March 3

From Culture War to . . . ?

The writings of James Davison Hunter seem even more timely now than when he first wrote more than twenty years ago. Indeed, there is almost a prophetic quality to them not only as a prescient glimpse of decades still future when he wrote – a “foretelling” of what was to come – but also as a “forthtelling” of truths we too often forget or neglect. In Before the Shooting Begins: Searching for Democracy in America’s Culture War, he writes,

We Americans would like to imagine ourselves to be somehow above and beyond the possibility of serious civil strife. The very idea of the civil unrest that has torn apart nations like Yugoslavia, Ireland, and Lebanon happening here jolts the mind. Total nonsense, we are inclined to say; we are much too civilized for that sort of thing.

Perhaps so, and perhaps we think this with good reason . . . But then the idea burrows into the mind, suggesting some uncomfortable parallels. Here, as there, nonnegotiable claims about the ordering of public life are in conflict. Here, as there, the claims made (even if thought of as secular) are religious in character, if not in substance . . . Here, as there, the conflicting claims trace quickly back to competing ideals of community and national identity. Finally, here, as there, a culture war with deep historical roots has festered just barely beneath of surface of public life . . .

He warns, as a Christian sociologist:

[S]urely we are unwise to minimize the significance of the challenges our culture war presents to American democratic life and institutions. The challenge is not just the potential volatility of particular controversies. The challenge is internal as well, in the ways the normative ideals that democracy itself depends upon have been weakened . . . The ‘center’ can no longer hold; the older faiths – Judeo-Christian and Classical – that once amidst great diversity provided a set of common, if not always coherent, assumptions for the ordering of public life (seen most visibly in Western law, literature, arts, and the like) no longer play . . .

The central premise of this essay is that in a democratic society the [core beliefs] cannot be imposed from the top down but must be generated from the bottom up, in the dialectical process of generating new working agreements out of a serious confrontation with our deepest differences.

If there is a national character, millenarianism is certainly one of its defining characteristics. Democrats, independents, and Republicans; conservatives, libertarian, and liberals; religionists and secularists – we all want America to be a ‘city upon a hill’ . . .

What is even more problematic about this underlying utopianism is that it operates upon what Max Weber called an ‘ethics of ultimate ends.’ In this ethic, the ends always justify the means. What are the means of which he speaks? Weber, dogged realist that he was, said the ‘the decisive means for politics is violence.’ The ends, in other words, always justify forms of coercion . . .

Clearly there is a need to temper the expectations built into this tenacious exceptionalism . . .

The call, then is for modesty about our political objectives. For one, this means a recognition that America will never really be a city upon a hill and, if it is, it will be by necessity a city whose walls are crumbling and always in need of repair; America will never be a beacon, except one that is not so bright and this is periodically prone to go out. Modesty, then, means a recognition that America will always be flawed. For Christians and many Jews, this is not compromise but a frank recognition that the world will always be marred by sin, and that the believer’s true citizenship is in heaven . . . Such modesty does not require the abandonment of one’s ideals, however utopian, narrowly defined and/or partisan they may be, but rather their interaction with what Weber called an ‘ethics of responsibility’ . . . Once again, without abandoning one’s ideals, the credo changes. No longer is it ‘today, we will remake the world’; rather, it is ‘today we will try to make the world just a little bit better.’

February 18

Thinking about Morality

I read Robert Pirsig (Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance; Lila) for mainly heuristic purposes: he makes me think.  While I thoroughly enjoy his analyses of various subjects, I stop short when it comes to his attempts to come up with his own philosophical solution to life’s problems and enigmas. 

Gleaning from his arguments in Lila, I have been thinking about morality: its facets and bases.  His construct is something he calls “The Metaphysics of Quality,” a concept that I find less than compelling or adequate.  (It borrows heavily from Plato’s notions of the “Good” and “Forms.”)  My own belief is that the Christian scriptures are both sufficient and necessary for a comprehensible, comprehensive, and practical governance of life.

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What is morality?  Robert Pirsig sees it as multifaceted, consisting of four unrelated types.  The first and most basic is Inorganic Morality, which is largely made up of what we call the “laws of nature.”  The patterns of inorganic nature – weather, plate tectonics, gravity, physics in general – make up this category.

A second and higher form is Biological Morality, which Pirsig likens to the “law of the jungle.”  This includes the survival of the fittest, reproduction of both fauna and flora, and life and death.

Third is Social Morality.  This involves the norms determined by each society, the laws that maintain a semblance of order and productivity necessary for the functioning of the culture.

Fourth, there is Intellectual Morality.  This involves what “should be” rather than just what is or what works.  Its basis may be in the philosophical conclusions of intellectuals or the sacred writings of various cultures.  Intellectual Morality, ideally, trumps all other forms of morality.

Pirsig, who is spiritual but not Christian, states that Intellectual Morality “still struggles in its attempts to control society.”  I would argue to the contrary that Intellectual Morality has governed various societies in the past but is now being abandoned for a lesser morality (in terms of universal application and what is true to human existence).  The lesser forms may be philosophical (i.e., an inadequate Intellectual Morality), based on esoteric or fantasized belief, or societal morality.  The latter is especially true in the United States where the sole contribution to the sphere of philosophy – Pragmatism – guides and directs us far too frequently.

Applying his own version of Intellectual Morality – for which he uses the synonymous phrase “evolutionary morality” – to the issue of capital punishment, Pirsig writes:

[I]f an established social structure is not seriously threatened by a criminal, then an evolutionary morality would argue that there is no moral justification for killing him.

What makes killing him immoral is that a criminal is not just a biological organism.  He is not even just a defective unit of society.  Whenever you kill a human being you are killing a source of thought too.  A human being is a collection of ideas, and these ideas take moral precedence over a society.  Ideas are patterns of value.  They are at a higher level of evolution than social patterns of value.  Just as it is more moral for a doctor to kill a germ than a patient, so it is more moral for an idea to kill a society than it is for a society to kill an idea.

What Pirsig does not explain is just how “serious” a threat would have to be to warrant killing the criminal.  How is that determined?  More critically, who decides what constitutes sufficient warrant?  Lacking an absolute standard or explanation of morality and values, Intellectually Morality becomes a potentially dangerous weapon in the hands of those who possess sufficient power.

It is at this point that the value of God’s revelation of his moral will – given in the Bible – becomes supra-moral or supra-valuable: Scripture is the Ultimate Metaphysic, resting as it does on the character and nature of God.  An unassailable, external determination and foundation for moral decision making is required if Intellectual Morality is to be anything other than a standard that changes according to the ebb and flow of the intellectual elite – i.e., those who are either in power (as with Plato’s philosopher kings) or have the ears and imaginations of those who wield power (as with Hitler’s utilization of Nietzsche for his pogroms).

In the case of what warrants capital punishment, the Christian Scriptures are essentially clear.  The principles of the Old Testament as expanded and tempered by the teachings of the New Testament provide sufficient and necessary standards that can be followed and applied to the issue of capital punishment as well as all others.  And the same standard that governs capital punishment also provides instruction on related matters such as abortion: if the individual presents an actual (not merely potential) threat to the biological life of another, then capital punishment is warranted.

If Christianity is going to be once again considered as a viable basis for morality and ethics, however, it will first need to be made intellectually acceptable to those who are not believers.  The intrinsic superiority of a Christian Intellectual Morality will have to be argued and demonstrated on various fronts.  Preceding that, though, is the necessary elimination or significant reduction of the present campaigns, crusades, and foci that tend to make Christianity appear irrelevant, archaic, punitive, and distasteful.  I think the former will be far easier to accomplish than the latter.

But that is another post for another time.