Saturday, December 31, 2005

Is Victory the Issue?

There are two reviews of the book Jon Meacham mentions, The Victory of Reason, by Rodney Stark, in the New York Times. The second gives a better summary of the book than Meacham does. But neither reviewer points out the fundamental flaw in Stark's reasoning: both reviewers and Stark start from the assumption that materialism is the fundamental truth of the universe, and spirit and spirituality are merely aftereffects of that reality.

So Stark can write: " 'Without a theology committed to reason, progress and moral equality' - all of which could describe faiths other than Christianity - 'today the entire world would be about where non-European societies were in, say, 1800: a world with many astrologers and alchemists but no scientists.'" But the assumption that science is an unalloyed good is based on the notion that only the material world is, ultimately, good, or ultimately the provider of good for all. Buddhists and Taoists, as well as Hindus and Christian ascetics and mystics (not to mention Muslim, Janists, and several other religions), might beg to differ.

There was a book published a few years ago, photographs of everything families owned, from around the world. American families literally could not remove every possession from their houses and place it on the lawn. A family in Asia, however, could arrange all its possessions and stand before its house, with ease. A new book makes the same presentation based on food. A British family of four brings out food for a week, and the stacks overwhelm the people. An African family of 9 piles it's food for the week on a blanket.

Is one family happier than the other, because of what it possesses? Because of science, which has made industrial production and industrial agriculture, possible?

Science has conquered disease and improved hygiene, and done much that is good; this no one can deny. But we are speaking of religion, here, of the realm of the spirit. Is the measure of its success how much our material lives have been improved? Is there not a conflict at the heart of that analysis that reduces religion to simply another handmaiden of empiricism?

After all, Augustine and Aquinas saw reason as a pathway to God, who is spirit, and ineffable. Indeed, near the end of his life Aquinas had a mystical vision, in light of which he declared all his writings "straw," and never wrote another word.

Where is victory, and who is the victor?

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