Friday, March 09, 2012

The Arc of the Universe is long....

It's not that I disagree fundamentally with Dr. King's observation about the telos of the universe.

But I teach Greek tragedy about once a semester, and I tell my students the basic Greek cosmology was that logos (reason) imposed order on Chaos, and that order gave rise to what we call the universe (Creation in the Hebrew cosmology, just to make the connection). Chaos, however, was not vanquished, and inevitably will wear down order and the universe will return to its original state.

It's a theory I'm more and more inclined to, given that issues I considered settled in my childhood, like contraception, voting rights, even civil rights, are as much in contention now as they were when I was a child. Jim Crow laws were a reaction to freed blacks voting for freed blacks. Now we have an African American in the White House, so the universal fear is of who else might get elected.

It wasn't that long ago Texas, always a one-party moss-bound conservative state, was at the forefront of the "motor voter" law campaign. By the time George Will was harrumphing about such accomplishments, it was settled law in Texas. Now, the next time I vote, I'll have to show my driver's license.*

Before 1965, some voters in Texas would probably have had to pass a literacy test. Same difference.

Contraception? Ain't it obvious. Civil Rights? The University of Texas may soon stand in legal circles for the abolition of "affirmative action" in access to education, despite the fact Texas public education is still underfunded and is still unfairly funded (where you live determines the quality of the school you attend, and "vouchers" wouldn't change that for vast swathes of the state).

It's hard to say chaos doesn't win in the end. But maybe it isn't that chaos triumphs. Maybe it's simpler, and the evil nature of humanity (which ain't, at the other extreme, necessarily Satan) will always run unchecked unless people of good try to put a stop to it. After all, the question "Who sinned, that this man was born blind?" is not a challenge to the status quo, but a blank acceptance of it. The right answer is not to challenge the assumption of fault, but to ask a different question: "Who dares leave this child of God to languish in poverty, ignorance, want, disease, isolation? When all these things can and should be cured?"

The answer, in other words, is not necessarily to oppose evil; it is to not let it get a foothold. The challenge is to how we are to be (if I can express it that way), not merely to how we live, or what life we accept.

*Or maybe not, unless Texas is successful in getting portions of the Voting Rights Act declared unconstitutional (not likely, as their attack is based on the 10th Amendment, but it all sure sounds familiar all over again).


  1. I have lately been thinking about this whole “progress” thing.

    One the one hand, the pedigree of progress is undoubtedly Christian. There is an undeniable arc in the Christian scriptures from creation to the eschaton, and a long tradition of seeing in sacred history a movement from partial to fuller revelation, all made most manifest in The City of God.

    On the other hand there is that stubborn root of sin whose strength and persistence provides a sort of empirical confirmation of the doctrine of original sin, coupled with a sense that that moral progress is considerably less demonstrable than technological progress.

    The nineteenth century left us two powerful but inconsistent models for change, the Hegelian dialectic and Darwinian evolution. Both, I think, still lurk behind the thinking of many. Marxism may be in retreat, but the “progressive” notion of history, that there is some engine, whether Absolute Spirit, or material class conflict, or something, that propels us toward a better future, is pervasive. Similarly, the notion of an “evolving” humanity, morality, spirituality, is quite common, however distant it is from Darwin’s biological insight that less competitive life-forms don’t pass on their genes quite so often.

    For myself I am a progress skeptic. Things don’t have to stay as they are. They can get better. But they can also get worse. And, most of the time, both movements are happening at once. We have a Geneva Convention that articulates some few humane limits on the conduct of war. But we accept bombing of civilian population centers as an ordinary way of proceeding in war. We significantly limit the practice of the death penalty. But we don’t blink an eye at our rather tremendous rates of abortion, desertion, and illegitimacy. We applaud the spread of democracy, and don’t notice our own increasing descent into plutocracy. We address and often do indeed alleviate evils, while tolerating and fostering others.

    Our freedom—I would go so far as to say, our Christian conception of human nature—keeps us from falling into despair or utopianism. The world can be a better place, if we choose to make it a better place, and don’t let it decline into a worse one. So we are rather fated to engage in what I find the most discouraging of activities, politics. In the long run we are bound for glory, but politics is the short run, and there we muddle around, trying to see our way for the best, tolerating or despising those who disagree, with no guarantees whatsoever.

  2. I think it's more a question of evil, or selfishness, winning when it's unchecked. It what used to be liberals, in the early 20th century sense of that word, who had a major role in opposing selfishness. But in the past forty or more years liberals have been talked into or giving up the morality that checks that evil. Those checks, are the inverse of Darwinism, equality and the obligation to honor inherent rights are as anti-Darwinian ideas as it is possible to imagine. The confrontation with unselfishness is among the earliest and most important tasks of the Darwinists, the explanation of how generosity and morality could exist, or not exist, under natural selection was and is one of the greatest problems of the theory of natural selection.

    Darwinism and other forms of materialism, applied to human thoughts and societies, gives people the permission to consider other people as being animate material objects, of having the same status as slaves or animals available for use or disposal by those with the power to do that, the "fitter" side of the struggle. And if that permission isn't taken it tends to have a demoralizing influence in thinking and action.

    Of course, conservatives in the pre-Darwinian, pre-Hegalian period held that certain people had that status as a given. In Britain's class system, it was the poor in general. It was no accident that Darwin came up with his theory of natural selection out of Malthus. It's that conception of life that Malthus codified that constitutes the real world efforts of conservatives and reactionaries.

    Under slavery, subjecting people to the status of objects, it was necessary to dehumanize the enslaved or to relegate women to a secondary near-human status to men. Under Darwinism the only criterion for differentiating wasn't a moral one but one of different strength. While William Jennings Bryan got evolution wrong, he was quite right about natural selection and the necessary consequences for morality and democracy under its application to human society.

    I've come to the conclusion in the past year that materialism is inherently anti-liberal and that a society which follows materialism will eventually become undemocratic and increasingly a violent and corrupt oligarchy or worse. The "enlightenment" was a lot more complicated than its PR would have it. It may have coincided with the expansion of freedoms that were implicit in the mono-theistic tradition and which I also see in Buddhism and Jainism. But its materialism was certainly not able to originate the ideas of inherent rights that gave those freedoms their moral foundation. Materialism is corrosive of the idea of rights and freedom.

    It's no surprise that as science has turned from being an impressively effective series of methods and tools able to do certain and limited aspects of material life into a mandatory intellectual cult that the moral basis of life begins to decay. The necessity of isolating the material aspects of phenomena in science turns into a habit of thought, if not a faith. That habit matched with the desires and emotions of some turn that into an ideology of materialism and, as the history of the 20th century teachers, that materialism in societies turns into a nightmare of denial of the spiritual lives of people with tremendously horrible consequences. It allows the same mentality that maintained slavery to be made universal with only the "fittest" winners in a violent struggle able to escape the consequences of that habit of thought. The emotions of the new atheists aren't much different from those of racists and misogynists, they are the same form of selfish depravity that have found different, though related, expression.

    I think I'll turn this into a post on my blog because this is a much longer argument than can be put out in a comment.

  3. I think I'll turn this into a post on my blog because this is a much longer argument than can be put out in a comment.

    Let me know when you do.

  4. For myself I am a progress skeptic.

    I believe in it---as a Christian (like King)---but I believe the arc is not only long, but spiralling. As part of that spiral, progress can take a step back, or 2, or 2 million.

    But the Holy Spirit is still here to lead us into All Truth. And taking a step back (as observer this time, for perspective), I believe She has, in fact, been doing so (effecting what we may call "Progress").

    Well, that's what I tell myself, to in order to get to sleep at night...

  5. I believe good will prevail over evil, but at times it looks pretty bleak.

  6. The right answer is not to challenge the assumption of fault, but to ask a different question: "Who dares leave this child of God to languish in poverty, ignorance, want, disease, isolation? When all these things can and should be cured?"

    You, as always, are a bucket of cold water over my complacency and writer's block and occasional agnosticism.


  7. Interesting nobody wants to challenge my obvious challenge to "original sin" (I just noticed it myself, actually). At least "original sin" as Calvinism passed it onto us.

    I'm realizing, too, it has a great deal to do with my concept (or any concept) of "progress." Hmmmmm......

  8. Anonymous5:02 AM

    Thanks for everything guys!