It often happens in these gloomy November days that I become more reflective about some of the fundamentals of our existence. Today is the feast of St Martin and Remembrance Day, celebrating the end of World War I in 1918. As I wrote yesterday, the twentieth century knew crimes so heinous that civilisation could not survive their being repeated – to quote the chief prosecutor at the Nuremberg Tribunal, Justice Robert Jackson.
The title of this little piece is perplexing. It is about the notion that human persons have rights to dignity, life, freedom and the pursuit of happiness. The utter paradox of Christianity proposed something so radical in the place of competition, power, money and the use of “lower” human beings for the use they would bring to their “masters”. Today, concentration camps, slavery and torture are repugnant to us. Going into a church and killing tens of innocent human beings with a gun without a care in the world is beyond most of us – but wasn’t to a young man whose mind had flipped in some mysterious way.
I refer my readers to Scholar: ‘Human Dignity’ Rare Before Christianity by Michael Liccione and Human Dignity Was a Rarity Before Christianity by David Bentley Hart. These are remarkable studies of a very profound theme in Christianity. If we totally extirpate Christianity from our world and our philosophy, the result could be horribly inhumane. Is that what we want?
If we totally extirpate Christianity from our world and our philosophy, the result could be horribly inhumane.
I don’t agree. I think this is hubristic. It dismisses completely the value and merits of other religions and philosophies. In any case, if Christianity is identified with all Christians – self-proclaiming (how else?) – then the humane-inhumane spectrum applies in full force to it as well.
I also disagree, at least in an unqualified sense, that the modern secular world is a creation of Christianity. Would it not be true to say that the modern secular world is the product of a struggle against various versions of the Christian religion which have been determined to retain their own worldly hegemony? Or, is there not a dialectic at play here?
Is that what we want?
At the moment, considering the tally sheet of performance and coherence from the institutional church power-brokers, my answer is I’ll take the modern secular world over imperial Christianity any day.
You may need a “hermeneutic key” to unlock my innermost thought. One thing I am learning from Romanticism, as from Nietzsche and Berdyaev among others is that Christianity in the “nobility of spirit” is not the same thing as the version of Christianity used as a political ideology among the various other systems destroying the person in favour of the collective (which is my definition of “socialism”, whether of the Hitler / Mussolini variety or the Marxist-inspired spectrum). I view Christianity through a Romantic perspective, the primacy of the person and the beauty of nature, not scholasticism or baroque rationalism, modernism or post-modernism. You may be tempted to see contradictions in my thought, perhaps hypocrisy, because words can be understood in different ways.
North Korea and its torture chambers are also a part of the “modern secular world”.
Isn’t North Korea on the contrary a totalitarian quasi-religious regime (and thus not modern, and not secular)? You’re right though that a term like “modern secular world” encompasses a lot of brutal and cynical uglies!
Considering how worldly (i.e. “secular”) the big Churches can act like, perhaps we are using the wrong term: perhaps, opposed to totalitarian systems of all kinds (whether religious or atheistic) we mean not so much the ‘modern secular world’ but ‘societies-informed-by-a-spirit-of-progress-enlightenment-and-reform’. That seems closer to the mark.
The sad truth appears to be that the perfect society is something to be striven for but probably impossible. Christianity, like Buddhism and all the rest, is reduced to the actions of people who claim it as theirs.
I’m not disturbed by the idea of contradictions in your thought since we all have them I think, but I believe in the power of the dialectic as an aid to making progress, and not in exalting idols of our own making through cultural or theological mummification, so to speak. I’d have said I was a Romantic too, once, but I think I’ve been sucked dry of romanticism where my native religion is concerned and I look on it somewhat as a sloughed skin.
Stephen, the important thing is to be yourself. When “other people” enter the picture, there is no perfect society of any kind. We have to live in our world, harmless as doves and cunning like serpents and enjoy the few friendships, real friendships, we can make. I think you have been mistaken to give up on Christianity, or rather the original Christian ideas that have been betrayed all the way across the board. We have amply discussed the historical issues like the “Peace of Constantine” and the shift from the “anarchical” community to the Pope / Empire paradigm that cried out for destruction in the 16th century and in the end of the 18th century in France.
The solution is not revolutions and other people, but to be at peace in ourselves and to think and create for ourselves. If what we have done is worth anything, others will appreciate after they have buried us. Bach was forgotten until Mendelssohn pulled the scores out of mothballs. Vivaldi was only revived in the early 20th century. I am not much of a composer, but you will certainly see my meaning.
You seem to be a fan of Hegel. I am also much more interested in German Idealism than Thomism! Our very dialogue sets theses against antitheses to make syntheses. You might do well to experience other spiritual traditions and perhaps the sterility of modern atheism to revisit what is best of Christianity. Perhaps…
There is no question that we have to know ourselves, and not be false to ourselves, and I have no issue with most of what you’ve said here. On the one hand, we are not islands, self-sufficient unto ourselves, and there are collective as well as individual goods to weigh up: if we did not, as individuals, strive that in both dimensions the greatest good be achieved we would probably remain in some kind of hell; on the other hand, any such striving – and the kind of hubris that would allow us to be deluded that our vision of the better society was reliable or unerring – seems to inevitably involve some coercion of others and thence we find ourselves mired in a hell of a different kind but equally horrible. It’s a paradox, or do I mean conundrum?
Yet perhaps so long as we do not become too wedded to our own ideas of what all these goods are, it is the quality and integrity of the journey that counts, for perhaps it is in the very act of working to some goal that we realise that this assumes we ourselves are not yet perfect and in such realisation we might avoid the worst of the pride and tendency to tyrannise that corrupts all our schemes, including religious ones.
On the subject of Christianity, I would not say that I have given up on all the ideas, as I understand them from the Gospel – indeed, psychologically I’d suggest that at my age like many people I am irretrievably engraved or captured (so to speak) – but I no longer accord them superior epistemological status vis-à-vis other religious philosophies. I certainly reject a lot of traditional theology and I certainly find ideas of interest and richness in other spiritual presentations.
On the other hand, I think that everything I think at any given time can be or will be modified or altered in another time. Wouldn’t we all be able to say that of ourselves?
Of course every commitment to a moral view does involve some kind of coercion of others. How moral would it be to oppose murder while refusing to interfere with someone else’s ‘right’ to murder? It’s a principle that finds its way to some degree in every corner of our lives.Our views affect both our own way of living in the world AND to what degree we are willing to allow others to do what they will. Human being can be very perverse indeed and do require a rather extensive degree of regulation or no one is safe, no one is free. The difficult thing is to find where the balance lies.
One man’s freedom ends where another man’s freedom begins. The right to swing my fist ends where the other man’s nose begins. The right to swing my arms in any direction ends where your nose begins. My right to swing my fist ends where your nose begins. There are many ways to say the same thing. I think it was Rousseau who called it the Social Contract. That’s great until the corruption sets in.
Yep, that much is obvious – but how do we protect ourselves from those who succumb to the temptation to exceed their rights to our detriment? And how do we protect others from our own seizure of what is beyond our rights? Regrettably that requires some form and degree of coercion. The social compact does not work if not enforced. I say this as one inclined toward pacifism and distrustful of government. Frankly, what I see as the ideal just won’t work.
You should read Nobility of Spirit by Rob Riemen. In my moral theology classes based of St Thomas Aquinas, we were taught a notion of a freedom of perfection. It is nobility that brings freedom. It is the theme in St Paul where we read about the contrast between the spirit and the law. Naturally, we live in the same society, and there are laws and policemen to enforce them – sometimes at the cost of their lives in the line of duty. Perhaps the best thing is an authoritarian regime, and for some of us to live quietly and peacefully away from towns. I don’t think any of us will have a solution, but there is the problem of human nature amply described by St Augustine – and Nietzsche!
I’m too American to like the thought, but the NT does assume an authoritarian regime that Christians will obey (so far as conscience allows) and pray for, assumes it to be a gift of God, and raises no expectation that it will be Christian. The NT assumes persecution and martyrdom as normal.
Well, I suppose that Franco was less obnoxious than Kim Jong Un… Yeah.
Was Nero less obnoxious than either? The NT tells us to honor the king and to pray for the king, the king, Caesar, being nonchristian, autocratic, and often cruel. Even the possible identification of Nero with the beast 666 in Revelation doesn’t negate those instructions. This is one of the paradoxes of living in the world with our citizenship being in the kingdom of Heaven. I find the NT expectations re government to be far more realistic and far more applicable to our current day than the medieval expectation either in Byzantium or in the West.
You bring up the problem of the separation of Church and State, which is natural for Americans, an issue for Liberals in the early 19th century and a non-issue in England. You might have had problems with Hitler had you been German in the 1930’s. One lesson from the Nuremberg Tribunal is the limit of obedience to state authority, that being Christian morality and human decency. Which king did St Paul or St Peter live under? Herod? The Roman Empire?
In the European countries where I have lived, and in England, I have never had any reason to do anything other than abide by the law – and I have no criminal record. I suppose that is a part of rendering unto Caesar what is Ceasar’s and to God what is God’s, not just tax money but also loyalty and respect. That’s something we do unless we want to leave the country or wind up in prison. For most of us, it is a no-brainer – unless we find ourselves in a situation like the Germans in 1933 onwards until the end of World War II. There were many brave martyrs and people giving their lives for freedom – they were vindicated, and not those who collaborated.
I’m not sure that our dialogue is going anywhere because there is a missing dimension, the notion of interior and spiritual freedom, which is not contrary to, but above, our ordinary duties as citizens in the country where we live and pay taxes. For me it is the same distinction as between esoteric and exoteric religion. I distinguish between the idea of anarchy expressed by men like Tolstoy and Berdyaev, and the illusion of living without authority on this earth. Except in Orwell’s fictional dystopia, we are free to think what we want or believe to be right, and we are only punished if we harm others unjustifiably. We need both authority and interior freedom.
No, I did not reference separation of church and state even remotely. That question has very little political import and practically no spiritual import. Scripture has very little to say about what form government should take, including everything from a rather anarchic theocracy and a religious monarchy through persecuting nonbelieving regimes. True religion is placed in civil authority or supported by the state or even actively opposed by it. What Scripture does (as also many strains of Tradition) is to establish attitudes to be kept regardless of the external governance
Your last sentence: ” We need both authority and interior freedom.” sums it up well. Authority is needed and will emerge if people are to interact at all. It’s quite obvious that Peter and Paul, and even Jesus are assuming that Rome (even as an unwelcome occupying power) constitutes the powers that be. Respect, prayers, and obedience so far as possible, are strongly enjoined, BUT the NT makes it clear that our primary citizenship as Christians is in the Kingdom of Heaven, which is both “not of this world” and “among us” or “within us” (depending on translation), and our ‘,marching orders’ may, indeed sometimes will, conflict with those of civil government. This is so whether the government is pagan, atheist, Muslim, or Christian in it’s profession. Rulers will make decisions that are simply nit acceptable.
How are we to obey both, as we are enjoined to do? The martyrs, then and spectacularly now, show us the way: when we cannot obey the law, we submit to its consequences. “Let goods and kindred go, / This mortal life also. / The body they may kill; / God’s truth abideth still. / His Kingdom is forever.”
Interior freedom is something no government will grant. There is always the expectation, even the demand, that certain things will be thought and that those thoughts will result in visible expression acceptable to the society. Interior freedom is not freedom at all if it cannot be expressed in word or action, and that simply will conflict to greater or lesser degree with the demands of society, which will lead either to denial of oneself or to societal consequences, sometimes even death.
A certain degree of withdrawal from the visible society, either individually or in groups, is one strategy for handling this tension, and is right for many and in many situations, but we are not separate from this world (even though our citizenship is elsewhere). We are in the world with a responsibility for this world “Go ye into all nations, teaching …” If our contacts with this world are all pleasant and tension-free, or may be that we have surrendered internal freedom for the sake of getting along.
In short, “Take up your cross and follow me,” is not easy or comfortable — but it is at the heart of the Gospel.
Thanks for this interesting and thought provoking post. Perhaps you might be interested in a radio show and book produced by David Cayley for the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) in the late 90s about the thought of Ivan Illich. Illich was a Monsignor of the Roman Church who resigned from active duty in the late 60s. In the programme “The Corruption of Christianity” Illich speaks about his thesis that the modern West is a corruption of the Gospel and uses the parable of the Good Samaritan to examine this. He examines such things as the change in the idea of the gaze relating to the differences in the use of icons in the West and East after the 7th Ecumenical Council amongst other things. There is also a book called “Rivers North of The Future” which David Cayley produced after Illich’s death.
David Cayley also produced other interviews with Illich which are available on his website. In fact, most of his programmes are very good!
I will listen to the interview. My impression from Church history is that Christianity went through a transformation via the Peace of Constantine, going from a way of inner knowledge and spiritual life, the Kultmysterium or mystery religion as Dom Casel described it, to a political doctrine. The concept of the Messiah was transposed onto the desire for kings and emperors. Even before and during the lifetime of St Paul, there were squabbling sects, and St John had to deal with Docetism and for that reason emphasised the Incarnation of the Logos of God in Christ. Not very much remains of that pristine purity of the Primitive Church! Perhaps we can only be Christians if we are Romantics and disregard the ruthless judgement of factual history!
Novalis created an “alternative middle ages” as some of the Reformers idealised the “Primitive Church”. On the other hand, historical criticism is merciless and it all becomes like peeling an onion, layer by layer, until there is nothing left. It is all very humbling, at least I hope so, and makes us ask these fundamental questions and rise to a challenge.
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Update: I have listened to some of the radio show, and was quite quickly tired by the slowness of how things were exposed. I have read some articles about this priest. I had never heard of him. He criticised the three big holy cows of modern civilisation: education, technology and medicine. We seem to have a parallel train of thought as with William Blake and the Dark Satanic Mills of industrial England and men like Shelley and Keats (the latter was trained in medicine). I am quite bowled over. His reflection was a lot finer than some of the left-wing clergy like Küng who got a lot more publicity from trying to debunk Christianity and convert it into a simply moral teaching. I don’t think I’ll even be a “fan” of Illich, but I think I understand the basis of his ideas. Interesting…