The Third Way, 29: The Soul of the West

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(Note to readers: The series on “The Allure of Rome” will be continued at a later time.  Periodically, it will be interrupted by other topics.)

“The totalitarian revolutions, with their practice of inhumanity, lawlessness and depersonalising collectivism, were nothing but the executors of … so-called positivist philosophy, which, as a matter of fact, was a latent nihilism, and which, towards the end of the last [19th] and the beginning of this [20th] century, had become the ruling philosophy of our universities and the dominating factor within the world-view of the educated and the leading strata of society.  The postulatory atheism of Karl Marx and the passionate antitheism of Friedrich Nietzsche can be considered as an immediate spiritual presupposition of the totalitarian revolution of Bolshevism on the one hand and National-Socialism [Nazism] or Fascism on the other.  That is to say, the prevalent philosophy of the Occident had become more or less nihilistic.  No wonder that from this seed that harvest sprang up which our [the WW2] generation reaped with blood and tears …”

Emil Brunner, Christianity and Civilisation, First Part: Foundations, (London: Nisbet and Co., Ltd., 1948), p. 3.

Little has changed in the mindset of “the educated and leading strata” of Western society since Emil Brunner spoke these words in 1947 as he began the Gifford Lectures at St. Andrews University in Edinburgh, Scotland.  We may add the newer variation of nihilism called postmodernism, but Nietzsche and nihilism still command a huge following, supplemented with Foucault, Marcuse and other more recent, trendy figures, including some hard-left feminist voices.  Existential desperation and despair still rule academia, and no hope of more than a very transient and contingent reprieve is even hinted at.  Meaning in the cosmic sense has faded from view.  We now find only stop-gap contingencies to prolong our tenuous hold on hope—causes to fight for (climate change or gender mutability, anyone?), methods of “self-actualizing oneself to the fullest” during the brief candle of our swiftly-passed sojourn on our freakishly incredible little speck of cosmic dust we call Planet Earth.

Literally, “nihilism” means belief in nothing (nihil = nothing in Latin, + ismus = belief in).  On its own, it is a strange and self-contradictory term.  No one can really believe in nothing, for one must at least believe that one exists in order to actually ‘believe’ a thing, even if we declare that belief as ‘nothing’ or non-existence.  The belief itself, however abstract and ethereal, is a thing we believe and believe in.  One can believe that it all means nothing, but not that nothing exists, at least not with real conviction.

In truth, a nihilist cannot really be a nihilist.  She may be like Descartes, who began his Meditations on the nature of reality with his famous declaration of universal, radical doubt that anything at all actually exists, even himself.  But she can only at last arrive at the same place as Descartes—admitting that she is actually ‘there’ (wherever ‘there’ is) because she is thinking.  As Descartes concluded, it will not answer to posit that perhaps, after all, I am merely an idea in another, greater being’s mind.  In that case, even if that were a possibility (which it can be shown not to be since one has the actual power of independent thought), at least the other, greater being exists to have the ‘thought’ which self-identifies as “I think, therefore I am.”

Brunner’s lectures were given in the immediate wake of World War 2, and he was seeking to understand how the West had “come to this pass.”  His diagnosis is completely brilliant and as relevant, and perhaps even moreso, today as when he composed it and shared it.  We may have seen most of the totalitarian dictatorships crumble into the dustbin of history since 1945, but nihilism and Nietzschean despair live on.  Mockery of the Creator and even the idea of His/Her existence also lives on, declaring, like Sergeant Schultz in Hogan’s Heroes, in the face of the ever-increasing, quietly accumulating scientific (yes, scientific!) evidence to the contrary, “I see nothing; I hear nothing; I know nothing.”  Schultz was choosing to see, hear, and know nothing, and so do our ultra-modern-postmodern nihilists.  As an old friend used to say, “My mind is made up; don’t confuse me with the facts!”

After all, a real, existing Creator, leaving His/Her stamp, image, and signature everywhere for “those who have eyes to see and ears to hear” to perceive, will actually require me to admit I am not my own creator and god, and neither am Ithe actual creator of my own reality.  If I am to be the least bit really honest about that reality, I must admit that I don’t control it.  Then I will have to admit that I am truly accountable and responsible to Someone/Something much greater than myself for the of life I have been given.  As the New Testament puts it, “You are not your own; you have been bought with a price.”  I would need to seek the Creator’s purposes and my place within them in order to achieve harmony with what really is, including within my own being.

It is all very well to say, as the ‘progressive’ nihilists who may confess a sort of transient, temporary (and, yes, even fifty billion contingent years is temporary) existence of something destined to implode and return to nothing that, as the only (as far as we know) self-aware extrusions of the Cosmos, we are responsible to care for the fragility of life in all its forms until we and it inevitably pass into oblivion.  The greatest of nihilist gurus, Nietzsche, has already given the simple, callous, and brutal but completely realistic answer, in the form of a question, to this apparent altruism towards an ultimately meaningless and aberrant ‘something-out-of-nothing-destined-to-return-to-nothing’: “Why?”

Nietzsche is rarely read straight-up by those who claim to proclaim his gospel.  Rather, he is read and admired in dribs and drabs by the “‘wise of this age”, as Paul of Tarsus described the similar folk of his day two thousand years ago.  But Nietzsche is not really taken at his word even by those who claim to be his evangelists.  He said that the meaning of everything, in so far as any meaning is to be found, is only in seizing “the will to power”.  “God is dead and we have killed him,” he said.  (A Theist wag’s reply to this from God’s perspective: “Nietzsche is dead and I’m still here!”). 

The angst-driven, postmodern existentialist turns the “will to power” into, “The will to make yourself whatever you choose, to make meaning whatever you choose.”  Although Nietzsche would not contradict this, he would chide, “But this is not enough.”  I-myself as “God” is so small as to be ridiculous.  But most humans do not have the courage to admit that underneath this revolt against the Creator there really IS nothing to support the claim that we can define reality as we see fit.  The void left by the Creator can only be finally and fully filled when I, the creature, accept who I really am in relationship to Him/Her, the Creator.   Most of us cannot live with true nihilism, for the only position really left to the true nihilist is despair.  Even Nietzsche finally killed himself because he couldn’t find real hope even in his own myth of the Superman and Super Race.  We all desperately want our own existence to mean something real,and we cannot live without some substantial meaning to which we can anchor our lives and identities.

Brunner observes that worldviews inevitably shape the civilisations where they take root.  He then looks at the West and its relationship to Christianity, and the consequences of the West’s rejection of its strongest foundation.  This suicidal rejection is an exceedingly perplexing phenomenon, just as the emergence of anything called a “Christian civilisation” was a mystery in the first place, given that The New Testament says nothing whatsoever about creating such a thing.  It talks much of “the Kingdom of God” and how it contrasts to “this age” or the system of “the world”.  It is radically countercultural in the truest sense, and yet, when it took hold, it spawned the richest and most open culture and society the world has ever seen.  And now we find that the children of this culture have decided, like children so often do, that the parents know nothing and never did, and they can do infinitely better without all that old-style discipline and talk of morality and moderation and accountability to a greater Being and greater good.

Our journey in this blog has been to explore elements of this story and, like a blind person with a walking stick, to tap our way forward towards a “Third Way” of truly knowing the Creator and understanding our relationship with Him/Her.  As we move forward, we also need to look backward, for our fore-parents were not stupid and probably not as blind as we have chosen to make ourselves or make them out to have been.  People across all cultures and ages have been seeking harmony within themselves and with the creation and whatever or whomever brought it into being.  Therefore, wisdom and insight can be found in various traditions and quests, as well as insight in how not to travel this road.  In every age people have blundered into ditches or, even worse, a terrible morass by adopting insane, reality-denying and destructive notions of what is and what it means.  Now, in the 21st Century, the West has lost its way and must once more go seeking its soul.

The Third Way, 15: I, We, You

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“Le Coeur a ses raisons que la Raison ne connait point. – The Heart has its reasons which Reason does not comprehend.” Blaise Pascal, Pensées

“So religious discourse should not attempt to impart clear information about the divine but should lead to an appreciation of the limits of language and understanding.  The ultimate was not alien to human beings, but inseparable from our humanity.  It could not be accessed by rational, discursive thought but required a carefully cultivated state of mind and the abnegation of selflessness.”  Karen Armstrong, The Case for God (Vintage Canada Edition, 2010), p. 26

The Enlightenment promised material utopia created through the ineluctable processes of evolutionary progress.  Driven by the almost limitless fruits of the continuous application of reason and logic via the infallible methodology of science, technologies would lead us once more into Eden, or as near as we are capable of approximating it.

The Enlightenment’s leading lights and main proponents relegated ‘Christendom’, the West’s previous guiding paradigm, based on a stumbling and ad hoc attempt to apply assimilable elements of Christianity to the generality of human life and experience, to the realm of superstition and ignorance.  Education, law, and society have long since been recruited and engineered to foster this transformation.  Now in the 21st Century the influence of the ‘Old Time Religion’ has been largely effaced across the board.

The West’s imperial, scientific and technological prowess has spawned worldwide envy and resentment, while its culture and worldview has invaded and intruded everywhere, eroding the old paradigms of Asia, Africa, and the Middle East.  The “imitation game” is afoot, with former bastions of other ‘Old-Time Religions’ succumbing to the western values of material progress, personal affluence and comfort, and ‘self-actualization’ as the ultimate measuring sticks of ‘success.’

But while the economic, material, and social model of the West has gone global, the shallowness and hollowness of its interior life has met resistance, generating fundamentalisms claiming to represent the traditional values and spiritual heritage of the societies they spring from.  This too mirrors the West’s own experience, where resistance to the current ruling paradigm has not wholly died.

What is the West exporting inside its flashy, glitzy, bling-encrusted allure but a worldview without a soul, a two-dimensional, flat-earth, flat-cosmos illusion?  The Emperor has no clothes, but no one but ‘fanatics’ are willing to call it out.  Even the West’s much vaunted interior critique called Post-modernism has failed, because it cannot or will not see and name the void on the inside for what it is. 

In the first half of the 17th Century, scientist, mathematician, and philosopher Blaise Pascal was reflecting on the emerging mentality of his day. Its advocates would later modestly name it ‘The Enlightenment.’ There was no attempt to dissimilate a spirit of humility as that later generation proclaimed themselves the philosophic luminaries rescuing humanity from ‘the Dark Ages’ and the shackles of the spiritual slave-masters of the Church. Pascal said that what he found on the inside of every human being was a God-shaped vacuum rather than a lack of reason and logic searching to be liberated from God and superstitious darkness.  The vacuum certainly cried out to be filled, and would inevitably be so, but it could not be filled by anything except what it had been created to receive: the love of and for its Creator.

Pascal agreed with the later philosophes that one of the major problems facing every human being is ignorance—but not the ignorance born of superstition.  Superstition is indeed ignorance, but it points like a great sign to hunger and inner need—the vacuum that only God can fill, that only the Creator can completely satisfy.  The rationalist solution to this need and hunger was totally irrational—to deny it even exists, or to say that it is not of a spiritual nature because spirit is an illusion.

The Third Way is not a return to a reconstructed Christendom, nor a desperate appeal to breathe new life into materialistic Progressivism.  It begins with a fundamental affirmation that we humans did not make ourselves and that we are not mere accidental, freakish extrusions of the chaotic but somehow self-creating and self-organizing genesis-energy of the Big Bang.  Beyond all of that, but still immanent within it, is the One, the Person who bestows existence with meaning on all that is and on each one He/She has made, is making, and will yet make.  Somehow, as creative agents who reflect His/Her own nature back at Him/Her from the creation, we participate in all that.  That is part of what it seems Karen Armstrong is articulating.

At this point it is not a matter of resurrecting old quarrels and disputes such as ‘What is the one true religion?’ and ‘Who has the most accurate picture of God?’  It is first and foremost a matter of recognition of who and what humanity is, where we are, and why we are here.  It is a matter of admitting that our old formulations, which I have called the First and Second Ways in regard to the West, have driven us into a bleak, dark, deep canyon. 

There are currently many voices diagnosing our situation, like a symphony orchestra tuning up—dissonant and even discordant, but all pointing in the same direction—our need for a rediscovery of our true nature.  In The Phenomenon of Man,Teilhard de Chardin spoke of the “numinousness” of the universe and of humanity’s place in it as the fine point of that “divine presence” in the creation. 

I agree with this description, although I otherwise find a great deal to disagree with in de Chardin’s theological philosophy, or philosophical theology, depending on which end we want to begin from.  The old theology said that “God is omnipresent; God is omniscient; God is omnipotent.”  But if the Creator is only an impersonal principle which permeates and pervades, it is no more than the Tao of Physics, the self-organizing and self-propagating principle now being imputed to the original energy particles or strings, or whatever we want to call it, that generated and emerged from the “Once Upon a Time Kaboom!” story.

The sticking point for we poor, ignorant, superstitious humans, who seem to long for spiritual connection with one another and all the rest of the creation (even as a product of the Big Bang it is a creation, just not one attributed to a ‘Being’), is that we exist as persons with a personality and personal identity.  (I hesitate to use the term ‘individual’ with all its increasingly negative and self-absorbed connotations.)  We may try to subdue and even strive with yogic might and main to erase this ‘illusory self’, but we are still locked into the locus of our particular point of reference within life and the river of time, place, and experience.  It is like saying that, because there is so much similarity in so much that is, there are no essential differences to be found.  But this denies the eternal paradox that I am not and cannot be you, and you are not and cannot be me, and this mountain is not that one, or Planet Earth Planet Mars, etc., despite the fact that we are all made of atoms.

All of creation cries out that the Creator is not just a general notion, a ‘World-Soul’ which absorbs and erases all the individual variations so that there will be no ‘self’ over which to ponder or through which to experience.  It screams aloud that every star, every galaxy, every planet, every plant, every animal, every cell, every tree and rock and river, and, yes, every human being, is made by and stamped with the Creator’s artistic signature, made uniquely, a one-time only production.

Therefore, the issue of value and merit is moot because the Creator valued it so much as to bring it to be.  Our basic problem is both  individual and collective at the same time—for we all have turned away so that we could usurp the Creator’s prerogatives and proclaim ourselves, individually and collectively, our own makers.  We are running in circles saying we are the made and the makers at the same time.

TO BE CONTINUED.

The Third Way, 6: Path 2—Zealotry

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fanatic – 1. Person filled with excessive and often misguided enthusiasm for something. 2. excessively enthusiastic.  (Derivation – Latin, fanum – temple)

zealot – 1. An uncompromising or extreme partisan; a fanatic.

Canadian Oxford Compact Dictionary, 2002.

In the post previous to this one, I suggested that the ‘Second Way’ for humanity to go forward is to rediscover zeal and ‘heart’ in contrast to Progressive Materialism’s exclusivist appeal to reason, logic, and science.  I would suggest that the usual negative connotation of the term ‘zeal’ given by the West’s dominant modern, postmodern, post-Christian cultural and social paradigm must be reclaimed.  The denial that ’emotional’ concepts like ‘heart’ and ‘soul’ add nothing to wisdom and knowledge must likewise be rejected.  Emotion in balance with reason is a form of knowledge and a path to wisdom.  The legitimacy of emotional wisdom and knowledge have long been recognized by modern psychology as essential in becoming a healthy whole person.

In Part 5 we noted that nothing of lasting significance has been done in human history without fervent enthusiasm, dedication, and perseverance—characteristics flowing from the heart and will—areas of the self traditionally assigned to ‘the soul.’  Motivation to see something through to the end cannot come from mere reasoning that ‘it’ is a good and right thing to do.  Striving to move above and beyond what is and what may even be thought possible in any domain cannot occur without the qualities of mind and spirit that zeal imbues.  In other words, anyone who wants to excel, to be the best they can be, to give the best they can give, must be a zealot in the best sense.

The bloody and horrific legacy of the recent past has turned zeal into an almost purely negative concept akin to the despised ‘fanaticism’ for many Western ideologues.  It is only fair to note that the worst atrocities of history—the Holocaust and other horrors of WW2, the Communist massacres in the Soviet Union, China, Kampuchea—were not the work of religious zealots, but twisted people inspired by grossly distorted notions and principles coming from the Enlightenment stream.[i]  We can formulate a long list of extremely negative results from fanaticism and misguided zealotry.  The dictionary calls a fanatic someone “filled with excessive and often misguided enthusiasm for something” and a zealot someone who is “an uncompromising or extreme partisan.”

Even definitions found in dictionaries come from an interpretive perspective.  The key words to question in the above definitions are “excessive,” “misguided,” and “extreme.”  These are value words.  Dictionary editors and composers have a set of values they impose on their work, just as much as any scholar or scientist in any serious discipline.  Is there really any way to measure when enthusiasm has become “excessive” or “misguided,” or when zeal has become “extreme?”

The converse implication of these definitions is that there is a degree of acceptable and appropriate, (“guided” as compared to “misguided”) enthusiasm.  Likewise, there is a converse implication that a partisan can be moderate and reasonable (“compromising?”), rather than “extreme.”  A primary implication is that to be uncompromising, extreme and excessive (however that is assessed) is inherently wrong.

Common sense suggests that zealous people cross the line into “fanaticism” when they condone and perhaps even advocate killing, oppression, and suppression of opposition by force and coercion.  Oppression and coercion can take many forms, both direct and subtle, but any method that denies basic human rights and respect would qualify as “misguided,” “excessive,” and “extreme.”  Killing is simply beyond the pale at any time, except perhaps in the case of a ‘just war” or in self-defence or defence of one’s loved ones.

No ideology of any description—religious, political, economic, social—has a monopoly on common sense, pure logical reasoning, or moral consistency.  Neither does any have a monopoly on moderation in and consistent just treatment of its adherents or those who oppose it.  However, it is manifest that some tend to practise better treatment than others in this respect.  To put it ‘progressively,’ they are more tolerant of dissent.  Historically, no ideology, philosophy, or religion can win hearts if its founders and first propagators are not enthusiastic and zealous about what they preach, teach, and model in their lives.  Let us once more recall the work done by the abolitionists.  It is hard to imagine they would have gotten far if they had been only tepid, moderate, compromising, and unpretentious.  Many other examples would demonstrate the same point.

History shows conclusively that we have only imperfect and flawed exemplars to work with.  Any system which we may choose may succeed in offering us a fine theoretical picture—some with better and more consistently thought-out concepts and principles than others.  But, for any that have actually been implemented at least partially, we have another measure—the historical test results.  This, for history, is the only ‘scientific’ method available, the historical equivalent to the experimental testing of the hypothesis.

We can no longer pretend, à la Descartes, Kant, Hegel, Plato, or Aristotle, that we can devise a perfectly objective method of thought and impartial judgement.  Not even our “pure scientists” at their best can pretend to achieve such a condition, not even Mssrs.Dawkins, Hitchens, or Hawking.

We have been focusing on the West and its society, culture, prevailing ethos, and traditions.  But we find ourselves in a world increasingly dominated by the values and ethos of the West, regardless of geography.  The influence of Western thought, science and technology, and values has infiltrated everywhere, from top to bottom, from pop culture to ‘high-brow’ culture, from philosophy to religion.  

One response to the present Western paradigm built on Progressive Materialism is to simply reject it.  But even those who reject it ideologically are unable to escape its tentacles.  Islamists bent on murderous and suicidal terrorism use the West’s technology to network and infiltrate, and to kill, steal, and destroy.  They typically binge on self-indulgent, Western-style hedonism before carrying out attacks, holding that, as martyrs with a free pass to Paradise, their sins will not be counted against them.

Previously adamantly Communist societies like China and Vietnam see the bankruptcy of the Marxist-Leninist-Stalinist paradigm and shift to a hybrid of Western style capitalism and big business, mixed with a State-directed and controlled socio-political system.  They maintain the fiction of “Communism” while having shifted to what is really neo-Fascism.  Ironically, Fascism is a uniquely Western ideology which uses select elements of Enlightenment concepts from the social, religious, and scientific revolutions while distorting them to justify its peculiar nationalist and particularist agenda.

In the seventeen centuries since Constantine gave birth to Christendom, so much has been tried, and nothing seems to have really answered the purpose.  Humanity still faces the same issues and dilemmas that emerged millennia ago with the establishment of the first civilized societies: Who are we? Where are we? Why is there so much pain, suffering, death, and disaster? How can we make a better future, a better world? What is death and is there anything beyond or after it?

“Who” speaks to just what humanity is, just what I as an individual am.  The where speaks to what this world is and what the cosmos we find ourselves in is.  The next questions are about why this cosmos seems so bound up with what, to our human understanding, seems to be unnecessary, arbitrary, cruel, feckless afflictions—the worst of which is death, a sort of cruel joke for self-aware creatures like humans, who have such a hunger to live, explore, and appreciate the wonder and beauty of it all.

Every society ever known has struggled with these issues.  Our age is no different.  For the mass of people living from day to day, these questions are not front and center.  But all normally functional humans will face them and struggle with them from time to time.  As our own mortality looms larger, finding some kind of answers assumes greater and greater importance.  Some event some time will crash through our self-absorbed cocoon and jolt us into uncomfortable and perhaps agonizing revelation that we and all we know and care about share this common destiny.  Most of us do not simply shrug complacently in the face of “The Grim Reaper” or “go gently into that good night.”

As we have observed repeatedly in this blog, the West’s assumed posture is that all that exists is a product of time and chance, or perhaps some unknown innate directing quality within matter itself.  (Hmm – this doesn’t sound much like science, more like magical thinking!)  But, for the rest—the pain, suffering, disaster, and death—there is no special meaning behind it; it is just how things are and must be.  Modernist, atheistic materialism says that our predilection for “finding a greater meaning” is a sort of evolutionary relic that continues to deceive us and divert us.  Our real task is to get on with making ourselves as comfortable and ‘successful’ as possible for however long our strangely self-aware species can survive.

Perhaps it is time to move on from this position to search for another. 


1. I am sure that the champions of the Enlightenment and its legacy would take strong exception to this observation.  However, the Communists, Fascists, Japanese militarist Fascists, and Nazis did not derive their ideology and hate-filled search for “utopia” from the tenets of any major religion which has been the usual historical whipping boy of militant atheists and Progressives seeking the ideal religion free society.  It would be a long discussion to trace the roots of these ideologies, but, except by the wildest kind of loose reasoning, they cannot be foisted on any of the three great monotheistic faiths, or Buddhism or Hinduism for that matter.  They were militantly atheistic (except the Japanese variety with its veneration of the Emperor, the living descendant of the sun-goddess.)

The Third Way, Part 2: Progressive Redemption, an Analysis

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Progressive Redemption, an Analysis

redeem – 1. buy back; recover by expenditure of effort or by a stipulated payment. 2. make a single payment to discharge (a regular charge or obligation0. 3. convert (tickets, bonds, etc.) into goods or cash. 4. Theol. Deliver from sin and damnation. 5. make up for; be a compensating factor in … 6. (foll, by from) save from (a defect). 7. refl. Compensate for past failings, esp. so as to regain favour. 9. Save a person’s life by ransom. 9. Save or rescue or reclaim. 10. fulfill (a promise).

redemption – 1. The act or an instance of redemption; the process of being redeemed. 2. Christianity – humankind’s deliverance from sin and damnation. 3. a thing that redeems.

Canadian Oxford Compact Dictionary, 2002, p. 859.

            In the first part of this series, we began discussing the Progressive version of humanity’s future.  We cited Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now as a quintessential statement of that vision.  Accordingly, we find that this redemption comes through the human capacity for recursive reason and language allowing us to “deepen our capacity for sympathy-for pity, imagination, compassion, commiseration”. 

                Thence begins a process he describes in this way:

“As the spiral of recursive improvement gathers momentum, we eke out victories against the forces that grind us down, not least the darker parts of our own nature.  We penetrate the mysteries of the cosmos, including life and mind.  We live longer, suffer less, learn more, get smarter, and enjoy more small pleasures and rich experiences.  Fewer of us are killed, assaulted, enslaved, oppressed, or exploited by others.  From a few oases, the territories with peace and prosperity are growing, and could someday encompass the globe.”

Humanity finds itself ‘endowed’ and ‘blessed’ with the resources it needs – recursive reason and the capacity for language being the most salient, it would seem.  On the physical side, one might add begin bipedal and so having upper limbs free to develop prehensile fingers and thumbs with which to manipulate, mold, fashion, and create new things born in our recursive reason (imagination).

As we remarked in Part 1, this progressive tale of redemption partakes of a religio-mythical aura and vocabulary.  It develops its own symbology.  It adopts the language of faith, but asks us to leave behind the connotations of ‘primitive superstition’ which only breeds ignorance and bigotry and division.  If human nature is endowed, who, or what, is the endower?  If it is only the blind forces and chances of natural laws and processes, how is this an endowment?  How is it a ‘blessing’ rather than the mere ‘luck of the draw’ directed by ‘natural selection’?  Endowments mean a gifts, which means there is a giver.  Is the endower mere time and chance, accident?  Statistical near-impossibility? 

So much of evolutionary thought and language reverts to quasi-personification, as if there is a real directing force or (unconscious?) mind built into ‘nature’.  The quantum universe paradigm presents a model of random directionlessness and chaos at the sub-atomic level.  But somehow, despite the seeming chaos, it gives birth to stupendous and stupefying evidence of order and purpose – not just on Planet Earth, but everywhere we can perceive.  There is no way to calculate the ‘odds’ against such an outcome.

As many of our top astro-physical theorists and speculators would have it, the Progressive tale posits endless Big Bangs, so given enough Big Bangs, I suppose this universe could happen once.  We just happen to be the lucky ones this time around – sentient beings with all of these incredible endowments who can self-awarely contemplate our own ultimate futility.  So we must consider ourselves blessed by this eternally self-replicating Big-Bang cycle so that we can pleasurably ignore our meaninglessness. (But so many of us don’t enjoy our brief sojourn in consciousness before out atoms scatter into the wasteland of entropy.) 

So what is the ‘heroic’ tale of our ‘redemption’ in our blessed age of Enlightenment when we can finally fathom just what we are? What does our lonely little idiosyncratic terrestrial blip in an quasi-infinite universe amount to?  Are we left with a reprise of ancient Epicurean philosophy (“eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die”) softened by John Stewart Mill’s compassionate Utilitarianism?  Epicureans believed it was best to live and act as if there is no afterlife, no God or gods to whom we must give account.  Enjoy life to the maximum without harming others, respecting their right to enjoy life to the max too, as long as they respect yours.  In other words, as we now say, whatever two consenting adults agree they can and want to do with one another in private, within a few limitations like not killing each other or causing each other permanent injury, so be it.  As for the rest, be prudent and enjoy! Mill’s modification comes with the principle of trying to do the greatest good for the greatest number in all things, when such things go beyond our personal and private lives – as in developing a more compassionate society.

When we add in our modern and post-modern scientific and technological prowess, the fruit of our recursive reasoning and linguistic endowments, we find our capacity to explore how these guiding principles can be applied and reshaped exponentially expanded.  So we shall not ‘go gently into that good night’ meekly accepting our eventual extinction at the hands of relentless entropy and the Big-Bang in reverse in fifty billion or so years – or whenever our sun gives up the ghost and goes supernova.  But we may yet recursively reprieve ourselves by solving the mysteries of interstellar travel in the interim, and so find a new haven to prolong our ‘eat, drink, and be merry’ existence, knowing full well that, along with everything else that lives, we will die as a race in some distant tomorrow.

If I have caricatured the Progressive epic in my interpretation, this ‘true Progressive myth’ (Pinker’s term, not mine), I do not think I have been out of step with the spirit of it.  We will ‘eke out’ our redemption, bit by bit, step by step, hopefully finding the right balance not to extinguish ourselves or irretrievably ruin our little jewel of a planetary home. We will all learn how to get along and help one another to be as content as possible.

Having, I hope, given a succinct and just description of this ‘true’ (because founded on science and reason) mythological vision of Progressive Redemption, let us consider it from the religious angle.  The Enlightenment Progressive will here protest, “Objection!  We are not practicing a religion or engaging in superstition and pseudo-scientific quackery!”

Perhaps not, but perhaps so, even if it is not ‘religion’ in a sense you choose to consider religion, as Andrew Sullivan so cogently explains in his article “America’s New Religions” (New York Magazine)cited in a previous post on this blog.  This is not a semantic game of setting up a straw man and tearing it down to make the other point of view appear ridiculous by implication.  Progressivism has taken on many of the trappings of a religion without appealing to a Deity.  That is why Progressives so frequently find themselves attracted to Buddhism, at least the brand of Buddhism which does not deify Siddhartha Gautama.  (Actually, most Buddhists do deify him.)If Christianity would relinquish its claim and attachment to a divine Jesus, no doubt many Progressives would esteem him and his teachings (minus his own inconvenient claims to be God’s Son, which, as N.T. Wright has so forcefully and convincingly demonstrated in his epic work, he really made) in the same manner.

For the Enlightenment ideology, once we get past the earlier philosophes and scientists like Locke, Hume, Descartes, Newton, and Galileo, etc., etc., (even Kant was still a Deist), as Stephen Hawking famously put it in A Brief History of Time, when it comes to the suggestion of God, “we have no further need of that hypothesis.” Interestingly, Hawking’s conclusion flew in the face of his own admission a little earlier in that work that the evidence as it existed seemed to suggest design and a Designer.  However, as a scientist with a commitment to (faith in) scientific reason’s powers, he simply could not bring himself to accept that conclusion.  He invoked his own Deus ex machina.  Somehow, sometime, our reason and logic, our ‘recursive reasoning endowment’, will lead us to the truth and we will find the Holy Grail – ‘the Theory of Everything’ – which will tie up all the loose ends.

Does this sound a little like religious faith?  Hebrews 11:1 in the New Testament defines faith as “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen”.  It is not anti-reason or superstition to believe in something as yet unseen but for which we find convincing substance and evidence –for example, the conviction that my life-partner of 45 years loves me.  I cannot “see” this love except by the evidence of action and experience.  This is not always scientifically demonstrable.  A whole host of non-scientific ‘evidence’ goes into it.  Yet it is quite reasonable for me to believe that it is so. I experience the substance of it every day.

The Enlightenment Progressive has chosen a faith-position, just as much as the Theist.  Defining his premises to exclude other approaches to reason and the same body of evidence a priori does not, as Captain Picard in Star Trek Next Generation puts it, “make it so.”  Defining the universe so that only that which can be ‘reasonably concluded/accepted/posited’ by ‘recursive reasoning’ (please read as Enlightenment Progressivism defines it) does not really define what cannot really be delimited and perceived by human minds.

We can explore chemistry and physics and psychology forever but still not know what life is, what consciousness is, what self-awareness is, what moral intuition is, why we innately experience awe and reverence, or where any of this comes from – and, beyond all that, why it became at all.  To say it is a result of purely cosmic processes and chemico-electrical activity fits the materialistic, ‘reason and science alone’ paradigm for knowing, but denies the experience and intuition of individuals and societies since humanity emerged into the light of day.  Even some animals seem to “get this” at times, apparently stopping to mourn and pine in the presence of death and loss, expressing individuality and personality.

The universe cannot be reduced to a sort of time-chance, dissonant (from the statistically predictable outcomes of the behaviour of the basic energies of whatever is) chemico-physico-atomic-subatomic strange ‘machine’.  The human species cannot be reduced to a sort of accidental conjunction (unless the ‘law of natural selection’ eleminates the chance) of heterogeneous elements that display extremely unusual characteristics because of strange electro-chemical activity in a gelatinous mass of cells located in its uppermost appendage (our heads).

Progressive ‘redemption’ and ‘salvation’ suggests the best possible future as a least-painful, most comfortable, safest possible sort of existence for the greatest possible number, perhaps with a little adventure thrown in from time to time to add a little ‘danger’ and ‘risk’ (which seems to be a necessary stimulus for progress to continue).  The goal seems to be survival for the species for the longest possible time-span.

Is this enough for our species to thrive?  Or is it really a chimera which would, in the long run, stultify and smother who and what we really are?

We will continue to explore this in our next instalment.