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.

Moderate drinking = longer life

From MSNBC:

Moderate drinking may lengthen your life, while too much may shorten it, researchers from Italy report. Their conclusion is based on pooled data from 34 large studies involving more than 1 million people and 94,000 deaths.

According to the data, drinking a moderate amount of alcohol — up to four drinks per day in men and two drinks per day in women — reduces the risk of death from any cause by roughly 18 percent, the team reports in the Archives of Internal Medicine.

Of course, you can tell the report is from Italy by the fact that they consider four drinks a day to be moderate drinking. For me that’d practically be going on a bender.

Backpedaling

I’m not usually a fan of this style of music (jangly-indie-folksy), but I bought my wife the Sufjan Stevens Christmas box set and I have to say it’s grown on me quite a bit (go here to stream it). Disc 2 is my current favorite.

PETA priorities

I’m at least somewhat sympathetic to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals; if nothing else, they raise issues that many, many people would just as soon never think about. But this case strikes me as a misallocation of what one can only assume are limited resources.

Apparently they were chastising a pastor in Alaska because his church’s website advertised a “live Nativity scene.” The PETA-ites took this to mean that live animals were being used, but it turns out they were people dressed as animals.

But, even supposing live animals were being used, wouldn’t this be a comparatively minor concern? Why expend precious time and resources on something so trivial? (Not to mention the negative publicity.)

Far and away the greatest amount of animal suffering, quantitatively speaking, has to be that of animals raised for food. In fact, I read somewhere recently that something like 99% of the animals that human beings come in contact with are those raised for food. So, wouldn’t it make sense for PETA to expend nearly all its resources on that?

Maybe if there’s a little left over they could concern themselves with other forms of what they consider to be animal cruelty (fur, hunting, animal testing, etc.), but I would think live Nativity scenes would be somewhere way down toward the bottom of any reasonable list of priorities.

Let us now praise Starbucks, Borders, Target…

Speaking of the blessings of a consumer society, Virginia Postrel, who is basically the anti-Crunchy Con, has an article in defense of chain stores (link will decay).

As someone who grew up in a small town, I have come to appreciate chain stores. The much ballyhooed “mom and pop” stores in my home town were frequently understocked and overpriced. There was no decent place to buy (just to mention a few things) books, comic books, music, and other staples of adolescent life. The closest “good” bookstore was a Waldenbooks twenty miles away. It’s easy for people who have lived their whole lives in a city dense with hip independent bookstores to sneer at Borders or Barnes & Nobel, but the first time I walked into one I thought I was in heaven.

The access that suburban and small-town Americans now have to a good selection of books, decent coffee, music of every conceivable genre, and so on thanks to chain stores (not to mention online retailing) has to be unprecedented. Not that there aren’t costs too, but let’s not pretend there aren’t perks.

Spare me

I was pretty sure I didn’t want to see Borat, but this clinches it for me. Low-brow humor I can take, but pretentious and self-righterous low-brow humor – no thanks.

Anyway, America has got to be among the least anti-Semitic countries in the world by any standard I can think of.

I did watch a few episodes of the Ali G show and thought they were pretty funny. But it’s way funnier to make fun of Newt Gingrich and Boutros-Boutros Ghali to their faces than some guys in a cowboy bar. I mean, the latter is not exactly daring, is it?

Guilty pleasure of the week

The “Best of the Monkees” CD my parents sent me as an early birthday present.

As it happens, my very first music cassette (yes, Virginia, there used to be these things called cassettes) was a Monkees collection from Rhino that I got sometime in middle school. I used to love the TV show which I would watch every day after school.

So, either I’ve come full circle or I’m regressing.

Songs that hold up particularly well (IMO):

“Last Train to Clarksville”
“Papa Gene’s Blues”

“Steppin’ Stone” (later covered by the Sex Pistols!)
“Mary, Mary” (later covered – sort of – by RUN DMC!)
“Goin’ Down”
“What Am I Doin’ Hagnin’ Round?”
“The Girl I Knew Somewhere”
Apparently Mike Nesmith went on to become a kind of icon in the alt-country world. You can definitely hear the seeds of that on the songs he wrote and performed.

The immortality diet

This article about one writer’s attempt to practice the so-called Calorie Restriction Diet is very interesting. The CR diet, which essentially entails keeping one’s caloric intake to near-starvation levels has a fair bit of scientific evidence indicating that it may substantially increase one’s lifespan.

Indeed, some of the practicioners seem to think it could provide the gateway to immortality, in conjunction with “the Singularity” (aka the Rapture for nerds):

“Kurzweil thinks we will reach actuarial escape velocity pretty soon,” says Don. “What do you think, Michael?”

Michael pauses to collect his thoughts, and while he does, let’s fill in a blank or two. Ray Kurzweil is an occasionally best-selling futurist, given to flamboyant but well-researched predictions about the “transhumanist” century ahead of us, in which hyperbrainy artificial intelligence, fiendishly intricate nanorobotry, genome-twiddling Frankentech, and other incipient techno-marvels combine to reinvent humanity in the image of the machine. Swirling in the midst of it all is the key concept of “actuarial escape velocity,” a transhumanist term for that moment in the acceleration of biomedical progress when, for every year you live, technology adds another year or more to your maximum life span. It’s a tipping point that, theoretically at least, never stops tipping.

“I would like to hope 50 to 100 years,” says Michael, speaking carefully. He’s well aware what kind of weight that his day job, assisting the maverick life-extension theorist Aubrey de Grey, gives his words with people like Don. “Fifty to 100 years,” says Don, chewing thoughtfully on his lip. “That may be too late for me.”

“It may be too late for me,” says Michael. But the truth is, once you accept that actuarial escape velocity is out there waiting for you, a single point in time that marks the gates of immortality, it’s never too late to hope your life will intersect with it—and there isn’t much you wouldn’t do to minimize your chances of missing it by so much as a day. With stakes like that in play, even a lifetime of hunger seems a small price to pay.

By the end of the article the author has given up on the CR diet, in no small part due to his increasing awareness of the cult-like qualities of its adherent. He then offers some reflections on why someone like him would be attracted to such an apparently extreme lifestyle:

I know: What was I thinking? But do you really need to ask? The workings of a heart and mind like mine are no mystery. I’m your average midlife secular professional—reasonably well adjusted, as the profile goes—a little tightly wound, but aren’t we all? Like the tail-end baby- boomer I also am, I grow more intimate each day with the fears of mortality already gripping the rest of my generation, and lacking spiritual faith, I am perhaps inordinately susceptible to scientific promises of longer, healthier life. I’m of the generation that made marathon running a popular pastime, for God’s sake, so fleshly discomfort in the name of self-involved achievement is a surprisingly easy sell. Throw in a promise that any undue pain and suffering will be masked or compensated by a psychic well-being possibly chemical in origin, and the deal is just about clinched.

I won’t belabor the point: Just take a good look around your neighborhood, your place of work, your therapist’s waiting room. Take a good look in the mirror maybe, too. That ought to be enough to tell you CR’s growth from cult to subculture to fact of mainstream cultural life is not so unimaginable. Yes, CR flies in the face of common sense, but it’s got the preponderance of scientific evidence on its side. Yes, it’s a little crazy, but the crazinesses it requires are only those already endemic to our age and area code. And yes, by any objective standard, the food is lousy, but believe me: Starve yourself long enough and even a tofu-coffee-macadamia-nut-and-flaxseed smoothie becomes ambrosia.

So if you’ve read this far and still think you could never, ever, do what my five dinner guests do to themselves every day, don’t kid yourself. I’ve seen the future, and it’s hungry.

The obvious angle here is the secular loss of faith in anything beyond death leading to a frantic grasping at scientific promises of immortality. But there’s also a class angle. Working-class people, in my experience, are much more fatalistic about the body’s limits and its eventual breakdown. Middle and upper-class professionals, by contrast, see these as problems to be overcome by means of some technocratic fix. As Christopher Lasch wrote in his book The True and Only Heaven, working class culture is more attuned to the idea that life has certain inherent limits. Not everything in the human condition is a problem to be overcome; some aspects of it are there to be suffered.

But there is a tension here that isn’t easily resolvable in one direction or the other. No one thinks that we should simply accept disease, suffering, physical and mental breakdown, etc. as facts of life and do nothing to alleviate their effects. Awareness of life’s limits can become fatalism. On the other hand, quests for a kind of techno-immortality can lead people both to employ immoral means in its pursuit and to confuse quantity of life with quality (to take a trivial example: would you want to live forever if it meant you had to eat the kind of food prescribed by the CR diet?).

Christianity has generally held these two impulses in tension, without fully giving in to one or the other. Alleviating suffering has always been regarded as a good, as Jesus’s healings and the church’s commitment to works of mercy demonstrate. But this life is not an end in itself, or something to be prolonged at all costs. Christians have been taught to sit loosely to this life, being willing to suffer and even die as witnesses to their faith, with the confidence that there is something greater in store beyond the limits of the present world.

Maybe these tendencies can be held together because confidence in the resurrection allows Christians not to be anxious about their own survival, thus freeing them to attend to the needs of others. Christianity has never been primarily about extending one’s own life – that’s God’s business. Becuase our lives are hidden with Christ, we’re free to be “little Christs” to our neighbors, as Luther put it. By contrast, secular schemes for immortality like the CR diet end up being incredibly self-centered. How do you have time for your neighbor when you’re so busy obsessing about your caloric intake?

Kauffmania

The blog 2 Blowhards has been running a series of interviews with “reactionary radical” Bill Kauffman this week (see here, here, here, here, and here). Makes for interesting reading, full of Kauffman’s trademark excoriation of globalization, rootless politicians, imperial wars, and anonymous corporations, as well as his love of small towns, baseball, and Dorothy Day.

I offered a generally positive assessment, with some caveats, of Kauffman’s Look Homeward, America here.

Friday metal mayhem

Read a review of the new Trivium album, Crusade in the Metro this morning. You can listen to it streaming on AOL here (don’t know how long that link will be good for). Sounds fantastic, especially if, like me, you’re a big fan of 80s thrash metal (early Metallica, Megadeth, Anthrax, etc.).

And don’t tell me that cover art isn’t awesome.