Thursday, May 14, 2009

Contra DiZerega, Part Deux

Is there Justice or is there Just Us?
First of all, my assumption is that those many Christians who are genuinely concerned about human equality fully realize that as things currently stand in the world it is a little early to be handing out congratulations (not to mention the fact that the whole idea of announcing which religion is "the most" in favor of human equality is kind of, well, icky). [This is a continuation of a previous post, btw - and if you haven't read that post, what I just said might not make much sense!]

Second of all, I have had the pleasure of knowing and working with a great many Christians committed to the cause of social justice over my many years of political activism, but I also have met quite a few communists, socialists, anarchists, secularists, atheists, and agnostics (and combinations thereof) running in the same circles and doing the same work, and I never bothered to do a systematic survey based on religion and ideology. But just for the record, in my own personal work on behalf of abortion rights, the ERA (remember that?), gay rights, affirmative action, voting rights, etc, and against such things as police brutality, nuclear power, innumerable imperialist interventions abroad, etc, I have met, worked with and come to respect Quakers, UU's, Catholics, Mennonites, Baptists, etc (not to mention Baha'is, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, Pagans, etc).

My beef with diZerega doesn't mean that I don't know what he's talking about when he talks about a Christian contribution to working toward the ideal of human equality. In fact, my beef is based precisely on the fact that I know exactly what he is talking about, and therefore I know that he is presenting a gross distortion of reality. And, more to the point, a genuine Pagan response to the New Atheism cannot have as it's starting point the craven repetition of the tired old Christian claims to moral superiority over the Pagan religions of the ancient world.

Certain Christians, and certain others, have long tried to assert that the process of Christianization has been a cause (and Gus DiZerega claims it as the primary cause) of supposed improvements in the areas of social justice and human equality. The world's leading historian specializing in the study of Roman social history has, as already referred to (at length) in the previous post, demonstrated that there are serious "difficulties" with this "commonly supposed" bit of self-serving Christian propaganda.

Every time we speak about justice, compassion, ethics, freedom of speech, and democracy, and every time we use the words "republic" and "constitution", we are, in fact, referring to concepts that were developed and articulated by Pagans centuries before the birth of Jesus, and in most cases we are using the very words that those Pagans used at the time. If many Pagans did not fully embrace these concepts, and if those who did fell short in their efforts to implement them in their own societies, is this any less true of the first citizens of the United States, who had a system of slavery far more brutal than that of ancient Greece and Rome, who denied all rights to women, and who were enthusiastically pursuing one of the most savage (and horrifically successful) campaigns of racist genocide in human history?

Let's just look briefly at one very important Pagan concept that has its counterpart in the world-view of many Christians who are concerned with issues of social justice: the concept of a moral universe. The phrase "moral universe" is a favorite of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and here is a relevant quote from him on the subject:
In our struggle against apartheid there were so many occasions when we seemed to have reached the end of our tether when the upholders of apartheid and all its injustice and evil seemed invincible. At such moments we would tell our people, "This is God's world, and God is in charge." Of course there were many moments when we wished we could whisper in God's ear, "God we know you're in charge, but why don't you make it slightly more obvious?"

Yes, we asserted categorically, "This is a moral universe. There's no way that injustice, evil and oppression could have the last word. Ultimately right and goodness will prevail." This belief was vindicated when apartheid was toppled and freedom and democracy came into their own. I can hear the cynic say, "Well yes, it might have turned out that way in this exceptional case. The evidence almost universally points to a sadly unhappy picture. So, what in fact is the truth?

We shouldn't subvert our thesis by burying our heads in the sand. Only the willfully blind could pretend that our world is a paradise, that our world is an ideal one. There is almost overwhelming evidence that evil is real, that injustice, oppression, suffering are prominent features of life as experienced by far too many in our world. In recent times there have been the ghastliness of the Holocaust in Nazi German, the gulags in Stalin's Communist Soviet Russia, there have been dictatorships in Spain, Portugal, even Greece, the cradle of democracy, there has been the repression in the former communist dictatorships behind the former Iron Curtain — the catalogue is endless and depressing — just think of communist China, the military dictatorships in most of Latin America and in Asian countries such as Indonesia, the Philippines, Burma, not to mention Africa which sometimes has seemed to take the cake with its almost endemic conflicts and genocide thrown in for good measure. At present just look at Darfur, at the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Zimbabwe, Somalia, the excesses in Rwanda, Burundi, Sierra Leone, Liberia? Oh dear, it just seems to go on and on.

Speech at James Madison University, September 2007
The idea that the Cosmos is not only orderly and rule governed, but is in fact inherently Just, is found throughout the Pagan Greek and Roman philosophical literature, in the writings of Pythagoreans, Platonists, Aristotelians and Stoics. As is so often the case, though, these philosophers were not expressing some idea that was familiar only to them: rather, they were, as good philosophers do, re-expressing more carefully and thoughtfully, an idea that was commonly (if imperfectly and unreflectively) held by their fellow Pagans.

One of the fullest and most influential expressions of the Pagan view of a moral universe is found in Plato's cosmological masterwork, the Timaeus, written nearly four centuries prior to the birth of Jesus. This is truly one of the great works of Pagan philosophy, and it served as one of the primary sources for the philosophical critiques of Christianity written by Celsus, Porphyry, and the Emperor Julian. Here is how one contemporary scholar describes the moral universe of Plato's Timaeus (which is also referred to as the Timaeus-Critias):
Does the universe support our moral endeavours? Does the world, as we know it, give us reason to think that we will be better off, happier, more thriving, if we pursue a course of moral probity than if we do not? Does the universe make us feel at home as moral agents? Does goodness or beauty figure in the world independently of us? Can we learn something about how to live our lives from observing the universe? Many today would agree with Jacques Monod in answering ‘no’ to all of these questions. We live in an ‘unfeeling’ universe. The world is insensitive to our moral concerns. Values are mere human ‘constructs’, which the universe at best is indifferent to and at worst undermines.

Reading Plato we are brought back to a world in which the ‘ancient covenant’, the moral agreement between man and the universe, still holds. It is a tenet of Plato’s thought that man is not alone in the universe with his moral concerns. Goodness is represented in the universe. We can therefore learn something about goodness by studying the cosmos. Cosmology teaches us how to lead our lives. It is therefore a recommended course of studies if we are to become better people. This is Plato’s claim in the Timaeus-Critias....

Far from being value-free, cosmology for Plato is centred on the representation of goodness and beauty. He sees it as the central task of cosmology to articulate the way in which the cosmos manifests those values. Another word for this conception of cosmology is ‘teleology’. For Plato goodness and beauty do not just happen to be found in the cosmos. They are there because the cosmos is so designed. A teleological explanation, understood very broadly, explains something by reference to its end or goal. Teleological explanations therefore typically take the form ‘X occurs in order that Y or so that Y’. In Plato’s natural philosophy, however, teleology takes the more specific form of explaining phenomena by reference to ends considered as good or beautiful....

The conception of teleology as centred on the good is familiar from Plato’s Phaedo. Socrates in his younger days was excited to hear Anaxagoras’ view that Mind directed everything because he thought that ‘if this were so, the directing Mind would direct everything and arrange each thing in the way that was best’ (97c). So he ‘was ready to find out about the sun, and the moon and the other heavenly bodies, about their relative speed, their turnings and whatever else happened to them, how it is best that each should act or be acted upon’ (98a2–7).4 Socrates expected not just that Mind had arranged matters with an end in mind but that this end was the best possible arrangement. Cosmology should show how matters are arranged with a view to a goal that is good. As it happened, Anaxagoras failed to live up to Socrates’ expectations. However, as scholars have often pointed out, the Phaedo set the terms for the kind of teleological cosmology that would find its fulfilment in the Timaeus.
Plato's Natural Philosophy: A Study of the Timaeus-Critias by Thomas Kjeller Johansen
The fact that I am pointing this out doesn't mean that I am making the same kind of mistake that diZerega makes. I won't insist that Christians don't have just as much right to their own conceptions of a moral universe as Pagans do, or that there should be, necessarily, any particular priority or superiority accorded to whoever might have come up with the idea first. But when it is claimed that Christians invented such ideas and that everyone else owes any understanding of such ideas primarily or "mostly" to Christians, that is another matter: obviously no such thing is true, and can only appear to be the case to those who are severely deficient in their knowledge of intellectual, indeed spiritual, history.

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