Tuesday, July 10, 2012

the new normal for western civ

It’s the middle of summer, and like many of my colleagues, I’m realizing that I need to get to serious work. So what do I do? I procrastinate! I post a long, rambling blog entry that is more like free associating. Well, perhaps it’s my own version of therapy.

Every semester, I teach a team-taught course on western civilization. The teaching team, consisting of faculty from Philosophy, History, Political Science, and Religion, attempts to convey a coherent narrative (NOT a totalizing one!) that does some justice to the thorny, complicated, and contradictory relations between the phenomena of western civilization.

Here’s the kicker: This class is entirely populated by freshmen from every major in the University!

It has been a challenge to me as a thinker because I’m more of a “special problems” kind of guy – meaning, that I like to focus on technical puzzles in philosophy or narrowly constrained phenomena. The notion that there is a “broad sweep of intellectual history” is a bit daunting, but that’s exactly what I’m tasked to help convey in this team-taught course.

From a personal perspective, it’s been quite enlightening. I am a person of religious faith (of some [progressive-liberal] Christian flavor), but I confess that at least two days out of the week, I find myself wondering if I “drank the Kool-Aid.” I am well aware that not just from a psychological but from a rational point of view the naturalist perspective of reality (or indeed, say, the Buddhist view) makes sense and is quite coherent. I very easily switch between these alternate interpretations of reality, much like the Gestalt perspectives of the famous “duck-rabbit” or the Necker Cube.

I know I’m not alone in this; in fact, several of my colleagues from several departments of my faith-based school resonate deeply with this sensibility.

The benefit of teaching in this team-taught course is that it has helped clarify for me at least a few factors that explain this.

First, I want to disavow any commitment to the following standard story: Human progress = demystification tout court. The standard story suggests that there is a rational core of human reason that is buried under several layers of superstitious husk. Progress involves sloughing off the layers that somehow impede essential human rationality from perceiving The Real as it is, where The Real = Naturalized-with-no-remainder. That strikes me as too simplistic. It downplays the way that social realities are products of creative forces – emphasis on creation. The standard story asks us to believe that there is some view from nowhere that is obscured by our benighted superstitions. This is the distortion that is the root of the “science versus religion” trope that is so overplayed.

Second, I want to acknowledge that the rise of the sciences from medieval optics to the golden age of the 17th century did play a huge role, but not in isolation. Here’s an analogy: Ask a room full of historians what caused World War I (or WWII). A few usual suspects will make an appearance, but beyond naming them, there’s not likely to be overwhelming interpretive consensus. The same goes for invoking the scientific revolutions of the early modern period. Yes, these were huge, but they were able to play the role they did because of the intersections with all sorts of other secularizing influences.

Here’s a thumbnail sketch (in media res! still coming together in my head):

The scientific revolutions did play a role. They were a final nail in the coffin of the view of the universe as “haunted.” Back in the old days, the idea that spirits (good or bad) could exercise power on the human agent was taken very seriously. In the distinctively Christian appropriation, this is the root of sacramentalism, pilgrimages, and relic veneration. It's the world of bad-magic versus good-magic. It's the world of stories about Moses' staff of snakes that heals poisonous bites. It's a world of stories where long hair + Nazarite vows = superhuman strength. It's the world of stories about miraculous handkerchiefs that, imbued with the magic of St. Peter and St. Paul, heal the sick. In these foregoing stories, the idea was that the good-magic from God was absolutely essential to protect oneself from the bad-magic of the bad spirits, because haunted worlds are dangerous places where the ordinary person is perpetually vulnerable to forces beyond understanding and control. The best recourse is to secure some loan on the magic of God. It's a world of stories about the Sons of Sceva who get their asses kicked because their good-magic was not powerful enough (perhaps the wrong lender) to combat the bad-magic.

With the mathematization and mechanization of nature, this magical view of material substance is diminished. There is neither a great chain of being nor a qualitative difference in matter or its properties, whether in Heaven or on Earth. Heretofore “spiritual” phenomena is liable to an alternate form of explanation that is intelligible and predictable under conditions of technological progress. Rather than relying on the inscrutable purposes of spirits, a way is open to interpret and even control to a degree the exigencies that beset the human condition. Similarly, the cognate metaphysics of Aristotelian forms, and along with it teleological explanations, suffers a diminishing. This is a great boon for the agent, because she is now no longer hopelessly vulnerable to forces beyond either understanding or control. There is now at least the promise that she can exercise, from her own power rather than supplication to a spirit or inspection of a moribund metaphysics, some degree of control over her own destiny.

This is all occurring at the same time that social hierarchies are collapsing along with the great chain of being. The realization that one is not locked into a fated level in the cosmos and the Protestant emphasis on the sanctity of ordinary life and work (Weber later appropriates this his analysis of the Protestant work ethic) combined to create new social realities, new moral visions of (a) goodness divorced from Church interpretations of hierarchy, (b) goodness exclusively connected to what was formerly considered “lower” or “secular” considerations, and (c) the continual eviction of ghosts from the natural world that emancipated folks from fear of the unpredictability that comes from (the bad) spirits/demons.

(You don't really have to worry about evicting the benevolent ones, right? I find it funny that folk sometimes talk literally about their “guardian angels” but not about their “pestering demons.”)

Because of these considerations, for perhaps the first time in modern Europe, the raw materials are in place for a positive, content-rich moral vision of a human life in a universe that does not need to make explicit reference to the supernatural or divine as a justification for its orientation as a life philosophy. The power of old religious authorities to police such new realizations is largely gone. Other social structures are in place that wield greater sway over the sentiments, hopes, and dreams of ordinary folk – emphasis on “ordinary,” as in mundane.

This is the centuries-prior seed for Dawkins’ claim that Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually-fulfilled atheist (a true statement). In this case, it’s about being a morally-fulfilled secular person, or, at any rate, a morally-fulfilled non-Christian European. In the background, it goes without saying that the Protestant Reformations and the subsequent Catholic Reformations deconstructed the notion that there was some unitary moral vision of human life that was credible for once and all.

Fundamentally, I think it’s these new moral possibilities and visions that made for the epistemological and social changes. Of course it’s in reality a messy cycle, but some feedback loops are stronger than others.

In this rambling blog post, I’ve tried to articulate some of my intuitions/interpretations drawn from teaching in this team-taught course about western civilization. I started by asking how it can be the case that someone like myself can be simultaneously committed to a particular religious point of view, all the while acknowledging the rationality and indeed compelling force of alternate, incompatible interpretations of reality – perspectives that I find myself drawn to quite powerfully several days of the week (this is how philosophers experience doubt, which is different than skepticism). In previous centuries, this tension is less pronounced, more rare, and for many, unthinkable. In our century, it’s so utterly normal as to be hardly worth mentioning.

I’m sure that there are going to be those who would promote this as a virtue and others who would say that it’s a damnable vice. For persons of faith such as myself, I’d say it’s both in different respects.

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