Thursday, March 30, 2006

Intrigued by the constitutional view

Kevin J. Corcoran. Rethinking Human Nature: A Christian Materialist Alternative to the Soul. Baker Academic, 2006. 160pp.

Description: What is human nature? is a question of perennial interest, one with which artists, philosophers, theologians, and social scientists continue to wrestle. Augustine and Descartes are classic examples of proponents of body-soul dualism; they contend that human persons are immaterial souls. Today, however, the dominant position among philosophers and scientists views human persons as identical with human animals, that is, humans are nothing more than "biological computers."

As an alternative to dualism or a reductionistic version of materialism, Kevin Corcoran proposes a position known as the Constitution View, which suggests humans are constituted by their bodies without being identical to the bodies that constitute them. Although this view can be traced back to Aristotle, it wasn't applied to persons and bodies until the twentieth century. Corcoran situates the Constitution View theologically and philosophically, arguing for the view's moral relevance by developing an ethic of compassion and care--exemplified in discussion of implications for genetic and reproductive technologies--and demonstrating the theological superiority of the Constitution View over dualism by showing its connection to the Christian doctrine of the resurrection.

This book will be useful for provoking class discussion in a fresh way, especially in theological anthropology, philosophy of religion, and ethics courses.

Kevin J. Corcoran (Ph.D., Purdue University) is associate professor of philosophy at Calvin College, specializing in philosophy of mind, metaphysics, and philosophy of religion. He is the author of many journal articles and the editor of Soul, Body, and Survival.

Endorsements: "Perhaps the most outstanding qualities of this book are its clarity and its generosity. Corcoran is able to present often-complex arguments in ways that folks who are not intimate with these discussions should nonetheless be able to follow. He treats his conversation partners with genuine respect. The humility with which he presents and argues for his own case is exemplary."--Joel B. Green, Asbury Theological Seminary; editor, In Search of the Soul

"Rethinking Human Nature is an excellent exploration of the nature of human persons. Corcoran defends a Constitution View of persons in which we are wholly made up of our bodies, yet we are not identical to them. While I do not, in the end, agree, the position he defends and the arguments he employs are extremely important for anyone thinking about the nature of human persons. One particular strength of his book is that he connects his position to critical issues in traditional theology and contemporary ethics. Corcoran's book will spark a lively debate for years to come."--Gregory E. Ganssle, Yale University, Rivendell Institute

"Kevin Corcoran is a Christian. He is also a materialist. Both those who welcome this combination and those who suspect that it is impossible should read his challenging and well-written book."--R. William Hasker, emeritus professor of philosophy, Huntington University

; ; .

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Fuller's triune psychotherapy

Fuller Theological Seminary publishes a handy journal called Theology News & Notes. As part of Spring cleaning, I was reading through their Winter 2006 issue and discovered a very interesting progression, a "developmental teleology" which, beginning with a trinitarian (relational) anthropology, both describes and proscribes a thoroughly trinitarian and yet therapeutic approach to spiritual formation. I illustrate this progression through the following, which is simply clusters of quotions from the issue placed in my own particular order.


Developmental teleology is a theological understanding of human development (i.e. God's view of our completion) Narrative therapists tend to advocate a postmodernism that, following Nietzchean ideas, rejects metanarratives as a linguistic form of the will-to-power of a dominant group. Clients are seen as suffering the imposition of oppressive, life-restricting stories from without, handed down from family or culture. Metanarratives are to be replaced with alternative meanings that better reflect client preferences.

Spirituality, freed form the restriction of religious tradition, can be little more than an individual hodgepodge of personalized ritual and belief. To value religion for its usefulness is a form of idolatry. [Christianity isn't about "getting your life together." (Nouwen)] Many modern "spiritualities" reflect the individualism of our Western cultures--the self as autonomous, self-interested, and unencumbered by responsibilities for others. Healing is not assumed to occur in the context of a community, and hence an individualistic culture constructs a religion that helps me achieve my mental health. [Yet] the community is the smallest unit of health and to speak of the health of an isolated individual is a contradition in terms. Such implicit "religion" is substantively thin in that is generic, abstract and departicularized . . . traditionless.

We understand a person not just as an individual but as one who finds his or her true being in relationship with God and with others. We focus on relationality as the key aspect of being human and anchor our understanding of the human self in trinitarian theology. To be made in the image of God is to mirror this relationality--to exist as reciprocating selves, as unique individuals living in relationsihp with God and human others. To live according to God's design is to glorify God as a distinct human being in communion with God and others in mutually giving and receiving relationships. The church is a community of mutual moral formation that demonstrates the truth of its metanarrative in its life together. As [Christian therapists] it is faithfulness to our calling to "respond to the whole person God has created.

The transformation wrought in therapy has an emotional side and a spiritual side. The emotional side can be seen as the healing of the self while the spiritual side can be seen as the vision for a good life and the commitment and will to live in a way consistent with that vision. I would suggest that the tasks of both pastoral counseling and preaching share a common goal: to help the people of God imagine or reimagine their lives in terms of the present reality of God's reign and its future consummation. The goal, in other words, is to stimulate the imagination in such a way that one begins to locate one's story in the larger metanarrative context of the history of God's interation with the human race. As Dallas Willard has suggested, disciplined spirituality begins with vision. To re-imagine one's own story as part of the long train of witnesses to the grace of God as portrayed in Scripture is a remarkable vision, difficult as it may be to attain. Our spiritual struggle is that we cannot always clearly understand nor articulate how God's story is playing out in ours. But that is the sustaining purpose of eschatological hope. Christians confess a God who "will restore power where there is none and return order where there is chaos."

If each person is born in the image of God, then personal identity emerges--from childhood through adulthood--characterized by a sense of meaning that is rooted in belonging to God. This journey, much like the wanderings of the people of Israel, can be told as a history of spiritual development where the promise of a hopeful future is not determined by one's talent, opportunities or efforts, but by the providence of God's hope-filled future. . . . The goal of spiritual development is to love God and to love one's neighbor as oneself." Our ability to worship God the Father occurs through our participation in the life of the Son through the Spirit. A person's capacity for transcendence is embedded in relationships to others and ultimately to God . . . as such, spiritual development--like other aspects of human functioning--is dependent on the existence of developmental "nutrients" such as loving relationships, role models, and opportunities for righteous living.

Spiritual disciplines enable us to do what we cannot by direct effort; they "bring us into more effective cooperation with Christ and his kingdom." Spiritual disciplines paves the way for deep internal change that mere willpower can never bring about. Christian spirituality involves an awareness of and response to the Trinity as a community of mutual love, best envisioned as a journey of transformation through union with God.

; ; ; ; ; .

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Padgett versus Wood on time and eternity

I've been trying to clear out my journal backfile, and so took the Spring 2005 edition of the Asbury Theological Journal on the plane to ETS last weekend. Here are a few thoughts.

First, the level of detail necessary to make any reasonable guess at the time/eternity question of God's existence is just overwhelming. More informed than I, Alan G. Padgett (Luther Seminary) and Laurence Wood (Asbury) go after it in the first two articles: "Is God Timeless? A Reply to Laurence Wood" and "Reply to Alan Padgett".

I like the way that Padgett lays out the territory. He writes, "There are at least three theories of divine eternity, and four main views of divine foreknowledge." But, lest one get too confident: "Even these do not exhaust all the options." Oh well, let's slog on. "The three main doctrines of eternity are the traditional doctrine of absolute timelessness (re: Augustine, Aquinas); the biblical view of everlasting eternity; and the view I have defended called "relative timelessness." (But, lest one get too confident:) "The third view is difficult to understand."

"Turning to the doctrine of omniscience, (Aha!) the theories of divine foreknowledge are divided into two camps. . . . limited divine foreknowledge [so that] even God cannot know the full reality of future free and contingent events, [and] all those who believe God does have full foreknowledge." But, lest one get too confident: "[The latter] differ as to how God knows the future [namely in] the mode of divine foreknowledge. For some theologians, God's foreknowledge is based upon his timeless eternity (re: Boethius, Brian Leftow). For others, God's foreknowledge is based upon God's [predestinating] will (re: Calvin). Finally, some philosophers argue for scientia media, a "middle knowledge" (Molinism, re: Luis de Molina; William Lane Craig).

Turning, then, to modern physics, Padgett writes, "there are still two main camps with respect to the reality of past, present, and future. One camp, known as the B-theory "tenseless" time, or the stasis theory of time, argues that past, present, and future are purely subjective or mind-dependent (re: Einstein) . . . temporal process is not part of objective reality. On the other hand [others argue for a ] dynamic or process theory of time. [So that] even while the measure of time is relative, there is a genuine ontological distinction between past, present, and future. The flow of time is not merely subjective." Padgett concludes, "Both of these theories are consistent with modern physics," and quotes Oxford physicist Peter E. Hodgson saying, "It does make sense to talk of absolute time, and it may be possible to identify an absolute frame of reference. There is a real difference between past and future." Of course, you can't hold both simultaneously, "they contradict each other with respect to the ontological reality of temporal process (past, present, and future).

Padgett then explains his own view of relative timelessness. "According to this theory God is temporal in some sense, yet also transcends in some ways our space-time universe." Concluding, "I reject the traditional view of timeless eternity [because it is] incoherent with a theology of a living God, and a philosophy of time in which time is dynamic (that is, a process theory of time)."

Wood finds Padgett’s concept of relative timelessness “awkward.” Raising the flag of Boethius, Wood cries out: Keep a holy God, don’t compromise human freedom! Down with determinism! He finds a connection between divine eternity and omniscience, a connection, he says, that Padgett minimizes.

Wood cites Padgett’s Doktorvater at Oxford, Richard Swinburne, as the source of Padgett’s minimization of the connection between eternity and omniscience. Swinburne maintained that eternity means one of two things, “That God is everlasting life (i.e. God exists at each period of time past and time future) or that he is timeless (he exists outside time.) They forgot the third option, that of Boethius (and the Church Fathers, such as Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Origen and the Cappadocians) that God transcends and embraces time simultaneously.

Boethius, he says, “was concerned to show how God is omniscient and yet humans have freedom. He found spiritual consolation in the faith that an all-knowing God who is the instant moment of all times allows humans to exercise freedom, and hence bad things happen to good people without God foreordaining them. God doesn’t pre-cast (he says “literally foreknow”) the future—that’s determinism. Rather, “God knows all things in our future because our real future is already present to God. To speak in literal terms, God knows (not foreknows) our future, but not before it has happened . . . all temporal things exist instantly in God. So eternity does not exclude time, but includes it.” He cites Wesley:

“He [God] does not know one thing before another, or one thing after another, but sees all things in one point of view, from everlasting to everlasting. As all time, with everything that exists therein, is present with him at once, so he sees at once whatever was, is, or will be to the end of time. But observe: we must not think they are because he knows them. No; he knows them because they are. . . . his knowledge supposes our sin, but does not in any wise cause it. God looking on all ages . . . knows everyone that does nor does not believe [so that] men are as free in believing, or not believing, as if he did not know it at all.”

Wood continues, “All time is present to God as a single whole, but this does not erase the reality of temporal developments.”

Wood wants to adjust the usual idea of eternity, introduced by Augustine. Augustine’s view of eternity as timelessness cannot be held for “powerful philosophical reasons.” “I agreed with Barth and Pannenberg that it is not possible to deal biblically with the concept of the incarnation if God is merely timeless.” Augustine’s eternity-as-sheer-timelessness is the foundation for predestination. “It is impossible to affirm human freedom and sheer divine timelessness.” Picking up on John McTaggart’s A-and-B theory of time, Wood ascribes to the A-theory. “I view spacetime (=creation) as the framework of salvation history, and it is important to recognize the progressive development of revelation in history if the history of salvation is to be the centerpiece of theological method. Unless the temporal process is objective, and not just a state of mind, the realism of salvation history would be called into question. I believe Eleonore Stump, Norman Kretzman, and Brian Leftow (who is Richard Swinburne’s successor at Oxford) have shown the consistency and coherence of the Boethian view . . . Also the writings of Barth and Pannenberg have demonstrated (to my satisfaction) that this view is required in order to have a proper understanding of the biblical revelation of the Triune God.”

Wood suggests that Padgett’s either-or between time and eternity is wrongheaded and overly rationalistic (he even calls it a “pantheistic need for the perfect harmony of the universe”). Citing Michael Polanyi, Richard Rorty, Paul Ricoeur and postmodern science, he says “the paradoxical ideas of eternity—that God transcends time and yet time is real to the essence of God—seem to be incoherent from the standpoint of the intuitive logic of our ordinary experience. Yet if that is the way God is revealed in the history of salvation” then so be it!

Wood concludes his article with a meditation on the nature of the speed of light. Time or “tense” cannot be applied to time. Past, present and future are all the same to the speed of light. The three tenses represent speeds slower than light. Light speed is absolute, yet “time emerges as a result of objects going slower than the speed of light.” This proves nothing, save that there is room for a Boethian view.

And the acceptance of temporal relativity does not fundamentally unseat truth itself. “This worry results from a confusion of philosophical relativism with scientific reality.” A doctrine of “absolute truth” is problematic. “Theology is based primarily on the interrelated events of salvation history, not on the discoveries of reason, and it assumes that God is related to all things and all things are included within the divine being. . . . If truth is not absolute, but relational, as revealed in the doctrine of the Trinitarian Persons, then concerns about Einsteinian relativity is muted. The idea of absolute truth is more pantheistic than Trinitarian. . . . this relational theory is not a theory about absolutism and relativism, but a recognition that what we know grows out of our connectedness and contingency of life. We do not live in a world of absolutes, but in a world of probabilities. That is why we Christian live by faith. . . . one can be more modest about what one claims to know without falling into skepticism.”

Wood’s argument, then, is that Padgett, Craig and Swinburne are victims of old science, and he urges them to embrace Einsteinian relativity. This theory allows for a Boethian understanding of eternity, and best explains the biblical data: “the real future of our world is already present for God because the past, present and future exist as an instant moment in eternity.” Indeed, “the basis for accepting Boethius’ view of eternity is rooted I the theological exegesis of Scripture, but the philosophy of contemporary science illustrates that it is also a coherent view.”

; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; .

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

ETS as it was, ETS as it might be

What’s on the docket for theology, philosophy and biblical studies for 2050? That’s the question that was asked at the 2006 meeting of the Southeastern chapter of the Evangelical Theological Society in Columbia, SC, March 17-18. The question is bold, even visionary. The answer was anything but.

The original outlay was fairly straightforward for anyone whose eyes have been open in the literature. Here is a smorgasbord, in no particular order, of the points made by keynote speaker Millard Erickson (Western), as well as others such as Bill Arnold (Asbury), Andreas Köstenberger (Southeastern) and Jerry Rankin (SBC IMB) during the conference’s opening session:

Evangelical theology needs to re-examine its methodology and, leaving its reactionary tendencies behind, find its own even creative way through the current postmodern climate. In doing so, it should avoid ideological solipsism, and be careful to foster dialogue with the best in other theological and non-theological disciplines, including thinkers from the Orthodox and Roman Catholic traditions. There are some key areas which need work, such as anthropology, ecclesiology, and theological methodology. Further, scholars need to remember to write for the laity, for churches, for classrooms, for contexts other than those of the industrialized west, and for those interested in the calling and craft of the Christian scholar. Some suggest that the pendulum has swung too far to the side of immanence, weight should be thrown toward transcendence. Others believe that new treatments of the basics, a more comprehensive treatment of sanctification or better grammatical references based on improved computer studies are overdue. Others, New and Old Testament scholars, suggest a way be found to curb the solipsistic dangers of so-called “theological hermeneutics” and purely literary or narrative treatments of the biblical text by grounding them in real historical analysis. They point to the mid-century renaissance in biblical theology, and to Don Carson’s “Studies in Biblical Theology” series as a praiseworthy point of continuity.

Other comments in no particular category:

  • Most Wesleyans are not involved in ETS because they understand inerrancy as the product of a peculiar Calvinistic hermeneutic. Why? As one said, “There isn’t much we can do. The epistemology is just too irreconcilable.”

  • History is theology’s laboratory, and also the best predictor of future behavior. Erickson said, “I don’t like to use the word ‘evangelical.’” With the increasing polarization experienced in the evangelical movement today, we are risking another fundamentalist/modernist debate; fundamentalists continue to add criteria to the “in-list”, and liberals just further critique the fundamentalists. Both need to dialogue, there should be more openness one toward the other.

  • Biologist think we know more and more, whereas physicists say we know less and less. Human beings are aware, through scientific analysis, of only 4% of the universe.
Alongside these points, however, was a far more disappointing message. Postmodernity was the anthropomorphized Darth Vader at every public address. Dr. Erickson spent forty-five minutes dismissing it as a has-been on Friday night. A spokesman for the Evangelical Philosophical Society spent at least as much time Saturday morning doing the same. Allow me to quote from his talk, Setting the Agenda for Evangelical Philosophy to 2050, in which he addressed postmodernity from the outset.

“I am persuaded,” he said, “that William Lane Craig is correct in his assessment that postmodernism is simply an intellectual fad that cannot endure. At best it will lead to what Gene Veith calls the “new tribalism.” At worst, the fragmentation and anarchy of postmodernity will give way to totalitarianism. People cannot live in a community without a shared moral vision. So it is inevitable that postmodern thinking and behavior will be replaced by some new social metanarrative—a new worldview. The only question is what worldview that will be. If evangelical philosophers lay the intellectual groundwork now, it may be that the “old paths” of the Christian faith will appear more attractive than any alternative.” Indispensable to that task, he continued, is a “rational defense of theism.” Christians theologians “who have looked toward the Continent for their philosophical inspiration have imbibed heavy doses of postmodern and deconstructionist thinking which has in turn lead to the almost total destruction of theology.” He encouraged the society to turn away from Continental philosophy and embrace analytic philosophy. “If theologians would put aside Derrida, Ricouer, et al., and read more contemporary analytic philosophy, I believe they will find a true friend who will guide them out of the fog.”

What was missing from all of this was any real dialogue with post modern thinkers. The consensus was to circle the wagons and wait for it to die. Several individuals publicly stated they would welcome a return to preEnlightenment worldviews, or even declared themselves “medievalists.” In short, it was shallow and intellectually pathetic. Dr. Erickson’s address, for example, characterized postmodernism as a desire to create an inclusive community and to silence all dissenting voices. He painted the picture of a movement devoid of intellectual energy or creative production, and he scoured it for being skittish toward all metanarrative. Indeed, his demeanor was so trite, his preparation so breezy, it was as if to say, "You foolish children, come back to Father Modernism, listen to the voice of reason and natural theology and be still." The irony was unbearable.

Unable to help myself, I challenged him on his mischaracterizations, making an appeal toward the future rather than the past. Instead of waiting for postmodernists and their critiques to die (he said he had made no such claim—which is totally untrue) so that evangelicals can rush into the resulting vacuum, why not realize the points in common between the Christian confession and postmodern critiques and enter a dialogue with the culture? He backpedaled into denial and then side-stepped back into vroom vroom vapidity. (If only I hadn’t been so nervous at the microphone and had made a proper stand for the hard work of intellectual scholarship.)

On the airplane over, I read an article by Dean Blevins at Nazarene Theological Seminary. One of his footnotes kept playing over and over again in my mind. It reads:

Postmodern theorists are not obligated to jettison all of modernity as enlightenment colleagues did of the pre-modern period. In a postmodern world, “strands” of postmodernity, modernity and premodern narratives carry validity. One of the main traits of postmodernism is a suspicion of historical chronology, resulting in preference for diverse styles rather than progressive movements so that history as continuity becomes history as collage. The result is that a modernist categorization (with postmodern “following” the modern movement) may be problematic in attempting to locate whether any theological or philosophical movement is “pre” versus “post” modern.

In other words, Erickson didn’t know a thing about postmodernism. He didn’t cite, even by way of ad hominem, a single postmodernist until after I mentioned meeting Derrida in 2000. Then he had to rise to the occasion, and “quoted” a few damning sentences from the same (who knows if he quoted them correctly). And, if you are following me, the very critiques made against the post-shibboleth turned out to be but a conference-wide Freudian slip.

Thankfully, this did not prove true of the younger scholars present. I attended three honest and rigorous breakout sessions. All three of these scholars—David Battle of Southern Methodist College who compared the Mosaic Law with the Law of Christ; Daniel McGregor of Columbia Biblical Seminary who proposed a theological and largely practical methodology for including the arts in church worship; and Keith Goad of Southern Baptist Seminary who took Colin Gunton’s criticism of Augustine to task with a close reading of De Trinitate, chapters 5-7 (kudos to Goad for the sophistication of his theological language: "Intead of being controlled by the Aristotelian categories, it will be argued that Augustine modifies the logic and language of the day in order to defend the Trinity revealed in Scripture," and the honest engagement with his own questions "How should the church talk about the Trinity? Is there a grammer presented in the Scriptures? How does one express the inexpressible? What language should be used? What does Scripture direct the church to say and what safeguards are provided?")—cited sources outside the evangelical tradition and demonstrated close familiarity with the scholarship surrounding their topic. I was also glad to hear one young man cite MacIntyre and Milbank even if, by his comments before his own presentation, he had no real understanding of them. Particularly telling was McGregor’s question at the end of Friday afternoon’s panel discussion. Addressing the keynote speaker, McGregor asked if, in his opinion, there was theological hay to be gathered in the anthropologies being created and shaped by the loss of time and space as a self-making horizon with the internet and other technologies. The answer may as well have been “I write with a pencil.”

Intellectually ambitious evangelicals can either fragment the currency of their participation into subject-specific conferences or stick together and pull the fingers of established evangelical scholars from the dead corpse of Enlightenment epistemology. These younger scholars gave me hope that this is exactly what is happening underneath the keynote surface of ETS. Perhaps this past weekend smelled of opportunity. This scholar is going to find out.

; ; ; ; ; ;

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Niebuhr and the Origins of the Immoral Society

In this chapter, Reinhold Niebuhr lays out his political doctrine of depravity. The imaginative abilities of Human beings far outstrip the limits of their own being and environment. The resources of the world are in limited supply. Getting those resources, keeping them and distributing them is the function of power (Niebuhr calls such power coercion). Negotiation of power and between powers (coercive factors) is politics: "an area where conscience and power meet, where the ethical and coercive factors of human life will interpenetrate and work out their tentative and uneasy compromises."(4) In the process, families, communities, nations come into being--and with them, conflict.

"Society is perennially harassed not only by the fact that the coercive factors in social life (which the limitations of human intelligence and imagination make inevitable) create injustice in the process of establishing peace; but also by the tendency of the same factors, which make for an uneasy peace within a social group, to aggravate intergroup conflict. Power sacrifices justice to peace within the community and destroys peace between communities. It is not true that only kings make war. The common members of any national community, while sentimentally desiring peace, nevertheless indulge impulses of envy, jealousy, pride, bigotry, and greed which make for conflict between communities."(15-16)

The origins of conflict aren't completely bad. Niebuhr understands that human beings have a tendency toward other people.

"Man is endowed by nature with organic relations to his fellowmen; and natural impulse prompts him to consider the needs of others even when they compete with his own. With the higher mammals man shares concern for his offspring; and the long infancy of the child created the basis for an organic social group in the earliest period of human history. Gradually intelligence, imagination, and the necessities of social conflict increased the size of this group. Natural impulse was refined and extended until a less obvious type of consanguinity than an immediate family relationship could be made the basis of social solidarity. Since those early days the units of human cooperation have constantly grown in size, and the areas of significant relationships between the units have likewise increased."(2)

Also, human beings have brains. Human ingenuity gains dominance over nature, increasing production to satisfy the demand for more. Yet want and greed always outstrip every gain.

"The frustrations of the average man, who can never realize the power and the glory which his imagination sets as the ideal, makes him the more willing tool and victim of the imperial ambitions of his group. His frustrated individual ambitions gain a measure of satisfaction in the power and the aggrandizement of his nation."(18)

Conflict, then, is inevitable. "Human society will never escape the problem of the equitable distribution of the physical and cultural goods which provide for the preservation and fulfillment of human life. . . . It is man's sorry fate, suffering from ills which have their source in the inadequacies of both nature and human society, that the tools by which he eliminates the former should become the means of increasing the latter." (Ibid.) Like Foucault decades later, Niebuhr sees little hope: "there will be no salvation for the human spirit from the more and more painful burdens of social injustice until the ominous tendency in human history has resulted in perfect tragedy." (Ibid.) "Neither the prophets of Israel nor the social idealists of Egypt and Babylon, who protested against social injustice, could make their vision of a just society effective." (13) "Every group, as every individual, has expansive desires which are rooted in the instinct of survival and soon extend beyond it. The will-to-live becomes the will-to-power."

Power and coercion offer seemingly the only option available to guarantee oneself a piece of the pie (or at least some peace and protection from the violence of others.) Force is necessary for social cohesion and survival, and with force comes social inequality and the coercion necessary to enforce it. "All social co-operation on a larger scale than the most intimate social group requires a measure of coercion." (3-4) Such coercion can either be heavy-handed, as in despotism, or made largely covert, as in democracy. Indeed, democracy, rather than eliminating coercion--what Niebuhr calls a "romantic myth"--is absolutely coercive. The majority presses its will upon all minorities, using force, military and police, if necessary. Thankfully, because democracies check violence and encourage mutual consent, "the coercive factor in social life is frequently covert, and becomes apparent only in moments of crisis and in the group's policy toward recalcitrant individuals. Yet it is never absent." (4-5) "The coercive factor is always present in politics" with "political opinions . . . rooted in economic interests." And even religious organization do not escape. "If they are sufficiently large, and if they deal with issues regarded as vital by their members, [religious organizations] resort to coercion to preserve their unity." Though they "have usually availed themselves of a covert type of coercion (excommunication and the interdict) or they have called upon the police power of the state." (6)

Social power coalesces and centralizes for efficiency, says Niebuhr, and this creates inequality--inequality which is "impossible to justify." And at the center of all are the men of power. Through history, such men have been soldiers, landlords and priests. Today, however, economic power is in the ascendancy. "The economic, rather than the political and military power, has become the significant coercive force of modern society. Either it defies the authority of the state or it bends the institutions of the state to its own purposes. Political power has been made responsible, but economic power has become irresponsible in society. The net result is that political power has been made more responsible to economic power."(7)

The dominant class which controls all of this, Niebuhr calls "men of power." Men of power are the "modern professional man." Because they distribute goods, they quite naturally reserve a larger share for themselves "paying themselves inordinate rewards for their labors." Niebuhr's description of them is quite rude:

"The man of power, though humane impulse may awaken in him, always remains something of the beast of prey. He may be generous within his family, and just within the confines of the group which shares his power and privilege. With only rare exceptions, his highest moral attitude toward members of other groups is one of warlike sportsmanship toward those who equal his power and challenge it, and one of philanthropic generosity toward those who possess less power and privilege. His philanthropy is a perfect illustration of the curious compound of the brutal and the moral which we find in all human behavior; for his generosity is at once a display of his power and an expression of his pity. His generous impulses freeze within him if his power is challenged or his generosities are accepted without grateful humility. (If individual men of power should achieve more ethical attitudes than the one described, it remains nevertheless typical for them as a class; and is their practically unvarying attitude when they express themselves not as individuals but as a group.)" (13-14)

At any rate, excuses for their selfishness are "clearly afterthoughts." Here, Niebuhr’s description becomes ominous when I consider the American situation today.

"The facts [which excuse the excessive income of the economic overlords] are created by the disproportion of power which exists in a given social system. The justifications are usually dictated by the desire of the men of power to hide the nakedness of their greed, and by the inclination of society itself to veil the brutal facts of human life from itself. This is a rather pathetic but understandable inclination; since the facts of man's collective life easily rob the average individual of confidence in the human enterprise. The inevitable hypocrisy, which is associated with all of the collective activities of the human race, springs chiefly from this source: that individuals have a moral code which makes the actions of collective man an outrage to their conscience. They therefore invent romantic and moral interpretations of the real facts, preferring to obscure rather than reveal the true character of their collective behavior Sometimes they are as anxious to offer moral justifications for the brutalities from which they suffer as for those which they commit. The fact that the hypocrisy of man's group behavior, about which we shall have much more to say later, expresses itself not only in terms of self-justification but in terms of moral justification of human behavior in general, symbolizes one of the tragedies of the human spirit: its inability to conform its collective life to its individual ideals. As individuals, men believe that they ought to love and serve each other and establish justice between each other. As racial, economic and national groups they take for themselves, whatever their power can command." (8-9)

Such lies cannot continue, however, and eventually the house of cards collapses. "All through history one may observe the tendency of power to destroy its very raison d'être. It is suffered because it achieves internal unity and creates external defenses for the nation. But it grows to such proportions that it destroys the social peace of the state by the animosities which its exactions arouse, and it enervates the sentiment of patriotism by robbing the common man of the basic privileges which might bind him to his nation." At first, the oppressed are afraid and so are coerced into cooperation with their own oppression. Still, "the same power, which prompts the fear that prevents immediate action, also creates the mounting hatred which guarantees ultimate rebellion." (11) Rebellion! A new house is erected, and the catch-22 of power and coercion begin again, no matter how much social benevolence and moral education attempt to stop it. "Society is in a perpetual state of war." What can be done?

On the heels of this depressing parade, Niebuhr begins to make judgments. "The problem which society faces is clearly one of reducing force by increasing the factors which make for a moral and rational adjustment of life to life; of bringing such force as is still necessary under responsibility of the whole of society; of destroying the kind of power which cannot be made socially responsible (the power which resides in economic ownership for instance); and of bringing forces of moral self-restraint to bear upon types of power which can never be brought completely under social control."

"So difficult is it to avoid the Scylla of despotism and the Charybdis of anarchy that it is safe to hazard the prophecy that the dream of perpetual peace and brotherhood for human society is one which will never be fully realized. It is a vision prompted by the conscience and insight of individual man, but incapable of fulfillment by collective man. It is like all true religious visions, possible of approximation but not of realization in actual history. The vitality of the vision is the measure of man's rebellion against the fate which binds his collective life to the world of nature from which his soul recoils. The vision can be kept alive only by permitting it to overreach itself. But meanwhile collective man, operating on the historic and mundane scene, must content himself with a more modest goal. His concern for some centuries to come is not the creation of an ideal society in which there will be uncoerced and perfect peace and justice, but a society in which there will be enough justice, and in which coercion will be sufficiently non-violent to prevent his common enterprise from issuing into complete disaster. That goal will seem too modest for the romanticists; but the romanticists have so little understanding for the perils in which modern society lives, and overestimate the moral resources at the disposal of the collective human enterprise so easily, that any goal regarded as worthy of achievement by them must necessarily be beyond attainment." "The future peace and justice of society therefore depend upon, not one but many, social strategies, in all of which moral and coercive factors are compounded in varying degrees."
See the previous post in this series: Reading Niebuhr's Moral Man: Introduction

; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ;

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Reading Niebuhr's Moral Man: Introduction

The thesis to be elaborated in these pages is that a sharp distinction must be drawn between the moral and social behavior of individuals and social groups, national, racial, and economic; and that this distinction justifies and necessitates political policies which a purely individualistic ethic must always find embarrassing." (xi) These are the words of the late Harvard political theologian Reinhold Niebuhr in the Introduction to his seminal work, Moral Man and Immoral Society (Charles Scribner's Sons, 1960 ed.). It is a work about social justice, and its argument exists along the margin between the doctrine of human depravity, the demand of Jesus and the Torah to love one's neighbor and the Creator's ordinance to humankind to "subdue the world."

Niebuhr's introduction divides into three parts: a critique of scientific and therapeutic moralism (including religious liberalism); a pessimistic demarcation between private and public ethics; and the suggestion of a new way toward reform which Niebuhr suggests is more realistic than what has come before.

Religious and secular moralists are the foil of Niehbuhr's argument. These "imagine that the egoism of individuals is being progressively checked by the development of rationality or the growth of a religiously inspired goodwill and that nothing but the continuance of this process is necessary to establish social harmony between all the human societies and collectives." (xii) Among these are John Dewey and John Childs, who represent the scientific and educational pole, and social scientists such as Hornell Hart and Floyd Allport, who represent the sociologists, or, in my words, the therapeutic. According to Niebuhr, the scientists and educators fail because they are "too enamored of . . . reason." Following the success of the physical sciences who gained their freedom from tradition through experimentation, these believe a similar method to success in the social arena. Tradition must be overcome by reason. The assumption is that "our social difficulties are due to the failure of the social sciences to keep pace with the physical sciences which have created our technological civilization." Therefore, better teaching, more experimental research and a little time [for Hegel's Geist?] and "our social problems will approach solution." (xiii) The problem, says Neibuhr, is that "the traditionalism which the social sciences face is based upon the economic interest of the dominant social classes." In other words, the social scientists need to wake up to the way things are; "the economic interest of the dominant social classes" means they will "try to maintain their special privileges in society" or the tradition. Those in power are going to want to keep the status quo so that they can stay in power. "Social injustice," writes Neibuhr, "cannot be resolved by moral and rational suasion alone . . . Conflict is inevitable, and in this conflict power must be challenged by power." (xiv-xv)

Sociologists are worse--they don't even understand the problem! "They usually interpret social conflict as the result of a clash between different kinds of 'behavior patterns' ". Applied therapeutic techniques and accommodating dialog is the universal prescription for peace and justice (the process of which is governed totally by the social scientists, of course, who thereby set themselves up to be the next priestly class.) The therapist's hope is ridiculous and utopian, for its success lies "upon the possibility of developing a degree of economic disinterestedness among men of power which the entire history of mankind proves them incapable of acquiring." (xix) This is a "romantic overestimate of human virtue and moral capacity." (xix) Neihbuhr's response: "Only a very few sociologists seem to have learned than an adjustment of a social conflict caused by the disproportion of power in society will hardly result in justice as long as the disproportion of power remains." (xvi-xvii) "Anarchism, with an uncoerced and voluntary justice, seems to be either an explicit or implicit social goal of every second social scientist." (xix)

Classic Christian liberalism falls into this same trap. Rather than trusting in scientific or therapeutic methodology, liberal Christianity "has given itself to the illusion that all social relations are being brought progressively under the 'law of Christ.' ". Christian liberalism conflates, then, the gospel of Christ with the progress of personal and political civilization (meaning the advancement of the social power of the middle class bourgeoisie.)

Niebuhr says the emperor has no clothes. He is a muckraker. Private and public ethics (the latter he calls politics) are totally disparate. Groups are morally far inferior to individuals. "The inferiority of the morality of groups to that of individuals is due in part to the difficulty of establishing a rational force which is powerful enough to cope with the natural impulses by which society achieves its cohesion; but in part it is merely the revelation of a collective egoism, compounded of the egoistic impulses of individuals, which achieve a more vivid expression and a more cumulative effect when they are united in a common impulse than when they express themselves separately and discreetly." (xii) "What is lacking among all these moralists, whether religious or rational, is an understanding of the brutal character of the behavior of all human collectives, and the power of self-interest and collective egoism in all inter-group relations. Failure to recognize the stubborn resistance of group egoism to all moral and inclusive social objectives inevitably involves [moralists] in unrealistic and confused political thought. They regard social conflict either as an impossible method of achieving morally approved ends or as a momentary expedient which a more perfect education or a purer religion will make unnecessary. They do not see that the limitations of the human imagination, the easy subservience of reason to prejudice and passion, and the consequent persistence of irrational egoism, particularly in group behavior, make social conflict an inevitability in human history, probably to its very end." (xx) "The relations between groups must . . . always be predominantly political rather than ethical, that is, they will be determined by the proportion of power which each group possesses at least as much as by any rational and moral appraisal of the comparative needs and claims of each group." (xxiii)

The reason no science or therapy can coerce social reform and achieve social reform is that there are "coercive factors" operating in the political machine. The casual observer can't see them, and so overestimates the usefulness of moral and rational factors. And, these hidden factors are not benign, they coerce. They use force when necessary.

Conflict is a given. As Niebuhr writes: "Whatever increase in social intelligence and moral goodwill may be achieved in human history may serve to mitigate the brutalities of social conflict, they cannot abolish the conflict itself. That could be abolished only if human groups, whether racial, national or economic, could achieve a degree of reason and sympathy which would permit them to see and to understand the interests of others as vividly as they understand their own, and a moral goodwill which would prompt them to affirm the rights of others as vigorously as they affirm their own." But this, he says, is "beyond the capacities of human societies." (xxiv)

The utopian anthropology of the moralists must be abandoned. Their programs, no matter how good in intent, do not account for the limits of human imagination and intelligence. Thus, having made his critique, Neibuhr boldly states his intention to strike out toward a new way to achieve social justice. He's going to present his own program. He's going to make his own beginning; explore the variables in the political equation. But unlike the moralists, Neibuhr is going to keep one eye cocked toward the way things are. Good political thinking can brook no illusions, no matter how pessimistic.

; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ;