Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Modernity struggles: how priests and clerics are unreliable moral guides

Priests and clerics tend to be unreliable moral guides, because their interests are served by complexity and differentiation.

Which is not to deny that, for example, Christianity has been a major factor in the distinctive achievement of Western civilisation.

The ambivalent civilisation
The late Kenneth Minogue argued that (via) the Enlightenment saw a shift among Western intellectuals from belief that we live in a fallen world to a belief that we live in an imperfect society. Which, if we find the correct system, could be made into a more perfect society.

This is a reasonable description of the radical Enlightenment, less so of the sceptical Enlightenment. The sceptical Enlightenment believed things could be made better, but focused its notion of better on people being able to go about their own lives.
Kenneth Minogue (1930-2013)

Minogue contrasts this notion of a future perfect society with societies which sought harmony via the one-right-order. So goodness is fitting in with order, badness is not doing so. (I would call this a chaos-order dichotomy.) Minogue cited Imperial China, Islam, Hinduism as examples of such one-right-order societies.

In the West, Minogue noted that there is acceptance of the notion that people have varied conceptions of proper order. There is even something of a taste for such diversity. We are, in his words, an ambivalent society. A society also one noted for a long history of war and violent conflict and the failure of unification via empire (i.e. Europe remained divided into many states). One-right-order societies tended to experience, or at least embrace, a notion of imperial unitary. And lacked much curiosity about other societies.

Europe came to be a very curious, then innovative and creative society. As Minogue noted, he is taking bits from various centuries and assembling a picture of the West. (Medieval Europe was highly adaptive of outside ideas, but Europe really only became inventive again late in Medieval period.) He argued that humans are naturally ambivalent to almost everything, but one-right-order societies force people to adapt to that order.

Hence, he averred, one-right-order societies can only really work if people are ignorant of the alternatives. (I.e. they either don't know about them or massively discount alternatives.)  Hence also the continuing attempts of folk to leave such societies and live in the West.

Consequently, Minogue found political idealism to be a "deep threat" to how we live because it wants to substitute one virtue (such as benevolence or compassion or equality) for the ambivalence which is basic to how we live in the West and gives the West its power and appeal.

Historical Christianity
In the Q&A after the above talk, Minogue fingered Christianity as a crucial element in making the West different. In part because it was a faith, not a certainty.

It is reasonable to argue that Christianity was and is an individual salvation religion without an associated legal order in a fallen world militated against any notion of one-right-order. As Minogue notes, there is a serious difference between a religion of a crucified saviour (Christianity) and a religion of a sword-wielding Prophet (Islam). To put it another way, Christianity elevated personal salvation and failed to fuse righteousness and social order. (Or did so at best very incompletely: much of the Emancipation sequence has been a disentangling of Christian notions of righteousness from social order.) As Minogue points out, Immanuel Kant's
out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made
is straight Christian doctrine.

Minogue cited Australian historian John Hirst's notion that Western civilisation was built on three propositions--from the Greeks, that the world was a realm of logic and mathematics; from the Christians, that it was a fallen world; and from the Germans, that fighting was fun. Minogue would add in Roman law, but otherwise felt it was not a bad summary of the basis of Western civilisation.

Which points to a problem in fingering Christianity--to whit, many of the features he identifies about the West can be seen in Classical Greece. Certainly politics as something other than the dynamics of being or serving a ruler was almost entirely a Greek invention. Indeed, many of the features of Christianity came from arising in a society ruled by Roman law and which publicly reasoned in the language of Greek philosophy. And Greek Philosophy arose in societies where direct, active, public bargaining was the stuff of politics, so led to the development of rhetoric, logic, analysis: of public reason as an avenue for dispute.

What Christianity did provide was a moral universalism that had been alien to Greek and Roman thought. A sense of a moral order that pervaded the universe and which we were all individually responsible for upholding even if, in some ways especially if, we were fallen beings in a fallen world.  One reason why the sceptical Enlightenment was much more accommodating of organised religion than the radical Enlightenment was that the latter's belief in a perfectible society both contradicted fundamental Christian viewpoints and competed with religion for a sense of ultimate meaning in a way that the former's seeking to better allow people to live out their own lives simply did not.

Complexity and difference
Which brings us back to why priests and clerics tend to be unreliable moral guides. In seeking the authority of gatekeepers of righteousness, they have a vested interest in moral complexity, in conceiving of a moral order which is so far from self-evident that one needs priestly or clerical guides to navigate. Hence food, clothing, sex, gender, etc taboos. Along with that interest in complexity, they have a vested interest in moral differentiation, in dividing society into the right-path believers and the outcast unrighteous.

Which is why the tendency in the West (and arguably more generally) has been to discard religious moral complexity and differentiation in law and understanding of people and society. Part of that broad pattern of getting along with each other better that Stephen Pinker outlines in Better Angels of Our Nature. (His TED talk on the decline of violence is here.) Not so much within Islam, of course, though the rise of Islamic fundamentalism is an attempt to turn back that modernising tendency.

Which leads to a fascinating three-way struggle. Those in revolt against the moral cosmopolitanism of modernisation, who seek to create a new version of the Godly society.  Those who seek to fulfil the radical enlightenment vision of a perfect society. And those who embrace moral cosmopolitanism as a way for people to live out their lives as they wish.  The first two have a passion/commitment advantage, the last the broader appeal. (And sometimes these divisions are within people as much as between them.)

We have been here before. The Dictators's War was one between the Counter-Enlightenment (the Nazis), the radical Enlightenment (the Soviet Union) and the sceptical Enlightenment (the Anglosphere).  Nowadays, the jihadis and Putin's Russia are in the Counter-Enlightenment corner while the radical and sceptical Enlightenments fight it out within Western societies.

China is a fascinating case. Notionally, a radical Enlightenment (specifically Leninist) state, its regime seeks to avoid the failures of the command economies while remaining in power. Even flirting with a Confucian revival.  The Beijing regime wants the economic success of modernity while resisting its political implications. Or some of its religious implications, showing unease over the growth of Christianity within China.

Religion remains a very live factor in world affairs. After all, moral complexity and division is not all priests and clerics have to offer. Even though going down that path makes them unreliable moral guides, at war with deep tendencies in modern societies.

[Cross-posted at Skepticlawyer.]

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