10 October 2010

One of the central conceits of Christianity, and why it matters

Elisha refuses the gifts of Naaman, by Pieter Fransz de Grebber, 1637 (from Wikimedia Commons)

For the numerological-minded out there, today is the 10th day of the 10th month of the 10th year of the 21st century (that’s 10.10.10). That ought to be reason enough to celebrate with your beverage of choice. (Had a gin and tonic yesterday which was quite good; for my own part that ought to be enough.)

Just got back from church for the first time in the better part of a month (having been ill, and thus both unable to sing and unwilling to get out of bed by 9:00 on a day off of classes), and the lectionary today was enlightening as it sort of coincided a bit with the sort of thinking I’ve been doing of late. There were two leprosy healing stories: the military commander Naaman by Elisha, and the ten lepers of the border region between Samaria and Galilee by Jesus, and the week’s sermon was on the subject of gratitude.

Speaking of gratitude, Christianity is peculiar among world religions in that it focusses very heavily upon the interpretation of the human condition as sustained. Scientifically, this is a truth we have known for a long time: human beings are highly-sophisticated thermodynamic mechanisms which produce massive amounts of entropy, constantly taking in energy from the environment and using it imperfectly to further our endeavours of living. Other religions do indeed acknowledge this truth and even its importance, yet Christianity in particular tends to be very emphatic that this scientific truth has a very specific theological significance: the universe, and thus God, is pouring itself out that we might continue to live. There is nothing that we can do that does not come first from what we eat and what we drink and what we breathe; all of which is furnished by the extravagantly effusive fusion reactor that is the Sun. We are all of us born into an energy ‘debt’ and remain indebted throughout our lives, sustained constantly by a lavishly generous universe. Christianity teaches that the only appropriate subjective response to the objective truth that our existences are sustained is, indeed, gratitude – and that gratitude is to be demonstrated by both altering the organisation through which our resources are distributed, and spending our own energy to improve the lives of those less fortunate than ourselves.

Yet, in some ways, have we lost sight of this truth somewhere? The morality du jour, courtesy of a contemporary pop-ethics which holds aloft the marketplace as the site of salvation and celebrates the liberation of individual passions (violence, sex and greed), encourages massive concentration of wealth and conspicuous consumption. This pop-ethics, moreover, likes to pretend that as individuals, we are completely self-sufficient and that freedom therefore consists in the indulgence of such passions. Our corporate media consistently venerate the ambitious, the greedy and the extravagant (that is to say, the ungrateful) over the reasonable, the kind and the generous – and when, on the rare occasion that they they do mention the reasonable, the kind or the generous (Martin Luther King, Jr, Dorothy Day, Mohandas Gandhi or Mother Teresa), they always manage to downplay the promise of deep change in their messages for the benefit of the existing complacent imperial order. Very few in our public discourse are willing to speak of or even consider ‘duty’ or ‘responsibility’ unless it is to castigate the poor – those with the least bargaining power or influence in a market economy. Our imperial society generally venerates (to quote Gandhi) pleasure without conscience, knowledge without character, commerce without morality, science without humanity and religion without sacrifice.

In such a society, authentic gratitude (and the simplicity and generosity which must follow from it) becomes a profound act of resistance. The Lord’s Prayer – ‘thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven; give us this day our daily bread’ – becomes radically subversive literature.

It is not that I object in the slightest to worldly order: St Paul was quite adamant that those who bear the sword do not do so in vain, that kingdoms and principalities and governments have a positive moral role to play in enforcing and distributing justice. But in my own view, the organising principles of our present order must change; indeed, they must reverse course, in some cases to pre-Enlightenment norms. Though it leaves a foul aftertaste in my mouth to use the now-castrated-with-overuse contemporary language of ‘sustainability’, it and related principles like ‘stability’ are much to be preferred to the blind worship of endless growth and so-called ‘free trade’ by a number of respected contemporary economists. We must replace the blind pursuit and immodest veneration of mammon with an appreciation for what T S Eliot called ‘the permanent things’ – and some creative means of doing so may be hinted at in Western Europe’s current forms of social organisation (where family time is more carefully balanced against work than it is here). Our best physical sciences must once again pay some measure of respect (ideally the Confucian-inspired respect of distance - 敬鬼神而远之) to the transcendental moral order of the universe – and begin to turn away from the destructive and divisive opinions of pop-lit nouveau-atheists like Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris. We must make some serious, even if unilateral, efforts to solve some of the more pressing environmental concerns of our own making, such as global warming. We must make some attempt to restore some modicum of intelligence, restraint, civility and common humanity to our public discourse (and kudos to those rare public figures like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, who make some brave attempts to do something about it from their seats in the claque). And last (but by no means least), we must begin to dismantle the imperial apparatus that has us engaged in extravagantly costly foreign adventures, in which the foremost victims are the civilians of South and Central Asia and the lower-ranking members of our own military (many of whom come from backgrounds of dire economic distress), but in which the general civilian public is made to feel no obligation in terms of finances or lifestyle.

Just a short list of simple tasks, really. In seriousness, though, I do not think we can depend on the existing order to self-correct, not without significant input in terms of social and political behaviour from the bottom (though even there I have some doubts). Just a few thoughts – have a happy 10.10.10, everyone, and try not to get too drunk! Also, I hope to see some of my readers in Washington, DC at the Rally to Restore Sanity.

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