Adventus

"The central doctrine of Christianity, then, is not that God is a bastard. It is, in the words of the late Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe, that if you don’t love you’re dead, and if you do, they’ll kill you."--Terry Eagleton

"It is impossible for me to say in my book one word about all that music has meant in my life. How then can I hope to be understood?--Ludwig Wittgenstein

“The opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice."--Bryan Stevenson

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Be reasonable! The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!

If ever there was an object lesson on why justice, not reason, is the universal basis of conversation between cultures, this would be it:

A 30-page National Intelligence Estimate completed in April cites the "centrality" of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and the insurgency that has followed, as the leading inspiration for new Islamic extremist networks and cells that are united by little more than an anti-Western agenda. Rather than contributing to eventual victory in the global counterterrorism struggle, it concludes that the situation in Iraq has worsened the U.S. position, according to officials familiar with the classified document.
Emphasis added.

And what is driving these cells?
Previous drafts [of the NIE] described actions by the United States government that were determined to have stoked the jihad movement, like the indefinite detention of prisoners at Guantánamo Bay and the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal, and some policy makers argued that the intelligence estimate should be more focused on specific steps to mitigate the terror threat. It is unclear whether the final draft of the intelligence estimate criticizes individual policies of the United States, but intelligence officials involved in preparing the document said its conclusions were not softened or massaged for political purposes.
Father Jake sets me thinking about this, not from the point of view of international geopolitics or even American foreign policy, but from the perspective of a Christian. He raises another voice on the Pope's recent, controversial lecture. But he arouses the post-modern in me, the one who is far less sanguine about reason than some of my clerical peers.

Reason, Father Jake wants to assure us, and Pope Benedict wants to assure us, is universal, and is the common ground upon which we can meet. I must demur. Reason is a construct, at least in Western culture, of an Hellenistic ideal. Yes, it is the logos. But if it is the creative force of the universe, it is because it imposed order on chaos, and without its constant efforts, chaos will prevail; indeed, some day the logos will weaken, and chaos will reclaim what was its possession at the beginning. That is hardly a Christian view of Creation; but it is part and parcel of the Hellenistic idea and ideal of reason, as ineradicable from it as the accent marks of koine Greek. Reason is salvation to the Greeks only by an act of will. Salvation, for Christians, is an act of God, a gift of grace; and creation is not sustained by our will, but by the Creator who made it possible. And Creation was not an act of God's reason, or even an imposition of God's will (that would imply an object acted upon); it was simply an act of God. Reason is an important part of Christianity; but reason is Hellenistic; faith, perhaps better "trust," is Hebraic.

Starting as an imposition on disorder, reason in Western history quickly became the fundamental tool of empire, of oppression, of absolute (or near as possible) control. The eminently reasonable Socrates and Plato exerted their power over young boys, and gave themselves fine reasons for doing so. It is this, many New Testament scholars now believe, that Paul condemned in his references to what we, 20 centuries later, call "homosexuality." It was reason that established and maintained the Pax Romana. It was reason that wiped out the natives in this country. "Manifest Destiny" and "White man's burden" were reasoned attempts to justify the imbalanced exertion of power. It "won" the American West. It established the colonies of Western Europe, the Empire of Britain that girdled the globe. It was reason that justified those empires and colonies, because the people of those countries were self-evidently "unreasonable." Ignorant, backward, savage, they deserved the oppression and rule imposed upon them by superior force of arms. In the end, of course, they were so unreasonable the empire and the colonies could not be maintained.

Reason as a universal good? It is ironic, of course, that in the course of Pope Benedict's lecture, no mention is made of the reasoning of the Muslims which preserved the writings of Aristotle for, as it turned out, Aquinas, who used them to discern the natural law which is still the backbone of Catholic doctrine. No mention, either, of the Muslim mathematicians who gave us the concept of "zero." No mention of the Muslim philosophers, all as reasonable as any we rely on in Western philosophical history. Perhaps there simply was not enough time to mention that, too. That is a reasonable conjecture, isn't it?

Reason has always been identified with power. Those with the power, always claim to be reasonable. And their one standard for conversation, is that you reason as they do. If you do not, you are the one who is unreasonable. Children, women, "barbarians," "savages;" the distinctions go back to the Greeks who taught us to think this way in the first place. Reason always allows us to dismiss those who we claim do not think as we do, who are not "reasonable," and from there we can always justify doing what we wish to do, invoking the name of reason as our shield and our excuse and our warrant.

As Micah said: "What does the Lord require of you, but to be reasonable, to be merciful within the limits of reason, and to talk humbly with your God, becaus eit is reasonable to respect the one thing in the universe more powerful than you." At least, that's how we seem to have reinterpreted it over the centuries. "Be reasonable," we Christians tell the world. "The kingdom of heaven is at hand!" And it's a perfectly reasonable place, this kingdom of heaven. After all, it gave us reason first, so we could see how unreasonable the rest of the world is, and so bring the light of reason to them.

That is not Hebraic thinking. It is not the thinking of Abraham, or Moses, or David, or the Prophets; or of Jesus, or Paul. It is the thinking of our Hellenistic culture. It is the thinking we praise as "reason."

Premeditated murder is an act of reason, not of passion. That is why we reserve our severest punishment for what we consider the severest of crimes. A murder of passion is less heinous to us than an act that perverts the ends of reason.

But war is an act of reason too. The Administration spent months and strained the very purpose of government, to come up with reasons to invade Iraq. 9/11 was an act of reason. It was planned, calculated, deliberated, and deliberate. Acts of terrorism are acts of reason. They are not carried out by passion, but by reasoned deliberation in response not to unreasonable persons and actions, but injustice.

It is not reason that will save us. It is justice.

Especially in the context of Christianity, it is odd, even jarring, to hear people talk of the primacy of reason. But it is not because reason is the antonym of faith. It is not. Nor is doubt the antonym of faith, or emotion the antonym of reason. These are all parts of the human experience but they are not even points on a line, degrees on a spectrum, beads on a string.

When someone dies, it is not reason that comforts the family. When a child is born, it is not reason that first rejoices. When someone takes comfort in God, or refuge, or strength it is not because it is the reasonable thing to do. Christianity fundamentally provides something other than reason, offers something other than logos, or else it is simply a philosophical club.

Reason tells us we must be guided by sola scriptura. Reasons tells us we must follow tradition. Reason tells us homosexuals can be full members of the church. Reason tells us they cannot. Reason tells us we must follow the leadings of the Spirit. Reason tells us we must follow the dictates of reason.

Reason tells us we must take arms against our enemies and make war, for they make war on us. Reason tells us justice is too expensive, makes us too vulnerable, puts too much at risk.

No, reason is no better or more sure a guide than anything else. Even in John Rawls' superbly reasoned Theory of Justice, reason must be set aside in favor of imagination. Rawls' has us imagine an initial condition in which we don't know what we have, relative to anyone else. Reason then says fairness should rule, so none have more than we do, so none have an advantage over us. But reason is not the logic of Aristotle here, or the wise faculty of Aquinas discerning natural law; it is merely a means of calculation. Rawls' hypothetical is not even a seeking after justice. It is simply the uncertainty of selfishness, which uncertainty, behind Rawls' Veil of Ignorance, is certainly reasonable.

But so is taking advantage, if you have it. What blocks us from doing that is not reason: it is justice.

Justice asks: who sinned first? And: how have I erred? What have I done to contribute to this? In equity, it is called the doctrine of clean hands, and it is an absolute bar to seeking an equitable remedy. If you come to equity complicit in the wrong you complain of, equity will not hear your plea. That is a fundamental of justice: if you would seek its protection, you must comply with its strictures. Justice says: the first must be last, the last first. In that condition, consistently supplied, the first and the last are constantly trading places. In that constant churning, no one has advantage.

Justice looks at the situation in Iraq now and asks us all: what have you done? Justice shames us, not reason. Reason says more troops, more force, the application of more will, the projection of even more power, and all will be as expected, the outcome will be secured. Justice asks: at what price?

In the context of the day, it is quite reasonable for certain peoples to be joined in an "anti-Western agenda," and the further application of reason will not answer their concerns. It is reason which builds the cluster bombs and cruise missiles and bombers and tanks which destroy their villages and blight their lives. It was cold, calculating reason which led Israel to invade Lebanon and systematically destroy almost every building south of Beirut, bomb a refinery and trigger a major environmental crisis it has not even acknowledged. The only reaction to such "reasonable" behavior is the reasonable response of violence to meet violence. It is reason which fuels this cycle and keeps it turning. It is only justice that puts a spanner in the works, that puts a stick in the spokes and attempts to halt the wheel.

The attainment of justice, the commitment to justice, is a gift of the Spirit, in Christian teachings. The civil rights movement of Dr. Martin Luther King is remembered today largely for his speeches. But it was the commitment to justice that prevailed, not Dr. King's eloquence. It was the commitment to peace and to using justice to undo injustice that led people to march in places like Selma, and endure dogs and fire hoses without protest, without rancor, without anger and the quite reasonable response of responding to violence with violence. It was the patience and resolve and suffering of the marchers in Selma that convinced America of the injustice of Bull Connor and of the apartheid system that was American law. It was the realization of just how unjust we are, and it was a Christian commitment to justice that made those marches effective. Not all the marchers were Christian, but the movement, Dr. King's movement, took its direction from Christ. And just as it did in South Africa, justice prevailed over injustice.

It is justice we must fight with; not reason. Reason did not move Nelson Mandela to endure years in prison and still come out a peaceful man. Reason did not move Dr. King to declare he had a dream; or to oppose Vietnam; or to seek fair pay for sanitation workers in Atlanta. Reason did not make him put his life at risk; seeking justice did. Reason brought us Vietnam. Reason brought us into Iraq. Reason keeps us there. And no one wants to talk about the problem, which is injustice. No one wants to recognize our complicity, which is the first demand of justice. No one wants to take responsibility for our actions, which is the first principle of justice.

It is not reason which will lead us to converse with Islam, which will bring Christians to the table with Muslims. It is justice. It is recognizing that to receive justice, we must do justice. It is not reason that will solve the problems roiling The Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion. It is justice. It is recognizing that to receive justice, we must do justice. And that requires a great deal more of us than reason does. Reason, after all, allows us to say that our position is the starting point; that you must reason as we do, or you are being unreasonable. Justice demands that everyone wash their hands first, and all come before it as equals. Justice requires we humble ourselves, and seek common ground in our humanity, in our existence. Later, we can justify what is done with our reasons.

But first, we must be strong enough, and have faith enough, to be vulnerable. First, we must seek justice.

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