Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Prologue to a discussion of Christ and Culture

I'm not a fan of Steven Pinker anyway, but the opening paragraphs of this recent New York Times Magazine article surprised even me:

Which of the following people would you say is the most admirable: Mother Teresa, Bill Gates or Norman Borlaug? And which do you think is the least admirable? For most people, it’s an easy question. Mother Teresa, famous for ministering to the poor in Calcutta, has been beatified by the Vatican, awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and ranked in an American poll as the most admired person of the 20th century. Bill Gates, infamous for giving us the Microsoft dancing paper clip and the blue screen of death, has been decapitated in effigy in “I Hate Gates” Web sites and hit with a pie in the face. As for Norman Borlaug . . . who the heck is Norman Borlaug?

Yet a deeper look might lead you to rethink your answers. Borlaug, father of the “Green Revolution” that used agricultural science to reduce world hunger, has been credited with saving a billion lives, more than anyone else in history. Gates, in deciding what to do with his fortune, crunched the numbers and determined that he could alleviate the most misery by fighting everyday scourges in the developing world like malaria, diarrhea and parasites. Mother Teresa, for her part, extolled the virtue of suffering and ran her well-financed missions accordingly: their sick patrons were offered plenty of prayer but harsh conditions, few analgesics and dangerously primitive medical care.

It’s not hard to see why the moral reputations of this trio should be so out of line with the good they have done. Mother Teresa was the very embodiment of saintliness: white-clad, sad-eyed, ascetic and often photographed with the wretched of the earth. Gates is a nerd’s nerd and the world’s richest man, as likely to enter heaven as the proverbial camel squeezing through the needle’s eye. And Borlaug, now 93, is an agronomist who has spent his life in labs and nonprofits, seldom walking onto the media stage, and hence into our consciousness, at all.

I doubt these examples will persuade anyone to favor Bill Gates over Mother Teresa for sainthood. But they show that our heads can be turned by an aura of sanctity, distracting us from a more objective reckoning of the actions that make people suffer or flourish.
The assumption here is that an "objective" assessment is ever and always an unalloyed good. By this measure, of course, Bill Gates and Norman Borlaug are both better persons than Jesus of Nazareth (who, after all, only healed a handful of people, and that's only hearsay, at best; "Go, and sin no more"? Talk about an "air of sanctity"!), or Mahatma Gandhi (sure he liberated a country, but how many people did he feed? Did he leave any charities behind to continue his work?).

Yes, the comparisons are more than a bit absurd, but you get the idea. Morality as measured by material benefit; is that really morality? Is utilitarianism truly the only measure of "good" possible in this world? Of course, the opposite extreme cannot be argued as the only measure, either. Morality that doesn't provide some good to the agent is a pretty dessicated thing. That's one understanding of why Jesus of Nazareth reportedly performed healings and other miracles, as a sign that the "good life" had its own rewards.

Pinker's point is, of course, that objectivity has its own rewards. He concludes:

Far from debunking morality, then, the science of the moral sense can advance it, by allowing us to see through the illusions that evolution and culture have saddled us with and to focus on goals we can share and defend.
But only, of course, once we recognize the universal good of science, and the awesome truthiness of objectivity.

Pardon me if I sound skeptical; but I've heard this argument before, and it's about as subtle (and persuasive) as any argument against religion that I've stumbled across, or had shoved in my face, on the Web. I don't, for one moment, deny Pinker's thesis: science can certainly add to our knowledge of something so fundamental to human existence as morality. But used this way science remains a tool of utilitarianism (interestingly enough, the "morality" of those "who have blunted emotions because of damage to the frontal lobes become utilitarians." Hmmmm.....) and the advance he seeks is defeated by the claims he makes.

What Pinker seems to be doing is trying to place morality on a scientific basis, the better to get us all to agree on what morality is, or what rules should be followed. Ah, would that it were that simple. Morality, for example, is not necessarily limited to "a ... reckoning of the actions that make people suffer or flourish." That's the basis of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, and while it's a perfectly valid basis for assessing "good" and "not good" (to avoid the judgmental overtones of "bad") conduct, we would do well to conduct this discussion by first separating "ethics" and "morality." Contrary to popular opinion, they are not mere synonyms for each other, like "far" and "away" or "null" and "void." I find it far more useful to separate ethics (how should I behave in a community to maximize my happiness; a/k/a Aristotle's standard) from morality (how should I behave on a desert island?). It's a distinction Pinker thoroughly fails to recognize, and thereby hang a number of problems with his analysis.

Where am I going with this, besides engaging in pointless Pinker bashing (after all, what does he care what I have to say)? I'm building an approach to the topic of ethics, and morality, because I'm re-reading Richard Niebuhr's classic work of Christian ethics Christ and Culture. I also have a new book, a 'conversation" between Vattimo and Rorty, which promises to provide some interesting insights into questions of religion (including the fact that post-modernism is neither), and I need a starting point for that discussion. Niebuhr, for example, makes much of the conundrum of Christ as presented in the gospels, and the conundrum is, quite apparently, an ethical (not to say moral) one:*

Ancient Roman civilization, says Gibbon, was bound to reject Christianity just because Rome was tolerant. This culture, with its great diversity of customs and religions, could exist only if reverence and assent were granted to the many confused traditions and ceremonies of its constituent nations....But Christ and Christians threatened the unity of the culture...with their radical monotheism, a faith in the one God that was very different from the pagan universalism which sought to unify many deities and many cults under one earthly or heavenly framework....Divinity, it seems must not only hedge kings but also other symbols of political power, and monotheism deprives them of their sacred aura. The Christ who will not worship Satan to gain the world's kingdoms is followed by Christians who will worship only Christ in unity with the Lord whom he serves. And this is intolerable to all defenders of society who are content that many gods should be worshipped if only Democracy or America or Germany or the Empire receives its due, religious homage. The antagonism of modern, tolerant culture to Christ is of course often disguised because it does not call its religious practices religious...and also because it regards what it calls religious as one of the many interests which can be placed alongside economics, art, science, politics, and techniques. Hence the injunction it voices to Christian monotheism appears in such injunctions only as that religion should be kept out of politics and business, or that Christian faith must learn to get along with other religions. What is often meant is that not only the claims of Christ and God should be banished from the spheres where other gods, called values, reign. The implied charge against Christian faith is like the ancient one: it imperils society by its attack on its religious life; it deprives social institutions of their cultic, sacred character; by its refusal to condone the pious superstitions of tolerant polytheism it threatens social unity. The charge lies not only against Christian organizations which use coercive means against what they define as false religions, but against the faith itself.
H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture (New York: Harper & Row 1975), pp. 7-9

The ancient criticism of Christians bears consideration in light of Pinker's critique of Mother Teresa. Is there a universal standard or morality, or not? If there is, what is it? Everything old, you see, is new again.

Dig a little deeper into Pinker's argument, you find all kinds of assumptions running wild in it. F'rinstance, he makes much of studies which show that people on the Web all think alike, despite their culture. Culture, however, isn't all that distinctly ethnic, and as could be argued from the recent phenomenon of Ron Paul raising a record amount via the Internet, while failing to make more than a marginal showing in any Republican primary (or even to surprise one pollster with his electoral successes of failures), samplings from the Internet may seem very broad, but are actually very thin. The aggregation of the like-minded from the world population that has Internet access is hardly statistically significant of anything, except the ability to aggregate the like-minded with the aid of communications technology. Branching away from that, Pinker cites brain studies involving different ethnicities again (which, for Pinker, stand for different cultures). But how fundamentally different are modern cultures which have access to, and understanding of, modern medical technology of the type which can scan and survey and record brain activity? These studies, in other words, aren't exactly of people in "fringe" regions far from the influence of Western culture (which pretty much dominates the globe, at least in terms of countries which could employ such technologies, and the people who would submit to them for purposes of biological studies). Do these studies prove biology underlies all human behavior? Well, only if they first remove the possibility that culture does so, and that Western values haven't become largely universalized at least broadly enough to account for the similarities of judgment Pinker relies on.

I do not mean to say that such similarities cannot exist. One of my seminary professors introduced me to the study of the works of Emmanuel Levinas by telling a story I haven't otherwise corroborated, wherein Levinas saw a man save a child from an oncoming car on a busy street. The child and the man were strangers to each other, so Levinas began to wonder what forces were at work in this interaction, and being a philosopher rather than a biologist (or a linguist!), he began to develop a philosophy of relationship based on the concept of the Same and Other. Which is only to say there are several possible explanations for such altruistic behavior, and if science is going to lay claim to presenting the "true" one, it's going to have to do better than Pinker's presentations.

What Pinker is not discerning here, in any way, is the nature and influence of culture on any ethical or moral judgment. Which is not entirely surprising; Niebuhr takes several pages to carefully describe in the most general terms what "culture" is for the purposes of his discussion, after first averring he is describing it in "...tenuous fashion." Still, he comes up with seven basic elements, which he elaborates better than I can do here (we'll get back to this, I hope):

1) Culture is social, "it is inextricably bound up with man's [sic] life in society...Individuals may use culture in their own ways; they may change elements in their culture, yet what they use and change is social. Culture is the social heritage they receive and transmit. Whatever is purely private, so that it neither derives from nor enters into social life, is not a part of culture. Conversely, social life is always cultural."

2) "Culture, secondly, is human achievement....[W]e are dealing with what man [sic] has purposefully wrought and with what man can or ought to do. The world so far as it is man-made and man-intended is the world of culture."

3) "...the world of culture is a world of values....What men have made and what they make, we must assume, is intended for a purpose it is designed to serve a good. It can never be described without reference to ends in minds of designers and users....To be sure, the ends that human achievement serves may change; what was intended for utility may be preserved for the sake of aesthetic satisfaction or of social harmony; yet the value-relation is inescapable wherever we encounter culture."

4) "...the values with which these human achievements are concerned are dominantly those of the good for man....In defining the ends that his activities are to realize in culture, man begins with himself as the chief value and the source of all other values. What is good is what is good for him."

5) ...culture in all its forms and varieties is concerned with the temporal and material realization of values." Niebuhr links this, not to mere material gain, but to efforts "to embody in concrete, tangible, visible, and audible forms" the ideals of the culture, or "what has been imaginatively discerned." It seems to me here we have a definite linkage between rational ends, which flow from desires, and emotional needs, which determine (after all) what we consider "rational."

6) "Because all these actualizations of purpose are accomplished in transient and perishing stuff, cultural activity is almost as much concerned with the conservation of values as with their realization....Culture is social tradition which must be conserved by painful struggle not so much against nonhuman natural forces as against revolutionary and critical powers in human life and reason." When Pinker identifies thoughts which are repugnant even questionnaires, has he identified a principle of biology, or of sociology? "Never think my thoughts, never share my hearth, whoever does such things."

7) "Finally, attention must be directed to the pluralism that is characteristic of all culture. The values a culture seeks to realize in any time or place are many in number....Culture is concerned with that is good for male and female, child and adult, rulers and ruled; with what is good for men in special vocations and groups, according to the customary notions of such good." One quick example is from the tale of Gilgamesh. When Enkidu is created by the gods to be a companion to Gilgamesh, he is all animal. A temple prostitute goes to him, and they copulate for several days, until he is civilized. The value, of course, is for culture to have stable persons in it, persons who fit in the community. The people have asked for Enkidu because Gilgamesh, their ruler, is himself so uncivilized and wild in his appetites. The method by which Enkidu is civilized would hardly satisfy a post-Victorian Western society, or even occur to the post-"Free Love" American culture; but the value of such "civilizing" is apparent to all. Is that value, however, biological? Or is it merely a concomitant of human communities, one without which communities cannot function, or sometimes even survive?

From these brief description alone you can already question Pinker's reliance on the studies he cites. Is what he sees in those results the consequence of culture, or of biology? Which of these tenets of culture, in fact, can be said to be wholly biological, even if they could be said to be shared by human societies as different as those of Gilgamesh and Beowulf and Shakespeare's Othello? Are these similarities not as likely to come from the human need for community, and for the social orders that arise therefrom? The society of Gilgamesh barely resembles that of Beowulf, or that of Chaucer's Prologue to the Canterbury Tales (the Wife of Bath is particularly unimaginable in either of the other two contexts), yet the ways of ordering that we call "culture" are fundamentally the same in each. It takes a bit more than a political boundary or an ethnic designation to answer that question, and Pinker frankly fails to address it.

In the end, Pinker is not wrong, but his assumptions are as specious as those of the advocates of the Social Gospel which Niebuhr's brother Reinhold (ironically, Christ and Culture is dedicated "To Reinie.")dissected in Moral Man and Immoral Society. Like the advocates of the Social Gospel, Pinker wants to find a system of thought which will eradicate all disagreement:

The science of the moral sense also alerts us to ways in which our psychological makeup can get in the way of our arriving at the most defensible moral conclusions. The moral sense, we are learning, is as vulnerable to illusions as the other senses. It is apt to confuse morality per se with purity, status and conformity. It tends to reframe practical problems as moral crusades and thus see their solution in punitive aggression. It imposes taboos that make certain ideas indiscussible. And it has the nasty habit of always putting the self on the side of the angels.

Though wise people have long reflected on how we can be blinded by our own sanctimony, our public discourse still fails to discount it appropriately.
Far from debunking morality, then, the science of the moral sense can advance it, by allowing us to see through the illusions that evolution and culture have saddled us with and to focus on goals we can share and defend. As Anton Chekhov wrote, “Man will become better when you show him what he is like.”
Once we all become objective enough to see the truth as Pinker does, once we, in other words, all think like Pinker, then we can usher in the new millenium; or at least all learn to get along. Unfortunately, as "Reinie" pointed out, it will never be that simple:

While it is possible for intelligence to increase the range of benevolent impulse, and thus prompt a human being to consider the needs and rights of other than those to whom he is bound by organic and physical relationship, there are definite limits in the capacity of ordinary mortals which makes it impossible for them to grant to others what they claim for themselves. Though educators ever since the eighteenth century have given themselves to the fond illusion that justice through voluntary co-operation waited only upon a more universal or a more adequate educational enterprise, there is good reason to believe that the sentiments of benevolence and social goodwill will never be so pure or powerful, and the rational capacity to consider the rights and needs of others in fair competition with our own will never be so fully developed as to create the possibility for the anarchistic millennium which is the social utopia, either explicit or implicit, of all intellectual or religious moralists.

All social co-operation on a larger scale than the most intimate social group requires a measure of coercion. While no state can maintain its unity purely by coercion neither can it preserve itself without coercion. Where the factor of mutual consent is strongly developed, and where standardised and approximately fair methods of adjudicating and resolving conflicting interests within an organised group have been established, 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. Divergence of interest, based upon geographic and functional differences within a society, is bound to create different social philosophies and political attitudes which goodwill and intelligence may partly, but never completely, harmonise. Ultimately, unity within an organised social group, or within a federation of such groups, is created by the ability of a dominant group to impose its will.


The limitations of the human mind and imagination, the inability of human beings to transcend their own interests sufficiently to envisage the interests of their fellowmen as clearly as they do their own makes force an inevitable part of the process of social cohesion. But the same force which guarantees peace also makes for injustice. "Power," said Henry Adams, "is poison"; and it is a poison which blinds the eyes of moral insight and lames the will of moral purpose. The individual or the group which organises any society, however social its intentions or pretensions, arrogates an inordinate portion of social privilege to itself.
And that's without even bringing in the prospect of "Original Sin."

*I won't attribute my distinction between "ethics" and "morals" to Niebuhr. The terms are usually used interchangeably, even in discussions of ethics and morality; but part of my presentation is, that they shouldn't be.

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