CBC’s The Myth of the Secular – Parts 5 to 7


In this blog I will summarize parts 5, 6 and 7 of A Sparkling CBC Ideas Series, after outlining parts 3 and 4 of this series on November 21. This will finish the series. My apologies to Craig Calhoun, Rajeev Barghava (Part One) and David Martin (Part Two) for being too distracted during the first two programs to supply a useful summary of their ideas.

Part Five:

Paul Kahn is Professor of Law and the Humanities at Yale. He is also an expert on human rights. What I got out of David Cayley’s interview with Kahn was that, specifically in the context of the uniquely powerful United States, the State is a theological entity – a transcendent entity whose importance is so great that its survival is worth any sacrifice, even nuclear war that might risk annihilation. He mentions that the U.S. president travels everywhere with a satchel called “the football” that contains all the codes for launching the nuclear weapons at the disposal of the Pentagon. This decision of one person cannot be checked or stopped in any way. Such is the trust of the American public in their choice of leader and the overarching importance, for them, of their country and its system that they place their future, and that of the of the entire planet, completely and uniquely in his hands. This, says Kahn, makes the State into what he calls an Ultimate Value – in other words – a God.

I remember back in the 1980’s being shocked that the Soviet Union, because it was surrounded at short range by nuclear missiles pointed at it, developed a computer-based system called Launch On Warning. The logic behind this system was that, because the Russian Premier (or any mere human) would not have time to decide whether the Soviet Union was under a nuclear attack, a computer would analyze Soviet defensive radar information and launch a potential retaliatory armageddon. (I even wrote a light-hearted song about this ludicrous situation called Radiatin’ A-Bomb Blues. I’ll put it on my Songs page soon.)

I guess Kahn’s point is that a supposedly secular entity, such as a state, can, given the pseudo-religious character of a country formed by revolution, take on a very dangerous theological aspect that has immense destructive power. A Kahn quote taken from the podcast:

It is an imaginable possibility that we will give up everything for the sake of the state. Now that is a mind-boggling thought but it is a reality. .. That’s what these (nuclear) weapons announce: that this political formation is of such value that we’re willing to threaten the entire world. Now how can that be unless one thinks that what’s at stake is an Ultimate Value?

Part Six:

This part was a session with John Milbank, a proponent of “Radical Orthodoxy,” who, despite a predisposition to consider Christianity the fulfillment of other religions, presented some worthwhile ideas. At least Milbank considers Jesus as just one human person who lived life to a unique fullness, revealing God to us by this life. Milbank’s statement that

God in Himself is a kind of fully achieved rational expression.

strikes me as a little wacky, until I realize that Milbank is making the point that God is the ultimate human creation, which some might consider a lot more wacky, but I kind of get the point. I can relate to a vulnerable, even crucified, god more than to the kind that tests whether one is ready to butcher one’s own son for His sake. So as long as we humans have a say in how God behaves, I know the kind of behaviour I would choose… (I believe that God has always been a human creation, so at least on this point Milbank makes some sense to me. )

Milbank says that it is the concreteness of the individual human Christ that renders it universal. Jesus is, for Milbank, anyman. He believes that personal salvation makes little (I’ll be kinder than he was) sense (e.g. the “Have You Been Saved?” type). We are building reality through time by gathering the sparks and embers of living beings. We are each to find our own specific, virtuous role in this collective project of saving the world. There is plenty of scope for individuality, but, if the world is to be saved, it will be a collective salvation.

Milbank says that secular reason has failed and that there is a resulting moral collapse. He lists the corrupt behaviour of bankers and politicians as but two signs of this. The rise of the oligarchs is “proletarianizing” (there’s a cool seven-syllable word for you) the middle class. He condemns the right for believing that amoral markets are the solution and the secular left for believing that the world can survive without virtue. His view is elitist in that he believes that the virtuous should wield power in the world in some kind of partnership with a “democratic ethos.” He does not want to eliminate markets, but he wants them to be subject to the law and, of course, virtuous judges.

Part Seven:

William Connolly, Professor of Political Philosophy at Johns Hopkins University believes that secularist philosophy is “too constipated.” The understanding that a politician’s religious views are not to enter his politics is not what happens in reality. Connolly, a self-described non-theist, nevertheless considers himself spiritual – as having a non-theistic reverence for the world. He does not mind his non-theistic “creed” being described as religious. Current thinking does not make room for positions such as his, setting up the extremes (theism vs secularism) as the only possible stances. Recent adoption of things like gay rights, for example, Connolly believes, are the result of creative ferment – an initial political challenge that eventually produces a completely new respect for what he calls the fecundity of existence or, in fewer syllables, diversity. This positive change he sees as the result of the politics of becoming, in which political ideas are created by challenges from new and different thinkers. He calls attention also to the new alliance between neo-liberals who believe in the magical powers of self-regulating markets and evangelicals who believe that God gives a special place to markets. This is a not-so-positive result of another creative ferment between these two different “spiritualities” combining to form an “Evangelical-Capitalist Resonance Machine.” Not all the outcomes of the politics of becoming are necessarily good…

Connolly proposes a socio-political theory called Deep Pluralism for the future because secularism cannot comprehend the variety and/or the novelty of the outcomes of the politics of becoming. He believes that the number of views involved in the development of new ideas must be multiplied. Engagement, negotiation and mutual respect must be the centre of this Deep Pluralism ethos.

Mark Taylor at Columbia University realized early on that the American civil rights movement and the later anti-war movement grew out of the black church. These two secular results each had a religious impetus. Taylor believes that religion permeates all culture.

Religion is an emergent, adaptive, complex system of symbols, myths and rituals that function, on the one hand, to give individuals and societies a sense of meaning, purpose and direction and, on the other hand to call into question every system or structure that gives life meaning, purpose and direction.

Paradoxically, religion gives structure and also destabilizes those structures. He also believes that these functions often alternate. Taylor then gives us a history of philosophy lesson. The Nomenalism School: the individual is primary and group is secondary. Realism school: the opposite. The U.S. reverences individualism and capitalism, due to the influence of the nomenalism school. An oversimplification: nomenalism leads to capitalism and realism leads to socialism. Britain and the U.S. are capitalist. Continental countries tend to be more socialist. Luther removed the Church as a mediator – he privatized and deregulated religion. The Protestant reforms really took hold in Britain. Capitalism and individualism are intertwined because of history. Religion is the stuff of which cultures are woven. Our Christian notions of creation, incarnation and redemption supplied the historical roots of the secular. The world has no value, for many, outside of its value for humans. Religion, now ossified, has made our world and only (a new) religion will disrupt and remake it. Without this disruption life cannot continue.

Fred Dallmayr: Is a proponent of Integral Pluralism, which searches for a common denominator within the various world views. He is Professor of Political Science at Notre Dame. He believes that there is a deep divide between cultures because modernity is based on revolution. The killing off of the old regime after a revolution emphasizes winners vs losers. He doesn’t add much to what the others above have outlined; simply being prepared to listen to the other and to modify one’s own views. Humans can agree on the pursuit of truth which, for Dallmayr, exists but can never completely be possessed.

All I will add is that, of the people whose ideas are outlined above, I feel closest to William Connolly in my thinking. I can accept his term, non-theist, for myself and also realize that I share his spirituality – having a reverence for the universe as it exists. I will even unabashedly admit feeling a deep awe when I consider the wonders that I perceive around what appears to me to be me.

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Author: mytiturk

Travelbug Minstrel: Strum for my supper, croon for my cuppa Search for a sign, write for my whine

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