The Making and Unmaking of Technological Society 3: The Christian revolution

(See previous posts here and here.)

In chapter 8 Jardine discusses what he calls the cosmological and anthropological revolution wrought by Christianity and why it holds the key to facing the dilemma of the technological society. That dilemma, recall, is that we human beings have found ourselves with the capacity to radically alter our environment but without a moral understanding adequate to direct us in using that power. Traditional moral theories, such as those inherited from Greek philosophy, have assumed a static order both in the natural world and in human nature. Consequently, natural law theories don’t provide guidance in how we should use our ability to alter what was previously thought to be an unchanging order.

Furthermore, Jardine thinks, liberalism doesn’t provide an answer to this dilemma either. This is because of its inbuilt tendency toward nihilism. While liberalism recognizes the human capacity for altering the environment, in seeking a “neutral” ethic that prescinds from making judgments about the good it fails to set direction or limits to that capacity. Thus, he thinks, individual preference becomes the sole source of value in a liberal society.

Despite the fact that Christianity would seem to be one of the main foundations of Western civilization, Jardine thinks that we haven’t sufficiently assimilated its cosmological and anthropoligical outlook. Unlike either ancient paganism or Greek rationalism, Christianity is characterized by two distinct tenets that can help re-orient our technological society. First, Christianity recognizes that human beings, while creatures, have a share in God’s creative power. We are co-creators in a sense. Secondly, the Bible views the universe as a dynamic expression of the divine being. In “the word” we find the key metaphor for understanding the biblical view of the universe.

God, Genesis tells us, speaks the world into existence. Unlike ancient paganism which viewed the gods as capricious, the biblical God is trustworthy and faithful. Thus his creation will display a certain order and reliability. But unlike Greek rationalism, which saw the world’s order as unchanging, the biblical God is dynamic and involved in history. History becomes a key concept for understanding the creation: it is more like an ongoing process with new potentialities unfolding over time. This dual view of humans as co-creators and the universe as an orderly but dynamic process, Jardine thinks, is much more in tune with the world revealed by our technological capcities and scientific knowledge.

And this view provides the foundation for an ethic that can grapple with the problems of being co-creators in such a world. Just as God speaks the world into being, humans can think of themselves as speakers before God. Speech is key because, in a sense, speech is what allows us to create new worlds of possibility and thus is at the root of our creative capacities. “Using language in certain ways creates human capacities that could not exist otherwise” (p. 175). Our creative powers are real, though limited.

The proper response of such creatures, living in a dynamically ordered world created by a good God, is to try to be “faithful speakers before God.” Jardine provides an illuminating interpretation of the story of the Fall. The human situation is that we seek to transgress the limits of our knowledge and creative powers in order to be like God:

We are creators, but we are also creatures. As such, there are limits to our creative capacities, and limits to our knowledge. But because we are creators, we will have a powerful tendency to forget, or willfull ignore, the fact that we are creatures, and we will frequently try to be only creators–that is, to be God. This behavior is what is meant by the term sin, and its paradigm is attempting to claim absolute knowledge, which of course only God can have.

The reason people sin is precisely because of our ambiguous situation as creators and creatures. As creatures we are limited beings, but as creators we can imagine ourselves as unlimited beings, and thus we will tend to attempt to cast off all limitations–or, in theological terms, we will be tempted to be like God. Or, putting this in terms of our model of creating a world through speech, sin is the attempt to become creators only, instead of cocreators, and to create our own little world. This is precisely what one does when one lies; one attempts to replace the world created by God and the speech of other humans with a world created only by oneself. More generally, all attempts to dominate other people are cases of trying to create one’s own world by force. Similarly, the delight that humans sometimes–indeed, rather often–take in acts of destruction can be understood as another attempt to create one’s own world by force. Stating the idea of sin in these terms makes it clear that fundamentally, sin comes from a lack of faith, that is, a lack of trust, in God and his created world; it is an attempt to replace God’s creation with our own. Sin means essentially unfaithful human acts.(pp. 186-7)

If sin is essentially unfaithfulness, then faithfulness will be embodied in an ethic of unconditional love. Since human beings are co-creators with the capacity to create their own “worlds” plurality is an essential feature of the human condition. You and I may well disagree about how we should live together, or how our powers of creativity should be used. Jardine defines unconditional love as the persistent attempt to understand and empathize with those whose perspective differs from our own. Concretely, this means practicing forgiveness and mutual correction. These balance each other because while we must stop the person who is sinning, a recognition of the limits of our knowledge highlights the importance of forgiveness.

Jardine goes on to distinguish this Christian ethic from that of liberalism. Unconditional love is not the same thing as liberal tolerance. Tolerance implies a kind of indifference to what others are doing so long as they harm no one but themselves. But unconditional love corrects and forgives out of a concern for the well-being of the other. “From the standpoint of an ethic of unconditoinal love, liberal tolerance is, for the most part, indifference, and fails to help or correct people unless their actions affect others in a direct, blatant way” (p. 189).

Indeed, Jardine goes on to argue that “[g]enerally speaking, liberalism is best understood as a distortion of–or better yet, a reductionisitc version of–Christiainity, or more specifically of the Christian ethic of unconditional love” (p. 189). Liberalism enjoins toelrance and avoiding persecution rather than the deeply involved personal love commanded by the Christian ethic. Christianity may have inspired the idea that all people are fundamentally equal and thus one could engage in productive exchanges with those outside of one’s family, clan, or culture, but liberalism goes too far in reducing all social relationships to market exchanges. The Christian ethic of unconditional love provides the foundation for faithful speaking before God and communal deliberation about the good.

I think this would be a good point to ask some critical questions. Jardine has argued that liberalism leads to nihilism and that only Christianity can provide the means for a fruitful deliberation about the good, providing some guidance in the use of our powers as cocreators in a dynamic and creative, but ordered and reliable universe. He maintains that liberalism is a reduction of the Christian idea of equality and unconditional love to a bland tolerance. However, does he grapple sufficiently with what gave rise to liberal tolerance in the first place? As good as mutual correction and forgiveness sounds, it’s very difficult to see how this would apply to society as a whole, rather than to close-knit Christian communities. Liberalism flourished initially in part because the churches were being rather too zealous in the cause of fraternal correction. In other words, “mere” tolerance is no mean accomplishment and not something to be dismissed lightly. In a vast society tolerance may be the best thing we can give to a lot of our fellow citizens. Mutual correction requires a degree of intimacy and trust that isn’t easily attained. As Alasdair MacIntyre has argued, the modern nation-state may well be incapable of being a genuine community in the sense of providing an arena for communal deliberation about the good.

Secondly, Jardine seems to conflate political liberalism, understood as a regime that refrains from enforcing a particular vision of the good, with liberalism as a way of life. The latter takes human autonomy as the highest good and is in that sense itself a comprehensive philosophy of life. But not all political liberals are liberals in this sense. In his book Two Faces of Liberalism the political philosopher John Gray distinguishes between liberalism understood as a way of life and liberalism understood as a kind of modus vivendi that allows different ways of life to peacefully co-exist. A modus vivendi liberalism isn’t necessarily committed to enforcing liberalism as a way of life, the kind of philosophy of life that may well lead to nihilism as Jardine fears.

It might be worth pointing out that most people in modern Western liberal societies are not in fact nihilists. And this may be because they have adopted more of a modus vivendi style of liberalism that allows different ways of life to co-exist. This doesn’t mean that every person in a liberal society suddenly becomes an atomized individual unattached to any larger context for making sense of her life. Granted that liberalism as a way of life has certainly made inroads in these societies, it doesn’t seem to follow, either empirically or as a matter of logic, that it must overwhelm all more communitarian or traditional ways of life.

And this brings me to one more point. Jardine, like some writers in the Radical Orthodoxy school of thought, holds that liberalism necessarily leads to nihilism and that only Christianity provides a viable alternative to liberalism. But I think we’re well beyond the point where Christian thinkers can ignore the plurality of other points of view in the world and treat secular liberalism as though it were the only serious rival to Christianity. The irreducible fact of pluralism – of a diverse array of religious and philosophical ways of life – is, in my view, precisely the best argument for some variety of modus vivendi liberalism. This would be an order that allows people to live in relative peace without denuding themselves of their particular religious, cultural, and other kinds of identity.

That said, Jardine’s re-interpretation of the story of the fall and its relation to our technological capacities is suggestive, and something I think Christians would do well to bring to the debate on how those capacities should be used. They might well find common ground here with believers from other traditions. In the next (and probably final) post in this series I’ll talk a little about Jardine’s concrete proposals for social change in light of the discussion so far.

3 thoughts on “The Making and Unmaking of Technological Society 3: The Christian revolution

  1. Lee,

    This is simply a very fine review and question piece. You raised substantial questions which were tickling at the back of my mind as I read your laying out of Jardine’s position. It’s too reductionistic and you’re right to suggest that modus vivendi liberalism in a pluralist society is not the same thing as making liberalism a way of life. Most of us have attachments to other communities within our tolerant space. And I must say, the hair on the back of my neck always raises when I hear “correction” language. There is a real tendency for some folks to abuse others with their “corrections” and I’m suspicious of such language when it’s not used and done within a context of mutual accountability and face-to-face relating.

  2. “Liberalism flourished initially in part because the churches were being rather too zealous in the cause of fraternal correction. In other words, ‘mere’ tolerance is no mean accomplishment and not something to be dismissed lightly.”

    Yes. I have seen Christian communities attempt to reintroduce greater degrees of “fraternal correction” where they did not have hard-earned wisdom to draw upon. Very scary.

    Also, I think people forget that when the market is not the mechanism used, generally physical force is what takes its place. Most of the time that is not employed by a philosopher king, either. Instead of merely building fortunes, people collect power. I think it was some pretty deep thought on cosmological and anthropological issues that led people to think the scope of such power ought to be limited.

  3. Thanks for the comments, gents.

    I think there has been recently a strain of Christian thought that’s very critical of the “secular” and of “liberalism” but that is in danger of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

    And I agree that mutual correction is potentially a very dangerous thing, especially the idea of trying to apply it society-wide. Christians have, IMO, good theological reasons for being suspicious of ham-handed attempts to enforce virtue in the public sphere.

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