Category Archives: Capitalism

The Real Root of Inequality?

Blog_the_abyss_of_inequality

“Rising income inequality troubles Americans,” wrote Shamus Khan in the New York Times (Dec 14, 2013). That’s why the paper commissioned a series on the very same issue, calling it “The Great Divide“. What truly seems to wind up Wall Street is the fear that capitalism and the American Dream may even be facing eventual divorce.

For some a dread prospect looms:  that Karl Marx might have been right in predicting that capitalism leads inevitably to such vast income inequality that middle-class markets for ‘fetishised’ commodities actually dry up.

Even as a student in the 1960s I wondered why a society founded on the Enlightenment ideal of social equality had become so vastly unequal in less than two centuries – so this recent American pondering on the same problem was fascinating stuff. So was the prediction of the touring French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville, commenting on the same America as early as 1835: “But men will never establish any equality with which they can be contented”. American discontent, he argued, must be never-ending: based as it is upon the desire to ‘get ahead’ it must always be mostly frustrated by the very same desire in others. In the rural backwaters of the ‘old world’ (Europe) De Tocqueville knew of peasants who were far poorer than most Americans ‘yet their countenances are generally placid and their spirits light‘ – simply because, he argued, they didn’t have that particular American discontent.

102626504-income-inequalityGiven the Enlightenment origins of the science of Psychology, it is remarkable how little attention has been paid by that discipline to the roots of social inequality. ‘Social Dominance Theory’ claims to explain how and why dominant groups maintain themselves – and there are very persuasive theories also on why individuals tend to join groups to begin with. However, as far as I can see from a month’s scanning of research abstracts, there is as yet no overarching psychological theory of today’s out-of-control social inequality that could withstand historical validation also.This might yet emerge, however, from a more closely focused and long-term study of our human need to secure, maintain and enhance our self-esteem. The ‘Self-Uncertainty’ theory of why we tend to join groups is that the latter reduce our tendency to be uncertain in early life about both ourselves and our world. Successfully serving the interests of a dominant group brings positive feedback and acclaim from its other members – reassurance that we have made the right move, a kind of ‘uncertainty damping’.

Making our group’s worldview our own also tends to lessen our uncertainty about everything else. Today’s economically dominant groups must surely flatter their members to an extent that would beggar Croesus, and convince them that they are ‘righter’ than anyone has ever been.

In 2004 the philosopher Alain deBotton put a closer focus on a particular variety of human uncertainty – our uncertainty about our own value. Calling this complaint ‘Status Anxiety’ he argued that it lies at the root of all social snobbery, and even at the root of such modern malaises as depression and addiction. In a supposedly ‘meritocratic’ society those who don’t make it are lacking – by implication – in merit itself – and are therefore denied even the right to value themselves. This makes them far less fortunate than de Tocqueville’s happy peasants, who had no reason to suppose in the 1830s that the aristocrat or bourgeois in the biggest house did not depend primarily – even at table – on the labour of those who lived in the smallest.

The reason this should interest all Christians is that de Botton argues persuasively that what he calls ‘Status Anxiety’ is what the Gospels call worldliness – the very moral challenge that Jesus himself claimed above all to have bested. “In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)

In expounding the divinity of Jesus, how come Christian preaching and theology has placed so little emphasis upon this claim, emphasising instead Jesus’ celibacy as proof of his freedom from sin? Why exactly is it that Yves Congar’s summary still holds valid: “In the Catholic Church it has often seemed that the sin of the flesh was the only sin, and obedience the only virtue?” Why have I (worshipping in Ireland) never yet heard a homilist unpack worldliness as status-seeking – or indict snobbery either – not even in the wake of revelations of devastating abuse of the poorest in Ireland’s Catholic-run 20th century institutions?

burke_cm3“Which of us is the greatest?” asked even the apostles. The last pope may well have been unshipped by the same fixation among his subordinates. His successor, thankfully, seems to be not only totally free of Status Anxiety but ready to make it a major target. In Evangelii Gaudium (93) Francis zeroes in on Jesus’ indictment of that complaint: “How can you believe, who receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?” (Jn 5:44)

This opposition of faith and status-seeking surely needs to be carefully studied by those preparing a ‘New Evangelisation’ now – and seeking a sharper focus on the relevance of Christianity to the problems that secularism hasn’t solved. Such eminent spiritual guides as Richard Rohr OFM have been persuasively arguing for years that all of us need to go on a spiritual journey that has no shortcut – not even through intensive religious instruction – to a mature faith. It is because we are uncertain of our value that even religious professionals can be ambitious for religious acclaim from one another – the origin surely of diseases as various as celebrity evangelism, Vatican careerism, clericalism and what we Irish call ‘lay popery’. To all of this Francis gives the title ‘spiritual worldliness’. It is usually only a deep personal crisis of some kind that can – through heartfelt prayer – shake us free of the delusion that our value depends upon what others think of us – facing us with the stark reality that those others tend to have exactly the same unease.

It was surely the clerical Catholic church’s thirteen-century association at its summit with the ‘movers and shakers’ of the secular world that led to its current crisis of credibility – its eye-shutting at status seeking and its sex-fixated moral theology. The threat of ‘aggressive secularism’ will never be faced down by mere intellectual rivalry with it. We all need to become aware of our tendency to contribute to inequality by engaging in any kind of grim competition – and to establish by our own ‘self-dying’ that the roots of modern inequality lie in a problem targeted squarely in the Gospel.

So the Franciscan revolution in Rome is potentially far more than a change of style. It is visibly a return to the most important moral critique of the Christian tradition – the assault on self-promotion. The greatest game afoot now is surely to beat anti-religious secularism, joyfully, to the only solution to the global problem of unsustainable inequality – a deeper, thoroughly actuated, spiritual wisdom.

(16/08/2014)

 

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The Story of the West : V – Earth Crisis

Sean O’Conaill  © Reality Feb 2007

As we have seen, world history has been dominated for almost a thousand years by the rise of the West (the societies rimming the north Atlantic). And, contrary to the propaganda of secularism, the most positive aspects of western culture have owed more to Christianity than to anything else.

The modern belief in science, in the freedom and potential of the individual, in the equal rights of all, in democracy and in economic freedom, arose naturally out of Christian belief in the rationality of the universe, in the dignity and responsibility of the individual, and in the obligations that we all have to one another.

However, the whole world now faces an intense crisis, and this also has to do with the rise of the West.

First, the very intensity of our economic activity, coupled with the rise of science and technology, threatens the planet itself. The lifestyle of the richest 5% of the human population is coveted by the other 95% – but the effort to achieve this will inevitably make the planet uninhabitable.

Second, western arrogance and the frustrations that arise out of economic inequality are the root sources of a growing global violence. The ‘War on Terror’ is just one aspect of this problem.

Third, the West seems morally and spiritually bankrupt – offering only addiction as a means of escape from the meaninglessness of life for millions.

Finally, the loss of a sense of moral purpose and direction is hampering the rise of a more just world order that does not exploit the poorest to maintain the luxurious lifestyle of the richest. Millions starve on southern continents while obesity and addiction threaten northern continents with a public health catastrophe.

So the earth crisis that now faces rising generations is multi-dimensional. It is material, spiritual, moral, economic and environmental – all at the same time.  Ireland is now fully part of this global crisis, having experienced in the past decade the full economic benefits of a globalised economy. We now display all the fruits of economic success – as well as the squalor of mass addiction and the vicious criminal culture that accompanies it

We do not need to look far for the roots of this crisis. It arose directly out of the uncoupling of economic and scientific progress from another Western tradition – the tradition of reflection on our tragic human tendency towards vanity and selfishness.

Western imperialism is the clearest manifestation of the betrayal of all that is best in Christianity by the West itself. The technological and economic lead that western Europe had acquired by the 1400s allowed Spain and Portugal – soon followed by England, Holland and France – to build overseas empires by naked military force.

Although slavery had by this time been abolished within Europe itself, these western nations now disgraced themselves by enslaving black Africans to work plantations in the Americas, and by subjugating the native populations there. It wasn’t until the 1700s that the principle of personal and political liberty began to undermine these colonial empires, as well as slavery, and it wasn’t until the last century that these European empires were finally abandoned.

By that time a new power had risen in the west – the USA. By 1945 it was clearly the dominant western power, and by 1989, with the fall of the Soviet Union, it had no obvious rival. Proclaiming itself the champion of democracy and freedom it also championed a global economic system that favoured itself and its closest allies. Economic imperialism had replaced political imperialism, and this was no secure basis for global security, or freedom. The very success of the USA had created an arrogance that reached its culmination in our own time – in the disastrous presidency of the younger Bush.

By then a huge chasm had opened up between the political and economic leaders of the West and some of the key values of Christianity – especially humility, simplicity and compassion.

To some extent, Christian clergies were responsible for this chasm. They had seen western imperialism as an opportunity to spread Christianity throughout the globe, and mostly could not see the cultural arrogance that lay behind it. Catholic churchmen in the 1700s were also highly suspicious of the ‘levelling’ tendencies of western libertarianism, and were often far too supportive of unjust colonial regimes abroad. Overall, Christian leaders were slow to apply a truly Christian ethic to all political activity. It wasn’t until the year 2000 that a Pope could bring himself to condemn a European imperialism that had often sought to impose the Gospel by naked force in the period after 1450.

But another reason for the growing chasm between Western culture and the deepest Christian ideals was the European Enlightenment. This was an intellectual movement of the 1700s whose leaders were convinced that a perfect society could easily be built on what they called ‘reason’ – the abandonment of religious faith and the total reliance on secular science. Resentful of the power of clergies to control thought they sought to secularise the world.

Too often allied with the aristocracies that had ruled Europe since the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church in particular was outmanoeuvred by the Enlightenment. It wasn’t until the 1960s that the world’s Catholic bishops could fully approve the principle of religious freedom, and it wasn’t until 1989 that a pope could declare that the ideals of 1789 in France – liberty, equality and fraternity – were rooted in Christianity. This delay goes a long way toward explaining the secularisation of France, and of most of the west.

Now, in 2006, secularism seems triumphant. But none of the leaders of the original ‘Enlightenment’ foresaw the world we have now. They thought that ‘reason’ would abolish all the evils that had dogged humanity since the beginning – poverty, violence, injustice, crime, disease.

None predicted that science could produce weapons capable of destroying the planet – and that a rational, democratic government would actually use such a weapon on an inhabited city.

None predicted that an advanced secular idealism – the extreme socialist tradition – would create the most inhuman tyrannies that have ever existed – in Stalinist Russia and Maoist China.

None predicted that mass addiction could ever accompany economic success, or that suicide would be seriously discussed as a solution to the pain of life on a global communication medium – itself a product of the rise of science.

None predicted that economic inequalities and western success could ever produce such a thing as a ‘war on terror’.

And no one in the 1700s predicted that economic growth could actually endanger the global human environment.

So the Earth crisis we find ourselves in is a secular as well as a religious and spiritual crisis.

So apparently complex is this earth crisis that statesmen often seem totally baffled by it. So do intellectuals – who cannot agree either on its nature or its solution. The fragmentation of knowledge that followed the Enlightenment means that there isn’t – apparently – even a common language in which to discuss this crisis.

And this means we also have a crisis of global insight and leadership.

Meanwhile extreme secularists such as Richard Dawkins blame everything on religion, and religious extremists seem to prove them right by advocating violence and by denying the truths revealed by science.

Invisible to many, however, one science that emerged out of the Enlightenment – anthropology – has rediscovered a biblical concept that helps us to understand most of what is wrong with the world. Seeing this key problem of human behaviour clearly in the myriad of examples that surround us daily, this redefinition of a very ancient word is set to transform the way we look at the problems of the world – and to harmonise and reintegrate everything that is best in the western tradition.

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The Story of the West: IV – The Rise of Capitalism

Sean O’Conaill © Reality Jan 2007

Until fairly recently, as we have seen, historians have favoured a view of history that praises ancient Greece and Rome, and then extols the modern period beginning about 1450. And they have depicted the period in between – from about 476-1450 – as a period when nothing happened. Very often they associate the supposed stagnation of these ‘Middle Ages’ with the ‘dead hand’ of the Catholic church.

Secularist writers often take this approach because they are committed to a view of history that gives little credit to Christianity for anything. Greek ‘reason’ and the rise of secularism explain everything that is good about the modern world, they suppose. As we have seen, this is a blinkered view that ignores much recent historical research. We now know that the Middle Ages, in comparison to ancient times, were enormously progressive, and were in fact the cradle of the very best features of our own era.

And this applies to economic development also. The unprecedented wealth produced by modern methods of economic management derives historically also from the Middle Ages.

To admire the architecture of the ancient world – of Athens or Rome – is usually to forget that these buildings were the result of extraordinary human misery. Slavery in the ancient world was unimaginably brutal. Slaves mostly worked the land, and it was their produce that went to finance and feed and build the cities, where only the landowning elites lived in anything like luxury. Most people lived in nauseating slums that fostered disease. So focused were the wealthy on the consumption of surplus wealth that there was very little reinvestment, which meant that there was very little economic progress either.

Slavery also meant that there was very little technical development in Ancient Greece and Rome. Why spend money developing water power, for example, when Rome’s wars brought slaves who could provide the power needed for milling or paper-making?

So the fall of the Roman empire was not a global disaster, as was once thought. The collapse in the supply of slaves meant that now for the first time there was an incentive to innovate. Out of this incentive arose, for example, the overshot water wheel – powered by water directed onto the top of the wheel to give added impetus. The padded horse collar was another such medieval development, allowing horses to pull far heavier wagons, and, for the first time, ploughs capable of turning the heavier soils of northern Europe.

These technical developments waited only upon secure conditions for the investment of surplus wealth. We now know that this happened first in Medieval monasteries, not in Protestant Europe after the Reformation of the 1500s. Such monasteries were often enormously productive as a result of centuries of land development. Some became giant complexes in which water power was applied to the making of paper, metal working and the milling of grain.

This fact alone is enough to undermine the old belief that it was the ‘Protestant work ethic’ that began the economic miracle of the modern world. R.H. Tawney argued in 1926 that it was hard-working Protestants, whose pleasure-hating moral code condemned luxurious living, who first amassed the capital necessary for continuous reinvestment in economic enterprises. In fact this had begun to happen many centuries earlier in the monasteries of that supposed enemy of all progress – the Catholic church.

Furthermore, it was the steady development of Catholic theology that allowed this economic development. St Augustine began the reconsideration of ancient taboos against the raising of prices to meet demand by arguing that the monetary value of an article could legitimately relate to whatever a customer would be willing to pay. Later, scholastic theologians in the monasteries and universities of Catholic Europe came to argue that the charging of reasonable interest on loans was also morally acceptable. Banking, a vital source of credit for investment, could not have progressed otherwise.

And this development in Christian theology too was directly related to the growing economic power of medieval monasteries.

It was Catholic theology also that first gave real security to what we now call the ‘entrepreneur’ – the would-be capitalist considering investing his wealth in, say, a mining enterprise or the building of a dam to produce water power. The problem with doing that in a society ruled by landowning aristocrats was that the political power, added to the jealousy, of the ruling classes could all too easily lead to the confiscation of any productive enterprise – without compensation to its founder.

This was why China, for example, fell behind medieval Europe in enterprises like mining. A thriving Chinese metallurgical industry was at one point totally destroyed by state and aristocratic interference.

In medieval Europe, on the other hand, scholastic theologians developed a sophisticated theory of property rights, which gave entrepreneurs unprecedented security when it came to investment. Just as Catholic theology undermined slavery, so did it also create a favourable climate for risk-taking economic enterprises.

For all these reasons it is now recognised by leading economic historians that the ‘Protestant work ethic’ had absolutely nothing to do with the origins of western capitalism – the systematic reinvestment of surplus wealth – for the simple reason that capitalism emerged centuries earlier in the most unlikely setting – medieval Catholic Europe.

And it was Catholic centres of medieval trade in Italy – especially Venice and Genoa – that pioneered modern systems of book-keeping and banking that allowed for sophisticated international trading relationships and business practices to develop. The later development of great Protestant trading nations such as England and Holland owed everything to this earlier economic development in southern and Catholic Europe.

The deepest ignorance continues to prevail, however. In a recent letter to the Irish News a proponent of the cause of secularism as the font of all progress again referred to the Middle Ages as the ‘Dark Ages’ – because they were ages of faith. We now know beyond doubt that this misconception is based entirely upon ignorance and prejudice. When all of Western Europe was wholly Catholic it was also progressive in many ways.

And the central key to all this progress was Christian theology, which was itself always in development. Arguing consistently for the dignity of the individual human being, it fostered a progressive mindset. It brought an end to the slavery of the ancient world. It inspired the setting up of great medieval universities and the development of true science.  It led to modern theories of human rights, and it created the conditions for the unprecedented economic progress of modern times.

Now, of course, Christian theology is on the defensive at the very time that western capitalism and science – unshackled from Christianity – threatens our world with nuclear terror, mass addiction and environmental catastrophe. In two final articles in this series I will argue that Christian theology has yet another contribution to make to the history of our world – the understanding and overcoming of all the major dangers that now threaten the human family.

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Western dominance: a product of Catholic theology?

Sean O’Conaill  © Doctrine and Life Apr 2006

How did ‘The West’ – shorthand for the societies fringing the North Atlantic – arrive at global cultural, political and economic dominance in the modern era? Challenged to answer this question in as few words as possible, the average historically literate product of a western university might well produce something like the following:

“Modernity is essentially based upon a preference for reason before religious faith, and the journey towards the dominance of reason began in ancient Greece. Laying the foundations of modern science and of personal and political freedom, this Greek achievement was buried for over a thousand years by the rise of Catholic Christendom in the first Christian millennium. Although these ‘Dark Ages’ were not as dark as was once thought, they were nevertheless a period of relative inertia, characterised by religious faith and political tyranny.

“The recovery of the wisdom of the ancient Greeks in the 1400s led to a cultural Renaissance in western Europe, a period of global exploration by European powers, a Scientific Revolution and a renewed interest in democracy. The Protestant Reformation in the West assisted the victory of science and democracy by weakening the obscurantist power of the Catholic church and enabling the rise of capitalism through the ‘Protestant work ethic’. The Enlightenment of the 1700s prioritised reason above faith and led to the emergence of modern secular democracies, in which capitalism, science, technology and individual freedom finally triumphed.”

The questions raised by such a narrative have so far been eclipsed by its simplicity and rhetorical convenience. Weren’t even the most enlightened of the ancient Greeks defenders of slavery and owners of slaves? How did western modernity recover the ancient Greek legacy if it had been so thoroughly buried by Catholic obscurantism in the ‘Dark Ages’? And weren’t the Catholic republics of Genoa and Venice pioneers of capitalism long before the Reformation? Such questions have been asked but have not yet weakened the essential thread of the narrative: Reason, science and freedom – the foundation of all progress – began in ancient Greece, were obscured by Catholic orthodoxy, and could only re-emerge when the Catholic monopoly was overthrown. (The story of Galileo was, of course, the ‘proof text’ of this narrative.)

Rodney Stark’s robust assault upon that essential narrative is all the more intriguing because it comes not from a Catholic apologist but from an agnostic sociologist. In Victory of Reason* he insists that, on the contrary, freedom, reason, science and capitalism – and even the very idea of progress – owed most to the very phenomenon that secular orthodoxy tends to regard as the darkest historical force: the theology of the early Church fathers and the scholastics.

To begin with, he insists, the greatest of the ancient Greeks didn’t even believe in progress. Although Aristotle thought he was living in a ‘Golden Age’, he, and all ancient Greeks, saw history as essentially cyclical, with periods of decay inevitably following every period of advance. He believed, for example, that the technical achievements of his own era would not be bettered in any future era.

And for this very reason, coupled with their lack of belief in a rational unitary deity who had created a rational cosmos, the ancient Greeks did not originate the linkage essential for true science – between theory and research. Aristotle, the ‘great empiricist’, contradicted Alcmaeon’s theory that goats breathed through their ears but does not record any experimental troubling of any goat to prove his point. He believed also that stones of different weights would fall at speeds proportionate to their weights but never tested this by experiment either – for example by dropping stones of two different weights but the same volume from the same high cliff to see if the heavier would indeed reach the ground below before the lighter. It simply never occurred to him to devise repeatable experiments or systematic observations, so he, the most scientific of the ancient Greeks, was never a true scientist.

Rodney Stark contrasts this Greek intellectual pessimism with the attitudes of some of the early Christian fathers, most notably Augustine. From the beginning Christians, like Jews, believed that history was not cyclical but moving forward inexorably in linear fashion towards a future end point. And the fact that Jesus never left a single definitive text like the Quran meant that theologians were free to attempt to discern answers to all the questions he did not resolve, using reason (i.e. logic) as their method.

Of all the great religions, Stark insists, Christianity was alone in believing that reason ruled all things, since they had been created by a reasonable God. “Heaven forbid,” declared Augustine, “that God should hate in us that by which he made us superior to the animals. Heaven forbid that we should believe in such a way as not to accept or seek reasons, since we could not even believe if we did not possess rational souls.” Furthermore Augustine believed that such a search would be fruitful, declaring that although ‘certain matters pertaining to the doctrine of salvation’ could not yet be understood, ‘one day we shall be able to do so’.

If reason could discover more about God, it followed that the natural world, created by the same God, should also be rational, full of secrets waiting to be discovered by reason. Far from rejecting theology, the great scientists of the early modern era, such as Newton, saw science as the handmaiden of theology. It was this that led Alfred North Whitehead to declare in 1925 that “The greatest contribution of medievalism to the formation of the scientific movement [was] the inexpugnable belief that there is a secret, a secret that can be unveiled. … It must come from the medieval insistence on the rationality of God.”

Even Bertrand Russell was mystified by the failure of the Chinese to develop science, since the intelligentsia of ancient China had rejected popular religion and theism. The reason, Stark insists, was that for that very reason they never developed a rational theology either. Mystical works like the Tao stressed not a caring creator God of reason but an ineffable essence wrapped in mystery, lacking all personality, desire and intention. The Chinese view of history was also therefore non-progressive. How could there be an attempt to discover what could not exist, since the ancients had known all that was to be known?

And if Greek thought would lead of its own accord to science, why didn’t that happen within Islamic culture, which had also inherited the Greek legacy? The reason again was the lack of systematic theological inquiry within Islam, the conviction that all that needed to be known had already been revealed in the Quran.

It was, uniquely, Christian theology also that led to the western understanding of individual freedom. Whereas Greek tragedy held individuals (Oedipus, for example) to be the necessary victims of circumstances outside their control, Shakespeare’s Hamlet chooses his own fate. Stark traces this shift to the Christian emphasis upon individual responsibility by Jesus himself, an emphasis that continued throughout the Middle Ages.

This also marked a shift in the dignity to be accorded to every individual, without exception. There is simply no equivalent in classical thought to Paul’s insistence that for God there are no distinctions between ‘male and female, slave and free’. On the contrary Plato believed, with Hitler, that there was indeed such a thing as a ‘slavish people’, and both he and Aristotle kept slaves.

This theological emphasis upon the moral equality of individuals, without distinction of gender, class or race, meant that there was always an ambiguity and tension in the continuation of slavery in the late Roman imperial and then the medieval period under baptised Christian rulers. Contrary to some authorities, serfs were not slaves as they were free to marry and their children could not be taken from them, and it was in Christian Europe alone that the institution of slavery gradually became odious. Stark declares emphatically: “Slavery ended in medieval Europe [only] because the church extended its sacraments to all slaves and then managed to impose a ban on the enslavement of Christians (and of Jews).”

The later enslavement of non-Europeans by Christian Europe was, of course, especially odious, but here again the main early impetus for an end to the practice globally came from Christianity alone. Islam could not be in the vanguard of liberty for the simple reason that Muhammad, totally unlike Jesus of Nazareth, was also a slave owner. (And Voltaire, high priest of the Enlightenment, invested the unprecedented profits from his writings in the French slave trade based at Nantes.)

Turning to economic and technological advance, Stark summarises a lot of recent research to explode the myth of the Middle Ages as a period of even relative stagnation. First, it was during this period after the fall of Rome that Europe advanced ahead of the rest of the world in the use of water power. By the thirteenth century paper was being manufactured using overshot water wheels – something that had happened nowhere else until then. Similar innovation occurred in wind power, the shoeing and harnessing of horses, fish-farming, crop rotation, shipbuilding, and, more lamentably, the use of gunpowder in warfare.

In Education the medieval church universities were an advance on anything existing in the ancient world because, far from simply recycling ancient lore, they gained fame by innovation. Moreover they educated far more students, who were taught not simply to study ancient sources but to critique and improve on them. Without them there could not have been a Copernicus, who drew on medieval authorities also for his heliocentric theory. Kepler’s discernment of the elliptical orbits of the planets rested upon centuries of planetary observation. Newton’s reference to the ‘giants’ upon whose shoulders he had stood should no longer be thought to exclude the products of medieval Catholic universities. It was in the late Christian Middle Ages that the systematic linkage of theory and research, the foundation for true science, first occurred.

Turning then to capitalism Stark explodes the notion that Europe had to wait for the ‘Protestant ethic’ to produce the essential characteristic of capitalism – the systematic reinvestment of profits to produce further income. It was Augustine who first taught that the price of an article could legitimately relate to the desire of a potential buyer, and that therefore wickedness was not inherent in commerce. Later theologians further undermined, and eventually overthrew, the ban on usury – the lending of money at interest. It was large medieval monastic institutions that became the first stable capitalist institutions in history – reinvesting in, for example, overshot water power for a variety of enterprises. Subsequently, the Mediterranean Catholic republics of Venice and Genoa developed a more advanced capitalism than had existed anywhere in the world until then.

Essential to this historical process was the Christian concept of moral equality – the true source of the notion of inalienable human rights. It was this, not classical philosophy, that first drew limits to the legitimate power of governments. Whereas China had developed a thriving iron industry at one point in its history, this was undermined by a government and ruling class that had the power to strangle it. Medieval capitalist institutions in Europe usually escaped such a fate because Christian theology protected them – and for no other reason.

‘The Rights of Man’, that cornerstone of modern secular ideology, did not therefore spring new born from John Locke and the Enlightenment, or from ancient Greece, but from a long tradition of Christian theological emphasis upon the moral equality of all humans, beginning with the the Sermon on the Mount.

On a negative note, although Stark takes pains to insist that he uses the word ‘capitalism’ to describe an economic rather than a political and social system, his entirely positive ‘take’ on capitalism, without reference to current issues of global injustice and the environmental crisis, is a little disconcerting. His facile dismissal of liberation theology underestimates its continuing positive impact in societies where a corrupt capitalism is still wreaking havoc.

However, there are so many other good things in this reasonably priced book that it can heartily be recommended to all who have either a basic historical education, or an interest in acquiring one. Every teacher of history in a Catholic institution should acquire a copy. It is an important milestone in the overthrow of that mistaken ‘grand narrative’ of western history that underpins the rhetoric of a rampant and often daftly anti-Catholic secularism.

Indeed ‘The Victory of Reason’ suggests an entirely new historical apologetics founded not upon defending Christendom, or a Christendom model of church, but upon discerning the thread of progressive and optimistic faith in reason that links the best of modernity with the early and medieval church. Voltaire’s 18th century historical schema was a self-regarding story of ancient classical enlightenment obscured by blind Biblical and Catholic faith, but then recovered by his own heroic movement – the modern Enlightenment. It was based upon an entirely ignorant perception of the Middle Ages, but has cast a fog of intellectual odium over the Judeo-Christian tradition for more than two-and-a-half centuries. That fog is, thankfully, beginning to lift – allowing us to see clearly, and to counter, the absurd hubris of an anti-Catholic secularism that is still too often wrapped in the darkest Voltairean self-delusion.

So in due time will, doubtless, the pall that now hovers over the history of the Catholic church in modern Ireland. Catholicism has been, for over fifteen centuries, the essential source of the cultural vitality and distinct identity of most Irish people. Now that we know that Catholic theology is the most important source of all that is best in modernity, we can surely be joyfully modern and Catholic as well. The great tradition of Catholic theologians and philosophers who had more faith in reason than most contemporary philosophers is a far more secure and hopeful foundation than that self-declared and morbid cul-de-sac, postmodernism.

*The Victory of Reason, by Rodney Stark, Random House, New York, 2005.

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Christianity and the Environment

Sean O’Conaill © Doctrine and Life 2003

The scientific and technological revolutions that have transformed the earth over the past three centuries began in western Europe and were spread quickly across the globe by European migration, colonisation, trade and imperialism.  They were accompanied by a secularisation of thought in reaction against a Christian clerical intellectual monopoly, and when the secular mind came to consider in the late twentieth century the origins of the environmental catastrophe then threatening, one available option was to scapegoat the Judeo-Christian tradition for the rapacious aspects of western expansion and power.

Had not Genesis exhorted humans to ‘increase, multiply and subdue the earth’ ?  Had not Christendom exterminated a European paganism more in harmony with nature?  Had not European capitalism been grounded in the Protestant work ethic?  Had not the industrial revolution been funded by the proceeds of Christian imperialist expansion, driven by a Christian missionary as well as a commercial zeal?  Wasn’t the global western empire that provided the global market essential for mass production born initially out of a Christian evangelical sense of global mission?

There is a little truth in some of this, but it would be far more true to say that the wellspring of western spirituality, the Jewish and Christian texts we know as the Bible, were both a forewarning of the crisis now upon us, and the only diagnostic tool the human family possesses that can take us to the root of the problem, and provide a solution.  For the fact is that we humans have always been rapacious and acquisitive, and this has always caused us problems.  It is not merely coincidental, but providential, that the West’s central repository of spiritual insight should so clearly identify the source of that rapacity, and the most likely means of escape from it.

First, the essential theme of Genesis, and of the Bible throughout, is the goodness of Creation.  This stands in opposition to much of the mythology of mankind which suggests that Creation is malevolent.  It is now believed that Genesis was Judaism’s response to the Babylonian myth, the Enuma Elish, whose primary God was worshipped for matricide.  Tiamat, mother of all the Gods, had plotted their destruction for the noise they made, only to be thwarted by Marduk, whose dismemberment of her created the cosmos.  This central theme of a malevolent origin to everything is what lies behind much human violence – including much of the subjugatory rhetoric of western expansion.

For the fact is that Christendom represented not the victory of Christianity in the west, but a fateful compromise between Christianity and violence.  It was the gift of Constantine and other military despots, not of Christ – and Constantine was far closer to Marduk than Yahweh, the Jewish God (as Constantine well illustrated by asphyxiating his wife in a steam-filled room).

Not only does Genesis repetitively insist upon the goodness of creation – it tells us also that the fate of the earth is bound up with the fate of humankind – and that human goodness alone can save it.  As the level of the global ocean rises with the melting of the icecaps we do indeed need, like Noah, to look to the problem of rescuing as much of the biological inheritance as we can, and of developing lifestyles that lean least heavily upon our biosphere.

So Genesis insists that Creation is interested in us, cherishes us and looks to us for the salvation of the earth.  And the rest of the Old Testament insists that Creation will make and remake covenants with us to that end.  The text that most powerfully expresses the creative power of God – the book of Job – suggests that this alone is sufficient to reconcile us with our own sufferings and humiliation, the pain of being.  So overwhelmed is Job by the fertility of the creative process that in the end he falls silent, taken out of himself.

So Creation is, first, good, and, second, patient – unwilling to leave us to our fate.  But, third, it reveals to us the source of our rapacity – our unwillingness to be less than Gods.

In the ancient world, long before capitalism developed the power to overwhelm the earth, military conquest was the quickest route to glory, the sign of Godhood.  Living as he thought upon a planar disc with boundaries – the ends of the earth – Alexander drove eastwards to find them, conquering as he went.  His military successes convinced him of his own divinity.

The positive legacy of the Alexandrian epic has concealed the negative: the identification of heroism with violence.  This has plagued western culture ever since.  Yet the Jewish texts clearly identify the spiritual fault that lies behind it: the desire to be ‘as Gods’, that is to have what Gods have – including power and adulation.  Named as covetousness in the Decalogue, this desire for the possessions of another is based upon the unarticulated perception that we can somehow acquire the being, or dignity, or worth, of another by possessing those things that appear to distinguish that other.  To emphasise that we are not simply talking about ‘greed’ it’s best to call this problem mimetic desire – desire based upon unconscious imitation.

That violence should be a more striking consequence of mimetic desire in the ancient world than environmental destruction is due to the simple fact that modern mass production was both impossible and inconceivable then.

But the Decalogue makes clear that covetousness has to do with envy of our neighbour, and that we can covet any of his possessions.  It is against this backdrop that we need to place the New Testament story of Jesus – the man who would not reign as king.  His very birth was beset with danger, as it threatened Herod with the loss of what gave him his self-esteem, his priority as King.  This repetition of the story of Saul demonstrates the fact that mimetically inspired violence was the key feature of ancient culture – a flaw so repetitive and predictable, yet so unobserved, that it might well have plagued this planet forever.

What broke the spell was the unprecedented resistance to mimetic desire of Jesus himself.  His humble birth did not set the scene for a subsequent rise to fame and glory – the basic plot of many another ancient tale.  It established a pattern of rejection of mimetic behaviour from first to last.  The refusal of the offers of promotion to the summit of either the religious or political pyramids of the ancient world – the temptations in the desert – was followed by a teaching mission that led ultimately to the accusation ‘we know you do not regard the rank of anyone – so tell us is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?’  And those teachings refer far more often to the problem of spiritual presumption, which was linked then with social status, than to what later became the fixation of hierarchs: sexual sin.

If we emphasise the humanity of Jesus, we also emphasise the mystery:  from where did he acquire the psychological strength to undertake so suicidal a mission, ending in a lonely and shameful death?   And even more imponderable – from where did his followers, who had deserted him in the end, receive the strength later to advance his cause, at similar cost to themselves?  The answer to both questions is the same:  all were equally free of that need for other-esteem that underlies all mimetic desire.  It was this that ensured that the mission of the early church was directed to ‘the poor in spirit’ of the Roman Empire – those who thought least of themselves because the world too thought so little of them.

And this in turn is why covetousness became the ‘lost sin’ of the post-Constantinian Church.  The promotion of Bishops to wealth and social influence meant that for the next sixteen hundred years the role of successor to the apostles became itself a covetable title.

How then could those bishops generally convey a spirituality centred upon the equal worthiness of all, and God’s solicitude for the least regarded?  Instead, Augustine’s spirituality of dread of sexual weakness won primacy, and how convenient that was for men who need only practice sexual discretion and aristocratic aloofness to remain worthy of social respect.  The table fellowship of Jesus and the original apostles – the most important social sacrament of the early church – passed into history, while episcopacy became part of the patronage of the social elite.

This transition is vital if we are to understand why it was that the Christian churches, and especially the Catholic Church, came so late to the addressing of the problem of the environment.  For centuries churchmen supposed that Christ’s primary purpose was to rescue the human family from ‘concupiscence’, rather than to challenge the human pyramid of esteem that arises out of, and is sustained by, mimetic desire.    This fixation stayed with most of the Christian missionaries who followed on the heels of Columbus and the other merchant adventurers who made the global ocean a European lake in the period 1480-1660.  The baptism of slaves would somehow make up for their exploitation, and the exporting of European covetousness around the globe need not be radically challenged.  Especially since this would challenge the ‘order’ created globally by European power.

Inevitably the theology of the Middle Ages had distanced the God who for Jesus and the Apostles had dwelt within – which meant in turn that the spirituality that had grounded the egalitarianism of the early church was also almost lost.  Abba was scapegoated with the crucifixion by the Anselmian doctrine of atonement, and ‘salvation’ became merely an after-death experience.  To achieve it one merely must not die in sexual sin – while covetousness simply didn’t measure up as a moral problem, and its true meaning was virtually invisible.

This applied equally to the Protestant Reformation, with the result that England and Holland could pioneer the basic institutions of capitalism and plough energy into an industrial revolution in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  The ability to mass produce goods held out the prospect of wealth for all.  The rise of secularism in this era also diverted the churches from the need to ponder the acquisitive drive and its origins – which came to be attributed to ‘materialism’ – an ideology – and therefore something to be combated intellectually rather than spiritually.  And of course, because of this misperception, the assault upon ‘materialism’ has been a total failure.

This remains the situation to this day.  Modern advertising discovered mimetic desire before the churches did – associating all consumer products with social success, with celebrity, or with an enviable ‘lifestyle’.  The cloned images of celebrities wearing or using or driving or consuming this or that regale us at every turn, while ecclesiastics housed mostly in palaces maunder on about materialism to nil effect.  Their problem is that were they to divine the real source of mimetic desire – lack of self-esteem – and to remember that Jesus resolved this problem by joining the people of low self-esteem – the poor in spirit – they would be obliged to do likewise.  (It is good to see the beginnings of a realisation of this among a minority of bishops.)

The basic foundation of the Judeo-Christian tradition is that the only secure sense of our own value comes from a spiritual relationship with God.  The history of the Jewish people seems to prove that they learned more about God from hardship, exile and privation than from worldly success – and this suggests that the environmental crisis may grow much deeper before many will begin to address its cause.

Yet the man who invited us to consider the lilies of the field, who assured us that we are loved whatever we own, must eventually be seen as the one who did more than anyone else in human history to question the basic irrationality of considering some people more ‘worth it’ than others, and of amassing wealth to prove it.  We cannot add a cubit to our height, and the sun and rain fall on rich and poor alike.  God’s love is unconditional, and it is from the experience of his love for us as individuals that liberation from mimetic desire will eventually flow.

This is crucial to tackling all of today’s major problems – including the environmental crisis.  Over-consumption is directly related to the dearth of self-respect that media consumption inevitably creates – as it prepares the viewer for the advertisements that intersperse the celebrity coverage, the advertisements that tempt us to believe that personal significance can be purchased.

It is above all the Christian Gospels that offer the best hope of mass discernment of the trap of mimetic desire – before the environmental catastrophe becomes unstoppable.  More clearly than any other texts they address the very fault upon which western ambition is based, and point to our salvation – the triune God who honours simplicity by dwelling within.

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The Day the World Changed – 11/09/2001

Sean O’Conaill  © Reality 2001

For most of my lifetime I’ve been teaching history and current affairs, and in that lifetime already there have been days of special significance.

The night in 1962 when JFK told us about Soviet missiles on Cuba; that other awful night in 1963 we learned he had been assassinated; the day of the first serious violence in Northern Ireland in August 1969; the day in 1989 the Berlin Wall came down.

Yet none hit me with so much force as Tuesday 11th September 2001 – the day over 3000 people died in deliberate air crashes in New York and Washington. On my screen as I write there is a shot of Flight 175 about to pass through the enormous glazed wall of the World Trade Centre south building. I keep it there as a memento of an era that is about to pass away, a reminder that we are now in a different time. And that we owe to those dying and about to die at that moment – and to those they left behind – a monument that will do justice to their loss.

That image perfectly expresses the vulnerability of the US, at that moment the world’s only superpower.  Its terrifying nuclear missile shield, its strategic bomber force, its air and army and naval bases throughout the world, its nuclear submarines, its dozen floating airports, its huge external and internal intelligence services the CIA and FBI – all had been powerless to protect its most vulnerable citizens as they began their innocent day.

Superpower?

All of which raises a critical question: Is the concept of the superpower itself a dangerous illusion when only one superpower is left to become a target of a terrorism that it cannot directly engage with superpower arms?superpower Is the vastness of its strategic military strength, and the global nature of that power, now an invitation to the murder of its own citizens from within, and to a global religious war?

The concept of the superpower emerged in the period after 1945. Two powers had contributed most to the defeat of the axis powers – the  USA and the USSR. Only one as yet possessed a nuclear capability, but by 1962 this inequality had disappeared and the world stood poised on the brink of nuclear holocaust. The superpowers were already competing also in space, and it was the US decision to build a defensive satellite shield against nuclear missiles that finally broke the USSR’s capability to compete in the late 1980s. The collapse of the soviet empire from 1989 left one superpower only, with an apparently global dominance.

But global dominance – the aspiration of conquerors from Alexander to Hitler – is a dangerous position to be in. In fighting the Cold War US support for Israel was a potent source of alienation of Islamic peoples who sided with the Palestinians who were being squeezed out. Geared for nuclear warfare, or conventional warfare with forces prepared to engage in pitched battles, the US now faced a new and subtle enemy whose strength was anti-western fanaticism and an ability to improvise.

“They have woken a mighty giant,”  President Bush has now assured us, paraphrasing the Japanese Admiral Yamamoto after Pearl Harbour. But Yamamoto had actually said ‘sleeping giant’ – and this seems far more appropriate as a comment on September 11th. There is a sense in which the entire political and military leadership of the US was indeed asleep on that morning, and was then woken out of a complacency of catastrophic proportions.

As all the ingredients for the disaster were already known to be present, future historians will set their students the task of explaining why the disaster was allowed to happen. Fanatical middle eastern suicide bombers had attacked US targets before, and had recently killed hundreds of Israelis and severely damaged a US warship; hundreds of men from middle eastern lands deeply alienated from the US were known to be in the US; US flying schools did not require security clearance for their pupils; US internal air security was known not to prevent the carrying on board of potentially deadly weapons; the flight decks of these aircraft were known to be accessible to armed passengers.

Nothing more was required to allow the most appalling internal disaster ever to befall the US at the hands of its enemies – and these facts all lay before those charged with the defence of US citizens during the years this plan was meticulously prepared.

To argue that no one could foresee this is specious: these terrorists had foreseen it, probably as early as five years before. Specific US politicians and military and security and intelligence personnel had the task of outguessing the nation’s enemies, of thinking the unthinkable in order to prevent it, during that time. They either failed to do so, or were discouraged from pursuing the issue Scapegoating of individuals is pointless: there was a national failure of leadership at the summit, affecting the previous Democratic presidency of Fulbright scholar Bill Clinton as much as that of the Republican George Bush, and Congress also under both administrations. No-one at the summit wanted to think the unthinkable, although that is precisely what terrorists do.

Now that the US is attempting to build an alliance against terrorism it needs to avoid words and actions that must prevent that alliance ever becoming effectual. Words like ‘Crusade’ – for the Islamic world this has the same overtones as ‘Jihad’ for the west. The Crusades were Christian military expeditions against the Islamic rulers of the Holy Lands in the Middle Ages, called initially – and inexcusably – by the Papacy. An estimated 40 – 70,000 Jews and Arabs perished in the rape of Jerusalem by western ‘Christian’ knights in 1099 CE. The fact that George Bush did not apparently know this, and did not employ an adviser who could tell him, shows clearly the absence of a due respect for Islam at the summit of government at this critical moment.

The alliance must also avoid the indiscriminate use of force anywhere in the world. As I write, US military strikes of some kind against Afghanistan seem a possibility – with consequences that could include the alienation of much of the Islamic world from any anti-terrorist alliance. Since the bin Laden argument is that the US is bent upon global domination, unilateralist action by the US against any Islamic nation can only strengthen the bin Ladens and enhance their reputation.

US after 9-11What is needed above all is for the US to rethink its role and posture in the world. Is it bent upon economic and cultural as well as military dominance, or is it the big brother that guards the freedoms and dignity, and cultural identity of others as determinedly as its own?

At a critical moment in the development of the Irish peace process the London government found it useful to say simply that it had no longer any strategic interest in retaining control of Northern Ireland. This allowed most republicans to stack, if not yet to relinquish, their arms and bring us peace of a kind. Something similar is required from the US to clarify its intentions, especially with regard to the Islamic world and Israel. This could also strengthen its relations with the western powers.

When those who devised the US constitution wondered how to express the essential equality of the states that belonged to it, they decided that the US Senate would each have just two members from each state. This reassured those who argued that states with smaller populations would be always outvoted and ignored. The nearest thing we have to a world congress, the UN, gives greater power to the permanent superpower members of the Security Council. It must surely be obvious that when the list of superpowers is reduced to one, the credibility of the UN as an impartial body must be weakened. The time has come to re-examine its constitution – and here also the US must play a crucial role.

Having climbed to the summit of world power, the US has now to decide how that power is to be used within a framework of mutual international respect. Respect is only possible within a framework of equality. Equality was the original program of those who framed the US Declaration of Independence of 1776, and makes a perfectly respectable program now for a new world order. Is the administration of George Bush up to this – or will the US go on defending a supremacy that must remain a target for all the ‘young guns’ that must emerge to challenge it – with heaven knows what consequences for its own citizens, as well as the rest of the world?

What is power?

As I watched the aftermath of this shocking catastrophe in New York I had as a guest in my home a Dutch naval officer, one of a group of eight Christians visiting Coleraine from the Hague. “What is power?” Rudolph Francis asked at one point.

The question is so appropriate. These hijackers had armed themselves with nothing more than information, basic flying skills and knives. The information allowed them to co-ordinate the seizure of four planes that had left three different airports within fifteen minutes of one another. Knives and piloting skills allowed them to turn three of these into flying bombs of great destructive power, aimed at the political and economic capitals of the world’s only superpower. The factor that stunned the US – their willingness to give their lives for this enterprise – has undoubtedly helped to shape the history of the next century. It is equivalent to the assassination by Serbs of the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary in 1914. The consequences of that action included the Great War and the downfall of that empire, with consequences that still reverberate in eastern Europe.

What will be the consequences of September 11th, 2001? One possibility, which must at all costs be avoided, is another ‘clash of civilisations’ between the West and Islam. To avoid it we must all become far more aware of the multitude of different cultures, beliefs and attitudes to be found among the world’s one billion Muslims. Islam is at least as diverse as the Christian world. The fanaticism of the suicide hijackers is fuelled by a perception of the west, led by the US, as a purveyor of a corrupt globalisation, threatening to Islamic faith and culture. The best way for the west to undermine that perception is to rediscover the Gospels, which threaten no-one.

Our own church could begin by acknowledging – in a substantial document – the disastrous error of the Crusades, called initially by Pope Urban II in an address that was not recorded verbatim. One version of it has him asking:

“Can anyone tolerate that we do not even share equally with the Moslems the inhabited Earth?”

As this ‘take’ on the papacy’s attitude to Islam would align it with a possible tide of anti-Islamism today, it is all the more necessary that the church distance itself from this discreditable era of its history. This beautiful Earth is not a western or Christian domain but a dear heritage of all its children. Our Bible – some of which we share with Islam – records that we are one family, from the beginning, and our gospels insist that we are destined to be at peace. Most Islamic scholars share this vision, so the earth need not become a battlefield between any two or more great faiths.

And this vision of a world enjoying a secure diversity is perfectly compatible with the greatest traditions of the USA. To protect its citizens it reconciles in its constitution the principle of the separation of the three different elements of state power, with the other vital principle of national unity against external aggression. It can now lead the world to a permanent peace by placing equal emphasis upon both principles in a genuine new world order. The world’s peoples and faiths can unite as one world against fanatical violence, in defence of the freedom of all to be themselves.

And the idea of a New World Order was, of course first floated by the first President Bush. It is time for us all to begin thinking about what the phrase might mean.

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