How secularism ‘avoids discussing what is good’

From the second chapter entitled ‘On the Negative Spirit’ of G. K. Chesterton’s book Heretics, he majestically dismantles the secualrized notion of “progress”, an idea that on the surface of things sounds mature but as Chesterton shows, is actually devoid of a telos, a true goal that most of human history (until the modern age) has been concerned with.  In other words, modern secularism is self-referential to the point of madness and absurdity, “It has no perfection to point to” hence,

“All I venture to point out, with an increased firmness, is that this omission (the absence of an enduring and positive ideal [or] absence of a permanent key to virtue), good or bad, does leave us face to face with the problem of a human consciousness filled with very definite images of evil, and with no definite image of good.  To us light must be henceforward the dark thing – the thing of which we cannot speak…

…  The human race, according to religion, fell once, and in falling gained the knowledge of good and evil.  Now we have fallen a second time, and only the knowledge of evil remains to us.  A great silent collapse, an enormous unspoken disappointment, has in our time fallen on our Northern civilization…”

20618693._UY475_SS475_And now we are set for the full force of Chesterton’s genius.  I have rearranged the shape of the following paragraph so that it can be seen more clearly, but the order of words and ideas is exact):

“… Every one of the popular modern phrases and ideals is a dodge in order to shirk what is good.

We are fond of talking about “liberty”; that, as we talk of it, is a dodge to avoid discussing what is good.

We are fond of talking about “progress”; that is a dodge to avoid talking about what is good.

We are fond of talking about “education”; that is a dodge to avoid discussing what is good.

The modern man says, “Let us leave all these arbitrary standards and embrace liberty.”  This is logically rendered, “Let us not decide what is good, but let it be considered good not to decide it.”

He says, “Away with your old moral formulae; I am for progress.”  This, logically stated, means, “Let us not settle for what is good; but let us settle whether we are getting more of it.”

He says, “Neither in religion nor morality, my friend, lie the hopes of the race, but in education.”  This, clearly expressed, means, “We cannot decide what is good, but let us give it to our children.”

Heresy, p.13

Chesterton later calls this “unconscious shirking” (p.14), before stating:  “What is the good of begetting a man until we have settled what is the good of being a man?  You are merely handing on to him a problem you dare not settle yourself.”

 

The truth: the holy truth, and nothing like the truth – post-truth society and the church

The truth: the holy truth, and nothing like the truth – post-truth society and the church

The following article is a guest post by Rev’d Dr Helen Paynter, a Research Fellow and Coordinator of Community Learning at Bristol Baptist College, as well as part-time minister at Victoria Park Baptist Church in Bristol, and it is published here with my thanks to her friendship and ministry.

The paper was originally published in the Baptist Ministers’ Journal in January 2017.  Dr Paynter has also published a book called ‘Reduced Laughter – Seriocomic Features and their Functions in the Book of Kingsreviewed on this blog, and –ahem- reputable offerings elsewhere, drawing on the work of Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin.

It is of no small significance that the great Anthony Thiselton, writing the preface to his 20th Anniversary Edition of New Horizons in Hermeneutics writes, “The two thinkers to whom I would now give serious space if I were writing the book today are probably Hans Robert Jauss and Mikhail Bakhtin” (p.xxi) – emphasis totally mine!

 

To the truth…..

The truth: the holy truth, and nothing like the truth – post-truth society and the church.

Helen Paynter

Bristol Baptist College May 2017

 

 

The post-truth phenomenon and why it matters

Truth is the ground on which we stand and the sky that stretches above us – Hannah Arendt

The art of political ‘spin’ is millennia-old. But in recent years, the will to deceive for political purposes has intensified to a new level – or so it seems. In the light of the now-notorious ‘£350m/week for the NHS’ claim, and the election of US President Trump, we in the UK and liberal West are now, apparently, in the age of ‘post-truth’ politics.

The phrase ‘post-truth’ was designated ‘Word of the Year 2016’ by the Oxford English Dictionary, which defines it as ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’. In bald terms, it means that the factuality (I hesitate to use the word ‘truth’ here, for reasons which will become clear later) of claimed facts is becoming an irrelevant commodity in public, or at least political, discourse. As The Economist put it recently, ‘Truth is not falsified, or contested, but of secondary importance’.

An important – and disturbing – cultural phenomenon is arising, and the church needs to understand and address it. This paper will briefly consider some of the causes of our current predicament, and suggest some ways that the church might respond. First, I suggest five reasons why it matters.

  1. As shown by a Mori poll published in December 2016, lack of public confidence in the political process is at an all-time low. Ironically, this begets a vicious cycle: ‘When lies make the political system dysfunctional, its poor results can feed the alienation and lack of trust in institutions that make the post-truth play possible in the first place.’[1]
  2. History has repeatedly shown that lies are the tools of political oppression. As Hannah Arendt put it, ‘[Truth] is hated by tyrants, who rightly fear the competition of a coercive force they cannot control.’[2]
  3. Psychological studies have proven that false memories persist, even when they are publically retracted.[3] In light of the commandment not to bear false witness (Exodus 20:16), this should disturb all who take biblical ethics seriously.
  4. A recent Demos report showed that on-line disinformation, a major source of untruth, is disproportionately seen and believed by children and young people.[4]
  5. Contrary to the logic of ‘post-truth’, facts matter – in politics as elsewhere. How I ‘feel’ about Europe or the NHS may or may not be important; whether one of these institutions is receiving £350 million a week certainly is.

How have we arrived at the stage where untruth is regarded as acceptable – or at least, unsurprising – within the common consciousness?

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“The same frantic steeplechase toward nothing”

I found these Thomas Merton excerpts on a tatty piece of paper the other day, and thought they belonged here:

“The problem is to learn how to renounce resentment without selling out to the organization people who want everyone to accept absurdity and moral anarchy in a spirit of uplift and willing complicity.”

“We live in a society whose whole policy is to excite every nerve in the human body and keep it at the highest pitch of artificial tension, to strain every human desire to the limit and to create as many new desires and synthetic passions as possible, in order to cater to them with the products of our factories and printing presses and movie studios.”

“If we are fools enough to remain at the mercy of the people who want to sell us happiness, it will be impossible for us ever to be content with anything. How would they profit if we became content? We would no longer need their new product.”

“The basic inner moral contradiction of our age is that, though we talk and dream about freedom…though we fight wars over it, our civilization is strictly servile. I do not use this term contemptuously, but in its original sense of ‘pragmatic,’ oriented exclusively to the useful, making use of means for material ends. The progress of technological culture has in fact been a progress in servility, that is in techniques of using material resources, mechanical inventions, etc., in order to get things done. This has, however, two grave disadvantages. First, the notion of the gratuitous and the liberal (the end in itself) has been lost. Hence we have made ourselves incapable of that happiness which transcends servility and simply rejoices in being for its own sake. Such ’liberality’ is in fact completely foreign to the technological mentality as we have it now (though not necessarily foreign to it in essence). Second, and inseparable from this, we have in practice developed a completely servile concept of man. Our professed ideals may still pay lip service to the dignity of the person, but without a sense of being and a respect for being, there can be no real appreciation of the person. We are so obsessed with doing that we have no time and no imagination left for being.”

“The monastic life is in a certain sense scandalous. The monk is precisely a man who has no specific task. He is liberated from the routines and servitudes of organized human activity in order to be free. Free for what? Free to see, free to praise, free to understand, free to love. This ideal is easy to describe, much more difficult to realize…The monk is not defined by his task, his usefulness. In a certain sense he is supposed to be ‘useless’ because his mission is not to do this or that job but to be a man of God. He does not live in order to exercise a specific function: his business is life itself. This means that monasticism aims at the cultivation of a certain quality of life, a level of awareness, a depth of consciousness, an area of transcendence and of adoration which are not usually possible in an active secular existence…The monk seeks to be free from what William Faulkner called ‘the same frantic steeplechase toward nothing’ which is the essence of ‘worldliness’ everywhere.”

The Pocket Thomas Merton, ed. Robert Inchausti (Boston & London: New Seeds, 2015).

Rainbow

Civilization and Culture

banksy_crucifixion

The distinction between culture and civilization is acute indeed, even I missed it and I was trying to pay attention!

I needed help to see and when I picked up Terry Eagleton’s Reason, Faith and Revolution, by mistake I might add (I was trying to get to another book), I couldn’t put it down and four hours later I heard the distant echo of my wife’s voice getting louder and louder through the haze, “Oh darling (that’s how she always talks to me), you’ve got to go to church, you’re leading, preaching, dancing, c’mon!

But in those four hours, wow!  And I would like to share what I found.

Eagleton is attacking the myths and inherent contradictions in the Western world regarding multiculturalism, democracy, ect.   Which was fascinating in its own right.  But rather than leave the global status on the well known but misunderstood peg known as ‘The Clash of Civilizations’, he dissects this further:

Civilization means universality, autonomy, prosperity, plurality, individuality, rational speculation, and ironic self-doubt.   Culture on the other hand, signifies all those reflective loyalties and allegiances, as apparently built into us as our liver is, in the name of which, people are prepared to kill.  Culture means custom, passion, spontaneity,  unreflective, unironic and a-rational.

Thus the West (by-and-large) has civilization, the non-west (by-and-large) has culture, and as if to hammer home the point in brutal irony, he adds, that colonizing nations are civilizations, while most (former) colonies are cultures!

Whilst these contrasts are not absolute, we can see how transnational corporations, in the business of profit and market domination, whilst being cultureless and unlocalized in themselves must pay tedious attention to how business is traditionally conducted in an alien culture (I’ve seen banks advertising on the TV this very thing showing their profound cultural insights with a very happy family at the centre, but always in the soft glow of a rising/setting sun, and without the rank poverty and economic injustice that will always be just out of screen shot)!

The in-built irony of the West is simple:  Western civilization is by definition a plurality of cultures.  Civilization needs culture of course but the multi-cultural experiment of the West since the end of WWII is a fragile thing indeed.  Thus civilization is precious, but fragile; culture is raw but potent.  Civilizations kill to protect their material interests; cultures kill to defend their identity.  The more pragmatic and materialistic civilization becomes, the more culture is summoned to fulfill the emotional and psychological needs that it cannot handle.

When culture is thus repressed, it returns with a bite because it is more localized, immediate, spontaneous, and a-rational than civilization, it is the aesthetics of a poetic kind of politics.  If ever the Enlightenment spawned anything, it was the starchy rationalist and his infuriatingly unpredictable younger brother, the romanticist.

Religion falls into both these camps, which is one reason for its incredibly enduring strength.  As civilization, it is doctrine, institution, authority, metaphysical speculation, transcendent truth, choirs, and cathedrals.  As culture, it is myth, ritual, savage irrationalism, spontaneous feeling, and the dark gods.  Thus Christianity started as a culture but became a matter of civilization.

Within the framework of the Dawkins-Hitchins debate (the two figure-heads of New Atheism which Eagleton tears plenty of strips off, are humourously referred to in his book as Ditchkins), the continual reference to culture as a way to close down arguments and prevent rational debate/dialogue is is part of the problem.  This appeal to culture becomes a way of absolving oneself from moral responsibility and rational argument.  And this is why Ditchkins is not a culturalist but argues against religion as if every religious person is, nothing but a silly caricature that Dawkins particularly is becoming known for – and that is his undoing because it shows his sloppy approach to history, worldview, religion in general and Christianity in particular.  I don’t like the man very much, but I know God well enough to know he is deeply loved!

The British are going through the cultural mill at the moment.  British culture!  What is it exactly?  British values?  What?  You mean secular capitalist values driven purely by market forces in a faceless multi-national world.  Ooh, yes please!  Culture, in the West now functions (or is trying to) as an alternative to failing (or more accurately, declining) religious faith.

Like religion, culture is a matter of values, intuitive certainties, hallowed traditions, assured identities, shared beliefs, symbolic action and a sense of transcendence.  Thus it is culture, not religion, which is now for many people the heart of a heartless world.  Karl Marx would be thrilled to discover that for some, culture serves as an opium substitute as well!  Culture trumps everything and you can’t even poke fun at it or ask hard questions, such as ‘Why?’  Islamic radicalism is as guilty of this as any other pocket of assumed cultural superiority.

When the English football fans chant “I’m English ’til I die, I’m English ’til I die, I know I am, I’m sure I am, I’m English ’til I die.”  I really do agree with them, but it does sound like they’re trying to convince themselves of this qwerk of birth, or at least, remind others in case they’ve forgotten.  What are the opposing fans supposed to chant in reply?  “We know you are, we know you are!”

But culture trumps everything in a weirdly paradoxical caricature of itself.  If postmodernity is suspicious of foundations in any and everything, it needs to be careful, for in removing the old foundations of our civilization in the West, it is replacing them with its own cultural versions.  In this way, postmoderns are not really hostile to foundations, they’re just hostile to traditional forms of foundation, for they’ve just replaced traditional ones for make-it-up-as-you-go-along cultural ones, and by the way, don’t ask questions, or you’ll get the stare that really says, “Stop being irrational like those religious nutters!”

End of conversation.