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

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

On the other other hand....

Not Stephen Fry (mostly)

TC gives me the words I was referring to earlier:
But on the other hand we must remember the point that was made that the church is very loose on moral evils because although they try to accuse people like me who believe in empiricism and the enlightenment of somehow what they call moral relativism as if it's some appalling sin whereas what it actually means is thought  they, they, for example, thought that slavery was perfectly fine absolutely OK and then they didn't.   What's the point of the Catholic Church if they say,  Oh, well we couldn't know any better because nobody else did. [Said with that kind of dramatic outrage that only a Brit anti-Catholic with a posh education and acting experience can ] Then what are you for!

As TC has pointed out, empiricism and the enlightenment didn't exactly lead to the rapid abolition of slavery because reason is always more ethical than religion, or something.  Indeed, reason made slavery, well, reasonable:

 Many of America’s revered colleges and universities—from Harvard, Yale, and Princeton to Rutgers, Williams College, and UNC—were soaked in the sweat, the tears, and sometimes the blood of people of color. The earliest academies proclaimed their mission to Christianize the savages of North America, and played a key role in white conquest. Later, the slave economy and higher education grew up together, each nurturing the other. Slavery funded colleges, built campuses, and paid the wages of professors. Enslaved Americans waited on faculty and students; academic leaders aggressively courted the support of slave owners and slave traders. Significantly, as Wilder shows, our leading universities, dependent on human bondage, became breeding grounds for the racist ideas that sustained them.

Ebony and Ivy is a powerful and propulsive study and the first of its kind, revealing a history of oppression behind the institutions usually considered the cradle of liberal politics.

I don't know this history, but I do know most of the impetus for the abolitionist movement in America came from the churches or from individual Christians.  I'm not aware of any significant contribution from the colleges and universities.

I haven't read the book yet, either, but I don't think it's too early to say:  "Oops."  Or maybe:  "All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God."

5 Comments:

Blogger alberich said...

On yet another hand (*), it wasn't necessarily the case in those days that universities, often being founded to train clergy, were temples of secularism. And as far as I remember, the leading lights of the First Great Awakening thought themselves to be as enlightened as the Deists, and FWIW, Franklin found Whitefield to be a fellow intellectual.

* we Jews may not have horns or tails, but we do have more than two hands ;)

1:09 PM  
Blogger Rmj said...

On yet another hand (*), it wasn't necessarily the case in those days that universities, often being founded to train clergy, were temples of secularism. And as far as I remember, the leading lights of the First Great Awakening thought themselves to be as enlightened as the Deists, and FWIW, Franklin found Whitefield to be a fellow intellectual.

I considered that, and yes, the major universities were religious schools first.

I think that faded rather rapidly, however, especially in the 18th century. And while Xianity certainly supported racism (as much as other parts of Xianity decried it), the racism the book seems to say (I should read it first, shouldn't I?) came from the universities doesn't seem to have been too deeply rooted in religion.

Or no more so than the rest of the culture was "religious" at the time. I don't know how much shallower or deeper the religious roots were in American culture than in European culture: were the "Founding Fathers" the elitist aberration, as the elitist atheists were in England in the 19th century? I dunno.

Fry's point, though, was that the Catholic church (in particular) must remain unchanged and unchanging, even though, like the universities (which were always, especially in this country, more devoted to "empiricism and the enlightenment" than the church was; well, according to Fry's simplistic dichotomy), both were human organizations deeply affected by the culture of their day. If, in other words, the Church was implicated in slavery, so was the university.

Or: "All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God." A sentiment the Puritan founders of Harvard would readily assent to.

1:40 PM  
Blogger ntodd said...

I do know most of the impetus for the abolitionist movement in America came from the churches or from individual Christians.

QUAKERS, BITCHES!

4:29 PM  
Blogger Rmj said...

QUAKERS, BITCHES!

Yeah, them too. ;-)

4:45 PM  
Blogger rick allen said...

The problem with all these discussions about Christianity and slavery is that they focus too narrowly. The evil is the unjust and arbitrary authority of one person over another, something that exists in different forms and degrees of severity in slavery, and serfdom, and employment.

We have not yet learned how to live in society without such arbitrary grants. Even in a democracy (such as it is) we have the exercise of power, much of it arbitrary. Our system of "free labor" means that most people can have their lives shattered by an aritrary firing--with certain exceptions, the prevailing "employment at will" doctrine allows anyone to be fired for any reason, or no reason.

By and large, it is perfectly true, Christianity has not been a religion emphasizing social and economic reform. The early Christians did not call for the abolition of slavery; but they did call for a re-evaluation of human relationships within existing institutions. Jesus teaches a new model of lordship, the lord is the servant of all. Paul does not urge Philemon to free his slaves, but to treat that as children of God, on the same level as himself.

In Roman law a slave was not a civil person. Christianity taught that the slave was indeed a person, and must be treated as one, even in the context of the relation of slavery. And as that treatment came to be seen as more and more incompatible with the harsher aspects of slavery, it was transformed.

We see serfdom as something oppressive and applaud its abolition. But in the context of a collapsed Roman empire it was a practical social organziation, and, unlike slavery, was based on mutual obligations, service for protection.

Slavery is a form. Paul calls himself the "doulos" of Christ. We translate as "servant." We can translate as "slave." Neither is quite right in modern English.

In the law our name for the field of employment law is still "master and servant." We continue to modidy it, to make it more humane, adding protections against certain kinds of insidious dicriminations, encouraging labor unions, regulating hours. It is a Christian impulse to humanize what is a more humane institution than slavery, but which is stil a source of arbitrary power.

Much the same story can be told about political authority. Christians did not denounce monarchy per se, but sought to teach the king his duties as a fellow Christian under the common fatherhood of God. Democracy in the ancient world was synonymous with the arbitrary caprice of the mob. We've learned to do it a little better, with separation of powers, and devolution of power to more local authorities, and limits on time and place, and the Church therefore promotes democracy as a political form. But it still is largely arbitrary, and, yes, our country, I would say, is still very much more a plutacracy than a democracy.

One of the interesting things about the 13th amendment is that it doesn't abolish slavery. It allows it as punishment. And I understand that, today, there are more African Americans incarcerated in this country than there were slaves at the beginning of the Civil War. So we have far to go.

Random thoughts, I know. Maybe I can get them organized at one point.

10:52 AM  

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