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This was not entirely unexpected, and also rather predictably it has already been quoted extensively and somewhat out of context. The document has also been scoured for signs of Francis’ position on “marriage equality” and “pro-life” issues, with rather dubious reports coming out as a result. As it happens this is whole matter falls precisely in the middle of what I’ve been working on in terms of my doctoral studies for the past month. Thus I’ve had good reason to spend much of this week studying the document in question. (The official Vatican website is a wonderful resource for such things.) And the more media reports I see about this text, the more I feel I should get my own perspectives on the matter out there right away.

So I apologize in advance to those who come here looking for lighter intellectual entertainment; this is bound to be a bit on the theological theoretical side. Nevertheless, I find this to be an extremely important current development in the world we live in, which might well have profound effects on political structures and the future of our planet. So for those who happen to be interested in such matters… let me begin by laying out the basic historical and ideological background for Pope Francis’ first epistle last weekend.

A lot of this goes back to the legacy of John Paul II –– one of the longest serving pope’s in history, the last pope of the Cold War era, and the first pope of the Internet generation. John Paul’s papacy, however, divides into two very separate and distinct periods. These could be referred to as the Cold War era and the Internet era of his papacy, but I’m inclined to think of them more as the social justice and the sexual moralism periods of his papacy respectively.

For the first half of John Paul’s papacy the key word in his writings was “solidarity”. In the middle of this era he proposed as the motto for his pontificate “Opus solidaritatis pax: peace as the fruit of solidarity.” (Sollicitudo Rei Socialis,1987, 39). It was not entirely coincidental that this also happened to be the name of the labor union movement in his native Poland which was effectively working to bring down the “Iron Curtain” across Eastern Europe. But John Paul’s principle take on political economy in general was that any political/economic system which dominated people’s lives to the point of preventing the families of basic laborers in particular from living with freedom and dignity was essentially evil. In this regard neither Marxist nor libertarian capitalist systems could be trusted. The main point was not to promote one political system in order to tear down the other, but to promote an understanding of the transcendental value of every human being and the moral requirement for all people –– Catholics in particular –– to recognize the essential value of all other human beings. The key to a dignified human life is recognizing the image of God within each other, and not allowing “real politics” or “economic growth concerns” to discount that essential foundation for moral values.

The evil to be fought against in this process, more than any other, was alienation –– not in a Marxist sense of workers not having access to the fruit of their labors due to lack of control of the means of production, though the essence of that problem was also acknowledged in passing –– but more in the sense of people living in fear of totalitarian rulers, the threat of a nuclear holocaust, the continuously growing risk of a loss of a livable income due to economic competition, and/or the addictive frenzy of consumerism blinding them to the immoral ways in which their consumer goods were being produced; and all of these factors causing people to lose essential contact with their fellow human beings, with whom solidarity could provide peace, justice and essential meaning in life.

This basic theme ran through all nine of the encyclical letters that John Paul wrote between 1979 and 1991 –– from “Man cannot […] become the slave of things, the slave of economic systems, the slave of production, the slave of his own products. A civilization purely materialistic in outline condemns man to such slavery, even if at times, no doubt, this occurs contrary to the intentions and the very premises of its pioneers” (Redemptor Hominis, 1979, 16) to “The advancement of the poor constitutes a great opportunity for the moral, cultural and even economic growth of all humanity” (in Centesimus Annus,1991, 28).

John Paul did start to become more than a little naively optimistic with regard to the fruits of the free market system: “Exploitation, at least in the forms analyzed and described by Karl Marx, has been overcome in Western society” (CA, 41). But he was not willing to give capitalism absolutely free reign either: “freedom in the economic sector [must be] circumscribed within a strong juridical framework which places it at the service of human freedom in its totality […] the core of which is ethical and religious” (CA, 42).

The emphasis of John Paul’s papacy fundamentally changed in his following encyclical, however. In Veritatis Splendor he essentially shifted from a compassionate, social justice oriented perspective to a moralistic rationalist perspective. The core argument was that there are essentially two types of commandments given in the Bible and in church tradition: positive commands to actively love our neighbor as ourselves and to live sacrificial lives of devotion to God, and negative commands to refrain from abusing our neighbor and to not partake in practices which God finds repulsive. As a matter of establishing peace between ourselves and God, and our fellow man, the positive commands would be the more critical ones, but the concrete requirements that these commands would place upon believers and upon communities would be variable –– culturally relative. The negative commands, on the other hand, would be matters that cannot be considered as in any way culturally variable: perjury, murder, adultery and theft cannot be justified by way of relative cultural norms. By the same token then, chemical, mechanical or surgical forms of birth control must be considered morally wrong under all circumstances. So rather than setting absolute standards regarding matters which will in the end be culturally relative anyway, John Paul set out to establish absolute standards in the areas than leant themselves to setting absolute standards: telling people what they weren’t allowed to do, in particular sexually.

From this point on in his papacy John Paul ceased to mention the “preference for the poor,” “the rights of the laborer” and “social justice” in his writings. He ceased to be the charismatic pope of compassion and reconciliation, and he came to be seen rather as the doddering old moralist, preoccupied with “pelvic politics.” Maintaining a firm line on the church’s resistance to “illegitimate” forms of sex became more important than feeding the hungry, protecting the rights of workers and providing hope in life for economically disadvantaged young people. Meanwhile the scandal of isolated priests within the Catholic Church repeatedly taking sexual advantage of children proceeded in stages to blow up in his face, leaving the increasingly feeble pontiff looking all the more out of touch and out of control.

The shift in John Paul’s emphasis can also be seen in the dramatic shift in political emphasis by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. In 1986 these bishops published what was considered to be a very politically liberal statement of their basic moral principles entitled “Economic Justice for All”. Its fundamental practical emphases were on: 1) employment, 2) poverty, 3) food and agriculture, and 4) the U.S. role in the global economy. The role of Catholics in politics, as they saw it, was to counteract “Reaganomics” by prioritizing, respectively, “new jobs with adequate pay and decent working conditions” as the basis of economic development; fighting poverty and homelessness as “a moral imperative of the highest priority” based on “the norms of human dignity and the preferential option for the poor”; protecting family farms and “maintaining a wide distribution in the ownership of productive property” as a basis for social and environmental sustainability; and moving from a “national security” concern to a “human needs” concern in matters of foreign policy.

Times change. Popes get old. Competing systems of government with more centrally regulated economies fail. So in 2007 this same organization published a new political agenda for the United States entitled, “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship”. Here (on page vi) the emphases have become: 1) fighting against abortion and euthanasia, 2) preventing “Catholic ministries” from being forced to “violate their consciences”, 3) combating efforts to “redefine marriage”, 4) reducing public spending in order to reduce economic crises, 5) promoting “true respect for law” in the immigration system, and 6) questioning “the use of force and its human and moral cost,” particularly in the Middle East.

The risk has thus shifted from that of the Catholic Church in the US being “the Democratic Party at prayer” to their being “the Republican Party at prayer”. Much of this shift can be credited to conservative intellectual leaders among US Catholics –– currently Robert George in particular. A relatively sympathetic feature article about Professor George in the New York Times in 2009 tells of him having confronted the nation’s Catholic bishops that spring and told them, “with typical bluntness that they should stop talking so much about the many policy issues they have taken up in the name of social justice. They should concentrate their authority on ‘the moral social’ issues like abortion, embryonic stem-cell research and same-sex marriage, where, he argued, the natural law and Gospel principles were clear. To be sure, he said, he had no objections to bishops’ ‘making utter nuisances of themselves’ about poverty and injustice, like the Old Testament prophets, as long as they did not advocate specific remedies. They should stop lobbying for detailed economic policies like progressive tax rates, higher minimum wage and, presumably, the expansion of health care — ‘matters of public policy upon which Gospel principles by themselves do not resolve differences of opinion among reasonable and well-informed people of good will,’ as George put it.”

Meanwhile John Paul’s physical limitations finally caught up with him, sending him to join his predecessors in the Vatican crypt. His replacement was a fellow who had the reputation of being John Paul’s doctrinal guard dog: “the German Shepherd,” Joseph Ratzinger, who chose the papal name Benedict XVI.

Benedict never had a period of initial popularity as pope, and he never really even tried to step out of John Paul’s political shadow. He did, however, make a profoundly important though largely unnoticed position statement with reference to John Paul’s two-part legacy in his third encyclical letter, Caritas In Veritate. There Benedict attempted to reconcile these legacy aspects by showing the inherent interconnection between them. Essentially, in order for the ideal of an ethic of “openness to life” to work in practice –– only allowing sex within the context of potentially procreative marital relations –– Benedict realized that there would/will have to be massive global systems for wealth redistribution established. These would act sort of like the United Nations, only far more powerful, with “real teeth”: “Such an authority would need to be universally recognized and to be vested with the effective power to ensure security for all, regard for justice and respect for rights. Obviously it would have to have the authority to ensure compliance with its decisions from all parties, and also with the coordinated measures adopted in various international forums” (Caritas In Veritate, 2009, 67).

By burying this statement under vague condemnations of the socialist welfare states in general and appeals to the central authority limiting principle of “subsidiarity,” and by keeping the world’s press otherwise preoccupied with his absurd statements against condom distribution in Africa and the like, Benedict succeeded in keeping his friends on the political right from actually recognizing what a radical proposal he was making. It’s hard to imagine that Benedict imagined that such an organization for world economic justice could ever be established; but by offering this sort of abstract possibility he could still defend the theoretical possibility that his (and John Paul’s) idealized version of “pro-life” politics could someday be put into practice without destroying the world in the process –– even if that too remains a political impossibility. The point though is that, even though he didn’t really want to go too far in publicly admitting it, Benedict intellectually recognized that for the rest of Catholic social teaching to remain coherent, a radically expanded system of international socialist wealth redistribution would have to be added into the mix.

For whatever murky psychological, medical or political reasons there may have been, Benedict surprised the world in February by announcing that he would be stepping down as pope before it was time to bury him. As his replacement the College of Cardinals selected a fellow who, on paper at least, looked like a reasonable political compromise figure: in many ways a fresh and new sort of leader, yet very much a product of staunchly traditional orientations within the church. Before taking on the name of Francis I, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was recognized as a friend of the common people, yet not in any politically radical way. He is South American by birth, but a respectable Italian by blood. He was no friend of Marxists, but was not on particularly friendly terms with his country’s military dictators either. As a Jesuit he has a pedigree for being impeccably rational and doctrinaire, yet having his feet planted solidly on the ground where laymen walk. Overall he seems to have come across as someone who might be able to restore some of the popularity and credibility the church enjoyed during the first half of John Paul’s reign without screwing up the status quo too badly in the process… or so they might have thought.

Francis is actually off to a far more radical start to his papacy than anyone expected. No, he’s not about to start performing same sex weddings or ordaining women, but those are about the only radical reforms he’s taken off the table. When it comes to reaching out to the common people and being in touch with the laity’s concerns he has been out John-Pauling John Paul. He has made strong public statements against homophobia and against the corrupt “old boy network” within his organization. Without naming them directly, in a homily on October 17th of this year he unmistakably referred to the conservative political ideology adopted by the American bishops as a “sickness within the church”. Now he has taken the social justice realizations of his three immediate predecessors and offered them up in their starkest and bluntest form yet, without the slightest bit of anti-communist, anti-socialist gloss over them.

But the central point of Francis’ fresh opus, Evangelii Gaudium, is not to attack the world economic system as such, but to lay out a game plan for the Catholic Church’s self-promotion over then next decade or two. Analyzing that will have to be a separate entry here. If you’ve read this far though, you’re obviously one of those rare people who has a deeper interest in such things than most, so now you’ll have something to look forward to. 🙂

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Filed under Ethics, History, Politics, Religion, Sexuality

Opiates of the Peoples

I spent the end of last week and the weekend working on a seminar presentation for this week, speculating on who Pope Francis was referring to as an ideological illness in the church. It involved a lot of background reading, and there is much more I need to do on the subject, but so be it. So I’m writing my weekend blog on Monday again.

When it comes to use of time the perennial question come to mind: how much of my time am I actually wasting along the way? There’s two aspects to this: How hard should I be pushing myself (to accomplish what sort of goals), and then what non-goal-oriented activities –– stress relievers –– should I consider to be particularly dangerous or harmful? Let me explore that latter one for a bit here.

Those of you who are moderately well read in humanities subjects would obviously recognize my title here as a play on one of Marx’ dictums regarding religion in general: it numbs people to the painful realities of their otherwise unrewarding and essentially meaningless existence, and rightly so. If they have to have such an unrewarding and meaningless existence at least we can allow them to become comfortably numb by religious means. It was Lenin who gave this turn of the phrase its more condemning connotation: the religion of Rasputin and company as a vile addiction that keeps people from moving beyond their miserable, abused condition. Of course the issue that both polemic approaches are missing is whether religion has a particular value in and of itself beyond providing a means of escape from the mundane stresses of everyday life. Might there be some eternal value system that is more important than the implications of the “selfish gene” –– the drive to have as many offspring as possible and to keep them alive long enough to have offspring of their own?

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But let’s set that aside for the time being. Let’s just assume that we all have goals in life that we spend a certain amount of our time working to achieve, that such work largely defines us as people, and that beyond our work we each have our own forms of “play” that are psychologically necessary for us in order to be able to continue on with our work. Let’s further assume that the balance between how important we consider our work to be for its own sake and how much we do in just to get other things that we “really want” will vary quite a bit from person to person, as will the things that we are ultimately trying to get as rewards for our work. So we have our goal-oriented behavior and we have our personal-amusement oriented behavior. How do we keep those in balance with each other? For that matter how important is it to draw a distinction between them?

Lots of different distracting directions those ideas could take us in. Given that I’m not actually being paid to write this, and I don’t have anyone reviewing this and telling me what is expected of me in this essay, I could easily chase off down one rabbit hole or another here just for the fun of exploring what’s in there, but I’m trying to stick to the job I’ve set for myself in the title here of talking about “opiates” in the figurative sense, and what is potentially wrong with them. The main thing that all such “opiates” would have in common is that they provide a form of distraction from our more goal-oriented behaviors which may end up preventing us from accomplishing our more goal-oriented behaviors. My basic theory here though is that all of the different forms of condemnation of such “opiates” are based on somewhat unquestioned assumptions regarding the value of different forms of work, defined in turn as focused goal-oriented behavior.  This would apply to everything from Marx’ and Engels’ condemnation of religion, to Neil Postman’s condemnation of electronic etertainment culture, to the Catholic Church’s strict limitations on forms of sexual satisfaction, to programs to keep people off of heroin and other actual opiates. All of these are trying to keep people from gaining some false or dangerous form of satisfaction that keeps them from working for more important “true” forms of satisfaction.

Amusing-Ourselves-headlessThere are a number of considerations that follow from this observation. First and foremost perhaps is the question of whether Marx’ observation deserves further analysis here: the idea that people turn to some “false” form of satisfaction because unjust and dehumanizing circumstances prevent them from being able to experience –– being able to reasonably hope for even –– “truer” forms of satisfaction.  Industrial workers of the 19th century drank heavily and then sometimes prayed heavily because those were the only forms of personal satisfaction in life that were open to them at that time. If they would have had some hope of gaining more control of their own destiny in terms of someday owning their own land and workshops, or even enabling their children to get an education and step onto the path of upward mobility, maybe they wouldn’t need to numb their pain so much. By the same token, if more people were able to properly enjoy genuinely satisfying and committed long-term romantic relationships maybe there wouldn’t be such a big market for porn. Are we numbing ourselves just because things around us don’t work well enough for us to be able to hope for better? Is there some way that we can trick ourselves into genuinely hoping for better so that we can achieve more in our goal-oriented behavior? Are there ways in which we can improve society to increase people’s hopes in more or less honest ways? And if we can’t “fix” the situation to allow people sincere hope for a better life through their efforts, are we actually justified in condemning their “opiates”?

In terms of where the rubber meets the road on this one, the breakdown of family structures in the western world has been blamed by moralists on increased mobility, and access to information about other possibilities than that of women staying home and making babies while men go out and push themselves to do whatever they can to provide for the needs of those back in the nest.  There’s some truth to the idea that many people these days don’t have the same sort of family lives their grandparents had simply because they don’t want them, or they aren’t willing to make the same sort of sacrifices their grandparents made to get them. But more to the point, breakdowns in the political systems protecting the basic rights of workers have led to a situation where no matter how hard a man would try to work at basic labor these days he can never make enough to keep a family provided for on his own; and no matter how submissive, loving, nurturing and “wifely” a girl is ready to be, she can’t expect to get the sort of deal her grandmother had as a stay-at-home mom. So why should they behave in a traditional manner designed to improve their odds of getting into such a situation? And can we really condemn behavior that decreases their chances at such a life? After spending much of the weekend reading papal encyclical letters from over the past 40 years, I’ve sort of realized that that is where Catholic moral teaching is really at these days.

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Beyond that we have the question of whether there are certain types of goals to be pursued in life that should be “natural” for everyone, that our cultures must be designed to reinforce. This would include, but certainly wouldn’t be limited to, questions of reproduction and genetic continuation of family lines. Should people naturally want to have tribal identities reinforced? Should people’s lives be defined by whatever “competitive edge” they are able to find for themselves? Should ease for its own sake be a value worth relentlessly pursuing, and if so how do we deal with the inherent contradiction in such a proposition? Beyond that then, if none of these goals can be reasonably taken as moral imperatives for everyone, what argument is there for condemning behaviors which limit one’s possibilities of achieving them?

The tragedies we keep finding ourselves faced with are when someone we know –– personally or through their public image –– has the possibility to realize all the sort of things we think they should naturally want, or all of the sorts of things that they’ve seemingly dedicated their lives to attaining, and they “throw it all away” over the “uncontrollable” urge to “play” in some particularly dangerous way, or to numb themselves in some unacceptable fashion.  We sometimes feel sorry for them for not being able to master their inner demons. We sometimes condemn them for “setting a bad example for young people” and “contributing to the breakdown of society” –– defined as a group of people informally cooperating to realize the sort of goals we see them carelessly neglecting. Do I see them as evil? It depends.

injectionYes, I do get angry at the idea of predatory individuals selling drugs near a school yard. Getting kids who don’t understand the risks involved hooked on self-destructive forms of amusement purely in order to profit from their ignorance, without concern for the fact that it could lead to early and painful deaths, is something that I would consider to be objectively wrong… evil even. So how far do I want to take that principle? If I want to protect kids from drugs, what do I want to enable them to have that drugs would steal from them? What else might steal the same things from them just as effectively as drugs?

In my own ideological way I guess the most important thing I’d like to enable kids to have is the possibility of choosing for themselves what sort of goals they wish to pursue in life, be it the standard reproductive/tribal/competitive ones that most of our societies seem to be built around, or more individualized pursuits of their own choosing. Whether such a priority on personal freedom is sustainable in the long run or not is a complicated question unto itself. Suffice to say, things are rapidly changing regardless of whether or not we try to prevent change by maintaining traditional mindsets in our children. So if traditionalism for its own sake, and/or as a means of preventing uncontrollable change in society is a lost cause, why not let them have their freedom?

The limitations on this freedom in turn are of two sorts: there needs to be some form of justice to prevent people from carelessly or maliciously harming others, and there needs to be some possibility of forming connections of love with others which can in turn become more important to us than our own self-determinations. As I was saying to Daisy last month, those are what I consider the ideal essence of religion to be about.

So going back to the “opiate” issue, I’d hope that those who wish to keep people away from these “wrong” forms of satisfaction would really stop to think about why they consider them to be wrong, acknowledging that on more careful consideration sometimes they can be seen to do objective harm and other times they can’t. I would hope that the motivation for condemning such “opiates” would run deeper than just trying to get others to live according to the moralizers’ personal tastes. I would hope that it involves enabling the person in question to be genuinely free to choose what goals they want to work towards, and to seriously consider what forms of “play” could prevent them from realizing those goals. Then rather than considering those “opiates” as in themselves wrong, I would hope that those who condemn them would do so based on what greater forms of satisfaction might be chosen without them; and that from there they would work first and foremost to enable people to have hope of attaining those “better” forms of satisfaction rather than simply moralizing against the ones they don’t like.

And beyond that, no matter how important someone’s work is to them, they will also need to play sometimes. How much of their time, how riskily, involving what sort of extra rewards along the way… are all important questions to be considered. We can perhaps enable people to play in less addictive and time consuming ways, with greater safety for themselves and others, and offering greater opportunities for thrills in the process, but what we won’t be able to do is stop them from playing entirely.  Ideally one should find some form of work that is as much like play as possible –– serving as a continuous form of satisfaction unto itself rather than just being a form of suffering to endure as a means of reaching some goal outside of the process. If work has its own “play” element to it in that sort of way, the amount of play needed outside of work will be considerably less for it.

I must confess that blogging and online interaction are somewhere between work and play for me. I’m not getting paid for this, but it is something I do in a certain goal-oriented manner regardless, feeling ever so slightly guilty when I’m late like this. Yet it is also something I do mostly for the fun and challenge of it. It is a form of “opiate” for me in terms of enabling me to escape from my mundane routines of getting 14-year-olds to remember facts about faraway religions, processing paperwork to let others know how much this information has sunk in for them, and keeping my simple bachelor apartment in relatively livable condition. Does it work? Most of the time. Is it bringing me closer to the realization of other goals in life? Rather hard to say. Is there something more important I should be doing with my time? Not that I know of at this point, but systematic time management has never been my strong suit to begin with.  Are their parts of it I should be ashamed of? Some may be angry at me for spreading heresies here, but I can live with that. Do I have other, more problematic “opiates” in my life to get rid of? Perhaps… but at this point I’m not going to start stressing about playing too much and not working hard enough. Give me a new specific hope to work towards and I might change my mind about that.

So here’s hoping that all of you as well are more or less at peace with yourselves regarding what you’re working for and what play you allow yourselves along the way. Here’s hoping you’re able to live at peace with others in terms of the choices they make along the same lines. Enough for this week.

 

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Fresh Addictions

My apologies to both of the regular readers here who may have been disappointed not to find any fresh essays here over the past couple of weekends. I started a piece on the theology and civic philosophy of the recently retired pope, but for various reasons I continuously got too distracted to finish it. Either I left some of the books I was basing it on at school, or I couldn’t get a web connection to check some of the facts, or I had to finish something else important first, or I was too tired to be focused, or some other excuse that I’ve offered myself.

The truth is that over the past few weeks I’ve found myself spending a major amount of time on the new “hobby” of my doctoral studies, making new discoveries about how various religious thinkers have interacted and independently reached many of the same conclusions with each other about how their faith should be implemented in political practice. I actually burned out a 3G modem stick downloading materials for such purposes this week, and my habit seems like it’s going to get more intense before it eases off.

I won’t use the words “worse” or “better” here, because I’m not sure if this is necessarily a bad use of my time, but I can’t help by be reminded of the hundreds of hours I spent about 20 years ago teaching myself the infamous Rubik’s Cube, or learning the secrets of “Call to Power,” or doing sudokus, or God knows how many other “mental challenges.” I have to consider most of that time to be wasted in many respects, but I’m actually not sure what I could have been doing with that time that actually would have improved the world significantly more than what I was doing. I wouldn’t have found a cure to cancer. I wouldn’t have eliminated poverty or suffering in the world. I probably wouldn’t have written the next great international best-selling novel. My best guess is that I would have found some other form of relatively meaningless compulsive amusement to pass that time.

In my more devoutly religious days I got into various groves of doing things “for the glory of God” or “to promote His kingdom” that in retrospect had more to do with building skills through compulsive behaviors than actually changing the world much… or changing the world in a significantly better direction. These days there are significant numbers of Americans buying “Left Behind” fantasy literature and basing their value systems and voting patterns on the underlying assumptions of such literature. Or they are occupying their leisure and devoting their surplus energies to causes given to them by members of the National Religious Broadcasters Association. I was being trained as a foot soldier working on increasing those trends, and I might have had a marginal impact in moving things that direction. That’s not something I can be particularly proud of these days, nor something I can get particularly mad at myself for not being better at. But once in a while back then the groove I got into with the various intellectual and mystical experiences involved in that process was particularly satisfying, and getting involved in communal experiences of using our minds in those sorts of ways is one of the most gratifying sorts of experiences I’ve had in life. Building my personal and professional identity on such a basis hasn’t been a bad thing for me, even if there might have been easier ways for me to live my life.

So now I’ve found this new habit to satisfy those urges: working on my doctorate in philosophy of religion. I’m not really sure if it will turn out to be any more “important” than my previous mystical, intellectual or compulsive endeavors, but at least it has a prestigious title attached. That means that there should be better chances of people outside of these specialized little circles of interest taking my ideas seriously, as coming from an “expert”, and I might be able to find more stable and profitable work in sharing such ideas. It might also increase my chances of improving the world, perhaps by reducing people’s self-destructive behaviors and increasing levels of peace and mutual respect. But I can’t really expect much in those terms: people overall will remain both as noble and as repulsive as they’ve always been regardless of what I come up with to say about such matters. Even so, near as I can tell my best chances of having a positive influence on things is through absorbing ideas and producing words to help people explore the reasons we do the things we do, and consider what aspects of each other’s interests we should take seriously.

Right now the issue I am compulsively playing with is finding workable labels for all of the different sorts of people who believe that they should make political decisions based on their religious faith. Some wish to dismiss all such people out of hand as “fanatics”, but that really doesn’t work as a constructive analytical term. Part of the problem is that there are so many different things that people believe they should be doing politically on the basis of their faith: preventing the wrong sorts of sex, preventing abortion, defending the absolute teachings of scripture against being critiqued too disrespectfully, preventing various forms of self-destructive chemical recreation, preventing the public expression of various forms of hatred towards others, standing up for the rights of the poor and a host of sub-topics and other issues. Part of the problem is that considering one’s relationship with God and the transcendental world to be a separate issue from the norms and rules by which humans relate to each other in day-to-day life is a relatively new idea in human history, and not everyone is convinced that it is a good one. Part of the problem is that cynically using religion as a means of exercising political power is an idea that is so engrained into the presuppositions of political science that forming theoretical conclusions about the ideal sincere use of religion in such manners seems rather abstract at best. In spite of all these challenges though, or maybe because of them, this is what I am currently occupying my mind and leisure time with.

At the point I’m at with these things it’s rather difficult to come up with clear, accessible and accurate summaries of the key issues… yet. Finding interesting connections and comparing the various perspectives involved takes time. So for instance what I thought I knew about the various Catholic perspectives on such matters even keeps changing.

What can I say about the current changes in the Vatican? I’ve started to see some references to the pope before last as “John Paul the Great”. It would be interesting if that label were to stick historically. In any case, besides sticking to all of the pre-modern dogmas that make the Catholic Church what it is, our dear late Polish shepherd was particularly occupied with reaching out to non-Catholics and even non-Christians, sincerely apologizing for some of the particularly nasty things that have been done over the centuries in the name of his church, from the Crusades to recent child abuse scandals. No one could doubt his profound humility and good will in these matters, even if they could question his naïve belief that all other Catholics shared his good will, and that maintaining ancient dogmas for their own sake is the best means of spreading that good will.

swiss guards

Then we have former Cardinal Ratzinger / former Pope Benedict. He has said that he plans to keep Benedict as a name while no longer pope, so perhaps we should call him Benny R. here. The emphasis of Benny’s reign seems to have been trying to prove that the Catholic Church is still politically relevant:  backpedalling on his predecessor’s apologies, campaigning in vain for some recognition in the EU constitution, pretending that there are secular justifications for the prohibition of condoms and generally maintaining his reputation as the Grand Inquisitor. Being the first pope in over 700 years to actually retire might have been the most constructive thing he ever did.

So now we have Pope Francis. There are some positive signs there and some dubious ones. He comes with a reputation for being sympathetic with the poor, but being even more sympathetic with Benny R’s inquisition. We’ll see which, if either, turns out to be the most important. If he takes a stand against the corruption of the multi-national financial system which causes so much of the world’s poverty in the same sort of way that John Paul took a stand against Communism, there’s room for some positive surprises, even if he doesn’t have the anatomical capacity to deal with the church’s various sex problems. Beyond that it’s obviously too early to say what sort of global leader he will be, or given that he’s another one in his late 70s already, how long he might last.

As for me and the confession of my sins, please forgive me for my more irregular contributions here this month. I hope to maintain some self-discipline in maintaining this hobby as well. I have no intention of continuing to live in such sin, but if I should fail again bear in mind the “good cause” which I have dedicated my energies to, and search your heart for the mercy to grant me some form of indulgence.

Peace be upon you.

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