Two fascinating posts on politics; make what you will of them

The first from the US, on the desire for recognition of moral goodness across the political spectrum. The Left, in today’s public discourse, are too often quite nastily condescending towards and/or dismissive of those on the Right. I speak as someone with decidedly  centrist political tendencies – inclinations towards democratic socialist fiscal policies and socially conservative policies regarding human dignity and sexual ethics. I am no libertarian, but the recognition that people can have differing life projects, and many of these are legitimate and valuable within a flourishing pluralist society is a useful one.

The second on why the Iraq War was justified, from Prof Nigel Biggar in the UK. A powerful response to widespread assumptions to the contrary. As is frequently the case, the real contours of the moral situation are murky, and I have no firm convictions here.


Tripartite World Stories

Here I begin to explore two accounts in which the history of the world comes in three parts.
The first story is the story I see told and retold around me. It goes:
Evolution -> Science -> Equality.

The second story is offered by the Bible. It goes:
Eden -> Sacrifice -> Eschaton.

The second story is less familiar, perhaps because we all bathe in the first story daily and perhaps also because I chose unfamiliar words to make it sound exotic and to fit the pattern. But I think it is much closer to the truth of things; both are of course hugely simplified, but the second tells us who we are much more truly than the first story does.

The first claims the authority of science; to be based purely on the cold hard facts, while the second has the rarefied air of myth, and is commonly thought to thereby be false. But in the end I am convinced it is the ‘myth’, in Tolkien’s sense, that will surely win. Not by mere violent destruction of the first, for there is a lot to learn from the first story (I don’t have a problem with the elements of the first story, but I do have a problem with them becoming our culture’s sacred narrative in this way). Instead, the second has the power to swallow up the first and incorporate its insights, while the first is wholly unable to deal with the claims of the second.

Each story has three parts. Firstly where we came from, secondly what our cultural world is properly centred on or grounded in, and thirdly where we are going.

On the first story, we human beings and the rest of the biosphere came into being through an unguided Evolutionary process. To really understand ourselves we might find it really helpful to reflect on this process – hence evolutionary psychology, and the associated conditions (diseases) of darwinitis and neuromania[1]. Both our foibles and our potentialities are rooted in this background. Debate rages between adherents of the story over whether we should prioritise the altruistic or competitive aspects of these events in our telling of the primordial proto-historical story, but whichever is to be prioritised is said to be fixed by the scientific facts on the ground.

Through some process, particularly for those emphasising either (or both) the ugly competitive aspects of evolution or a reductionistic gene-centred view, we have transcended our merely material beginnings and have become moral cultured beings. The event, the phenomenon, that really got us going as a species must be spoken of with a reverent tone. Science.[2] It is I think fairly obvious how important science is to our culture – if you happen to be in an argument and can claim Science for your team, you will have won, so long as the other team doesn’t try the same tactic. Even those seen as (whether by their own choice or the wider culture) against science, such as creationists, anti-fluoride or anti-vax campaigners, generally feel the need to frame their material (pseudo)scientifically. Alternative movements such as postmodernism[3] remind me of the “interesting in itself” part of this quote by Terry Pratchett “Tolkien has become a sort of mountain, appearing in all subsequent fantasy in the way that Mt. Fuji appears so often in Japanese prints. Sometimes it’s big and up close. Sometimes it’s a shape on the horizon. Sometimes it’s not there at all, which means that the artist either has made a deliberate decision against the mountain, which is interesting in itself, or is in fact standing on Mt. Fuji.”[4]

Where are we going, what’s the point of this whole shtick? The answer differs amongst believers in the secular story, but perhaps the one ring to rule them all is the ring engraved Equality. Somehow, the material realities of science are sufficient to ground an immaterial ideal of ever-expanding equality. The ultimate aim it seems is peace and harmony between all persons and between persons and their environment. The awesome ones – the enlightenment men and women – ushering in this final kingdom ride horses named Science, Technology, State, and Choice. The competing alternative story that ends not in Equality but in Economics, and the unfortunate wars between these horses on both accounts, are exciting tales for another day.

So, enough for story one, how about the radical alternative? I will just sketch it. The first chapter is Eden. Here relationship – both horizontal (with humans) and vertical (with God) – is key. The relationship is formed and soon breaks horribly, and we live out the consequences daily. Debate rages between adherents of the story over whether we should prioritise the goodness-of-creation or badness-of-our-fall aspects of these events in our telling of the primordial proto-historical story, but the tension, to me, says something profound about human being. The alternative of story one is inherently amoral, where the absence of vertical relationship means ethics is necessarily reduced to behaviours, and the story therefore pales in comparison.

The second pivotal chapter, following from many other events in the interim, is Sacrifice. A radical message breaks into the brokenness of this world, marred in chapter one. The first principle has become personally involved and taken on the sickness such that the world might be made whole. He has taken on the enmity and become the target of the proper white hot anger against rebellion, such that the rebels might be passed over and become friends. The whole cultural force of the autonomous world raged against its creator; the political, religious, monetary, and military powers condemned the innocent incarnation of the originator, the author and sustainer of life, to death. And in this death, in the death of Jesus the Christ, because of Who He Is and through his resurrection from the dead, those who choose to die with him are offered life better than Eden.

The final chapter now comes. That which was created in Eden and redeemed in Sacrifice is shown to be glorious in Eschaton. The remaining brokenness is made right, the sick are made whole, and justice is instantiated across the world. As in the other two chapters, this realm is not earned but given, and we are not kings but stewards. Our life now as ambassadors of the kingdom is shaped by this picture of how things are meant to be under the rule of the King.

There is a lot to say about the conflict and compatibilities between the two stories. A picture of creative development, of the value of science and the goal of equality are all compatible with the second story, but the high points of the tale are different. The second story is superior for recognizing our reality as personal, moral, social, and religious beings in need of redemption rather than merely cogs in the cosmic machine.

In the first story, the world is an accident. I know that for some this claim, reduced to its bare reality is jarring and offensive, but that’s simply how it is. In the second story, the world is a gift.

In the first story, the primary way of knowing is science, grounded in personal experience and a Cartesianesque method of doubt. In the second, the core way of knowing what is most important is through testimony. The second claim is truer to our reality as human persons. In the first story, knowledge is seen; in the second, faith comes through hearing.

In the first story, the primary way of ‘becoming’ or progressing is through personal striving. Value is earned. In the second story, salvation is given and must be received, and new possibilities follow, but the possibilities, which include ethical progress, only exist within the context of the double-giftedness of creation and new creation.

The first story is a sickly imitation of the first, an invented shadow of the deeper reality grounded in real history. The second story is far better, but it is also far truer.

Thanks for reading. I’d like to turn this thought into a little book, let me know if you’d like to read it 🙂
[1] See the humanist polymath Raymond Tallis’s brilliant books on this.

[2] It works, b*tches. https://xkcd.com/54/

[3] Sorry for the looseness of this catch-all term

[4] http://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/book-reviews-fellowship-literary-lives-inklings-tolkien-lewis-barfield-williams-zaleski