Man’s Oldest Dilemma

I have been thinking of writing an article on this subject for a long time, and I am fairly certain that it is a question that guides and determines the way any human society works, including churches. The question is pursuing the goodness and greatness of the human species by eliminating the weak and parasitical. I have no claims to be an expert in sociology or anthropology, but I have read here and there… And, I do a lot of thinking, too much!

Of course, this question brings us to think of what the Nazis did – deciding they were the “master race”, the superman, the Ubermensch, and get rid of everybody else so that they could have more living space and work towards the utopia of the thousand-year empire. But, I understand if readers say – Here he goes again, comparing everything to Nazism! As I said in a previous posting – Godwin’s Law – some comparison of characteristics is valid and legitimate. It must not be abused. The major theme of Nazism is a “struggle” (Kampf) of a people who thinks it is the best and noblest race, the “Aryans”, and in order to survive, the “inferior races” and the chronically and permanently sick have to be eliminated. A comment on this posting reminds us about how much of the Nazi programme was influenced by American social engineers and movements. Lump in your throat? The enemy is within each of us.

Why? Simply, this idea, based to some extent on Nietzsche, Darwin and other thinkers of the late nineteenth century, has very deep roots, inside and outside the Church. This is the real problem I want to discuss. In the natural world, the strong animals kill the weak ones in order to survive. Most deformed infants, human and other species, are stillborn or live very short lives. There is a certain natural selection – but not always. Is it legitimate to take that phenomenon into our own hands and euthanize when nature fails to do so when it “should”? This is the whole drama of life: euthanasia, abortion, eugenics, sterilization and – finally – genocide. It is a moral dilemma, but also a question of our fundamental attitude.

Have we to be strong and powerful, or do we have a moral obligation to have compassion of the weak and help them, on the basis that they have as much right to live as the strong? If we protect the weak and enable them to live, are we not compromising the future of the human race? For me, this capacity to resist the general law of nature is the beginning of nobility, the beginning of a notion of God. Grace begins where nature fails in moral terms.

The strong of this world do not always find it a good idea to kill the weak, because the underlings help the strong to get what they need in terms of food. Wolves have a strict hierarchy, but they do not kill the weak animals. The dominant dogs eat their fill first, but food the submissive animals helped to kill. That is the basis of human society in its capitalist form. The poor and the weak do the work, and everything is taxed and plundered by those who pay for the means of production. Most of the time, it balances out. When it doesn’t, you have revolutions and wars. When you have alpha men who want to kill the weak, society puts them in the police or the army, and punishes them if they act on their own initiative. The channelled alphas are controlled by the ruling elite and they together tax the little people of society as far as they can go.

Compassion and empathy are also human instincts, and they can sometimes be found in some animal species. Altruisim works against the instincts of the strong in their expressions of racism, sexism and nationalism. Compassion is all about helping those in need, tolerance for difference and forgiving the wrongs of others. Empathy lives and lets live, promotes good faith and encourages people to work for the common good. However, this compassion in the hands of the elite becomes a “welfare state”. The state fosters schools, hospitals, unemployment benefits, public transport and so forth, and the resources needed become more and more expensive – and the taxpayer foots the bill. Conservatives and traditionalists react, and persuade people back to the old struggle – The people causing the problems are the weak and sick. Kill them off and your lives will be improved. The pendulum swings like an old clock.

It is a paradox of church history that we find both compassion and the conservative backlash instinct to protects the interests of the strong. I would peculate that these two instincts reflect two conceptions of God, one of a deity who looks after us and with whom we can have a relationship, and the other of a deity who has left us to take his place. There are various theories of deists and theists that all seem to have their limits of validity. One of the most frightening things about churches is when Christians feels the need is engage in an apocalyptic struggle between good and evil to purify the earth in preparation for the second coming of Christ. In time of war, compassion goes out of the window. No pity for the enemy?

How should we react to all this? Obviously, the basis is the Gospel – mors mea tua vita rather than the way it often is in our churches – your death is my life! St Paul describes what love (ἀγάπη) is really about, and I love reading about how Oscar Wilde spat out of his mouth what passed for “charity” in Victorian England. Someone said in a comment on a blog that I preferred to be at sea than in church. Too right! Most of the seafaring folk I know help each other. I have known nothing more wonderful than the esprit des Glénans the legendary sailing school in Brittany where I went for a one-week course three years ago to learn to sail the Laser dinghy. From its foundation just after World War II, it has brought adults and youngsters into a spirit of solidarity through sailing and living together like the Boy Scouts. Here is how this great school describes itself:

A strong humanistic project

The association Les Glénans came from the dream of a more united society and a passion for the sea. The idea of human development and cooperation, which was the foundation of the association, is still very much alive today: the association Les Glénans is at the same time a school for learning about life as well as a school for learning to sail and a school for learning about the sea.

Humanistic values, the foundations of the association

At the end of World War II, the association was formed from a simple idea: to allow young men and young women traumatised by the years of war to meet together to establishing firm bonds of friendship through an activity: sailing.

“The objective of Les Glénans is to establish, between men and between women throughout the world, bonds of friendship through the sea, to pass on to everybody the knowledge of the sea world and of sailing, to promote voluntary involvement among its members.”(Extract of the statutes of Les Glénans).

From the beginning, les Glénans, a French state-approved non-profit-making association, has linked its teaching objectives closely to its desire to develop people. Sixty years later this principle remains unchanged.

A sailing school, a sea school, a school of life

Learning about the sea life cannot be separated from learning to live in a community. The purpose is to learn how to sail and navigate safely and to build a comprehensive knowledge at many types and levels of sailing (from dinghies and catamarans to ocean sailing). The objective is to train team-members and skippers in order that they become competent, autonomous, responsible and very importantly supportive of each other.

Each one is actively involved in his/her training. As a member of a group, he/she plans, organises, learns and deals with his/her life and activities, and shares his/her experiences, competences and daily tasks. Thus, learning about the sea world and the community life enables to establish links between trainees in order that they learn how to support each other and to act responsibly.

This social function of the association Les Glénans is also found in the organisation of French events like “Croisière des villes” (Cruise of the Cities) or “Frères de Mer” (Sea Brothers). We are also involved in using sailing as a means of assisting people with disabilities and social problems.

At 50 years of age, I had forgotten what it was like to be young and full of esteem and warmness for other people! It is just the same at my sailing club at Veules les Roses where we help each other haul our boats up the slipway, and of course in any difficulty. Why can’t we be like that in the Church?

In a civilised society, all citizens have the chance of getting any kind of education and training, of doing any job. With the ancient Greeks, medical care was available for all and slaves could become citizens. They believed that the more everyone relies on each other, and the more people one person is responsible for, the better, safer and more prosperous we could be as a society. That is what we practice in sailing schools, because the sea is a dangerous place. We have a common friend and foe! But in churches, we seem to be each other’s enemies. We compete against each other for a job, status in a group or a share in the market that supports the community.

This can only be a reason to keep this blog going, to appeal for an end to the “brutal struggle”, and for solidarity and a mutual helping hand stretched out. The Church is often likened to a barque or a ship. Well, let us be sailors and improve life for the landlubbers!

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3 Responses to Man’s Oldest Dilemma

  1. Albertus says:

    Anthony, you write: ”Conservatives and traditionalists react, and persuade people back to the old struggle – The people causing the problems are the weak and sick. Kill them off and your lives will be improved. The pendulum swings like an old clock.”
    It depends what you mean by ”conservatives” and ”traditionalists”. In European terminology, it is the ‘liberals” who stand for human society based on unrestrained capitalism, the rejection economic control, the weak State which does with as few laws and regulations as possible, and favours private initiative and profit to the exclusion of the common welfare and enterprises payed by tax payers to benefit all of society, esp. the weakest and poorest. That in my mind is a Liberal. A political tradtionalist is, on the other hand, in favour of stability rather than incessant growth, the common good rather than only the private profit, the existance of economic and social controls in stead of unrestrained markets, State owned utilities and subsidised public transport, housing, education, in stead of profit-making companies doing these tasks. Traditionalism in religion is somwehat analgoous.

    • Stephen K says:

      Albertus, I get what you are trying to say when you say “Traditionalism in religion is somewhat analogous” but I would characterise it differently. It may be comforting to attribute political and economic virtue to traditionalists who ostensibly prefer traditional religion, but in my country more and more politicians on the conservative (aka “Tory” or “anti-union” side) draw their ranks from “devout” Catholics – as opposed to what they would describe as “Pinkos”, “dissidents” or “liberals” etc.

      I always wrestle with labels. They often have validity only in relative contexts. But my experience with what is most often understood as religious ‘catholic’ traditionalism – and I have had considerable, having been a traditionalist – is that it tends to attract an assortment of romantics and hardline right-wingers, those who revel in daydreams of stained-glass mediaevalism and ancien regime relationships. The orthodoxy they insist on must include the perpetuation of baroque monarchy like the papacy and princes of the church. They like to decry the militancy of aggressive Muslims but if they had their way they would love a theocracy themselves.

      The thing is, that I think the reason why so many religious “conservatives” are political and economic conservatives (for want of a better term) is because they are terrified of giving up individual liberty in everything. The doctrine of the individual, immortal soul has its downsides: it emphasises the individual against the common good even when if it didn’t set out to do so in the beginning. I am not so trusting that just because someone has a better asethetic sense where religion is concerned, that they have a better moral one.

      (By the way, I don’t blame religious traditionalists for not tending to be democrats – because so few of us are. We would all love to see our imagined utopia prevail…even against the wishes of our opponents. Democracy is a notion devised to appease and channel the frustrations of fascist humanity).

      Thank you, Albertus, for a thought-provoking comment.

      • And thank you, Stephen, for your thought-provoking comment.

        The problem doesn’t come from believing there is a truth and living in accordance with it, but when we want to impose it on others.

        Fear prophets, Adso, and those prepared to die for the truth, for as a rule they make many others die with them, often before them, at times instead of them. Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose, who also wrote in the same novel:

        There is only one thing that arouses animals more than pleasure, and that is pain. Under torture you are as if under the dominion of those grasses that produce visions. Everything you have heard told, everything you have read returns to your mind, as if you were being transported, not toward heaven, but towards hell. Under torture you say not only what the inquisitor wants, but also what you imagine might please him, because a bond (this, truly, diabolical) is established between you and him. Torture doesn’t have to be tickling a man’s feet with a feather or ripping out his fingernails. Nowadays, it suffices to destroy someone in the blogs and the newspapers. It has never made one convert.

        Democracy is a notion devised to appease and channel the frustrations of fascist humanity. Never was a truer word said! My theory about humanity is that the more people it takes to make a decision, the more intelligence and initiative are dulled – but it is the condition of living in community. That is why the inspired individual can only live alone or as far from the crowd as possible. There is nothing I detest more than milling tourists and the way they behave. But the inspired person cannot impose his utopia – that is indeed how history works.

        Finally, I don’t think there is a problem with aesthetes, whether medieval or baroque – or brutalist 1970’s. Those people (perhaps I am one of them) are harmless. There is a problem when they want to impose “truth” by political means and violence.

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