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Archive for May, 2014

Boiling Frogs Meets The Dialectic

Posted by nouspraktikon on May 6, 2014

No, this is not the name of a camp monster face off…although the more one ponders the moral implications it starts to sound worse than Frankenstein meets Wolf Man on the Moon. We all know that “we” (a.k.a. global culture) have gotten to “here” from something that was marginally better off (a.k.a. civilization, Western or otherwise) albeit human and sinful in its essence. “Here” we can define as the End-Times, or if you want to be a Post-Millenialist (and who wouldn’t be if there were half a chance) perhaps just a really, really, really, really deep dip before the church starts its next edifying ascent.

Of course the creation scientists are right to finger gross materialism and the pseudo-sciences of modernity as the culprits of cultural decline. But I keep on thinking of the boiling frogs. I’m sure you are familiar with that analogy. The frogs are swimming in a simmering pot. If the heat were suddenly brought to a rapid boil the frogs would jump out to save their lives, but since the heat is raised by increments they are cooked before they can sense any alarming change in their condition. This is often used as an illustration of how people are insensibly adapted to lower moral and cultural standards, or conversely increased disutilities, when incremental change takes place below their threshold of awareness.

Boiling frogs a useful tool of thought, but it needs refinement since, all other things being equal, it implies linear change. However constant degradation would send an alert, if only because linear change is indeed an exceptional state of affairs. In this world real systems always operate on cycles of some sort, and so we are likely to get a kind of two-steps-forward/one-step-back pattern rather than a continuous slide. Some people, most of them nefarious, like to dub this pattern “the dialectic.” Normally I prefer to reserve that word for the Socratic/Aristotelian science of investigative method…which to be sure has its own problems from the standpoint of faith, but which at least comes by its rationalism honestly. But for reasons which will become apparent lets briefly adopt the more popular notion of a surge and ebb tide in historical processes as the…yeah, like, man, cool….DIALECTIC!

Returning to the playgrounds of those dear nurds, the creation scientists. As historiographers they exhibit strong tendencies towards boiling-frogism. It is as if intellectuals in the 19th century started off from a position of relative sanity and then gradually got argued into gross materialism. One can envision the following dialogue.

Darwin: Have you heard the good news of the survival of the fittest?

Public: No, enlighten me O Great One!

Darwin: First of all there are only atoms swirling in a void…no spirit and certainly no God.

Public: Wonderful…but you disappoint me. I’ve known that since the time of the ancient Greek atomists…give me a new bone to chew on!

Darwin: Funny you should mention “bone”….the next thing you’ll be happy to know is that everything hates everything else and fights and eats and kills everything else…and that the reign of death is universal.

Public: Splendid, splendid! But again you disappoint since this has been open speculation since the time of Heraclitus and his “fire philosophy” of the Sixth century B.C.

Darwin: Hmmm. You are rather ingrate are you not. But let me give you the finest fruits of my teaching and then see if you don’t appreciate the novelty of it all. Think of survival of the fittest as an applied theory…after all mere speculation scarcely merits the name science. By the time all Europe takes a fancy to this theory it will become the driving engine of vast conflicts between classes and nations. With any luck the next century will see catastrophic wars…your descendants will be decimated and reduced to the moral status of ravening beasts!

Public: Now that’s what I like to see, unity of theory and action! You know the spirit of the 19th century is quite set against idle speculation. You needn’t waste your time with further arguments Mr. Darwin…from now on I’m your man!

In fact there were very few people in the 19th century who either accepted or rejected Darwin’s theory in its totality. The historical scene that we picture in our heads is Huxley facing off against a few creationist Anglican bishops…but these were the extremes of a very broad spectrum of opinion. Aside from a professionals who took up the argument in all its details, the educated public in Europe and America was likely to see the theory of the Origin of Species and Descent of Man as a more scientific exposition of “progress” in some ambiguous sense, a more credible account than romantic versions of evolution that had preceded it. Anybody who took the time to ponder the full implications of the theory was likely to be appalled…whether or not they felt the conclusions were justified by the data offered.

Remarkably, careful readers of the appalled category included none other than Freidrich Nietzsche himself, who wrote,

If the doctrines of sovereign Becoming, of the liquidity of all…species, of the lack of any cardinal distinction between man and animal–doctrines which I consider true but deadly–are hurled into the people for another generation…then nobody should be surprised when…brotherhoods with the aim of robbery and exploitation of the non-brothers…will appear on the arena of the future (from Kaufmann, Nietzsche p. 141, quoted in Gertrude Himmelfarb’s Darwin and the Darwinian Revolution)

No, the revolution was not immediately embraced, even by Europe’s darker minds…but the frogs continued to simmer. Most people considered their moral and philosophical virtue safe because they eschewed gross materialism and the biology of primordial struggle. Of course there are always a few with Mithraditic stomachs who want to swallow the poison all at once, and as Himmelfarb informs us a surprising number of these were found in the contemporary “scientific socialist” movement…perhaps trying to distance themselves from the saccharine humanitarianism of the “utopian socialists” by playing the bad guy. But most socialists, and persons of other political views, thought that the catastrophic implications of the theory could be mitigated by the autonomy of the human mind operating through the channels of education and edification. The frogs were boiling but some people maintained that there was a collective civilizational will to turn the heat down.

Indeed, at the time of Darwin’s publications materialism itself was a less a world view than a fad. At the time the consensus world-view was still reacting against the materialism of the Enlightenment in the direction of Idealism. Indeed, philosophical idealism is perhaps the finest possible world view for anybody who can’t bring themselves to take refuge under the wings of the God of Abraham, Issac, and Jacob. Optimistic, edifying, progressive…and far more intelligent than Karl Popper’s famous characterization of Hegel as “a fool” would indicate. Unless you were a geologist or a “scientific socialist” Darwinism was an oddity of the intellectual scene through the rest of the 19th century and well into the 20th. The beautiful idealist castles continued to float miraculously in the air of Western culture, even letting the owl of Minerva give a few hoots before sunset.

But the frogs were still boiling. The technological and institutional development of Europe was outpacing the stately dialectic of Hegel and taking on the characteristics of a new outbreak of chaos. People who were surprised by the outbreak of the total wars of the 20th century were bad observers. They had either never noticed or forgotten Crimea, the American Civil War, or the Boar war. But that was the function of idealism, to provide a second cognitive world which mitigates the pain of the oekumene.

No, with rare exceptions, 19th century men and women were not brave new Darwinians. In fact Darwinism provided an exculpatory rationale for embracing a kinder, gentler way to co-opt Christianity. For all their antagonism, the gospel and Darwin, Christ and anti-christ, share one characteristic that most other ways of thinking lack…they scandalize. Would that more people had read Darwin seriously in the 19th century, would that they had even endorsed that line for a season…that like the pharasee Paul they might have reached a point on a certain road to Damascus where they would have fallen down…blinded by compelling revelation.

Rather, they embraced the historical dialectic, thinking that it would make all things turn out justly and humanely…at least in appearance…..and the frogs continued to boil until events boiled over.

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Just One Dose of the Holy Ghost Ain’t Good Enough For Me!

Posted by nouspraktikon on May 5, 2014

Well, its gloating time for all those rationalists, atheists, secular humanists, and (most obnoxiously) tepid liberal Christians. “You see, once you abandon the standards of the conventional consensus naturalism…’tis but a swift and well oiled slope down to abject madness!”

I plead guilty…not to madness, but to being “well oiled”…or, if not adequately anointed yet, at least having an earnest aspiration for the anointing of the Holy Spirit. I have nothing to say to any of the above mentioned categories of persons. To do so would be to indulge in the endlessly looping squirrel cage of classical apologetics. Rather, I freely admit with the presupositional apologists that one of the two parties is mad, and only God knows which.

But I have plenty to say to fellow evangelicals, Catholics, and orthodox Christians (either big or small “O”). As we slouch towards Pentecost, its time to wake up and smell the coffee…or to use the Biblical image, the oil. Its time to let the Holy Spirit be our teacher of wisdom and our guide, letting go of all prejudices based on sensory sciences and mental constructs. More explicitly, it is time to understand that Christianity has a quantitative dimension as well as a qualitative dimension.

This always comes as a bit of a shock. An intelligent sister in the faith, when I mentioned the matter responded as follows.
“You said qualitative didn’t you?”
“No I said quantitative.”
“I don’t think I heard you correctly…surely you mean qualitative.”
“No, certainly Christianity has a qualitative dimension, but it also has a quantitative dimension…there is a filling of the Holy Spirit and it is both according to different kinds and also different degrees of fullness as well.”

When we exit the world and enter the people of God it is a qualitative jump to be sure. It is like Dorothy being translated from Kansas to Oz. But once we get to Oz we find that the initial sensation of ascending into invincibility quickly dissipates. We know that there is an “all powerful wizard” who will certainly defeat the forces of evil (forces which we were blissfully unaware of when we were still in Kansas) and we also have an inkling that His powers are already inside of us. However to actualize those powers we need to constantly keep traveling in the right direction.

This is not to say that progress in the Spirit is measurable, and neither does it necessarily merit the bestowal of sainthood (in the Vatican’s sense), or knighthoods, apostolic offices or sundry browny points. More like the hazy and winding “yellow brick road” than any straight Kansas highway, the gifts of the spirit are incommensurable against any standard of worldly value. None the less there are degrees, and this is what drives to distraction modern minds which are prejudiced by abstract constructs like homogeneity and equality. Equality is good doctrine in the area of political rights, but nature is not obliged to follow the principles of human law. Well then, still less is the supernatural under any such obligation!

Moderns and post-Moderns who idolize this kind of abstract uniformity would rather be (for all practical purposes if not in name) Unitarians or Binitarians, than acknowledge a Third Person in the Trinity who dispenses gifts in an asymmetrical manner. And apart from this prejudice (and that’s all it is) they adduce a rather stronger argument when they say that recognizing degrees of gifts creates problems in the church. Yes, it certainly does…especially over questions of authority. But just as differing degrees of knowledge is better than no knowledge at all, so disputed authority is better than no authority at all. These disputes have been a brewing and a stewing for well nigh two thousand years…which shows that authority is an essential rather than an accidental characteristic of the church. These issues simply have to be grappled with. Yet, even though believers are nearly driven crazy in the process, its a far preferable crazyness than that which grips “the world.”

Posted in Charismata, Christianity, Theology | Leave a Comment »