Skip to main content

Religion, Education, and the Species

Primacy and the Subordination of Man: Among all the various flavors of Christian teaching across the many cultures and languages which have embraced it, great differentiation is to be found, from nation to nation, city to city, and church to church, in the specific beliefs which adherents possess. This differentiation results from generational alterations to inherited forms, which themselves were more of the same, caused by innovative interpretations, incomplete inherited forms, omission in subsequent transmission of those forms, and structural changes related to language, region, dialect, usage, etc. Taken together, these many forms are like the proverbial coat of many colors, representing a rich living tapestry of concepts and traditions which provide insight into each contributor’s growth, understanding, disposition, and cultural outlook. Most of these forms are complementary, some are contradictory, but in hierarchical terms, they all share at least one common unifying principle: Primacy. It is a useful signpost for those who accept as gospel the suggestion that all roads lead to God, but it is indeed a stumbling block for those who do not so readily agree.

The letters of Alcimus Ecdicius Avitus to Bishop Apollinaris in the Fifth Century C.E. reveal a Christian attitude which prevailed over the ensuing fifteen centuries, no matter what brand or era of revision one considers. “Let him seek out his maker to whom he may, long lived in years, render a devout life of servitude (Shea 74).” In his poetic render of Genesis, Avitus recognizes a clear mandate for the subordination of man. He echos this premise in a subsequent passage, issuing directly from the mouth of God “But here is my greatest command: as everything serves you, so do you serve me and obey your devoted father who subjects all this to you (Shea 75).” For the adherent, the implication is that the material world is not just temporal, but also consumable and disposable, and that man’s highest and most noble occupation is obeisance, in exchange for material well-being in the present, and salvation in the hereafter.

This complex of beliefs reduces a man’s role in his own existence to that of an affluent child, whose future security has been so assured by present wealth that he need not consider the solvency of his estate as a function of his development. The environment from which all resources spring assumes a utilitarian quality, to be disposed of as man sees fit, without regard for such aspects of finitude as might trouble those who are not convinced that He who has so clothed the flowers and the birds will never suffer his children to do without. The economy, by which all resources are distributed, becomes a meritocratic litmus through which status and worth become symbols of divine approval, and therefore become justified by their own pursuit. In their distinction from those less fortunate, they perceive poverty as evidence of punishment or failure to obtain grace, and thus proceed from the observation of an abundance of poverty to reinforce the conclusion that man is inherently unworthy, or incomplete, instead of the more credible conclusion that goods and resources are not only limited, but are not equitably distributed. Such is tantamount to criticism of the Creator, and thus not complicit with the notion of its primacy.

The outcome, as far as I can tell, is a race of people belligerently burning through world resources, blind to the deprivation of their peers, and singularly fixated on the Rapture as the natural end of every narrative. For them, extinction is merely an intermission, and all finality rests with a benevolent force who has constantly attended to every other detail according to its own insurmountable and incontestable will. For the rest of us, the world is heating up. The fuel is running out. The wars are getting worse, leaving larger wakes of plague and famine. As the population grows, less land becomes available to feed them all, and people starve. As the visible consequences of this utilitarian treatment of the world (as a disposable asset) begin to pile up, the dissonance creates a further incentive to retreat into the shelter of that paternalistic primacy. These are merely fleeting symptoms, immaterial conditions, or superficial ails, in contrast to the gravity of the question of heaven ever after, where conveniently, all of the original troubles we dismissed in this world remain dispatched evermore.

To this end, the success of Christianity as an expansive organisation is the efficacy with which this cultural attitude may be transmitted into or out of a majority influence, as it is (or is not, as the case may be) opposed by a more conservative and pragmatic secular view of man as an agent in the continuity of, as well as the dominion over his environment. For those who remain unpersuaded by the notion of an immortal soul in an infinite realm ungoverned by economic reality and presided over by an infallible designer, such positions are troubling. Poverty remains a persistently visible symptom of an obviously imperfect natural system. Illness and disease are not to be met with prayer, or the scornful rebuke, for that matter, of the patient’s moral lifestyle and existential philosophy. Clean water alone requires the most vigilant science! And most importantly, the human race soon faces the dizzying prospect of colonizing what was once held to be unobtainable real estate: space!

As we advance into the heavens in search of new homes and haunts, does God recede? Or do we merely approach? On one point, perhaps, we may all agree. Our successes or failures then and there must certainly depend heavily upon the decisions we make in the here and now. In this sense, man does still find himself immutably subject to natural law, be it a consequence of divine ordinance or just plain old causality.

Survival and Salvation

Of all the world’s populations, Christians and Capitalists have the least to fear from climate change: Christians, because their concerns are not with the present world, which is material, but with the hereafter, which is an impenetrable abstraction. Capitalists, because they’re the only group of people on the planet for whom everything about climate change can be made into a positive. This same thing is true of the Christians as well, because all of that which goes wrong here in the material world is filtered through the lens of prophecy- “signs and wonders,” as they say, and reinforce existing perceptions. Natural disasters are themselves narrative symbols of God’s dissatisfaction and their increasing frequency correspond with pre-existing notions of an approaching Rapture, followed by Judgement. Like the capitalists, they are armed with the tools necessary to weather the coming storm. The capitalists, at least those who have enjoyed some measure of success up to this point, may have land, weapons, management ability, and other forms of established advantage which allow them greater access to resources and better odds of survival. The Christians, many of them quite poor, have simply the ability to look on at the destruction of civilization with indifference, accepting even their own hunger and deprivation as evidence of their assured redemption.

The two major philosophical influences on American attitudes toward the future are Christianity and Capitalism. The former may be traced from the Joel Olsteens, Billy Grahams, and Jerry Falwells of the contemporary era all the way back to the first Dutch Protestants who landed on Plymouth. The latter may be traced from the World Trade Organization, the Securities Exchange Commission, and the World Bank all the way back to the Buttonwood agreement which established Wall Street as the principal center of commerce in the western hemisphere. Americans pioneered the oil and gas revolution and built an economic powerhouse around the very industry which now threatens to decimate the species. Americans then comprehended their folly, and joined with dozens of other nations to establish and implement new practices conceived to mitigate the damage done by that industry. Shortly thereafter, Americans forgot or merely disregarded their earlier revelations and decided to leave that organisation. This decision shocked the world, but it should not have. America is pervasively Christian, or Capitalist, and even the briefest of surveys of those who have held positions of power within the three main branches of American government since its exuberant inception will reveal that they were almost exclusively both.

In the contemporary era, Christians and Capitalists find their clearest political advocate in the Republican political party. Many elements within the modern Republican platform reflect either a direct or indirect awareness of the imminent realities of changing climate, and an outright cynical disregard for the global consensus. These range from obscure to specific, and when assembled, tend to provide what seems to be the only plausible unifying theme in an otherwise disparate and incoherent system of conservative values. In other words, the whole thing can only really be understood if one steps back and accepts the supposition that not only do the Republicans believe in Climate Change, as stated, but also believe they are well-placed in human history to gain from it.

An anti-abortion stance is not just a moral position based on scripture. GDP is based on the relationship between growth and value. If the rate of American population growth declines against economic competitors, so too does production and capital. If American borders are not secure, on the other hand, migration from those regions more acutely affected in the short term threaten the long term ability to maintain order and avoid premature exhaustion of finite resources. A willingness to confront China and ignore Russia reflects an understanding of the future- an energy-centric global political power structure, with China competing primarily against the US economy for Russian gas. A departure from the Paris Climate accords and an infantile rejection of climate science reflects both a preoccupation with God as an unfailing provider on the part of the Christians, and the intractable significance of oil-wealth as the foundation of American economic preeminence. We can’t just “Go Green,” because if we do, we’ll go broke.

At the end of the equation, it must be considered that American leadership was what led the world into the crisis. It was also American leadership which, hand in many hands, took the first steps toward owning the problem and finding a new way forward. Presently, it seems that American leadership has once again altered its heading. The world followed American leadership once, and then again. For thousands of years mankind has placed his future in the hands of an almighty God. The time has come for the species to assume responsibility for its own survival. This time, however, it is not clear what role America may have in charting the course. In fact, it is becoming increasingly clear that America prefers to remain a part of the problem and has no interest in cooperating on a solution. Perhaps America has realized its interests are best served by staying the course and bringing about Armageddon. Either Jesus returns in the nick of time, or those who live on the hill see their power solidified for generations to come. It’s a win-win, for somebody, somewhere, either way.

Dogma, Science, and Skepticism:

In Summa Theologica, the medieval philosopher Thomas Aquinas presents a five part proof of the existence of God. In so doing, Aquinas is attempting to resolve the concept of divinity with the period understanding of natural science. In equal parts Machiavelli and Charlemagne, the philosopher’s objective is to accommodate an exchange of legitimacy between both fields of inquiry by demonstrating their congruence, instead of emphasizing the disparity between them. This conciliatory approach is a well-intentioned precursor for the moderating political style of the Elizabethan era, which makes it sound philosophy centuries ahead of its time. However, science does not respect dogma, or disposition, and the danger of attempting to justify a philosophical premise with scientific fact is the probability of watching science evolve beyond one’s present understanding. Worse still is the potential for the dogmatization of science, which retards its growth.

One example is Aquinas’ suggestion of a “Prime Mover,” or an “Original Cause,” which anticipates Isaac Newton by nearly a thousand years as well, and this without the benefit of the works of Galileo or Johannes Kepler, whose innovative ideas and meticulous records were integral to Newton’s process of observation and discovery. The problem is that Newton’s principle of inertia is a little more complicated than the superseded view upon which Aquinas rests one pillar of of his theory. By this scholar’s understanding, an object in motion will remain in motion unless acted upon by an equal and opposite force. This and other such observations, generally accepted, refer to predicted behavior, but offer no more consequential evidence of any original cause than Aquinas’s deductive reasoning had produced. Aquinas makes the mistake of basing a theory upon an assumption, in this case, that all that is presently in motion was at one point not in motion.

This brings us to an odd aspect of the (only) two modern views of the origin of the universe. The first is God, which handily requires very little further explanation. The second is the so-called Big Bang, which in this author’s opinion has been dogmatized to the same fanatical extent as creationism. Dogma is the reason why there are apparently only two models for this monumental part of natural history. As it turns out, the Big Bang requires only a small amount of explanation to most lay audiences, before it becomes as easily accepted as the Aquinian or the Ptolemaic system. The human capacity for accepting what sounds reasonable without critical skepticism is paralleled apparently only by its affinity for resolving complicated questions into contradictory dualities and leaving them there.

I offer a first a simple refutation of Aquinian Physics, and then an alternate view of the universe’s origin. Aquinas contends that the universe is infinite. Science has shown that it is in fact about 28 billion light years in diameter, meaning that it is finite, however expansive. If we assign to the mass of all the matter in the universe the value X, then the amount of force needed to generate all the motion in the universe would not need to be infinite, but rather finite as well, proportional to the value of X. What is therefore required of God is finite, and thus by such works the supposition of a being of limited power is reasonable by Aquinian standards of logic, but nowhere can the essence of an infinite power be perceived. Not even science requires an all powerful God.

To the dogmatic secularist view of a Big Bang, critical skepticism is also instructive, and way more interesting! When astronomer Ed Hubble observed ubiquitous red-shift in the early 20th century, the bread pan model of an expanding universe gained primacy. At some point, clever humans thought to model a reversal of this process and concluded that if watched backwards, all the matter in the universe would recede to a common terminus. Thereupon, the notion of a heavy, dense little ball at the true center of the universe, exploding in the first seconds of history is the resting place of popular scientific understanding for the foreseeable future, which the tribalists will either adopt and swear a blood-bound oath of loyalty to or deny with all the unyielding confidence which scripture may inspire. In truth, from any vantage point other than God’s alone, the two rival narratives are visually and structurally almost identical: a sudden and all-encompassing intrusion into the barren void of all that is and can be.

But here’s the trick! The Big Bang theory doesn’t actually rest upon the little particle. That’s just the extent to which credible human observation can proceed without transgressing the fundamental limits of science. Whatever happened before that moment is treated as unknowable, and demonstrably unprovable. Scientists watched all the little stars and galaxies recede on their computer models until they reached a coterminous position and could be modeled no further. But accepting the universe in that state as a point of origin contradicts Newton’s principle of Inertia. The arrow of time is mistakenly understood to be pointing forward from then until now (a complete abstraction owing to the genius of Albert Einstein). But the assumption that time is linear is a product of human perception. To suggest that we cannot know what the universe looked like before that little dot is understandable. To accept it as the marker for the beginning of time is just as foolish and simplistic of an assumption as was the notion of a flat earth in the middle of the universe. If one imagines that watching time “backwards” is just another valid method of perceiving time (which will become both viable and critical with the following point) then the laws of inertia still apply, and the mere perception of all matter colliding in an single point in time is not a valid basis for the assumption that all motion ceases at that point.

If one imagines that in that backwards model, all the moving points are plotted through that single point of origin, then one is presented with a cyclical view of the universe in which all matter is constantly expanding with the force of all the energy in the universe until the gravity of the whole exceeds the velocity of the pieces, effectively calling them all home in a climatic and violent recession to and through those single points, which are potentially infinite iterations of the Big Bang, revealing potentially infinite iterations of the universe. This model satisfies Newtonian physics, because it allows all matter which is in motion to remain in motion forever, thereby eliminating the necessity of a Prime Mover. As well, the model removes the arbitrary restriction of Time to a finite element. Such unsatisfactory conclusions were never related to any observable scientific observation, as none were possible, but instead resulted from a deficiency in the human imagination, and it was that deficiency which was then dogmatized by popular consensus.

Perhaps this model is also flawed, or contains some hidden assumptions or skewed or incomplete understanding of physics. Such should almost certainly be the case! The lesson for modern philosophers, scientists, and scholars, is to be more critical of the views which are commonplace, instead of merely adopting what is accepted in any era to be common knowledge. The reader will forgive this editorialization in what purports to be a scholarly response, but if I traveled a few centuries into the future and learned that my own view of the universe had been studied, debated and accepted by many people, I would be elated beyond the limits of my own language. However, if I then discovered that civilizations were destroying each other in defense of or resistance to my view, or worse, that my own view represented the final resting place of human inquiry in the field of cosmology, I would rather have blown my own brains out than written it. And if I found out I was just plain-old wrong, then or even just tomorrow, I would hope to feel neither slighted nor surprised. Somewhere therein lies the value of a liberal education.

The Great and Noble Order of the Fog:

In “Science and the Early Church,” David Lindberg attempts to assail the position of 19th century commentator William Draper, that “the Church has set herself forth as the depository and arbiter of knowledge,” and “became a stumbling block in the intellectual development of Europe for more than a thousand years. (Lindberg 509)” In the first place, is this an unassailable position? Does Lindberg’s position and argument make sense? Finally, is Lindberg persuasive? Does he accomplish what he sets out to achieve, or does this piece merely echo the centuries of pseudo-apologetic nonsense which more of the same?

The first discussion is one of purpose. Lindberg asserts that one of his organizing principles is “shunning the ideological and polemical motivations” of William Draper (511). This is an unequivocal statement of bias, which subsequently undermines his stated intention to neither “attack or defend” Christianity (511). Draper’s position is a positive assertion which Lindberg clearly sets out to refute. This objective implies a defensive posture in favor of the Church. This observation is further supported by a casual review of Lindberg’s other titles, When Science and Christianity Meet, which is not categorized as either history or science, but as religion, in the bookseller’s domain, and Historical Essays on the Encounter between Science and Christianity. Lindberg has made a career of couching apologetic views as neutral and objective. In so doing, he belligerently refuses to acknowledge, let alone include, any points Draper or subsequent “ideological polemicists” may have made in defense of the position they chose to advance. As such, the reader is granted access only to the conclusions which Draper drew, and not to the logical progression of thought by which he arrived at such a view.

Furthermore, he seems to completely ignore the qualifying characteristic in Draper’s indictment, of the influence of Organized Christianity on the advancement of science. The majority of the early writers he to whom he refers were writing prior to the formal organisation of religion, or after its epic failure. A genuinely effective refutation might have confined itself to the relationship between science and organized religion as a wielder of state authority, such as the 150 year period between the Constantinian era and the fall of Rome, or the Charlaminian era forward. Instead, Lindberg seems to take an obstinately obtuse course around the substantive issues which arise when Christianity has the power to exert its will over the course of academic inquiry. I use this phrase to deliberately highlight his second strategy, which is to ambiguate the word “science” itself. He correctly asserts that modern science has no corollary in antiquity, just as their ancient systems of philosophy lacked the focus on empiricism which we take for granted. The phrase “academic inquiry” is less useful to Lindberg as a method of controlling the opposition, but still fits thematically with the overarching message the Draper crowd has been trying to get across. With this point made, it is telling to note that Lindberg has decided to confine his examination to the period in which he concedes that “science” itself was an undefined concept. The best way to prevent the opposition from dismantling your position is to never really establish one.

The next discussion is one of form. Some of Draper’s points seem like efforts to arbitrarily corner a perceived opponent. Like the subjects of his history, he does not have the atheist in mind, but rather a qualitative confrontation between religious groups. “Those who would characterize the early Christian tradition as ‘superstitious’ must apply the same term to aspects of contemporary pagan philosophy.” The frustrated reader bellows “What has this to do with science?” Furthermore, what objectivity may be perceived in the practice of defining all of the groups in a contest by the language of one party? Pagan is a pejorative Christian term which denies and reduces the identity of any to whom it is applied. It permits Lindberg to manipulate the sense of legitimacy of any position, in favor of the Christian. It is a subliminal habit which betrays the unconscious motivation of a Christian to consolidate all oppositional forms as alien or foreign. It has no effect on the atheist, who has no conflict in ascribing the quality of superstition to either Christian or Pagan tradition. But in a multi-theological setting where the voices and views of atheists are either suppressed or ignored, it is a tactic of the Christian supremacist to push other theological traditions onto unstable ground.

Lindberg’s outcome is a disorienting and directionless survey of antiquity figures who opined on the nature of the relationship between God and Man, Heaven and Earth, and who lived in a very specific geographical region, where, for the most part, Christianity existed in a minority position, with no state authority to carry out its discriminatory will. That Lindberg was unfamiliar with the story of Hypatia is unlikely. That he was unfamiliar with the millennium of abusive and anti-science positions of the Catholic Church and its rebellious Protestant offspring is an infuriatingly condescending suggestion, and that he rebukes as anachronistic the Draper standard is laughable. Draper wrote his opinion in the 19th century. Lindberg’s refutation, which pretends not to be a defense of Christianity, focuses exclusively on the contentious writings and dialogues between Christian and anti-christian positions prior to Augustine, and ignores all subsequent historically accepted narratives which place Christianity, as a legitimate wielder of real material, coercive, symbolic, and charismatic power, in earnest opposition to unambiguously scientific inquiry. It is not clear that Lindberg’s own works continue to be reprinted, repurchased, and presumably read and believed (510).

Popular posts from this blog

Review: The Black Side of Shreveport, by Willie Burton

Burton, Willie. The Black Side of Shreveport. Shreveport : Southern University of Louisiana, 1983, 159. Reviewed by Steven Harkness. With the Emancipation Proclamation, Abraham Lincoln set a race of people free from the indignity of slavery. With the Union victory over the Confederate states, the government promised reform via Reconstruction. With the contentious election of Rutherford B. Hayes though, the political will to carry those reforms forward in earnest fell subordinate to the need for compromise and continuity. Within a generation, the cause of the black citizen passed from pipe dream to political controversy to conflagration to compromise to catharsis. The white man would not help, and would not keep his promises, and could not be counted on for meaningful change. All truth existed on a continuum, and this truth was more true in the south than in the north, more true in the cotton belt than in many other southern areas, and perhaps nowhere at all more true th

Modernization and the Ottoman Empire

The Ottoman Empire is famous for its size, scope, and influence upon the histories of nearly every major European country. Why then, did the concurrent attempts at modernization seem to fail for Turks, where the Egyptians succeeded? In short, the Turks, who wielded so much power and authority, failed to solidify their gains. One argument, and a strong one, is that they bit off more than they can chew. Another argument, equally compelling, is that they were simply beaten into bankruptcy. And yet another argument contends that reforms failed for Ottomans because of an insurmountable surge of internal resistance, from basically every direction.

Cyber Bully: the Self-Perpetuating Cycle

The internet has evolved into a cradle-to-grave platform for social abuse. From the exploitation of small children by sexual deviants, to the pervasive bullying of students, to the radicalization and recruitment of young adults, to the global networks of hate groups and terrorist organizations which receive them, the digital age has failed to achieve the utopian ideals of enlightenment, social justice, and civility. Bullies, of all ages, races, and creeds, flock to the web to find easy targets to victimize, and to locate organizations of like-minded individuals to lend legitimacy and validity to their toxic worldviews. The net also provides them anonymity, and the tools to protect their identities from their victims, from the communities where they live, and from law enforcement agencies who would hold them accountable. And for many groups, the internet offers opportunities to finance those malevolent agendas. What all of these hate groups and bullies have in common is the desi