Saturday, April 18, 2009

ZenTiger Making Civilisation Civilised

I was going to speak of Humanism, and how religion is automatically rejected as providing any basis for claiming authority, requiring reason alone. I was also going to discuss Catholic thought, that speaks of the role of both faith AND reason.

Topics too big for a single post, so I'll simply make this a part of the whole.

So I'll begin this post with some of the problems Humanists have to grapple with, by quoting Clive James (Cultural Amnesia, 2007). He sees the power of reason, and wonders how we can make civilisation more civilised. If humanists have faith, it is in reason. Why are people then, so unreasonable?

It was terrible, that age...The full facts about Nazi Germany came out quite quickly, and were more than enough to induce despair. The full facts about the Soviet Union were slower to become generally appreciated, but when they at last were, the despair was compounded. The full facts about Mao's China left that compounded despair looking like an inadequate response. After Mao, not even Pol Pot came as a surprise. Sadly, he was a cliché.

Ours was an age of extermination, an epoch of the abattoir. But the accumulated destruction yielded one constructive effect, salutary if solitary. It made us think hard about the way we thought. For my own part, it made me think hard about all the fields of creativity that I seemed to love equally, whatever their place in a supposed hierarchy.

I loved poetry, but such towering figures as Brecht and Neruda were only two of the gifted poets who had given aid and comfort to totalitarian power. I loved classical music, but so did Reinhard Heydrich and the ineffable Dr. Mengele. I loved modern fiction in all its fearless inclusiveness, but Louis-Ferdinand Céline, the author of that amazing phantasmagoria Voyage au bout de la nuit, had also written Bagatelles pour un massacre, a breviary for racialist fanatics. On examination, none of these exalted activities was a sure antidote in itself to the poison of irrationality, which is inseparable from human affairs, but fatal to them if granted a life of its own. and for the less exalted activities, examination was scarcely necessary. I loved popular music, but one look at Johnny Rotten was enough to show you why even the SS occasionally court-martialled a few of its personnel for nihilistic behaviour beyond the call of duty, and more recently there have been rap lyrics distinguishable from the "Horst Wessell Song" only in being less well written. I loved the art sports, but so had Leni Riefenstahl, who also provided evidence that there was nothing necessarily humanist about the movies: Triumph of the Will is a spectacle everyone should see but no one should adore. It would be nice to believe that comedy, one of my fields of employment, was of its nature opposed to political horror, but there are too many well-attested instances of Stalin and Molotov cracking each other up while they signed death warrants, and there was all too much evidence that Hitler told quite good jokes. If there was no field of creativity that was incorruptibly pure, where did that leave humanism?
Now Clive James was speaking of humanism, not in the political sense but the cultural.

In the end though, his point is universal.

We discuss Stalin, Hitler, Mao and endless others, in endless degrees, and try to ascribe their beliefs to an ideology that we could some-how ban or control or stamp out. And yet, it isn't really an idea that sins, but the sinner themselves*. The sinner has always been free to choose from competing ideas. Good or evil. We can all too easily find some reason to see evil in good, and we have the capacity to find reason to see good coming from evil. How do we trust reason, when we add our own meaning to what happens?

We have eaten the apple and our reasoning denies our sin. Not Thy will, but my will. It's what Christianity has always understood as the core of the problem, although this message is often missed by her detractors. A small point, with far reaching implications.

If we are to nurture the human qualities that move us from sinners to saints, will it be reason alone that gets us there?


This post is really a continuation of a recent post: Is all religion bad (cake or death). I haven't got around to making any particular point as yet, and it may take some time. Stay tuned.

*I'm not saying here though that some ideas are not dangerous, as they become instruments for facilitating 'sin'. Sometimes it is better to simply avoid temptation by not keeping those bad ideas around!

Semi-related post: Saving us from ourselves

And also: Freedom of Religion

2 comment(s):

John Tertullian said...

Excellent stuff from Clive James. I had better get the book! I find it helpful to make a hard conceptual distinction between rationalism and reason. Rationalism is the presumption or assertion that the mind of man is autonomous, that it measures all things, and sizes up God (which is to say, denies the very possibility of His existence from the outset).
Rationalism is what Eve practised in the Garden; it is what all Unbelievers practise whenever they use the faculty of reason. It is an idolatry. As both James and you point out, it leads in the end to extremes and destruction, since it knows no law but its own. As the Serpent insinuated: it determines good and evil for itself. It's starting point is the denial of human sin--as you point out.
The faculty of reason itself is a constituent part of being in God's image--but a constituent part only, just as the body is a constituent aspect of being in God's image.
The old divines used to speak about "right reason" by which they meant reason which presupposes the all creating, all governing, all conditioning God and which seeks to think His thoughts after Him. This is reason as God created it to be. It is the way Adam and Eve functioned before the Fall. It is a wonderful gift.
I believe the distinction between reason and rationalism is crucial and fundamental. If we don't get that right there are deadly chasms on every hand.
Look forward to the continuation of the post. We are staying tuned!

ZenTiger said...

Good distinction JT. I like the point.

I wanted to use "irrational" in place of "unreasonable" at one point, but it ruined the tempo of the sentence. Hacks like that don't help either!

Cultural Amnesia by Clive James is a good read - it's looking at 50 or so key characters in (mostly) 20th century history and discussing the thread I outlined above. His 50 characters might not match the choices of others, but it makes for a broad, meandering topic that suits his style.

Bonus: it was on the sale bins for $15 at Paper Plus. Hope you find a bargain.

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